As smartphone components have been commoditised, young brands have been able to enter the market with the latest processors, and copious amounts of RAM to offer products which look similar and perform in a similar manner to products from big ticket brands like Apple, Samsung and others. This also means having the latest octa-core or quad-core processor isn't a metric for judging whether the device is a true flagship model. There’s more to it than meets the eye.
Firstly, even if the phone has the latest Snapdragon 820 processor and more than 4GB RAM, you don't have a true flagship model. Having the right components is one thing, how well the phone is optimised is another.
Let me give you the example of the Xiaomi Mi 5. Many people have reported the problem of overheating with the phone. Numerous reviewers who have written about these issues. I’ve also witnessed these issues in the company's units first-hand. That’s despite it having the same processor as the latest Galaxy S7 (US model) and almost the same amount of RAM.
In this case, the Xiaomi Mi 5 actually runs at a lowered clock speed which means the processor isn't going have the same top level performance of the other phones using the same chip, and suffers from overheating. The LeEco Le Max works with the same Snapdragon processor and also has overheating issues.
Even the otherwise fantastic OnePlus 3 performs only a shade better than the Indian model of the Galaxy S7 or the iPhone 6S, despite the fact that it is the first phone to land in the country with 6GB RAM - a good 2GB of RAM more than Samsung’s best phone and has thrice the amount the RAM in the iPhone.
This is because the memory management of the phone isn't as good as what it is on phones from some of the top brands. The hardware is there, but it hasn't been tuned to perfection.
Similarly, if you look at the camera — some of these phones like the Mi 5 and the OnePlus 3 promise 16-megapixel cameras, but the point isn't just about the number of megapixels at play. It is about the type of lens, the size of the pixels, the length of the aperture and level of synergy between software and hardware.
In low-light the Galaxy S7 trounces the OnePlus 3. Even the 12-megapixel sensor on the iPhone takes better photos in most cases.
The bigger difference is in the terms of the video quality. Not simply in the quality of stabilisation, but also the type of microphone that the phone comes with. The OnePlus 3 and Mi 5 will record distorted audios in very loud sound conditions, but the iPhone 6S and Galaxy S7 would be very clear.
Then there are other add-on features. The display for instance will not be as bright or vivid as compared to phones like the iPhone 6S and Galaxy S7. The conversation has moved beyond the number of pixels the screen packs. We already have reached a point where full HD is good enough for almost 99 per cent of the population.
You wouldn't get features like water and dust resistance, which is something the Galaxy S7 provides and the next iPhone is rumoured to add. Wireless charging is also missing from some phones like the OnePlus 3 and software updates will always be a bane.
While Samsung’s Galaxy S7 runs a heavily modified version of Android Marshmallow, chances are that it will be one of the first phones to get updated to Android N. That’s because Google and Samsung work closely for the updates. Google’s Nexus 6P already can run the developer preview so it should be ready the day Android N is out.
The iPhone 6S too will get a public beta of iOS 10 next month. The OnePlus 3 in all possibility will not get it until 2017 and the Mi 5 in fact still doesn’t support all features of Android Marshmallow like Google Now on Tap.
On closer inspection, design blemishes can also be found on many of these so-called giant-killers. The Mi 5 is slippery, and chintzy compared to the Galaxy S7. The OnePlus 3 has been deemed like a HTC copy and even the really sturdy LeEco Le Max 2 is abnormally heavy for a phone of its size.
At the end of it, a phone is not all about what components are being used. The devil is in the details. There’s no perfect phone, but if you want the absolute best - the iPhone 6S, the Galaxy S7 and the Nexus 6P still do represent that. A phone that is priced half the amount will likely not match the polish in terms of experience. Though, in the case of the OnePlus 3 the gulf has narrowed by quite a bit.