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From the Editor's Desk: Everyone's definition of smartphone 'value' is different

OnePlus Nord review
OnePlus Nord review (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

As smartphone prices continue to rise, discussion of the "value" of phones — both on their own, and comparatively — seems to be louder than ever. With the upcoming Note 20 Ultra expected to be over $1300, alongside phones like the OnePlus Nord at €399 and Moto G Fast at just $200, the range of prices you can pay for a phone is getting wider and wider. The argument is, then, that these super-expensive phones don't offer the same value as lower-end devices, which have been benefiting most from the rising tide of quality components available at affordable prices.

There are more variables at play in a discussion of 'value' than you've ever imagined.

But this logic is flawed. "Value" isn't something you can equate by taking the price and dividing by some combination of a phone's specs. Value is a perception. A feeling. Yes it's influenced by price, just like everything else a phone offers, but the weighting and specifics of how all of those variables come together into a score of "value" isn't easily defined. And here's the important part: it's different for every person.

Value is tough to define, and incomparable from person to person, because while the amount you put in to a phone (its price) is the same between people, the amount you get out is dramatically different. Sure there are things like screen size, battery capacity and storage space that are constants, but remember that the perception of how useful or necessary each of those components is will vary considerably between people. There are obviously industry trends driven by smartphone buyers in aggregate — preference for larger screens, for example — but when it comes to making a purchase decision between a handful of available phones, there can be a huge variety of possible valuations at play.

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

And we shouldn't overlook the fact that even though the price of a phone is the same for everyone, the effect of that price on a buying decision is highly variable. Someone's income, job, living situation and age can dramatically change how much it "matters" that a phone is costly. It sounds silly to have to point this out, but I see people clearly forget this time and time again in phone comparisons. Even if two people (impossibly) have the exact same desires in a phone, it's highly likely that they value their money differently. How meta.

It gets more interesting when you understand this concept to the point where you can make sense of someone seeing more value in an expensive phone than in an inexpensive one. Just because a phone is, say, $1200 doesn't mean that you're "overpaying" for that phone. It's quite easily explainable why someone would see that the extra things you get in a $1200 phone — from overt ones like screen size, down to minute ones like build quality — over a $200 phone are worth more than $1000.

Make a decision on which phone is best for you based on your preferences, not someone else's.

There is also, of course, the economic principle of Veblen goods, which increase in demand as their prices go up. But this isn't an economics lecture, so I'll stop there.

If you follow my editorials here you'll know I've started to move away from using generalized terms like "mid-range" when referring to phones, and I have the same evolving thought process on using the word "value" as well. We should absolutely still talk about price, and can always focus on specs and features, but when it comes to the question of value, we just have to remember everything that goes into that determination. And just because you and I see different amounts of value in a phone, doesn't mean that either one of us is right or wrong.

-Andrew

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

13 Comments
  • Reference to Veblen goods is extremely relevant, actually. We all know the person who uses a phone for no more than calls and text messages but "has to have" the most expensive iPhone (or Samsung phone) because they think it enhances their status. At this point, folding phones are definitely Veblen goods.
    I discovered this when I came across someone who "needed" the most expensive, fully loaded Macbook Pro to write his PhD thesis. Which was text only. (He never completed it).
    Of course there are plenty of people for whom $1000 or so are small change and the difference between $500 and $1000 is trivial, but a lot more top end phones are sold than there are such people.
    I am sure there are people out there who make use of almost all the features of expensive phones, but I suspect they are a minority.
    The manufacturers don't care, because there are always plenty of vain people, but the fact that even Apple is moving down rather than up the price range is highly suggestive that the phone as a status symbol is due for replacement.
  • And, there is the other portion of consumers, the opposite side, the ones that consider as plain dumb people who pays a high price for a phone, when there are absolutey cheaper devices that get the job done, (in a crappy way), but consider all these cheap devices as "real value for money"
  • Towards the end you're angling towards "there's value beyond features" and justifying luxury phones.
    There's a flip side: not specs, but services rendered : what can you actually *do* with an expensive phone that you can't with a cheap phone ? troglodyte pics, AR/VR.... and that's it ? Hence bad value, from a utilitarian perspective.
  • "Expensive phone" needs to be qualified. I buy expensive phones after 8 or 9 months after they've been discounted. If you know what you're doing, you can pick your phone if choice from any manufacturer. And who are we kidding, all phones are expensive.
  • Obarthelemy:
    There is more than "utilitarian purposes" for people with enough resources, there is no doubt that, after satisfying the usefulness part, the satisfaction something above average or premium is a really important thing to consider, then, why somebody with sizable resources, does not buy the cheapest crappiest car available? Or a generic, cheap nondescript watch? Or anything of the cheappest nature, for that matter?
  • Various points can (and will) be raised but ultimately Beauty(value) is in the eye of the beholder (buyer).
  • I feel like phone specs and status are like the Pentium processor wars of the late 90's. Everyone things more is better but in reality many will never use what they purchase. At work we use Revit modeling software which is a resource hog. However, the partners never want to have an older machine then the employees and all they do are contracts, etc. Phones, especially wearables are more a status symbol nowadays.
  • Nice article, and definitely food for thought. I might be an outlier, but I consider value in the context of how well a device fits my needs. The price only defines how attainable it is. Price can sway me, but only if the things I value about a product are equal. This makes the Nord a poor value for me (just me!). My current device was called overpriced at the time, but it was worth every cent because the audio is close to what I get in the recording studio, the camera gives my Nikons a run for the money, and when the day is done it will easily handle the games that make my iPhones overheat. It's been two years and the performance is still very good, so in reality, I was saved from having to upgrade last year and this year.
  • Value is always subjective by nature. Some see value in only having the bleeding edge, others if it turns on i'm good. It's just like in buying a car the basic function is the same whether it's 100K Luxo boat or a 500.00 junker. They'll both get you where you need to go. Of course if money is no object then it's ridiculous spending time. Since it is, you have to ask what you need your device to do. For myself i'm an unabashed tech head. So what I want can be fairly demanding. That said i'm not going to overspend when I know I can get what I want at a good price. That's why this year i'm not going near anything that's 1K or above. Moto makes some very good devices for what they are. I stay away for two reasons one hardware the other more personal. The G line is missing NFC for Google Pay for me. The more personal one is i'll never trust Lenovorolla again after the botching they did on updates to the MototX I had. For what's going on now if I get another phone this year it might just be the 4a. Decent performance for a good price.
  • Experience.... I've had cell phones for over 25 years. Not just phones, but all tech is excessively expensive on its release, and then quickly depreciates. How can anyone rationalize day one mobile phone pricing? The Note 20 will be the new kid on the block next week. Four weeks from now is the time to buy the Note 10+. Yes, if you must buy a flagship phone, buy it no less than 13 months after its release. On value... I do use what the highest spec phones can do. When you buy max spec, you are easily buying at least five years of a very serviceable mobile device. No, I don't value annual Android updates... I deserve more than two years support, but I value great older hardware more than up to date Android software.... So I don't think twice about using a five year old phone. To be honest, if you derive self worth from buying a new phone annually, or if you seriously think anybody cares.... You are wrong. Those who's opinion of you truly matters (employer, date) would list the age of your cell phone near the bottom of their list of priorities. In fact, if you are known as "that guy" who always rocks the latest phone, that's an insecure, foolish label you don't want.
  • Push specs to justify buying a new phone, 65 hz screen is better than 60hz screen even if you can't see a difference. 90hz is even better but you still won't see a difference unless you perhaps play games.. But still push specs because that's what they pay you for.. Selling.. Not reporting.. Selling.
    Push updates as well. What else? Refer to last month's phones as "adequate".. As if the this month's phones will be the answer. Finally let's justify value of phones. Take something abstract and qualitative and even though the phone costs 3000$, it's justified.. Firstly by you (since you could have bought that low spec, month old barely adequate phone) and more importantly by the companies that want someone to hold up their bottom line.
  • LMAO.... Same rationalization as new vehicles.... She's all about the monthlies..... Lol, great post.
  • Sorry, I do not mean to troll... But it occurred to me later.... I already alluded I'm old... This article, this cell phone value nonsense, and the very idea a cell phone would possibly convey status (it doesn't)..... These ideas are captured perfectly in the 'Business Card Scene' of the movie American Psycho..... Lol, YouTube it kids.