Apple has the best budget phone on the market. I’ve been saying it for a while — and I’ve been ridiculed for it — but it’s true. In fact, it probably has the best-priced option for every budget.
I know it sounds preposterous. After all, the iPhone was always *the* premium phone, the phone for people who don’t really care about paying a couple hundred dollars extra to be a part of Apple’s ecosystem of services. On the other side of the fence you had Android phones, which offered nearly the same power, and more features than the iPhone, for a significantly lower price. People used to laugh at Apple for “introducing” iPhone features that Android phones have had for years, home screen widgets being the latest example.
The last bit hasn’t changed. But Apple’s iPhone 11, which launched in September 2019, did bring about a big change: It was priced at $699 while being dangerously close, feature-wise, to the pricier Pro variants. The main differences were the LCD and a dual camera on the iPhone 11 vs. an OLED display and a triple camera on the Pro. The iPhone 11 had the same, powerful A13 Bionic processor, a very similar design, the same selfie camera, the same water resistance rating, and nearly the same battery life.
And then, in April of this year, Apple introduced the new iPhone SE, which also sports the most powerful processor Apple has on offer, for the price of $399.
Suddenly, if you wanted a cheap phone with a lot of processing power, the iPhone SE — heck, even the iPhone 11 — was very hard to beat. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor, the most powerful alternative to Apple’s A13 Bionic, is expensive, making it hard for Android makers to squeeze it into an affordable device.
In that light, the Pixel 5, which launched yesterday, is a bit like Google’s admission of defeat. The company gave up on trying to compete, spec-for-spec, with top smartphones of today, and instead gave us a 5G phone with a dual camera (likely a great one thanks to Google’s software) and a mid-range processor for $699.
Google typically makes good or even great phones. And Apple’s iOS isn’t objectively far ahead of Android; it’s a matter of preference these days. I’m not saying the Pixel 5 is a bad deal (at least not without trying it out).
But consider this. Apple’s iPhone 12 will likely cost as much as the Pixel 5 (or, if some rumors are to be believed, even less at $649). If the reports are accurate, it will have an OLED display, 5G, and Apple’s latest processor. Apple will certainly leave some extra goodies for the Pro variants, but the company’s strategy as of late is to make its mid-range offering almost as good as its high-end offering, as is the case with the recently launched iPad Air. I bet that iPhone 12 will be very close, feature-wise, to the iPhone 12 Pro.
Back to Google’s Pixel 5. It’s barely competitive even with the year-old iPhone 11. It has a significantly weaker processor, weaker selfie camera (8-megapixels vs. 12 megapixels), and no advanced face recognition system (it has a fingerprint scanner on the back), but it wins on 5G, RAM, storage, and OLED display. Some of those advantages will likely disappear in a month, when the iPhone 12 launches. Unless you’re an Android diehard, it’s going to be hard to recommend the Pixel 5 over the iPhone 12. In fact, I believe the Pixel 5 won’t cost $699 for long, so I’d wait a while before buying it.
It’s not just Google’s problem. Even Xiaomi, which historically offered phones with Qualcomm’s strongest CPU on a budget, has a hard time undercutting the iPhone; Xiaomi’s latest Mi 10T costs 499 euros ($586), while the Mi 10T Pro costs 599 euros ($704). Apple can afford to put its most powerful processor into its entry-level and mid-range phones. Most Android makers cannot.
A fast processor isn’t the most important spec these days. The Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765G will surely be enough for most users. But an Apple phone with an A13 Bionic processor will get support for four or five more years, starting now. Androids typically don’t get significant updates for that long. If Apple offers its shiny new iPhone with a far more powerful processor at the same price, or even cheaper, would you really choose the Android phone?
Sure, Google’s market share is tiny. With Huawei out of the picture in the U.S. and Europe, Apple’s biggest competitor is Samsung. But even Samsung is having trouble catching up. With its Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition, the company finally started offering a great, equally priced competitor to the iPhone 11. But that phone came a full year after Apple’s flagship, and Apple will have a new, faster flagship in a matter of weeks.
Google’s Pixel 5 will likely remain a great option for Android purists. But the value it offers for the money makes it hard to justify buying one. It’s indicative of just how hard it is to compete with Apple these days.
We still don’t know everything about the iPhone 12 (officially, we know nothing, but this late in the game, rumors typically get most of the details right). But judging on what I’ve seen from the Android camp lately, I can safely predict that it’s going to do very, very well.