Android Intelligence Analysis

The most interesting thing Google didn't announce at its hardware event

It may seem like we've seen it all, but Google's Pixel party isn't over yet.

Google Hardware
JR Raphael, IDG

We've talked plenty about everything Google announced at its big hardware gala — particularly that Pixel 4 phone and the perplexing predicament Google finds itself facing as it tries to convince average phone-shoppers to give the gadget a go.

There's one thing Google didn't announce at that fall event, though, and it might be the most important product of all — both in terms of its potential impact for Google, from a business perspective, and in terms of its relevance for those of us who use Android phones.

I'm talking about the Pixel 4a, the likely second-gen sequel to the midrange Pixel 3a phone Google launched this past spring. While the Pixel 4 may be the device that earns most of the attention — being a flagship product, with all the eye-catching tech and the buzzworthy bells and whistles — the less flashy Pixel 4a is arguably gonna be the one that most people should be eyeing.

Why? Well, Woodrow, it's simple: Here in these wild times o' 2019, there's little reason for most typical phone-owners to spend several hundred dollars on a snazzy new device. Now, that's a pretty broad statement, and it comes with a couple of caveats:

  1. There are exceptions — those of us who adore mobile technology, appreciate the premium qualities and/or added niceties a high-end phone provides, and are willing and able to drop the extra dough to enjoy 'em. Make no mistake about it, though: We're the minority.
  2. Spending less on a phone isn't always advisable. Most midrange-to-budget-level phones have inexcusably bad cameras and receive software updates approximately never. The camera situation isn't one most people would want in this day and age, and the update situation absolutely isn't one anyone — especially professionals who care about privacy and security — should accept.

That second caveat is actually a huge part of why the Pixel 4a is likely to be so significant: Assuming it follows the strategy set out with this year's Pixel 3a (and there's no reason to think it wouldn't), it'll likely bring the same exceptional image-capturing capabilities present in its higher-end sibling into a phone that costs a fraction of the price.

And on the update front, it'll almost certainly bring the standard Pixel software support experience — which provides an unmatched three full years of guaranteed timely operating system and security updates — into a $400-ish-range device.

Think about that: Most thousand-dollar Android flagship phones come with just two years of OS updates, and those updates tend to arrive a solid six to 12 months late, if at all. Even if you disregard the negative impact of those delays and the always-present risk that a manufacturer may decide to drop support for a phone entirely at any point, a little smart math shows you that a $400 midrange Pixel actually ends up costing about $133 a year over the three years it'll be updated and thus that it remains fully advisable to use.

That's a mere 11 bucks a month (taking the $400 total and dividing it by those 36 months of active software support). The regular Pixel 4, with its $800 starting price and the same three years of guaranteed support, ends up costing about $267 a year — or $22 a month over that same span. And a phone like the Galaxy S10, which runs $900 and comes with just two years of guaranteed OS updates, costs you about $450 a year — or $37.50 a month over its period of advisable ownership.

Once you start thinking about the advisable-lifespan value of Android devices, things take on a pretty different appearance. Sure, there are those of us for whom the extra $11 a month for a more premium experience with the higher-end Pixel (even with its various buts attached) is worthwhile — and those of us who are happy, even, to pay the extra $26.50 a month for the hardware-related advantages a high-end Samsung phone provides.

But let's be honest: Most phone-totin' humans aren't gonna notice or care about having the best display as opposed to a pretty decent one. Most gadget-carrying mammals don't give two hoots about their cellular telephony apparatus having a gorgeous glass back instead of a plainer plastic exterior. And most Android-owning primates are blissfully oblivious to the differences between a high-end processor and whatever silicon comes in a current midranger, especially since those differences aren't usually at all apparent in typical day-to-day use.

So, yeah: The Pixel 4 may be the exciting model and the one that's ripe for analysis here in this tech-obsessed geekdom of ours — but we have to remember that we beautiful dorks aren't the average mobile-tech audience. For most people, the main reasons to avoid a less expensive Android device are usually the subpar camera quality and the lack of post-sales support.

The Pixel 3a took both of those factors out of the equation and consequently became one of the best all-around Android devices available in 2019. And now, a generation later, the Pixel 4a has the potential to build on that same foundation and really do something special — something that could combine the Pixel 4's strengths with a more affordable package. Such a device probably wouldn't have all of the Pixel 4's assets, but it's easy to imagine it having the ones that matter the most.

And you know what? The absent elements could even be an advantage, in a way. Given the lower-caliber screen such a device is bound to possess and its likely lack of any high-tech radar system for always-on gesture detection, there's a decent chance a midrange Pixel 4 wouldn't share its sibling's stamina-related weakness — something that's become a bit of an Achilles' heel for an otherwise exceptional phone.

So don't tune out yet. Google's grand hardware reveal may be behind us, but the most important announcement is still ahead — even if it doesn't end up feeling as monumental in the moment.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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