Google Looks to Capture Mid-range 5G Device Market With New Pixel 4a and Pixel 5

On September 30, Google launched two Pixel devices — Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. This follows the August 3 launch of the Pixel 4a (a non-5G version), which is yet to hit the shelves in all its key markets, like India. This means that three Pixel devices will be available for retail in most markets by mid-November, which will be a first for the Google Pixel team.

With its latest Pixel devices, Google has finally managed to make decent upgrades on the hardware. The main focus is obviously the added ‘5G’ support, apart from several other enhancements related to display, camera, battery and on-board storage. On the display side, it includes FHD+ OLED panel and an Always-on Display. While the Pixel 5 features a screen with 90Hz refresh rate, HDR support and Corning Gorilla Glass 6 protection, the Pixel 4a 5G sticks to a 60Hz screen and Gorilla Glass 3 protection. We also finally have the ultrawide camera and new software enhanced features for portrait mode photography. Pixel 5 also includes wireless charging, reverse charging and IP68 dust and water-resistant features that are missing in the cheaper Pixel 4a 5G device. Surprisingly, while the Pixel 5 comes with USB Type-C port for audio and data transfer, the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a 5G models also come with a legacy 3.5mm audio port. Below is a comparison of the latest Pixel devices in terms of hardware:

Google Continues to Build on its Software Prowess

Google has created its own niche among consumers with focus on photography while leveraging its software prowess. Pixel devices bring the best-in-class Android experience along with in-built AI neural engine that supports various features that might seem slightly distant for many smartphone OEMs.

We have seen previous Pixel devices offering some distinctive features such as live captions, active edge assistant, AI-based on-device Google Assistant, Titan M security chip, the Shazam-like ‘now playing feature’, the car crash feature and much more. This is apart from its dominance in capturing the most natural photographs, along with features such as Astro photography and dual exposure control, which make us count Google Pixel devices among the best photography smartphones. The new range of Pixel devices continues to build on these capabilities apart from new additions such as night sight with portrait mode, portrait light (AI-based enhancements that can be applied to existing photo library), cinematic pan, extreme battery saver, hold for me, and much more. But unfortunately, Google did not emphasize enough on such features which make it stand apart from other smartphone OEMs.

The 5G factor

Google has managed to add ‘5G’ capability in its Pixel range of devices at the right time. The industry is at an inflection point for 5G device democratization over the next few quarters. Google has entered the 5G device race right before the Apple announcements in this regard, which are expected in a few weeks. While Apple is likely to become a major catalyst for 5G device adoption, Google has made a very smart move when it comes to pricing. Google’s top-of-the-line Pixel 5G is likely to compete against the lower-end iPhone 12 devices or existing Samsung Note 20/S20 devices. The new devices come with Snapdragon 765G SoC rather than the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 865+ SoC. This means that Google is not trying to compete with the super-premium flagship ranges from Apple and Samsung, but rather focusing on the mid-range and affordable premium price segments while leveraging its software prowess as the main selling point.

Having said that, it seems the Pixel 4A 5G supports sub-6 5G bands only, while the Pixel 5 supports both – sub-6 as well as mmWave. This means that an unlocked Pixel 4A 5G device bought from Google Store will not be able to provide a full 5G experience over the course of years. That is why Verizon announced a separate SKU, being called Pixel 4A 5G UW. It is priced at $599 (i.e. an additional price delta of $100, which the industry calls as “mmWave tax”) while the Pixel 5 will still be sold at $699. With only a $100 price difference between the two devices, it makes the Pixel 5 a much better choice.

The 5G capability will enable Google to upsell its content and services such as Stadia, YouTube premium, storage and much more, going forward.

Still a Device for Premium Markets

Google has been very selective in picking its key markets. Google Store lists nine countries that will be selling the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G devices — US, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, France, Ireland, Australia and Taiwan. But it may likely add more countries such as India, Singapore, Italy and Spain, which currently sell previous generation Google Pixel devices.

Google was not able to sell the Pixel 4 and 4 XL devices in India due to its Soli Radar chip on the front, which utilized the 60GHz frequency band banned for commercial use in India. It seems Google has finally removed the Soli Radar chip and the Pixel range can now be sold in India.

Google would be keen on capturing a pie in the European market in absence of Huawei, but it is likely to face tough competition from other Chinese OEMs. Google does have an edge in terms of brand equity, but it needs to build strong carrier partnerships and have a sturdy pricing and promotion strategy to capture the opportunity. As we write this article, we can already see some price aberrations across different Google stores.

Source: Google Canada Store (Prices in CAD)

After currency conversion, Pixel 5 is priced at $599 in Canada, making it $100 cheaper compared to its retail price in the US. We delved further into this and found out that Pixel 5 is actually a sub-6 only device for every country other than the US. Therefore, there will be some price differentiation across these markets. Although Google Store drives only a fraction of Google Pixel sales, the bottom line is that Google must have a sturdy pricing and promotion strategy across regions, especially in carrier channels.

The Google Ecosystem

Google has plenty of room to grow given its control over the connected ecosystem, which goes beyond just smartphones. It is a major competitive advantage over any other smartphone OEM and positions Google to offer the best Android user experience, optimized and customized for each user.

The Pixel devices just need to strike the right chord among users with a hardware strategy that is sturdy, consistent and competitive in terms of specifications. Google has definitely moved closer to that goal with the new range of Pixel devices, but it needs to further strengthen and stimulate its sales and marketing efforts at the ground level in key markets.

Hanish is an Associate Director with Counterpoint Technology based in Toronto, Canada. He has 8+ years of industry experience in providing market research and strategic consulting across various industry sectors. He tracks developments in the mobile handset, telecom and IoT industry value chain. He brings in the vast experience of providing advisory services to OEMs & component manufacturers, network operators, private equity firms and technology companies. He played a pivotal role in helping Chinese OEMs set up their manufacturing base in India under the “Make in India” program.

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