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Motorola commits to premium 5G phones for 2020, starting with the foldable Razr

The brand is ready to break out of its cheap-phone rut with high-end 5G phones for 2020, using the just-announced Snapdragon 865 processor.

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Motorola Razr

The Motorola Razr is just the beginning for the brand's resurgence into premium phones.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Motorola publicly announced a return to premium phones on Tuesday, at Qualcomm's Snapdragon Tech Summit in Maui, Hawaii. Advances in 5G and camera prowess, supported by the just-unveiled Snapdragon 865 and 765 chips, will help give the struggling brand an way to put its foot in the door for 2020 among intense competition. With the foldable Razr launch in November, Motorola's already made an impression.

"Thanks to the new technologies announced today, we'll have new premium products to announce in early 2020," said Sergio Buniac, Motorola Mobility president. The announcement echoes an earlier statement that Motorola told CNET in August, that the brand would specifically launch a premium, high-end 5G phone.

The shift comes after Motorola turned itself around from a steep loss to parent company Lenovo's portfolio, to a brand that's remained profitable for five quarters. Paring back its phone portfolio to midrange and budget devices helped stabilize profits, as did cutting staff, CNET learned in August.

Motorola has spent the last several years carving out a niche for itself as a manufacturer of excellent budget and midrange phones. But its days dealing in devices that rarely exceed $500 are about to come to an end. Motorola says it's ready to embrace premium phones again, with price tags to prove it.

And 5G doesn't come cheap. Motorola isn't ready to share its price range yet, but Samsung's least expensive 5G phone, the triple-camera Galaxy A90 5G, costs around $800. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is "cheap" at $840.

"If you put out a $399 5G phone, you're going to have to sacrifice a lot of the elements that people value," said Francoise Laflamme, Motorola's chief strategy and marketing officer, speaking of today's mobile climate.

Today, you'll spend $300 for the budget Moto G7, $450 for the new Motorola One Zoom with three cameras and a satin glass backing and $500 for the Moto X4. But $500 is about where the range stops. Motorola's own "5G" device, the Moto Z3, costs $480 with Verizon, but you'll get 5G speeds only by buying the 5G Moto Mod for an additional $350.

Now playing: Watch this: Motorola Razr vs. Galaxy Fold: Foldable phone specs compared
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It's likely that a premium 5G Motorola phone would start in the $800 range, if not higher. Samsung's feature-packed Galaxy S10 5G and Note 10 Plus 5G phones cost $1,300 apiece. 

So why the shift to higher-end phones? Motorola, which operates within parent company Lenovo, has just turned a profit for the first time in a decade. Cutting extraneous products, staff and marketing dollars has helped Motorola cut its losses, Laflamme said. So has focusing on its most important markets, which include the US, the UK, Brazil and Mexico. 

Now that Motorola is back in the black, it can focus on ramping up the kinds of phones it sells and where it sells them.

Motorola's move is unsurprising, and well-timed. In the era of 5G phones and foldable designs, sticking with budget and midprice 4G phones is a sure way to get left behind.

Originally published earlier this year.