With all of Google's new Pixels now on sale — or pre-order, in the 4a 5G's case — it's time to prognosticate on the direction of the series in 2021. One of the many smartphone surprises of 2020 was the lack of a big-screened Pixel flagship from Google. The series instead maxes out with the relatively diminutive Google Pixel 5, our current pick for best Android camera.
But despite this, I'm pretty convinced Google hasn't given up on larger premium phones, and that we'll see another one next year.
To understand the case for a Pixel 6 XL, you need to look at why there wasn't a 5 XL.
To understand the case for a Pixel 6 XL in 2021, we first need to tackle why there wasn't a Pixel 5 XL this year: Google was boxed in by its chosen price point, the available technology and the state of the market. The Pixel 5 series was designed with a very aggressive price ceiling in mind, especially when you factor in the so-called "millimeter wave tax" for ultra-high frequency 5G in the U.S. Launching at $499 and $699, there was no way these phones were going to use a top-end Snapdragon 865 chipset, which already limits some of Google's options. The Snapdragon 765G, the only viable choice for the Pixel 5 series, can handle Full HD resolution at 90Hz without a problem, but QHD at only 60Hz. That's already bad news for a potential larger handset.
Even if you assume that Google would have stuck with Full HD at 90Hz in a Pixel 5 XL, other costs would have quickly mounted. "XL" Pixels have typically carried a $100 price premium over their smaller siblings. Some of that is profit margin, sure, but larger display panels and bigger batteries aren't free.
Instead, the duo of Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 fits within Google's desired price range, and caters very well to the needs of carriers — especially in the U.S. — who want cheap 5G phones with which to push customers onto 5G service plans. If you're committed to only making two "premium" Pixels in 2020, the 4a 5G clearly makes more sense than a hypothetical 5 XL, which would be higher-priced and less competitive. The alternative would see Google trying to compete with a less-than-ideal phone, running a less-than-ideal chip, at a less-than-ideal price.
The latest Google Pixel 6 leaks point to three Pixel phones coming in 2021: an entry-level phone mid-year, followed by two more devices in the fourth quarter.
Let's assume Google sticks with the Snapdragon 700 series for next year's premium Pixels — a reasonable assumption since this year's phones have been relatively well received. Early leaked information on the chip points to a "rather massive update," over the 765 series. The successor to the 765G, codenamed SDM7350, reportedly includes features currently exclusive to the 800 series — think 120Hz displays, UFS 3.1 storage and up to 12GB of RAM. Such a chip would give Google the breathing space to push a 90Hz (or faster) display at higher resolutions, a much better fit for a bigger Pixel.
Faster Snapdragon 700s and an all-5G market make a big, flagship Pixel more likely in 2021.
The phone market of 2021 will also be different. Outside of the super-low-end budget segment, it's unlikely we'll see many 4G-only phones launching next year. So a potential Pixel 5a would likely use an entry-level 5G-equipped chipset — perhaps a Snapdragon 750G or 690, depending on the price.
That, obviously, eliminates the need for a direct successor to the Pixel 4a 5G — a product that mainly exists to be a cheap 5G phone. And while Google could conceivably make one of its pair of premium Pixels a slightly bigger, slightly cheaper, slightly weaker variant of a small Pixel 6, this kind of phone would make much less sense in a market where pretty much every phone has 5G.
I think we'll end up looking back on the Pixel lineup of 2020 as an oddity — a necessary bump in the road as Google figured out what it wanted from the series, and looked to court the U.S. carriers with cheaper 5G handsets in a transitional year. People like big phones, and Google has sold plenty of big phones over the past few years. It makes all the sense in the world for the "XL" Pixel to make a comeback in 2021.
That's it from me for a few weeks. Stay safe.
2020's big-screen Pixel
Google Pixel 4a 5G
More Pixel for more money
While the Pixel 4a 5G is very similar to the regular 4a in a lot of ways, it adds a faster processor, a larger battery, a bigger screen and a 16MP ultra-wide camera without ballooning the price too much. Oh, and there's also 5G, if you're looking for a 5G phone that won't break the bank.
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