The Snapdragon 865 is driving up flagship prices during a renaissance of affordable phones

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 (Image credit: Qualcomm)

It's no secret that phone pricing has gone up significantly in recent years. Back in 2017 when Apple announced the iPhone X, the starting price of $1000 was shocking, but when Samsung followed suit with the Galaxy Note 8 shortly afterwards, it quickly became clear that four-figure phones would be the new norm.

Of course, at the time, each company still offered cheaper alternatives for those who simply needed something functional. The iPhone 8 launched alongside the iPhone X for a much more reasonable starting price of $699, while the Galaxy S8 started at $720. These days, though, the market has shifted.

Even OnePlus can't kill flagship pricing anymore.

The Galaxy S20 starts at $1000, with the upgraded version of the S20 Ultra reaching all the way up to $1600. The LG V60 comparatively feels like a value pick at "only" $900, and even the OnePlus 8 starts at $700 — up $100 from the launch price of last year's 7T, from a company whose mantra has always been about offering the best features at the lowest price. It's gotten a bit out of hand.

There's an argument to be made that prices are being driven up by dozens of factors, from increasing battery capacities to bigger, high-refresh rate displays, larger camera sensors, and so on. That's certainly true to some extent, and most people in the market for a flagship-tier phone seem to be okay paying more for those features. But there's one factor driving up costs without adding much to the user experience: the Snapdragon 865.

T-Mobile 5G network on the OnePlus 7T Pro

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Qualcomm's latest chip is, as you might expect, its most powerful yet, and brings with it improvements like better power efficiency and image processing, resulting in longer battery life and better-looking photos. Unlike Qualcomm's other chipsets before it, though, the Snapdragon 865 doesn't have a built-in modem, and requires that manufactures install the 5G-compatible X55 modem in their phones separately.

This means that whether or not you even live in a 5G market, you're going to be paying for it if you buy an 865-equipped phone. In fact, even in cities where 5G has been rolled out in some capacity, it's still not ready for the vast majority of consumers.

No, I'm not talking about the ridiculous conspiracy theories being tossed around lately. The millimeter wave technologies being used by carriers like Verizon offer incredibly fast speeds, but only work within sightline of a 5G node, while the alternative sub-6 networks work inversely, with far better range but speeds roughly comparable to those of LTE. 5G in its current implementation is fundamentally flawed, and simply isn't worth paying extra for right now — that goes both for the hardware and the monthly surcharges on your rate plan.

2020 iPhone SE

Source: iMore (Image credit: Source: iMore)

The Snapdragon 865 is an expensive component to add to a phone, and I can't help but wonder how much manufacturers could have cut back on the retail prices of some phones, had they opted for a different processor. We've speculated on this before, calling the Snapdragon 765 a perfect solution for the OnePlus 8; those after the latest processor could have still gone with the OnePlus 8 Pro, but this would have potentially allowed for a more affordable entry model.

The same could be said for a 765-powered variant of the Galaxy S20, LG V60, or Motorola Edge+. It's a bit hard to accept the fact that $1000 is the least you're expected to pay for a top-tier phone these days, especially when we're seeing such a boom of value offerings on the lower end.

We're expecting Google to announce the Pixel 4a any day now, and if it's anything like the 3a, it'll offer a remarkably similar experience to that of the Pixel 4 for somewhere in the ballpark of $400, with the same incredible camera. On the Apple side, the new iPhone SE paints a similar story with the same A13 Bionic chip used in the top-end iPhone 11 Pro Max, and an impressive singular camera.

The iPhone SE and Pixel 4a are shifting our perspective on how good a $400 phone can be.

Similarly, there are a ton of great options being sold overseas lately, with companies like Xiaomi, Realme, Oppo, and Honor pushing phones with incredible build quality and performance for around the same $400 price range.

That's all bad news for the four-figure market, and great news for consumers. With more and more affordable options offering all of the basics the majority of people need, and not just meeting but exceeding our expectations in previously weak points like performance and cameras, there's not much reason for anyone but the most die-hard, bleeding-edge tech enthusiast to spend anywhere near a thousand dollars on a phone anymore.

Admittedly, it feels a bit hypocritical to write this with most of 2020's flagship phones sitting on my desk, and a OnePlus 8 currently in my pocket. But well, it's my job to review these devices; the only reason any of them are here is because the companies sent them to me for review, and if I had to buy a phone right now, most of these phones wouldn't even be on my radar. I'd be keeping a close eye on the Pixel 4a, or maybe even considering the iPhone SE. At the very most, I might pick up the OnePlus 7T now that it's just $500.

The Snapdragon 865 is a great processor, but I'm willing to bet most of you don't need 5G, or most of its other benefits for that matter. If you're unhappy with the rising prices of phones these days, vote with your wallet. The Pixel 4a is right around the corner.

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.

22 Comments
  • The day I pay >$1000 for one of these mind controlling devices is the day my credit card has been hacked and someone else bought one.
  • So if someone "hacked" your credit card and bought a phone, you'd just pay it? You wouldn't dispute the charge? And to be honest if they're actually capable of controlling people's minds, $1000 sounds like a hell of a bargain...
  • or, the day your mind has been finally controlled ;)
  • Qualcomm, guilty as charged. Charging 2oo.oo bucks more for the 5g modem. Most people can't even use it yet? By the time all carriers are using it, another 18months, 😬!
  • There are MANY phones with SD 865 costing less than $1000. Cheapest is under $400.
  • Some of the cheap Chinese phones are operating on ridiculously thin margins.
  • I've come to terms with the fact that I don't need the greatest processor. I don't do anything high end on my phone. The most important thing for me now is the camera, and Google proved that they can have that experience without top end components. To that end, the Pixel 4a is on my radar. Barring something bad comes out in the review, it'll be my next phone, upgrading from a OnePlus 6t. You can get a great camera, great and exclusive software features, and hopefully good battery life with the 4a, all for about half the price of the other flagships. That's all most people probably need.
  • I have the 1+6T as well and also looking into the 4a. I will say though that smaller size, headphone jack, and software updates as well as the camera are all things I'm looking forward to.
  • It sure would be nice to see if the 855/855+ is faster or slower than a 765. Cause if the 75 is slower I'll just shop for last years flagship phones.
  • Not a bad idea in theory, but if you're buying a year-old phone, that's one less year of software updates you're going to get. Might be worth it just to get whatever the Pixel 4a is and stick with that, because buying a year-old flagship every year costs more than buying something mid-range and keeping it for 3 years.
  • The Snapdragon 855/855+ are definitely faster phones. That being said most people probably won't feel that significant of a difference.
  • We need an alternative to Qualcomm. Also, why do chips have to be powerful? To do what??? Mid range phones will be hot going forward. People are not into $1000+ phones anymore.
  • I would argue midrange phones have been the default for some time now. People aren't out here buying Flagships left and right, they are buying the upper midrange that is more than capable and fits their budget. Agreed that an alternative is needed, consumers are forced to take whatever they give us.
  • And Apple shakes up the mid range market with the iPhone SE 2 with the A13 bionic chip for only 399, good luck finding that value (along with a Snapdragon 865) in an Android mid range phone with long term software support going forward.
  • Maybe not every phone needs a 6.5" 120hz display with a battery big enough to power a Tesla... O and 2 year support.
  • Phones have been coming in at 4 digit prices for some time now. With or without the 865. Did you just wake up yesterday? Apple and Samsung seemed to be at the front of this sky high trend (seemed that Samsung copied that from Apple) Anyway if you can't afford it don't buy it. It's that simple. Maybe the companies will see a trend away from high priced phones and drop their prices, Or use a mix of old and new parts to make cheaper phones (like the new iPhone se). Whatever the case you have a choice.
  • The difference is that Apple goes a long way to justify their high prices for the long term software support alone optimisation alone unlike Samsung.
  • But who cares?
  • No they don't, updates are long but crippled for old phones with over half the features missing and performance vastly reduced even with a factory reset. You do not want an iPhone, I had two friends with one and now they all have Android phones. Even though you get 2-3 years of updates, your phone works correctly and you can keep it for longer.
  • I have been very happy with my Note 10. 1080p 256g have been perfect. 15 to 16 hour battery life. No need to upgrade yet. I'm bypassing upgrading this cycle. My wife was shocked!
  • Lower segment phones have clearly shown that it is a foolish move to buy flagship these days as you are getting so many quality features in lower segment phones as well. People go with flagships enticed by well-marketed features. Most of the flagships today mostly promote their camera. And people buy thinking that these phones will automatically capture elegant photos. That's mere stupidity. You can have great photos with lower segment phones as well provided you have skills for that.
  • All this is bs, the Snapdragon 855 costs about 50$ per chip + licensing while the new 865 costs 50% more bringing the total to about 75$ per phone. That is a 25$ increase, mostly in the external modem. Now do the math and it's plainly obvious that it's corporate greed and not Qualcomm.