Google Pixel 5a: The Bridge to Google's Mobile Future
A reflection on the company's last modest release before it starts shooting for the stars
We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s the end of an era” to describe a departed co-worker or when moving out of an apartment. In tech, an era ending is very seldom lukewarm and rather bitter and filled with thoughts of what could have been. As always, there are exceptions to a rule. In this case, the Pixel 5a feels like that exception. It is a phone that represents the end of an era and the start of a new one for Google’s phone division. It is ultimately the embodiment of everything great and everything bad with the company’s previous strategy. A phone that allows us to reminisce on what was yet keeps us yearning for what is to come.
We Can Fix That With Software
I have used every generation of Google Pixel phones and also used many of the Nexus phones that preceded them. Even though I have enjoyed every Pixel phone that I have used they seemed to lack the hardware polish of their contemporaries. Part of this could be the relentless commitment to minimal industrial design that lacks the pizzazz of the competition. But perhaps where Google didn’t see the anticipated success of the Pixel line is an overreliance on software optimization.
It is no mystery that Google is a software company first and a hardware company second. This prioritization may have never been more on display than with the Pixel phones. The design of the Pixel has always been understated, functional with none of the sparkling glass finishes of Samsung and Xiaomi. Where Google has always hung its hat with the Pixel phones is with its software. The appeal of the Pixel was its algorithm-backed photo quality and clean Android experience that was more stable and reliable than what Samsung was offering at the time. This was the phone experience the way Google thought it should be.
Google firmly believed that any problem with its phones could be solved with software. This even applied to some hardware issues. Back when the Pixel 2 XL was released, quite a few users complained about burn-in on the LG-made POLED display. Google’s solution to this problem? Release a software update to fix the problem. Where most manufacturers would have simply processed a warranty exchange for the impacted units, Google in a move that mixes confidence and arrogance felt that they could fix it with their superior software.
This approach has led Google over the years to focus more and more on software while allowing its hardware to remain stagnant and to be lapped by the competition. Software saw tremendous leaps with additions such as Now Playing, Call Screening, and Google’s excellent Recorder app. Meanwhile, on the hardware front, Google has yet to implement in-display fingerprint sensors, was slow to support high refresh rate displays, and stubbornly resisted adding multiple cameras to Pixel as they were becoming industry standard. In many ways, Google used its software prowess as a crutch until it could stand no more.
After the ho-hum release that was the Google Pixel 5 from last year, it seems that Google has realized that it needs to step up its hardware to compete with Apple and Samsung. This year it all changes with the Google Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Two phones that ooze premium hardware design and a revamped software experience that the company calls Material You.
Where previous Pixels felt understated, the new Pixels feel loud and in your face. These phones feel like Google is putting forth a real effort with the marketing budget to match to finally present a viable third option to the Apple Samsung duopoly. But before this reinvention happens, however, Google released the conclusion device that summarizes the entire Pixel era. A showcase of the past it is leaving behind. That is what the Pixel 5a is, a reminder of the last 5 years of Google phone design and a symbol of Google’s next mobile chapter.
The Last Of Its Kind
The Pixel 5a is a summary device. One that brings full circle the excellence and the frustration that has been the last five years of Google phone hardware. This phone showcases Google’s incredible advances in software optimization but also highlights its failing in hardware at the price point. A comparable phone in its price range ($450) is the $500 Samsung Galaxy A52. The Samsung phone offers a higher refresh rate display, a newer in-screen fingerprint sensor, a newer processor from Qualcomm, and more versatile cameras. And this is where the frustration of the Pixel experience has been for the past half-decade.
Despite all of the hardware superiority of Samsung, Google still offers a superior software experience. This is what always made the overall experience of owning a Pixel at times frustrating. And despite acquiring employees from HTC, a company known for hardware prowess, the company continued to release uninspired hardware that did not match the excellence of its software. The Pixel 5a was the final manifestation of this.
To put it plainly, the Google Pixel 5a was the definition of when phone reviewers use the term “fine”. The performance was good but not great, it employed a tried and true design that arguably goes back to the Pixel 2XL. The cameras were excellent and what we have come to expect from the Pixel but nothing more and nothing less. It only came in one color, a tone of black that at times appeared to be a very dark shade of green. It was understated in a way that all Pixels have been, but surprisingly even more so due to its singular color option.
For the longest time Pixel users (myself included) embraced the utility. The design of Pixels was to be looked at as the second fiddle to the real star of the show: the software. The only problem with that is that the software of the competition was catching up. iOS has become more flexible in recent years with the introduction of widgets and custom icon packs (by way of Siri Shortcuts). Samsung has taken the bloated mess that was TouchWiz and created OneUI, a design language that some have argued is better than the Pixel software experience. The Pixel software experience in some respects became the hare in the race with the tortoise. Ultimately it needed to be reimagined to maintain the pace with its rivals.
Waiting On The Future
Where the Pixel 5a represents the stability and familiarity of the past, the Pixel 6 presents the appeal of the unknown. There is a lot of what-ifs with these upcoming devices that have many in tech circles intrigued. For years there have been questions in regards to Google’s smartphones that have been the debate topics of many a gadget conversation. What if Google released a phone with premium hardware? What if Google had the type of vertical integration that Apple enjoys? These are questions that are going to be answered in a few days from this writing. Where the Pixel 5a is a product filled with questions of what could be, the Pixel 6 is a device that is supposed to present the answers to those same questions.
When looking at the idea of the Pixel 5a juxtaposed with the Pixel 6 there seems to be an illustration of the difference between the tech enthusiast and average phone user. The Pixel 5a does things that speak to the sensibilities of most people that buy phones. It has a familiar design, an attractive price point, and a reliable camera. In short, it is a known commodity, the safe choice.
The Pixel 6, on the other hand, is the wild west. It is Google’s first camera hardware departure since the second-generation 4 years ago. It is Google’s first phone that will not be using a Qualcomm processor since the Samsung-made Nexus S of 2010, which used a Samsung Exynos processor. And perhaps most importantly, it is Google’s first phone that feels like a point of focus as opposed to a hobby project. This is the phone that will take on Samsung and Apple head-on with all of Google’s marketing might, a homerun swing.
To keep with the baseball analogy, every Pixel phone up until now has been a single into the gap. A good effort but not a memorable one, people remember the home runs not the singles. The Pixel 6 is trying to be that home run. And while I know that they have reached a point in the lifecycle of the Pixel series where it is time to take risks and be bold, a part of me will always remember the understated nature of the previous generation of Pixels. This transition is a further reminder of the folly of the minimalist, where the sensibilities of minimalism are overtaken by a culture’s need for extravagance. I am, as always, curious to see Google’s interpretation of this extravagance and hope that they are successful. The industry needs imagination more than ever and a new voice to deliver it, perhaps that voice can finally be Google’s.