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This year, I'm thankful there are no more bad phones

When I got back from the OnePlus 5T launch event last week, I sat down with the phone and played with it, and it was clearly very good. I was justifiably impressed with the quality of the hardware and the smoothness of the software — more so when I considered its relatively affordable $499 price tag. OnePlus is a company that understands its market, and though it's buttressing up against that all-important $500 benchmark, it's probably more comfortable being there — being compared to the Galaxys and iPhones of the world — than stuck in the $299 bracket fighting over entry-level scraps.

But it occurred to me that there are no more bad phones at any price. Leaving aside the truly dreadful, no-name stuff, you can find happy customers of the $50 BLU Advance A5 (opens in new tab) all the way up to the $950 Galaxy Note 8. Never before have we been so awash in mobile bounty.

This trend is reinforced by the increasingly minute differences we're seeing in devices. While rising component costs are pushing flagship handset prices into the $1000 range, we're seeing less diversity in design and component choices at each price tier. We can pretty much take for granted how a phone at $200, $500, and $1000 will both look and perform; we can reasonably expect certain benchmarks to be hit (not, like, speed benchmarks but actual qualities). I'm not saying every phone looks the same, performs identically, and aspires to do the same thing, but we're at a point where, if a phone runs Android, it generally runs it pretty well, and looks pretty OK.

The next few years will be interesting from an Android perspective. We're seeing phone design being distilled to a reproducible formula: big, bezel-less screen; powerful chip; high-speed cellular modem; great camera; big batteries. Increasingly, all of those tenets can be achieved in the entry and mid pricing tiers — just look at the new Honor 7X and aforementioned OnePlus 5T, respectively — with camera quality being the only remaining outlier.

We're now at a point where, if a phone runs Android, it generally performs well and looks pretty good.

With phone screens going edge to edge, most companies' distinctive design elements are moving to sides and back, but even then it's more a matter of preference than optimization. Do you prefer the cameras centered or to the side; do you prefer the fingerprint sensor in the middle, or wherever the hell Samsung thinks makes sense? And as with all technologies — see laptops, televisions, even cars — the components and capabilities once reserved for the wealthy are increasingly available to everybody.

Qualcomm's collection of Snapdragon platform chips perhaps showcases this the best; there used to be a substantive difference in experience between the dregs of the 200- and 400- series, the constrained-but-capable 600-series, and the thermal- and performance-pushing 800-series. Now, in many cases, it's difficult to tell the difference.

It also used to be that cheap phones felt, well, cheap. With companies like Motorola, Honor, HTC and others replacing low-quality plastic with the same metal and glass as their flagship peers, that's no longer the case, either. To my eyes and hands, there's little difference between the $399 Moto X4 and the $649 HTC U11 — both are beautiful and impeccably built.

So the next time someone suggests that smartphones are getting boring because they are all starting look and feel the same, turn the argument around: it's tremendously exciting that it's pretty hard to buy a bad phone these days, and that the differences between a $50 and $950 device, while still enormous, are narrowing every year.

Happy Thanksgiving 🦃

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

12 Comments
  • Spot on. This is leading to no need to be an early adopter or pre-order an unproven device (freebies added, notwithstanding). Even today's "poor quality" camera is last year's acceptable camera. Last year's flagship and this year's mid-range phone are too close in price and ability to worry about it anymore. If someone has a high priority (camera, updates, headphone jack, battery life, etc.), a phone can easily fill the need without breaking the bank. If someone in the comments is saying that THEIR phone is MUCH better...they are justifying it to themselves. Happy Thanksgiving!
  • Phones are becoming like the pc. You don't need a new one every 1 to 2 years any more which will mean sales will start to slow in the next few years
  • The biggest issue there is the battery. They simply have a limited life and replacing the one on my Pixel (as an example) is a whole different thing than it was on my Nexus 5. I got three years out of the N5 with a battery refresh. My first Pixel met a bad end after almost a year so the replacement should last 2 easily......
  • exactly still have you by the nuts with a non removable battery...eventually it gets worse and worse...send it in or see if some shop can replace it without breaking something else. Or get a new phone! I think they are doing that on purpose! otherwise device can last a lot longer than 2 years
  • I prefer the fingerprint scanner to be on the front. And it's not "wherever the hell Samsung thinks makes sense". It's "wherever Samsung could stick it when they ran out of time". I don't think they actually had reasons to want it there. They might have put it there on the Note8 just for parity with the S8/S8+, but that's all.
  • I would say that's pretty accurate. Android phones of every tier are much more optimized to perform well for the user. I don't think there is a single flagship this year that I wouldn't recommend because it is a bad device.
  • And not just flagships, most midrange devices are up to the task, maybe not iPhone killers, but also not wallet killers.
  • Agreed. I can agree there are no terrible phones. But there are trolls that ordinary consumers listen too that make small things sound big i.e. pixel 2 XL screen. But that's where we are in the phone game now...little nuances make the difference between devices now...and I'm quite fine with that.👍
  • I'm afraid that with all phones being good, companies will be afraid to innovate. One misstep and they'll get passed by and it'll be hard to catch back up (HTC, anyone?). They'll all play it safe in order to not sick their necks out.
  • There is a lot of brand loyalty out there. But I do think there is room for a manufacturer to bust the scene wide open because everyone is playing it safe. If someone can do something miraculous with battery technology, I think it could make people change brands.
  • Someone needs to stick their neck out and "innovate" with a removable battery and a grippy plastic body. Oh, but why would they do that? Then it wouldn't be pretty. It'd only be practical and comfortable. Dumb, I know.
  • I'm excited that this is happening. I've noticed that my attitude towards how a phone plays in my life has changed over the years. I remember constantly buying an iPhone because "those Android phones are too laggy." Android phones, even the Flagships felt subpar and mediocre. In 2013 I tried the original Moto G and the Nexus 5 and fell in love. I couldn't believe how smooth and seamless the experience felt. And they were cheap!! I continued buying Flagships, however, because, well, there the pinnacle of what a phone from that respective manufacturer is. The Nexus 6, The HTC One M8, The Note 5, the 1+3T, and my previous phone the Galaxy S7. My screen cracked on my S7 and I needed a quick replacement. I saw the Moto G5+ and thought "Why not?" Sure this phone has some compromises, like no NFC, average camera, but it does everything I want in a phone. It can run games smoothly, can move in and out of apps with ease, and has more than enough storage and RAM (4GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage). With Flagships pushing close to 1K I see no point in paying that much when I can get a great experience at a third of the price! Midrange phones for me until Flagship phones can truly justify their price. (Multi-day Battery life, more than 5 colors, 256 GB of storage being the standard, a minimum of 3-year software support, etc)