The Pixel 4a is here and, as mobile and deputy editor Max Parker noted in his review, it’s a pretty darned impressive device.
It offers buyers a top end camera, reasonable price tag and the oh so sweet perk of completely unskinned Android – make no mistake if you don’t care about 5G and have a strict budget the Pixel 4a is a stellar choice. Which is why you may be surprised to hear that I’m still terribly disappointed with it.
To be clear, my qualms with the phone have nothing to do with the Pixel 4a’s hardware. For me, it’s about its timing.
Back in the days of yore, Google phones were a huge deal for one key reason: They drove value in a way no other phone did. Every time a Nexus phone came out, it brought a feature traditionally reserved to super expensive flagship to the middle of the market.
Nexus was the first phone to bring OLED screen tech, top end camera sensors and wireless charging to the middle of the market and it was year-on-year a benchmark that forced OEMs to compete and make more cost effective products as a result.
This was further emphasised by the fact Google chose to partner with a specific OEM each year building them.
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Competing to be the year’s Nexus partner was a key honor every company wanted that made them compete in a very different way that put value first. It was a great tactic that led to some of Android’s best phones. Highlights included Samsung with the Galaxy Nexus, LG with the Nexus 5 – my personal favourite – and finally Huawei with the Nexus 6P. It was a great symbiotic system that just worked.
But since Google decided to go solo and replace Nexus with “Pixel” devices many moons ago, that legacy died. From this point, instead of being a pioneer for affordability, Google chose to become just another phone company shilling increasingly expensive handsets. This was a key turning point for the company and a move that in my mind was a mistake.
And while the Pixel 4a is great value, and a pseudo step in the right direction, it’s still not reclaimed Nexus’ glory. The fact is, other OEMs have been beating Google to the punch when it comes to driving value for years. Let’s look at 2020’s score sheet.
Motorola and OnePlus beat it to the punch on 5G and fast refresh rates with their respective Moto G 5G Plus and OnePlus Nord. Xiaomi, Redmi and Oppo have all released stellar value camera phones that don’t break the bank over the last 12 months.
Considering how good competing, sometimes cheaper, phones are this makes the Pixel 4a feel like a walk in by Google and increases my belief that the Pixel line is becoming increasingly irrelevant in most buyers eyes – a fact demonstrated by the disastrous sale numbers of last year’s Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL.
Even Google seems to be aware of this, having unceremoniously discontinued the Pixel 4 line before unveiling its next-gen Pixel 5 flagship.
Hopefully, Google will understand this with its next set of flagships and try and respark the affordable magic it lost come October, when it’s expected to launch the Pixel 5. But given what I’ve seen so far, I’m not holding my breath.