Calling a phone 'mid-range' doesn't make sense anymore — we can do better

OnePlus 8
OnePlus 8 (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

When we say a phone is "mid-range," what does that even mean nowadays? Do its specs land under a certain level overall? Is it based on specific missing features? Or is it purely defined by price? Any of those calculations can be easily confusing, if not outright flawed.

I'm not sure how or when, exactly, the nomenclature was developed, but for some reason technology enthusiasts are eager to put phones into buckets: "budget," "mid-range," and "flagship," at a minimum. Problem is, the lines between these made-up categories differ from person to person, and just keep getting more and more blurry.

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For some reason, we're eager to put phones into broad groups — but it doesn't make any sense.

I suppose "flagship" (as silly as the name is) can always make some sense, as it's always going to represent the best and most expensive phones available. But now even that's being called into question: new foldable phones are more expensive than what we'd normally consider a flagship phone, yet they often have lower specs and more compromises. But then if we say that a flagship is a phone above a certain level of specs or features, rather than price, things continue to get murky — is a $900 OnePlus 8 Pro in the same category as a $1400 Galaxy S20 Ultra, because their specs are nearly the same? That represents a $500 gap in price, which is far too wide to be considered a reasonable range within which people will cross-shop phones.

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

We're just going to have to deal with the fact that there's actually nuance in the comparison of phones that reaches well beyond grouping them into these big categories based on a couple of specs or features. And nowhere is that more apparent than in what we call "mid-range" today. As high-end phones get ever more expensive, and tons of companies keep competing for very low prices at the bottom of the market, the so-called mid-range keeps getting wider. I've seen the $400 Pixel 3a called mid-range at the same time as the $700 OnePlus 8 — they're in no way comparable. Things get murkier when we look at "value flagship" type phones with high-end specs, but without extra features or materials in order to keep the price down; is the POCO F2 Pro a flagship because of its spec sheet, or is it mid-range because of its price? There's no single answer.

You can't just compare phones based on specs, or price, or size — it's a combination.

As if that weren't confusing enough, it only addresses new phones with known fixed prices. But we've seen time and time again that a phone can easily move from being a "flagship" to "mid-range" in a matter of months, depending on how its price drops as it ages and where industry pricing trends go. The Pixel 4 XL used to be a "flagship," then it got an official price cut to $600, and now it's cheaper than phones we call "mid-range" — so which is it? I'd argue it's clearly the latter, and should be evaluated as such. It's a perfect example of how putting phones in specific baskets, and leaving them there, is of little use to anyone.

So what do we do instead? Let's start looking at phones based on their merits and current price, and go from there. With the number of variables, the largest of which being people's personal preference, there's never going to be a science to categorizing and comparing phones.

Every person has a different list of priorities, and what price they consider reasonable.

Different people place different weights on each of the various specs, like screen size, processor, memory, storage, camera arrangement, water resistance, battery size, charging speed, wireless charging, and so on. Then there are subjective categories, like build materials, design, button placement, speaker quality, screen quality, and camera quality. Every single person puts different weights — some consciously, most unconsciously — on each of these categories and comes to a conclusion on how much they like the phone; and then, of course, that's compared to its price. It's why we write in-depth reviews of phones, not just comparative spec tables.

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For a lot of people, the basics of price, design, cameras and battery life stand out — but if that's all a phone has, completely failing in every other category, it probably isn't going to reel in a ton of sales. It's a balancing act, and one with a dramatically different amount of variance in it at an MSRP of $400, $500, $600, and $700. And the smartphone companies are constantly tweaking what they can offer in various combinations, all within a specific pricing framework, to win over consumers. So why do we continue to say a phone is "mid-range" as if there's no nuance to that decision? Let's stop.

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

26 Comments
  • This is like with cars. You have luxury cars, pre-owned cars, etc. How do you classify a Lamborghini with a Jeep or a Kia? New cars, used cars, luxury cars. I guess just look at the price?
  • Price, specs, capabilities. Cars have the added bonus of being able to be categorized pretty well by their size and designation — 2-seat coupe, 5-seat sedan, 2- or 3-row SUV, etc.
  • Most people have a budget, so that's always going to be a starting point there. You then need to obtain the best specs that suite your requirements within that budget. Brand loyalty also plays a big part in choices.
  • I always think about the price bracket when somebody mentions mid-range. I don't compare the category with what somebody needs. People's needs are different and their budgets are different. Not all Android phones are in all countries and able to work in all countries therefore we must have categorisation of the phones in general. IMO
  • These phones are just "differently abled" hahaha.
  • What about thinking about each phone compared to it's own company. The word "flagship" refers to boats, and was the best boat a certain country or company could make at the time. So, the Pixel 4 is Google's flagship. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung's flagship.
  • Indeed, that's where that seems to have originated. But now the term "flagship" has been used for cross-comparison and doesn't really make sense anymore considering much different pricing across the market.
  • Andrew, I always like your articles but in the article talking about classifying phones is a link that says "Best Cheap Phones". Inexpensive may be the proper term? My mid ranger gets monthly security updates faster then flagships so I agree with your article.
  • I don't really have an issue with using "cheap" or "budget" nearly as much as "mid-range" or "flagship" actually. Sure everyone's definition of "cheap" and "budget" is different, but generally it's in the same range, around $150-$300. And unlike the higher-end phones, the prices aren't constantly going up, they're actually quite stable down at the bottom. It's much easier to refer to a "cheap" phone.
  • Point taken. Stay well.
  • Its not that serious dude. Lol
  • We are very bored at the moment..
  • EXACTLY! Everyone is so bored they're willing to read anything! At least it's a new article, not one of the dozen or so regurgitated ones floating around. I guess when there's nothing new to write about, because there's nothing new being manufactured, the writers have to be inventive in order to keep the revenue coming in.
  • For me it's simply branding. All three of the Galaxy S line are Samsung's Flagship, regardless of the price. Apple could release 7 new iPhones, and if they are called the 12, they are the flagship, even the cheapest of them. It's not that difficult.
  • I have no problem with the terms flagship, midrange, and budget.
    You are correct that "flagship" originates as a nautical term, being "the ship that carries the commander of a fleet" and "flies the commander's flag". Regardless of how the term is used, it implies the best of the fleet. I think we get tangled up when we try to hard code price ranges to each category. There are exceptions all over the place, like how OnePlus USED to be. Then there are phones on the flip side with performance and features that don't really match up with their high price. Foldables are just foldables regardless of how expensive they are. If we just leave price out as a determining factor of category, it would be easier. Shopping for most still begins with price (I consider it as well), but you just set your price ceiling and see what you can get from there.
  • What do you mean OnePlus used to be? If you look at it the value is even better today then your "used to be". Back when they came out the phones sold for what 4400 or $500 less then Samsung's Flagships (yes I used that term). But they have less feathers then Samsung phones. Today the top OnePlus is still $500 cheaper then the top Samsung, only now you get all the same feathers!! So they are doing even better then they "used to be".
  • The problem is the people. They have made it convoluted. It has always been about the spec sheet and price means very little. You can have a $1500 budget device or a $200 flagship device. Price means less then nothing. Cant even say the last time I bothered looking at the price tag of a device. These days it really doesn't matter. Its always been about that. Titles like Budget flagship are just companies and people wanting to add labels so they dont get their egos hurt.
  • Is this because this is exactly what the new Pixel 5 will be? 😂😂
  • I thought the same thing. lol
  • Have always bought the 'best quality' phone at the time, the one that had excellent reception, clear and crisp display and top notch data and call quality transmission. From now on, if I'm going to pay the money, HAVE TO HAVE... more than only two years of OS updates! Sammy, are you listening?
  • Prove is not the deciding factor in which range with phones, it's capability, and longevity. The Poco F2 pro ans iPhone SE, are clearly a step up from my P30 Pro, making them worthy flagships, regardless of price. I wouldn't stop down to Galaxy A series and cell that a flagship as it's just not sure on the same league.
    It all comes down to capability and how long the hardware will still be relevant, which is why it is so ludicrous that Samsung charge so much for an S20 pro when you can have something comparable for much less.
  • Unless you're wealthy (at least $1 million net worth) no one should be buying phones that cost over $600. Most Americans (80%) don't even have $400 in cash in the bank for an emergency (like a new water heater, new tires for the car, etc.) so no one should be paying more $20/month for phone. There are dozens of phones that can be bought for $20/month (you can find plenty of lists on this site) and EVERYONE should be saving at least 10% of their income towards retirement. If you can't save at least 10% of your income then you can't afford a phone that costs more than $20/month. The same argument can be applied to cars - buying more car than you can afford (I own a 2018 Hyundai Sonata Sedan that I only pay $309/month) also contributes to most people living well above their means with no cash in the bank and no saving for their future. The current crisis is going to cause people to re-evaluate their consumption habits. In the early days of smartphones (and computers were the same way) you needed a new phone/computer every couple years to keep up with new features and capabilities. Your three year old S8 or iPhone 8 still works well and even though my LG G7 is only on Android 9 pie I don't miss anything from Android 10 or 11. As for security I can keep my accounts protected even if I don't get all the latest security patches. As for my computers, I expect to keep my laptops and desktops for years with little to no hardware upgrades and expect Windows to keep getting updated without making my computers slow or outdated. Unless you're a gamer computers will last for years. Save more, spend less and have a secure economic future.
  • but but "flagship"
  • I just think that it is a bit nuts that we are at a point where midrange is up to a 1000 quid and over that is where we call it flagship.
    A 1000 was a ridiculous amount of money for a phone just a few years ago and now it is *midrange*
  • Well that's cleared that up then, so the iPhone 11 is STILL a flagship then even though it is missing some features drop the Pro versions and same with OnePlus, with my OnePlus 7T along with the 7T Pro and the current OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro
  • Couldn't agree more. The variety of features, functions and prices of these devices make locking almost any of them into a specific category well-nigh impossible. Excellent article.