After a lengthy courtship with leakers, the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G were finally officially announced by Google earlier this week. To say there was almost nothing that we didn’t know already would be an understatement.
However, despite our familiarity with what was going to be announced, there was still plenty to ponder over, and Google officially putting its seal of approval on top of it all makes it hard not to discuss it all.
Simply put, the Pixel 4a 5G and especially the Pixel 5 aren’t straightforward flagships that we have come to expect from Google. That may have something to do with the fact that they aren’t even flagships, to begin with. Or are they?
What is a flagship?
Not to get too philosophical here but often people confuse the meaning of the word flagship. If you Google the definition, it will tell you a flagship is “the best or most important thing owned or produced by a particular organization”. The Pixel 5 fits that description because it is the best phone being produced by Google, especially since the only other phones they are making currently include the Pixel 4a 5G, and Pixel 4a, which are undoubtedly lesser devices.
Pedantry aside, the Pixel 5 doesn’t fit the commonly understood definition of a flagship, which is a high-end, feature-rich device. We were surprised when we first learned that the Pixel 5 will not be shipping with the latest and greatest Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset and that it would instead have the Snapdragon 765G. After all when Google first introduced the Pixel series of phones in 2016, it was intended to be the absolute best the company had to offer and was designed to compete with the latest iPhone of that year. Despite all the criticism it got for it, the company stuck to that ethos for the mainline Pixel series until the end of last year.
However, something else happened last year. Google launched the Pixel 3a, which received widespread critical acclaim. Here was a phone that represented the best of a Pixel phone — the camera, the clean software, and the fast updates — and brought it down to a price where it was hard to fault.
Nobody cared that it didn’t have the absolute best chipset on the market. Google’s impressive software work ensured the phone worked fine without it and left the users to focus on things that mattered, like taking pictures and bragging about being the only ones with the latest version of Android.
It seems a giant lightbulb went off in Mountain View, California. The company realized it had been barking up the wrong tree for four years. People didn’t necessarily care about having the best chipset on the market, the most memory, and the highest refresh rate screens. Some people did, but not most of them. The only thing people seemed to want from a Pixel phone is a good camera and clean software. And now there was a cheaper way to give it to them.
And therein came the change in strategy. Google decided it wasn’t just going to make more mid-range phones, it was only going to make mid-range phone. And apparently, there was enough room there to have multiple models at different price points so they wouldn’t compete with each other. Who would have thought? Just about every other phone manufacturer.
So now we have two new mid-range phones from Google. Or are they?
What is mid-range?
This one is harder to define based on what you’re looking at and even Google isn’t going to help you here. What I do know is that while $699 doesn’t qualify for flagship anymore by 2020 standards, it’s not exactly mid-range either, by any standards.
But that’s exactly what the new Pixel 5 is priced at, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people call it a mid-range smartphone. You have to be filthy rich to think $699 is mid-range. You know what else you can get for $699? The iPhone 11 and that’s decidedly not mid-range. Another thing you can buy for $699 is the new Galaxy S20 FE. I will be getting to both of those in a minute.
By the way, the original flagship Pixel was $649 at launch, cheaper than this mid-range Pixel 5.
What Google has done with the Pixel 5 is drop it into a strange no man’s land, where it is neither an affordable mid-ranger nor is it a proper flagship device. We now have this device that more closely resembles the OnePlus Nord on paper (the Nord is actually a bit better in this regard) but matches the OnePlus 8 Pro in price, which just got a $100 cut to its $899 launch price.
So now we have the $699 Pixel 5, which we have already established is neither truly flagship nor exactly a mid-range device, competing against the likes of the iPhone 11, Galaxy S20 FE, and the OnePlus 8 Pro. Phones that could go toe to toe with the Pixel in camera performance and then handily beat it in other areas.
What makes the Pixel 5 price particularly disappointing is Google’s own Pixel 4a 5G. At a decidedly mid-range price of $499, the Pixel 4a 5G has the same chipset and cameras as the Pixel 5 minus the 90Hz display, 2GB memory, wireless charging, and a bit of battery capacity. None of those fully justify the price difference and at $200 extra, Pixel 5 feels almost like a decoy set up to sell the Pixel 4a 5G.
A plastic by any other name
For the Pixel 5, Google chose to have an aluminum housing for the back instead of glass to reduce the thickness of the device. However, since the company also wanted to include wireless charging, it had to cut a hole in the back so the induction coils could work without interference.
To prevent the back of the phone from looking like the cell wall at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, the hole had to be covered up, possibly with something better than a poster. So Google then decided to wrap the entire aluminum casing inside bio-resin — which is essentially just plastic — that then covers the entire back of the phone. This means when you’re touching the phone you’re really just touching the plastic shell underneath the paint.
This feels a bit conflicting. On one hand, having aluminum for the back casing is preferable to glass as it tends to be more durable. But then encasing it inside plastic means you lose the premium feel of raw aluminum. We have seen this happen before with the LG G5, where LG chose to cover the back of the phone with a primer to hide the antenna lines but ended up altering the feel of the device so much, people thought it was made out of plastic.
In LG’s case, it really was just paint on top of the aluminum. Google, however, has gone one step ahead and actually just directly put plastic on top. One could argue that it is a clever engineering solution to enable induction charging to work through metal. On the other hand, if the phone had to be encased in plastic, maybe it should have just been made out of plastic.
Backtracking and camera conundrums
The Pixel team seems to be developing a habit out of claiming they don’t want to do something and then doing it next year. In 2017, Google proudly proclaimed their Pixel 2 phones will have a headphone jack, a jab at the iPhone 7 that had come out the previous year without a headphone jack. Then the very next year, the Pixel 3 phones shipped without a headphone jack.
Last year, Mark Levoy, Google’s then-chief camera engineer and now at Adobe, said that telephoto was more important than ultrawide, which is why the Pixel 4 phones shipped with a 2x telephoto camera and no ultrawide. This year, both the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5 have ultrawide cameras and no telephoto camera.
While there’s no doubt the backtracking on the headphone jack was a downgrade, most of us will agree that an ultrawide is preferable to a 2x telephoto if you could only have one. You can easily fake a 2x zoom digitally — and Google is especially good at this — but there’s no way to fake a wider field of view than what your lens can capture.
However, this leads to the question, why exactly are we still limited to just two lenses? Don’t get me wrong, no one wants to trigger their trypophobia with a dozen lenses on the back of the phone but three seems like a reasonable number, something even the otherwise conservative Apple seems to have agreed upon for its flagship. A combination of wide, ultrawide, and telephoto gives you plenty of flexibility. Hell, there are half a dozen phones with two telephoto cameras now – long periscope and short 2x-3x one.
The problem with Google is that there is an inherent hubris with the way it approaches software, where it thinks a sufficiently clever software can replace any hardware. Good software can do a lot of things but it’s not omnipotent. Moreover, there is no reason why you can’t have both. Google’s focus should be on providing a good user experience, not flexing how good its software skills are. We know it can do cool things with software. We now want to see it being done on top of good hardware.
The presence of 5G on the two new Pixel phones has been the prime focus of the marketing of the two phones. This despite the fact that it is possibly the least interesting aspect of both of these devices and also partially responsible for the high cost of the Pixel 5.
The Pixel 5 is compatible with both flavors of 5G, all version packing Sub-6, while some markets getting mmWave. The latter is the one that everyone likes to show off in videos due to its insane bandwidth but only really works outdoors if you have a line of sight to the tower. This is an expensive piece of technology and why it’s largely limited to super high-end devices. The Pixel 5 includes it, and now you know why it costs as much as it does.
The cheaper Pixel 4a 5G only includes the Sub-6 band by default. There is a Verizon version of this phone that includes mmWave (because Verizon only offers 5G in mmWave) and it costs $100 more at $599. This is further proof of how much extra this technology potentially costs.
Due to the inclusion of this technology, Google has simply chosen not to sell either device in a bunch of markets. One of these is India, where Google will only be launching the standard Pixel 4a (yes, I said will be launching, because it hasn’t actually been launched yet in India). Google’s reason for not selling the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5G in India and many other such regions, is largely due to the inclusion of 5G.
In a way, this makes sense. Users in these regions would have had to overpay for a feature they couldn’t use now and not for the foreseeable future. But now they can’t buy the phone at all, which begs the question, why even include mmWave in the first place?
Just to reiterate the earlier point, mmWave is practically useless right now due to how finicky it is. It is also available in very few regions in a handful of countries. Overpricing your so-called mid-range phone for this largely useless piece of tech seems like a decision only the marketing department could come up with.
Soli, and thanks for all the fish
The Pixel 4 incorporated secure facial authentication and gesture functionality thanks to the radar-based Project Soli implementation. This allowed the Pixel 4 to have facial recognition on a similar level of security as Apple’s Face ID. Google was so confident in this feature that the Pixel 4 was the first Pixel phone to ship without a fingerprint sensor.
One year later, the feature is gone from all Pixel devices. Google’s reasoning for this is that they wanted to build a cheaper phone and the Soli hardware was too expensive to put into a phone in this price range. The company said it will be present in future Google products, although it didn’t specify if it will be a Pixel phone.
Personally, I am not too sad about the loss of Project Soli from 2020 Pixel phones. It was the reason the phone couldn’t be sold in countries like India, where there are restrictions on the use of radar in consumer equipment. It was an overwrought solution to a problem that was already solved by fingerprint sensors, which are now back on all three Pixel phones this year.
My only complaint is that Google has chosen to go with fingerprint sensors on the back of the device, rather than ones built into the display. Even the $700 Pixel 5 has a fingerprint sensor on the back like it’s 2017 or something.
Three’s a crowd
Both the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5 seem like perfectly good smartphones. They have all the stuff we have come to appreciate from Pixel phones and they are now more accessible than before.
However, Google didn’t take the right lesson from the success of the Pixel 3a and the eventual failure of the Pixel 4, and you can see that especially in the Pixel 5. The company went from making an overpriced, sort of high-end smartphone to an overpriced, sort of mid-range smartphone.
If you were to ask me, the Pixel 4a need not have existed at all, and the Pixel 5 should have been priced at $499. If Google wants to compete in the mid-range market, it has to play by its rules and the mid-range segment is even more ruthless in its competition than the high-end. Sure, even at $499 the Pixel 5 would be worse value on paper compared to devices from other brands but a lot of people would still be perfectly fine shelling out extra for a Pixel device.
For those people, I would say go for the Pixel 4a 5G, at least at launch, and if it’s available in your region. The Pixel 5 is lost and needs some time to figure out what it wants to be. Maybe a price drop down the line would help it make up its mind.