Not long ago, there were many compelling reasons to spend more than $900 on a smartphone. You have to come up with an excuse to pay that much these days.
I’ve run out of reasons to spend money and have stopped buying fancier phones nicknamed “Pro” for the last two years. It’s not just because I’m frugal. Cheaper phones are increasingly indistinguishable from high-end phones, and the few features that set them apart rarely justify the extra price.
Google’s new budget phone hitting stores this week, the Pixel 7A, is the latest proof of the smartphone market’s maturity and offers an opportunity to save money. The $500 entry-level phone is in many ways on par with its premium $900 counterpart, the Pixel 7 Pro. And based on my week-long testing, I’d recommend the budget model for most Android users.
Be patient as I break with tradition of reviewing a phone’s capabilities. Putting the Pixel 7A’s value in perspective requires a history lesson on smartphones.
The biggest downside to buying Android phones over Apple’s iPhones for most of the last decade was that they had a short lifespan. Most Android phones received software updates for about two years. From that point on, their use became less secure as they lacked security protections against the latest vulnerabilities. In contrast, iPhones received updates for about six years.
Many Android phone makers have struggled to keep up with software updates because they depend on chips and components from different manufacturers and it’s difficult to keep new operating systems working with all of those pieces.
So spending more on an Android phone made sense for a long time. Samsung’s high-end Galaxy smartphones, which range in price from around $700 to $1,000, received software updates several years longer than other Android devices, partly because the South Korean manufacturer tightly controlled its hardware production.
But Google has recently gotten a head start. In 2018, the search giant acquired handset maker HTC, allowing it to create its own mobile computing chip called Tensor. Google now controls its Pixel hardware and Android software, so it can guarantee software updates for its Tensor-powered Pixel phones for at least five years.
This longer support lifespan – combined with Google’s tensor making the Pixel phones faster and more power efficient – is a win for consumers.
“They want the latest features and they want it to stay secure, so those are the things we’re most focused on,” said Brian Rakowski, a Google executive responsible for the Pixel phones.
With that in mind, the Pixel 7A, which features the same Tensor chip as the high-end Pixel, offers the best value for money 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 Pixel 7 Pro’s 6.7-inch screen. Whether that’s good or bad depends on you and your body type. For me, a slim person, the Pixel 7A is a reasonable size, easier to handle with one hand, and fits more comfortably in a pocket.
Google also says that the Pixel 7 Pro’s screen glass is of higher quality than the Pixel 7A’s display. However, in my experience, all phone screens run the risk of shattering if 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 the 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 with higher resolution. Otherwise, both phones have the same camera software, including a night mode that lets them take photos in low light and a tool to sharpen blurry photos. The Pixel 7A’s camera excels at all of these features.
What matters most with 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 both devices looked sharp and detailed. While the images captured by the Pixel 7 Pro’s camera looked a little better overall, they certainly didn’t look $400 better. (You decide.)
Finally, the Pixel 7A’s battery lasted long enough to get through a normal day of general use, including web browsing and checking email, just like the Pixel 7 Pro.
The fluid line between budget and premium phones raises questions about the sales tactics tech companies use to market their high-end products. Companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung often say their expensive phones are for “pro” users, the high-earning street warriors who spend hours on the phone, texting, and juggling apps.
But the image of the professional user has become a marketing myth in the context of smartphones. In almost every job, whether it’s a student, a truck driver, or an employee, people rely heavily on phones – and most cell phones are currently excellent at all of these tasks.
So choose 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 could be the right solution regardless of what marketers expect from you.