2015: You can finally buy a great smartphone without breaking the bank

  • Sanshey Biswas, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 25, 2015 10:55 IST
This was the year that saw big-ticket features in phones that were priced at Rs. 10,000 (or less)

My first encounter with a smartphone happened pretty late when my uncle gifted me a first-generation iPhone in 2010, three years after its launch. The original iPhone didn’t have 3G; I needed a paperclip each time I had to change the SIM card; and the flimsy little plastic flap on the back — that hid the antennas — kept falling off and had to be glued back on.

The first iPhone was a game changer but far from flawless. Major issues like inability to use most headphones with it because the port was too deep were addressed in the following generations of the device.

Still, the iPhone amazed me every single day. So what if I had to manually convert MP3 files to M4R format if I wanted the latest ringtones (don’t ask), or fit only a couple of hundred songs because the memory kept running out. And keep a pen drive handy to copy music from friends’ computers because the iPhone would only sync with iTunes on my desktop? I put up with everything because iOS rocked, period, and with Android still taking baby steps, nothing else came close at the time.

Despite all its flaws, the iPhone was — and is — an outrageously expensive device, and for a long time, the conventional thinking was this: If you wanted the best experience, you had to spend north of Rs. 40,000 on a flagship Android phone or an iPhone. In 2015, that changed. This was the year that saw big-ticket features in phones that were priced at Rs. 10,000 (or less).

You can finally get a great phone without breaking the bank.

This year’s phones are unlike last year when budget phones weren’t really, well, satisfying. The cameras were mediocre, the screens were just okay, and over time, the devices stuttered and slowed down. Granted, today’s sub-Rs. 10,000 devices may not be the best-looking phones around, but when you do the usual — use WhatsApp, browse the web, tweet, Facebook, or email — they don’t break a sweat.

The low-cost flood

Agreeing that 2015 has most certainly been a year of budget phones, Arvind Vohra, CEO of Gionee India says, “The average selling price of phones has gone down to about Rs. 10,000, and the price band between Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 10,000 has seen a lot of growth this year.” F103, which packs in features like an 8 MP camera and 2 GB RAM, and is priced at Rs. 9,999, has been the company’s highest selling phone this year, claims Vohra.

In under Rs 10,000 the Zenfone 2 Laser offers a super fast laser auto-focus and night mode that manages to get pictures even in the darkest of environments.

The F103 is just one of the hundreds of low-cost devices that have launched in the country this year. Lenovo’s K3 Note, Coolpad’s Note 3, Asus’ Zenfone 2 Laser, Meizu’s M2 Note, Yu’s Yureka Plus, Xiaomi’s Redmi Note Prime, Huawei’s Honor 4X, and Microsoft’s Lumia 640 were some of 2015’s breakout hits,and they all came in under the Rs. 10,000 mark. These didn’t even skimp on features.

Meizu’s M2 Note, for instance, sported a 5-inch high-definition display and a massive 3,100 mAh battery that lasted all day; Coolpad’s Note 3 had a fingerprint sensor and 3 GB RAM for silky-smooth performance; the Zenfone 2 Laser packed a laser auto-focus that was insanely fast and accurate besides a night mode that works even in almost dark conditions.

It’s war

So what happening this year? Coolpad’s India CEO, Syed Tajuddin thinks that the cut-throat competition among the smartphone brands inundating the Indian market is one of the reasons why consumers have never had it better. “E-commerce has changed the dynamics of this industry,” he says. “The competition is so stiff that brands are taking losses to compete with each other by offering exceptional hardware at rock bottom prices.”

Xiaomi managed to pack in performance and long battery life into the Mi 4i by shrinking the size of the motherboard just to keep the device sleek.

There’s another big reason why prices are falling — a phone’s processor. Budget smartphones typically use cheaper processors from Qualcomm and MediaTek, which aren’t as powerful as the ones used in high-end flagships, but are speedy enough to let users do most basic tasks without grinding to a halt. And since the processor is often a phone’s most expensive component, it’s easier to keep the overall pricing down.

Brands like Xiaomi and Vivo have also started taking advantage of the Indian government’s Make in India initiative, which offers incentives like easier procurement of industrial licenses, to assemble hardware locally.

All about Android

With Material Design, Android looks nicer, feels better and seems faster. Google created the completely new design concept that remains consistent through their products such as Android Wear, Android TV and apps.

Marshmallow, the latest version of Android which released earlier this year, is nimble enough to run smoothly on budget phones. Google has also heavily customised Android for India’s vast smartphone market by allowing Indian users to download YouTube videos and play them back offline, and supporting a dozen Indian languages for text and voice input. And with Material Design, a brand new look that came with last year’s Android Lollipop, Google’s operating system finally looks slick enough even on low-cost hardware.

Google’s Translatathon 2015 is crowdsourcing translations to make their features like tap on translate better.

2015 gave us a lot of great budget phones and it’s unlikely that any company will back off doing that in 2016. Over two-thirds of Indians still use feature phones according to International Data Corporation, a research and analysis firm, a vast, untapped market for smartphone makers.

If you’re a casual user who just wants to WhatsApp, email, play music, and watch videos, I wouldn’t recommend spending over Rs. 10,000 going into 2016. If you have your heart set on an iPhone or a high-end Android phone, well then you don’t need my advice anyway. Have a good year ahead.

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