As Google pushes its vision of Android onto the high-end Pixel and Pixel XL handsets, its biggest challenge is neither Apple or Samsung. Its biggest challenge is Android itself. The commodity nature of Android means that for the majority of Android users, cheaper handsets offer enough power and promise to deliver a rewarding customer experience. Why would they move to an untested and unknown brand like Pixel?
I’ve spent some time with one such device that the Pixel has to counter. The Spark X, from British-based Wileyfox – comes in at £130 (currently $260) for a fully unlocked, SIM-free smartphone powered by Cyanogen OS. It might not have the ultimate specifications of the Pixels, but it delivers enough of a punch that can satisfy many consumers, much like every Android device can do in late 2016.
A lot of what sells a smartphone at the high-end is the brand name and association. Apple is a master at this, keeping prices and margins high while maintaining the luxury association of the iPhone brand. By switching away from the Nexus brand name and its association with a cheap and accessible machine for developers, Google is changing how its smartphone is seen. Pixel is a brand already associated with excellence and high cost thanks to its use on Chromebooks.
If your brand has an association with high specifications you don’t need to lay out the numbers, the consumer will get it.
Which leads me back to the lower end of the market. These manufacturers have to work just as hard to build and promote their brand. Thanks to the commoditization of the market, each budget smartphone will have a competitor with almost identical specifications. The differentiator is not memory, processor speed, the use of an AI assistant, or the ability to use a specific virtual reality platforms.
It’s about the brand.
Since its first product launch last year into the budget-focused low-end smartphone market, Wileyfox has worked hard to emphasis both its brand and its message of a powerful smartphone at an affordable price. The Spark X is the top tier device in the 2016 device – sitting above the Spark (reviewed here on Forbes) and the Spark+. All three ship with the same MediaTek 6735 system on chip (64-bit CPU running at 1.3GHz, and a Mali T-720 GPU). The Spark X has 16GB of on-board storage, microSD card support, and 2GB of RAM.
The specifications are solid if unremarkable. You’re not going to be able to run Daydream View at any point in the future, but you are going to be able to answer your emails, work with social networks, get online for web browsing, and generally doing the normal things that many expect a smartphone to be able to do. You don’t get the ultimate power and flexibility of the high-end devices, instead you get a competent tool that will serve your day-to-day needs quite nicely.
The battery is 3000 mAh, which should get you through a working day without stressing too much. Because the Spark X doesn’t have the legs to run any particularly ambitious gaming titles there’s not going to be a huge demand on the battery – and if there was it is removable so you can switch in another one if this is important to you.
The screen is perhaps the biggest compromise. Yes it’s 5.5 inches, but it only runs as 1280×720, a significant step down on higher-priced devices but still able to display enough information to not feel cramped, even if you can sometimes see jagged edges on the display. While the color range is biased to the warmer side of the spectrum it is bright enough to be legible in sunlight.
Meanwhile the camera takes the sort of pictures you’d expect at this price point. The automatic mode has a tendency to overexpose images but switch HDR mode on and you’ll find that the results are more in tune with what you see and the color reproduction (especially when you look at it on a computer screen) is natural.
At the heart of the Spark X is Cyanogen’s flavour of Android. This OS is close enough to stock Android to be understood by most consumers, but Cyanogen offers far more options to tinker with the UI and set up the Spark X to be much more personal than similar handsets at this price. While some of those customisable options can be found in the latest version of Android, those benefits haven’t yet reached the budget market.
I’d argue that these experiences are par for the course at this price point. If you really look at the specifications Wileyfox is in the middle of the pack (if you are looking to play Top Trumps Smartphone and want the biggest numbers, you’re going to be looking at the Moto G4 but with a £50 price premium it’s not in the same bracket of the smartphone competition). The marketing of the Wilieyfox device is key, with the stylized logo, the smart use of copper edgings and the angular orange packing supporting the online marketing efforts and the retail push.
Wileyfox’s approach is mirrored throughout the Android ecosystem, from the smallest budget manufacturer right up to the behemoths such as Samsung. Wileyfox represents the majority of Android devices that have gifted Google’s platform its dominance in terms of market share. In a commoditized market, marketing is king.
This is Google’s problem with pushing the Pixel devices to the Android crowd. If the Pixel family of smartphones is to be a success it cannot rely purely on high specifications. That will reach a small portion of the market, the same portion that the Nexus devices could reach. To go beyond that – and Google’s ambitions suggest that – it needs to promote the Pixel brand. It needs to be aggressive and market this smartphone and build up consumer desire. It needs to make people think of ‘Pixel’ when they go to buy a device. Not ‘Samsung’, not ‘Huawei’, not ‘Wileyfox’, and certainly not ‘Android’. It’s Pixel or nothing.
Pixel needs to be more Wileyfox than Nexus.