It's no secret that flagship smartphones have gotten too expensive. While we at Tom's Guide think devices like the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra are stellar handsets, they both start at more than $1,000. That's not chump change, and even on a payment plan, that's a lot of money for most people.
But in 2021, Google took a stand. Starting with the $449 Pixel 5a, the company put out its phones at hundreds less than their competition. The $599 base model Pixel 6 went head-to-head with the likes of the $799 iPhone 13 and Galaxy S21. The $899 Pixel 6 Pro traded blows with the $999 iPhone 13 Pro (or $1,099 Pro Max) and $1,199 Galaxy S21 Ultra.
And while none of those Pixel phones are free of faults, they're still incredible devices and great values. The Pixel 5a 5G is leagues better than basically every other budget-friendly smartphone. It bests the iPhone SE (2020) in almost every regard, especially the display and camera quality.
For years, Google has struggled to get things right. 2020 saw the fan-favorite Pixel 4a, a phone we still think is a great option at $349 (or less, if you find a good deal). But flagship Pixels have historically struggled to balance prices and features — the $899 Pixel 4 XL was the breaking point. The Pixel 5 was a much more toned-down device, but at $699, its feature set paled in comparison to the likes of the Galaxy S20 FE and OnePlus 8.
2021 is the year Google got serious about smartphones. The Pixel 6 series is far from perfect, but the two flagship phones are better than anything else you can buy for either $599 or $899; the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro certainly hold their own against more expensive devices.
This is why I think Google won the smartphone battle this year. Not because the Pixel 6 Pro is the best Android phone you can buy — it's not — but because Google figured out how to set the cost for its phones properly. Two of the best camera phones ever cost $599 and $899? That's impressive.
Price matters, even on payment plans, and you don't have to go far before you find someone who agrees that phones are too expensive nowadays. While we shouldn't take these pocketable computers for granted, the cost of living itself has noticeably increased in the last five years. With that in mind, when you want or need to upgrade your smartphone, the ones that offer the most bang for your buck will stand out.
Google figured that out, which is why the 2021 Pixel lineup is so competitive. Let's hope that continues in 2022. I can't wait to see what's next.