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Google's Pixel 5 is missing the one thing it needs most: a reason to exist

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

Three things are clear about Google's Pixel business. First, it values both the low and high-end, as Sundar Pichai said: "If you want to drive computing forward, that high end is where you're going to also keep moving the needle. And it's where we are putting a lot of our effort into."

Second, Google really wants this to be a sustainable project over the long-term and not a flash in the pan.

Third, Google is failing at the first two parts.

There's a lot to love about Pixels, and I say that as a Pixel owner myself. The software that remains smooth, the outstanding camera, the aesthetic (for some), and the sheer Googliness of it all. There's also quite a bit to critique about it.

Google Pixel 4 XL

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Right off the bat, we have the Achilles heel — hardware. Don't get me wrong, Google is able to do great things with limited specs. It pops out a Snapdragon 855 when other companies are shipping with an 855+. It's going for a 765 where others would go for an 865, a plastic build where premium glass and metal sandwiches draw eyes, and it's doing great things with these limited specs. It's praiseworthy, it's commendable, but it isn't enough.

The Pixel 5 doesn't need top-of-the-line specs, but it also has to find a way to be interesting and unique.

It's one thing to argue that specs are for people obsessed with speeds and feeds, and that's a good argument. It's another thing to undersell that specs meaningfully shape the experience. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL shipped with small batteries, the assumption that the software smarts would help pick up the slack. That our review was titled "Early to bed, Early demise" should show how well that worked out. Google shipped the Pixel 3 with 4GB of RAM. RAM management issues began to pop up. The Pixel 4 and 4 XL, camera-focused phones, were handicapped by poor video performance and couldn't even take part in the ultra-wide camera trend.

Now, it would be one thing if Google was acting against conventional advice and succeeding — definitively proving that it had the secret sauce that no one else did — but reports are that the company is failing its way into being an also-ran. An early 2020 story by The Information (opens in new tab) tells us that Google's Pixel sales are falling year after year. The Pixel 4 sold less than the Pixel 3 which sold less than the Pixel 2. Even the Pixel 3a series, seen to be the savior of the Pixel line, sold fewer units than the more expensive Pixel 3 in its first two months.

Pixel 4a Alex Home Launcher

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

Now, Google is about to embark in an all-out price war. Reports indicate the upcoming Pixel 5 will start at a lower price than the Pixel 4, and it'll be less powerful at the same time. But Google's tactic of offering less isn't going to win over converts, it hasn't done so in the past. You could argue that Google needs to compete on price, but can Google really go up in a market like India with the 2020 Pixel line?

Speaking to Android Central in May, Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential, said:

The rumored Pixel 4a will be entering a much more competitive mid-tier market than its predecessor faced. Samsung is bringing its successful A-series to the U.S., TCL is making another run at the mid-tier, and Apple's four-year iPhone SE cycle reset at just the right moment. Outside the U.S., Chinese vendors are pushing phones with high-end specs at mid-tier prices.

Perhaps the camera could help, but if one notes that offering well-specced smartphones has yet to move the needle in terms of sales, one must equally acknowledge the same goes for the cameras.

Greengart told Android Central:

Camera quality is absolutely a key purchase driver, but all premium phones take excellent photos in good lighting, Google's rivals have implemented their own low light photography modes, and mainstream consumers cannot easily discern differences at a glance. When the Pixel 3a came out, I did a smartphone blind taste test with public radio's Marketplace; our non-technical testers did not see anything special in the 3a's camera, but they thought that the design looked and felt cheap.

Ru Bhikha, mobile expert at Uswitch, concurred, noting:

Since the success of the Night Sight on Pixel 2, Google have found it difficult to maintain imaging excellence with recent releases struggling to stand out against the competition. With rivals like the Huawei P series, in particular, muscling in on Pixel's USP by producing top of the range cameras at a similar price point."

Google Pixel 5 Leaked Renders

Source: @OnLeaks / Pricebaba (Image credit: Source: @OnLeaks / Pricebaba)

The new rumors and leaks about the Pixel 5 haven't quelled these concerns. Tech publication Ars Technica titled an article covering an Android Central's exclusive Pixel 5 report as "Pixel 5 is slower than the Pixel 4, has same camera as the Pixel 2". It may be a particularly negative way of looking at it, but it's not untrue. Even the Pixel 4a, reviewed widely as an excellent back to basics phone, caused Input Mag to question whether Google "had lost interest in phones". It's a good handset, mind you, but it has little to set itself apart in the Android market once you exclude camera and software. That Google has opted for a limited launch doesn't show that the company has much faith in that being enough.

As Pichai said, Google is making Pixels to produce an "opinionated" take on Android, and force the market in a direction that it wants to. But if no one is buying Pixels, what message are companies going to take about the value of Google's opinions? Already, OnePlus is moving towards Samsung's user interface and away from Google's, while Samsung steals Google's software support and adds its own hardware prowess. The only other stock Android savior of note is HMD Global, and its sales are estimated to be under 1% at last call. The company is poised to revv up in the next few months, but others have to be watching all this. Its businesses is selling phones, not ads. If Google's Pixel goal is to drive the direction of Android, all it appears to be doing is showing the competition what doesn't work.

26 Comments
  • Worse performance than the Pixel 4 and using old camera hardware.
    Being cheap does not excuse everything.
    I can get an old phone that challenges the Pixel's photography, runs rings around Pixel video performance, and as a bonus: it's no boring.
  • Somebody is bitter..🍼
  • This will be an incremental update at best. In some ways, it'll be better than the Pixel 4 series (more ram, bring the fingerprint sensor back {yeah that one is subjective}, possibly more internal storage options, etc) and in others it won't be (lesser processor, same cameras, etc). I cannot see how Google thinks they can compete with premium devices when they don't bother selling a premium device. I know the die-hard Google fans will buy this and promote it as the "best Pixel yet!" and I respect their opinion. Google isn't moving the bar forward (then again, other than still photography, when have they ever?) and that is a problem. Stick to budget devices Google; you seem to be fairly good at it. Leave the premium to the big boys (Samsung, Apple, Huawei).
  • Yeah, being a worse performer than the generation before it is a bad look. I see why Google discontinued the 4 when they did. They want people to forget about it being a better phone than the 5 will be. I'll reiterate that at $499 I would give this phone a shot. Any more than $499 is not worth it. That would be $150 more than their current low end phone (that still isn't shipping for a month if you buy it today) and the same price as the Pixel 4 when Google had it on sale which is arguably a better phone.
  • Google definitely succeeds in one thing: providing Android bloggers something else to b**ch and whine about endlessly.
  • It's impossible to top a phone the 4a that's selling for 349.oo? Especially what's offered!
  • If they would have put wireless charging in the 4a, I would agree. No wireless charging is a complete deal killer.
  • From what I've seen so far, it's going to be exactly what I've been waiting for to upgrade from my 3XL. That's a great purpose for this phone, contrary to your headline, as there are many others like me who skipped the 4 series. I would avoid doom saying before you've even seen the product. Google has proven their exceptional ability to leverage software to a degree no other company has come close to matching (you guys have had to eat your own words on the 2 and 3 series when you thought a single camera would doom the product). Unfortunately, as they discovered the hard way, there's still a certain hardware baseline necessary to support that software magic. Google seems to have taken that to heart: All the issues you mentioned that held back their software are fixed. RAM issues? They put in 8gb. Lackluster battery? Now 4,000 mAh. The 765G is also more than powerful enough for Google. Odd how so many writers on here another gush over the 765G, yet somehow it isn't enough for the 5?
  • I think the pixel 5 should serve as a warning to all pixel users and supporters that Google is starting to look beyond the pixel. Google has a bad reputation for quickly abandoning hardware when they don’t see value in it anymore. I think the writing is on the wall that the pixel will soon follow the same path as the nexus line.
  • More evidence that Google's phone division doesn't know what it's doing. People buy the high-end Pixel phones because they want an Android version of the iPhone experience: cutting-edge technology, unadulterated OS, and speedy updates. However, Google is abandoning literally 1/3 of that equation by using a last-generation chipset and implementing other cost-cutting measures. The result will be too expensive to be a budget or even mid-grade phone, with inferior performance to Samsung or LG or OnePlus' premium offerings. Remember, Google: if you try to please everyone, no one will like it.
  • This comment hits the nail on the head. Google makes Pixel phones for those who want Apple like integration on Android. If Google could move volume like Apple I think they would have more phones, but having Samsung at the top already makes that alot more complicated. I think they are fine where they are. They get to steer the Android ship, and serve the people who want a vertically integrated phone. I think more and more people are realizing that they would rather upgrade a mid tier phone every 2 years for $350-500 than every 4+ for some of these uber-expensive $1000+ phones. Today's pixel 4a is already better than a 2 year old Samsung G8.
  • The moment anyone mentions Apple in a discussion of Google products, they've instantly shown that they've completely missed the point of Google. The philosophies between them couldn't be more different, and for good reason. That argument is similar to how people two decades ago dismissed Amazon compared to Walmart. Even though they both sold products, their visions were completely different.
  • The reason Google produces lackluster or lacking devices is because they really only make money when you use their services regardless of what device you use. They don't care about hardware at all. They make profits when you read your email on Gmail, surf the net with chrome, make video calls on Duo, etc regardless of the phone you use. Until they can find a way to make hardware profitable, they are not really going to care about devices.... Which is a shame because a company like Google with all its resources has the capacity to really create truly great and innovative devices that could rival Apple. But unfortunately it falls short.... Year after year... This one being no different than the last 4.
  • Google's phone division needs to take a hard reset and clearly define what the Pixel line should be. IMHO just create a good mid-range phone running stock Android. Let Samsung and others create the high end phones. I also wish the Pixel was more like Apple when it comes to support. Phones are expensive these days, 3 years of support is not long enough if they decide to put out high end phones.
  • That's exactly what the 5 will be.
  • Agreed. I think the 5 has some real potential. I'm not a pixel fanboy. I believe this is a tactical retreat, but that's exactly the right move. Google lost its way with the 4 series and I think they've learned and are regrouping.
  • But it's not a premium device isn't competing against them.
  • Welcome to Huawei central. The pixel phones arent even on the market yet and Huawei Central already bashing it on leaks. How about we *gasp* wait till the product hits the market *gasp* before you feign concern and open up the hate fest from people who do not want to be satisfied
  • You folks who are bashing *a spec sheet* and haven't even used the phone (because it isn't out yet) have totally lost the plot. A Samsung phone with top-end specs is still a stuttering pile of dog **** after 8 months because the software totally sucks, regardless of the fact that it had the best hardware. Pixels are smooth even after they go end of support because they're actually well-optimized. They are more than the sum of their parts, and always have been. My gripe with Pixels has always been the battery, and if the leaks are true then they've addressed that with the 5. I'm writing this on a 4a right now and during real-world use it outperforms my OnePlus 7t with all of its bugs and quirks in every area except for gaming. For anyone who cares about how their phone actually runs and not benchmarks, then this article was laughable at best.
  • 100% agree. All the hand wringing about specs is getting to be so tiresome. Most people that buy pixels want an Apple like, simple, clean, functional, experience with Android. The top of the line (in terms of hardware AND PRICE) phones are made mute because of their cringe worthy software. I personally have no desire to spend $1200+ for a Samsung phone (despite it having the best specs available for the next 6 mos) that stutters out of the box for simple things like scrolling a webpage or through the android market place.
  • I didn't get a Pixel 2, 3, or 4 because my Pixel XL is running just fine. Phones in general have hit a tech wall.
  • “It's a good handset, mind you, but it has little to set itself apart in the Android market once you exclude camera and software.“ What a ridiculous take. Yeah, once you disregard the two areas that are the Pixel’s specialty, and are a lot of people’s most important aspects of a phone, then it is fairly unremarkable.
  • This is wrong. The Pixel series certainly has a reason to exist. It is just the wrong reason. First off: Google wisely made the decision not to try to directly compete against its existing OEMs, especially the ones that are not doing so hot like LG, Sony, Motorola and Nokia. Their method of doing so was to compete against Apple for iPhone customers instead of competing against beleagured Android OEMs and - say - driving an LG out of the market (while still not selling very many phones). The problem: Google made the utterly ridiculous choice of attempting to answer the criticisms of bloggers and media types. There are two types. 1. Those that are 40+ that have been using Macs for 20 years.
    2. The ones in their 20s that have basically grown up - middle school, junior high, high school, college - with iPhones and iPads. Members of both groups don't use Android devices, their friends and family members don't either, they (not-so-secretly) despise Android and the people who use it ... but have to write articles and blogs about it because it is their job. So they come up with the same bogus excuses to bash Android: user experience, ecosystem, better apps, privacy/security, AppleCare etc. all of which are the result of Apple having full control of hardware and software. They use this to ignore such things as the ability to buy excellent smartphones for half the price of iPhones, getting features 2 or more years before iPhones do, and oh yeah how Apple has pretty much done nothing with the iPhone or iPad the past 6 years but but clone Samsung Galaxy devices. So to try to woo these people, Google decided "we too can focus on cameras ... which 1.499 of the 1.5 billion people who buy smartphones each year could really care less about." That "we too can have an unintuitive too simple UI-based user experience" ... that Apple is no longer even going to use anymore starting with iOS 14. That "we too can claim 'software optimizatization' as an excuse to short shrift people on RAM and battery!" when in reality the real reason why iOS uses less RAM and battery than Android is that the former is a C (or C++) operating system while Android has a Java JVM. If most iOS apps ran on a Java JVM, then iPhones and iPads would need bigger batteries and more RAM too. The problem: Google was wrong to center their efforts on answering the dishonest arguments of tech bloggers. Instead they should have focused on actual consumers. The vast majority of iPhone owners aren't dedicated Apple walled garden "ecosystem privacy security design support" types. Instead, most of them own Windows laptops, Roku TV boxes, Nintendo or PlayStation consoles etc. and the iPhone is literally the only Apple device they have ever owned (give or take an iPad, iPod, Apple Watch and AirPod or three). These are folks who would be fine with Android phones but for IMESSAGE. Or they have owned Android devices in the past, liked them but switched because all their friends had iPhones (again iMessage) or because they were scared by the privacy!/security! FUD into switching. In other words, those people like iPhones but don't LOVE them. The way to get those people isn't to respond to the nonsense if the Apple lovers but to A) address their LEGITIMATE concerns - again iMessage and FaceTime - and B) push back against the FUD but most of all C) give them something compelling that they can't get on iOS. The last one is key. Instead of "buy this because it is, you know, kind of like an iPhone and almost as good as one", Google should go after iPhone owners - again, to be distinct from DIEHARD IPHONE FANS - with "the Pixel can do this and your iPhone CAN'T." For C) Google needs to actually put in the work to find out what smartphone owners like. It isn't AR stickers, Soli, squeezable sides, shortcuts to search and other stuff that Google is interested in (because it shows off their cloud prowess ... and generates a lot of data for ads). What is it? Who knows. Google could/should have built a Nintendo Switch-type device years before the Switch came out. (And, you know, put in the work to get the big third party gaming studios onboard.) Google STILL CAN come out with the ultimate health/fitness phone that is loaded down with sensors, tons of health apps that are actually good (sorry Google Fit), maybe some tie-ins with telemedicine providers etc. But the bottom line is that their strategy has to be to go after the 80% of iPhone owners who will consider switching and not the 20% who never will just because they are the ones who dominate the tech and mainstream media.
  • 90% agree. Excellent take.
  • Yes! Well said. Originally, it was the camera on the Pixel that was "better than iPhone". What's next? The description of the 20somethings is spot on...my kids and their friends love iMessage and FaceTime, not apple and iPhones. They use W10, chromebooks, and other stuff. Google needs to have a defining feature that makes it ok for them all to shift to Android... together. Then use messages or WhatsApp. Oh, and they need to be able to export their iMessage conversations. For kids those are like diaries of their lives that they keep forever.
  • Glass and metal phones are the most easily broken devices I’ve ever encountered. I administrate almost 200 phones where I work and plastic phones seem to handle drops far better than glass and metal phones. For example if you compare the durability of a new iPhone SE 2020 to an iPhone 5C from a few years ago you can practically drive over the 5C with a car without breaking it while the new glass SE will be a shattered hunk of junk. While they make look fancier, I’ll take a plastic phone over a glass and metal phone any day of the week for durability reasons.