We’re back from the holiday break, so let’s dive into the most interesting piece of phone news to pop up during the end of 2019: these Pixel 4a leaks. OnLeaks has posted unofficial renders of the Pixel 4a, and because it has a pretty reliable record of producing early phone looks based on CAD files, the leaks are worth paying attention to.
There are a lot of very promising things pictured in these renders. First, the render is a sign that the Pixel 4a is actually happening. The $400 Pixel 3a was Google’s first-ever midrange Pixel phone, so a followup was not necessarily a guarantee, especially with Google’s recent shutdown-happy attitude. The Pixel 3a seems to have been popular enough to warrant a followup. Google doesn’t share phone sales numbers, but the company said the Pixel 3a helped phone sales grow “more than 2x year-over-year” during the 3a’s Q2 2019 launch quarter.
Despite being a midranger, the render shows what looks like Google’s most modern-looking Pixel phone ever. The front looks a lot like a Galaxy S10e, with slim bezels, a hole-punch display, and none of the bevy of sensors that fill up the Pixel 4’s sizable top bezel. There’s still a headphone jack, according to these renders, and there’s still a rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint reader instead of the in-screen fingerprint reader you get on most flagships.
Expect to see a lot of the hole-punch display in 2020. Samsung debuted the display style with the Galaxy S10 line, which sticks a camera under the display and lasers away any blocking pixels, putting a round dead spot in the top of the display. While there were some Chinese LCD copycats, Samsung has been the industry’s only supplier of OLED hole punch displays, and the style has been exclusive to Samsung phones for some time (which lines up with the original exclusivity rumor from 2018). With OnePlus and Google now reportedly shipping OLED hole punch displays in their upcoming products, I would guess that Samsung’s exclusivity period has ended, and the rest of the industry will be jumping on Samsung’s latest display tech.
But as far as screen-maximizing camera solutions go, the hole-punch style is not particularly good. You get more pixels than you would with a camera notch, but the camera is also lower on the display. Google’s Android rules dictate that any top-screen blemishes like the camera dead space must be fully surrounded by the status bar, so with a hole-punch display, you get a status bar that is twice as tall as normal. These rules mean that the most screen-maximizing camera solution is one that moves the camera all the way to the top of the display, like the minimal notch on the OnePlus 6T. The double-height status bar means you get less usable screen space than you would with a notch, and something like OnePlus’ implementation is superior.
The only “Pixel 4” design flourish on this Pixel 4a render comes from the rear camera block, which copies the contrasting square camera assembly on the more expensive phone. There is still only a single camera, which makes the camera block seem unnecessary, but at least it unifies the two phone designs somewhat. The Pixel 3, 3a, and Pixel 4 (if you don’t count the extra telephoto lens) all have the same camera, so expect the Pixel 4a to follow suit.
Going by the render, it seems like all or most of the Pixel 4’s fancy sensors have been cut. The Pixel 4 featured a Google-developed “Project Soli” motion sensor that was used for hand-waving gestures and user presence detection, along with a 3D face unlock system that used two extra IR cameras, an IR dot projector, and a flood illuminator. The face unlock system needs a ton of bezel space and is definitely not in this phone, and it seems to have been swapped for a tried-and-true fingerprint reader, which is not on the more expensive Pixel 4. It’s theoretically possible that the Project Soli sensor is behind the display, but Google needed bezel space for it on the Pixel 4, and with the lower price of the 4a, Soli would be a reasonable feature to cut. Neither the Pixel 4’s face unlock nor motion control systems worked very well, so I say good riddance.
One of the big negatives of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL were a set of batteries that were too small. We don’t know the size of the Pixel 4a battery (or really any specs), but this is something that Google could remedy while still keeping the price low. When even cheap phones can come with 5000mAh batteries, it’s not crazy to think the 2800mAh and 3700mAh batteries in the Pixel 4 and 4 XL could be upgraded, especially after they got such a negative reception. Pixel 4’s 2800mAh battery was actually a downgrade from the Pixel 3a (3000mAh).
The Pixel 3a launched during Google I/O, so pencil in the 4a for a similar timeframe. Google’s Pixel leaks have been pretty extreme this past year. Pixel 3a prototypes were fully photographed six months before the release, and Google’s response to Pixel 4 leaks was to confirm them itself and drip out information. If the Pixel 4a is really coming, we’ll definitely hear more about it before the release.
So far, the Pixel 4a looks pretty great. Google’s cheaper Pixel somehow looks better and more modern than the more expensive Pixel 4, the barely working new sensors have been cut, and old-school stalwarts like the rear fingerprint reader and headphone jack will make a lot of people happy. If Google can keep the price down and fix the other show-stopping Pixel 4 problem, the battery size, it should have a real winner on its hands.
Listing image by @OnLeaks x 91mobiles