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Google’s new phones pare back features — and prices — for pandemic times

The Pixel 5 and 4a 5G phones aren’t too pricey or too interesting, and that’s exactly what Google is going for.

Google has added 5G to its newest Pixel smartphones but has been slimmed down other features. (Google)

Google has decided to stop trying so hard with its latest smartphones.

The company’s newest Pixel phones are adding next-generation 5G connectivity but, in an unusual move, also downgraded some flashier features on all models. This year’s phones include a slower processor and do away with the ability to unlock by scanning your face.

The good news: Google also dropped its prices. While last year’s Pixel 4 started at $800, this year’s Pixel 5 starts at $700, and a new budget model called the Pixel 4a 5G ranges from $500 to $600, depending on how much 5G speed you want.

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Google unveiled the phones Wednesday in a live-streamed video with big working-from-home vibes. We didn’t have the opportunity to get hands on the new gear at the online-only event. But we came away from the announcement and conversations with Google executives with a slightly clearer view of what Google’s hardware stands for: the middle market.

Google competes with companies such as Samsung, the maker of the $700-and-up 5G Galaxy S20, that also sell phones running Google’s Android operating system. Without much success, previous Pixel phones have tried out different personalities: An iPhone-killer that shows Android at its best. A photographer’s dream phone. The experimental future of artificial intelligence. A cheap Android phone with super-clean software.

Everything about Wednesday’s announcement was about finding a comfortable middle. There were lots of sofas and loungewear, unobjectionable celebrity cameos, and pastel-colored products designed to “live naturally in their surroundings,” in Google’s words. It felt like a high-end infomercial and smartly coasted over nitty-gritty details about the products, such as the fact that there are different types of 5G, which would have upset the reassuring feel of the event. The takeaway was that these are products for this pandemic moment, when we spend much of our time watching TV or listening to music at home and might not feel the need for an expensive new phone.

“The world doesn’t need another $1,000 phone right now,” said Rick Osterloh, Google’s hardware chief, in a roundtable with reporters.

The 5G lie: The network of the future is still slow

Along with the phones, there was a new rounded-rectangular (do you call that roundtangular?) smart speaker called the Nest Audio and an updated Chromecast streaming dongle that runs Google TV, the company’s latest software for watching movies and shows on existing televisions or computers.

Of course, Google probably didn’t know there was a pandemic coming when it started planning this lineup. But with this update, Google is making a refreshing admission: Smartphones have become mostly as good as they need to be. Instead of trying to make one that bends or hype up questionable new capabilities, Google is just saying, here’s what we think you might actually need.

Compared with last year’s Pixel 4, the Pixel 5 is two steps forward — and two steps back. Let’s start with what you lose on this year’s model:

  • There’s no more facial recognition to unlock the phone. Instead, you unlock with an old-fashioned fingerprint reader on the back of the phone, which is actually just fine for our masked existence during the pandemic.
  • There’s no XL model — just one with a six-inch screen.
  • The phone’s main brain is a downgrade to a slower Qualcomm processor, and there’s also no longer a dedicated chip for the camera.
  • Also gone is the radar technology, dubbed Solis, that was a star addition to the Pixel 4 and let the phone detect if you were waving your hand over it, or reaching to pick it up.
  • There’s no more telephoto or zoom lens. It’s been replaced with an ultrawide lens, like on Apple’s iPhone 11.

Google is mostly right: Those aren’t things most people need. But it is risking alienating the photography buffs who were among the first to champion Google’s smartphone. Samsung and other phone makers have pushed into new camera sensors that power ultrahigh resolution photos and crazy 100x zooming. And industry watchers expect Apple to have a new depth sensor in its next top iPhone, which could power new augmented-reality and photo capabilities.

But the Pixel 5 adds a few things that most people might find more valuable and are standout features in phones made by archrival Samsung. At the top of the list is a physically larger battery and an ultralow-power mode that lets the phone run for up to 48 hours on a single charge. The screen now goes closer to the edges and lets you wirelessly charge other devices such as headphones just by laying them on the back of the phone.

The biggest Pixel addition is compatibility with 5G cellular networks. But it’s also likely to be confusing for shoppers who have new decisions to make and might rightly be wondering: What good is 5G, anyway?

Google executives tried to set low expectations, highlighting just a few nonessential apps and services that might benefit from next-generation networks. One is the ability to do high-definition video chats and screen sharing using Google’s Duo video chat software. Another is the ability to stream games on Google’s Stadia service with very low latency, or delay.

A test we conducted in September using 5G phones from Samsung found the “nationwide” 5G networks offered by AT&T and T-Mobile hardly felt like a speed boost. In some important places, such as at home and along the California highway, we got download speeds that were actually lower than on 4G phones. Verizon’s 5G network is faster but so far is available in less than 1 percent of the United States.

To make matters more complicated, not all of Google’s new phones work on all of the networks. The Pixel 4a 5G, which ships Nov. 19, comes in two versions: a $500 model that supports a slower version of 5G known as “sub-6,” or low and medium band; and a $600 model that also supports the faster networks known as “millimeter wave,” or ultra-wideband, that Verizon has mostly built out in the United States.

What Apple didn’t announce: An iPhone 12

Anyone who wants their next phone to be future-proof should opt for the more expensive version. The $700 Pixel 5, which arrives Oct. 29, supports both kinds of networks and adds waterproofing and wireless charging capabilities not available in the 4a 5G.

It wasn’t all about the Pixel. Google announced a few other upgraded homebody gadgets. The $100 Nest Audio is the latest Google smart speaker, and the company claims it has better audio quality than previous iterations.

Chromecast, the company’s $50 small device that plugs into existing TVs, will now come with a remote control, just like Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV. It’s also the debut of Google TV, which takes the existing Android TV operating system and reorganizes it so you see shows and movies based on categories instead of siloed in their various streaming apps.