Google doesn't know what to do with the Pixel, and we've had enough

Google Pixel 4 XL
Google Pixel 4 XL (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Being a user/fan of Google's Pixel phones is like being on a never-ending rollercoaster. The original Pixel debuted as this exciting new entry into the Android space, but ever since then, it's been an endless tradition of ups and downs. I'm someone that rocks a Pixel 4 XL as my daily Android phone, and as much as I love it as a standalone device, understanding and appreciating the Pixel in the bigger picture is rather challenging.

Let's start with a little recap of how we got here and where we're heading.

The regular Pixel 2 was a mostly great phone, but it was plagued by those hilariously large bezels that were outdated even by 2017 standards. You got much more reasonable bezels with the Pixel 2 XL, but it didn't matter given how poor its display was. Google offered substantially better AMOLED screens for the Pixel 3 series, but we also had to put up with weak battery life on the Pixel 3 and that absolutely disgusting notch on the Pixel 3 XL.

Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a

Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

Enter the Pixel 4 and 4 XL in late-2019, which happily continued that polarization trend. The addition of face unlock and a 90Hz refresh rate was exciting, but even worse battery life made the baseline Pixel 4 virtually unusable with the 4 XL being passable at best.

No Android phone is perfect regardless of who makes it, but especially with the Pixel series, Google tends to have really strong wins and incredibly damning lows. That brings us to 2020, the year in which the Pixel is entirely MIA. Likely due to a mix of the ongoing pandemic and internal issues, trying to guess what's going to happen with the 2020 Pixels has been like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

At the beginning of the year, we were expecting Google to follow a release strategy similar to what it did in 2019 — which would see a Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a XL in May, followed by a Pixel 5 and Pixel 5 XL in October. According to the latest reports, however, that's not at all what's happening. Now, rumor has it that we're getting a Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a 5G, and a Pixel 5. It's also mid-July, and we don't have any firm dates as to when they're going to be announced/released. In other words, it's a bit of a mess.

This is a lot to unpack, even for someone like me that's paid to keep tabs on this kind of stuff, so imagine the level of confusion regular customers and fans are feeling right now. On top of the yearly stumbles we're used to seeing with the Pixel series, we're now faced with one of the most convoluted phone launches in recent memory.

Wanting to get a better idea of how this mess is sitting with our readers, I used one of our daily "From the Forums" articles to engage with current Pixel owners and see what they're planning on doing for their next phone purchase. There were a lot of responses, many of which hit on similar themes.

One of the biggest complaints for people is the lack of communication from Google as to what in the world is happening. The industry was prepared for a Pixel 4a launch this May, but we're now inching close to August with no word from Google as to what's going on with it.

Source: mech1164 / Android Central (Image credit: Source: mech1164 / Android Central)

Source: azureus485 / Android Central (Image credit: Source: azureus485 / Android Central)

Source: jlarkins08 / Android Central (Image credit: Source: jlarkins08 / Android Central)

The Pixel 3a was a wild success last year, and given just how darn good it was, a lot of people (myself included) were excited to see how Google would follow it up. The Pixel 4a mysteriously missing its expected launch date with no explanation from Google isn't exactly inspiring for people that were hoping to buy the phone, especially now that the Pixel 3a has been discontinued by Google with its replacement still in release limbo.

There's also the matter of confusion surrounding Google's branding for the upcoming Pixels. Although the Pixel 4a 5G should have a large-ish display size at 6.12-inches, the name doesn't at all convey that it'll be a bigger phone. Even for readers of Android Central, which tend to follow this stuff more closely than your Average Joe, the current train of thought is that there just won't be a proper replacement for the Pixel 3a XL or Pixel 4 XL.

Source: IJKBB10 (Image credit: Source: IJKBB10)

Source: Poseign / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Poseign / Android Central)

Something else that stands to bite Google in the butt with these latest Pixels is its inability to commit to a certain design/feature-set. I'm personally rather fond of face unlock on the Pixel 4, and I'd argue that it's more convenient than a traditional fingerprint sensor.

If I just reach for my phone to pick it up, the Soli radar detects that, enables face unlock, and my phone is at the home screen just like that. Not only is the speed incredible, but face unlock has since expanded to a lot of third-party apps. Just about every app I used to rely on for fingerprint sensor authentication now supports the Pixel 4's face unlock, which is still the only Android phone on the market that has a face unlock system that's useful beyond the lock screen.

As fate would have it, however, Google's backtracking on the whole face unlock thing just a year later and going back to a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. So much for progress, huh?

Source: HoppyNotes / Android Central (Image credit: Source: HoppyNotes / Android Central)

What makes all of this so frustrating is that Google seemed to be on a decent path with the Pixel 4 series. Minus the dreadful battery life, everything else about the phone was nearly perfect. It had a great display, excellent cameras, fast performance, and a sleek design (the Clearly White Pixel 4 is one of my favorite-looking phones of the past few years).

For the Pixel 5, we get to look forward to a less-capable processor, likely the same exact cameras, the removal of face unlock in favor of a fingerprint sensor, and a hole-punch cutout in the display. Yay? I honestly have no idea what Google's end goal is for this year's Pixels is, and I have an inkling that Google itself is scrambling to figure it out, too.

Google Pixel 4 XL long-term review

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

I don't expect Google to make phones that are flawless, but what I do wish is that its phones had a clear identity and purpose. This strategy of constantly changing plans and going back to the drawing board is hurting and turning users away, and given the limited scope of the Pixel brand in the first place, that's not really something Google can afford.

Growing pains in the beginning were to be expected, as they would be for any company trying to make its own smartphone hardware for the first time. It's now been four years, however, and Google seems to be even more lost with the Pixel than it was in 2016.

All of the stumbles and hiccups from past releases have been annoying enough, and with the way Google's treated everything this year, it's getting harder and harder for me to keep defending the phones the way I have a tendency of doing. I absolutely love my Pixel 4 XL and don't envision myself switching to a different Android device anytime soon, but Google has to get things under control.

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Joe Maring

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.