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No, the Pixel 3a is not Google’s answer to the iPhone XR

It has been scarcely more than a day since Google took the wraps off the Pixel 3a, but the comparisons between it and the iPhone XR are well and truly underway. Not as direct rivals, of course, as there is a wide price gulf between the two devices (the Pixel 3a XL, the more expensive of the two new Pixel a devices, costs Rs 44,999, while the iPhone XR starts at Rs 76,000), but as a strategic move. Just as the iPhone XR offered users a high-end iPhone experience at a relatively lower price, so do the new Pixel 3a devices, runs the rationale.

On the surface, it does seem to make sense. Apple released the iPhone XR to give users the option to experience a bit of iPhone magic without spending a massive $999 (or Rs 99,900 in India). Similarly, Google too released the Pixel 3a editions to give users a taste of the premium Pixel experience without spending the sort of premium price a Pixel 3/ 3 XL commanded. And both the iPhone XR and the Pixel 3a devices make some hardware compromises to facilitate their relatively lower price tags – both devices come with relatively lower resolution displays than their full-fledged counterparts, for instance.

 But that is about where the two products diverge, each reflecting a very different approach from their manufacturers.

Apple iPhone XR

Apple clearly views its UI and apps as the iPhone’s key forte, which is why it seemingly opted to cut back on displays and cameras in the XR.  Where it did not cut back, however, was in terms of the heart of the device – the XR has the same processor that the XS and XS Max. In essence, if you got an iPhone XR, the message was clear: you would not get the sort of display or camera magic that an iPhone XS and XS Max could deliver (it was not as if the XR had a bad display or camera, it just was not quite in the same league), but everything else would be pretty much on par – the apps, the UI, the general experience.

Google, on the other hand, seems to have bet heavily on the Pixel’s camera. The Pixel 3a has taken cuts in display and even in processor (going down from the Snapdragon 845 to the Snapdragon 670), but has a 12.2 megapixel rear camera that is very similar to the one on the 3 and 3 XL. The message from the Pixel 3a is: you are going to get the same sort of camera magic from this phone that you did from the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. Yes, some folk will doubtless talk about the smoothness of pure (stock) Android and the assurance of regular updates, but those are available on non-Pixel devices too now. And well, anyone who says a device on Snapdragon 670 chip will work as smoothly or swiftly as one on the Snapdragon 845 will just redefine technological naïveté.

And within those differences is a reflection of the difference between Android and iOS, and those between the two rivals, Google and Apple. Apple from the very beginning has been fighting on the “user experience” and while Google too started with that on the radar (features like the notification bar were what made Android special, not its hardware), it has since then become a bit of a hardware feature beast. The Pixels in particular have seemed to try to be on the high end of hardware scale, perhaps to justify their price tags – pure Android is no longer the rare bird it used to be, thanks to the efforts of the likes of Motorola and Nokia, and Google’s own Android One initiative. Now, whether by design or accident, the most distinct aspect of the Pixel range seems to have become its camera – which is perhaps why it is the one feature of the “proper” Pixels that Google has brought forward and is stressing heavily in their “lite” avatar.

Mind you, the Pixel does have a fair bit of software magic in its cameras, so it is not purely a hardware play that Google is betting on – the Google Camera app is an entity in its own right – but at the end of the day, the fact is simple – a person’s biggest motivation for buying an iPhone XR is likely to be getting access to the iOS experience, while a person looking to grab a Pixel 3a will be looking for mind-boggling photography. Of course that does make the Pixel 3a inferior or superior to the iPhone XR – Google’s choice has contributed to making the Pixel 3a much more accessible to people than the iPhone XR is in pure financial terms. Of course, Apple fan boys will point out that it does so by compromising by its processor, but then Google supporters will retaliate by saying that the 3a does not shortchange users in the crucial camera department.

And that is the essential difference in strategies behind the two devices. Both companies have cut corners to cut prices of the “lite” versions of their flagships. But they are very different ones.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.

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