With increased smartphone prices and reduced innovation between device generations, people are holding on to their phones longer. Google’s newest Pixel 3a series and the OnePlus 6T are an emerging category of smartphones in the US, called the junior flagship, which offers key high-end features at accessible prices, and address a need to balance rising phone prices and shorten phone upgrade cycles.

What are junior flagships?

The US wireless market is seeing the emergence of a new category of smartphones called the junior flagships. These smartphones trade on their brand name and include key features of premium phones at half the price. Junior flagships, such as Google’s new Pixel 3a series and the OnePlus 6T, are mid-range phones, selling between US$300 to US$600.

Rising smartphone prices

Smartphone prices have jumped through the roof – some Apple and Samsung smartphones start at US$1000 – but in consumers’ minds, subsequent phone generations lack differentiation and innovation. In general, consumers have little incentive to upgrade based on features and price and are hanging on to their phones longer, up to an average of four years and more. But junior flagships offer key features that are as advanced as flagships at half the cost. These phones are a market response to increase new phone shipments and to shorten the duration between phone upgrades.

US mid-range market lacks choice

The mid-tier range of phones at US carriers (between US$300 to US$500) doesn’t offer many phone choices. This represents a gap for newer vendors to enter the US market and bypass the Apple Samsung stranglehold in premium phones. 

China’s OnePlus was one of the first high-profile new Chinese vendors to gain an entry in the mid-tier of the US market with the feature-price value phone, the OnePlus 6T at T-Mobile, which jumpstarted this junior flagship category. 

The display size of the OnePlus 6T matches Samsung’s $1000+ Galaxy S10+; its battery capacity rivals that of the Samsung’s Galaxy S10 and the camera resolution is higher than flagships such as iPhone XS and Galaxy S10. The phone costs US$549 – half the price of Samsung and Apple premium smartphones. 

Google wants to expand its reach

Google burnt its hands with the Verizon exclusive Pixel 3 series of phones, which teetered under the onslaught of the iPhone XS and the Galaxy S10. As a result of poor sales, Google dropped exclusivity and launched the cheaper mid-range Pixel 3a and 3a XL phones, to make its brand and key features more accessible and side-step competition from Apple and Samsung.

The Pixel 3a phones (3a and 3a XL) retain the main features of the Pixel’s brand: the impressive camera with Night Sight, Call Screen, Google Assistant and timely updates, but omit Pixel Visual Core, wireless charging and an extra front camera. Google’s junior flagships retail at $349 for Pixel 3a and $499 for the Pixel 3a XL at Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular. 

What’s next?

Better junior flagships from Huawei’s Honor and Xiaomi are available in Europe and Asia, but their absence in the US market gives Google and OnePlus a fighting chance to develop and own this category. The US market will see more junior flagships from known brands such as Samsung and LG in the coming year, as well as carrier promotional dollars focused on them, as carriers use this category to appeal to families and entice customers to relinquish their older smartphones faster. 

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