Both Apple and Google have announced their line of new 5G phones and their approaches couldn’t be more different. Apple’s least expensive new iPhone is the same price as Google’s high-end model, and Apple’s highest-
end new iPhone 12 Pro Max ranges in price from about $1,100 to about $1,400. The iPhone 12 Pro models are the same price as last year’s iPhone 11 Pro.
I attended Apple’s virtual announcement but have not had a chance to try its new phones. Google loaned me both of its new 5G models, the Pixel 4a 5G, which costs $499 and the Pixel 5, which costs $699. In August, I reviewed the Pixel 4a– a $349 budget phone without 5G and with a smaller 5.7-inch display, so the extra $150 for the 4a 5G not only buys you 5G but a much larger screen along with a faster processor and better battery life.
Aside from price differences, Apple’s approach is to offer a range of sizes and features from the $699 iPhone 12 mini with its relatively small 5.4-inch display to the relatively enormous iPhone Pro Max with its 6.7-inch display. And while the regular iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini are well equipped with more than adequate cameras, the Pro Max enables still and video photography which, based on Apple’s demos, challenge professional camera equipment costing many times the price of the phone. The iPhone 12 Pro models also have a LIDAR sensor that can measure distance and light and be used for special augmented reality effects and tasks like helping to design indoor spaces. LiDAR, which is commonly used in self-driving vehicles, works by projecting a laser light at an object and calculating how long it takes to return.
Beyond reporting that I was impressed by Apple’s announcement, I can’t evaluate phones I haven’t tested but — after spending nearly a week using both of Google’s new phones, I can say that they represent an evolutionary approach that provides excellent 5G phones at an affordable price. Google is also keeping things simple. There are only three models — the $349 4a, the $499 4a 5G and the $699 5 and these are not the “start at” prices. They’re the only prices for each model, all with 128 GB of storage which is more than enough for most people.
Google’s less expensive 5G phone has features some will prefer
Ironically, Google’s less expensive new Pixel 4a 5G is not only less expensive than the flagship Pixel 5, but has two differences that some may prefer. With a 6.2-inch display, its screen is noticeably larger than the 6.0-inch Pixel 5. A larger screen not only means you can see more but that the on-screen keyboard is larger and arguably easier to use. The Pixel 4a 5G also has a regular headphone jack which not only accommodates virtually all headphones but also external speakers and other audio devices. The Pixel 5 only accommodates wireless headphones or those that connect to its USB C port (there are adapters that allow you plug in a regular headphone but they’re annoying to have to carry and connect). I love having an old-fashioned headphone jack not only for some of my older but still great headphones but the ability to connect it to any speaker system, including the stereo receiver I bought 20 years ago.
Other than that, the 5G phones are very similar. Both use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, both (along with the 4a) come with 128 GB of storage (the new Apple iPhones start with only 64 GB) and both have the same front and rear cameras. The 5 is water-resistant (the same IP 68 standards as the iPhones) while the 4a 5G is not. Another difference is that the 5 has wireless (Qi compatible) charging and even “reverse charging” so you can use your phone to charge another device. In my opinion, wireless charging is a nice feature but not a must-have. It’s not that inconvenient to plug in a USB cord. As for water-resistant, if you drop your phone in the tub you might be very thankful you have it, but in my more than 30 years of using cell phones, I’ve only had one damaged by water. My wife recently dropped a Google 4a (the one without 5G) in the toilet and it survived after I put it in a bag of white rice overnight to absorb any water). But don’t try this at home. Yours might not survive.
There are two changes from last year’s Pixel 4 that some may or may not like. Google took away the ability to unlock the phone through facial recognition but brought back the fingerprint reader. Personally, I’m OK with that, I never found Google’s facial recognition to be as fast or accurate as I would have liked. They also took away the ability to bring up the Google Assistant voice recognition by squeezing the bottom of the phone. You can still easily invoke it by pressing an icon, but I liked that old feature.
Both new Google phones run Android 11 operating system and like all Pixel phones, both will be among the first to get new updates when they’re released from Google. Other Android makers often delay new releases so if you want the latest version, you’re best off with a Google-branded phone. The other advantage to Google made phones is that they’re “pure Android,” which means you get all the features and none of the extra software or user interface modifications which can actually make some competing Android phones slower and harder to use. I’m sure Samsung, for example, has excellent engineers and interface designers but Google has some of the world’s best engineers and designers. There are those who love the changes Samsung and other companies have made to how you interact with Android but I much prefer sticking with the Google version.
These days, many people judge their phone by its camera and the cameras on both these new phones are quite good, even if they’re not as impressive as the super-high-end ones built into Apple’s iPhone much more expensive 12 Pro models.
Just about every player in the mobile industry is bullish on 5G which is capable of much higher speeds than the older 4G LTE networks. But just because the phone supports 5G doesn’t mean it will work where you live, work or commute. I don’t have a 5G signal where I live so I drove to a location in San Carlos where — according to the phone’s display — did have 5G. For some reason, I found up getting slower speeds than I do at home with my 4G service which, in my neighborhood delivers about 90 Mbps, which is more than fast enough even for 4K video. I have no doubt that 5G will usher in some impressive applications in the future but — for now — I suspect it’s overkill for most people. So, if you’re happy with the phone you have, I wouldn’t bother upgrading to take advantage of 5G just yet.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.