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Google needs to re-think its confusing Pixel release strategy

Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a
Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 3a (Image credit: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

2020 marks the fourth year that Google's Pixel phones have been out on the market, and since the original Pixel's launch in late 2016, the release pattern has been mostly consistent. Every year in October, Google takes the stage to unveil its latest flagship Pixel. This happened for the Pixel, Pixel 2, Pixel 3, and the Pixel 4.

We get a regular and an XL model for those launches, giving people the choice to decide what size of a phone they want. This isn't unlike what we see Samsung and Apple do with the Galaxy S10 / S10+ and iPhone 11 Pro / 11 Pro Max.

Last year, however, Google threw a wrench in this well-oiled machine with the release of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. These were announced in May 2019 as budget models of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL that came out a few months before them, along with the Pixel 4 series looming its head right around the corner.

Google's desire to have a budget/mid-range phone in its lineup makes sense, but the timing for the release of the 3a always seemed odd to me. It sat right in the middle between the flagships, meaning Google's smartphone releases for 2019 included the Pixel 3a/3a XL and Pixel 4/4 XL. Rather than existing within the same family of the flagships coming out, this left the Pixel 3a feeling like a weird side project.

Google Pixel 4 vs. Pixel 3a

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

Rumors for a Pixel 4a are now in full force, and from what we can tell, it'll either be released in May once again or sometime before that. Google is reportedly ditching the XL model this time around and instead just creating a Pixel 4a, the goal being to simplify its product offerings. At the same time, other sources are saying we could see as many as three Pixel 4a versions released at once (I'm betting/hoping that's not true).

Releasing a Pixel 5, 5 XL, and 5a at one time would make so much more sense.

Having less choice might be a bummer to some people, but compared to what the rest of the market is doing, it makes sense. Apple has the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. Samsung has the Galaxy S10e, S10, and S10+. OnePlus is rumored to be working on a OnePlus 8 Lite, 8, and 8 Pro. This three-phone lineup gives you something at the very high-end, a more budget-minded model that doesn't skimp out on too many features, and something that sits nicely in the middle. That seems to be the route Google wants to go with its phones, but having their releases spread so many months apart doesn't feel right.

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL just came out a few months ago, and soon we'll get the Pixel 4a as a budget variant of them. Later this year, though, the Pixel 5 and 5 XL will be the latest flagships — making the Pixel 4a seem outdated in less than a year's time.

You and I know that the Pixel 4a will still be a darn fine phone when the Pixel 5 comes out, but seeing that lower number has to be confusing for consumers — just like it probably is right now with the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4. Google has the right idea of offering a budget phone to go along with its flagships, but the timing for everything needs to be tweaked.

Google Pixel 4 XL

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

I want a new mid-range Pixel to come out this year, but I'd prefer it if Google tweaked the name and held off on releasing it until the Pixel 5 was ready. That way, Google could come out in October guns-a-blazing with the Pixel 5a, Pixel 5, and Pixel 5 XL. They'd all be part of the same family, there wouldn't be any confusion on how a Pixel 4a exists with the Pixel 5 when it comes out, and all would be right with the world.

Google must see an advantage of having two times during the year when new hardware is released, but from a marketing point of view, it leaves the "a" phone looking like a distant cousin rather than a proper member of the immediate family. If for nothing more than consistency's sake, here's to hoping Google implements change on this front sometime soon.

Google Pixel 4a: 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.

11 Comments
  • Google needs to do this...
    1) Move all Pixel launches to spring. Stop with giving us outdated cpus.
    2) great a single Pixel a varient with only upgrade to storage. Midrange, CPU, dual cameras, 6gb ram, start 64gb storage upgrade to 256 though
    3) pixel needs to have three true cameras. All the same sensor sizes just separate lenses.
    4) flagship pixel starts at 128gb and offer up to 1TB storage options.
    5) 8gb of ram
    6) greater than 18w of charging. Minimum 30watts across all lines
  • Pixel 3a really hit it out of the park last year, good enough battery and fast enough soc, meanwhile no nonsense gimmicks like a radar or face unlock without awareness or 90hz screen draining the battery, made the Pixel 4 non XL a tough buy. Most people just recommended the 3a if they wanted a small Pixel phone. This is also at a very weird Pixel 4 release window towards the end of the year, and one the last of the sd855 phones to be released for the year, it's not even like the OnePlus T, which might have better processor, more ram, more rom. Maybe, they should just go head to head with Samsung with an early year release of 3 phones, 5A, 5, 5XL, as soon as they can get good sd865 and 5G deal for the 5 and XL. While the 5A can go with SD700 series or older chips like 845, anyway people have been saying phone were more than fast enough since 835, until 5G is an absolute must.
  • Agree 100%. Otherwise, Google has to release a 4a which is one of two things: - a cheaper 4 with features that make sense to the most people plus a better battery (in which case, wth was the 4, and why are they disrespecting those customers by giving a better phone to latecomers?), or
    - a cut-down 4 that conspicuously does not correct the battery issue, so as not to upset loyal 4 purchasers (in which case, wth is this 4a?)
  • Google should stick to the mid-range market. They both the 3a & 3a XL have sold very well. The flagships don't and are definitely overpriced for what's offered. I say stick to what you do best!
  • IMO it makes sense to have two drops. Your point is that a single release makes sense if Google aligns to the competitors 3-product range (which I really hope it doesn't). In that case you have a point.
    But if the "a" family keeps having 2 members, I think it's a good idea to have them released at a ~6 month interval, considering that it gathers more media and consumers attention, and that the "a"s don't need to ship with the latest hardware, because of their price point.
    What would make sense in my opinion is to switch the order, though, so that flagships get the SOCs they deserve in May, a few months after they become available, and not when they're almost one year old already.
    I really, really hope that Google doesn't fall for the 3-products lineup, because I'm seriously considering a 4a OR 4a XL, and having more choice is always better!
  • The hard part about dropping all 3 at the same time is that they haven't fully figured out the "flagship" versions yet. If the sales of those devices are on the lower end now, adding the budget version that gives you amazing bang for your dollars would make it even harder to suggest those more expensive versions.
  • Agreed. Take last year for example, the Pixel 4's shortcomings left some consumers cringing and some were probably looking forward to the 4a. But that's like almost 6 months later in the next year. When it comes to May, people are probably considering holding off for the Pixel 5. But if that flops too, then people would fall back on the more value "A" phone. But in October, you only can fall back on last year's "A" phone, the 4a, which is weird when it would make more sense to have the 5a in that same period. In 2019, my friends just abandon the Pixel release entirely and fall back on OnePlus, or even switch to the iPhone. Because Google is the last major "OEM" (if you can even call them that) to release a flagship for that year.
  • Yes due to the shortcomings of the Pixel 4, I got the Pixel 3 instead.
  • I don't think they will release the budget line along with the flagships because they can't even get flagships right. It would make the budget line look that much better and then they'd further devalue the brand worse than they already have. Get a Pixel 4 at launch date just to have it severely discounted a mere month later, missing key specs that should be present at the price point. It's like watching an idiot shoot themselves in the foot everyday of the week.
  • Easy fix, launch your two high ends Pixel and Pixel XL, and bring back the Nexus tag for your new midrange line which launches at the same time as the Pixels.
    No confusion since Nexus was always the bargain phone, and people loved the Nexus line. Instant recognition.
  • Samsung doesn't just have the S series. They have the S series for their high end phones, and A series for the low end/ mid range offerings. What Samsung is doing is no different than what Google is with the 2 different release periods for the different market segments.