While smartphone makers and the rest of the industry diluted the term "premium" in recent times, products that surpass their competitors and deliver a truly high-end experience remain relatively easy to spot, even though some manufacturers still aren't getting enough credit for pushing the boundaries of contemporary mobile technologies, whereas a number of others are presently receiving arguably undeserved praise. So, assuming we're trying to move away from the marketing people's hype talk and take a more realistic look at the industry, which companies could truly qualify as "premium" original equipment manufacturers and not just phone makers who happen to make expensive stuff?
In terms of pure quality, global market leader Samsung certainly still delivers in the uppermost price bracket, with its flagships always featuring the best displays, most impressive speaker setups, and arguably the most premium designs, in addition to being able to take on any other rival in the imaging department. While far from cheap, products such as the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 8 offer most of the latest industry advancements without embracing controversial design decisions such as screen notches and headphone jack removals. However, if we consider the term "premium" to mean something other than "has the latest and most expensive chip," then Samsung falls short in other segments. Assuming premium devices are best-in-class offerings and not just those that will cost you the most at any given moment, Samsung has no business advertising its Galaxy A series as a lineup of "premium mid-rangers" because those handsets are usually worse than their direct rivals by every metric apart from display quality and usually cost a lot more.
If there's one manufacturer deserving of the title of a premium OEM in the entry-level and mid-range segment, then that's certainly HMD Global which revived the Nokia brand in a spectacular fashion last year and is now delivering value-oriented handsets that are better than the vast majority of their direct rivals while simultaneously being cheaper. Additionally, the company's insistence on embracing 6000-series aluminum with the likes of the Nokia 6.1 means that some of its mid-rangers can rival or even surpass some much more expensive devices. If you can stop thinking about the term "premium" as expensive, it's hard to argue many devices from HMD aren't best-in-class offerings, even though its high-powered products like the Nokia 8 Sirocco are largely underwhelming for their price.
Moving back to the high-end segment, Huawei did a lot to have its smartphones deservedly being called premium, particularly those in the uppermost price bracket; the P20 and P20 Plus are nothing short of amazing, feature a wide variety of innovations, feel great in hand, offer a smooth software experience, and can generally compete with any other flagship on the market in every aspect. Huawei took years to establish itself as a major OEM but it finally did so and appears to be here to stay, pushing the boundaries of the mobile industry forward with features such as triple-camera setups, dedicated neural processing units, and deep artificial intelligence implementations.
While still on the subject of China, we also have to mention Xiaomi which is kind of a mixed bag seeing how many products it’s releasing on a frequent basis and how close to Apple’s designs its most high-powered handsets are but in terms of pure quality, it’s hard to argue that something like the Mi MIX 2S or Mi 8 isn’t a premium offering, whereas a lot of Redmi-series smartphones also represent the pinnacle of their price class that’s occasionally only matched by Nokia and Honor. The same can’t be said of other OEMs from the Far Eastern country such as OPPO, Vivo, and Meizu as even though many of their devices offer excellent front-facing cameras, they don’t outperform their rivals in other aspects.
On the other hand, LG and HTC are two Android OEMs that have been struggling in recent years, and while the latter appears to have already lost any hope of ever reviving its mobile business, having aggressively downscaled those operations this year, LG decided that the best course of action is to release a new "premium" device every month. Ok, not literally every month but it's really starting to feel like that's the case, between new color variants of the G6, G7 ThinQ, V30, V30S ThinQ, V35 ThinQ, and the upcoming V40 ThinQ, all of which will be released in the span of less than a year. Chaotic product strategies aside, LG and HTC can hardly be described as premium OEMs these days. While both are still present in the high-end price bracket, the likes of the HTC U12 Plus and G7 ThinQ aren't really "premium" smartphones so much as they're just regular $800+ handsets. While LG is doing some fantastic things on the mobile photography front, none of its recently released flagships feel like something that should be priced as much as the Galaxy S9 Plus is when held in hand, whereas HTC is now prioritizing gimmicks such as "fake" touch buttons and squeezable handset frames instead of working on improving battery life of its offerings, or doing anything else that may enhance the everyday experience of its customers. While being different and delivering unique features is generally a great product quality, it hardly matters when you don't have the basics down.
Sony has also fallen from grace in recent years and can hardly be considered a premium OEM today; none of its contemporary devices are really the best in any major respect and while most of them are solid, consumers who don't care about Remote Play and niche functionalities don't really have a lot of reasons to buy an Xperia-branded device in any price bracket if they're interested in either getting the best value for their money or the best experience overall. One notable exception is the firm's Xperia XZ Compact sub-series of handsets which deliver the latest and greatest hardware in an extremely small form factor and is practically a product category of its own, especially since even the smaller Google Pixel 3 is now rumored to exceed the 5-inch display mark, leaving the Xperia XZ2 Compact virtually without a contemporary rival. A similar argument could be made for BlackBerry’s KEY2, though the jury is still out on that one.
Then there's the case of OnePlus. There's no arguing that OnePlus smartphones offer amazing value for money and are a worthwhile investment in many cases but referring to them as "premium" products is misleading and just builds into the company's marketing talk of doing everything its larger rivals are doing but at a significantly lower price. Durability, camera performance, waterproofing, customer support, wireless charging, and many quality-of-life features are just some of the fronts on which OnePlus doesn't deliver and frankly shouldn't be expected to given the overall accessibility of its products (read: all of them are relatively cheap for what they're offering). However, does that make its devices qualify as "premium?" Of course not, their main reason for existence is to appeal to people who want the latest system-on-chip but don't want to pay much more than $500 for it. Compare the latest OnePlus 6 to any of its rivaling peers and it will fall short in a lot of areas; usually not at much, but it will.
Bottom line is that no single OEM is presently offering “premium” devices across all price segments but Samsung and Huawei are presently delivering some amazing handsets in the uppermost price brackets, whereas other smartphone categories are now being pushed forward by the likes of Xiaomi and HMD operating under the Nokia brand. Fallen giants such as LG, HTC, and Sony have their work cut out for them if they want to reclaim the “premium” moniker, though that likely won’t stop them from advertising their products as such going forward seeing how they’ve been doing so for years already.