The Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 are only good value if you live in the US
The Google Pixel 5 is official. I haven’t had the chance to test it yet, but I’m sure all the things people loved about the previous Pixels — a camera powered by the best-in-class computational photography technology and the truest, most up-to-date version of Android — will also apply to the Pixel 5, meaning these are not new or noteworthy features. Instead, what’s new and newsworthy about the Pixel 5 is that it has a new identity as a good value mid-ranger.
By going with a lesser Snapdragon chip, less premium build material, omitting hardware for a zoom camera, and a couple other hardware compromises, Google is able to offer the Pixel 5 at a price of $699 — $100 lower than the Pixel 4’s starting price — and thus has essentially conceded that it is pulling out of the premium flagship sector for now. The Pixel series is no longer going after the iPhones and Samsung Galaxy Notes of the world, but is instead going for a tier below that.
Even before the Pixel 5’s $699 price became official, there had been enough hints, rumors, and leaks to have tech media applauding the Pixel 5’s new value-conscious pricing. The same “great value” praises were heaped on the Pixel 4a earlier this year, and surely the updated Pixel 4a 5G and its $499 price tag will garner the same praise.
These phones are indeed great value—if you live in the U.S. If you are, like me, living in Asia and follow the Android smartphone scene closely, then you likely already think what I think: What’s considered great value for mid-range or budget phones in the U.S. are usually just decent value at best, or ripoffs at worst, compared to what’s available in Asia.
Why is this the case?
Most of you reading this should already know the answer, but it’s worth explaining for potential new readers unfamiliar with the Android scene: Chinese phone brands have consistently offered the best bang-for-buck value in smartphones, but other than OnePlus and the Lenovo-owned Motorola, they do not sell their devices officially in the U.S. market.
This effectively makes the U.S. Android scene a very limited one, devoid of not just some, but most of the top options. Consider this: Four of the top five best selling Android smartphone brands globally, according to recent data released by market analysis firm Counterpoint Research, are not available for purchase stateside. This top five list, consisting of Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo in some order, isn’t a recent development—it’s been these five for half a decade.
The Android options for American consumers consists of the top dog Samsung, along with a bunch of 6th and 8th and 9th place Android brands on a global scale. No wonder the U.S. phone scene is essentially an Apple/Samsung duopoly.
So why do Chinese phones offer better value? It’s a combination of things, including lower cost of manufacturing and marketing and distribution in Asia than in the U.S., but the main reason is because there’s intense and cut-throat competition between Chinese brands, not just in China but all over Asia and Europe, too. And they constantly feel the need to one-up each other by offering more specs or lower prices. Xiaomi’s Redmi sub brand and OPPO’s Realme, for example, are locked in major competition trying to win over the India market, so they’ve been involved in a game of one-upsmanship on the spec sheet. When brands compete, consumers win.
Conversely, this lack of competition in the U.S. has also allowed legacy brands to—if we’re being blunt—not put in much of an effort with their mid-tier or budget offerings. They have to work hard at the flagship level to try to take on the iPhone, but if it’s a sub-$500 mid-ranger? They don’t feel a sense of urgency to give consumers more.
Legacy brands established that mid-tier phones should have cheaper build; Chinese brands disagreed
For years, legacy phone brands like Apple, Samsung, LG, and Sony have dictated that mid-tier phones should have clearly noticeable compromises, usually in key areas like processing power, display, and build material. It’s a sound business strategy—why would a company undercut its own flagships by giving mid-range phones the same processor and build quality? This explains why Samsung’s mid-range offerings prior to this year were significantly inferior to its flagships, like the Galaxy A50 last year which featured a U-shaped notch, plastic everywhere, and an Exynos 9610, or why Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 looks like it belongs in 2016—because it literally reused the iPhone 7’s body.
Likewise with the Pixel 5: It’s cheaper than what the Pixel 4 was at launch, but the Pixel 5’s specs are noticeably a tier below from what’s accepted as 2020 flagship standards, while the Pixel 4 at least tried to keep up with 2019 flagship expectations. The Pixel 4 launched with an at-the-time high-refresh display, the most powerful Qualcomm SoC, and an ambitious high-tech 3D facial scanning system. The Pixel 5 has a screen refresh rate that’s modest in 2020, runs on a mid-tier Qualcomm chip, and reverts back to the capacitive fingerprint scanner that feels like it belongs in 2016. It’s Google clearly cutting corners in hardware to meet a lower price point.
Chinese phones don’t cut nearly as many corners with their mid-tier options. In fact, their business strategy almost doesn’t make sense, because their mid-tier options usually are such great value, they make their flagships look overpriced. For example, Xiaomi just released a €599 (~$703) Mi 10T Pro that is powered by a Snapdragon 865, features a 108MP camera and a 144Hz screen. This immediately makes the company’s own barely six-month-old Mi 10 Pro that has the same processor and camera but a lesser 90Hz screen. look overpriced. A few months ago, Honor launched its 30 Pro Plus, which has the same stunning 50MP RYYB camera and Kirin 990 as the Huawei P40 Pro, at an almost $300 lower price point. Every Chinese brand does this: OPPO’s flagships are great, but then its sub-brand Realme also pumps out phones that are like 90% as good at half the price.
If we’re just comparing specs, it’s not even close
If we are to just compare the spec sheets of what you can buy in Asia or Europe compared to what you can get in the U.S. at the same price point, it’s a lop-sided affair.
The best value smartphone right now is probably the POCO X3 NFC. It starts at €199 (around $232) in Europe and is even cheaper in China and Hong Kong (about equivalent to $190), and for that you get a 120Hz 1080 x 2400 display covered in Gorilla Glass 5, the Snapdragon 732G, glass and aluminum sandwich construction, and a quad camera system headlined by a 64MP main camera and a 13MP ultra-wide angle camera.
In the U.S., if you only have two Benjamins to spend, your best bet is likely the Moto G7 Power or Samsung Galaxy A11. The Moto G7 Power packs a 60Hz 720 x 1560 display covered in Gorilla Glass 3, the Snapdragon 665, plastic back and frame, and a single 12MP camera. Samsung’s Galaxy A11 offers a 60Hz 720 x 1560 display also in Gorilla Glass 3, the Snapdragon 450, plastic back and frame, and a measly 5MP ultra-wide-angle camera. Both of these phones run on an embarrassing 3GB of RAM.
We can play this game at any price range, and the results will be the same. At the $300-$400 range, you can buy the Realme X3 SuperZoom with a 120Hz OLED panel, Snapdragon 855+, and a Periscope zoom lens. Bump your budget up to $500 and you can pick up the Meizu 17 with a 120Hz OLED screen, ceramic build, and a Snapdragon 865. If you’re paying less than $500 in the US, you are not getting a high refresh rate screen, a Snapdragon 800 series chip, or a fancy ceramic build material.
But it’s getting better, thanks to Samsung’s need to compete outside the US
The good news for American Android fans is that Samsung has had to step up its mid-range game lately, not due to competition in the US—it has almost none in the Android scene—but because Chinese brands like Xiaomi, OnePlus, Vivo, and Realme had been eating into Samsung’s market share in places like India, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of Europe.
This explains the existence of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition, which offers a 120Hz screen and a Snapdragon 865—two standout features of the Galaxy S20 series—for $700. It’s no surprise the consensus reaction to the S20 FE has been about how it’s stolen the thunder from the upcoming OnePlus 8T, because that’s exactly who Samsung is aiming for.
A couple of years ago, there’s no way Samsung would put a flagship level screen and processor in a mid-ranger. Chinese phones pushed Samsung to give better value proposition to compete.
Maybe not a great value, but not a bad one either
There are very valid reasons to buy the Pixel 5—it offers the truest version of Android and Google’s camera software algorithms are arguably the best in the industry. But it’s probably a stretch to call these great value outside of a U.S.-centric lens. But at least we can say confidently that the Pixel 5, with a proper sized battery, RAM and storage configuration this year, is not a bad value like the Pixel 4 was. If you agree with that and want to pick one up in the U.S., you can pre-order it now from various retailers.