The first phones of 2022 prove you don't have to pay a higher price to upgrade

Commentary: 2022's best phone feature so far -- lower, competing prices

Lisa Eadicicco Senior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Expertise Apple, Samsung, Google, smartphones, smartwatches, wearables, fitness trackers
Lisa Eadicicco
5 min read

The Galaxy S21 FE is $100 cheaper than the regular Galaxy S21 and was one of the biggest announcements at CES 2022.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Smart home gadgets, futuristic cars and robots usually draw the most attention at CES. But this year's show also provided a surprising glimpse into the first new phones of 2022. And many of them had one thing in common: affordable prices. 

Just ahead of CES 2022, Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 FE, a less expensive version of Samsung's main S21 phone that comes with many of the same features. TCL's new 30 series smartphones promise to deliver perks like 5G and high-resolution cameras, but will likely cost a lot less than competing devices. And Nokia announced that it will have five new phones coming to the US, all of which will cost less than $250.

The trend isn't new; the past several years have seen a resurgence of mid-tier and budget-minded phones across the industry. Global smartphone shipments stalled around the 2018 time frame as demand for pricier smartphones weakened, and smartphone makers shifted their product strategies accordingly. 

But that also means tech giants need to work harder to convince shoppers to pay around $1,000 or more for a new phone. After all, why would anyone pay $900 when there are perfectly capable phones available for $700 or less? That question isn't lost on Samsung, Apple and Google, all of which have seen success with their respective wallet-friendly phones in the last few years. The announcements from CES 2022 just reinforce this shift. 

The new phones of the year arrived during CES 2022


The Galaxy S21 FE has the same processor as the regular S21, but with a bigger screen and battery. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Samsung kicked off CES 2022 with the Galaxy S21 FE, a $700 version of the Galaxy S21 that comes with a triple-lens camera, 5G, the same chip as the regular S21, a big battery and a 6.4-inch borderless screen. It's $100 less expensive than the Galaxy S21, which has a smaller screen but a higher resolution zoom lens. The Galaxy S21 FE will also likely be at least $100 cheaper than the expected Galaxy S22 if Samsung keeps the same pricing as last year. 

TCL hasn't announced pricing yet for its new phones: the TCL 30 V 5G and XE 5G. But as my colleague David Lumb points out, TCL's phones usually don't sell for more than $500. That means we can probably expect the same from these new devices. 

The TCL 30 V 5G will probably be the pricier model of the pair since it has a bigger screen and sharper camera compared to the XE. The 30 V 5G comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 chip, a 50-megapixel main camera and a 6.67-inch display, while the XE includes a MediaTek Dimensity 700 chip, a 13-megapixel main camera and 6.52-inch screen. 

Then there's the 5G-enabled Nokia G400, which will be the most expensive phone in its new lineup at just $239. Other cheaper options include the $149 Nokia G100, the $119 Nokia C200 and $99 Nokia C100, all of which support 4G instead of 5G.

OnePlus also unveiled the OnePlus 10 Pro during CES, although it hasn't revealed pricing details just yet. OnePlus made a name for itself by packing its phones with high-end features while undercutting Samsung and Apple on prices. 

But it's also strayed from that approach in recent years, and the OnePlus 10 Pro sounds like a premium phone meant to compete with the iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra. Although the official launch won't happen until Jan. 11, OnePlus has revealed the phone will come with Qualcomm's newest mobile processor, 80-watt fast charging, and a triple-lens camera with 50-megapixel, 48-megapixel and 8-megapixel lenses. 


The OnePlus 10 Pro was announced during CES 2022.


The OnePlus 9 Pro's price started at $969 when it launched last year, and perhaps that will serve as a clue to where the 10 Pro will end up. If so, it would still represent the high-end, placing it around the $999 iPhone 13 Pro and slightly less expensive $899 Pixel 6 Pro.

Apple never formally participates in CES, and that hasn't changed in 2022. But we are expecting to see a new budget phone from Apple in the first quarter of the year: the rumored iPhone SE 3. The next version of Apple's $400 iPhone will likely have 5G and possibly Face ID, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reported in his PowerOn newsletter. A report from Chinese site MyDrivers suggests the iPhone SE could get a new design that resembles the iPhone XR. But well-known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo expects the new SE's design to stay the same, according to MacRumors

Cheaper phones are getting better


Apple's cheaper phones, the iPhone SE (top) and iPhone 11 (bottom) have been well-received. 

Angela Lang/CNET

There's a simple reason why we've seen so many worthwhile budget phones in recent years: people like cheaper phones. A survey from NPD Group in late 2019 found that just under 10% of consumers are spending more than $1,000 on phones. Twenty-five percent of respondents in a poll conducted by USA Today and SurveyMonkey in 2019 said that they would pay between $501 and $750 for a new phone, while 30% said they would pay $300 or less. 

Although tech giants like Apple and Samsung are best known for their high-end iPhones and Galaxy S phones, their lower-cost phones have been successful, too. The older and cheaper iPhone 11 proved to be just as popular as the iPhone 12 Pro Max in the third quarter of 2021, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Samsung's Galaxy A12 costs less than $200 and was one of the best-selling phones in the first three quarters of 2021, according to International Data Corporation statistics shared by analyst Francisco Jeronimo.

Features that were once reserved for expensive phones have started trickling down to more affordable devices, which could partially explain why cheaper devices have been so well-received. Nearly borderless screens, 5G support, higher refresh rates and multi-lens camera systems can now be found on phones that cost well below $1,000, such as the $600 Pixel 6 and $700 Galaxy S21 FE. Even the $250 Galaxy A13 5G has many of these qualities. 

That also means the bar is set higher for premium phones like the $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra and $1,100 iPhone 13 Pro Max. Apple and Samsung are largely positioning these phones at photography enthusiasts that need more sophisticated tools like better zoom lenses, bigger screens and longer battery life. Samsung may also cater to the productivity-oriented crowd with its Galaxy S22 Ultra, which could come with a stylus and essentially replace the Galaxy Note line, according to the leaks. 

Still, it's becoming clear that there are only so many ways to improve the current version of the smartphone, aside from niche camera improvements and routine processor upgrades. Until there's a major leap forward in design and functionality – which is precisely what companies like Samsung are trying to achieve with their foldable devices – some of the most notable upgrades will involve bringing existing features down to less expensive phones. That might not sound very exciting, but it's great news for anyone shopping for a new phone in 2022 and beyond.