Google’s release schedule for its smartphones is nothing if not predictable, and its upcoming Pixel 4a should be announced in May 2020.
The Pixel 4a traces its origins back to the Nexus One, Google’s first smartphone. Released in 2010, the Nexus One marked the beginning of Google’s Nexus series of devices, which run vanilla versions of the Android operating system. The Nexus was Google’s platform to showcase vanilla versions of – and its vision for – the operating system.
In 2016, the Nexus line was discontinued. In its place came the Pixel, which continues its predecessor’s philosophy while sporting premium hardware and specifications. The Pixel is positioned as a top-of-the-line device, and comes with comparable prices to boot. The current flagships are the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL released in October last year, which are identical in every way except their screen sizes and battery capacities. The Pixel 4a, on the other hand, will be their budget-friendly alternative, just like the last generation’s Pixel 3a was to the Pixel 3.
We’ve spent four months with the Pixel 4. It’s Google’s best smartphone yet, but it also shows that the Pixel line still has much catching up to do before it can pose a credible threat to flagships from the likes of Apple and Samsung.
Like previous iterations of the Pixel series, the Pixel 4’s greatest strengths lie in its software. Improvements are pervasive but subtle, and simply better the user experience without calling attention to specific features.
Google’s work in computational photography, for one, has made the Pixel 4’s camera class-leading and, in our opinion, the best on the market today. The Google Assistant’s response time and accuracy have also been significantly improved, with Live Caption and the Recorder app riding on this to provide real-time transcription for speech.
Unfortunately, the Pixel 4’s hardware lacks its software’s refinement. While this has never been Google’s strong suit, the shortcomings here are especially stark. For a start, consider the two-camera setup on the Pixel 4, which pairs a wide-angle lens with a telephoto lens. While more isn’t always better, the iPhone 11 Pro sports a third ultrawide-angle lens that adds versatility. The choice of a telephoto lens over an ultrawide-angle lens is also baffling – it’s easier (and far more reliable) to crop a wider photo than to create a panorama with multiple images.
Elsewhere, the Pixel 4 is also plagued by mediocre hardware design and implementation. The phone’s sizable forehead and chin may not impact the user experience, but they look dated and out of place in today’s market. In exchange for this compromise, the Pixel 4 comes with a radar chip that powers Motion Sense (demonstrated in the video below), which promises touch-free, gesture-based controls, as well as a 90Hz screen. Their implementation has been lacklustre though; gesture-based control remains rudimentary, and the smoother 90Hz refresh rate is only available under specific conditions.
In the same vein, the new face unlock feature has not improved the phone’s authentication process, as it works even when the user’s eyes are closed, such as when he’s asleep. Without additional security measures, the phone is essentially insecure. With additional security measures however, face unlock is superfluous. Google has announced that a future software update will address this flaw.
Finally, there’s the Pixel 4’s Achilles heel: its battery life has shortened significantly compared to the Pixel 3. It’s a crucial flaw, and quite a deal-breaker for many people save the most avid fans of the product.
Two steps forward, one step back, but…
With its elaborate list of shortcomings the Pixel 4 isn’t quite as attractive a package as its predecessor, the Pixel 3. Straw polls have, however, suggested that both the Pixel 4 and its XL variant have sold well globally. Significant discounts on the phone at various points (such as Black Friday) have probably helped and the phone is, indeed, worth considering when it’s on sale.
Google’s smartphone business may well receive another leg up when the Pixel 4a is unveiled later this year. If last year’s Pixel 3a is anything to go by, then the Pixel 4a will be a no-frills version of the Pixel 4. Cost-savings will come from the usage of mid-tier hardware with less premium materials and not-quite-flawless finishing, but the Pixel 4a is expected to retain the flagship’s excellent camera just like its predecessor.
The Pixel 3a was a smash hit last year. Google will be wise to stay the course and replicate its success in the Pixel 4a.