Why Google’s Pixel 8a may be the most important phone of 2024


Brrrrrrrrrrrrrreaking news, gang: Google’s just announced a new midrange Pixel product that pretty much everyone was expecting!

Titillating, I know, right? But hold the phone for a sec: Before you nod off and start thinking about noodles, there’s more to this story than what’s on the surface — and what most media outlets are reporting right now.

The device, in case you haven’t yet heard, is the 2024 Google Pixel 8a. It looks like a phone. It acts like a phone. It does all the things a phone does. And it’s incredibly similar, generally speaking, to the current Pixel 8 flagship that splashed into the world last fall.

I mean, just look at the two side by side:

Google’s Pixel 8a, at left, alongside the Pixel 8 — anyone else getting a hankering for some Doublemint gum?

Google, modified by IDG Comm

So, yeah: That’s the expected part of this saga. After all, Google has traditionally released a midrange “a”-model Pixel every spring, somewhere around this time. It’s generally been a slightly less fancy, more affordable sibling to the higher-end phone with the same model number from a handful of months earlier. And, well, it’s always had all the same exceptional stuff you’d expect from a Pixel product, even at its lower price point.

“So wait, then,” you might be thinking. “Why is this crazy son-of-a-gizmo saying the Pixel 8a might be the most important phone of 2024? Has he finally lost his marbles? Did he eat a few too many cantaloupes and turn into a fleshy, round-torsoed melon-man? Has he finally followed through on his threat to hire a highly trained chinchilla to write all his columns for him?”

The answer to all of those questions is a resounding yes. (Do me a solid and don’t mention the chinchilla bit to my bosses, though, all right?) But even so, the assertion at the top of this article is absolutely accurate. And the reason why comes down to two extremely important numbers.

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Google’s Pixel 8a positioning

First, real quick, let’s get the basic stuff out of the way — for anyone who hasn’t already read up on everything there is to know about the Pixel 8a phone.

Take a deep breath (or, if you have already ingested these basics, feel free to eat a cantaloupe or two while we make our way through it). We’ll do this fast:

  • The Pixel 8a is going on sale next Tuesday, May 14 (though it’s actually available for preordering now).
  • The phone features the same Google Tensor G3 chip that’s present in the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, which means it’ll be ready to handle all the same sorts of resource-intensive AI processing — including an on-device version of the latest and greatest Gemini Nano setup (eventually; Google says that’ll come with a future feature update and be accessible via a special but available-to-anyone developer option).
  • It has a 430-pixel-per-inch 6.1″ screen with a 120Hz refresh rate (fancy-speak for “a really frickin’ good display”).
  • By all counts, it should have the same exceptional camera quality we’ve come to expect from Pixels across the board, with all the advanced photo-improving magic other Pixels enjoy — Magic Eraser, Magic Editor, Night Sight, Face Unblur, and other such delicacies.

Capisce? Capisce. Now, about those two numbers I mentioned:

Contrary to what early rumors suggested, the Pixel 8a will sell for $499 — the same exact price as last year’s Pixel 7a model. And, the real icing on the digital cake here: Just like the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, it’ll come with seven full years of operating system updates, security patches, and even quarterly feature drop updates.

Take a second to let that sink in and to chew over just how shape-shifting of a move it really is: We’re talkin’ a phone that’s very much in line with the current top-of-the-line, arguably best-phone-available-anywhere Pixel 8 series — outside of some small and relatively insignificant surface-level niceties — now being offered at the same exact price as last year’s midrange model, only with seven years of complete post-sales software support as opposed to the previous phone’s three-year support promise.

Google has more than doubled the maximum advisable lifespan of its value-minded Pixel product, in other words, while continuing to sell it for the same cost.

Not only that, but like with any Pixel, the updates associated with the Pixel 8a are guaranteed to arrive within days of their release — something no other Android device-maker even comes close to matching in any context, as my Android Upgrade Report Cards remind us year after year.

And lest you think I’m overemphasizing the significance of this shift, let’s break down exactly why this could be so consequential — because Goog almighty, is it ever a monumental move. And that’s very much the case whether you ever set your sticky fingers on a Pixel 8a or not.

Pixel 8a perspective

For perspective, this concept connects directly to something I wrote last October about how Google’s Pixel 8 changes everything for Android. That article revolved around Google’s then-new announcement that the regular Pixel 8 series would receive seven full years of full software updates — an unprecedented post-sales software support promise for any phone at the time.

As I wrote last October:

Google’s always been ahead of the game when it comes to software support timeliness. But it’s been stuck on this three-year window for longevity for far too long — a liability that creates a perception of Android phones not holding up to iPhones when it comes to support life. Heck, even Samsung started providing four years of OS upgrades to many of its Galaxy models [in 2022], and while it’s far less speedy and reliable with those deliveries (and switches to a quarterly model for its security patches starting in a phone’s third year, on top of that), that contrast isn’t exactly a good look for Google as the platform’s primary keeper.

The Apple comparison is pretty misleading, too, truth be told — as what constitutes an OS update on Android is wildly different than what you find on iOS. Long story short, Apple bundles in all sorts of stuff into its twice-annual updates while Google breaks numerous system-level pieces out into standalone apps and updates ’em numerous times a month in a way that reaches all devices more or less instantly and indefinitely. So it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples juxtaposition, to say the least.

But even so, the reality remains that after three years, a Google-made Pixel phone has traditionally stopped receiving operating system updates. And despite all the emphasis around security patches and Play-Store-provided rollouts, Android operating system updates absolutely do matter — as all interface enhancing and feature finessing aside, OS updates often include significant under-the-hood improvements along with important security and privacy advancements. They also introduce both expansions and restrictions to APIs, which are what permit third-party apps to interact with your phone and personal data and perform a variety of advanced functions.

Those updates are so important, in fact, that I would never suggest anyone keep using a phone that isn’t actively receiving ’em in a reasonably timely manner.

And now, that exact same seven-year boost is coming into the midrange realm — at the price of $499.

To break that down even further: At $499 and with seven years of ongoing updates, you’re essentially paying a mere $71 bucks a year (rounded to the nearest full dollar amount) for an all-around smartphone experience that’s completely unmatched at that price level. Hell, one could argue that the all-around experience provided by the Pixel 8a will likely be better than what you’d get on most non-Google-made Android flagships, even.

But it’s relative picture that really matters. At $71 a year for that full period of advisable ownership, the Pixel 8a costs less per year than its higher-end Pixel 8 cousin — which, with its $699 starting price tag and the same seven years of support, comes out to roughly a hundred bucks a year if you buy the phone early in its release cycle and hang onto it for its full period of advisable ownership. So the 8a is $29 less per year than the regular Pixel 8, in other words. That seems about right for a high-end to midrange difference, wouldn’t ya say?

What’s even more striking, though, is when you start comparing the Pixel 8a’s value to other, non-Google-made options.

The Pixel 8a vs. everyone else

All right — ready?

Let’s look at Samsung’s closest comparable current midranger to start — the awkwardly named Galaxy A54 5G (gesundheit!). That phone is listed at $449, and it comes with a promise of four major operating system updates.

Setting aside the fact that with its midrange models in particular, Samsung tends to be extremely hit and miss and unreliable with how long it takes to deliver updates — and the overall experience on those devices tends to be about as pleasant as an overpriced root canal — the math there tells you all you need to know: The Galaxy A54 5G’s $449 cost divided by four years of ownership is $112 per year. And that’s nearly 60% more per year than what you’d pay for the objectively superior Pixel 8a product.

Motorola’s midrange Edge device isn’t any better. That phone is listed at $600 and comes with only two years of promised OS updates. That’s $300 a year per year of advisable ownership. Particularly when you factor in Motorola’s painfully apparent lack of interest in providing reasonable post-sales software support these days, it’s hard to see why anyone should buy a device like this.

What about on the Apple side of the spectrum? Well, Apple hasn’t put out a dedicated midrange phone since 2022’s iPhone SE model, and rumors suggest it might not be planning to do so again anytime soon. The company does, however, still sell that 2022 SE model for $429, along with selling the nearly three-year-old iPhone 13 model for $599 as a more affordable option.

Apple notably doesn’t make any explicit guarantees about its software support, but it tends to provides OS updates for six years, according to recent analyses. So with our handy math, that means a now-two-year-old iPhone SE would cost you about $107 a year for each of its remaining supported years at this point, while the three-year-old iPhone 13 would run you roughly 200 bucks a year for the three years left on its clock.

Plain and simple, the Pixel 8a is in a league of its own. You can’t find anything that provides the same level of quality at that cost anywhere else. Even the bottom-of-the-barrel budget junkers, like Motorola’s latest Moto G model, aren’t anywhere near the deals they seem to be on the surface. That Moto G costs $200 and includes only a single promised OS update. It actually costs you way more than any midranger over time, and it gives you a much worse experience in every possible way.

And here’s the thing, too: The Pixel 8a’s impact will likely stretch beyond even its immediate value to those of us who decide to buy it. Even if you never touch the thing, its arrival is bound to be important for you.

First and foremost, the Pixel 8a’s presence — if Google is able to effectively communicate its value to potential customers — could help Google claim a bigger piece of the US mobile market. And this isn’t about some sort of twisted corporate bragging rights, either: In an arena dominated largely by Apple and Samsung, having more meaningful competition can only be a good thing.

The biggest practical effect is that such competition can ultimately force other players to follow suit and fight to keep up. If Google’s promising seven years of updates even on the midrange front and offering such a compelling experience for so little cash, guess what Samsung’s almost certain to do before long? We’ve already seen the proof of that on the flagship side of things, exactly as a certain someone predicted, with Samsung extending its software support guarantee out to seven years for its higher-end Galaxy S24 models. And that’s a major win for all of us, as people who live with and rely on these devices.

So there ya have it. The Pixel 8a may not seem like the most exciting phone launch of 2024 — and on the surface, it almost certainly isn’t. But when it comes to overall impact and big-picture thinking, my goodness: It’s hard to imagine any other device this year having the same level of significance this seemingly simple midranger possesses.

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Android, Google, Operating Systems, Smartphones

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