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Premium Smartphones: Is It The Hardware Or The Software?

I had the opportunity to try out two relatively new phones yesterday and it was interesting contrasting their build, features, capability and price.

The two phones were the Google Pixel XL, a phone that retails for NZ$1649 in the 128GB version; and  the Asus Zenfone 3, exactly $1000 cheaper in its 64GB, $649 version.

Both phones sport a premium build, rear mounted fingerprint sensors and 5.5" screens. The Pixel has a higher resolution QuadHD AMOLED screen, whilst the Zenfone has a 1080p IPS+ display. Side by side there's little between them. The Pixel has the usual AMOLED saturation advantages, but the Zenfone's display is as good as an IPS panel gets.

In other areas the hardware swings in the Zenfone's favour - it's metal and glass body is an awful lot cleaner than the Pixel, with its silly half glass window on the rear panel. You also benefit from expandable memory or a second SIM slot on the Asus.

The Pixel obviously wins in software - it has the latest and greatest Android release with Google's Pixel-only Assistant. In normal use though I'd have to question how much of an advantage this really is, for now. The expectation of speedy and ongoing software updates probably add up to the Pixel's biggest advantage.

So what's the most important part of a premium smartphone? Is it the hardware - in which case the Pixel struggles to justify its price premium over the cheaper Zenfone - or is the software, in which case, with you could update to the newest Zenfone three times for the cost of the Pixel, getting new versions of Android along the way.

The Zenfone is far from the only mid-range smartphone that the Pixel's over the top pricing pricing makes look attractive - and that's without considering the NZ$250 premium over the infinitely better Galaxy S7 Edge or the $450 and $550 premium Google is seeking over the just as premium LG V20 and Xperia XZ.

Until such time as Google starts to seriously fork Android in favour of the Pixel. I'm struggling to see who would actually choose to buy one.