Recently, I was reading an opinion piece on Droid-Life which suggested that Google should focus primarily on building mid-range phones and not so much flagships. The company has had success in this area after all, with the Pixel 3a proving to be a favorite phone among reviewers throughout 2019 thanks to its feature set and price.
Meanwhile, the Pixel 4 that debuted later last year was met by disappointed faces. Both the 4 and 4 XL are decent phones, according to reporters, but they’re by no means perfect and cut more corners than they need to, especially for the price.
It’s easy to tell that building a mid-range phone is easy for Google, while having a hit out of the park priced at $1,000 is much more rare. But I don’t think the company should only focus on making mid-rangers. They have the potential to do something great in the high-end category, if only they’d listen to the market.
History tells us…
Back in 2016, Google came out the gate with a phone designed to take on the iPhones and Galaxies of the world called the Pixel. It was marketed as the “Phone by Google” in order to help people associate the Google brand with a phone that featured good performance, a great camera, and the best Android experience available with reliable updates.
That same recipe was followed up by the 2017 Pixel 2. This generation had its own set of problems (the screen on the XL model being the most notable), but it further cemented Google as a camera king among smartphones. It proved that the company was serious about this whole “flagship smartphone” thing.
Then came the Pixel 3, which made some questionable choices. There was a gigantic notch on the big one, while the small one had a tiny battery. Still, both phones made improvements upon their predecessors with the introduction of wireless charging and much better screens. This ultimately led to a majority of positive reviews.
Fast forward a few months, we get the Pixel 3a in May during I/O. This phone took the best of the Pixel 3 series and brought it down in price so more people could experience a Pixel phone. It had the same camera as the Pixel 3, the same software, and a similar design. But it also made some improvements over the Pixel 3 like better battery life and a headphone jack.
The 3a set the bar for what a mid-range phone could be, so it only made sense that people would be pumped for what Google had in store for its flagship phone later in the year.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t very much. The Pixel 4 has a spec sheet that does just enough to qualify as a flagship. Meanwhile, the camera department didn’t see much improvement year over year (and yes, I’m aware Night Sight exists, but it doesn’t contribute to the overall quality of the camera).
Then you get all the features Pixel users didn’t really ask for like facial recognition instead of a fingerprint reader, Motion Sense (a.k.a. The Gimmick of the Year), smaller batteries (why?), and no more free original-quality photo backups to Google Photos.
After riding so high with the 3a, it makes sense to be disappointed by what the Pixel 4 brought to the table. But history tells us that Google’s intent isn’t to make crummy phones. That’s not really the intention of any company, mind you, but as we saw with the first couple generations of Pixel, the company has the motivation to deliver a killer Android experience.
Software means a lot, but not everything
Personally, I feel like Google gets too caught up in the whole “we don’t need fast specs, we have clean software” selling point that each Pixel comes with. We’ve been saying it for years: Apple doesn’t need crazy amounts of RAM or storage in the iPhone to make it fast and enjoyable. For a while, we were saying that about the Pixel line, specifically the original Pixel and Pixel 2.
Back then, Google was able to get away with 32, 64, and 128GB of storage paired with 4GB of RAM so long as they optimize their software to perform as best as possible. But in 2018, those specs aren’t necessarily relevant, and that becomes even more clear when you bring them into 2019.
Granted, with the Pixel 4, Google did improve what it included on the inside. It packed an extra 2GB of RAM for a total of 6GB in both the 4 and 4 XL. But that’s it. Storage hasn’t changed, batteries haven’t seen any improvements, and we’re back to the same narrative of “letting the software tell the story.”
I’m the first guy to tell you that I deeply care about the software manufacturers include on their phones. Most of the time, it’s the deciding factor as to whether I’m gonna love or hate using a phone during my review period. But that means next to nothing if the specs under the hood aren’t good, and the Pixel 4 is a prime example of what it means when you include 2017-2018 internals in a 2019 phone.
That’s not to say the Pixel 4 doesn’t perform well. I’ve heard that it’s just fine. But compared to other phones on the market in the $1,000 price range, it’s lacking, and it’s lacking hard.
The missing link
There’s a reason people think Google should just stick to making mid-range phones. It’s because Google has shown it’s effortless to include a great software experience and killer camera without charging very much. That’s great and all, but companies like OnePlus have also proved it’s not hard to include killer specs in a phone that doesn’t cost $1,000.
Picture this: if a OnePlus phone had a Pixel camera, you would instantly buy it, right? I mean, the software’s clean enough and it’ll get regular updates. Battery life is great, performance is top notch – what’s there to hate? Not much, I’d argue.
If that’s all it takes to build the ultimate no-brainer Android flagship, why doesn’t Google just include beefy specs with its phones?
It’s clearly not hard. OnePlus has proven this time and time again with its fantastic range of Android phones that, to this day, have all cost under $900. I’m not saying Google should go full-on OnePlus Mode, though, with their lower than normal pricing. That’d be nice, but honestly, I’d be happy to pay $1,000 for a OnePlus phone with a Google Pixel camera system.
That’s the missing link. It’s the fact that Google, according to modern flagship standards, hasn’t really built a flagship phone. They build high-end phones.
Nowadays, Android flagships prioritize big batteries, globs of RAM, speedy processors, fast charging, and gorgeous screens. If Google just took a couple plays from OnePlus’ playbook, I think they could have a serious hit on their hands.
My wish list for the Pixel 5
Here’s what I want Google to include in the Pixel 5.
- 90Hz AMOLED screens (in other words, don’t change what you’re doing now)
- Whatever processor succeeds the Snapdragon 865 (think Snapdragon 865 Plus, similar to the 855 Plus)
- 8GB of RAM
- 128GB baseline storage w/ up to 256 or 512GB
- At least a 3,000mAh or 3,200mAh battery in the smaller Pixel 5 w/ a 3,900 or 4,000mAh battery in the Pixel 5 XL
- Wide-angle camera on the back
That set of specs alone would stop everyone from worrying about whether Google can build a flagship phone. I mean, could you imagine the reviews on a Pixel phone with a better processor than a Galaxy S11, 8GB of RAM, and a wide-angle camera with the company’s signature HDR processing? They’d be off the charts.
To me, all Google needs to do is listen to the reasons why other companies get rave reviews on their phones and apply them to their own flagship. Sure, it’s easy for the company to make money in the mid-range category, but the potential’s there for Google to do something fantastic at the high-end.
Is this all wishful thinking? Sure. Is some of it a little far-fetched? Yeah, of course it is. But that’s all to say Google really shouldn’t just give up on the crowded Android flagship market. Like I said, a Pixel phone with OnePlus specs would sell like crazy, and if that’s all Google needs to do to win the flagship fight, they should absolutely go for it.