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Google debuts US$349 Pixel 4a after pandemic delay

[CALIFORNIA] Google on Monday launched the Pixel 4a smartphone, the successor to its first budget-friendly Pixel device that finally gained sales momentum last year.

While the first four generations of the high-end Pixel have been mostly well received and established a strong brand for class-leading mobile photography, their sales have lagged the likes of Samsung Electronics by far. The Pixel 3a of 2019, however, lowered the specs and price and has proven "very successful," according to the company.

The Android proprietor's new phone goes on sale Aug 20 and comes in only one screen size, 5.8 inches, with the Oled display surrounded by narrow bezels and punctuated by a hole-punch selfie camera in the top-left corner. Matte black is the only colour option and Google is bringing back its fingerprint reader for biometric ID on the device's back.

Key to the Pixel 4a's appeal will be the price of US$349 combined with the same high-quality camera of last year's Pixel 4. That's US$50 lower than the 3a's starting price while maintaining a competent spec sheet that includes 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, but lacks wireless charging.

Pixel shipments increased by 52 per cent in 2019 to 7.2 million units, according to market research from IDC. That's a far cry from the likes of Samsung and Huawei Technologies, the two leading Android device vendors who each shipped more than 50 million smartphones in the virus-afflicted second quarter of this year.

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Google's hope is that the more affordable Pixel 4a will expand its potential audience and boost sales, though the company is also in negotiations with Samsung to more prominently promote Google services on Galaxy devices, Bloomberg News has reported.

In an interview, Brian Rakowski, a vice president on the Pixel team, said that the Alphabet company hoped to announce the new device in mid-May at its annual I/O conference, which was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He attributed the delay to manufacturing slowdowns and complexity during the period.

It was difficult to send engineers from the US to China during the virus outbreak to troubleshoot issues on site and discussions had to be conducted via video conferencing, he said. Google did have some engineers already in China, which made it possible to ultimately release the device.

Google's team has grown accustomed to designing products from home during the period of travel restrictions and the pandemic is unlikely to significantly delay future devices, Rakowski said.

On Monday, Google also announced it is planning to release at least two additional phones in the fall: a 5G version of the Pixel 4a as well as a new high-end model, the Pixel 5. The Pixel 4a 5G edition will cost US$150 more than the basic model, while Google did not disclose a price for the Pixel 5, though the Pixel 4 started at US$799.

The Pixel 4a goes up for pre-order immediately with deliveries scheduled for Aug 20, which is when it'll also be available to buy through Best Buy and Amazon.com.

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