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 due to their constant exposure to flagships?
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.

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.



50. Krjal

Posts: 444; Member since: Dec 19, 2013

Thanks for this article, Georgi. Very well written while still maintaining some more casual, conversational style. I enjoyed the read and I'll be using the thoughts you outlined. It's also good to know you have such a degree of self-awareness in your work. Keep it up mate :)

48. franzfifty

Posts: 36; Member since: Feb 01, 2018

I stopped reading when you mentioned the Pixel and the iphone for night photography and others being bad... because the iphone is a good night photography camera...right? The article is exactly about this .. just because you love iPhones and they're expensive, they're NOT good!

42. Marslander

Posts: 161; Member since: Jan 08, 2015

The specs on a phone that's clearly intended to be a budget or mid-level device should not be directly compared to a high-end or flagship device. Devices should be compared to their peers, not their superiors.

37. Ashoaib

Posts: 3309; Member since: Nov 15, 2013

What a great article.

30. TS020

Posts: 75; Member since: Feb 16, 2019

Congruency between reviews would be excellent; listing a lack of 3.5mm jack on an Android as a con but ignoring it on Apple should not be acceptable.

29. emjoigently

Posts: 154; Member since: Aug 22, 2017

I think smart reviewers generally do fine. You get that the phone might not have a cutting edge camera or is made of plastic. A well made Moto or Xiaomi phone on a budget generally gets a positive review. And crap is crap. A phone priced for a 600 series CPU that has a 400 series, or a amateurish UI, gets noted.

27. p51d007

Posts: 706; Member since: Nov 24, 2013

99% of it is marketing, and wanting to "keep up with the jones' " mentality. Plus, because people are like sheep, run in a pack, whatever their snotty nose friends buy, they want to stay on the "in" crowd so they buy most of this garbage just like they have to have the latest SUV, latest fashion trends. Shoot, phones are more of a fashion statement than how useful or practical they are. I'd rather have a thicker phone with a bigger battery, retractable 2-10X zoom lens and LARGER camera sensor, than these "sexy, colorful, slim & stylish" overpriced way to easy to bend & break thinks today.

21. blattlaus

Posts: 75; Member since: Dec 12, 2010

I've always felt that most of the flagships are overkill for most people with the real cost of ownership hidden from most people by payment plans and contracts. It will be interesting to see with phone prices moving into 4 figures if it will change. The issue with tech press is one of attracting an audience- you're going to get more clicks on articles showing off cutting edge tech instead than mere competence . Its like car magazines writing about 850hp supercars instead of family wagons.

26. Crispin_Gatieza

Posts: 3200; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

I agree with your points but remember, family wagons don't need Road & Track articles to sell. Those McLaren M1 articles are no different than a People Magazine article about Charlize Theron. Gorgeous to look at but far beyond the reach of us mortals.

20. haydenb

Posts: 143; Member since: Nov 24, 2011

I think its true that people are bombarded with latest an greatest. But look out side the mainstream or flagships for that matter and there are some really solid "budget" phones or mid range phones that can do what alot of flagships can do

19. miketer

Posts: 547; Member since: Apr 02, 2015

Actually, a very good article. Thank you

16. ALMBO6

Posts: 197; Member since: May 28, 2018

It is a good article, and the people have made even better comments. I hope you guys at PhoneArena take them into account to improve the quality of your work.

15. rush2112

Posts: 6; Member since: May 19, 2016

If everyone had to actually pay for the device up front, like say a TV, then more people would be willing to look at lower cost devices. As long as every Tom, Dick, and Harry can walk into a carrier store and walk out with a $1k or more device, without pulling 1 cent out of their pocket, and ONLY have to pay $20 month, the lower cost devices are irrelevant in the postpaid space. Heck, Sprint had a deal late last year for the Iphone X at $5 month and no money down. Crazy....

12. KingSam

Posts: 1543; Member since: Mar 13, 2016

In third world countries like Jamaica that extra $100 or $200 that is scoffed at is significant. It changes the perspective wildly.

54. Mixkhata1

Posts: 162; Member since: Feb 26, 2017

I would have to save 4 months of my salary just for it to hit 1000$ dollar. I'm from Pakistan. It's amazing that earning 1000$ in 12 days is considered "bad" in 1st world countries.

11. Samfruit

Posts: 35; Member since: Sep 11, 2018

The best article I have read on phonearena so far.Well done Georgi Zarkov

9. bbycrts

Posts: 36; Member since: Nov 05, 2018

I also think reviewers have come to anticipate greatness from certain brands - Samsung, Huawei, One +, and Apple seem to be the darlings, while they have come to expect failure from other brands - LG comes to mind. Everything I read about the LG G8 sounds like it's a solidly great phone, but reviewers persist on talking about how the design isn't anything special (seriously? THAT is what makes a phone not great? They got rid of the camera bump - that is a great thing all by itself!). Reviewers are predisposed to praise the greatness of the latest releases from the darling companies and work hard to find the flaws in the others. And let's not even go into the hype the reviewers are allowing themselves to be lured into with folding phones. Getting all excited about a bulky, fragile device that costs a month's salary blows my mind.

13. User123456789 unregistered

Good point, all true ... I am not fan of notch, nor the hole. But most of the iphone X notch style phones have same design. Some are called ugly but other are cute. I do not remind iphone 8+ being bashed for design nor weight ( heaviest of 2017)

5. worldpeace

Posts: 3135; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

That's why you should have separate reviewers for each price segment.. (PA already have John V. that reviewing all kind of speakers and headphones, and that's a good start). Divide smartphone to a few price segments, i.e under $200, $200-$400, $400-$600, $600-$1000, and above 1k, and assign 1 reviewer for each segment. It doesnt matter if the reviewer use flagship for daily driver, as long as He could focus on certain price range, He could notice what changes or what new trends happen on that price range from time to time. Plus one reviewer JUST FOR photo comparison, and blind test.

7. worldpeace

Posts: 3135; Member since: Apr 15, 2016

And don't forget to write yearly round-up (or each half-year, or quarterly), for the the best smartphone for each price range..

3. User123456789 unregistered

Are reviewers misjudging androids due to their constant exposure to iPhones?

2. bucknassty

Posts: 1412; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

Another thing to consider is deals you may get on said phone flagship or not, and trade-in value. If you already have a flagship and have stayed in that upper range for awhile you always get a great value to trade-in even if its 2 years old... thats how i got my note 9 for 400 bucks...

6. AngelicusMaximus

Posts: 793; Member since: Dec 20, 2017

I don't see why that should be factored in. I do, but not everyone trades in a phone to get a new phone. Even if that was the case, it wouldn't change the playing field.

14. bucknassty

Posts: 1412; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

well... since they were talking about price... it helps me make a decision... when they offered double trade in value for my s9+.. 600 bucks for it when i only paid 500 for it made it a deal... but ok i guess trade in value has no value whatever you say

8. ijuanp03

Posts: 704; Member since: Dec 30, 2014

Huh? What kind of logic is that? Why would you consider the trade-in value on a phone review? Lol. That defeats the purpose of PHONE review. LOL

28. Arch_Fiend

Posts: 3951; Member since: Oct 03, 2015

I feel like these other people who replied to you don't understand what you're getting at, you are right after all, if you spend money on an expensive flagship once then you can always use that phone to get half or more off your next purchase, basically what that means is you don't have to consider a lower cost alternative that would ultimately sell for much less two years later and have a low trade in value because buying an expensive model once insures you never pay that same amount again due to deals offered on high end models, trade in and resale value. These things should certainly be considered when discussing price and what a person can afford and for this article it could be yet another reason to miss judge a cheaper phone that doesn't have the same opportunity as more expensive models later on.

35. mootu

Posts: 1541; Member since: Mar 16, 2017

If OEM's offered trade in deals in every country then that theory would be fine but they don't making it null and void.

49. Arch_Fiend

Posts: 3951; Member since: Oct 03, 2015

Yes but you can resell in every country making it very much valid! You did read my full statement right, I didn't just talk about trade in value to carriers and oems, nor did I just talk about deals. I covered every major point specifically to avoid someone like you disagreeing with me and if you had read what I said you'd know your statement was null and void before you even thought it.

1. Seanetta unregistered

I have a Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 in UK and for £229 it's my favourite phone I have had in ages. For the price the quality of build, performance, battery life and camera is truly excellent. I never buy flagship phones anymore. The Xiaomi MIUI is fast and fluid with no lag and well optimised

4. TheOracle1

Posts: 2340; Member since: May 04, 2015

The short answer is yes. They are misjudging phones and companies like Xiaomi prove it. Brand preference/bias and country of manufacture also play a big part especially on this site. Personally I don't need wireless charging, nfc or waterproofing so those things don't influence my assessment of a potential purchase. Whereas reviewers on here will list them as a con on a $250 phone when they're not necessities on any phone. I read a lot of comments on forums complaining that Chinese phones don't have nfc and it's a deal breaker. But they use QR Codes instead of nfc in Asia so why should they bother when it's not necessary in their main markets. However it becomes a con with Western reviewers. Besides, how much time does it take to take open your wallet and pay for something versus unlocking your phone? Last but most important is Phonearena especially listing no SD card slot or "only" HD/720P screens as a con on an Android review but conveniently overlooking it for an Apple review.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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