By Akriti Rana and Nimish Dubey
Google’s Pixel phone series has been the technological equivalent of what many people call “art films” — praised endlessly by pundits and critics, but largely ignored by the audience. However, it was not always thus. When Google got into phones, it did so under the Nexus name, collaborating with brands like HTC, Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Motorola. What was notable was that the Nexus range was known for being what later became known as a “budget flagship” — a high-specced device that worked very well, but came with a surprisingly affordable price tag.
“a” for “a more affordable Pixel”
However, with the Pixel range, the Search giant seemed to change track and opt for a more premium offering. And got hit by the “art film” jinx — all the reviewers and media experts seemed to love the Pixel devices, but consumers did not seem quite as enamoured, perhaps because many of them were used to lower-priced Nexus devices, or maybe even because the likes of OnePlus had emerged, offering comparable specs at lower prices. The Pixel also had to deal with well-established players in the premium phone segment, such as the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S series. Not an easy task.
With Pixel flagship sales not quite hitting the highs that many had expected, Google came out with a more affordable variant of the Pixel, with an ‘a’ suffix. The first devices in the series were the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL in 2019, which were priced much lower than the flagship Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL launched earlier. The brand repeated this ‘a-grade’ exercise in 2020 with the Pixel 4a and the Pixel 5a. But while the ‘a’ series did significantly better than the flagships in terms of sales (and got the usual rave reviews from tech punditry), it still did not quite create the sort of stir in the market that many had expected. One of the key reasons for this was said to be the markedly inferior hardware (especially the processor) on the ‘a’ series, which was often surpassed by devices from other brands, which came with similar or even lower price tags.
Scoring on price, losing on performance?
Google is looking to change that with the Pixel 6a, which it announced at its I/O event recently. And it plans to do so by taking a page from the strategy book of one of its rivals, Apple. When Google had launched the first a series device, the Pixel 3a, many had compared it to Apple’s first iPhone SE. Launched in 2016, the first iPhone SE offered the iPhone experience at a much lower price than the flagship iPhone units. The strategy worked so well that Apple repeated it with another iPhone SE in 2020 and one more, earlier this year.
There was, however, one crucial point of difference between Apple’s iPhone SE series and Google’s Pixel ‘a’ series — while the iPhone SE always came with the same processor that powered flagship iPhone handsets, the Pixel ‘a’ devices always came with processors that were not only a level below those on the flagship Pixel phones but were also a little on the older side. The Pixel 3a ran on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 and the Pixel 4a on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 SoC. These were not bad processors by any means, but they were nowhere close to the chips on the Pixel flagships, which generally sported the Qualcomm 800 series of high-end processors. The Pixel 5 and 5a did share the same chip, but unfortunately, it was a mid-segment one (Qualcomm Snapdragon 765), which was available at much lower prices on other devices. The Pixel ‘a’ series, therefore, has always represented a mid-segment performance rather than a high-end one, unlike the iPhone’s SE series, which compromises on cameras and display, but retains the soul of the iPhone flagship phones — the processors.
Tensor: a chip that makes the competition tense-r
With the Pixel 6a, Google has removed this restriction. The Pixel 6a comes with the same processor as the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro — Google’s own Tensor processor. Not only does this bring the Pixel 6a in line with the flagships in terms of general overall performance, but it also distances it from other players, simply because no phone other than a Pixel has a Tensor chip. The design of the phone has also been improved and as in the case of almost all Pixel devices, we hear the cameras are awesome.
Design and cameras, however, have never really been issues with the Pixel ‘a’ series. Performance has. And by including its Tensor chip in the Pixel 6a, Google might have just fixed that issue. By using a chip that is exclusive to the Pixel range, Google has also reduced the possibility of comparisons with devices that have the same processor — something that plagued precious ‘a’ series devices. There is no danger of a device from a brand like OnePlus, Xiaomi, Realme, or Motorola offering the same chip and other specs at a lower price.
Similar performance, but could the price have been lower?
But if Google has followed the iPhone SE template in terms of processor, it has marched to a slightly different beat in terms of price. The pricing of the Pixel ‘a’ series has inspired some debate, thanks to its constant fluctuation. The Pixel 3a was launched at $399, the Pixel 4a came at a lower $349, while the Pixel 5a was the most expensive so far at $449. The Pixel 6a comes at the same price as the Pixel 5a — $449. That may sound good, but what complicates matters is the fact that the price difference between the Pixel 6 and 6a is far lesser than that between the Pixel 5 and 5a.
The Pixel 6 starts at $599, making it $150 or roughly 25 percent more expensive than the 6a model. In comparison, the Pixel 5 started at $699, which was $250 or 35 percent more than the Pixel 5a. Mind you, both these statistics are dwarfed by the $400 difference between the iPhone SE (2022) and the iPhone 13 — $429 against $829 (even the iPhone 13 mini is at $729, making the iPhone SE seem way more affordable).
So, while the Pixel 6a does replicate the processor muscle of the Pixel 6, it does not give the user the sort of price advantage that an iPhone SE carries over the main iPhone units. Given that the Pixel 6 actually comes with significantly better specs (a bigger display with a higher refresh rate, a better main camera, more RAM, and a bigger battery with faster charging), that price differential might turn out to be a mild headache for the Pixel 6a.
It is too early to say whether the Pixel 6a will be a success. A lot will depend on the actual performance of the device. But Google has brought two important factors behind Apple’s iPhone SE’s success to the Pixel ‘a’ series — a flagship processor and a lower than flagship price. And by doing so, the Search giant has potentially brought a user experience that is very close to that seen on the Pixel flagships at a much more affordable price. If the Pixel 6a delivers on both price and performance fronts, it could very well do for the Pixel what the iPhone SE did for the iPhone — take the device to a whole new, and more mainstream audience. So, we are hoping that Google brings it to India at some stage.