Welcome To The Age Of The Ultra-premium Flagship Phone
HWM Singapore|December 2018

It's not just about performance any more, smartphones are reaching peak luxury lifestyle.

James Lu

A few years ago, we all thought flagship smartphones were about as premium they could get. They had beautiful displays, powerful processors, and great cameras. There couldn't be anything else we'd want from a phone. Apparently, we were wrong. Apple, Samsung, and now Huawei, have proven there’s a tier beyond flagship. Now, there’s regular flagship for mere mortals - the Galaxy S9, the iPhone XR, the Mate 20 - and another, more premium tier – the Note9, iPhone XS Max, and Mate 20 Pro - for power-users, enthusiasts and, to put it quite simply, those with more money.

Welcome to the age of the ultra-premium flagship phone.

HOW DID WE GET TO THE POINT WHERE A PHONE COSTS NEARLY $2,500?

Apple may just be the king of the ultra-premium flagships with this year’s iPhone XS Max 512GB model costing a whopping $2,349. In 2016, Apple’s most expensive phone, the iPhone 7 Plus 256GB, only cost $1,588. That’s a 48% increase in price in just two years. But just how did we get here?

Samsung was actually the first brand to explore the potential of an ultra-premium phone with its Galaxy Note line. Launched in 2011, the Note stood out thanks to its large screen and bundled S Pen stylus, promising to be a powerhouse of productivity. It was marketed as a mobile office on the go, and the first Note phone sold for $998, making it one of the most expensive smartphones available at the time. Fast-forward to 2018, the Note9 512GB model has an SRP of $1,728, which is a 73% price jump.

Apple began its own ultra-premium journey around 2014 when it split the iPhone line into regular and Plus models. The first iPhone 6 Plus cost about $200 more than the regular iPhone 6 and featured a camera with optical image stabilization (not available on the regular iPhone 6), a larger screen and a bigger battery. The divide between the regular and Plus models grew in 2016, when Apple became one of the first manufacturers to add a second camera to the back of the iPhone 7 Plus. And a year after that, Apple introduced an even more premium model above the Plus, the iPhone X, which boasted the incredibly advanced TrueDepth camera system and had a launch price of $1,888 for the 256GB model.

Over the past few years, there’s been a dramatic increase in price for the very best phones. It’s simple to point to better and better specs causing an increase in prices, but the technology industry is famously governed by something called Moore’s Law: the ability for computing speeds to double every two years or so.

That’s not just processing power either, it means faster RAM, faster storage, faster network speeds, and every component getting smaller and smaller.

In fact, thanks to Moore’s Law, almost every type of tech product has become cheaper over the past decade. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for PC hardware and accessories has fallen 94 per cent in the past decade. This downward trend also applies to TVs and other consumer electronics. The only market where this isn’t true? Flagship smartphones, which instead have shown a strong upward trend.

It’s true that the lower end of the smartphone market follows Moore’s Law, with manufacturers like Xiaomi and OnePlus continuing to pack more and more features and high-end specs into affordable devices, but why are we not seeing the same pattern at the top?

Part of it comes down to the increasing costs of making top-end devices. The iPhone XS Max reportedly costs Apple about $605 in manufacturing costs and materials, up from the reported $405 it cost to make last year’s iPhone 8 Plus. Much of the increased cost comes from specialized components. The iPhone XS Max’s extra-large 6.5-inch OLED display costs Apple $110 per panel. But while top-end phones are becoming more expensive to manufacturer, that’s not where the real costs lie.

Last year, Apple spent US$11.58 billion on research and development, its most ever. And Apple wasn’t alone. Samsung spent US$15 billion on R&D last year, while Huawei reportedly spent US$14 billion. Research and development is by far the biggest cost for today’s ultra-premium phones.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM HWM SINGAPOREView All

CLOSING THE GENDER GAP IN TODAY'S TECH INDUSTRY

Although gender discrimination is illegal today, the gender gap still persists, ranging from subtle to obvious in every industry. The tech industry is no exception.

5 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

Artistic And Multi-Faceted Gameplay

Fantasian is an all-new fantasy role-playing game developed for the Apple Arcade and published by independent Japanese studio Mistwalker. If that doesn’t ring a bell, the studio is led by one Hironobu Sakaguchi, or as many gamers know him, the creator of Final Fantasy.

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

Leading The Charge For 2021 Gaming Notebooks

ASUS ROG Strix Scar 15 (G533)

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

A Relaxing Thrill Ride

Monster Hunter: Rise

3 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

A Piece Of Charging Art

Belkin Boost Charge Pro 3-in-1 Wireless Charger with MagSafe

3 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

An Ode To LG Mobile

In April 2016, the cover story for the month’s issue of HWM was Samsung vs LG. It was an in-depth look at the two Korean electronics giants. Samsung had just launched the Galaxy S7 and LG, the modular G5. In just a few months after that story was published, Samsung’s follow up Note 7 devices would suffer battery failures and meltdowns. The entire line had to be recalled. It was undoubtedly a PR disaster and Samsung’s reputation took a major hit that many thought would take years to rebuild.

5 mins read
HWM Singapore
May 2021

This Monitor Does (Almost) Everything LG UltraGear 27GN950

LG’s UltraGear 27GN950 is a 4K gaming monitor that has pulled out all the stops to deliver a premium screen for gaming, content creation, and media consumption. And it has pretty much succeeded.

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
April 2021

Truly Lightweight And Powerful

Dyson Digital Slim

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
April 2021

Breaking The Glass Ceiling

How women in tech succeed in a male-dominated industry

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
April 2021

Thinking Of Joining Clubhouse? The Membership Fee Could Be Your Privacy

With leading media and business influencers such as Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, Drake and Elon Musk enthusing about Clubhouse, the invitation-only ‘drop-in audio’ app has created massive awareness and interest globally, even though it’s still in beta mode. It claims to have 10 million users, up from 2 million in January 2021, and its US$1 billion valuation makes it a tech unicorn ranking alongside the likes of Uber and AirBnb.

4 mins read
HWM Singapore
April 2021
RELATED STORIES

You: Interface Deeper Integration is Coming, Just For You

According to a new study from WhistleOut, the average consumer spends an eye-watering nine years of their lives looking at their smartphones, and that’s without mentioning the use of computers, televisions, and other devices that increasingly control our lives.

7 mins read
AppleMagazine
April 09, 2021

An Epic Phone-a-Thon

India’s smartphone shoppers will be spoiled for choice this festive season

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
November 09, 2020

DC Debuts Smartphone-Based Covid-19 Exposure Alert System

The nation’s capital has become one of the first jurisdictions in the country to employ a new COVID-19 notification system, a joint Google-Apple venture that delivers alerts to people’s phones, notifying them that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

2 mins read
Techlife News
October 24, 2020

China's Factories Try To Shield Workers As Output Revives

To keep his 40 employees indoors and away from China’s virus outbreak, the manager of an electronics factory in Dongguan, near Hong Kong, says he hired a cook and arranged dormitories for them.

3 mins read
Techlife News
March 07, 2020

Tech to Make Guests Feel at Home

My company has installed whole-house, distributed audio systems since literally the day we opened our doors back in 1995, and over the years we’ve witnessed generational improvements in technology.

3 mins read
Sound & Vision
December 2019 - January 2020

OnePlus 7T: Great Performance, Cameras Lacking

For years, OnePlus had a simple strategy: Release one phone, its best, at any given time.

6 mins read
PC Magazine
January 2020

iPhone 11 Vs. Android's Best: An Underdog Does Just Enough To Take Down The Champ

The iPhone 11 is an incredible phone, but there’s one I like a little better.

10+ mins read
PCWorld
January 2020

Parents Navigating Technology

Everything you need to know about TikTok

3 mins read
Charlotte Parent
January 2020

Why We Shouldn't Get So Outraged Over Kids' Screen Time

It’s always fascinating to read of the ‘moral panics’ that arise from time to time with regard to how much of our finite time we should spend looking at screens

6 mins read
AppleMagazine
December 27, 2019

Screens And Sleepovers - Do They Mix?

Do they mix?

2 mins read
Charlotte Parent
December 2019