There is a new breed of smartphone that's landed in 2021. It turns back the clock to 2017-2018 when brands like OnePlus invented the idea of an affordable flagship — a phone that featured a top-tier processor but would skim on things like the camera, design with the absence of water resistance, and some other features.
History is repeating itself as Qualcomm has debuted the Snapdragon 870 processor which sits right between the Snapdragon 865 that was the 2020 flagship SoC and the Snapdragon 888 which is the flagship for 2021. And likewise, OnePlus, Xiaomi and Vivo have come up with devices that leverage the 870 chipset; enabling top tier features like 5G support, flagship camera technology, sleek designs, rapid performance, and much more with perhaps so very basic designs, all packaged importantly, at a price that’s less than Rs 50,000.
The three main contenders are Xiaomi's Mi 11X which is the most affordable phone to feature the new Snapdragon chipset, the OnePlus 9R which allows one to have the latest OnePlus experience that people have enjoyed so much over the years, and the Vivo X60 Pro which brings killer camera features and enchantingly sleek design to a sub Rs 50,000 price point. All three phones are different — they are all underpinned by the Snapdragon 870 chipset but have different strengths because of the delta in the price.
Vivo X60 Pro
Vivo X60 Pro (Photo credit: Sahil Mohan Gupta)
It's strange because the phone which costs the most is also the least well-known of the lot. But that’s the reality of the X60 Pro - but the excess in price ably allows it to pack some cutting edge camera technology in a package that arguably is one of the most elegant designs of 2021. Using its custom camera module which packs in a custom sensor from Sony, Vivo's second-generation micro-gimbal stabilisation system, Carl Zeiss optics, robust wide-angle and telephoto cameras paired up with slick AI processing, you’re basically looking at one of the best still cameras of 2021.
In fact, it is only bested or matched by three phones in my books — Xiaomi's Mi 11 Ultra, its elder sibling the Vivo X60 Pro Plus and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. One area where the X60 Pro bests all of these phones is in the domain of macro photography. It is exceptional also in design, with its elegant and slender form coupled with its supple matte finish on the back. It also has other bells and whistles like a nice 120Hz display with curved edges, fast charging, and general fast performance all around. Its weakness is the software. Funtouch OS has gotten better in the last couple of years, and Vivo has also made a bolder commitment to software updates for 3 years, but it has a ways to go. The software isn’t as smooth as the competition and riddled with a lot of excesses that make the experience in-elegant. It also doesn’t have the best haptics while also having rather limited audio capabilities. But if you want a phone that has a killer camera, in a compact package while not compromising hugely on performance and features, this could be a stand-out option at a price of less than Rs 50,000.
OnePlus 9R (Photo credit: Sahil Mohan Gupta)
OnePlus invented the idea of the high-performance phone that was priced almost at 40 to 50 percent price of the traditional flagship phone. But then it became the flagship from the flagship killer in 2020 with the launch of the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro. So when the OnePlus 9R comes, people can call it many things — a retooled OnePlus 8T with the soul of the OnePlus 9 or just a dumbed-down OnePlus 9 or a OnePlus 9 model for people who don’t want to spend upwards of Rs 50,000. Frankly, it is all of the above. But what matters is the stellar OnePlus hyper smooth Android experience. And that’s what the 9R delivers. A hyper smooth take on Android — a phone that will double up as a companion for PUBG and also as your daily driver.
If you’re looking for the most ergonomic, straightforward phone, which is fast and smooth, coupled with decent battery life and fast charging, look no further than the OnePlus 9R. Sure, the design is derivative and the build drops because of the plastic used. Its cameras are just not as good as some of the other phones in its class, but it provides a better day-to-day experience. If you’re a stickler for Android updates and you like what Google has been cooking with Android 12, then this phone is likely to be one of the first phones to get it. Its haptics is also good as are its speakers and vivid screen — it basically goes back to the formula that made phones like the OnePlus 6T and OnePlus 7 excellent. It is not exceptional, but an affordable option (Rs 39,999) for OnePlus fanatics and for the average Joe who likes the coolness of the brand and its straightforward products.
Xiaomi Mi 11X
Xiaomi Mi 11X (Photo credit: Sahil Mohan Gupta)
The Mi 11X is a slam dunk straight out of the gate because it is the most affordable phone to feature the Snapdragon 870 chipset. Its price starts at the brink of the Rs 30,000 mark which makes it the best value for a phone you can get right now. It is easily the best phone south of Rs 30,000, but there is a case for it to be one of the best for less than Rs 50,000 as well. When one talks about a phone that’s a multimedia champion, then the Mi 11X beats most phones in the sub Rs 50,000 price — its screen is amongst the best even though just 1080p because of the rich AMOLED and 120Hz tech. It gets some of the nicest speakers. Its design is pretty straightforward and is easy to hold, though it is a class A smug magnet due to the glossy back.
With the Snapdragon 870 as its beating heart, it is as fast as all other phones, but it certainly feels smoother than the Vivo X60 Pro. It makes for a great phone for gaming as well. Its cameras are decent too — not Vivo X60 Pro great, but when you’re 50 percent cheaper, then being inferior is okay. What’s important is that its camera system is better than the OnePlus 9R — in fact, it is really good in daylight with accurate colours, consistency across lenses, good video capability and excellent portrait mode. It also helps that it gets a killer macro mode. Xiaomi’s problem has always been one of perception. And this phone does nothing to change that. One of the things, Xiaomi gets slammed around for a lot is Mi UI. Mi UI 12 is based on Android 11 and it's leagues ahead of what Xiaomi has offered in the past. It lacks the bloat that Xiaomi used to peddle, comes totally ad-free and it is generally clutter-free. With Mi UI 12.5 on the horizon, things are about to get better. Perhaps, the one area where this phone trumps all the competition is the battery life — it lasts a full day without any fuss and can charge pretty rapidly as well.
But there are other options as well. New and old alike. Especially in the south of the Rs 50,000 segment.
Apple iPhone SE
There are some outliers to this list. You don’t always need to go for a brand new model. And if you’re okay with iOS, then the obvious option is the iPhone SE which launched last year. Considering the monstrous A13 Bionic chipset, the overall build quality of the iPhone, the incredible software support, the speakers and the water resistance, the excellent camera on the back which is still better at video than anything on Android, that has to be a valid option. The problem here is the dated iPhone 6 like design which also is vastly compact which may not be to the liking of a more modern audience. Its screen is also using dated LCD technology and has a refresh rate of 60Hz which may also make feel inferior.
Vivo’s sister brand, iQOO has a new phone called the iQOO 7 which also has a partnership with BMW. It looks cool, it has all the specs in the world that you’d get from most phones including the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 chipset and also fast charging technology. The problem is because of the lockdown I haven’t manage to test the phone, but whatever I have heard from fellow colleagues is encouraging. Despite not testing the phone, I have named it in the list because of its delectable Mi 11X like the price point. If you're on a tight budget, it is amongst the only options alongside the Mi 11X.
Mi 11X Pro
The pro avatar of the versatile Mi 11X — gives you more of the same at a more expensive price point. But more expensive doesn’t mean you break the bank. It means that it costs you Rs 40,000 but gives you an even more powerful Snapdragon 888 chipset, a second-generation 108-megapixel camera system that can duel with the Vivo X60 Pro, a super macro mode that is just cool for super close up shots, and generally everything else that makes the Mi 11X great. If you want Android, and something new, then this is the phone that bridges the gap between almost every phone that I’ve mentioned in this article. It asks for the fewest compromises. And with Mi UI 12.5 and Android 12 on the horizon for this phone, things are only going to get better.
(Edited by : Jomy Jos Pullokaran)