This year’s Pixel 5 includes two rear-facing cameras; a 12.2-megapixel main sensor, and a 16-megapixel ultrawide with a 107-degree field of view. Google chose a configuration that’s similar to recent Samsung and Apple devices, which have prioritized ultrawide over telephoto cameras on dual-camera handsets like the Galaxy A51 and iPhone 11. Fine.
But the funny thing about Google’s decision is that it contradicts what the company said just one short year ago at the launch of the Pixel 4. “While wide-angle can be fun, we think telephoto is more important,” Google Research’s Marc Levoy said onstage last October while promoting the Pixel 4’s telephoto lens.
But a lot has changed in the last twelve months. Levoy has since left Google, the Pixel 4 was discontinued after just 10 months, and it seems Google now thinks an ultrawide lens is more important than telephoto after all.
As I wrote last year, Google has a habit of talking down features that go on to appear in its very next phone. It proudly boasted that the first Pixel included a 3.5mm headphone jack in the same year Apple ditched the port. The Pixel 2 subsequently shipped without a headphone jack. When the Pixel 3 launched, a Google product manager called a second camera lens “unnecessary” because of the phone’s camera software features. The Pixel 4 subsequently had two cameras. And now, with the Pixel 5, it’s switched to offering an ultrawide camera over the “more important” lens it offered last year.
If you’re only going to include two cameras for cost reasons, then pairing a main sensor with an ultrawide camera makes a lot of sense. Google’s Super Res Zoom software feature can offer some of the benefits of a telephoto lens without the dedicated hardware, but there’s no faking the extra field of view an ultrawide camera offers.
As my colleague Sam Byford wrote earlier today, short of including both ultrawide and telephoto lenses in a triple-camera array, the dual-camera combination is probably the right choice overall. It’s just funny that it’s happened a year after Google justified doing the exact opposite and chose a telephoto lens instead.
Google is far from the only company that changes course like this. Over the years Apple has downplayed numerous trends like NFC, wireless charging, and plus-sized “phablets,” only to embrace them in future devices. Samsung, too, poked fun at Apple for ditching the headphone jack in its marketing for the Note 9, only to do the same thing a year later with its Note 10.
What’s special about Google is not just the number of times it’s backtracked, but the speed at which it happens. After Apple’s Phil Schiller talked down NFC and wireless charging in 2012, it took years before the company adopted NFC with the launch of the iPhone 6 in 2015, and wireless charging with its debut on the iPhone 8 in 2017. Google, meanwhile, has repeatedly changed course each year.
To some extent, these apparent changes of heart are part and parcel to modern marketing. No executive is going to stand onstage and admit that a phone doesn’t have a hot new feature because the company underestimated a trend in their planning stages months ago. The phone market is constantly changing, and features that seemed too expensive or unnecessary at the start of development can end up looking essential at any price in the later stages of the product life cycle. But by then it’s too late.
New technologies also need a chance to mature. When Apple said it didn’t need to add NFC or wireless charging, both technologies were in their infancy. Nowadays mobile NFC payments are accepted at most big retailers, and you can find wireless charging pads in high-street stores like Starbucks. Microsoft might have had a point when it said USB-C wasn’t ready for the mainstream in 2017, but two years later the situation had changed.
Last year I joked that Google’s jab about ultrawide cameras meant they were almost certain to appear in this year’s Pixels. Now Google is giving itself some wiggle room for its next device, by using the Pixel 5’s cheaper $699 price point to justify its choices, rather than claiming the missing features are unnecessary or inferior.
“What the world doesn’t seem like it needs right now is another $1,000 phone,” Google’s hardware chief, Rick Osterloh, told a small group of reporters after yesterday’s announcements. The Pixel 5 doesn’t have the Pixel 4’s Soli radar chip, it doesn’t have face unlock, and it uses a rear-mounted, rather than an in-display, fingerprint sensor.
Osterloh says some of these features, like Soli and Motion Sense, will return in future devices, and others, like an in-display fingerprint sensor, could arrive when the technology matures. Ultimately, Google isn’t trying to make the most feature-packed device, it’s trying to make the best phone it can for less than $700.
The Pixel 5’s cheaper price means Google has had to make some tradeoffs, and it’s easy to point out the missing features. But Google is being upfront about why it’s made these choices. If that makes for a more affordable phone which includes the features most people actually need, then who cares?