Just last week, Google made the all-new Pixel 5a official and as news of this new Pixel device spread, they quietly shuttered two devices that bear its likeness: the Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a 5G. If things were normal and the release cadence for Google’s phones was in line with what it has been for the past few years, this would be a bit of a sudden and shocking move on behalf of the search giant. With the small mess that Google currently has in it’s Pixel phone offerings, however, this is a needed move as we move into the era of Pixel 6. Let me explain.
All these phones look the same!
Rewind the clock just a bit and come with me back to early 2020. The pandemic had not yet settled over the US and Google was once again riding the tiny wave of Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL sales into the coming arrival of the Pixel 4a and Pixel 4a XL. At least that’s what the plan likely was. Instead, we got COVID-19, supply chains were totally thrown off axis, and things got real messy, real quick. I don’t know exactly what happened internally at Google, but with the way things actually played out over the next 6 months for Google’s phones, I can tell you it wasn’t according to plan.
The Pixel 4a was pushed back, the larger XL model was ditched, and when it did arrive in August it came with a tease for the upcoming Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. By this point, leaks had already spelled out what we could expect at the fall hardware event and things unfolded just as we were expecting. The Pixel 4a 5G somewhat filled the void of the missing Pixel 4a XL and the Pixel 5 – well – it was there too, I guess? The lineup felt as confusing and out of place as it ever has.
So, going into Q4 of 2020, we had the Pixel 4a that was a well-receieved phone on its own at the very low $349 price point flanked by slightly-better phones in the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. There are differences between the 3, sure, but nowhere near enough distinction to avoid some pretty serious consumer confusion. With similar cameras, similar processors, and no clear flagship device in 2020, it felt like the Pixel line was lost at sea. Long-time Pixel users like my wife and I moved on to other brands or simply didn’t choose to upgrade. It was all just…weird.
Pixel 6 to the rescue
Then came May 2021. Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro hype train was instantly in full swing as leaked renders started appearing with good regularity. Then, on August 2nd Google simply up and confirmed both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro and the newly-named Tensor SoC that would power them. Gone were the rumors and speculation, instead replaced by firm confirmation by Google themselves that Pixel 6 is here to compete and that Google – 5 years after the launch of their first phone – is finally preparing to take on Samsung and Apple in the flagship phone wars. Finally!
Here’s the thing, though: In all the excitement for the Pixel 6, we can’t forget about the position the Pixel brand holds as a mid-range phone, either. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL was beloved, the 4a was incredibly well-received, and from the looks of it, the 5a is going to sell well, too. While Google’s been pretty bad at the high-end, flagship phone game, they’ve been incredibly good at making low-cost phones that have seriously great features. Namely, they are the best cameras you can get on a budget, and consumers know it.
With the Pixel 5a, though it share A TON in common with the Pixel 4a, 4a 5G, and Pixel 5, I think Google has managed a solid price point on a phone that offers users a lot for their money. At the same time, however, it really makes the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5 look like silly purchases by comparison. After all, the Pixel 5 is a smaller phone that only holds wireless charging and a 90hz screen as trump cards over the Pixel 5a. It’s hard to convince anyone buying a phone with the mid-range Snapdragon 765G inside that those two features are worth a $250 price hike.
Then we have to talk about the staggering similarities between the Pixel 5a and the Pixel 4a 5G. They are honestly almost identical and the 5a adds features the 4a 5G didn’t have like a larger battery, water resistance, a metal chassis, and a wider ultrawide lense. Oh, and it is $50 cheaper, too. In that context, the Pixel 4a 5G has no reason to stick around any longer.
Cleaning up and getting back on the rails
So, to me it comes as no surprise that Google is already pulling the plug on both the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G. They just don’t make sense and they will only muddy the waters as the Pixel 6 and Tensor enter the fray. Now, instead of having a bunch of devices that look pretty similar and do most of the same things, Google will be returning to a more-standard model of true flagship and accompanying mid-range device. We’ll see the Pixel 4a remain as the super-affordable option, the Pixel 5a as the fantastic mid-range phone, and the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro as the unabashed flaships.
When you see the Pixel phone lineup in that light, it makes a lot of sense. Are these discontinuations early and a bit abrupt? Sure. Most companies don’t shut down a phone 9 months into its life cycle, but I think we all knew last year’s phones were something of a Band-aid to help Google to make it to where we’re about to be in a month or so. Pixel 6 will be a defining moment for Google, one where we see what they are capable of in this space when the shackles are taken off and they are free to market a truly stellar device.
Previous flagship Pixels have always had drawbacks, missing features, or issues that caused them to feel a tad less-than the similarly-priced competition. This year, however, that may not be the case. There’s a lot to learn about the Pixel 6, but the promise of an uncompromising Google phone feels near and real this time around. And as the Pixel 6 either makes a splash or face plants upon arrival, the Pixel 5a will be watching behind the scenes, ready to offer up new users a Pixel phone experience on a much smaller budget, but not confusing them in the process. As Gabriel pointed out earlier, the 5a is likely going to make a perfect compliment to the Pixel 6, and with this phone lineup clarified and honed in a bit, it feels like the stage is set for Tensor and the Pixel 6. I sure hope can live up to the weight of the hype.