A bunch of promising cheap, new smartphones from Apple and others are expected to launch this year
- After years of increasing costs and slowing sales, 2020 looks like the year that smartphone prices may finally come down.
- Advanced features, like edge-to-edge screens and facial recognition, are starting to become more widely available on smartphones that cost far less than $1,000 (R14,500).
- Apple and Google are also both expected to debut cheaper versions of their respective smartphones this year, in another sign that large tech firms are acknowledging that $1,000 upgrades can be hard for many customers to justify.
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It's 2020, which means it's been roughly 13 years since Apple laid the foundation for the modern smartphone with its original iPhone in 2007.
To say that smartphones have made leaps and bounds since then would be an understatement. While the original iPhone was essentially an iPod touch with cellular connectivity, today's mobile devices have evolved into superfast pocket-sized computers with professional-grade cameras.
But the most exciting change in the smartphone industry to emerge over the next year may not have anything to do with boosting performance, creating new screens that bend and fold, or enhancing their cameras. Rather, it's the notion that high-quality phones with features like facial recognition and borderless screens may no longer come at $1,000 (R14,500) a pop.
Following several years of increasing smartphone prices, 2020 is already shaping up to be a banner year for cheaper smartphones as advanced features begin trickling down to more affordable products.
The year has just begun, but based on the smartphone launches that have occurred in 2020 so far - and the ones that are rumoured to arrive in the coming months - it looks like a wave of compelling new devices that cost noticeably less than recent flagships from Apple and Samsung are on the horison.
The cheap smartphones we're expecting this year
Samsung, for example, unveiled the Galaxy S10 Lite and Galaxy Note 10 Lite earlier in January, which the company is positioning as being cheaper versions of its high-end smartphones. Even with a lower price tag, the phones will still offer features like a nearly borderless screen with a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera and a triple-lens camera setup. Samsung has not said how much the phones will cost yet.
And television maker TCL recently debuted a new Android smartphone that will be priced at less than $500 when it launches. The phone, called the TCL 10 Pro, has capabilities that even Apple's $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro lacks, such as an in-screen fingerprint sensor and four camera lenses.
If the reports and rumors we've heard so far are to be believed, it sounds like there are more cheap smartphones to come in 2020. Apple, for instance, is expected to release an update to the iPhone SE for the first time since 2016. The iPhone SE is a lower-priced smartphone Apple launched nearly four years ago that has the same processor as the iPhone 6S, which was the company's newest iPhone at the time, but in a design that resembled the iPhone 5. This year, Apple is expected to come out with a new version that looks like the iPhone 8 but is powered by the same chip found in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro.
Google, too, is expected to launch another budget smartphone this year, following the release of its low-cost Pixel 3a last year. The rumoured Google Pixel 4a is expected to have a design that resembles its pricier counterpart but with a few trade-offs, like a single-lens camera instead of the Pixel 4's double camera.
The launches would come after lesser-known smartphone makers like OnePlus and Asus have already been developing high-quality smartphones with many of the same features as devices from Apple, Google, and Samsung, at noticeably lower prices for years.
Smartphones are getting cheaper as sales have suffered in recent years
The decision by tech giants to launch cheaper smartphones probably isn't a coincidence either. The industry has grappled with slowing sales over the past couple of years, with global shipments only starting to rebound in the third quarter of 2019 after seven consecutive quarterly declines, according to the International Data Corporation.
Part of that growth could be thanks to the rising prominence of cheaper smartphones. In the second quarter of 2019, when smartphone shipments were still in decline but performing better than in previous quarters, the IDC cited "vastly improved mid-tier devices that offer premium designs and features while significantly undercutting the ultra-high-end in price."
Put bluntly, it's possible that people simply are no longer willing to pay $1,000 for a new smartphone. A study from NPD Group published last month also found as much, saying that less than 10% of consumers are paying more than $1,000 on new smartphones.
Smartphones didn't always cost that much. In fact, it seems $1,000 only became the norm for smartphone prices in recent years as devices gained new features like borderless screens, facial recognition, and more advanced cameras. The iPhone X, which launched in 2017, started at $1,000, but older iPhones launched at a significantly lower price. The iPhone 7 from 2016 started at $650, or $770 if you opted for the plus-sized model. Apple also debuted the $700 iPhone 8 alongside the iPhone X in 2017, but it was the latter that set the standard for the iPhone's design moving forward.
Samsung went through a similar change with its pricing strategies in recent years. The 2016 Galaxy S7 was priced at roughly $650, but 2017's Galaxy S8 was around $70 more expensive. And last year's Galaxy S10 started at $900 while the Plus model launched at $1,000, a similar pricing model as Apple's $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro and $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max.
The industry is already showing signs of change
Although it seems like 2020 will usher in a wave of promising cheap smartphones, it's already clear that large smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung, and Google are adjusting the way they price and position new devices. For example, in 2019 Apple positioned its less expensive new smartphone, the iPhone 11, as being its flagship model, while it branded the pricier version as the "Pro" model.
That marks a departure from 2018, when the cheaper iPhone XR was largely seen as a low-cost alternative to the flagship iPhone XS. Samsung also launched the Galaxy S10e alongside the standard S10 last year, which was about $150 cheaper at launch, and Google released its less expensive Pixel 3 spinoff just a few months later.
Taken together, the shifts in strategy we've seen from companies like Apple, Samsung, and Google last year, combined with the new phones we're expecting to see in 2020, suggest that paying nearly $1,000 for a new smartphone will soon be the exception, not the norm, for most people.
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