Android Intelligence Analysis

Google just quietly gave us a killer midrange Android option

The broader effects of Google's Pixel gamble are suddenly coming into focus — and for those in the know, the impact is no longer limited to the realm of pricey flagship phones.

Google Pixel Midrange Android
JR Raphael, IDG

We've talked about how Google is playing its own game with its software-centric approach to the Pixel program, but one factor that's all too easy to overlook is the way that same mindset is now spreading from the flagship level to other parts of the Android phone spectrum.

Allow me to set the stage: With its Pixel phones, as we've seen now with three different generations of the device, Google is embracing the reality everyone else is ignoring and focusing primarily on the importance of software in the phone-using experience. Sure, each new set of Pixel products has the usual set of hardware updates and internal improvements, but the true selling points are less about megapixels or bezels and more about how the phone's bits and bytes push the experience forward in genuinely useful ways.

At the same time, most of the significant software improvements introduced in new Pixel models make their way to previous Pixel models pretty quickly via over-the-air updates. And, as of last year's Pixel 2 device, every one of those models is guaranteed to receive timely and ongoing operating system updates for a full three years from the date they launched.

Put those factors together, and you've got a powerful kind of value proposition whose full force is just starting to become apparent — because now, the value isn't attainable only for people who buy pricey flagship phones; it's also available for anyone who wants to spend a little less while still getting a standout Android experience with an exceptional level of ongoing support.

And lemme tell ya: The impact of that can't be overstated. 

The Pixel trickle

Let's think it all through, starting from the top: When you buy a Pixel 3 right now, you're getting a phone that's gonna remain current and continue to get better — not only in terms of operating system updates and all the feature, interface, and performance and security benefits such updates provide but also in terms of the Pixel-specific enhancements Google sends out as part of each subsequent hardware refresh — all the way through October of 2021. And every update within that window will arrive like clockwork, a matter of mere days after it's introduced.

Compare that to almost any other Android phone you can buy today, and the difference is dramatic: On most other flagship-level devices, you'll get months-late and often sporadic updates through 2020 — a full year less than with the Pixel — and that's being optimistic. Realistically, most Android manufacturers don't take ongoing support seriously, even with their current-gen flagship phones. And once your several-hundred-dollar phone hits its second year of life, well, good luck.

Where this really gets interesting, though, is when you start considering the bigger-picture implications of that Pixel phone distinction. The three-year window of rock-solid software support gives the current-gen Pixel phone a leg up on other current-gen devices, y'see, but it also gives the previous-gen Pixel phone a meaningful advantage over current flagships.

After all, a Pixel 2 purchased today will still get all software updates through October of 2020and get them in a timely and high-priority manner. By that metric, Google's year-old, previous-generation phone arguably gives you better value today than a brand new flagship from anyone else.

And yet, by current pricing standards, the Pixel 2 is basically now a midrange device: Google itself is selling the Pixel 2 for $649, in its lowest configuration, and you can find mint-quality used models in the $400 range. Those prices only seem likely to inch downward as time wears on.

But there's more: Just think how this situation will spread starting next year, when the Pixel 2 will be two years old and yet still have a full year of pending updates under its belt. You'll essentially have a menu of pricing points available for any budget: the current-gen model, with three full years of updates included; the previous-gen model, with two solid years of support still ahead; and the two-year-old version, with a year's worth of foundational improvements still remaining.

Google's software focus is thus not only altering the lifespan and value of a flagship phone; it's also completely changing what it means to get a midrange or budget-level phone, thanks to that cascading effect. And even if Google itself doesn't opt to keep selling those older models after a while, the used phone marketplace will provide an intriguing new level of aftermarket value.

For anyone who prioritizes ongoing attention to a phone's operating system and abilities, that represents a monumental shift in the playing field — and a new decision-making variable that can't be ignored.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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