This time last year, I wrote a column titled “If you have a Pixel 4 for Christmas, you should probably return it.” I did not want to write it. Ever since Pixel was launched in 2016, I have messed with the success of Google’s phone. No other company is in such a position to bring an iPhone-like level of hardware / software integration and an experience that is unmatched on any other Android phone.
Unfortunately, Google never completely nailed it. The chips were all there – flagship processor, amazing camera, regular Android updates – but the design always left a lot to be desired, the features were gimmicky, and the battery was just good enough. On the Pixel 4, the compromises became too much to bear.
But things can look up. In 2020, Google launched the strategy with Pixel 4a and 5, and the results were shockingly good. First, the design was fantastic, with a light frame, slim frames and a structured glass that is not in glass. But the more interesting features were inside the phone: Google chose the mid-size Snapdragon 765G instead of the 865, and the Pixel did not lose a step. It still feels fast, still delivers the purest Android experience, and still takes better pictures than phones that cost hundreds of dollars more. It also opens up Pixel for a new world of possibilities.
Lower end, upper class
Pixel may have been just a glimpse into Google’s eye when Android One was launched in 2014, but the two projects have been cut by the same cloth. The vision of Android One was to bring a pure Android experience to lower phones that were often filled with bloatware. The Pixel phones are basically advanced Android One phones. Even with better components and monitors, the focus – and selling point – is on software.
However, this software is largely the reason why the early Pixel phones did not have much impact. The designs did not match the high cost, especially compared to similar phones from Apple and Samsung. Therefore, Pixel 3a and 4a have clearly done better when it comes to sales: The lower prices only make more sense.
With Pixel 4a, 4a 5G and 5, Google creates a better balance between the hardware people want and the software they need. With Android One, Google worked closely with manufacturers of phone and silicon chips … to build phones that are not only good to use, but also affordable, a mantra that has found its way into the Pixel series in 2020. It’s more than just a lower price point or slower piece. For what seems like the first time in a Google phone, the Pixel 5 phone is built solely to harness the power of Android without worrying about exclusive parts and expensive competitors.
Pixel 6 can take it even longer. The lineup this year was a bit confusing with the $ 499 Pixel 4a 5G and $ 699 Pixel 5, especially since the 4a 5G had a larger screen than 5. Google has a lot more room to grow now that it has established the Pixel as a mid-range device.
It starts with the processor. While Qualcomm has not yet announced the successor to the 765G that powers the Pixel 4a and 5, there have been rumors that Google is working on its own processor. Axios reported earlier this year that “Google received its first working versions of the chip” and could be ready by next year. Axios reports that the chip will “include hardware optimized for Google’s machine learning technology,” with a portion of the chip focusing on “improving Google Assistant’s performance and always on features.”
If Google were trying to compete with Qualcomm’s fast Snapdragon 888, I would be skeptical. But with the Android optimizations that Google is already bringing to its phones, a custom chip designed exclusively for the Pixel 6 can provide an experience that Apple delivers with the iPhone. This may be exactly what the Pixel 6 needs to stand out in 2021.
A camera that can not be topped
If there’s one area where Pixel has always excelled, it’s the camera. While other phone manufacturers have added three and four lenses to enhance the experience of taking pictures, Google has done most of its work on the processing side. Things like Night Sight, Super Res Zoom and Live HDR + compensate for the lack of groundbreaking hardware.
The last two Pixel phones have hit something of an innovation wall. While the Pixel 5 still takes some of the best photos for a smartphone at any cost, there’s not much it can do that the Pixel 4a cannot also do for hundreds less. Granted, the Pixel 5 has an ultra-wide lens, but the overall Pixel camera experience looks set to be a breakthrough in 2021.
Google has already proven that they do not need advanced specifications to deliver a first-class camera experience, and the Pixel 6 will be the perfect way to drive home. Simple changes such as the addition of a telephoto lens or a better sensor on the main camera will go a long way towards cementing the Pixel as the leading smartphone camera. As Google has rested a bit on its laurels, other phones have closed the gap with night mode and improvements in portrait mode. A jump in camera performance in 2021, especially to a lower price point, will help it regain the crown.
Take advantage of the Android advantage
Finally, it’s Android itself. With timely updates, quarterly feature drops and exclusive and “Pixel-first” features, Google has positioned Pixel as the greatest Android experience at any price point. The relationship only gets tighter with Android 12.
Aside from features and optimizations, I expect Google to push Pixel’s guaranteed Android updates from three to four or even five years. After Samsung achieved the promise of three years in 2020, and Qualcomm announced that they will support four-year updates with the 888 processor, Pixel must stand out from the package. Years of timely updates are one of Pixel’s strongest points. An iPhone-like level of guaranteed updates will make it an outstanding champion.
Google’s Pixel movements in 2020 were definitely surprising, but I do not think that means that Google is giving up the handset as an influencer in the Android universe. On the contrary: with a few changes in 2021, the Pixel could finally become the phone it was always meant to be.