Pixel 3a standing up on table

The Google Pixel 3a is a stellar affordable handset that stands out as a great value proposition in a market full of $1,000 technological behemoths. With decent specs, a great camera, and regular updates, it “sold well” according to the usually tight-lipped Mountain View. The upcoming Google Pixel 4a promises to be a very exciting follow-up, offering another inexpensive entry point in Google’s take on Android.

Given the current state of the market, the Pixel 4a should be a major win for Google. $1,000 phones aren’t selling that well and manufacturers are gradually realizing that there’s money to be made in the mid-tier market too. However, it might not be an Android manufacturer that’s the biggest threat to the Pixel 4a nabbing some decent market share. Rumors point to Apple’s iPhone 9 entering the market at just $399 as early as March. That’s the same price as the Pixel 3a and presumably the entry point for the upcoming Pixel 4a.

If true, this wouldn’t just present a challenge for Google, but a whole range of Android manufacturers — including Samsung. iPhone sales already dominate the high-end space, accounting for one in five premium devices worldwide and 49 percent of all US smartphone shipments. These phones typically hold their value better than their Android counterparts, leaving a $399 iPhone 9 with few discounted Apple flagships to compete with. There’s little doubt that an affordable iPhone will sell well.

Google’s flagship Pixel 3 and 4 weren’t the breakthroughs that some had expected. Instead, it’s the more affordable Pixel 3a that’s been Google’s only recent market win. A cheap iPhone could kneecap Google’s only Pixel success story so far.

Balancing specs and costs

google pixel 4 vs pixel 3 vs pixel 3a 6

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. There’s no guarantee that either the iPhone 9 or the Pixel 4a will nail the mid-tier formula.

This product segment is most appealing when it provides enough processing power for smooth app performance combined with high-end build quality. Mid-range features like a headphone jack can help, but the lower price makes it easy to forgo features like 3D face unlock, in-display fingerprint scanners, and the like.

The battle for the mid-range is increasingly relevant, both for brand profile and turnover.

That said, consumers certainly care a lot about photography, even at this price. Although we certainly can’t expect all the bells and whistles in terms of extra camera hardware. Even so, the Pixel 3a won acclaim for taking photos that looked every bit as good as the more expensive Pixel 3. The iPhone 9 will need to compete with its premium tier siblings for image quality if it’s to match Google’s reputation. It’s not difficult to imagine this being the case.

Don’t forget the iPhone SE

Apple logo Apple iPhone 11

Apple has prior form when it comes to more affordable handsets. 2016’s 4-inch iPhone SE marked the company’s first attempt to woo the mid-tier market. This handset also sold for $399 and it seemed that Apple couldn’t manufacture devices quickly enough at the time.

In a market full of expensive $1,000 flagships and increasingly identical inexpensive Chinese handsets, more unique high quality mid-range phones stand out. The need for companies to offer a low-cost, high-quality phone shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in a year when 5G is driving up prices across most of the market. Furthermore, there’s key non-5G markets to think about, such as India and South America, where sub-$500 handsets account for the bulk of sales. However, those regions may be much harder to crack for Western brands.

A cheap iPhone could kneecap Google's only Pixel success story.

In a nutshell, affordable smartphone options are increasingly important — even for premium brands like Apple. Sale shares are increasingly struggling as prices push further above the $1,000 mark. While the premium tier isn’t going anywhere, the battle for the mid-range is increasingly relevant, both for brand profile and turnover.

A $399 iPhone 9, Pixel 4a, and even rumored devices like the OnePlus 8 Lite are all poised to capitalize. But which one will come out on top?

iPhone vs Pixel

Google isn’t in the smartphone market to shift tens of millions of phones a year. However, the company needs popular and compelling handsets to keep its mobile venture worthwhile. The Pixel 3a marked Google’s biggest success to date and the Pixel 4a has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately for Google, Apple is now eying up exactly the same market segment.

Let’s be honest, an affordable iPhone is a much more attractive sell to the masses than an affordable Google phone — especially in the US and other Western European markets, where Apple’s brand awareness and value exceeds Google by miles. The Pixel 3a may have only been a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a foothold that Google may already find very difficult to keep.

The Pixel 4a may turn out to be a great phone, but the early arrival of the iPhone 9 could be enough to suck the wind from Google’s sails.

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