The Google Pixel 6a highlights everything wrong with the U.S. phone market
It’s no secret that the United States has a terrible smartphone market, and you’d be hard pressed to find evidence to the contrary. Between the stranglehold that carriers have on the market, coupled with the lack of options available, consumers in the U.S. get screwed over on both options and pricing in contrast to Europe and Asia. The recently-released Google Pixel 6a‘s value proposition in North America proves exactly that problem.
For context, the Google Pixel 6a is the latest mid-range flagship from Google. It packs the last generation of Pixel cameras and Google Tensor into a more affordable package, promising five years of updates on top of that. You get all of Google’s software smarts too, though some have felt let down by the sub-par specifications and higher price tag when compared to the competition. Some of those downsides include a 60Hz screen, slower charging, and the fact that it’s the last generation’s cameras instead of the current generation, which other “a” series phones had.
To be clear, the Google Pixel 6a is a good phone. I like it a lot, and I think that Google has consistently nailed the basics of a good phone for years at this point. However, time and time again, particularly with its flagships, there has been some kind of compromise. For example, the Google Pixel 5 had the Snapdragon 765G and the Pixel 6 series has Tensor with all of its inefficiencies. Typically, the “a” series has generally made sense in its pricing and its features relative to the rest of the competition, but that changes with the Google Pixel 6a.
The problem with the U.S. phone market
The U.S. phone market’s biggest issue comes down to carriers and their stranglehold. It’s very hard to get a phone that works on a U.S. carrier, and the easiest way to get a phone is through a carrier deal. You can spend more for unlocked variants, but carriers will try to rope you in by offering a deal that you can only get by buying one of their phones. Phones can be made cheaper thanks to trade-in deals and other offers, which makes this the most appealing option for many.
Not only that, but if you buy into a carrier’s ecosystem, you immediately open yourself to the world of carrier deals and trade-in offers. They offer financing, carrier-specific features like Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE, and even phone-specific features at times if you buy the phone through their stores. Phones that are unlocked for the U.S. region should be compatible with carriers too, but their support can be inconsistent.
In contrast to phones that you buy locked, there are a few other problems. For starters, you may lose out on all of those carrier trade-in deals that you could get by buying from a carrier. There are also two “tiers” of unlocked phones: international phones, and those unlocked for the U.S. market. Samsung is the most well-known example of this, where you can buy U.S. versions of the company’s flagship phones that are unlocked for all U.S. carriers. These then switch the CSC (Country Specific Code) which changes what carrier features are enabled depending on the SIM card installed. Internationally unlocked Samsung devices will have the same CSC-switching feature but don’t include the necessary configurations for US carriers
Generally, all phones also have to be approved to work on a specific carrier, and there’s a good reason for this: band support.
In Europe, if you buy an international phone, chances are that phone will just work across the litany of carriers across the continent. That’s not quite the case in the U.S., as fewer international devices support the necessary bands. What’s more, even if your phone is compatible on a technical level, if it isn’t approved for use on the carrier, it may simply not connect. It’s a bit complicated though because roaming might work, but a native SIM might not activate — it depends on how strict the carrier’s activation requirements are. U.S. phones generally work in Europe, but the contrary isn’t always true. This might be part of what adds to the cost of a U.S. phone, as they support a lot of European bands (which may come with a licensing cost) whereas the inverse is not usually true.
Band support is why if you take a recently launched Xiaomi or OPPO phone to America, you might not get a signal at all and almost certainly will only have partial 5G support at best. Your odds of getting one working perfectly as if it was officially launched in the country, is almost zero.
The Google Pixel 6a compared to the competition
The thing about the Google Pixel 6a is that in the U.S. market, it’s a great value phone. There are basically no other offerings in the U.S. that can provide as complete an experience at that price range. Flagship chipset? Check. Great cameras? Check. Long-term software support with timely updates? Check. It’s got all the basic boxes of an excellent phone… but it costs $449. That’s a good price in the U.S, but it being a good price in the U.S. is more indicative of the high costs over there than anything else.
Taking a look at the European and Asian markets, competition is a lot tougher for the Google Pixel 6a. Unless you value excellent photos over everything else, there’s tough competition in this price bracket, and even cheaper. I can buy a OnePlus Nord 2T for less than a Google Pixel 6a. It has what I would call a more practical chipset, a better display, better speakers, longer battery life, and much faster charging. While Tensor is good, any long-term usage will see heavy thermal throttling and reduced performance as a result, which the Dimensity 1300 doesn’t suffer from anywhere near as much. You get better software on the Pixel 6a and a better camera, but it’s tough competition.
If OnePlus isn’t your cup of tea, let’s look at the new kid on the block. The Nothing Phone 1 arrived with much bravado, and again, we’re in a situation where it packs a whole lot of punch that the Google Pixel 6a does not. We’re talking about a better display (with some controversy, mind you…), great battery life, a better chipset (for the same reason that the Dimensity 1300 does a better job than Tensor in my opinion), and just as unique a design. On the software front, Nothing is a bit of a question mark, so it’s completely understandable that you may be wary of stepping into an all-new ecosystem like that.
Well, what about Xiaomi? Xiaomi has a ton of mid-range phones, either through Poco or Redmi. The Poco F4, for example, comes in cheaper and it’s the same story as the above. Better screen, better chipset, worse camera, faster charging… in every case with each of these phones, you’re trading a lot to simply own a Pixel.
Finally, let’s look at an old reliable — Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy A53 is a mid-range offering from Samsung that a lot of people have touted as a better alternative to the Pixel 6a even in the U.S. In some ways, I can see why. It has “fast” 25W charging, it has a better display (Samsung is one of the best in the business for that), and for some people, One UI is much better than Google’s Pixel software. However, I would argue that the Pixel 6a is a compelling buy against the Galaxy A53 for its better camera, much better chipset, and better battery life. There’s just one problem though: the phone that is inferior to the Pixel 6a is the only mid-range phone in this list that’s available in the U.S.
If you are in an Asian market, like India, then there are a whole host of other options from Realme, Vivo, Oppo, and more. Each has its own pros and cons, but all of them assemble their phones in India which Google does not. As a consequence, they enjoy cheaper pricing while the Google Pixel 6a deals with import duties, dealing it a rather heavy blow for pricing in a market that is supremely competitive. The Pixel 6a starts encroaching into premium-mid-range or even flagship territory pricing, at which point, one really needs to assess all of their options.
You must really want a Pixel
Look, I get it. The Google Pixel 6a is a good phone, and the software and that camera are both compelling. If those are your prerogative and you value those highly above all else, then sure, go for it.
But I feel like some of the other features are what the non-tech enthusiasts really care about. Most people care if their phone can last a long time, if it can charge fast and if they can use it to do their daily bits and pieces without worrying about it dying on them. A friend of mine recently handed me her Pixel 6 that she got at launch, worried that it was too hot, and was afraid of the damage it was doing as the phone slowed down every time it got hot. She’s essentially considering getting a new phone just because of Tensor. These are the “normal” consumers. The heat of the Google Pixel 6 is the only constant complaint I have heard from multiple “average” consumers that have asked me if it’s normal. Two of them are going to buy a new phone, and one of them is even switching to the Nothing Phone 1 and refuses to go near a Pixel with Tensor after his experience.
I’m sure all of us know people who got annoyed by software updates, especially given how slow they can be on Google Pixel phones too. I have waited for a long time to finish a simple security update on a Pixel, whereas other devices are much quicker. The Google Pixel 6a is good, it takes great photos, and it has great software. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s missing quite a bit of what other people are looking for. Most people don’t care if their phone has the best camera in whatever class their phone is in, they just want a phone that takes good photos for social media. The OnePlus Nord 2T will manage that, and the Nothing Phone 1 can as well.
No matter what, I think the Google Pixel 6a being such a good option in the U.S. is not indicative of Google making an excellent phone. Instead, I think it points to how little competition there actually is in the region, and how the one phone people are pointing towards being an alternative isn’t really better at all. It solves the charging and the screen “issue” (if you can call it that), but the rest, well, the Pixel 6a simply smokes the Galaxy A53.
Despite all of that, I can’t wait to see Tensor 2. Google is on to such a good concept with the Google Pixel 6 series currently, and if it can solve throttling and heating issues with the Pixel 7 series, then it’s on the road to creating a winner.
Thanks Zachary Wander for his assistance in the writing of this article!