Google unveils the $349 Pixel 4A, a budget phone amid a recession
The launch was delayed for months and comes as the search giant faces shake-ups in its smartphone division.
Richard NievaFormer senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
The 4A is Google's latest entry in the midtier phone market and comes as the company struggles to gain traction in the premium phone game. The lower price is unintentionally timely. The coronavirus pandemic has hammered economies and cost jobs. Consumers may well be looking to save money while still staying connected through new technology. (Read CNET's in-depth review of the Pixel 4A.)
The new phone is a further price cut for Google, whose previous midtier model -- last year's Pixel 3A -- cost $50 more. It also comes with reduced options. The 4A is available in just one size -- a 5.81-inch display -- and one color scheme, black with a pastel blue power button. The 3A came in two sizes and three color schemes.
The device's screen stretches across the front surface of the device, covering all but a small "hole punch" camera at the top left corner of the display. It has a headphone jack, which has fallen out of fashion with most newer phones. The 4A also does away with some of the high-end bells and whistles of the $800 Pixel 4, like Google's Soli chip, which uses radar to let people control apps by swiping and gesturing their hands through the air.
The 4A's biggest draw, however, will likely be a feature shared with the Pixel 4: a premium camera that rivals those on Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy S phones. (The 4A's camera doesn't include a second telephoto lens for extreme zooms that the Pixel 4 has onboard.) The phone is available for preorder on Google's online store, and will be sold on Aug. 20 through Verizon, US Cellular, Amazon and BestBuy.com.
"We priced it aggressively," Brian Rakowski, Google vice president of product management, said in an interview. He added that the company made "trade-offs" with features so it could hit that price.
Watch this: Pixel 4A review: Impressive camera and a battery that beats the iPhone SE
Google has made a big push in the smartphone market, but it hasn't become a major player despite being the maker of Android, the world's most widely used mobile operating system. Android powers almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped globally. Still, Pixel sales have been lackluster for years. Google executives have blamed the slump on fierce competition in a premium phone market dominated by Apple and Samsung.
The challenge of selling its well-reviewed high-end phones led Google to create its midtier line last year. The Pixel 3A helped to lift Google's smartphone business but was discontinued last month. The Pixel 4A will face stiff competition from budget phones from Apple and Samsung, the iPhone SE and the Galaxy A51, both going for $400.
"Google has to find a way to convince consumers to buy it," Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential, said of the 4A. "There's been a marked divide between how well the Pixel line has been received from people in the know and the relative lack of mainstream market success."
Delays and shake-ups
Selling devices is a crucial part of Google's effort to get Android and its other services in front of more people. The search giant makes the vast majority of its $160 billion in annual sales through personalized ads. Getting more people on its Android software means the company can get more data on users to refine its targeted advertising.
The $349 price tag brings Google back to its mobile phone roots. Before the company unveiled the first Pixel phone in 2016, Google worked with handset makers including HTC and LG to manufacture the Nexus line of phones. The devices ran a "stock" version of Android that was free of bloatware, a derisive term for software that carriers and device makers force onto phones. The Nexus 5, a particularly beloved model among Android fans, sold for $350 when it debuted in 2013.
The 4A announcement comes as Google's smartphone team faces shake ups. Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware chief, reportedly criticized product decisions made during development of the Pixel 4. Mario Queiroz, the former head of the Pixel division, departed the company earlier this year, after leaving the smartphone team last year. Marc Levoy, who built Google's smartphone software into a leader in mobile photography, left in March.
Levoy, who now works at Adobe, is known as a trailblazer in "computational photography," which relies on software to improve images. He pioneered several camera features for Pixel, leading Google's research team in creating Portrait Mode, which glams up smartphone photos to make them look professionally done, and Night Sight, for brightening up pictures in low light. Many of the features he built for the search giant have ended up on competing devices, like Apple's iPhone.
Google says Levoy's departure doesn't mean the end of the Pixel's dominant camera run. Levoy was a guru behind the camera, but a whole team of people helped create it, Rakowski said. "I'm not worried," he said. "I think there's a lot more stuff that we'll be able to build."
He declined to comment on the personnel changes and alleged challenges in the Pixel division.
The Pixel 4A launch is months behind schedule. The phone had originally been expected in May, the same time as last year's model, for an unveiling at Google I/O, the company's annual developer conference. The event was canceled as economies shut down to fight the coronavirus, and the pandemic took its toll on supply chains as well.
"When you build a phone, there's a bunch of things that come together that were affected by COVID in this case," Rakowski said.
Part of the challenge was travel restrictions, and being unable to send Google employees to factories to help resolve issues that typically arise when phones are being produced and assembled.
"We didn't want to compromise on anything or change the design of the device," he said. "But it's taken longer for us to get it into the form we intended."