Google IO 2021: four big things we expect to see and two things we don’t

Google IO 2021
(Image credit: Google)

Google’s annual software-focused event is fast approaching, with Google IO 2021 kicking off on May 18.

The event this year is online-only, for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean it will be short of big announcements. Not much has been confirmed so far, but through a combination of leaks, rumors, the event schedule and past form, we have a good idea of what to expect.

Below, then, you’ll find an overview of the biggest things we’re likely to see at Google IO 2021, then further down we’ve listed two big things that you’ll probably be waiting longer for.

1. Android 12


(Image credit: Future)

Android 12 is undoubtedly going to make an appearance at Google IO. In fact, it’s likely to be the star of the show.

This won’t actually be our first look at Android 12, as it’s already available to developers in preview form. But based on past form (and an official roadmap) it’s likely that Google will reveal more details about it and even release the first public beta. So you’ll be able to try it for yourself if you have a compatible phone – which likely means the Google Pixel 5 or another recent Pixel model, along perhaps with a few other lucky handsets.

This isn’t when Android 12 will launch in finished form though – that probably won’t happen until September.

As for what Android 12 is set to offer, based on the developer betas and various leaks we know to expect a redesigned quick settings menu, an app hibernation feature, a recycle bin, the ability to easily share Wi-Fi passwords, tweaks to the appearance of various screens, an improved one-handed mode, and all sorts of other stuff.

2. Google Pixel 5a

Google Pixel 4a 5G

The Google Pixel 4a 5G (Image credit: Future)

While Google IO tends to be focused on software, it’s not unusual to also see hardware at the event, and this year that hardware is likely to include the Google Pixel 5a.

The Pixel 3a was announced at Google IO in 2019, so there’s precedent for this, and had the pandemic not scuppered Google IO 2020 we’d likely have seen the Pixel 4a there – though instead it got a later August launch.

That means it’s possible that we won’t see the Pixel 5a until around August, but Google IO 2021 remains our best guess.

Rumors suggest that the Pixel 5a will have a 6.2-inch Full HD+ OLED screen, a dual-lens camera, a plastic body and mid-range power. It might not be the most exciting phone then, but it could be a strong camera-focused mid-ranger, and one that’s likely to be sold at an appealing price.

 3. Wear OS updates

wear os

(Image credit: Future)

Google hasn’t paid a whole lot of attention to Wear OS in recent years, but that could be set to change, with some big announcements possibly set for Google IO 2021.

We’ve recently seen a drip-feed of new Wear OS features, such as it getting Gboard and a UV index, and Google has promised that there’s more to come this year. As for what the more might be, one of the talks scheduled for IO is titled 'Create your first Tile in Wear', which is a strong hint that third-party tile support will be added.

But we’re hoping to see a lot more beyond that. With Google having bought Fitbit, and Samsung strongly rumored to be switching to Wear OS for the Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Watch Active 4, it seems like there could be big things for the platform on the horizon – so maybe Google will unveil some of them at IO.

4. Pixel Buds A

Google Pixel Buds

The Google Pixel Buds 2020 (Image credit: Future)

The Pixel 5a might not be the only hardware we see at Google IO 2021, with the Pixel Buds A also potentially making an appearance. They haven’t specifically been linked to the event, but rumors suggest they’re landing imminently.

These are rumored to sport touch controls for controlling music playback and accessing Google Assistant, along with a similar rounded design to the standard Pixel Buds. There’s a lot that we still don’t know about them though, which might mean they’re not launching so soon after all.

What we probably won’t see

While we’re likely to see a number of things at Google IO 2021, there are some rumored or upcoming Google products that we almost certainly won’t see. We’ve detailed the two most significant ones below.

1. Google Pixel 6

Pixel 6 leak

The possible Pixel 6 design (Image credit: Jon Prosser / @RendersbyIan)

The Google Pixel 6 is set to be the company’s flagship phone for 2021, but we’d be shocked if it arrived at Google IO, as in the past the company has always launched new flagship Pixel models later in the year.

Specifically, we’ve always seen them in October, except for the Pixel 5, which landed on September 30 of 2020. So either late September or – more likely – October is when we’ll almost certainly see the Google Pixel 6.

It should hopefully be worth the wait though, with rumors of a radical redesign, and a custom-made chipset, currently codenamed Whitechapel. This won’t necessarily be better than a Snapdragon alternative, but could allow Google to bring more unity between the hardware and software, similarly to how Apple has with its iPhone chipsets.

The Pixel 6 might also support 4K video recording with the front camera, have an in-screen fingerprint scanner, and possibly even have an under-display front camera – though that’s less likely.

2. Google Pixel Watch

Google Pixel Watch leak

The rumored Google Pixel Watch design (Image credit: Jon Prosser / @rendersbyian)

The Google Pixel Watch is a long-rumored device, but one that there’s no clear news on a release date for.

The lack of rumors – both around the release date and the device itself – makes us think it’s very unlikely the Pixel Watch will land as soon as Google IO, though it would certainly bolster any Wear OS announcements the company makes if it did.

If we see it at all this year, it’s much more likely that we’ll see the wearable alongside the Google Pixel 6 in September or October.

If and when the Google Pixel Watch does launch, rumors suggest it might have a physical crown, a circular screen, all sorts of fitness features such as SpO2 tracking and sleep apnea detection, and the ability to listen out for voice commands at all times without draining the battery.

James Rogerson

James is a freelance phones, tablets and wearables writer and sub-editor at TechRadar. He has a love for everything ‘smart’, from watches to lights, and can often be found arguing with AI assistants or drowning in the latest apps. James also contributes to, and and has written for T3, Digital Camera World, Clarity Media and others, with work on the web, in print and on TV.