The past couple of months have seen a flood of new high-end phones arrive in South Africa, across an astonishingly wide range of prices. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK considers the likely customers for various formats and price tags.
The release of the Samsung Galaxy S6 in South Africa last week was marked more by squabbles over pricing than by the innovations that set the phones apart.
When Vodacom announced that the top-of-the-range S6 Edge with 64GB capacity would retail at more than R16 000, the initial reaction was outrage. Little attention was paid to what was included in the bundle, like a wireless charger, 3GB data, and a free screen replacement.
Samsung Galaxy S6
Direct comparisons were made with the unbundled, lower-specced 32Gb version at R10 460 in the online Orange store. The difference is that the store brings the phones in through unofficial channels, cannot offer the same guarantees, and does not have immediate availability – it notes the products as “Coming soon”. The 64GB version, minus added extras, costs R14 000 at Taklealot.com, but the site notes: “Supplier out of stock”.
The real issue, however, is not who sells what for how much, but rather who is likely to buy the phone, and what they get for the price.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is clearly the most advanced phone on the market today. The curved edge, offering a second screen for notifications along with the main 5.1-inch display, was first introduced in last year’s Note Edge, and remains one of the most distinctive variations in phone format. The fact that the user can choose which side of the phone carries the notifications suggests a future upgrade that allows both edges to be in use simultaneously.
The materials that have gone into both S6 phones – with glass front and back and metal frame in between – represent a leap forward from the plastic and cheaper feel of the previous high-end Galaxy phones. Add 16MP rear camera and 5MP on the front, along with faster processor, longer battery life, better image and video capture and display, and it will be the most wanted phone within a tiny niche at the top end of the market.
However, there should be no tears for those who can’t afford the Edge or its flat-screen S6 sibling, selling at as much as three quarters the price. At every price point all the way down to a tenth the cost of the Edge, compelling phones have recently been released.
At the R10 000 mark, where the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are capturing Apple’s biggest slice of the South African market yet, emerges another device that turns heads and user expectations.
Apple iPhone 6
The LG Flex 2, which boasts the only truly curved screen in the mainstream smartphone market, gives new meaning to ergonomics. The rear curve makes it one of the most comfortable phones I’ve ever held in the palm of my hand, while that same curve also makes it a more comfortable fit than I’ve experienced for years in the side pockets of my jeans. The front curve follows the curve of the face and, while it may just be the power of suggestion, feels like a more natural format for speaking into a device stuck to one’s ear. LG Flex 2
The main drawbacks are the bulk of the device, thanks to its 5.5-inch display, and the fact that the curved back means one can’t type on it while it is lying “flat” on a surface. At the price, however, it will be a real alternative to the Edge in the attention-grabber category.
Another brand attracting attention, Huawei, represent the cutting edge at seemingly absurd prices. The new 6-inch Ascend Mate 7 phablet and its little brother, the 5.5-inch Ascend G7, sell for around R7000 and R5000 respectively. Considering their delightfully thin form factor – 7,9mm and 7,6mm – their massive displays will be seen as a plus rather than an obstacle to the likely customer. Huawei Ascend Mate 7
Talking of likely customers, BlackBerry still has a loyal user base for its keyboard-based phones. The new BlackBerry Classic with 3.5-inch screen – now the standard for entry-level smartphones – combined with a full QWERTY keyboard, is winning over a new squad of traditional users. Blackberry Classic
At around R5 000, it also makes sense in the corporate world, where its market-leading security options will retain the loyalty of many IT administrators.
Even below this price point, new high-spec options have been arriving. A brand best known for its TV sets and kitchen appliances, Hisense, has reinforced its aspirations for gaining a share of the smartphone market with its new Infinity H6.
Its flagship phone offers a 5-inch screen, with 8MP rear and 5MP front camera, for around R4 000 – entering the fray against Sony and Samsung’s slightly lower-spec phones in the same price range.
Hisense Infinity H6
That raises a key question: brand or specs? For first-time smartphone users in emerging markets, it’s usually a case of what they can get out of the phone rather than of brand loyalty. Brand aspirations do play a role, but do not outweigh affordability.
Which brings us to an even more appealing price point for well-specced phones: The R1500-R1600 bracket, occupied by the Vodafone Smart 4 Turbo and the Alcatel Fire E. These phones have both been around for a while, but only now making a splash in South Africa. The Smart 4 Turbo, being a Vodafone-commissioned phone, is exclusive to Vodacom, while MTN has grabbed release rights to the Fire E.
Vodafone Smart 4
Both carry 4,5-inch displays, pointing to a near future where this format will enter the sub-R1000 segment. Both offer 1.2GHz processors, along with 5MP rear cameras and VGA front cameras.
Yet, they couldn’t look more different. The Fire E runs on the Firefox operating system, weighs a mere 103g and is 8,3mm slim – an almost unheard-of format in this price range. By comparison, the Smart 4 Turbo is a slab, at 155g and 10,4mm.
Alcatel Fire E
That doesn’t make it the poorer choice, however: it’s a 4G phone compared to the Fire E’s 3G, includes NFC contact technology, and Android users upgrading from a basic entry-level phone will prefer the Vodafone option with its access to the Google Play app store. The Fire E, on the other hand, wins for display quality and sheer visual appeal.
Nevertheless, these two phones, at a tenth the price of the Samsung Galaxy S6, encapsulate just how wide the range of choice has become for smartphone buyers of every wallet size and phone aspiration.
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets