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.

Am I an Apple guy anymore?

Recently, I’ve been starting to question how much of an Apple guy I am. Those who know me, know that I’ve been an Apple fan boy since the late 1990s when I was running OS 7.x on a clone Power Computing machine. The evolution of Macs to OS X was a tremendously welcome change for me, especially since I am an old Unix geek at heart. The ability to have a full CLI shell for power work, and still have a nice GUI for daily putzing was a dream come true. I even converted my friend Wes from Linux to Apple over a decade ago.

When the iPhone came out I waited for a while, mainly because it wasn’t on a carrier I wanted to work with. Eventually though I joined the ranks of happy iPhone 4 users on Verizon and have been an iPhone user ever since. Before this I had spent a bit of time on Android and webOS (Palm), and although they were good platforms, iOS had them beat hands down. Perhaps the biggest advantage that Apple had was it’s ecosystem. At the time, iTunes and the Apple store were fresh and innovative, and no one had anything that came close. The Google Play store was mediocre, and even Google Docs was still mostly rudimentary.

Fast forward to 2017 and when I look at the tools I use, everything is Google. Ever since Google Play Music came out with an unlimited family subscription plan, I haven’t loaded up iTunes. I use Google Docs for just about everything productivity wise, and on my iPhone my primary clients are Gmail and Chrome. So, am I really even using the Apple ecosystem anymore at all?

I know a part of this has to do with the fact that I live in a mixed household where some people use Android and others have iPhones. This means that collaboration moves over to the most supported tools on both platforms, which means Google. But when I really look at the ecosystems, I have to admit that Google really has Apple beat when it comes to many of the things I use it for. The email client is smoother, the productivity apps are fully web enabled and robust, and the media ecosystem is at least on par with what others offer.

When you toss in the fact that for many years my laptop was a simple Chromebook, which I still use regularly, and I have to wonder if I really have anything keeping me with Apple. Most likely my desktop will always be Apple, since I can’t get the photo tools that I need elsewhere (and no, I’m not going Windows), but perhaps it’s time to delve into the Pixel realm for my phone, and look at upgrading my Chromebook to something a bit newer and more powerful. Maybe it’s time to just admit that I really don’t use Apple for all the things that I used to. Maybe it’s time to make the leap…

The future of Chromebooks is Android

I’ve written about this speculation in the past, and today Google announced the change publicly. Coming this Fall, you’ll be able to run most Android apps natively on ChromeOS. They’re embedding an Android runtime into ChromeOS that will utilize what is currently being called Android N, the newest version of Android which will be launching soon.

I have to say that I’m excited about this. What this does is put Chromebooks on the same level as iPad Pro devices from an ecosystem perspective. Not only do you have all of the rich UI web applications that run tremendously well in Chrome, but you also get access to all of the Android Play catalog which extends the capabilities of a Chromebook tremendously. Because many Android apps are written to take advantage of lower power platforms like smartphones, they should run well on cheaper Chromebooks, which is the biggest selling point of many Chromebooks.

One example I saw today in The Verge’s preview video was running Microsoft Word’s Android version inside a Chromebook Pixel. It looked just like the type of app you’d expect to find on a standalone computer, which has always been the biggest knock against Chromebooks. There are tons of things that you can do with webapps and Chrome. The Polarr image editing software is a perfect example of an amazing web based tool. However, there are just certain things that a native app can accomplish much smoother and cleaner than any web app.

This is one of the reasons I hem’d and haw’d over getting a Chromebook vs a larger iPad with keyboard. Much of what I do, I can do with a Chrome browser, but there were still some apps that were just more fully functional on the iPad. One that I’m anxious to try on a Chromebook is Adobe Lightroom. Because the Android version of Lightroom supports Adobe’s DNG (RAW) format, I’m curious about the possibilities of doing photo editing on a Chromebook and still syncing the RAW files back to my main collection. Others have used their phone’s camera to capture in RAW format and edit in Lightroom Mobile, but I’m hopeful there will be some other import options in the future to pull from an SD card.

The first round of testing starts in June on the developer channel, with the beta channel following shortly after. General release of this functionality is slated for Fall, and I’m excited to try it out. It might even get me looking at upgrading my Chromebook, just a little bit, to a slightly nicer model.