Shifting Narrative: How Changing Criticisms Have Shaped the Google Pixel 5
Consider this scenario. You are walking down a street with someone by your side. As you walk, this person is giving you tips and critiques on which way to go. This is all going well, and you appreciate this person’s guidance. That is until you realize something. Every time they tell you to do something and you try to do it, they say that you should have done the opposite. If this sounds like an exercise in futility and hypocrisy, that’s because it is. And in a nutshell, it is the reality of what the analysis of the Google Pixel line of phones has become. The criticisms of the lineup have lacked consistency and what has resulted in a smartphone series that no longer makes sense.
The Expectations of a Google Phone
There is a mystique about a phone that has the Google logo on its back. A phone that sends the message that this is Android as it should be, as it was designed to be. While people love the phones that come from Samsung and OnePlus, there is something about a Pixel phone that just feels important. This importance has created something of an environment for a higher standard, where excuses are not tolerated as easily.
Consider the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra for example. The phone was released and marketed as the ultimate zoom camera experience, touting the 100x “Space” zoom capability. An issue arose, however, where the phone had trouble autofocusing. Despite this rather major camera flaw, many people still insisted that it was the best Android phone available and the issues with the autofocus were largely swept under the rug. Now consider Google’s recently released Pixel 5. Shortly after the phone began to make its way to users, there were reports of a gap forming between the body of the phone and the screen. The narrative became that Google still had no decent concept of quality control, that the ghosts of the issues with the Pixel 2XL and Pixel 3 still haunted them.
Google is expected to be the face of Android, the phone maker that is supposed to set the example to the LG’s and Samsung’s of the world on how an Android phone is supposed to act and function. This elevated level of importance comes with an elevated bar of expectations. That the device must function at a very high level in almost every regard. These are impossible expectations that no phone maker could ever live up to. The demand from Google has always been to have industry-leading hardware in addition to industry-leading software. The expectation is to make premium hardware, fluid, and always updated software, and the best camera experience in its class. But because it is Google, all this needs to happen while undercutting the competition from Samsung and Apple. Quite simply, this isn’t even possible but it is what we have come to make the narrative about Pixel phones to be.
With every Pixel release, there seem to be different types of criticisms that seem to contradict year over year. For years, the critique was that the Pixel only had one rear camera where other Android competitors implemented multiple camera setups. This changed with the Pixel 4, where the company added a telephoto lens. But the tech reviewing community groaned and said that the more useful lens to add was ultrawide. So what does Google do with the Pixel 5? They replace the telephoto with the ultrawide, only to have those same reviewers say that they miss the telephoto lens from the previous year.
Another criticism of the Pixel line has long been price point. With the Pixel 4 series, Google priced the phone like Samsung and Apple with the premium feeling phone that seemed to justify its place in the big leagues. After years of demanding Google to take the premium segment more seriously, the criticism then morphed into a concession that the only companies that thrive at the high-end are Apple and Samsung, particularly in North America.
Of the many criticisms of the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, it was that the price was too high and that perhaps Google should consider operating in the midrange instead of playing a losing game of catchup with Apple and Samsung. So what does Google do with the Pixel 5? Do exactly that. And what has the response been? Reviewers appreciate the lower price point of the Pixel 5 but wish that Google would make a truly high-end phone experience. The shifting of the narrative has been constant with the Pixel line.
What has resulted is a culmination of these everchanging criticisms is a phone that seems uninspired because the company that makes it realizes that it cannot win this battle. The loudest voices about Google’s phone demand high performance while at the same time longing for the days of the affordable flagship Nexus program. In 2020, this is a pipe dream and the vision of the Pixel has suffered as a result.
The Very Good Phone
In many ways, the Pixel 5 is a Google DNA phone. A phone that has understated and straightforward hardware that gets out of the way of the software experience. It is not trying to match the flash of Samsung or the minimalist appeal of the iPhone. The Pixel 5 aims to be a stable Android phone with intelligent and useful software that takes excellent photos. It is not attempting to reinvent the wheel like the folding and dual-screen devices that have been released in 2020. Google has made an effective tool, one that is reliable and without fuss.
Google has taken a step back from the flagship limelight and has decided to make more practical phones. This year, the company has released three phones: Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a 5G, and Pixel 5. Three phones with price points of $350, $500, and $700 respectively. Three phones that excel at communication, battery life, usability, and basic level photography. Google has determined that the upper tier of expensive phones is not for them anymore, as they simply cannot win a game that was designed for them to lose.
The story of the Pixel in 2020 is that of good phones, that do what they do well and are not aspirational in any way. These are the phones that technology pundits do not like to cover as they can be boring. But for people that buy new phones, there is an appeal to all three of these devices when compared to the comparably priced Samsung and Apple alternatives. The Pixel 4a is attractive next to an iPhone SE or Samsung Galaxy A51 for instance. Google has seen all of the criticisms in 4 years of Pixels trying to play ball at the top, only to realize that whatever they do will never be enough and the company has decided to change the narrative of the conversation.
Some may take this as Google giving up on phone hardware, but I do not see it that way. Google realizes that Android is a wide range and that there are companies that are committed to the ultra-high-end experience and can execute those experiences in a better fashion than Google. Because Google has focused on so many avenues of consumer technology, it is easy to see why the focus on what is ultimately a niche product in an expensive smartphone is not that important to them. It is very important to a company like Samsung or OnePlus, however. And Google is content to be on the sidelines now and let these players play in the expensive tier. Pixel phones are still very good and offer users a lot for their money. But they no longer will play the game of checking every spec box, because playing a game that it cannot win has never made much sense for Google.