Market Insight

Google Pivots on Smartphone Hardware with New Affordable Pixel 3a & 3a XL

May 07, 2019


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Google today announced a pair of new smartphones aimed at generating a broader market appeal than their previous three generations of premium Pixels.  The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are priced starting at $399 and $479 respectively and represents a new approach to filling out Google’s smartphone lineup with approximately a $300 discount on list price of existing models.  The design language of the new Pixels remains the same as the current Pixel 3 devices introduced last year, which had been Google’s first internally designed smartphone product (as opposed to previous use of HTC or LG designs as defined by FCC filings).  In order to hit the lower price points, Google has pared down the core electronics, opting to use the 700 and 600 tiers of Qualcomm Snapdragon SoCs.

 

Some of the hardware highlights of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are as follows:

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 with 4GB of SDRAM on Pixel 3a & 3a XL
  • 441 dpi Full HD Plus 5.6” OLED display (2220 x 1080p) on Pixel 3a
  • 402 dpi Full HD Plus 6.0” OLED display (2160 x 1080p) on Pixel 3a XL
  • Computational photography features carried over from most recent premium Pixels

 

Traditionally, Google had announced their premium Pixel family of smartphones just weeks after Apple released its latest iPhones, both as a means to blunt the impact of new iPhones on Android sales and to lay out Google’s opinion on the direction of Android-based smartphone design.  However, this timing was perpetually late with respect to Android partner competitors who were already planning for next year’s model design and chipsets.  This out-of-cycle design schedule has led to a lack-luster market response to the hardware and further limited by Google’s network exclusivity deal for the Pixel on Verizon.

With the latest Pixels, Google is now no longer limited by their exclusive Verizon deal and have expired and now Google has open the Pixel 3a and 3a XL distribution to T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular as well as Google Fi [note that the 3 new national carriers are also Google Fi partners].  Notably missing is US #2 wireless carrier, AT&T.  Opening up to more carriers in a carrier-led market such as the US ( where ~90% smartphones are distributed) is critical for Google Pixel to become a more mainstream product. 

For Google, software is the key differentiator and where the Pixel smartphones really shine.  The Pixel is primarily a vehicle for Google’s annual update to Android as well as a showcase for new Google services, like Duplex. Duplex relies on advancements in A.I. and machine learning (ML) to help users screen calls and assist in mundane activities like scheduling an appointment. The service combines multiple Google data sources to form a new user experience. 

Improvements to computational photography also allowed Google to do more with its modest hardware while others have already moved to more capable multi camera module designs.  Hidden in each of the past 3 model years of Pixel is a Movidius NPU (neural processing unit) chip.  This A.I. oriented chip helps Google accelerate many of the A.I. and M.L. applications.  The inclusion of the discrete NPU is unique to Google Pixels and the full potential of which has yet to be realized or well understood.  The Modvidius (now an Intel company) chip may be a sort of trojan horse for when Google turns up the sophistication on their A.I. in future releases of Android and provide the premium trims of Pixels to have access to exclusive features and A.I. services such as the next generation Google Assistant demonstrated at today at Google I/O.

Google’s move to use Qualcomm 600 and 700 series Snapdragon processors on the new Pixel phones will illustrate how Google’s efforts to optimizing the platform to lower spec devices are shaping up. The company talked a lot about moving AI and ML features to the device. If features, like onboard image recognition and read-back capabilities, are supposed to bring new user experiences to a broad range of users, the technology must run on lower powered devices.

While the prices of the new Pixels fit nicely into Google’s overarching motto for Google I/O this year, making technology accessible for everyone, the change in strategy is also a reaction to the realities of the overall smartphone market where super premium pricing has impacted many OEMs. Since the second half of 2018, OEMs have begun to rethink what flagship devices should be, or how they fit into their overall product portfolio. Samsung, for example, has introduced new camera technology on A-series devices instead of Galaxy S flagships. The new Pixel 3a’s are a move in the same direction.

On the flip side, another way of looking at it is that Google has realized that it can no longer compete effectively in the premium segment of the market where hardware innovations are outpacing their ability to keep up with the Samsung and Huawei of the world. However, retreating to a value position with lower cost Pixels and differentiate via A.I. and services should expand their opportunity to succeed.

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