Why 2020 saw the value flagship come into its own

Galaxy S20 FE
Galaxy S20 FE (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

For many years, you had two main choices when it came to buying a smartphone: either go all-out with an expensive flagship or settle for something more affordable. Handsets like the Moto G have proven to be really great options for people that want to spend as little as possible, but if you've ever found yourself wanting a higher-end experience without being able to shell out $1000 or more, options have traditionally been pretty limited.

We've seen some brands try to break the status quo — namely OnePlus — but even its last couple of releases have morphed into the pricey smartphones it was once trying to fight against. Thankfully, one of the few silver linings of 2020 saw more companies than ever before put real time and effort into creating high-end flagships that don't cost an arm and a leg.

Yes, we're talking about the awesome rise of value flagships.

Before you dive into the comments section, I'm fully aware that previous years have given us flagship-like devices with reasonable price tags. The Galaxy S10e from 2019 stands out as a good example, as does the OnePlus 7T. But while those used to be few and far between throughout a given year, 2020 ramped up both the quality and quantity of these releases.

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud Red

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

Perhaps the best example of this is the Galax S20 FE. It's the least technically-impressive entry in the Galaxy S20 family, but despite that, it holds a strong position as our pick for the best Android phone of the year. On a list that also highlights phones like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, OnePlus 8 Pro, and even the Z Fold 2, the $700 Galaxy S20 FE is our number one overall pick.

The S20 FE is the best phone of 2020, and it only costs $700.

How can that be? Because Samsung created an incredible flagship device that cuts barely any corners, all while still managing to shave $300 off the retail price compared to the regular S20. The S20 FE is still packing a Snapdragon 865 processor, 120Hz AMOLED display, great cameras, and long battery life. The flat display may not be as eye-catching as a curved one and the plastic back could be considered as less "premium" than glass, but nothing about the phone feels like a compromised experience in day-to-day use.

Being able to get that kind of a smartphone for just $700 is excellent, but because this is Samsung we're talking about, you can often pick up the S20 FE for $600 or even $550. Over two months after its release, the Galaxy S20 FE still hasn't stopped impressing us.

Google Pixel 5

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

We also saw Google embrace the value flagship bandwagon this year with the Pixel 5. After spending four years chasing iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, the shift to launching a $700 handset as its top-tier flagship was a big change for Google's hardware division. And you know what? It paid off in spades.

Google's big flagship for this year is $300 cheaper than the regular S20.

The Pixel 5 may not have the very best Qualcomm processor or the most rear cameras compared to some of its rivals, but it manages to do something that the Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 couldn't: be a reliable and enjoyable smartphone that's free of any game-breaking issues. There's no RAM limitation, battery life is great, and just about every facet of the Pixel 5 allows it to be one of the most pleasant phones of the entire year.

We went as far as to call it "the best Pixel ever" in our Pixel 5 review, proving that companies don't need to use the most expensive components and materials to create an excellent piece of tech.

And then there are all of the other value flagships that made their appearance throughout 2020. OnePlus tried its hand at it a couple of times with the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8T, the Motorola Edge stands out as one of the most underrated contenders in this space, and even Nokia threw its hat in the ring with the Nokia 8.3 5G. Some of these value flagships have been better than others, but what's important is that more companies are trying harder than ever before to secure a strong foothold in this emerging niche.

Motorola Edge

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

At least for me personally, that's made the smartphone market a lot more exciting than it's felt in years past. If a friend or family member comes to me looking for phone advice, I now have plenty of recommendations to make that'll give them a thoroughly great handset without them needing to pay $1000 or more. Especially in the year we've just endured, this couldn't have come at a better time.

Value flagships are here, they aren't going anywhere, and I'm couldn't be happier.

Joe Maring

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.