Sunday, March 29, 2015

Battle of Android Flagships Revived

Android mobile phones have evolved on features, specs and pricing over the last year and one must admit that this platform has enabled adoption of smartphones amongst masses due to availability of huge variety of phones at multiple price points. When it comes to Flagship phone category, this section has witnessed the biggest upsurge in India over the last 2 years, earlier we had Samsung leading this pack followed by HTC, Motorola, Sony and LG. Indian companies like Micromax, Lava and Karbonn had started getting a stronghold on budget Android smartphone market.

Android flagship phones had begun to get saturated in terms of features and pricing was going beyond Rs 50,000 in some cases which did not always justify the product offering, Samsung started milking Galaxy line up in worst possible way by churning out phone after phone using the same body mold and design across their Note Phablet, Galaxy ‘S’ flagship, Grand series and others to follow, even with criticism mounting on sluggish Touch Wiz UI and bloatware they showed no signs of bringing in change when it was needed the most.

After using Galaxy S4 I realized that Samsung was no longer a company that was listening to customers as if its sole target was to target Apple in sales and revenue numbers and in that madness they started overpricing their phones packaged like some premium plastic device, fact was that MRP of so called premium Samsung phones used to drop by 10-15% in retail market within 3-4 months of launch.

Another weak area for Samsung was keeping up with latest Android OS releases where they faltered regularly by delaying timely update to flagship phone owners and prioritizing new Android OS to be first offered on the next Galaxy ‘S’ upgrade. By the time you decide to sell off your 1 or 1.5 years old phone you would hardly get 60-50% of the original value on second hand sale.

Post 2013 vendors like Gionee, Oppo, Xiaomi, Asus, One Plus, Lenovo, Panasonic etc. started redefining the midrange Android segment as their mobile phones had impressive build and hardware specs, few came with good battery backup though most of these phones were average on screen quality yet their major USP was pricing strategy. As more Indian consumers embraced online shopping trends like flash sale and invite based sale started making headlines. This new generation of consumers were not worried about the after-sales network or the brand itself as e-commerce brands with deep pockets were in the process of overturning smartphone sales model in India.

Samsung is still leading in smartphone sales as per this report and its latest offering – Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge faces a tough competition in Motorola Turbo, Xiaomi MI4, One plus One and another phone in waiting Asus Zenfone 2. When you pitch these Samsung phones against other midrange phone offerings you would actually start valuing your money for what you get.

I read some articles indicating that Samsung has had a change of heart now and it would probably allow users to uninstall pre-loaded apps if they wish too, which is not the case (read here) and they are bragging on all metal body for S6 and S6 edge with a side screen for notifications, surprisingly there is low focus on software gimmicks this time.

Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge have a 5.1 inch Super AMOLED QHD display which would definitely look stunning however a screen resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels with a pixel density of 577 pixels per inch how do you justify this with a battery backup lesser than 2800mAh as offered on Galaxy S5? Galaxy S6 has 2550mAh capacity battery and Galaxy S6 Edge has 2600mAh capacity battery.

Both phones come with an Exynos 7420 SoC processor built on 14-nanometer architecture featuring an octa-core 64-bit (4 x 2.1GHz cores and 4 x 1.5GHz cores) along with a Mali-T760 GPU coupled with 3GB of RAM, some part of improved processing capability may save battery life however Android Lollipop OS is not exactly battery friendly. I am not sure if Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge would have Android 5.1 out of the box and a lot depends on how TouchWiz UI interacts with the Lollipop OS during regular usage.

Initial benchmark scores predict a lag free and smooth Android experience which cannot be matched by any other Android phone today, however the actual performance would again depend on your day to day usage and how much multi-tasking power you need.

Battery and Storage Expansion Slot
In a bid to make their phones slimmer and adopt a ‘unibody’ design, Samsung has done away with removable battery feature and killed the storage expansion slot, this was something that worked for them as a major differentiators against competition and it remains to be seen how market would react to this change after sales numbers start trickling in.

Midrange Phone Competition

Motorola Turbo which was recently launched in India is a rugged beast for a flagship device and the only exception to the Midrange phone category as this phone is priced just above Rs 40,000. In spite of underwhelming looks and phone design it offers high durability and performance. Xiaomi MI4 and One Plus One are still going strong in terms of a steady consumer demand, Xiaomi has decided to move away from flash sale and marking an entry in offline retail market while One plus One would be available for open sale on Amazon shifting from its invite only strategy.
MI4 and One Plus One offer impressive specs with good display resolution and pixel density, 3G RAM, 2.5 GHz quad core Snapdragon 801 processor matched with equally good image processing capabilities. Xiaomi has a very good 8MP front facing camera too. One Plus One comes with CyanogenMod Android OS that offers advanced users enough flexibility to tweak handset operating system to their needs.

I am particularly looking forward to Asus Zenfone 2 and bid my Nexus 5 goodbye, I always wanted a high end Android smartphone with dual sim capability to do away with carrying two phones (personal & office), Asus Zenfone 2 has dual sim capability that supports 4G connectivity on both sim’s and 64-bit quad core Intel Atom processor bundled with 4GB RAM would be apt upgrade for my usage.
I have had hands on experience of ZEN UI on Zenfone 5 which provides a seamless integration with Android OS offering best of stock OS experience and enough customization features to organize stuff on your phone that do not require you to install an additional launcher. The most important factor is better price to specification ratio as even the Nexus range from Google has started going beyond Rs 40,000 price point to shed the tag of economically priced phone.

Smartphone manufacturers are struggling to keep their stock moving in a very competitive market and until the next big leap in mobile technology takes place (fold able, virtual screen based phones) supported by stable demand for wearables, Midrange segment would continue to pressurize margins of big players in mobile manufacturing business.

I have moved on from being a Smartphone consumer who used to get excited by a flagship phone announcement from a certain brand touted to be that sexy eye catcher phone or the next best device that would be stuffed with the latest CPU, high end RAM, bumped up on resolution and pixels etc. etc. It is more about practical use and innovation in UI that appeals to me and I surely want a phone which offers value for money with decent quality also offering a good resale value until my next upgrade.