It has been a busy few months in the world of smartphones. And for once, the focus has not really been on high-end flagships but on the so-called mid-segment – that zone lies between USD 300 and USD 400. That is because three very high profile brands have each unveiled their own approach to win a share in this segment – Apple, OnePlus, and Google.

pixel 4a vs nord vs iphone se: three premium brands, three approaches to the "affordable smartphone" - pixel 4a nord iphone se

Interestingly, all these three brands have of late been largely focusing on the premium side of the market, but the past few months have seen them go for this mid-stream. And no, we do not think the reduced expenditures spurred by the COVID pandemic has caused it – all three phones had been in the works for a while, well before the pandemic even became news. No, the main motive of the three brands seems to be to grab a bit of the very lucrative mid and upper mid-segment that lies below the premium one.

With this in mind, Apple launched the new iPhone SE at USD 399 (Rs 42,500 in India), Google launched the Pixel 4a at USD 349 (price not known in India yet, but expected to be around Rs 35,000) and the OnePlus released the Nord at around USD 335 (Rs 24999 in India, expected to be released overseas for about USD 375).

While their prices (in USD terms) are broadly similar, each device represents a very different approach to the segment.

iPhone SE: Betting on the chip!

Apple’s approach to the sub-USD 400 segment has revoked around its A13 Bionic processor. On the face of it, the iPhone SE would seem totally out of place in a 2020 market. It comes with a design right out of 2017 (the iPhone 8) and with most general specs to match – it has a relatively small 4.7 inch HD display, a 12-megapixel rear camera and a battery that was largely unchanged from the iPhone 8 (read “not the greatest”). Yes, there were those who raved about its compact size (which actually was not much smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro) but perhaps the biggest reason for anyone to invest in the iPhone SE was the magnificent A13 Bionic processor.

iphone se review

This was the same processor that is in the iPhone 11 series. It literally was like putting a spanking new engine inside a classic car. Add to that Apple’s reputation for updating iPhones for almost three to five years, and those looking for a budget iPhone suddenly had something to think about. Yes, corners had been cut in terms of camera and battery life, but the iPhone SE placed it bets on perhaps the biggest USP of the iPhone: not the specs, but the consistent performance. The iPhone XR offers a better battery and a bigger display at a slightly higher price, but it loses out on the processor. And well, for the flaunting crowd, this was still a new iPhone.

OnePlus Nord: Betting on everything…but the chip!

If Apple has bet heavily on having the best processor to sell the iPhone SE to the mid-segment, OnePlus’ approach has been very much opposite. The Nord has most features that people would expect in a budget flagship device – a reasonably modern design, a full HD AMOLED display with a 90 Hz refresh rate, a quad camera at the back, a dual camera in front, lots of RAM, 5G and a big battery and fast charging too. What it does NOT have is a flagship processor, with OnePlus opting for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 chip rather than the 865 that is the preferred chip for flagships.

pixel 4a vs nord vs iphone se: three premium brands, three approaches to the "affordable smartphone" - oneplus nord review 1 1

The result? The Nord reminds us in many ways of the classic mid-segment Nokia devices of the 2005-2010 period which were not the champs in any particular department but managed to do just about everything well. It is in many ways the classic OnePlus experience of 2014-16 – reasonably good cameras, reasonably good display, fast charging, and an eye-catching design, all without a very hefty price tag. What it lacks is perhaps the one thing that made OnePlus iconic in its early days – the flagship processor.

But like Apple, OnePlus also has a record of updating old devices, and well, the hype around the Nord has made it aspirational. We have had people asking for comparisons with the much higher priced OnePlus 8!

Pixel 4a: Shooting to kill with stock Android

Google’s Pixel 4a on the other hand, looks to be neither an all-rounder nor a processing powerhouse. In fact, in overall terms, it is perhaps the most modest of the three devices. In terms of design it is rather modest (it comes with a plastic back and one of the oddest camera units we have seen) and the processor powering it is the more than a year-old Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G. There are no crazy RAM or storage numbers a la the Nord and the battery is just a bit over 3000 mAh although the phone does come with a full HD AMOLED display.

google pixel 4a

So what does the Pixel 4a have for the USD 349 crowd? Well, evidently pure Android and perhaps one of the best cameras on an Android device. But even here, there is a slight corner cut – unlike the Pixel 3a which had the same camera arrangement as the Pixel 3, the 4a has a single rear camera as compared to the dual ones on the 4. That said, expectations from it remain very high indeed. This being a Pixel, users will get regular updates, but then stock Android has not exactly been a killer feature for bestselling smartphones, although it would be wonderful if Google could make this device all about the Google experience on a budget.

Still, one cannot help but feel that it is the camera that is going to be the biggest USP of the Pixel 4a for a mid-segment, non-geeky crowd. It is not a gamble that has always worked – it has been a while since we saw a camera alone sell a phone in the very price-sensitive mid-segment, but the Pixel 4a might change that. It would take some seriously good marketing though, and Google has not really been a match for Apple and OnePlus in the hype stakes when it comes to phones.

Who’s got the best deal?

While Google seems to have stacked most of its cards in the camera corner, and Apple has wagered on the processor, OnePlus seems to have followed a blend of the two strategies without going the whole hog on either. Most folks would recommend the 4a for its camera. Similarly, that A13 Bionic chip is the biggest selling point of the iPhone SE. The Nord? It does not have a single selling point but does most things well enough.

Three premium brands. Three approaches. The coming days will tell us what worked best. Q2 2020 reports indicate that the iPhone SE has got off to a good start, but it is the report of the third and fourth quarters of the year that will give us all a better idea of how each of these devices has affected the mid-segment. And indeed, if any of them have done so at all.

Search. Never Settle. Think Different.

Consumers with about USD 400 to spend have options to do any of the three in the phone market right now. And that is always a good thing.

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