The Google Pixel 7a proves that Apple can do a better job of making a budget smartphone


As the dust settles from Google I/O 2023, comparisons between the new Pixel 7a and the current Pixel 7 are rife. There are few differences between the two phones, and that’s because you’ll save $100 by opting for the Pixel 7a , it’s as close as a smartphone purchase decision gets. But at $500, the new Pixel 7a enters the midrange category just $70 above Apple’s latest iPhone SE, which might make for a more interesting comparison. The Pixel 7a was criticized for its bezels, and by that measure, the third-generation iPhone SE looks like it’s lost in the wrong decade. So if Google can do it, why hasn’t Apple made a competitive device in the budget smartphone category?


The Pixel 7a is based on a phone from 2022, and the iPhone SE is based on a phone from 2017

Different iPhones on a round table.

If you’re a brand that wants to design a budget smartphone, using existing phones as a foundation is a solid strategy. The company has already spent money on research and development designing the phone’s form factor, and it also has the production equipment needed to actually make the phone. It can be a cost-effective way to offer a quality phone at a reasonable price point, but it all depends on which phone a company chooses to emulate.

In Google’s case, the Pixel 7a is very similar to the Pixel 7 that it announced in late 2022. That might lead you to guess that Apple’s latest iPhone SE is based on the iPhone 13 from last year. Or maybe the iPhone 12 from last year? No — it’s based on the iPhone 8, released in 2017, and incredibly similar to the iPhone 7 from 2016. The iPhone SE is closer to being a decade-old device than it is new.

The Pixel 7a proves that Apple can – and should – come out with a midrange iPhone that will be competitive in the category, and not just for consumers.

The Pixel 7a differs from the Pixel 7 in just three ways. Google’s new budget smartphone has a 6.1-inch display which is slightly smaller than the Pixel 7’s 6.3-inch but otherwise stacks up well in terms of quality. It has a plastic back instead of the glass found on the Pixel 7, but it’s hard to notice because of its glossy finish. Finally, the Pixel 7a has a smaller camera sensor with worse hardware than the Pixel 7. Those may be some key differences, but there are also a ton of key similarities in terms of camera performance and efficiency .

The iPhone SE has one thing in common with the latest iPhone 14. The iPhone SE has the same A15 Bionic system-on-a-chip (SoC) as the current iPhone 14, which also shared its chip with the iPhone 13 series in the past year. Even today, the A15 Bionic can rival any smartphone processor on the market, and it’s certainly a welcome addition to the otherwise outdated iPhone SE. But that’s where the similarities between Apple’s budget and flagship phones end. Everything else — from the size, display quality, camera, and form factor to the biometric security measures available — is different.

Apple knows how to offer solid midrange devices

Close-up of iPhone personal hotspot.

Part of the problem with the iPhone SE is that Apple knows how to make and sell budget and midrange devices. Just look at the iPhone 8, which the iPhone SE is appropriately based on. That model debuted alongside the flagship iPhone X, which completely redesigned the phone’s form factor in 2017. Apple knows that not all of its customers are ready to make the jump to that new design — or pay the $1,000 that it asked for the iPhone X — so it gave the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus as other options.

The iPhone 8 isn’t the only example of Apple making a lower-end version of their flagship iPhone, either. The iPhone 5C was a fun and colorful alternative in 2013, costing half the price of its flagship counterpart, the iPhone 5S. (Though smartphone pricing was more directly based on carrier contracts back then, so prices were lower overall.) More recently, the iPhone XR was introduced as a cheaper alternative to the iPhone XS and XS Max in 2018 . That phone stuck around for several years after its release, bridging the gap between the lowly iPhone SE and Apple’s flagship iPhones.

None of these iPhones are as close to their flagship counterparts in price as the Pixel 7a is to the Pixel 7. They’re also not as affordable as today’s Pixel 7a, at just $500. Still, they’re better than today’s iPhone SE, and they show what Apple can do when it tries to originally create a midrange smartphone.

Using the fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 6a

That’s not even taking into account the Pixel 6a, which is a year old at this point but really hurts the iPhone SE’s credibility even more. It can be bought for as low as $300 thanks to the release of the Pixel 7a. Although still lacking in terms of raw processing power, even the Pixel 6a has a more modern design than the iPhone SE. In other words, both the Pixel 6a and 7a are better than the iPhone SE in ways that matter. That’s true even though the Pixel 6a could be up to $130 cheaper than the iPhone SE.

Apple will still sell more iPhone SE than Pixels 7a, because of brand loyalty

iPhone SE 2022 and the iPhone 13 Pro Max

If there’s one factor that can be attributed to Apple’s meager recent entries in the midrange market, it’s brand loyalty. People buy iPhones because they are iPhones, not because of the value propositions they provide or the features they offer. Because of this, someone looking for an iPhone SE might not even consider the Pixel 7a or Pixel 6a as an option. They want to buy the cheapest midrange iPhone, not the cheapest midrange phone.

That ideology from Apple’s consumer base does not incentivize the company to create a better midrange smartphone for its customers. If people are going to buy the outdated iPhone SE anyway – or upgrade to the latest iPhone 14 instead – why spend the money and time to design a new midrange smartphone? Until sales and demand for the iPhone SE collapses, or Apple customers are disenfranchised, there’s no reason to believe we’ll be getting a competitive midrange phone from Apple anytime soon.

The tide is turning for Apple’s customer loyalty

iPhone SE 3, iPhone 13 Pro Max, iPhone 13 Mini
The iPhone SE (right) looks very old compared to the flagship iPhones.

The Pixel 7a proves that Apple can – and should – come out with a midrange iPhone that will be competitive in the category, and not just for consumers. A report conducted by research firm Wave7 concluded that 56% of carrier stores believe iPhone SE demand will be weaker in April 2022 than last year, as reported by PCMag. In February 2023, Apple reported that iPhone sales were down 8% in its first quarter earnings report. In the same month, the company announced its first quarterly sales decline since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A variety of factors – from factory closings to consumer concerns about inflation – could lead Apple to an inflection point. So maybe it can follow the likes of Google and other manufacturers, and build a solid attempt at a midrange smartphone, with competitive price and performance. Or, Apple could test the limits of brand loyalty and risk losing its dominant position in the North American smartphone market.

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