I can remember it like it was yesterday. We were in New York City for Google’s annual hardware event and awaiting the arrival of all the leaked goodies that had been talked about for months up to that point. I was personally pumped for hands-on time with the new Pixelbook Go and very ready to hear just about anything regarding the Pixel Buds. The new Nest router and extension points were cool to see alongside the meaningfully-updated Nest Mini. Honestly, all of it was awesome and most of these products are still around my home and office in daily use right now.
You probably noted one thing left off that list, though: the Pixel 4. I think as Google took the stage to talk about the Pixel 4, I was as underwhelmed as I’ve ever been with a phone. It was a small upgrade over the Pixel 3, the camera array really needed an ultrawide option, the forehead looked ridiculous, and the radar-powered controls were gimmicky instead of revolutionary. It was a decent phone, sure, but the asking price and lack of hardware we’d become used to by October 2019 in a flagship phone made for a very, very tough sell for most customers.
I went back and forth with the Pixel 4. I held off on buying it initially, opting instead for the excellent OnePlus 7T. Then I caved in and bought it for that oh-so-sturdy Android build you get on Pixel phones paired with that wonderful camera. I stayed put for a while that way, too, but in the past few months, I’ve been testing the waters. With what looks like no plans to return to flagship-level internals for Pixels in 2020, I’ve opened up to trying out new Android phones as I wait out what Google may do next year. It’s been a fun new tech journey for me and I’m looking forward to a few of the phones I’ll be trying out in the next few weeks as a result.
Google struggles with flagship phones
I say all of that to point out the fact that even for a hard-core Google fan like myself, I even have trouble staying with Pixel phones right now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m rooting heavily for the Pixel 4a to sell like hotcakes when it becomes available in a few weeks and I think Google understands how to make mid-range hardware and leverage their software in unique ways to make great devices out of the combo. I loved the Pixel 3a XL and I’m positive the Pixel 4a will bring a fantastic experience to tons of new users, too.
When it comes to the top end of the market, however, Google has simply been unable to figure out what the Pixel identity should be. Priced in line with other top-tier phones, Google’s phones have consistently lacked features that phones from Samsung, Apple and OnePlus deliver for the same prices or, in the case of OnePlus, for less. With what they’ve built in the Pixel 4a, I’m unsure why this is the case. Each Pixel has had its share of head-scratching design choices that, in their respective launch windows, made no sense at all. The original Pixel had massive, useless bezels. The Pixel 2 used a poor screen. The Pixel 3 had that ridiculous notch that was absurdly large for absolutely no reason. The Pixel 4 had the massive forehead to cram in face detection and a radar and neither really took off.
I don’t know why Google struggles with phone hardware decisions so much at the top end, but they still have yet to crack into that market the way they are doing in the mid-range. So, it makes sense for them to stay put there and build the brand around phones it seems people universally love and enjoy using. Thus, it looks like Google is fully embracing that mentality and deciding to completely cut ties with the Pixel 4 and 4 XL. In a statement to The Verge today, a Google spokesperson said:
Google Store has sold through its inventory and completed sales of Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL. For people who are still interested in buying Pixel 4 [and] 4 XL, the product is available from some partners while supplies last. Just like all Pixel devices, Pixel 4 will continue to get software and security updates for at least three years from when the device first became available on the Google Store in the US.
Just like that, the Pixel 4 and 4 XL will begin fading into the history books as oddball phones from Google that compromised on strange things and, once again, missed the mark for what consumers expect in a nearly $1000 phone. I’ve talked about it before, but it is a very tough position to be in as a Google Pixel fan. I love their software and the overall Pixel experience. I think others will too and that’s why I’m a massive fan of Google smashing it in the mid-range. But many users are like me and we also want to do stuff like play PUBG or have experimental hardware options like folding displays. It seems, for the time being, if you are bent in that direction, Pixels just aren’t for you. And they aren’t for me right now, either. Sigh.