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Here's why Google gave up the flagship race with the Pixel 5

Google Pixel 5 Lifestyle Table
Google Pixel 5 Lifestyle Table (Image credit: Google)

With today's announcement of its new phones, the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G, Google has made official what was originally speculated way back in January: These Pixels are different. The combo-breaker of the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G defies the company's normal "regular plus XL" naming convention, while also being the first flagship Pixels to not use a Snapdragon 800-series chipset.

It's easy to connect the dots and see this change of direction as a direct result of Google's apparent disappointment with Pixel 4 sales. It was reported back in May that Google only shipped around two million Pixel 4s in its first two quarters of availability, and that Google hardware boss Rick Osterloh was disappointed with the phones' performance in key areas like battery life. Nikkei Asia reports that overall Pixel sales in 2019 reached approximately 7.2 million, missing the internal target of 8-10 million despite reasonably strong sales of the Pixel 3a.

While Covid may force Google to ship fewer Pixel 5s, its specs were set long before the pandemic.

The same report outlines Google's more modest expectations for the Pixel 5, due to disruption resulting from Covid-19. Initial Pixel 5 shipments could be as low as 800,000, Nikkei reports, though with some wiggle room if initial demand is stronger.

Considering how long it takes to develop a smartphone from the ground up, the specs of the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 would've been set in stone long before the current pandemic. So while Covid may have forced Google to ship its new phones in smaller numbers, it will have had no impact on the final form of these handsets. (That said, as AC has reported, it's very likely the two phones were originally intended to ship as Pixel 5 and 5s, before the names were eventually switched around.)

Instead, it was the relative failure of the Pixel 4 (as well as the series' spotty track record in general) which probably forced Google to reexamine its approach to flagship Pixels.

But looking back at the Pixel series' history, Google has always been reluctant to have its phones lean on hardware muscle alone. Sure, they used Snapdragon 800-series processors. But Pixels never really trailblazed in terms of design. They were often underequipped in terms of RAM and internal storage. The displays were never the very best. The charging was never the fastest. And the less said about the battery life, the better.

The cameras were unquestionably great, for sure, but this was because of Google's HDR+ processing and the Pixel Neural Core, not the image sensors or the lenses, which have barely changed throughout the series' lifespan.

So in a way, switching to the Snapdragon 765G, with its good-enough performance and integrated 5G, is in keeping with Google's pattern of elevating basic phone hardware through software, services and AI. And the resulting phones should make sense at $500 or $600 than the Pixel 4 ever did at $800 or $900.

Trying to compare the relative success of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5 is going to be largely pointless.

In a group interview following the launch, Google told Android Central that its primary goal with the Pixel 5 was to hit an accessible and mainstream price point, in start contrast to flagship phones from Samsung and even OnePlus this year. At $699, the Pixel 5 may not be the cheapest premium phone Google has ever released, but in 2020 it is a major pivot for any smartphone maker.

Google also told us that the changes it made — opting for a cheaper Snapdragon 765 processor, getting rid of its Soli radar and face unlock sensors and replacing them with a standard rear fingerprint sensor, and sticking with a very mature but much-cheaper camera setup, among other minor things — do not degrade the overall process of using the phone, and that the Pixel 5 is still the fastest Pixel ever from a user experience perspective.

It remains to be seen whether Google's new approach to higher-end smartphones will pay off. Indeed, given the current health and economic situation, it'll probably be impossible to draw any meaningful comparisons between the success of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5. Who knows how many Pixel 5 phones Google would be able to shift in a world without coronavirus.

The arrival of cheaper top-end Pixels in 2020, however, seems oddly synchronistic. Consumer appetite for top-priced flagships is at an all-time low, and the technology exists to produce really compelling phones for less than half the price of the big-name flagships. Google, with its unique strengths in software, services and AI, clearly believes it can be more competitive in this market segment.

The coincidence of cheaper flagship Pixels launching in the middle of a major global crisis is just that — a coincidence. Nevertheless, the Pixel's change, of course, could give us the perfect Google phones for this weird new decade — even if it does, for the moment, kill off the Android nerd dream of a true, enthusiast-level Pixel.

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

11 Comments
  • The very long drawn out lesson here is if it ain't broke, don't fix it! ie the Nexus lineup! Seems they've went full circle and are returning to basically the Nexus formula, they've tried to compete at the high end and been found wanting big time! the mistakes made with the Pixel 4 were boarderline criminal (especially battery life) !
  • Agreed. As many people have reasonable pointed out, the price for the pixel 5 is still off the mark for a Nexus product spiritual successor. I think this is a major transition year and perhaps next year will see the price also come into more traditional Nexus alignment.
  • Until apple comes out with their 5.4" model and prices it at $649 and wipes the floor with google in pictures, video, and performance. This would have been a good buy at $500-$600, but at $700 its not reallt that great of a deal. 
  • Google finally realised they couldn’t compete at the high end so they’ve trying for an even more crowded market with the mid range but the prices for the new phones are still too high for what they offer, a mid range processor and only 6GB RAM and with only the camera being flagship quality. Google just gave me another reason to stay away from the Pixel phones and Android in general. iPhone all the way.
  • Beno,
    How are you liking iOS14?
  • Have fun with your home screen
  • Just bought a Poco x3 nfc for £230 really looking forward to it arriving tomorrow. 120hz refresh rate, 5100 mah battery, stereo speakers, 732g chip, 128gig memory with expandable memory slot, headphone jack, plus free case and screen protector thrown in! Also 2 year warranty. Google's got to do better with the prices when phones like this exist!
  • Still about $300 overpriced for what it offered. $900 Canadian is in no way "Mid range" to my wallet.
  • So less is more/better in Google world? Bit delusional. Interesting how past reviews said Google phone (x) was amazing, yet now concede no not really. Samsung and Apple seemingly are the only ones to do high end well now Huawei has had its ambitions clipped. There's a reason for that. We all moan about price, but ultimately you can't scimp on spec and to be the top dog you need all the top kit. Then repeat the following year. Regardless of what anyone says they sell. End.
  • Overpriced...
    I won't pay more than $500 for a Snapdragon 765 phone.
  • Don't blame you... Especially when you can get a Flagship level CPU for that price, possibly less!