A report from XDA Developers today cites the existence of three codenames potentially related to Google's upcoming affordable smartphones (or phone), and evidence discovered alongside those names paints a more confusing picture of the situation than ever. The long and short of it: there could be two Pixel 4a variants after all, and one of them could support 5G.
According to XDA, the three codenames of note are sunfish, redfin, and bramble. Sunfish is allegedly equipped with a Snapdragon 730, a 4G-only Qualcomm chipset for mid-range phones. This makes sense: the Snapdragon 730 is the logical successor to the Snapdragon 670 found in the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, and probably carries a pretty similar price tag. Given the Pixel 4a is likely to be positioned around the $400 mark, a lack of 5G wouldn't be a dealbreaker, and I doubt most people would even care in the first place. But then we get to this whole redfin and bramble business, and everything gets real strange.
According to XDA, redfin and bramble (both of which, I should note, could just be reference boards, not actual phones) are both equipped with the Snapdragon 765. This is Qualcomm's brand-new 5G chip for high-end-of-the-midrange smartphones, and it can be found in phones like the Oppo Reno3 Pro 5G—a phone that retails for nearly $600 in China (granted, the Realme X50 5G goes for much less than that, but Realme's pricing is insanely aggressive). This would strike me as a confusing move for Google, one that would be especially bizarre given how the Pixel 3a was positioned last year.
First, the Pixel 3a is only available in a small handful of countries, as is the Pixel 4. Of that small list, only three countries in it have meaningful 5G coverage: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The US undoubtedly remains the Pixel's biggest market, but AT&T and Verizon's focus on rolling out mmWave 5G puts a damper on the meaningful benefit a 5G Pixel 4a would really bring in this country. Sure, T-Mobile's mostly-nationwide 600mHz 5G is a thing, and Sprint's 2500Mhz mid-band 5G is slowly expanding, but the US's largest carriers remain without statistically significant 5G deployments, and there's little reason to expect that to change in the near future. Perhaps this could be pitched as future-proofing the Pixel 4a—ensuring that its 3 years of software support include hardware that's up for the long haul—but I don't think even 3 years from now that LTE connectivity will be anything close to crippled. There will be many, many LTE-only phones launched in 2020.
Additionally, pushing the Pixel 4a up to the premium mid-tier by including a more powerful chipset and pricey 5G modem seems to fly in the face of what the Pixel 3a and Pixel a 3a XL were about: getting by with good components paired with excellent software support and a stellar camera. At $480, the 3a XL was already getting a little concerningly close to "budget flagship" range. A 4a XL that could cost $550 or more—after all, there's no denying 5G still carries a price premium—is getting well into the space occupied by brands like OnePlus. I'd be hard pressed to imagine a world in which a Pixel 4a XL 5G compares well to a OnePlus 8 (presumably also with 5G) dollar for dollar.
Still, this is Google we're talking about here; a company that sometimes seems to delight in contradicting itself and changing direction at the drop of a hat. Could we see a 5G Pixel 4a (XL?) for select markets, with a smaller, cheaper 4G model as well? Could we see two 5G Pixels for those markets, with a smaller and larger variant, while the rest of the world gets just a small 4G version? The fact is, I don't know, and this story really just made Google's whole plan a lot less clear. We may have to wait for Google I/O to find out what's really going on here.
Sunfish confirmed as the Pixel 4a
XDA Developers has recently confirmed that the "Sunfish" name is explicitly tied to the Pixel 4a. The precise source of that information isn't disclosed — XDA admits it comes from a treasure trove that it would rather not lose access to if named, as happened with prior AOSP-based leaks — but we trust the site's judgment.
That means the Pixel 4a will likely not come in a 5G variant, as the Snapdragon 730 already known to be included in it lacks 5G support.
Earlier predictions that the Pixel 4a would include 5G, making a mid-range device Google's first 5G phone, didn't make much sense, so this development is also more consistent with our expectations from the company.
- XDA Developers