When Google released the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, they were pretty good deals -- you could pay as little as $399 for a phone with the same clean software and excellent camera performance as the company’s earlier, more premium devices. The strategy paid off: Google sold 3 million Pixel 3a phones in its first two quarters on the market, compared to just 2 million Pixel 4s in the same amount of time. To help replicate that success, Google made the new Pixel 4a even cheaper: There's just one version, and it costs $349.
That might not sound like a huge difference, but it's enough to undercut the device’s most obvious rival, the iPhone SE. (While the iPhone 11 remains Apple’s most popular model , CEO Tim Cook said during the company’s earnings call last week that the $400 SE has been useful in luring customers away from Android devices.) Fifty dollars isn't nothing to the kind of cost-conscious consumer Google is targeting with the 4a, either. But most important is what you're actually getting for the price: This is the company's first all-screen phone, it packs 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and it shoots pictures as well as the Pixel 4. The best thing about the Pixel 4a is just how good a deal it is.
To get the Pixel 4a's price as low as possible, Google had to rethink its smartphone strategy completely. For one, the fun color combinations that had become a hallmark of the Pixel line are out. Early renders showed the Pixel 4a clad in a handful of whimsical finishes -- my personal favorite was this baby blue number. But, by the end of its development cycle, Google had channeled Henry Ford and whittled the options down to one: plain black, with a cyan power button.
Google also had to decide whether to buck another long-running tradition. Since the beginning, Pixel smartphones came in two versions: regular and XL. Things are different this year, there’s only a vanilla 4a. Google plans to release a 5G version later this year, and that may have been the source of the few Pixel 4a XL leaks we saw in the months leading up to today's announcement. (Rumors suggest the 4a 5G will be bigger than the regular 4a, so it could fill the same niche a Pixel XL traditionally would.)
While Google would not definitively state whether a standalone XL model was ever in development, Brian Rakowski, VP of product management for the Pixel, confirmed that the decision to skip an XL release helped the company trim costs for its smaller phone.
"We're limiting the number of different configurations we're doing," he told Engadget. "We focused all our resources on black. We're not doing an XL version. That gave us some efficiencies right there."
After these decisions were locked in, the company had just one version of the most affordable Pixel 4a to continually refine. In a bid to reduce costs, Google's designers and engineers worked to build the device in a way that reduced the need for extraneous materials and labor.
"[The Pixel 4a] is easier to manufacture, so it takes less people to put it together," Rakowski said. "There are fewer parts, and a lot of the things that add cost -- it's just pennies, but they add up. You have an extra screw, an extra connector, extra adhesive, or an extra part that wouldn't be necessary if you configured it differently."
It's too early to tell whether this gamble on cost will pay off, but it's clear that Google is keen to play a bigger role outside the flagship space where it has struggled to find a foothold. The shift certainly makes sense financially -- sales estimates released by research firm Strategy Analytics earlier this year confirmed that the best-selling Android phones were not premium flagships, but more affordable devices like Samsung's Galaxy A51 and the Xiaomi Redmi 8. No wonder Google's upcoming phone releases feel a little different.
As for the Pixel 4a 5G the company's working on? It'll likely cost $499 when it's released later this year. And persistent rumors suggest that Google has adopted the upper-midrange Snapdragon 765 for its upcoming Pixel 5, which in terms of performance puts it in the same class as the Motorola Edge, LG Velvet and the OnePlus Nord. Rakowski was quick to confirm that Google isn't done with flagship phones yet. "There's a lot to be done there," he says. But expect to see a lot out of this new, more cost-conscious Google in the future.