Google shows Apple and Samsung how ‘lite’ flagships are done

The spirit of the Nexus returns. At least, the early models, anyway,

In recent years, the price of flagship phones has skyrocketed. What used to cost about $700 now goes for $1,000, albeit with more advanced features packed in. At the time of this writing, the iPhone XS starts at $999, the Galaxy S10 is $900, and the Note 9 costs $1,000. The existing Pixel 3 might be a bit cheaper at $799, but the larger 3 XL starts at $899.

This trend in pricing was soon followed by the return of the "lite" flagship -- watered down versions of the pricier phones that cost hundreds less. There's last year's iPhone XR, the Galaxy S10e and now, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL (side note: it's nice that Google offers its affordable alternative in two sizes). Midrange phones and lower-cost flagships have been done before, but this burgeoning category is good news for us, something that the Pixel 3a makes especially clear.

These cheaper devices take on companies like OnePlus, Motorola and Xiaomi in the midrange market, but come with the prestige their famous brands provide. Apple, Samsung and Google want to expand their reach to people with shallower pockets, which is obviously a sensible strategy.

During Alphabet's most recent earnings call, CFO Ruth Porat and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both called out "pressures in the premium smartphone industry" as reasons for a slowdown in Pixel sales this past quarter. But, according to Pixel product manager Soniya Jobanputra, these pressures weren't what inspired the Pixel 3a.

Pixel 3a XL review

"We've been building this phone for many more quarters than that," she said. "When we started pitching this, people were like 'no one builds phones at that price anymore.'"

A thousand bucks is a lot to cough up for a premium phone, even if there are people who don't care about price and just want the best tech around. "They want a phone with the latest and greatest of everything," Jobanputra said. But not everyone can afford that, even with installment plans.

With their lite flagships, companies like Apple and Google like to talk about making their technology accessible to more people. "We were thinking that we have an amazing experience and we want to bring it to more users," Jobanputra said. Similarly, Apple knew before it launched the iPhone X that it needed to bring that device's advances in software and performance to people who didn't want to shell out $1,000.

This approach has largely been successful for Apple -- the iPhone XR quickly became the company's best-selling phone. On the other hand, Samsung's Galaxy S10e was the lowest-selling model of this year's generation of Galaxy S phones.

Apple iPhone XR

Google will probably do better, and I base my prediction on a single factor: price. At $400, the Pixel 3a is the cheapest of the lite flagships and doesn't compromise on specs too much. You'll get (almost) the same class-leading camera that's on the Pixel 3, a solid build and even a longer-lasting battery than the pricier flagship. Sure, you'll be relegated to a slower Snapdragon 670 processor, but Google's engineers have worked hard to make its software fly on that chipset. People who don't need wireless charging, water resistance or a wide-angle selfie camera won't miss much.

Jobanputra is confident her team has made a good product. "I think it's going to do really well."

It's not like Google hasn't done this before, either. The Nexus series often offered flagship features for hundreds of dollars less than the competition. And for a spell, those phones were well-received. But the company ditched that line for the more-premium Pixel lineup with the mission of making the best canvas with which to showcase its software. The Pixel 3a is not simply a watered-down Pixel 3; the work that Google's engineers had to do to make Android perform at its best on lower-power hardware is further proof of the company's software prowess.

Pixel 3a XL

The fact that Google, Apple and Samsung are edging into a slightly cheaper space means we can expect other companies in that strata to do better. Because the Pixel 3a offers so much for so little money, it could seriously up the ante. For just $400, you're getting a capable phone with a flagship-level camera -- an area where sacrifices are usually made to save money on your smartphone. That price also makes the Pixel 3a significantly cheaper than the Galaxy S10e and the iPhone XR, which both cost $750. If nothing else, Google is showing Apple and Samsung how to do the "lite" flagship right.