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 (opens in new tab) 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The regular Pixel 2 was a mostly great phone, but it was plagued by those hilariously large bezels that were outdated even by 2017 standards.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.

Google Pixel 5: News, Leaks, Release Date, Specs, and Rumors!

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

105 Comments
  • They should toss their buggy hardware and partner with Samsung to produce a Nexus version of the S series.
  • So, being back Google Play Edition? Because that worked the first time? Gotcha. 🙄
  • Obviously it would be better now, jackass...
  • Not by much though, nexus was never meant to be a flagship device, it always offered just enough to showcase android OS, nothing more. Sorry battery life, mediocre cameras and buggy as all get out.
  • The pixel 4 was the first phone from Google I didn't upgrade too since the very first nexus. Two main reasons. -no finger print we sensor. The face unlock isn't supported by most apps still despite progress. My bank apps, etc....none supposed it. So I'm forced to type pass words. The finger print sensor is like a mouse on a PC. It's may be "old" tech, but it's perfection and doesn't need replacement.
    -they got rid of the burst mode in the camera for that stupid smart shot crap. I don't care how much money you sank into ai. I want to hold a button and take a million snaps and keep the ones I want. Not the ones you think I want.
    - no head phone jack sucks. If the pixel 5 doesnt fix the first two at least...it will be the first time in over a decade that I won't be buying a made by Google phone and jump ship to a one plus or galaxy.
  • Faceunlock/fingerprint works with my banking, and my crypto apps..
  • Does Google even listen to customer feedback?
  • HELL NO!! That would make too much sense.
  • Not for nothing but if the 4a had been released in May they would have ⛵ loads. This left the 🍎 SE with no competition? Google really screwed the pooch with that decision? You made consumers choose other avenues!
  • I was planning on buying the 4a the day you could preorder, but now it's been long enough that I went ahead and bought a refurb 3a to work right now until the main slate of phones come out at the end of the year to decide what to do. (was using the original Pixel)
  • I had enough 2 years ago when I switched from P2XL to Note 9 and never looked back.
  • I'm holding on to see what the Pixel 5 turns out to be when released. If its crap then I will be moving to Apple. Right now by Note 9 is holding strong but I wont buy another Samsung product.
  • My crystal ball says... I'll be crap, as usual... Apple it is... That's what I did. Waiting for it in the mail... Had enough of this Android bs once and for all...
  • I really like the Pixel line because Google is giving Android a nice, clean, and stable OS without all the gimmicks. I have the Pixel 3 and I'm willing to wait it out to see what Google decides to do. I would hate for my current Pixel to be my LAST Pixel device. Come on Google!
  • Google can afford to do whatever they want. They don't have to sell phones to make money. Rest assured they do have a strategy. It's just we don't know what that is at the moment and that is confusing and disheartening to all 7 of us Pixel fans. One theory is that they don't have a desire to make a flagship with Qualcomm's highest end chip right now because they are way too expensive. They know their sales would be lackluster even if they managed to pull off a high-end Pixel 5 without any major issues so they just aren't doing that because it's not cost effective. I think they have a long-term plan for high-end phones that is based around producing their own silicon (something we know is in the works). Doing this allows them to build exactly what they want without having to rely on what Qualcomm is doing and paying them an insane amount per chip. With this in mind it makes sense that their 2020 strategy is based around producing "mid-range" and lower devices that can actually sell at volume. No one is going to miss Soli and face-unlock and the Snapdragon 865 if the price is closer to $700 vs. $1000. This might be the strategy for now until they can start making devices with their own chips. Google is in this for the long haul; they aren't giving up on making high-end hardware they're just in a holding pattern for Pixels until they can execute on their vision. They question is: when will we see a device with Google silicon? 2021, 2022, beyond? Any way you slice it they have the ability to pull it off and if reputation (it's not that good anyway) and sales (they were already bad) suffer in the meantime they don't really care. Because if in a year or two if they can capitalize on the same vertical integration that Apple does they will be in a better position than they are today.
  • Even $700 would be too much for their mid range Pixels, especially when you get more for your money with an iPhone 11 or OnePlus 8 which both use flagship chips but Apple is better value in the long term with their unrivalled software support.
  • Android users probably don't want an iPhone so that's not relevant here. And "more for your money" is subjective anyway. You'll get a worse camera and display with a comparable iPhone but a faster processor. So it really comes down to personal preference. OnePlus is a little more relevant but with OnePlus the major disadvantage vs. Pixel is the camera is not as good. Most people would gladly take the superior camera over a faster processor that may not even be noticeable depending on the use case. And then there is the guaranteed support and day one updates that you get with a Pixel. OnePlus is better than most when it comes to these things but there is a difference and first-party devices will always be better in this regard.
  • "Android users probably don't want an iPhone so that's not relevant here. And "more for your money" is subjective anyway. You'll get a worse camera and display with a comparable iPhone but a faster processor." Err iPhone now has the best camera and has overtaken Google now and worse displays is subjective and iPhones (at least the pro models) have just as good a display as Samsung who after all makes the displays for Apple. And as for OnePlus, yes the camera on a OnePlus phone isn't the best but it's still decent, I have a OnePlus 7T so I know what I'm talking about but when it comes to support, the Pixels are much better than OnePlus but to be fair, OnePlus is better than most OEMs but one in software updates but for security updates, they are not that good with their bimonthly updates and I'm still waiting for the June security updates (they're always a month behind) and I'm sick of this and all the BS , fragmentation along with the poor app optimisation and security issues that have plagued Android (my YouTube premium subscription got hacked and I had to cancel it) and that's just one of a few reasons why I'm going back to iPhone, I wish I'd never left in the first place. Apple is just better will better app quality, far superior software support, user experience (iOS is easier to use) and nothing on Android bears FaceTime, iMessage and the entire Apple ecosystem.
  • It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt!! It’s evident u have never used or owned an iPhone 11 Pro Max. It blows anything Samsung or google has to offer out of the water on screen, battery and matches or exceeds on camera. But you are correct on the chip!! So going back to or just going to Apple won’t be the pulling of the wisdom teeth experience I think you expecting, it will be quite pleasant, trust me. Lol
  • This captures it best. Perhaps, the success of the P4a line surprised Google and had them re-think their strategy. So they're not going to do what they've done before. Good. It wasn't working that well anymore. And face recognition is devisive at best. I for one, look forward to reasonably priced devices that work (yes, they do need to address the battery) and aren't over-engineered (looking at you, Soli). Oh, and once again I got sucked in to another AC clickbait "editorial".
  • That was a great thought and I agree, but that’s going to take years so I fix the problem for Google... I went and bought an iPhone 11 Pro Max, love the phone, I do miss android some but after 6 months, I doubt I would go back to the roller coaster ride you get with android, I like the stability, serviceability and security of Apple. And that’s coming from a android user since 2010.
  • No truer comment than google doesn’t have to sell phones and make a profit. They have proven that year after year, They still can’t make a phone and make a profit, that’s why you get what you pay for. Would you buy a car from a manufacturer that has never made enough cars to make a profit??? And yet you sing googles praises like it’s a reality or truth. Lol, you crack me up. Google has wasted billions on two phone companies endless parades of worthless devices and can’t sell more phones in a year than their competitors do in a day! Lol
  • Interesting that you like the face unlock, that was the worst way to interact with my phone to unlock it, I ever came across. I always wanted a Pixel, besides it flaws I ordered one in June. But the stupid face unlock was a showstopper. It unlocked when it shouldn't (by just picking it up), you can't interact with the locked phone (strange for someone used to Motorola's approach - why should I unlock my phone to read a WhatsApp message?). Given that I had to change the settings, so that I have to tap the screen to then do the face unlock which was so annoyingly slow, that second too much. Plus, no unlock when your phone sits on the desk, etc. The list goes on. Very very sad. Hopefully Google soon finds its strategy. I want a new phone. If they don't deliver, I might have a very close look at the OnePlus Nord. Although I really want a Pixel, it can't be too damn hard to produce a flawless phone, just get the basics right. _mH P.S. Yes, they were many awesome things about the Pixel 4 XL, too. That design, the photos, the recorder app, and much more...
  • Would you buy a really good $700 Pixel or does it turn you off if it doesn't have the SD865 ? I for one don't care since the 700 series is getting so good. If it's fast and has good battery life I don't really care what chip it runs especially if it's hundreds of dollars less. If you need the best performance for graphically intensive games there are plenty of other options. Besides, the latest 700 series chips can run any game you throw at it and run it pretty damn well. So I really don't see any issue with using a "lesser" chip if the real world performance impact is negligible and the price impact is significant. Unless you are chasing specs no one really cares...especially average consumers that don't know/care what chip they have. I also see the move back to a fingerprint sensor as a win (for price as well as usability).
  • I don’t think googles problem is which chip they decide to use, no matter which chip they use, the phone will be discontinued after one year and they’ll service the OS for three years, then it’s that phone you hand down to your kids or it becomes a paper weight. And during that three years u have one headache after another, they can’t fix a problem without creating a Pandora’s box of other problems.
  • Another problem with google is they never perfect nothing, they introduce new things that don’t work and finally they end up just dropping it completely. The main difference between Apple and google is the end product, Apple knows how to perfect something before marketing it and it can also take android ideas and perfect them. Like the face recognition, horrible idea on android phones but on Apple, it works flawlessly, I love it, could never go back to finger sensor. That’s android, when it can’t fix something, they say let’s just go back to old technology! Wow such innovators!
  • Hey, that is simply not true. The face unlock on the Pixel and on an iPhone is pretty similar. I checked it with my friend's iPhone before I had to send my Pixel back. It is a problem of the technology. When you look at your phone, it unlocks. You can't interact with the lock screen. You can't unlock without holding your phone in front of your face, etc. etc. I would say, Google was actually a bit better, because I could decide what happens after the unlock. My friend's iPhone still showed a lock screen you had to swipe up. All much slower than my finger print that I can trigger while I get my phone out of my pocket. And when I look at my phone it is ready to use. So, the old technology is faster and opens up more possibilities, like interaction with the locked phone. Going back makes total sense, the problem was going for the face unlock in the first place, IMHO. mH
  • You're overlooking some things. 1. Whenever a Pixel phone has been really great, it's been mostly due to great software, not hardware. This makes perfect sense, because Google's software capabilities are way beyond their hardware capabilities. Google used software to deliver a 1-lens camera that matched or even beat Apple in photo quality. 2. The Pixel 3a shipped a LOT of units. The Pixel 4... did not. It was very expensive, due to battery killing hardware that wasn't compelling enough for most users. Including me. When I read about the Pixel 4, I was really glad I didn't need a replacement yet. You obviously love yours, but did you have to pay for it? I'm guessing that, as an Android Central Sr. Editor, you did not. Why would you expect Google to keep trying to play the hardware innovation game that depends on creating flagship hardware that very few people will buy. I've also been waiting for the Pixel 5. I do wish it weren't taking so long. BUT, if waiting a few months means there will be something kind of like what we might have expected from a 5a, at a mid-range price, it will have been worth it. Even better if it's 5G ready.
  • I bought the Pixel 3a used for $200 and have been quite happy with it. I prefer the fingerprint sensor and since I rely on my phone for work, battery life is important. I had tried the Pixel 3 prior and battey life along with missing headphone jack (for work) was a deal breaker. Will be interested to see what happens to the Pixel line but sticking to my 3a for now.
  • So these articles are recycled every 48 hours or so. Just to say the 4XL is the best phone I've ever owned. SOLI now works fine for me and is v