The "$400 flagship" concept is dead

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The "$400 flagship" concept is dead

About this very time last year, all of the mobile tech world was buzzing about a new type of phone: the so called "$400 flagship".

Every once in a while, a company would release a phone that would undercut all else in terms of price, but last year there was not one or two of them: a bunch of (mostly) newly-founded companies started selling phones with flagship grade hardware at an amazing price: $400. At the same time, the mainstream brands sold phones with similar hardware at $600 or more. It almost seemed like the end of expensive phones was nigh. Talk about "iPhone killers" and "flagship killers" intensified to the maximum.

One year later, there is far less talk about "$400 flagships". What happened? How did the booming category of the phone industry in 2016 come to a grinding halt just a year later?

We investigate the faith of the "$400 flagship" and look at how its poster children abandoned the idea, usually for one simple reason: profit.

How it all started...


The "$400 flagship" trend seemed to have a very early start somewhere along the times of the Nexus 4 back in 2012. Google launched this flagship-grade phone for just $300, undercutting iPhones and Galaxies by a huge margin. Then came the Nexus 5 and Nexus 5X, two phones that you could not buy at any major carrier yet two phones that turned iconic for their great software support and value for money. And then... silence. The Nexus 6 and Google Pixel ended the trend of affordable phones made by Google, as the company realized it would rather have the profit and make an all-out flagship.


But then, Chinese companies came along to fill in the gap. The poster child of the $400 flagship trend has got to be OnePlus. The company grew like a mushroom by selling super affordable phones: the original OnePlus One from 2014 sold for just $300 packing flagship-grade specs and it caused a small stir. It needed no big marketing budget: its amazing price was enough of an incentive to get people to talk about it. But it was hard to get and not long after came the OnePlus 2 for $330. Still a great deal, but a tad bit more expensive. And then, the big hit: the $400 OnePlus 3 with its refined design that could finally claim to be the "$400 flagship killer" with some credibility. At the time, the clumsy invitation model was gone and OnePlus became more than a niche company.


The year was 2016 and others started releasing a staggering amount of flagship-grade phones at the same $400 price: ZTE launched the Axon 7, a similarly well-specced phone for $400. Huawei launched its Honor brand with its hit product: the $400 Honor 8, an excellent phone for the money

Meanwhile, Chinese company Xiaomi kept on releasing top-specced and well-designed phones for under $400 in China and India. The Xiaomi Mi 4 and the Xiaomi Mi 5 were two very popular such phones sold for amazing prices. Another Chinese giant, the Netflix of China, LeEco, entered the U.S. and global market with a bang of $400 flagship-grade phones.

Start-ups like Nextbit with its Robin phone took a chance with a different design, an imaginative cloud-based storage model and more. Motorola launched the excellent $400 Moto X Pure.

Even Apple noticed the new trend and launched the $400 iPhone SE, its cheapest iPhone ever.

And then it all suddenly stopped.

Falling from cloud number nine...


More than halfway into 2017, the $400 flagship category is no more.

The poster child of that revolution, OnePlus, has kept growing prices at a quick and steady rate and its latest OnePlus 5, the only phone that it sells, retails for $480, while in Europe and the rest of the world its prices are even higher at €500. It's still good value for the money, but it's nowhere near the deal it was a couple of years, and even one year ago. And it most certainly does not count as a "$400 flagship".

Worse off, the original "2016 flagship killer", the OnePlus 2 did not even receive a promised update to Android 7.0 Nougat, leaving a bunch of frustrated users.

OnePlus, the poster child of the '$400 flagship' movement, keeps raising prices. Image shows price evolution of OnePlus series, from OnePlus One (left) to OnePlus 5 (right). Image courtesy of Rozetked on YouTube.

OnePlus, the poster child of the '$400 flagship' movement, keeps raising prices. Image shows price evolution of OnePlus series, from OnePlus One (left) to OnePlus 5 (right). Image courtesy of Rozetked on YouTube.


ZTE never released a successor to the Axon 7, the Honor 8 is getting older and its successor is not available in the United States, and even the iPhone SE has only gotten more storage this year, but no proper upgrade to a newer chip, camera or other major enhancements.


Just a few months after its launch in North America, Chinese company LeEco shut down its operations, and is now facing serious financial troubles.

Nexus phones in their current Pixel reincarnation cost as much as an iPhone. And while Xiaomi still sells very affordable phones in Asia, it equips them with an ad-infested OS that has constant pop-ups and ads that ruin a lot of the experience that comes with its premium hardware.

Final words


The cold and brutal realities of business and profits have settled in. The idealistic world of companies that 'never settle' has been dismantled. And while there are more and more great phones sold for very affordable prices, they have neither the hardware, nor the camera or the features of a true flagship. 

The $400 flagship craze was great while it lasted, but now it's over.

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60 Comments

1. Lois13

Posts: 60; Member since: Nov 20, 2015

I don't think it's over. Maybe it is in the US for now but I think they'll be more phones with flagship hardware around 400 again someday. Disappointing that the honor 9 isn't coming to the US anytime soon though.

6. uzimafioso

Posts: 467; Member since: Jul 15, 2014

For the US the Moto X Pure Edition was the true flagship killer. Apart from a fingerprint scanner it had everything and add to that the very very bright display, on-point color calibration, insanely loud stereo speakers, Moto-Maker customizations and splash resistance. 1+2 was plagued with crappy issues like the fingerprint scanner would stop working if touched with a wet finger, etc. Huawei phones always come with the MiUI rip-off called EMUI.

42. roldefol

Posts: 4744; Member since: Jan 28, 2011

The X Pure was close, but it was lacking a flagship GPU. I know, overheating/throttling issues with the SD810, but the 808 was still a step down in power. Great design overall, and excellent hand feel, but for $100 more the Nexus 6P was a more future-proof value.

34. Highside

Posts: 197; Member since: Jan 31, 2017

I just bought a brand new S8 from Samsung for $425. So, YES, the $400 Flagship no only exists, but the $400 price is most I'll pay. These phones cost less than $200. 100% profit is MORE than reasonable. Paying $600+ is for IDIOTS.

35. L0n3n1nja

Posts: 1504; Member since: Jul 12, 2016

You paid over $400, the most you will pay. That deal requires a trade in last I checked so you are giving up a working phone which had monetary value too. Than you prove your clueless on the expenses and profits of these companies. But you can claim the opposite of what Samsung does because you have some secret inside information their shareholders don't know right?

2. Hatshipuh

Posts: 163; Member since: Aug 09, 2012

"...the Honor 8 is getting older and there is not a successor in sight,..." https://www.phonearena.com/news/The-Honor-9-is-official-high-end-specs-at-a-reasonable-price_id94916 ???

5. Victor.H

Posts: 1021; Member since: May 27, 2011

Good catch, thanks! I was actually referring to it not being available in the United States, but will definitely specify this in my writing.

13. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

Should have definitely specified it in the article... But it's good you've now edited it, though.

17. Anshulonweb

Posts: 468; Member since: Feb 07, 2014

" And while Xiaomi still sells very affordable phones in Asia, it equips them with an ad-infested OS that has constant pop-ups and ads that ruin a lot of the experience that comes with its premium hardware." This is so wrong.... xiaomi does not diaplay ads in os like this ever.... i have been using mi3 for 3 years haven't seen single ad... seriously Victor?... I don't know where do you got this info that miui displays ad.... miui is like other os ... NO ad engine is embedded into it... it's disappointing that you are defaming xiaomi without any bases....

50. Victor.H

Posts: 1021; Member since: May 27, 2011

Not true. It does display ads to such an extent that users in China are jokingly calling MIUI "AdUI". The global (English language) ROM is ad-free, but if you use an original Xiaomi phone with an original Chinese ROM, you will see the ads. It really is a terribly, ad-infested experience. And here is a Chinese website describing the issues (use Google Translate here, if you don't understand Mandarin)https://www.ithome.com/html/android/222824.htm

56. TheOracle1

Posts: 1823; Member since: May 04, 2015

A lesson for the Chinese MIUI rom is necessary here. First thing is not to set up an Mi account and second to get rid of certain apps like the pre-installed weather app. Third and most importantly you can disable most of the ads in the various apps as outlined below. http://en.miui.com/thread-361868-1-1.html As you stated the Global rom doesn't have this issue and those outside of China who insist on the China rom do so because of very frequent updates, essentially for the life of the phone. It's a compromise I guess they're willing to live with. BUT, MIUI and Android allow you to switch between roms (old, new, custom, vendor etc) as much as you like until you're satisfied. So basically what you're saying is misleading since it's only on two versions of MIUI out of six available (Global Stable, Global Beta, Chinese Stable, Chinese Beta, EU Stable, EU Beta).

23. TheOracle1

Posts: 1823; Member since: May 04, 2015

Then you should also correct this statement: "an ad-infested OS that has constant pop-ups and ads that ruin a lot of the experience that comes with its premium hardware". That's completely untrue and if you owned one you would know that. I can only surmise that you (or someone you know) has used or tested one with an ad infested vendor rom on it. When buying a Xiaomi from 3rd party vendors you have to insist on the original clean global or Chinese rom in order to ensure regular updates and an ad free experience. Back on topic, the $400 flagship killer isn't dead. It's become the $450-500 flagship killer in line with the increase in the price of flagships towards the $800-1000 mark. If the new iPhone is priced at $1,200+ as rumored then there will be many more $500 flagship killers next year.

40. PryvateiDz

Posts: 439; Member since: Jul 31, 2011

I completely agree with this statement: "the $400 flagship killer isn't dead. It's become the $450-500 flagship killer in line with the increase in the price of flagships towards the $800-1000 mark." Technically speaking, that means it has died in a sense. But it really just has evolved with times and technology.

51. Victor.H

Posts: 1021; Member since: May 27, 2011

See my earlier comment about the ad-infested MIUI. Yes, that is exactly what I am saying: the $400 flagship has become the $500 flagship, hence the $400 flagship is dead.

3. Hama22

Posts: 60; Member since: Jul 17, 2015

"the Honor 8 is getting older and there is not a successor in sight" What? Did PA suddenly forget about the Honor 9?

4. Hallyu

Posts: 790; Member since: Jul 21, 2015

Like I said before. Those cheap Chinese phones are pure garbage, yet they now charge you almost as high as true premium flagship phones. They are biggest cheaters and their fanbases actually fall for it. Just stop wasting your time and money, go buy a true worthy smartphone like the S8 or G6, better overall.

7. Busyboy

Posts: 731; Member since: Jan 07, 2015

My Axon 7 has been treating me very well. In fact, I don't think I'll ever pay flagship prices again because the Chinese are now making cheap phones good and good phones cheap.

10. maherk

Posts: 6641; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

It is one of my favorite phones ever, I wanted to buy one so badly when I was in Vegas last year, but it was sold out in all Best Buy stores there. Did the camera improve after all these updates? That was the only thing I didn't like about it

55. Busyboy

Posts: 731; Member since: Jan 07, 2015

There have been two updates for the camera; one to improve low-light and one to improve video recording. I didn't use the camera enough to see any difference though, and it's still subpar to the competition.

21. TheOracle1

Posts: 1823; Member since: May 04, 2015

You've probably never owned one since your statement is complete garbage.

8. Papa_Ji

Posts: 761; Member since: Jun 27, 2016

Xiaomi gives best value for money with great built quality.

11. Lumbergh

Posts: 463; Member since: Feb 14, 2016

Agreed, but UI needs work

14. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

There is a bunch of other launchers available for anyone who doesn't like Xiaomi's stock UI. That's the beauty of Android. If there something you don't like in an Android phone, you can either modify or change it.

25. maherk

Posts: 6641; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

The launcher only changes the home screen and app drawer, it is useless when you have a skin that looks nothing like an Android. But even that isn't an issue for me, it's not great, but also not bad. The issue for me is the lack of a Google services, and I know you can sideload them, but you will end up with lots of app crashes.

29. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

Nova Launcher adds gesture features, quick toggles, and it support icon packs... everything to make the MiUI look like an Android. :)

30. maherk

Posts: 6641; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

I know it does all that and it still proves my point that it only changes the home screen and app drawer. I use Nova Launcher Prime, and it doesn't change the notification bar, settings menus, or even the quick toggles in the notification bar

32. trojan_horse

Posts: 5868; Member since: May 06, 2016

Of course it won't change all that, it is still a UI not a custom ROM. But what it changes is enough to bring the proper Android feel to MIUI... no?

38. Spyro

Posts: 334; Member since: Mar 29, 2017

You're still not getting a full stock-android experience and I've seen the UI in person and it's not the greatest. Then again, check Oppo's UI. Way too similar to another popular OS....

48. TheOracle1

Posts: 1823; Member since: May 04, 2015

I'll say it since no one else seems to dare. Stock android is crap. Yes, crap. The features in most new stock android versions are generally already in OEM skins two versions before. MIUI, ZenUI, EMUI and many more. Stock android is basically featureless. However you can make a valid argument from a subjective point of view, just like a preference for your favorite color. But Stock android is as bare bones as you can get.

9. Papa_Ji

Posts: 761; Member since: Jun 27, 2016

Xiaomi gives best value for money with great built quality.

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