As rough as 2020 was for just about everyone, there was a silver lining for smartphone fans: prices for genuinely good phones came tumbling down. While there was an early spike due to premium 5G phones, it was budget devices, affordable flagships, and â€œsuper mid-rangeâ€� phones that defined the year, including the Pixel 4a, iPhone SE, and Galaxy S20 FE. Smartphones under $700 were already hot, but they quickly became the stars. There are signs that will continue through 2021.
Many of the smartphones that arrived in 2020 will still be current for a while, of course. However, there are also hints phone makers are taking lessons from last year into account. From early indications, 2021 will be the year smartphone makers learn to rein in their previously soaring prices. Whether itâ€™s due to shifting trends or sheer necessity, you might not have to pay $1,000 or more to have a powerful handset in your pocket.
Affordable smartphones will remain hot in 2021
One of the likeliest motivators is a simple one: if devices in a given category are selling well, companies will make more products like them.
There are certainly signs that at least some of these more affordable phones are very popular. Wave7 Research principal Jeff Moore noted that the Galaxy S20 FE was one of the hottest-selling phones at US carriers by late 2020, displacing the Galaxy A51 and even the regular Galaxy S20 line. LG credited â€œmass tierâ€� phones like the Velvet for improved summer sales. The iPhone SE, meanwhile, was a rare bright spot at the grimmest point in the early pandemic. Buyers have a clear preference for more affordable smartphones, whether itâ€™s due to pandemic-related pressure or simple thrift. It would be foolish for brands to ignore that in 2021.
See also: What to expect from smartphones in 2021
You might even see some early signs of that awareness. Itâ€™s not completely surprising that Chinese phones like Xiaomiâ€™s new Mi 11 will have very aggressive prices given their home market, but thatâ€™s still a positive sign for the first Snapdragon 888 phone to launch anywhere in the world. Perhaps Qualcommâ€™s flagship silicon wonâ€™t drive prices up quite so high this time around. Case in point, Samsung is rumored to be lowering Galaxy S21 prices by as much as $150 versus the S20 range.
And if history is any indication, certain phones might create a ripple effect causing rivals to feel forced to keep prices down. Like it or not, the fast-yet-more-affordable iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini are bound to influence pricing and features across the industry. If theyâ€™re selling well (and they likely are), you can expect to see a wave of 2021 Android smartphones that deliver a similar mix of top-tier performance with a sub-$800 price tag.
The pandemic might not leave much choice
Thereâ€™s also a simple (if harsh) reality at work: the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue to dampen enthusiasm for expensive smartphones, even if vaccines help reestablish some semblance of normalcy in 2021.
While there are signs of recovery, many people are still without jobs or have had to accept lasting pay cuts. Thatâ€™s bound to limit spending power. Companies will have to take that into account if they expect to sell smartphones in 2021. Itâ€™s difficult to justify a premium device (or any device at all) when you may have to stretch your budget further than youâ€™d ever anticipated. The success of budget phones at the start of the pandemic likely reflects that cost-conscious mindset.
People might not be willing to spend even if they still have good incomes, for that matter. If youâ€™re working from home and otherwise staying in as much as possible, why buy a premium, 5G-enabled phone that wonâ€™t live up to its potential? A $2,000 Galaxy Z Fold 2 is a tough sell when youâ€™ll only be using it to check your social feeds on the couch. More affordable, focused devices will make more sense until itâ€™s once again safe to commute to the office or take photos at a concert.
Lower-priced phones are more than good enough
Smartphone makers might not be quick to publicly acknowledge it, but they may have to accept that mid-range phones in 2021 will be good enough for many people. You no longer need to buy the most expensive model to feel like youâ€™re getting a powerful device.
The aforementioned Galaxy S20 FE â€” Android Authorityâ€˜s 2020 smartphone of the year, no less â€” may be the quintessential example. While it wonâ€™t outperform high-end 2021 smartphones, it remains a fast, full-featured handset that takes quality photos and otherwise fares well against more expensive alternatives. Why pay more for a regular S20, or even the S21, when the S20 FE nails the fundamentals? The Pixel 5 is another strong example. Google took a slightly different approach with its relatively underpowered super mid-ranger, but still managed to cram in practical premium features like wireless charging and water resistance while retaining an affordable price tag.
This isnâ€™t to say youâ€™re wrong for coveting the latest and greatest devices with Snapdragon 888 chips and powerful cameras. Theyâ€™ll still be amazing for gaming and multitasking. And yes, the eventual end to the pandemic should make it easier to justify high-end phones once again. For a growing number of people, though, thereâ€™s precious little reason to buy more than a modestly-priced phone â€” and vendors may have a tough time arguing otherwise.