A case for cheap phones

posted by Jeff | Saturday, December 5, 2020, 8:35 PM | comments: 0

I scored a Pixel 4a (5G) for Diana this week, when I realized that her phone was three-years-old. Her battery life was getting shorter and technically it was out of the security update support range, even though she has still been getting updates. The thing is, the phone was only $350, and that's with 128 gigs of storage and 5G radios (which, as is the case in many places, isn't useful yet). I'll get another $45 in trade from her Pixel 2.

It's a remarkably good phone. The only two features it really doesn't have is wireless charging and some degree of waterproofing. The camera and image processing software is as good as anything on the market right now, including the iPhone 12. To Google and Apple's credit, their "regular" phones are not a grand ($700 and $800 respectively), but they're still not cheap. This goes back to the thing I bring up every year: Are the "top of the line" phones really worth hundreds more, or in this case, twice as much? Absolutely not. Even as a person who values the photography bits the most, it's not worth spending that much more. In fact, while it's subjective, much in the way that people debate Canon versus Sony color science in video cameras, I think Google's processing is still superior to Apple's, with a lot more dynamic range and not what I call "Best Buy demo TV" color saturation.

The Pixel 4a (both the 4G and 5G varieties) are also indicative of the poor product management happening at Google. For $350 they're selling a completely remarkable phone that doesn't necessarily have the most recent processor but it checks all the boxes you want: A great screen, a great camera and image processing, solid performance and great battery life. If I'm a Google product manager, I should be thinking, "I wonder if we can hit a $500 price point adding wireless charging and waterproofing." The only thing lagging then from the average Samsung or Apple phone at that point is a slower processor, for which most humans will never detect a difference.

(Sidebar: If you want to use Google Fi, which is awesome, especially when you're on wifi most of the time, you can get $400 off the newest Samsung phones, too. We've been on Fi for years, and currently spend about $40/month for two lines. They use the T-Mobile-Sprint-US Cellular networks, so coverage is solid.)

I upgraded my Pixel 2 to a 4 a year ago, which ended up being about $300 after credits. That was more than I wanted to spend, and I didn't need it, but it was appealing because of the camera updates. Unfortunately, this is the one and only phone they've made that uses face unlocking, which is sucks in a world where you have to wear masks in public. They went back to the fingerprint readers in the 4a and the 5, as they should have. It's still a good phone aside from the unlocking, but I would consider upgrading to a 5 if they offered the right credits. I'm ending most days at 30-40% battery. I value the wireless charging, and I do bring the phone into pools and the ocean.


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