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Should you invest in a flagship phone?

It's fashionable to call every mid-range phone a ‘flagship killer' but there is still a case to make for actual flagships 

The latest iteration of Corning’s protective glass, which offers drop protection for falls from up to 2m and better scratch resistance for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The latest iteration of Corning’s protective glass, which offers drop protection for falls from up to 2m and better scratch resistance for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. (Courtesy: Samsung)

Baibhav Mishra knows a thing or two about investments. As consultant to a well-known family office for high-net-worth individuals based out of Bhubaneswar, the 25-year-old measures returns on investments, both in the markets and in his annual investment in an iPhone. He has picked up a new iPhone every year for the past seven years and owns a 12 Pro right now. His rationale? “Why compromise on a device that I use for well over 10-15 hours of my day?”

Doesn’t spending upwards of 60,000 or more on a premium flagship fly in the face of recent wisdom, which proclaims mid-range flagship phones have killed the need for premium flagships? With phones like the Mi 11X Pro, Realme GT and iQOO 7 Legend packing the latest chips from Qualcomm at sub- 40,000 price points, you would think it was time to start writing eulogies for phones that retail at twice the price.

Also read: Why we continue to love foldable phones 

Not quite. Premium flagships like the latest crop of iPhones or Samsung’s S series lineup and Z series of foldables still have a trick (or several!) that differentiate them from the rest of the pack, factors that take the sting out of that sticker shock.

Display tech: Buying a mid-range phone these days pretty much guarantees vivid colours and fluidity across the user interface and most apps, thanks to the proliferation of high refresh rate 90Hz/120Hz AMOLED displays. Screen resolutions stay capped at full-HD 1080p resolutions, as do maximum screen brightness and visibility when used in the bright outdoors. You have to step up to the top-tier Android phones to unlock truly pixel-dense quad-HD (1440p) displays with average brightness levels approaching 900-1000 nits, the latter significantly improving sunlight visibility.

In fact, most flagships are able to bump up peak brightness levels to 1200-1500 nits, with the Mi 11 Ultra taking it all the way to 1700 nits, which enhances the experience of watching high dynamic range (HDR) movies and TV shows in HDR10+ or Dolby Vision formats. Currently the must-haves for high-fidelity entertainment, HDR formats allow for brighter highlights and a wider range of colour details, for closer-to-life colour reproduction and details even in the darker scenes, just as the director intended.

The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max introduced all-new camera hardware.
The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max introduced all-new camera hardware. (Courtesy: Apple)

Cameras: By any measure, camera tech and performance are what separate the “flagship killers” and the heavy hitters in the premium flagships. Whether it’s the marquee stuff like the super-zoom capabilities of the Mi 11 Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, or the low-light wizardry of the gimbal-setup on the Vivo X60/X70 Pro+, or even the sensor-shift image-stabilised Dolby Vision HDR video recording on the iPhone 12/13 series, one thing is common to most flagships—the ability to handle a range of shooting scenarios (including trickily lit and low-light conditions) with a sense of unfaltering confidence.

Mid-range phones, by and large, are guilty of stacking multiple cameras to somehow cobble together a “quad-camera setup” but if you peek into the camera reviews, you will often find a strong primary sensor to be the only element worth writing home about, with an ultrawide with colour science issues and heavy distortion around the edges, a 2x-3x zoom that trips over itself in low light and a macro that may as well have stayed home.

Durability: You are spending more on your phone, so it stands to reason you should expect it to withstand the elements. Mid-range phones have some level of water ingress protection, such as splash-proof coating on the ports, but typically stop shy of having a full IP68 rating. An IP rating of 68 certifies the phone to be dust-tight and protected against immersion in water 1.5m deep for a maximum of 30 minutes. These tests are conducted by independent agencies, which tack on costs, somewhere around $30 above the price of the phone, that are hard to absorb in budget devices but are often flaunted as differentiators in flagship devices like the iPhones, and even the new Z Fold 3 foldable.

Likewise for Gorilla Glass Victus, the latest iteration of Corning’s protective glass, which offers drop protection for falls from up to 2m and better scratch resistance for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra (Apple’s iPhone 12 series onwards sports Ceramic Shield protective glass, where small ceramic nanocrystals are embedded in the glass for rigidity and scratch resistance).

Wireless charging: For a standard that has been around as long as Qi wireless charging, you would be surprised at how few phones support the convenience of dropping your phone on to a wireless charging pad. Sure, you get blazing wired charging speeds of 65W on most mid-rangers but a feature that’s considered table stakes for premium flagships is conspicuously absent in just about any current-gen phone under 50,000.

Premium flagships like Samsung’s Z series of foldables still have a trick that differentiate them from the rest of the pack
Premium flagships like Samsung’s Z series of foldables still have a trick that differentiate them from the rest of the pack (Courtesy: Samsung)

Hygiene elements: Other trappings that are assured when you pay top dollar are a stereo speaker setup that doesn’t distort at higher volumes, and at least 128 GB of internal storage, with the option of going up to 512 GB for all your storage-busting 4K videos. Then there’s what is arguably the biggest and most underrated feature in flagship phones—the haptic touch feedback. How the phone’s vibration motor responds with tactile feedback when you touch the flat sheet of the phone display is as important as a fast touch response, and you only ever hear of haptics when a phone either nails it (the iPhone, the Mi 11 Ultra, the OnePlus 9 Pro and the Samsung S21 Ultra are shining examples) or does a really poor job of it.

Longevity and resale: Though brands like Samsung have upped the software update game with committed Android updates for up to three years (and four years of security updates), you will notice that the bulk of the devices supported fall into the flagship S, Note and foldables series. It’s a rather straightforward future-proofing logic—phones with current flagship chips and a healthy amount of brand commitment just end up getting supported by Google for longer. As Rajat Agrawal, a former technology journalist who now works for a global tech giant and is still happy with this 2018 iPhone XS, says: “Apart from being good for the planet, I would like my phone to last me at least three years, on both hardware and software. Unfortunately, none of the cheaper smartphones give me that confidence, and so the choice is that you either spend $1,000 once on a phone that lasts three years or more and still gives you $250 when you trade it in…or buy a $250-300 smartphone every year.”

Then comes the aspect of resale value. Based on anecdotal evidence, high-end flagships hold significant resale value. Joy M., an IT consultant who splurges on the latest gadgets, says that “when he decides to sell the gadgets a year later, he can often quickly recover 55-60% of the initial cost”.

Thinking of picking up a flagship phone?
Thinking of picking up a flagship phone?

A secondary work computer: Many justify these purchases for the sheer productivity gains they deliver. Kiran Jonnalagadda, who heads a tech community platform, sees flagships as necessary investments, as “modern work is as much phone-driven as laptop-driven”, necessitating “top-end devices with an expected lifetime of three years”. Vaibhav Gadodia, a senior leader in a software company, relies on the “tiniest efficiency, reliability, performance and experience gains” that flagships deliver, and since he keeps devices for longer, he opts to “buy the highest-end smartphone that will stay efficient longer”. Others, this writer included, look at their tech investments by cost per usage.

If you look at the studies and your own habits, you pick up your phone anywhere between 150-300 times a day (some peg it at 2,000!), and the heavy use of what is undeniably your primary consumer electronic device can assuage some of the guilt induced by the big spend. Some quick math: If you pick up your 70,000 phone 200 times a day, 365 days a year, you are spending less than a rupee for each interaction, a figure that becomes even more favourable if you use the phone longer than a year.

Status: The most intangible factor, yet likely why people consider premium flagships—the line of reasoning that falls somewhere in between “I want the best” and “I can afford it”, or as you may recognise its more flamboyant avatar, the “party flex”. Foldables are a great example, visually distinct from their candy bar cousins and a great conversation starter. One man told me that a relative would buy the latest flagship to bolster her image as a “medical professional with the knack for the latest tech”, one whose “medical equipment would be up to date like her phone”. Guess which phone she’s carrying these days? A Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Wanting the “best” could also be about brand affinity and ecosystem preference, whom you trust your data with, or simply the exclusivity that comes with high-cost items.

Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator and tweets @2shar.

Also read: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 review: A mainstream flip smartphone

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