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ML SELECTS: Smartphones in 2020

ML SELECTS: Smartphones in 2020

A look at the top-selling smartphones reveals that in 2019, mid-range smartphones overtook premium flagships as the best-sellers, while also matching most of the top smartphone features that matter.

In 2018, according to research by Hong Kong industry analysis firm Counterpoint, the top-selling smartphone in the entire world was Apple’s flagship iPhone X, followed by the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus in second and third place respectively. Lower down the top 10 list, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S9 took sixth place and its S9 Plus variant took ninth place.

However, by the third quarter of 2019, buying trends showed a significant shift from premium flagship phones towards the more affordable mid-tier offerings, as well as some closer to the lower tier. The top three sellers were no longer strictly the most cutting-edge and most feature-rich models smartphone manufacturers had to offer. Apple’s comparatively more affordable (and still oh-so expensive), iPhone XR took the top spot, followed by Samsung’s Galaxy A10 and then the Galaxy A50, in second and third place. At the time of publishing, these three models were available for R12,999, R2,299, and R5,200 respectively. Apple’s premium flagship iPhone 11, currently on sale from R15,000 took the fifth spot. The third Samsung model to make the top 10 was the Galaxy A20. None of their top flagship S10 variants made it to the top 10. The only other true flagship-class phone to make the list was the Huawei P30 in tenth place.

While it might be too soon to say that mid-tier smartphones are going to continue to dominate the best-selling smartphone category, it is worth noting that as software improves and competition heats up, many of the features we use on our smartphones are readily available in the mid-tier price category, even with the ever-increasing megapixel count that smartphone manufacturers keep adding to their phones to lure consumers. But more about that later.

The top end – upmarket promises

Samsung’s latest flagship, the S20, which is set to start shipping in March 2020, is advertised as starting from R19,000 by online retailer Takealot. Cellular network companies will, of course, offer different contract packages to entice their customers. Samsung’s website punts it as “the phone that will change photography”, highlighting a 108-megapixel camera as well as 8k video. Apple’s iPhone 11 on the other hand also champions their camera, promising that “it just got a whole lot harder to take a bad photo,” featuring two 12 megapixel cameras, one wide, and another ultra-wide, and on the Pro model, an additional 4x zoom telephoto camera, ranging between R14,999 and R21,999 for the base specs of the Pro model.

There are also many similarly specced flagship phones from other manufacturers like Huawei. In fact, as of 2019, the top five smartphone manufacturers in the world, in order of units shipped from highest to lowest, were Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Oppo, and Xiaomi.

While 108-megapixel cameras, zoom lenses and 8k video sound amazing, these are far from what the average consumer needs to have on their phone. In fact, it could be argued that they will be useless for most users. Unless one is a techie or a professional photographer with an interest in smartphone photography, how much of an effective difference will Samsung’s 108 megapixels vs Apple’s 12 megapixels make? Especially considering how software-driven the final result in smartphone photography has become.

As amazing as 8k video sounds, it is also heavy on the phone’s memory, and unless you’re shooting for professional purposes, the average consumer has little use for such massive footage. In addition, unless you are in a position to drop R50,000 plus on the new 8k television screens so you can view your 8k footage, there is no discernible benefit just yet.

Admittedly, even as manufacturers build flagship smartphone campaigns around their cameras, there’s much more to them than that. Features like moisture resistance, super-fast processers, higher RAM, high-quality screens, memory size, curved displays and louder speakers that don’t have sound distortion continue to set them apart. Indeed, if a consumer is looking for these particular features, it is up to them to decide if the handset is worth a few more thousand rands.

The middle tier

For most of us, a phone that is fast, takes good pictures to post online, lets us check our social media apps, watch Netflix, play music, track fitness activities, text, and of course, make phone calls – all of this without any noticeable glitches and bugs – is what’s required. And as mid-tier phones continue to improve, they can do all of this for thousands of rands less.

Of the top three selling mid-tier smartphones mentioned above, the iPhone XR is perhaps the one that straddles the premium flagship as well as the mid-tier category in terms of specs and price. Even though it’s not quite the company’s premium flagship, it would still be reasonable to expect much more from it as compared to Samsung’s R7,800 cheaper A50. The former offers much of the features of the more expensive iPhone X, but with the less expensive LCD screen rather than its older sibling’s OLED. It’s also got a single instead of a dual camera, as well as a lower resolution display, and it is heavier. However, it has a faster processor. All of these concessions result in the lower price, while offering pretty much the same functionality to the average consumer.

The cheaper Samsung A50 offers the popular triple camera, including a 25-megapixel camera, fingerprint scanner, as well as a fast CPU processor. While the Oppo A9, the fourth best-selling phone in third quarter of 2019, offers a quad camera and promises 48 megapixels.

The megapixel question

To put things in perspective, the widest pixel ratio for an Instagram image is 1,080 pixels, and that is what the app will automatically reduce your images to. A 12-megapixel image equates to 4,000 pixels in width, and 24 megapixels gives you 6,000 pixels. If you’re printing your images, this means you can print larger images, or if you plan on doing some heavy-duty processing, you’ll have more data to work with in the image. If you plan to crop into it, there’s also more to work with.

However, there’s much more to smartphone photography than numbers. The quality of the camera as well as the sensor and the software combine to create the best quality image a smartphone can create. Just because Oppo offers 48 megapixels does not necessarily mean a better image than one offered by Apple’s 12-megapixel camera. Whether you really need a high megapixel count has far more to do with what you plan to do with the image, as well as your photography skills. If your images are unlikely to go beyond social media, a high megapixel count is of little benefit.

Verdict

All of this is not to say that there is no market for the exciting new features that are often first seen on premium flagship smartphones, quite the contrary. This is still a multi-billion-dollar market packed with millions of consumers looking for the best features and the best in smartphone design, including this writer. But even I must admit, that as a dedicated and uncompromising user of premium flagship handsets, in the year that I’ve been using my current top-specced flagship smartphone, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to shoot 4k video on my phone, or shoot a gazillion pixel image, or shoot anything I would need to print bigger than A4. Much of what I shoot ends up in WhatsApp messages, or some other form of social media.

Whether one chooses to buy a top-of-the-range smartphone is largely up to the individual and their needs, and wants. But perhaps for most of us, it is time to rest easy, and know that even if we choose not to grab the latest hyped-up specced-to-the-teeth flagship handset, the advances and competition in the smartphone sector mean that we can get just about all the functionalities and speed we’re likely to ever use at much better prices than what is currently on offer at the top end. At least until the technology hits a major breakthrough point, like those hologram keyboards we’re still waiting for. ML

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