Pixel Imperfect (Premium)

Thanks to the 2020 lineup, I’ve gone through what I call the 7 Stages of Pixel Grief: Confusion, Confusion, Confusion, Confusion, Confusion, Anger, and Resignation.


Today, my final smartphone purchase of 2020 arrives, the Google Pixel 4a 5G, capping a crazy year of broken promises, reduced expectations, and general disappointment. Yes, I’m referring to the Pixel lineup there and not COVID. 2020 was the year in which Google finally gave up trying to compete with the Samsungs and Apples of the flagship part of the market and tried something different. In doing so, alas, it made all the wrong decisions for its fans and for its erstwhile customers. And boy is that frustrating.

It used to be so much better. In the pre-Pixel world, Google worked with its hardware partners to release at least one Nexus-branded smartphone model each year. And there were some real winners. The Nexus 5---which factors heavily into this discussion of Google’s 2020 handsets---was the first indication that an Android phone that provided a clean Google software image, a minimalist design, and a decent camera experience---could thrive in a market dominated by other companies. And the Nexus 5X and 6P were just about as perfect as could be, with the best camera systems found in any smartphone to that date and lowball pricing that made them no brainers for so many.

And then Pixel happened.

It’s a story to which any Microsoft fan can relate. Jealous of the success of Apple and its integration of hardware and software, Google pulled the plug on its Signature PC-like Nexus lineup and decided to bring it all in-house with its Surface-like Pixel lineup in which the platform maker would now compete directly with its own partners.

The first Pixels were not actually designed by Google, but the online giant eventually bought the team at HTC that did do that work and, well, it’s several years later now so let’s not belabor the point. What did happen right away was that Google raised the prices of its handsets dramatically, putting them firmly in the sights of the Apple and Samsung flagships, and worked to improve distribution through major wireless carriers, another part of this story that factors heavily into this discussion of Google’s 2020 handsets.

Looking back at four generations of Pixels, I can make a few statements about what happened.

First, Google dominated smartphone photography ... until it didn’t. Huawei came out of nowhere in 2018 with smartphone camera systems that rivaled what Google offered and then surpassed Google for good in 2019. Samsung and Apple both upped their smartphone camera games, and by late 2019 (or maybe early 2020 in Samsung’s case) both firms had likewise equaled or surpassed Google in this area. For its part, Google has been using the same main camera sensor since 2018’s Pixel 3 lineup (and really since the 2017 Pixel 2, as the differences between the two are minor). And its struggled to adapt to the...

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