Pixel smartphone progressions: Latest offerings and personal transitions

Article By : Brian Dipert

With less than six months of guaranteed support left on his current devices, the author plans his next Android smartphone.

In contrast to a longstanding past history of toggling back and forth fairly regularly between Android- and iOS-based smartphones, I’ve been an Android-only guy since late 2015. And since the late summer of 2017, my focus has narrowed even further, to Google’s own Pixel Android-based smartphones, for reasons I’ve detailed before:

  • “Flagship” phones that (intentionally) weren’t the equal of other manufacturers’ from a hardware standpoint, but didn’t come with four-digit price tags either
  • (In recent years) mainstream product family variants that delivered even better value for the dollar, while not making egregious feature set tradeoffs to hit a lower price point
  • Features implemented in (increasingly deep learning-based in recent years) software versus hardware whenever possible
  • A “pure” Android experience devoid of additional OEM- and third-party-developed “bloatware”
  • (One that I don’t think I’ve documented before but which I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate:) Pixel-first if not Pixel-only features and apps such as Hold for Me and astrophotography-tailored Night Sight, and
  • (Another one that I don’t think I’ve documented before:) Regular (monthly) and up-to-date O/S and patch updates

Speaking of updates…my initial Pixels were first-generation “Quite Black”-colored models, which I used happily until their three-year (-plus, in this particular case) guaranteed support timespans timed out and they started to swell (my wife’s dalliance with a Pixel XL was briefer). Roughly three years after I phased in the Pixels, I replaced them with “Just Black” Pixel 3as. And with them still going strong but the end of their support cycle looming, it’s time to start pondering successors once again.

What am I sooner-or-later (but no later than next May) migrating to? Well, I’ve also got a (no longer sold) “Just Black” Pixel 4 on hand, originally a gift from my wife and on reserve as an as-needed spare:

But its support extends only a few months longer (to October 2022) than that of the Pixel 3as, so best-case it’d only be temporary placeholder, probably not worth the migration hassle. And anyway, I need two new phones, one for work (Verizon) and the other for personal use (AT&T). Then there’s the also-no-longer-sold Pixel 4a, which I mentioned in my year-plus-ago piece:

Had I bought two of those, I would have been good from a support standpoint until August 2023. But the handsets’ lack of 5G cellular data support would have rendered them increasingly antiquated. Instead, in July and shortly before they stopped being sold, I snagged (on slight sale) two “Just Black” “(5G)” variants of the Pixel 4a:

Here’s how they stack up against their predecessors:

I should note upfront that the above specs are for the “unlocked” variant of the Pixel 4a (5G); Google also developed a Verizon-only version that supports both the sub-6 and mmWave 5G “flavors”, is white-only in color, and cost $100 more.

Typical of “a” variants of the Pixel product portfolio, these latest members of the Dipert smartphone stable:

  • Include analog headphone jacks, and
  • Dispense with wireless charging as an option

I’ve added a few rows to the table I showed a year ago which at the time compared the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4a, to further accentuate the improvements Google has made in less than a year-and-a-half (or, alternatively stated, in the month-plus between the base Pixel 4a and enhanced 4a (5G) introductions). I’ll draw your particular attention to the two generations’ relative chassis dimensions, in contrast to their relative screen sizes. The Pixel 4a (5G) has a substantially larger OLED display, beneficial for the increasingly presbyopia-hampered yours truly. But since yours truly also highly values phones that are easily pocketable, two in one pocket to be precise, he also initially experienced post-purchase buyer’s remorse…until he realized that the chassis sizes between the two generations were nearly identical.

In basically the same form factor as before, Google squeezed not only a larger display but also twice the flash memory, 50% more DRAM, and notably more advanced processing and wireless communications subsystems. That said, the newer phone is a bit heavier, reflective primarily (I suspect) of its larger-capacity integrated battery. Admittedly, I haven’t taken either of the Pixel 4a (5G)s out of their boxes yet; I’m striving to squeeze as much usable life out of the Pixel 3as as I can beforehand. But given the new units’ solid reviews, I doubt I’ll be disappointed once I eventually press them into service. One quick aside: Google oddly introduced the Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5 at the same time. Given the Pixel 5’s $200-higher price tag for a nearly identical bill-of materials and modest-at-best feature set upgrades (2 GB more RAM, mmWave 5G support included at no extra cost, somewhat more compact albeit with a slightly smaller display, wireless charging, IP68 water resistance), I’m happy with my economical choice.

Speaking of buyer’s remorse, however…I’d thought I was being clever when I heard rumors of the Pixel 4a (5G)’s pending phase-out and snapped up two examples of the remaining brand-new inventory, because I figured the Pixel 5a successor would be significantly pricier. Well, that bet didn’t exactly pan out (and no, I don’t know why Google changed the naming from “(5G)” to “with 5G”, either):

Unlike the Pixel 4a (5G), the Pixel 5a is also dust- and water-resistant. And I’m particularly kicking myself at the moment because as I type these words, Google has the Pixel 5a further Black Friday-reduced to $399. Yes, I thought about pulling the purchase trigger, but it’d only buy me 9 more months of support, and what would I do with the successor phones I already own? You win some and lose some, and I’ve still got great phones to transition to next year.

Speaking of which…what’s after that? Well, just a month (and a day) ago, as I write this, Google announced its return to the premium Android smartphone market after the aforementioned Pixel 5 pace pause, with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro:

They differ in chassis (and battery) and display sizes, along with display refresh rates, as well as RAM and max storage capacities and front-and-rear camera allotments. But what they share is revolutionary: for the first time, Google has followed in the footsteps of both its iOS-based competitor Apple and Android-based competitor Samsung (who has long leveraged its semiconductor subsidiary sibling for some handset models and geography variants) in developing its own Arm-based SoC, the well-reviewed first-generation Tensor, instead of using Snapdragon application processors from Qualcomm. And the Pixel 6 handsets’ cellular subsystems are equally revolutionary: they’re Samsung-sourced versus Qualcomm-supplied.

As before, I’ll probably wait for the Pixel 6 “A” variant to come; early rumors indicate that its styling will hearken to its Pixel 6 immediate forebears, versus Pixel 5-and-before predecessors, and that it might even finally drop the analog headphone jack… CPU selection is completely unknown at this point. But that’s likely at least two years in the future for yours truly. In closing, and as I prep for next year’s Pixel 4a (5G) move, I’m curious to hear from other Android ecosystem participants: what do you think of Google’s Pixel phones (and the Pixel 4a (5g) in particular) both absolutely and relative to products from other companies whose phones you might be using instead? Sound off in the comments; I look forward to reading your insights.

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.


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