Google Pixel Intelligence

The perfect contrast of the Pixel 4a and the Galaxy Note 20

This week's pair of Android phone launches reveals a lot more than what you see on the surface.

Google Pixel 4a, Samsung Galaxy Note 20
Google/Samsung/JR Raphael

Google Pixel Intelligence

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It's been quite a week for Android — a week of two very different, equally important new narratives. And while the stories appear to be wholly about hardware, the tales actually tell us a lot about the state of the Android ecosystem and the philosophies of two of its most influential players.

On Monday, Google announced its first new self-made phone of the year — the long awaited (and long delayed) Pixel 4a. The device costs $349 and is a decidedly utilitarian, midrange model that's about as far from flashy as a phone can be.

Then, on Wednesday, Samsung took the wraps off its own latest Android efforts, including the new Galaxy Note 20. The Note 20 is pretty much a checklist of every high-end spec imaginable, especially in its top-of-the-line Ultra model — the latest and greatest processor, a whopping 12GB of RAM, a super-high-res, high-refresh-rate screen, and a 108-megapixel "Space Zoom" camera — and it's made to turn heads, too, with a shiny metal exterior (in a "gender-fluid Mystic Bronze" finish, even!). It's also priced accordingly, starting at $1,300 for the Ultra version and a thousand bucks for the relatively more modest standard Note model in the U.S.

On the surface, the story here seems simple enough: Samsung's phone is the superior product — the one anyone should get, if they can justify the cost. Google's Pixel 4a, meanwhile, is the ho-hum alternative anyone on a budget should settle for owning. Right?

That's certainly the most obvious, immediate way to interpret this week's news — and, well, it's probably the way most folks (including the majority of pipe-smoking tech pundits) are gonna see it. But that's also the most superficial, surface-level assessment imaginable. And if that's all you're seeing, you're missing the bigger picture.

A tale of two Android philosophies

Let's zoom out for a minute — because while the phones themselves are fine enough, what's most interesting here is what the devices tell us about the strategies surrounding 'em. And you couldn't ask for a more representative view of how Google and Samsung approach Android.

It's a pretty dramatic contrast, really: The Pixel 4a is all about practicality — a minimalist mindset and function over form, to the extreme. It doesn't have all the available bells and whistles or the highest-spec version of anything, but almost everyone seems to agree it has all the stuff that actually matters when it comes to real-world experience — at least, for the vast majority of Android-totin' animals. And by omitting the various extras, it manages to provide that at a ridiculously affordable price.

Wired's reviewer proclaimed that the Pixel 4a was "nearly perfect," noting that it had him "reaching for it far more than most smartphones [he'd] tested this year." The Verge praised the device's "flagship-tier camera," which it concluded was on par with the industry-leading (and appropriately software-driven) Pixel 4 standard. Gizmodo called the device "perfect smartphone simplicity."

And the gang from Android Police perhaps summed it up most succinctly, right in their review headline: "All the phone you need, none of what you don't."

(My own first impressions: Using it feels like using a Pixel. You'd never think it was a $350 phone.)

If the Pixel 4a is pure practicality, the Galaxy Note 20 is pure extravagance. Will anyone other than the most passionate, tech-obsessed enthusiasts notice the difference in day-to-day life between the Pixel's unassuming Snapdragon 730G processor and the Note's positively screaming Snapdragon 865+ chip — or spend any significant amount of time dwelling on the difference in perceptible quality between the Pixel's fine-enough display and the Note's top-of-the-line panel? The Samsung phone's components are clearly superior in any objective measure, but are most phone-owners really gonna benefit from that in any measurable, real-world way?

Similarly, a 108-megapixel "Space Zoom" camera certainly sounds impressive on paper (or, ahem, in an ad) — and it's quite a technological milestone! But when the 4a's far more muted 12-megapixel shooter gives you equal or better-looking photos, on balance, does the impressiveness of the hardware itself ultimately even matter?

And does the objective superiority of the Note's individual components make it worth more than three times the price of the Pixel — particularly when the Pixel, as a general rule, has always been best viewed as being more than the sum of its parts?

Some broader Samsung-Google perspective

If it sounds like I'm knocking the Note or pooh-poohing Samsung's accomplishments, I'm not. The Note 20 is by most counts a fantastic phone and one countless people are sure to enjoy. And, critically, this isn't a one-or-the-other, winner-takes-all scenario; having the option to choose affordable practicality or nothing-held-back extravagance is a spectacular testament to the level of diversity that Android provides. That's a good thing! But when you step back and assess the underlying strategies driving these two products — well, it makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

(And yes, I realize it's a non-parallel comparison, of course, given that we're talking about a midrange model and a high-end flagship. But these are the phones we're thinking about this week, and that very non-parallel nature is what makes this whole thing so fascinating! Plus, the truth is that Samsung's midrange models have generally been non-starters for anyone other than those who don't actually assess the full spectrum of options and seek only to buy "a Samsung phone" — and at the same time, Google's Pixel "a" line is increasingly shaping up to be its signature Android offering.)

Most remarkably, it shows us that Google and Samsung have never been further apart in their tactics for winning over the Android-buying public. The former is focused on what arguably matters in a phone, at least for most people, while the latter is looking at what justifies a high price tag, earns "top-tier" bragging rights, and makes for effective marketing — while realistically addressing a pretty narrow set of real-world needs. And it looks like that minimalism-to-maximalism contrast may only get more pronounced yet, with Google potentially bringing a more subdued and budget-minded approach to its upcoming Pixel 5 flagship as well.

Now, here's what's really interesting: Samsung's formula is a proven success. We can talk all day about the downsides of Galaxy phones — the obnoxious built-in advertising, the sneaky data selling, the still-subpar post-sales software support — but at the end of the day, Samsung's phones sell. They sell incredibly well. And that's why Samsung has been the dominant force in Android all of these years.

Google may have the upper hand when it comes to user experience and software support — even on a phone like the Pixel 4a, which is guaranteed to get near-instant OS and security updates for a full three years from its launch despite its $350 price — but the reality is that Pixel phones have never been smash hits by any industry standards. The previous-gen Pixel 3a reportedly did rather well and saw substantial growth relative to the Pixel line, but it was still a drop in the bucket in the bigger Android picture.

So the question now is whether Google doubling down on that less-is-more philosophy can pay off in any meaningful way and turn the Pixel into anything more than a niche-level product. The key, it would seem, is emphasizing the Pixel's value — and doing so in a way that actually resonates with the non-tech-obsessed public (or at least results in more regular people even knowing what a Pixel is).

Whether Google can pull that off is a question only time can answer. For the moment, what we can say is this: When it comes to Android approaches, Google and Samsung truly are galaxies apart. And it's tough to think of a better analogy for how the companies act and what they represent than what we're seeing from them both right now.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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