Not long ago, there were plenty of compelling reasons to spend upward of $900 on a smartphone. Nowadays, you’ll have to come up with an excuse to pay that much.
I ran out of reasons to splurge and stopped buying fancier phones with the “Pro” moniker over the past two years. That’s not just because I’m frugal. Cheaper phones have increasingly become indistinguishable from high-end ones, and the few features that set them apart rarely justify the extra cost.
Google’s new budget phone that arrives in stores this week, the Pixel 7A, is the latest testament to the maturation of the smartphone market, and it presents an opportunity to save money. The entry-level handset, priced at $500, is in many ways on par with its premium counterpart, the Pixel 7 Pro, which cost $900. And based on my testing for a week, I would recommend the budget model for most Android users.
Bear with me as I break from the tradition of reviewing a phone’s features. Putting the Pixel 7A’s value into perspective requires a history lesson on smartphones.
For most of the last decade, the biggest disadvantage to buying Android phones instead of Apple’s iPhones was that they were short lived. Most Android phones received software updates for roughly two years, at which point they became less safe to use because they lacked security protections against the latest vulnerabilities. In contrast, iPhones got updates for about six years.
Many Android phone makers struggled to keep up with software updates because they relied on chips and components from an array of different manufacturers, and it was difficult to make new operating systems continue to work with all those parts.
So for a long time, spending more on an Android phone made sense. Samsung’s high-end Galaxy smartphones, which cost roughly $700 to $1,000, got software updates for several years longer than other Androids in part because the South Korean manufacturer tightly controlled its hardware production.
But Google recently gained an edge. In 2018, the search giant acquired the handset maker HTC, which allowed it to make its own mobile computing chip, called Tensor. Google now controls its Pixel hardware and the Android software, so it can guarantee software updates for its Tensor-powered Pixel phones for at least five years.
That longer support life — combined with Google’s Tensor making the Pixel phones faster and more efficient in their power use — is a win for consumers.
“They want the latest features and they want it to stay secure, so those are the things that we’re most focused on,” said Brian Rakowski, a Google executive overseeing the Pixel phones.
With that all in mind, the Pixel 7A, which includes the same Tensor chip as the high-end Pixel, offers the best bang for the buck among Android phones. Here’s how.
Pixel 7A vs. ‘Pro’
The most obvious difference between the Pixel 7A and the higher priced Pixel is the screen. At 6.1-inches diagonally, the display is slightly smaller than the 6.7-inch screen of the Pixel 7 Pro. Whether that’s good or bad will depend on you and your body type. To me, a person with a slender build, the Pixel 7A is a reasonable size that feels easier to handle with one hand and fits more comfortably in a pocket.
Google also says that the glass on the Pixel 7 Pro’s screen is higher quality than the Pixel 7A’s display. But in my experience, all phone screens are susceptible to shattering when dropped on a hard surface, and it’s always a better idea to use a protective case.
The other main difference between the premium and cheaper model is the camera. The Pixel 7A has a dual-lens camera and the Pixel 7 Pro has a triple-lens system that can zoom in at a higher resolution. Otherwise, both phones include the same camera software, including a night mode that makes them capable of shooting photos in low light and a tool to sharpen blurry photos. The Pixel 7A’s camera excels at all these features.
What matters most on a camera is how the photos look in daylight, because that’s how we take most of our pictures. I took photos of my dog, Max, with both phones, and the images from the two devices looked sharp and detailed. Although the pictures taken with the Pixel 7 Pro’s camera overall looked ever-so-slightly better, they certainly didn’t look $400 better. (You be the judge.)
Finally, the Pixel 7A’s battery lasted long enough to get me through a normal day of general use, including browsing the web and checking email, just as the Pixel 7 Pro could.
The blurring line between budget and premium phones raises questions about the sales tactics used by tech companies to market their high-end wares. Companies like Apple, Google and Samsung often say that their expensive phones are devoted to “pro” users, the high-earning road warriors who spend hours chatting on the phone, sending messages and juggling apps.
Yet the image of the pro user has become a marketing myth in the context of smartphones. In just about every occupation, whether it’s a college student, a truck driver or a white-collar professional, people rely heavily on phones — and most handsets at this point excel at all those tasks.
So pick a phone based on your needs, your body type, the operating system you prefer and the apps you use. A budget phone like the Pixel 7A may be the right fit, regardless of what the marketers would like you to think.
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