Opinion: The Sub $250 US Android Smartphone Market Needs To Die

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The market for smartphones is, by-and-large, dominated by phones in the mid-range and budget segments. But at least one portion of those markets — namely those phones costing less than $250 — really needs to die off. Or at least it does within the US if the current trends on that front can't be corrected.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why those statements may seem unreasonable. And those aren't necessarily bad reasons at all. Especially since those devices are often the best that a given person can afford. But, arguably, there are more reasons that it isn't unreasonable at all. There are simply too many discrepancies with regard to pricing, value, specs, features, and quality. Especially when comparing available phones in the US to those available globally.

The world of smartphones is askew and it shows

At the top of the technology pile, companies like Samsung effectively dominate the smartphone segment. That's alongside a smaller share of devices from the likes of OnePlus, LG, and others. Globally speaking, Xiaomi, OPPO, and others could be added to that mix. But in the US, it's chiefly Samsung. The same holds true for budget devices but only to an extend.

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So there aren't many options for end-users and consumers anyway when it comes to cheap handsets that run Android. The bigger problem comes when any of these handsets is compared to globally-available counterparts. Or even just to counterparts in the same price bracket from other world regions. And we don't even need to go as far as the sub-$200 smartphones price bracket to see that.

One such example appears with a real-world comparison between the $219.99 LG Stylo 6 and the $219.99 Redmi 9. Although not the only example available, the contrasts here are starker and therefore easier to pick apart. Particularly since both companies are top brands in their own right in their respective markets. Those are chiefly in the US and in India.

The LG Stylo 6 is easily one of the most beautiful-looking devices in its bracket. But it falls well short on cameras as well as on core features such as its stylus. It also fails to present a smooth experience across its fingerprint scanner and provides inconsistent performance elsewhere. The Redmi device, however, does not have those issues.

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That's despite the fact that the two devices are, everything accounted for, effectively specced the same. The trend carries forward, conversely, across many devices on offer in the same price range globally but not available in the US. While US devices tend to get incredibly less user-friendly and consistent as they get cheaper. And there are very few exceptions to that.

It's not just those discrepancies in budget smartphones

Quite aside from discrepancies between brands and models below a certain price point, there are at least two other issues that need to be addressed. First, there’s an overabundance of choice when it comes to Android. And that’s not just because every OEM makes budget phones.

There are simply too many budget smartphones on the market. And they’re all billed as the best thing around for the price.

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Even major OEMs such as Samsung are, by and large, part of the problem. In fact, Samsung might provide the best example. In late 2018, the Korean tech giant tried to course correct. It consolidated all of its phones under four brand designations. Those are the Samsung Galaxy 'M' and 'A' series devices — in addition to the ‘S’ and ‘Note’ series.

But that didn’t last for long. At least not in terms of the consolidation. With each subsequent year, the number of smartphones available from Samsung has grown. Now, despite fewer model letters, the company offers no fewer than 16 flagships alone, as of this writing. Including the previous year’s models, which it still sells.

Then there’s the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G, A71 5G UW, A51, A51 5G, A50, A21, A20, A11, A10e, and A01. All under the ‘A’ series branding. And without accounting for the new Z Fold and Z Flip lines or the ‘M’ series.

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Other OEMs are, to one extent or another, almost all guilty of the same oversaturation in their bid to fill in every need for users. That goes further than just confusing consumers too. It serves to create phones that are awful, generally, with few exceptions. And which are only really good or great at one or two things. Such as taking decent photos or connecting to 5G.

It’s also about missing features and an inconsistent experience

The second major issue with the US budget phone market is that there is a serious additional discrepancy between carrier-specific devices that change branding from carrier to carrier and a general swamping of every niche or price bracket. Namely, from phone to phone, even in the same brand and model, things change depending on the carrier.

Now, that’s not all the fault of the OEMs. Carrier requirements for networking and other aspects of smartphones, as often as not, can get in the way.

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But that doesn’t excuse manufacturers at all. Especially since the differences can be as deep-seated as internal hardware. And the variances can be not only by carrier but by region and carrier.

Samsung’s flagship series provides another clear example of how extreme the problem can get. The biggest difference between its US and other region Galaxy S series devices, for instance, is its chipset. In one or two regions, the Snapdragon is used. In others, an in-house Exynos chip is. And the two chips are not equal.

And that’s by-and-large part of the problem. Highlighted by the fact that each carrier gets its own version of just about every phone. And those problems can be found there too. For another example, some mid-range and budget 5G phones come packed with different chips just to support different types of 5G.

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The net sum of all of that is that smartphones below a certain price range no longer offer a consistent — or consistently good — user experience.

Here's why the US budget market is as good as dead

The final proverbial nail in the US budget market is China. Or, put another way, the market split between regional growth and the differences between the US and Chinese markets.

Not least among the factors here is the fact that China is producing some of the best phones on the market right now. And perhaps even more so in the mid-range and budget brackets. That’s driven in part by the split in the market, with China making up a far larger chunk of the market share than the US. Coupled with incredibly intense competition in that space.

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The result is a range of devices that are effectively delivering a far better user experience.

And, in terms of market share, it’s not even close according to analysts at IDC as of the end of August. And the split is predicted to grow over the next few years. So the phones coming out of that region will likely continue improving across all sectors too.

But, as recent reports have continuously shown, China and the US aren’t exactly getting along right now. And, at least in part in response to that tarnished relationship, great phones being made by the likes of OnePlus, Huawei, Xiaomi, and others simply aren’t making their way over to the US. But they are making their way to other regions.

The range of phones that are making their way over from elsewhere in the world, as noted above, are convoluted at best. At worst, they don’t stack up quite the same level of quality. Even when compared to others with the same model designation, with differences from carrier to carrier. Or exude the same sense that a lot of attention was paid to detail in pursuit of providing a better-than-expected value.

But what about Android One and Go Edition?

On the other side of this, Android One and Android Go Edition devices do launch for the US. And those devices, by-and-large, are generally fantastic. But there are problems there too. For Android Go Edition, users need to temper expectations because the OS variant is effectively Android Lite for budget smartphones with low specs. So there are always going to be features missing.

But even Android One has issues. Android One, for clarity, is a program set up to certify devices as aiming for as close as possible to stock Android.

That equates to a lightweight operating system with minimal bloatware and a better user experience. With that said, AOSP is the basis for Android One and some of the experiences are subsequently decidedly vanilla. So those devices can end up feeling like low-effort entries into the Android ecosystem. Especially when it comes to cameras and performance in multitasking.

Some budget smartphones' OEMs are doing better, so maybe it's about approach?

Now, there are some OEMs that are doing a bit better on this front. Samsung, Nokia, and TCL are good examples of that. Even at the budget end of the spectrum, those devices offer an experience that's consistent with flagships running Android. Albeit somewhat less capable when it comes to graphical prowess and hardware in most cases.

That's despite the fact that Samsung's line of budget and midrange phones is so convoluted. There are individual devices from other OEMs that perform well. And more than enough to create lists detailing the best budget phones available. But, for other OEMs, the experience is far less consistent from price point to price point or from device to device.

Returning to the example laid out at the beginning of this article, the LG Stylo 6 is a great looking device. But it doesn't perform quite as well as the Redmi 9 does. In fact, it doesn't even come close. They're priced the same but with an approach that favors beauty over functionality. And that's a microcosm of the entire ecosystem for budget Android smartphones, often favoring one aspect such as that over battery life, a great experience, or modern technologies such as USB-C. At least in the US.

All of that is to opine that the issue here is the approach being taken to budget smartphones. Manufacturers in general seem to have shifted their tact to aim for hitting every possible niche. That's as opposed to focusing on consistency. The result is a market that's over-crowded at best, predominantly with devices that feel half-finished at the affordable end. That needs to change. And you really shouldn't buy a budget smartphone below that price bracket until it does.