Smartphone Mid-range war

This week at Google I/O, they announced a new phone that has been taking the tech press by storm, the Pixel 3a (and 3a XL). This pared down version of the Google flagship Pixel 3 is priced starting at $400, which is half the (list) price of the Pixel 3. The 3a cuts out a lot of the top-of-the line specs, and leaves you with a phone that is an awesome deal for people looking for a mid-range level phone. The camera from the higher level phone comes down to this model, and creates a really compelling option for people looking to get a better phone than some of the other $300-$400 phones on the market.

One of the stranger things that I’ve seen, is how the press is comparing this phone to the iPhone Xr, which is Apple’s lowest price flagship phone. They look at the affordability of the 3a and lament that Apple doesn’t have anything near that price range. However, this just isn’t factually accurate. Apple has adopted a different model for it’s mid-range phones. They simply keep supporting, and updating, their older phone models, and downgrade them from being a flagship phone, to something more mid-range and affordable.

Currently, you can get the iPhone 7 (a phone I still use) for $449, and the iPhone 8 for $599. This puts them solidly in the mid-range price bracket, and a much better comparison to the Google Pixel 3a. From a performance perspective, the iPhone 7 is actually slightly faster on Geekbench scores, despite being an older model phone. The more expensive iPhone 8 scores nearly twice as high as the new Pixel 3a on milti-core Geekbench ratings.

I’m not here though to start a flame war between the two camps. What I want to accomplish with this short blog is show that there’s more than one way to the same goal, which is a full range of smartphones that span the gamut from mid-range to flagship. Whereas Android manufactures often design different lines of phones to meet the needs of both ends, Apple chooses to simply move their phones down the line and support them as long as it’s feasible. Even today you can put Apple’s latest operating system (iOS 12) on the iPhone 5s, which was introduced in late 2013 (though I wouldn’t really recommend it).

Android takes a different approach, and companies like Samsung have their Galaxy S line for their flagships, and their Galaxy A line for their mid-range. They then increment each line in turn, and deprecate the older models in each line. One big advantage of doing this is that even the mid-range phones get small pieces of new tech, because they get to come along for the ride with the new flagships. The Pixel 3a benefits from having the latest and greatest Google camera, because it’s available, and apparently cheap enough that Google can put it into the 3a. In the iPhone line, you’re stuck with the tech that was available when the phone was launched, and that includes whatever camera was considered state of the art a few years ago.

It’s an interesting contrast of philosophy, and it means that when we’re talking about the mid-range cell phone war, we can’t just compare Android to Apple. They’ve taken very different paths to cover the mid-range and flagship market. However, as a consumer, it’s important that we understand the distinction, so that we can make more educated choices about where we spend our money. It’s not just about grabbing the latest and greatest. There is a real choice that we can make, and that’s refreshing.