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Google may never make a flagship phone again, and that's a good thing

Google Pixel 5
Google Pixel 5 (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

I hate the word flagship. It's a fine word to describe a company's best product, but the way it gets thrown around when talking about tech makes it meaningless. Unfortunately, it's really the only way to describe the top-tier category of mobile devices in a way everyone understands. So we all use it.

In that context, I want to talk about Google and its place among the most flagship-ish best phones. Specifically, how Google didn't offer one in 2020, and how that's a really smart move by a company that is slowly but surely increasing its hardware revenue.

The only words worse than Flagship Phone are Flagship Killer.

Google shipped three new Pixel phones in 2020 and none of them qualify as flagships according to Android enthusiasts: the Pixel 4a and 4a 5G, and the Pixel 5. That wasn't an accident, and any conspiracy theory about Google being unable to source flagship hardware is dumb and wrong. It primarily shows that Google just doesn't care about making $1,000 phones anymore — or at least right now.

To be fair, very few people were buying $1,000 Pixel phones in the first place. It's a popular search term and Android Central gets a fair amount of web traffic from Pixel phones, but in the world outside the Android tech bubble even Verizon has difficulty time selling expensive Pixel phones.

I'm betting that most people don't see $1,000 worth of value in a Pixel phone.

Nobody really knows what millions of other people are actually thinking, but I have a good idea of why expensive Pixel phones don't sell very well: Pixels are designed to be simple and it's hard to see $1,000 worth of value in something simple. Apple can do it, but these days spends a lot of time telling us about processor performance and camera specs. I still think Apple could sell $1,000 phones without trying to justify the price because it's Apple and its customers are fiercely loyal.

Pixel 4a Alex Back Outside Wall

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Google never really did that. When a new Pixel is released we hear about the Android version and new software features more than we do about the display tech or the processor. Presenting your products this way and seeing an inexpensive Pixel 4a coming with the same software features as the Pixel 4 throws the value proposition into a tailspin. The Pixel 4a costs just $350 and is an amazing deal. The Pixel 4 started at $800. Both phones do the same great things Google told us about in a YouTube video.

The $699 Pixel 5 has the same feature set that a $999 Pixel 5 would have.

This is why Google making a $699 Pixel 5 makes so much sense. You have the same features (don't come at me, I know there are a few differences in the software) like an amazing camera or a good display, plus the quarterly Pixel Drop updates across the line. But the Pixel 5 offers wireless charging, an aluminum body, a better display, and water resistance for $350 more. More importantly, it offers 5G on every carrier, which aside from "pandemic" is the big buzzword of 2020.

Google didn't need to differentiate between the two by dropping a Snapdragon 865+ or UFS 2.1 storage into the Pixel 5 because doing that increases the price by a good bit. Google built a phone around a specific price point and wasn't afraid to skip the hardware bells and whistles that a simple phone doesn't really need.

Google Pixel 4 face unlock

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

I wouldn't buy a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with a Snapdragon 765G processor. The Note does so much more than the Pixel and while a Snapdragon 865 might be overkill, it needs a faster CPU and faster read/write for storage because it has more features running on it. It's easier to see $1,200 worth of value in a Note 20 Ultra than it is to see $900 (the original MSRP for each) worth of value in a Pixel 4 XL even with the fancy Soli chip and 3D face unlock.

Google only sells hardware to draw you into its software ecosystem.

Google is and always will be a software company. Every piece of hardware it sells is designed to bring you deeper into its software ecosystem. The Pixel 5 does an amazing job of doing it without all the things that a flagship phone "needs" to have in 2020. During a water cooler discussion recently, AC's own Michael Allison put it best: "The best part of any Pixel phone is invisible to users." He's right because a Pixel depends on software magic to make slower CPUs or old camera tech work beautifully.

I'm hoping the days of the Pixel team pretending it can compete with Samsung or OnePlus on the hardware front are over for good. I'd much rather have a cheaper Pixel with the same features and a healthy dose of that invisible magic every year.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

48 Comments
  • Thats unfortunate because I want flagship features but with pure Android....I may have to give OnePlus a seriously hard look if Google never makes a flagship again.
  • That's what I'm doing. I'm done with Google hardware. Google has gotten evil.
  • Oneplus doesn't really do stock Android though, especially with their new direction on oxygen 11. You may need a Nokia or Moto.
  • It'd probably be a good thing if they stopped making phones entirely. And good or bad they'll stop soon either way.
  • They will not stop making hardware. Infact, this will be the start for Google in the hardware feild.
  • Didn't say hardware, said phones.
  • Google can't stop making phones. Developers need hardware that only uses Android's APIs for building apps that work on every phone. The emulator is great for the development part, but testing really needs an actual device.
  • They could easily make Google Play Edition style software builds (with proper deals), or tell devs to use Android one devices (I've never actually used an Android one device, admittedly). Or they could even just say "screw it, figure it out yourselves" this is Google we're talking about.
  • No, google needs more control over the hardware than these ideas you are pulling out of your ass. You have no evidence for what you're talking about and are just making stuff up.
  • Terrible take. Why would it be good if they stopped making phones? Also, they aren't going to stop making phones.
  • Google are developing their own SoC, they are by no means done with phones.. I think 2020 is a gap year for them. According to rumour a true flagship will be out near year.
  • In my opinion, I believe that people would rather pay a premium if the device has good hardware. The issue is that Google expects people to pay a premium for good software and it's not something that a lot of people are willing to do. If Google were to give us the great hardware that we want along with the software that they are providing us then the pricing that they are asking for could be warranted. Samsung does it, why can't Google? Then again I could be way off in my assessment.
  • You're not way off. I totally concur. I wasn't going to pay $900 at launch for the Pixel 4XL with 64GB storage. When T-Mobile offered it for $499 earlier this year, I picked one up.
  • Same here and I love it.
  • Google dont care about them. They care about the user experience. They dont need
    a 108MP camera to compete with others. They invest a lot in software. Whether its hardware or software, both costs money. People just need to look at result.
  • If that's true then the Pixel 4 will be the last Pixel phone I buy, Software is great but I want flagship hardware. With Oneplus finally taking there camera serious that might be my next OEM of choice.
  • What you need to look at is fastness, photos, videos, experience of using the phone. Not the ram that's inside it or the camera MP numbers that OEM's are proud to announce with no significant improvement.
  • Except people don't care about that. There are phones faster than the Pixel that can match its photos and beat even the iPhone in video, but nobody cares unless it's a "popular" brand.
  • Pixel camera still trounces the OnePlus camera
  • They'll give it a flagship price though! $700 ain't cheap.
  • Flagship price is not $700 in 2020. I guess you are 4-5 years backwords.
  • Pixel 4 launched at $799. $700 for the Pixel 5 is within sniffing distance of flagship pricing.
  • And the Pixel 4 was over priced from the get go itself. Honestly every Pixel has been over priced at launch if they wanted to be in the flagship market compared to what other OEMs are offering for close to the same price.
  • I believe the only real mistake was not making the top tier phone (Pixel 5) the bigger display over 4a 5G. I've owned all the XL pixels and there is no way I'm going from the 4 XL screen size down to the smaller 5 PLUS a less powerful processor. I know at some point they had to make the CPU "downgrade" and I'm hoping by the time the Pixel 6 comes out, that mid range CPU will be in line with the 855 of the Pixel 4. I don't even care about the lower resolution from 4 XL to 5 but the screen size was the deal breaker for me. Oh, and I also hope WiFi 6 finally makes it onto the P6 as I'm not worried about 5G for the foreseeable future.
  • Just get the 4a 5G then. It's basically the same phone but without wireless charging. The Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 are slower phones than the 4XL though so I am not sure why you'd do that.
  • I'll do the easiest, not buy either! I don't need 5G. It's not even a top 10 want/need. I do like the IP rating of the 4XL so I'll stay with it until I see what kind of a mess the Pixel 6 is. WiFi 6 will be a deciding factor come 2021.
  • I have a Pixel 3XL I bought used in the summer of 2019. It's been a great phone. Except for the stuttering performance at times. I'd really like to switch the Pixel 5. If it is just as fast as my 3 XL and no stutters-- that's a win for me. But what's really holding me back is the screen size.
  • edit one two
  • Now if we can get people and websites to call them what they are, which is midrange phones, we'd be good. Everyone wants to lump the Pixel 5 in as a lower priced flagship and that isn't what it is. It is an expensive midrange. Also, Google is all over the board with their messaging and what they actually do. Remember when they gave Apple a hard time for removing the headphone jack but then removed it the following year? Remember when Google said the wide angle lens wasn't necessary on a phone but then put a wide angle in the Pixel 5 the following year? I could very easily see them go flagship again regardless of what they indicate this year.
  • nailed it...Google is so blown to and fro, it's hard to commit to their ecosystem, since even they aren't committed to it. such a shame, too
  • I never considered any of the Pixels... a 'flagship' type of phone!
  • Same. Thrive always been a good camera with a mediocre phone attached.
  • Agreed ...... and a prime reason why I'd not buy any of them on release. They all are/were over priced compared to actual flagship devices
  • I'm sure if or when Fuschia is released they are not going to pair it up with sub par hardware
  • If Google had released a 5xl with the 865+processer I would have paid up for it. Now I use the 4xl and to me the pixel5 would be a downgrade especially in the processing department. Oh well, I guess it's wishful thinking!
  • There's no way the pixel5 should cost 7oo.00 bucks. Too much for the 765processer? Should have been 550.00 to 600.00 max? 700.00 ain't chump change.
  • I do think that it is about time that Google started leaning into their software prowess and craft Android for Pixel to run smooth as butter on mid-tier hardware. Even more so with rumors of Google designing it's own mobile processors to put into future Pixel phones. I'm really pleased with this generation Pixel phones. No unnecessary features like Soli and they all just work and work well in the core functions of a mobile phone with a great no-non sense camera. The only thing I'd note on this generation is that the Pixel 5 is overpriced at $699. It feels like a device that should come in at $599 which makes it a no-brainer at that price. You end up with the Pixel 4a @ 349, Pixel 4a 5G @ $499, and Pixel 5 @ $599. That feels like the right range of prices for this generation of Pixels.
  • Just name Pixel and with it's reputation is enough to drive people away.
  • This was an off-cycle in many ways. I think a significant shift in design philosophy occurred after the disastrous sales performance of the pixel 4, which itself was crazy because literally the only thing terrible about it was the battery life which any person with two brain cells to rub together could have predicted (2800 mAh?!) I'm going from a 3XL to the 5. I'm looking forward to seeing how it compares in real world conditions. I think too many people don't understand how performance actually works and merely look at clock speeds or artificial benchmarks. 765G is comparable holistically to the 845. The biggest difference is the GPU performance is a little worse on the 765G (although it can comfortably run anything you throw at it). The upside though is the 765G GPU (Adreno 620) is far more efficient, meaning you can run all your mobile games for even longer than you could with an 845.
  • It’s not a good thing. No one forces anyone to buy the $999 phone. Some of us like the best spec and hope Google eventually makes one for the some of us who don’t mind paying $1000 or more for a Pixel with best SOC and other minor hardware improvements. You can continue buying the cheaper Pixel and good to have choices at all price ranges.
  • "You can continue buying the cheaper Pixel and good to have choices at all price ranges."
    Agreed. No one forces consumers to buy a $1000+ flagship - it's their choice. I'm all for Google having a $350, $500 & $700 phone offerings, but would also love $900+ offerings which delivers *the best* product they can with the highest end specs and features they can provide. I currently have a Pixel 5 and I don't get all the reviewers praise over it. It's a $600 phone, charged at $700 and has a tonne of stuff cut/replaced with cheaper parts from the Pixel 4. Seems strange to me Google don't have a flagship Pixel device that competes with the Galaxy S20 and iPhone. I get they didn't sell well, but that's because Google always cheaped out and never made real flagship phone, yet always charged for one. Maybe if they made the value proposition on the high-end as good as they do on the lower end, it'd pick up more sales.
  • This is utter nonsense. Google didn’t sell a lot of flag ship pixel phones because they were littered with poor decisions. Maybe the article should have pointed out that people don’t want to pay 1000 bucks for software imbedded in sub standard hardware. Maybe more willing to do it at 699. We’ll see.
  • A bigger problem is Google's poor quality control, even if they did make a high-end phone it's riddled with hardware bugs, just not up to snuff. You can get away with that on cheaper phones.
  • My "flagship" phone is the one that best meets my needs and wants. It may well be expensive, and made with "premium" materials, and look really cool, but those are not part of my criteria. A phone is something to use to make my life more convenient, not to impress people with.
  • Couldn't agree more.
  • Eh, I'd argue that software alone isn't enough. There are other skins that are just as fast a "pure" Android, and some OEMs fix Google's limitations before Google does. Heck, even HTC has been updating four year old phones, and the U11 is a whole lot prettier and more interesting than any Pixel.
  • What about the rumour a real flagship version of the Pixel 5 will be out in March 2021?
  • Interesting title to the article. I never thought they made a flagship to begin with?