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The cult of the flagship smartphone

High-priced phones by several brands are facing competition from low priced and feature-rich phones, writes Rajiv Makhni.

brunch Updated: Apr 28, 2016 17:10 IST
Apple  iPhone 6S
Apple iPhone 6S

The flagship smartphone. A term coined by tech analysts and the media to denote a phone with the absolute best looks, specs and features. This was lapped up by the smartphone makers as it also meant that the brands could charge a gut-wrenching premium on their top-of-the-line device.

Customers that had the money only bought a flagship, while others aspired to ‘one day’ be able to bring one home amongst thunderous applause from friends and relatives. It was all a well-oiled machine and the brands, retailers, media and the customers were all very happy. And thus the fairytale of the flagship continued. Till a new series of rather unflagship-like twists have wrenched this market wide open.

How it happened

The smartphone market in India is changing dramatically. It was first a very clear ‘go buy it at a physical shop’ where the shopkeeper showed you a sealed box and told you to buy it as is – no demos! Then came the online exodus, where every single morning was corrupted by full-page advertisements in every newspaper that showcased how God had descended on Earth in the shape of a new mobile phone! You had to buy it sight unseen. Some brands continued to play offline and a little online (Apple, Samsung) while others dominated the online-only field (Xiaomi, OnePlus, Le Eco and about 50 more). But flagships held their place in the sun either way.

It all goes to hell

This nicely sliced-and-diced market has recently gone completely hellish. Price points of all flagship phones (for a flagship phone the price point was always the Holy Grail) have gone awry. The iPhone 6S dropped to about 40K from 62K, the Samsung Note Edge went to 34K and pretty much any top-level phone that was introduced three months back was suddenly selling at very non-flagship prices. It was all very heartbreaking for this carefully curated and constructed flagship business.

Lagging behind: Even though OnePlus 2 started the whole flagship game, it has failed to keep up with competition

The new twist

And into this ruffled category has come a new and far more gut-wrenching twist: The Mi 5. Xiaomi has always played and dominated the 6K to 12K market and has never been successful above that. The Mi 5 is priced at `24K, a price point that has sounded the death knell for any brand other than Apple and Samsung. Yes, HTC, LG, Nexus, OnePlus and a few others have a few devices that are priced higher, but most are either happy with low sales or are still trying to really crack the market.

For Xiaomi to want to box way above their weight is a ballsy move. Can they pull it off to further disrupt this delicately balanced flagship business?

Too hot to handle: With its all-metal frame, glass body and curvy design, the Mi 5 is tough competition for the iPhone and S7

To be fair, the Mi 5, at about 24K, should be pitted against the phones in the same price range. But then Xiaomi’s clear claim is that this is a zero-compromise flagship phone at less than half the price. So, let’s take that as the challenge and pit it against the two top flagships in the world.

Mi 5 versus iPhone 6S versus Galaxy S7

The Xiaomi, with its very light all-metal frame, glass body and curvy design, easily outpaces the iPhone and gives the S7 quite a fright too. It’s the lightest of the lot and feels really good in the hand. From its hardware and specs, you really can’t complain as it’s the first phone in the country with the 820 processor from Qualcomm and blazes through every test. The screen section has the Samsung with a better resolution, the Xiaomi second and the iPhone coming in last.

In terms of camera, the Mi 5 has the better optics on paper but the S7 and 6S are the best in the business. Still, with optical image stabilisation built in at this price, the Mi 5 actually holds its own and gives them both a serious run for their money. Battery life is where the iPhone loses out badly, as its never been really good with that.

Lost battle: The Samsung S7 too fails in front of the M1 5 as far as battery is concerned

The S7 and the Mi 5 have similar battery innards but the FHD screen on the Mi 5 gives it a major edge in terms of the amount of time before it dies on you. Thus the Mi 5 at about half the price of the other two flagship giants, does seem to match up and out-manoeuvre them in some departments.

What happens now?

How does the flagship device business, which has already been rudely jolted from its delicate slumber, handle this? Well, if Xiaomi can convince people that owning an Mi 5 is not only equal in hardware and features but also in bragging rights and addresses the premium part of the equation, then they will be sitting pretty.

The ramifications though are much larger. If a no-compromise flagship can be sold for around 20K and still have a premium attached, then how would a company justify price points of 60K? The world of technology marches on leaving behind a dramatically altered flagship business in its wake! And while Xiaomi may just be starting that off, many others may follow suit.

What’s next? A flagship 10K phone that beats the pants off anything priced at any point? Well, it may just be round the corner!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, April 24

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