Spring phone release season is upon us

It appears as if big tech companies have found some level of footing and are gearing up to see if they can sell some new phones in the middle of the pandemic. Today, OnePlus will be announcing the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, for example. Its sister company Oppo has already announced the Ace 2, its first phone with wireless charging. Motorola says it will announce its next flagship phone on April 22nd, rumored to be called the Edge and Edge Plus.

Of course, this all happens in the wake of the last big tech event I attended (and will attend for a while), the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S20 series.

The list continues if you expand beyond just official announcements. LG would like you to know it still makes phones and is taking a shot at getting back in the game with a new design language and a new name: Velvet. We also have just about as much information as you can get about Google’s midrange Pixel 4A, except a launch date. Last but certainly not least, we’re still waiting to see if and when Apple will release a modern successor to the much-loved iPhone SE.

You probably typically think of the fall as “phone season,” what with the iPhone, Pixel, and Galaxy Note launches that happen around that time. But for Android, the fall is actually late in the cycle for Qualcomm’s processors. That ends up being an issue both the Note and the Pixel need to overcome, and of the two the Note has been more successful in doing so.

The new plot point in this somewhat predictable yearly narrative arc is the arrival of Google’s “A” series of Pixel phones. This year, 9to5Google has the specs dead to rights and they look really solid for a $399 phone. I don’t think you can add Apple’s rumored 2020 iPhone SE to this narrative as a “spring is when big companies release inexpensive phones” story, as the SE feels more like an outlier than a yearly narrative. The last SE did too.

Increasingly, I find that “flagship” phones are mainly about luxuries instead of tangible benefits to most people. Those luxuries include screen quality, 5G, wireless charging, face unlock, speed, overall build quality, camera quality, and a smattering of other things.

Are all those things worth hundreds of dollars? Yes, but not in the same way a more expensive laptop is worth hundreds of dollars more than a cheap one. The more expensive laptop generally lets you do more. While there are people who do use their phone as a genuine mobile workstation, most people would get just as much done with a $400 or $500 phone as they would a $1,200 one.

That’s partly why it’s so hard for the LGs, Motorolas, OnePlusses, and even Googles of the world to compete at the flagship level. When $500 gets most of what you want done, these companies need to prove the value of every dollar spent over that.

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