A Pixel for the pocket

The Pixel 4a – Google’s mid-range smartphone for this year – was finally launched on Monday, after months of delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Google Pixel launches have been greeted with fanfare the last few years, despite sales of these smartphones remaining tiny compared with other smartphone brands.

With the latest mid-range Pixel phone, the spotlight is again on its value but perhaps more intensified this year, given the current downbeat economic outlook.

The 5.8-inch Pixel 4a offers a similar camera and software experience as Google’s flagship Pixel 4 for less than half the price, pitting it against Apple’s low-cost iPhone SE.

Online pre-orders in Singapore started on Monday at $499 from the Google Store, before expanding to Courts Online and Challenger’s Hachi.tech online store yesterday.

Amazon Singapore will sell the phone from Sept 10.

For Singapore consumers, the Pixel 4a will be the cheapest Pixel phone available here and by some margin when compared with its Pixel 3a predecessor (from $659). The Pixel 4a will not be offered by local telcos.

In its blog post announcing the Pixel 4a, Google also gave a teaser to its next Pixel 5 smartphone, which will have 5G connectivity. This flagship model will be joined by a 5G version of the Pixel 4a, starting at US$499 (S$690).

Both of these upcoming phones will not be sold in Singapore. Instead, they will be launched later this year in nine markets, with Google promising to reveal more details in the coming months.

A Google spokesman tells The Straits Times the tech firm decided not to make its 5G-capable Pixel phones available in Singapore based on “a variety of factors, including local market trends and product features”.

Singapore is targeting nationwide 5G coverage for half the island by end-2022 and the entire island by 2025.

Despite the Pixel 4a’s competitive price tag, analysts tell The Straits Times it will be difficult for the tech giant to repeat or improve on its overall Pixel sales this year over 2019.

Last year’s mid-range Pixel 3a likely boosted sales of Pixel phones to an all-time high.

While Google does not reveal official sales figures for its smartphones, it was reported in June by market research firm IDC that last year was the best year for the Pixel line, with sales up 52 per cent from 2018 to reach 7.2 million units.

This year, Google’s mid-range phone faces a major competitor in Apple’s lower-cost iPhone SE (from $649), which had an advantage of a headstart when it was launched in April.

However, analysts say this headstart is far from insurmountable, given the challenging market conditions brought about by the ongoing pandemic.

Mr Frank Gillett, principal analyst at market research firm Forrester Research, says: “Everything, including the smartphone refresh cycle, is off-kilter. Many people have extended or paused their smartphone upgrade plans.”

Mr Jeff Fieldhack, research director at market research firm Counterpoint, says consumers are always looking for great value.

But he adds that buyers typically do not switch between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms. A Counterpoint report last month found that over 30 per cent of iPhone SE buyers came from an older Apple handset while 26 per cent moved from an Android device.

He does not believe Google will repeat or exceed last year’s Pixel sales because of the fierce competition in the smartphone industry, which is also facing a dip of 10 per cent this year.

Mr Bryan Ma, vice-president of device research at IDC, says the Pixel 4a has plenty of rivals, especially in Asia, from aggressively priced Chinese brands such as Xiaomi and Oppo.

“Google’s main selling points will still be the clean Android build, Pixel-specific feature updates, and imaging capabilities,” he says.

However, Mr Gerrit Schneemann, senior analyst at market research firm Omdia, says the presence of major Chinese smartphone-makers is minimal in the Pixel’s key United States market.

Instead, Google would be competing against LG and Samsung’s mid-range models, which are less price-competitive.

Like the Pixel 3a, the Pixel 4a is available in 13 markets, including the US, Japan and India.

In a local media briefing last week, Mr Zach Koch, product lead of Android and Pixel software, says Google will focus on selling its Pixel phones through online channels this year due to the pandemic.

In Singapore, the Pixel 4a will be in brick-and-mortar stores only at Courts and Challenger from mid-October. Online pre-orders here are open for more than a month, which is unusually long for a smartphone launch.

Google says other launch countries will also have longer than usual pre-order periods.

However, Mr Koch is upbeat about the Pixel 4a’s prospects. He says there is a stronger market for mid-range phones like the Pixel 4a because the premium phone market is softening with many consumers looking for the best bang for the buck.

Google Pixel 3a user Jennifer Lim says her phone is still working fine without any issues after about a year. “It is better than my previous phone because it does not hang and is easy to use,” she says.

But this also means the 38-year-old finance officer does not plan to upgrade to the Pixel 4a, despite finding the price attractive.

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