How Much Should a Flagship Cost? The OnePlus One is Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Header - How Much Should a Flagship CostIn the smartphone world, there are a few inevitable truths: Apple devices cost a premium, Samsung devices are made of plastic, and flagship devices are very expensive.

Except that last one isn’t true anymore. In 2012, with the Nexus 4, Google (along with LG) paved the way for what was the first low cost flagship level device. The Nexus 4 had the processor and RAM to equal the other big names on the block. It had specs that were *almost* as good as the competition, but cost about half as much. It was seen as revolutionary. It gave everyone the opportunity to have a flagship device without a contract, and without breaking the bank.

Then in 2013 they did it again with the Nexus 5. It helped makeup some of the shortfalls of the Nexus 4 by including things like LTE and and a 1080p screen. The price went up a bit, but with the price increase you got better storage options. Again, we had a device that *almost* matched the specs of the other flagship devices, for about two-thirds of the cost.

The *almost* here is a pretty small list of areas where Google (and of course LG) cut some corners to keep that low price point. The battery, comparatively speaking to devices being released in the same time frame, is small. It has a 2300 mAh battery, while flagships coming out around the same time like the LG G2 or the Sony Xperia Z1 came with a 3000 mAh battery. It  also has an 8 MP camera where the G2 has a very similar camera but at 13 MP, and the Xperia Z1 has a 20.7 MP camera.

It’s just two things, but they are noticeable. The Nexus 5 doesn’t have the best camera or the best battery life. But, and this is a big *but*, you get an awful lot of quality phone for the price you pay. Small compromises, but compromises nonetheless.

And so far, that’s where we’ve been. The major manufacturers still sell their premium devices at a high (generally $600 +) cost, and the Nexus line that offers you a lower cost option for something almost as good. There is a clear separation between what is available. The major manufacturers offer their flagships, and Google offers the heavily subsidized Nexus line (aimed primarily at developers).

But rumblings of another option have been flitting around for the past few months, and now have fully appeared.

OnePlus (a startup made by folks from Oppo and partnering with the incredibly popular ROM maker Cyanogen) have introduced something rather remarkable: The OnePlus One. A quick rundown of the specs shows us:

  • Snapdragon 801 processor
  • 3 GB RAM
  • 16GB and 64 GB storage options
  • 5.5 inch 1080p Display
  • 13 MP Camera
  • 3100 mAh battery

These are all in line with specs for 2014 released or announced handsets so far, such as the Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z2. What we have looks like a full fledged flagship level device without compromise. And the kicker?

The 16GB version sells for $299, and the 64GB version sells for $349. This makes it actually cheaper than the Nexus 5. And when you compare it to the off contract price of the above mentioned phones (all $699 on Bell) it almost looks insane. How can a device, which on paper looks at least as good as any of these flagships made by major manufacturers, be half the price?

The catch, and of course there is a catch, is that it isn’t widely available. For the moment, they will be releasing a stream of invites, mostly on social media, to give people an opportunity to buy the phone. Definitely different, definitely out there, but I think the system as a degree of merit. They are a small company on their first hardware outing. This rollout method gives them an opportunity to avoid massive backlog, maintain better control over their supply, iron out issues as they arise, and ensure that they can maintain some basic quality standards. Is it perfect? No. But does it help them create buzz, market their product, drive interest, and keep control of negativity? Oh, absolutely.

No, we still don’t have any idea as to how good the device will be. We’ll have to wait for some reviews and feedback on it. They have the pedigree when it comes to both hardware and software, but putting it all together into a compelling package that performs at the level of a true flagship is no easy task. I honestly hope that the device is every bit as amazing as it looks on paper, but it is still something of an unknown.

The bigger question that runs through my head though is this: If a small startup can put together a device like this, seemingly with a tiny profit margin, why can’t a major OEM? Why are still dealing with flagship devices going for $699 and up, with their lower tiered devices being so much… lower? Could we, for example, see a Samsung Galaxy S5, without the fingerprint scanner or the heart rate monitor, for say, $400? Or maybe the HTC One M8 without the extra lens and with 1 less front speaker for $400? Can we see the major manufacturers shift their focus towards high performing, flagship level devices without the gimmicky features, at a more reasonable price point?

OnePlus has something here. Sure, the details remain in their execution and the overall quality of the device, but they have taken the basic idea of what Google started with the Nexus 4, and ran with it. I’d much rather see outside the box thinking like this, where the goal is to get a compelling product into the hand of consumers at a great price, than the ongoing trend of more and more gimmicky features. Even if the OnePlus One doesn’t work out as amazingly as I’d like, I appreciate the shift in focus, and the daring at trying something interesting. Innovation isn’t just tossing in more features, innovation can also come from trying a different approach. I really hope that companies like Samsung, Apple, Sony, HTC, Motorola and LG Are paying close attention.

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