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.

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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.