Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google Teases the Pixel 6

In preparation for this preview of the Pixel 6, I was bemused by a quick read-through of the Verge’s reviews of Google’s Pixel phones. The way Dieter Bohn describes them ebbs and flows annually between the premium and the middle-ground. Here is the first from 2016:

[…] But the Pixel is different: although it is manufactured by HTC, it’s fully designed by Google. And Google designed it to compete at the top tier, so it’s priced to match the iPhone and the Galaxy S7. It has a couple incredibly obvious objectives in mind with this phone: make it familiar and make it powerful.

The Pixel 2 followed in 2017, the same year mainstream smartphones crept toward the $1,000 mark with products like the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. But the Pixel 2 started at the same $649 as its predecessor, and the Verge’s review emphasized its lack of flashiness:

The Pixel 2 isn’t the nice dining room table with the fancy silverware. It’s the kitchen counter where you actually eat. It’s not as impressive, but it’s much more comfortable. That’s what makes the design of this year’s Google Phones great. They’re meant to be of use, and they are.

So the first Pixel was designed as a flagship competitor, while its successor was a more mainstream offering. Any guesses for which direction the Pixel 3 drifted toward?

For three years now, the Pixel phones have claimed the mantle of “best Android phone,” but they’ve always done so with asterisks. Those asterisks involved bezels, screen quality, or some other thing. This year, Google aims to claim the mantle again with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, minus the asterisks.

Accordingly, Google bumped the starting price to $799. Premium, mass-market, then premium again. And then there was the Pixel 4, which changed up the pattern:

Most new phones try to layer on one or two new features year over year. But the Pixel 4 has at least five major new hardware-based features: face unlock, Motion Sense, the new Google Assistant, the new 90Hz display, and a second telephoto camera lens. It’s also available on all four major US carriers for the first time.

Some of those were premium features; some, like the radar-based Motion Sense touchless control, were weird experiments that didn’t really go anywhere. Like its predecessor, it started at $799, and its specs reflected a more midrange phone.

Last year saw the debut of the Pixel 5, which Bohn summarized like so:

It may be disappointing to see Google shy away from the big leagues this year, but I think sticking to making a premium midrange phone is more true to the Pixel’s whole ethos. The Pixel 5 is not an especially exciting phone, but instead of overreaching, Google focused on the fundamentals: build quality, battery life, and, of course, the camera.

So, after attempts at premium, midrange, premium, weird, and midrange, it is about time for Google to try its hand at creating an upmarket phone again. That is, apparently, what the Pixel 6 is supposed to be. Dieter Bohn:

This fall, Google will release two slightly different Pixel phones: the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro. If the final versions are anything like the prototypes I saw last week, they will be the first Pixel phones that don’t feel like they’re sandbagging when it comes to build quality. “We knew we didn’t have what it took to be in the ultra high end [in the past],” Osterloh admits. “And this is the first time where we feel like we really have it.”

Both versions of the Pixel were glass sandwiches with fit-and-finish that are finally in the same league as what Samsung, Huawei, and Apple have to offer. “We’ve definitively not been in the flagship tier for the past couple years, this will be different,” says Osterloh. He also admits that “it will certainly be a premium-priced product,” which I take to mean north of $1,000.

Google’s hardware division is a low-stakes gamble for such a large company. In 2019, it apparently sold just seven million units, and Nikkei Asia reported last September that it would make less than a million Pixel 5 models. So it is surprisingly conservative in its experiments. It should able to play around a little more.

Perhaps that this premium-positioned phone is the wildest experiment the company can think of. But if Google fails to explain its advantages and sales are similarly lacklustre, how do you think the Pixel 7 will be priced and marketed? I smell another mid-tier product in the not-too-distant future.