You have a practically endless array of smartphones to choose from when you need a new phone. Some of them are extremely expensive, but there are plenty of budget-friendly flagships, and even some super-affordable phones that still offer a great user experience. That’s in no small part thanks to the fact that manufacturers — even those who create pricey flagship phones — are cutting their costs to make their phones more affordable. The first thing to go is usually the flashy feature set seen on top-of-the-line flagships, like screens and processors with the maximum specs.
More and more companies are interested in launching cheap flagship phones thanks to the growth of emerging markets like China and India, where the easiest way to gain market share is to bring prices down. And shoppers in the United States are becoming newly aware of smartphone prices thanks to the slow death of two-year contracts and smartphone subsidies. That means that budget-friendly phones that still have the features that everyone wants are growing increasingly attractive around the globe.
Plenty of smartphone manufacturers place their focus on developing and shipping cheap smartphones that don’t sacrifice on power and functionality. But to be clear, it’s safe to bet that just about every smartphone maker is reducing costs where possible. Even Apple, which is well-known for building devices only for the high end of the market, cuts costs by using Asian manufacturing facilities and the cheap labor that they offer. In an extremely competitive smartphone market, where few companies actually turn a profit by building and selling smartphones, it’s basically guaranteed that every device is built as cheaply as possible — whether that involves jettisoning unnecessary smartphone features or not.
So should you be worried about the next smartphone you purchase being made with cheap parts? Probably less so than you might think, since just about every phone on the market makes sacrifices in one area to boost its offerings in another (and keep costs as low as possible at the same time). Ahead, check out some of the more bottom-line-friendly components that manufacturers use as an alternative to the priciest components, and learn to spot the kinds of phones that are made with at least a few cheap parts. While none of these need to be deal-breakers, if you want phone that’s top of the line, you might consider looking elsewhere.
1. Phones that use 1080p screens
1080p screens have a resolution of 1080 by 1920 pixels, and since their introduction into the smartphone world in 2012, they have become the norm among high-end and mid-range smartphones. But more recently, higher-resolution Quad HD displays, with a resolution of 1440 by 2560 pixels, have also become available. Which leaves plenty of smartphone shoppers wondering: Is a 1080p screen, which is a less expensive part than a higher-resolution screen, enough for their next smartphone?
As Phone Arena reported in 2015, most people have a tough time telling the difference between a 1080p display and a Quad HD screen. On a smartphone of average size — not a giant tablet or an exceptionally large phablet — the extra bump in resolution is unlikely to be something you’ll notice on a daily basis. So if a smartphone manufacturer opts for a full HD 1080p screen instead of a Quad HD one, that’s a sign that it’s opted to cut costs in a way that isn’t going to significantly impact the user experience when it comes to the display.
Quad HD displays are still becoming a selling point for the latest flagship phones, and they’re a good way for manufacturers to differentiate the new generation of a device from the previous version. But unless you’re going to be using your new smartphone at a much closer distance than your ophthalmologist is likely to recommend, you’re probably better off opting for a screen with better brightness and power efficiency than one with a higher resolution.
2. Phones without AMOLED displays
Speaking of screens, there are two types of display technology that you’ll probably encounter when you’re shopping for a smartphone. Those are AMOLED (or Super AMOLED), of which Samsung is a big fan, and IPS LCD, which is used on Apple’s iPhone and is cheaper for the manufacturer to produce. As New Atlas reports, both have their advantages and disadvantages, and the manufacturer’s choice to use one or the other shouldn’t automatically disqualify a phone you’re considering from the running.
AMOLED — which stands for Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode — or Super AMOLED technology lights individual pixels separately on top of a thin film transistor array, which passes electricity through organic compounds. AMOLED is a newer technology than IPS LCD, and as New Atlas notes, both improves on IPS LCD in some areas and lags behind it in others. Colors are typically brighter on an AMOLED screen than on an IPS LCD, and blacks are darker because parts of the screen can be turned off (which also leads to battery life improvements). And for the record, the big difference between an AMOLED and Super AMOLED screen is that the latter integrates touch sensors into the display itself, enabling a thinner device.
IPS LCD — which stands for In-Plane Switching Liquid Crystal Display — technology uses polarized light that’s run through a color filter. Horizontal and vertical filters on either side of the liquid crystals control the brightness and whether or not each pixel is on, and the backlight means that IPS LCD devices are usually thicker. All of the pixels are backlit while the device is on, which leads to some losses in contrast and blackness, though IPS LCD screens can offer more natural colors, plus sharper and clearer images. The point is that there isn’t a clear winner in terms of screen quality, so choosing the right phone will involve some research on how well the manufacturer has implemented its chosen technology instead of worrying about how much the manufacturer chose to spend on its displays.
3. Phones that use DDR3 RAM instead of DDR4
Another area where budget-minded smartphone makers, including quite a few Chinese manufacturers, cut costs and go for cheaper parts is RAM. Instead of using DDR4 memory, which you’ll find in many top-of-the-line smartphones, some smartphone manufacturers opt for DDR3 modules, often made in China. But as How-To Geek reports, it’s worth understanding whether DDR4 has any advantages over DDR3 in real-life applications, and whether DDR4 modules are really worth the increased cost.
The most significant improvements that DDR4 makes over its predecessor, DDR3, is the greater range of available clock speed and timings, lower power consumption, and reduced latency. DDR3 clock speed options are primarily geared to four different choices, while DDR4 “doesn’t seem to have any kind of ceiling on its clock speed so far.” Additionally, higher transfer rates can be achieved in DDR4 at lower voltages, which means greater system stability over time.
Unlike with other expensive parts, you can’t really argue against the virtues of DDR4 RAM over DDR3 RAM. But is it really necessary in a smartphone? Benefits like lower voltage and power consumption, higher frequency, and a higher chip density are great, but RAM is just one part of the bigger picture. As always, you should research how a phone performs in real life before jumping to any conclusions based on its spec sheet — and don’t forget to think about how you tend to use your devices, instead of getting hung up on getting the best and biggest of everything.
4. Phones that use Mediatek chips
One of the most important components of any new smartphone you choose is going to be the processor, particularly if you run demanding apps or want a snappy experience browsing the mobile web. So it’s probably a red flag if you’re considering a phone, and then find out that it isn’t using a top-of-the-line processor from one of the most high-end manufacturers in the business, right? Actually, an expensive processor might not be quite so important as you would assume.
PhoneRadar reports that Mediatek chips power countless midrange and budget-friendly smartphone models from a variety of smartphone makers. Smartphones equipped with Mediatek chips that have similar specs to a Qualcomm or Exynos processor are often priced significantly cheaper than the phones with name-brand processors, and that’s because Mediatek chips cost smartphone manufacturers less. They’re cheap parts, so to speak. Plenty of people think that the fact that Mediatek processors are cheap means that they’re lower-quality than more expensive alternatives, but if you do your research, you’ll find that many offer great specs and fast performance.
While manufacturers like Qualcomm are better known for manufacturing cutting-edge processors and high-end chipsets, Mediatek offers chips that are cheaper for manufacturers to purchase and often provide great real-life performance in resulting smartphones. As with most aspects of a new smartphone, it pays to do your research and read reviews to learn how phones and their components perform in real life. Sometimes the cheap parts, like Mediatek chips, can surprise you.