Are reviewers misjudging cheaper smartphones due to their constant exposure to flagships?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Are reviewers misjudging cheaper smartphones?
Humans are fascinating creatures. We can not only adapt to live in all sorts of rough environmental conditions, but our minds can adjust to even the strongest stimuli, both positive and negative, over time. While all that is great for survivability, it can also make it harder for humans to judge objectively, because context highly distorts the way we perceive things.

We've all seen the optical illusion where two checkerboard squares appear to be of different shades because of the setting – when in fact they're the exact same color. Sadly, in real life, the context that is misleading us is often far less obvious, which can lead us to believe that there is no context at all and everything is clear as day.

Now, before you start thinking “this is getting way too deep for an article on a mobile news website”, let’s get to the point.

People who make reviews professionally, no matter if it’s a piece of tech or something else, have to rate products from vastly different price categories and to objectively determine the value each one of them offers for potential clients. However, those interested in opinions before making a purchase are often spending more on the product, shifting the focus of reviewers towards the higher end of the spectrum in almost every category.

This is further enhanced by the fact that expensive products are almost always more interesting to review and followed even by those that can’t afford them out of curiosity or just because they are cool.

As a result, reviewers often spend considerably more time enjoying the benefits of high-end products than on those that are more affordable. So when the moment comes to review something for the common folk, can they really stay objective?

The drawbacks of having the best at your disposal

Now, we don’t have access to some secret “tech journalists’ daily driver database”, but from our observations, smartphone reviewers have flagships for both personal and professional use and have had ones for years. So when they’re handed a device that costs a third or even a fourth of what they’re used to, the mental adjustment they have to make to remain as objective as possible is huge.

If you’re used to apps opening in 0.1 seconds and suddenly they take 0.5 seconds to open, you might feel this phone is slow and laggy, while someone that’s used to a 4-year-old phone that takes 3 seconds to open an app will think it’s blazing fast. Who is right then? Well, both are, it’s all a matter of perspective. And this is where the issue lies.

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Just like a wine connoisseur will wince at the idea of having to drink wine that sells for $15 a bottle, while you’re getting one of them for special occasions, so are tech reviewers inadvertently biased towards lower end devices. Because there’s nothing easier than getting used to something nice, and once you’re used to the capabilities of the best smartphones, everything else seems meh.

Let’s take smartphone cameras, for example. Naturally, when you’ve been mostly looking at pictures taken by the likes of Google Pixel and iPhone XS, seeing ones from cheaper phones might make you cringe at how inaccurate the colors are, or how much noise the night pictures have, branding them as bad. Now, sometimes they are indeed straight up bad, and often they are just objectively worse. But are they as worse as the phone is cheaper? And will a person who upgrades to such a phone be displeased with them? Probably not.

Missing features are also a lot more impactful to those that have come to rely on them. If you have a wireless charger on your desk at work and your nightstand at home, using a phone without wireless charging is forcing you to revert to older habits, making the phone feel almost ancient. Meanwhile, most users interested in mid-range phones probably won’t use wireless charging for at least a few more years.

It’s hard to give a price to each feature so you can fairly judge if the cheaper phone comes at the right price. Are camera lenses $150 a pop? Is wireless charging worth $100? What about the headphone jack that is now present in more budget devices than flagships? While you can often find the price for each hardware component, those don't translate 1:1 to the cost of the whole device.

My point is that the main differentiator, the price, is often hard to take into account, especially in a professional environment.

Considering the price without paying the price

We can all compare numbers rather easily: $1000 is twice as much as $500 and 33% more than $750 -- boom, comparison made. However, it’s no secret that most of the time reviewers receive units to test from manufacturers for free. And while you have a clear knowledge of the numerical value of the price, being aware of it without having that amount deducted from your bank account or it leaving your wallet in cash is a different story. The real-life consequence of having to pay a certain price for a smartphone is very hard to simulate in your mind and keep as a background while evaluating a device.

The price should be the measuring stick reviewers use since it mostly determines the quality of the components included in the phone, but not every aspect of a device is easy to compare to its price. Going back to our photos example, it’s impossible to judge exactly how many times one photo is worse than another. Is it three times worse than the one taken by the flagship? In most cases, the answer is no, but who can say for sure? Is the display three times better? It could have three times as many pixels, or it could even be three times brighter, but those numbers don’t translate linearly into what the user experiences. And at the end of the day, that’s what reviewers are trying to evaluate: how a device feels to use. And feel is not exactly measured in numbers either, making experts’ job even harder.

As a result, we often hear reviewers praise a flagship smartphone’s capabilities only to add at the end that the price is too high. If the price of something is too high, that usually means you shouldn’t buy it. So what good it is for it to have all sorts of fancy features and being superior to other phones, if ultimately the price negates all of that? 

There are more questions to be asked regarding subjectiveness here as well. When reviewers say the price for a device is "too high", is that opinion skewed because in their mind the device doesn't offer enough improvements compared to the phones they're using (usually a few months old flagships), or are they able to put themselves in the shoes of people with devices 2-3 years old and figure out what value the new phone holds for them? Some reviewers clearly differentiate between the two cases and advice people based on the group they fall into, which is the best approach.

Another problem is that the price itself is very subjective. For one person, $1000 is what they make in 4 days, while for another it might take 12 days to earn as much. So while both are paying the same price in dollars, one is actually paying three times as much than the other. That's an enormous difference. It makes it impossible to make an accurate one-size-fits-all recommendation, but reviewers are still expected to do it, so they just assume they're talking to an imaginary average consumer. If you're somewhere far above or below that standard, you have to make the evaluation on your own.

Of course, this being a website for mobile technology and us regularly reviewing phones, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t take into account the conclusions those reviews make. And I’m not blaming reviewers for purposely rating mid and low-range smartphones worse than they should. It’s the accidental bias that’s just a side effect of human nature that you should consider if that’s the segment you’re usually interested in. 

The best way to approach reviews is to focus on what they’re saying about the parts you’re personally interested the most. If you're never going to use NFC, for example, it makes no difference to you if there'll be an extra toggle in the settings or not. When it comes to new technologies, you'll just have to imagine how they can fit into your daily life to evaluate if it's something worth paying extra for. But that's a topic for another time.

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