Google finally was ready to enter the flagship market, with a phone that they designed their software around.
Enter the Pixel and Pixel XL, made HTC, which looked like a retread of their HTC One A. This phone finally gave fans a camera worth bragging about along with being paired with Google’s amazing software. Pixel was going to be the phone Google could fully commercialize at a level to rival the other flagship phones, particularly Apple and Samsung. And with the partnership of Verizon under their belt, the opportunity was there to really make “Made by Google” mean something.
What stood out about the Pixel was the design language, particularly the back of the phone having a more premium look and feel (with the metal and glass). Google showed the world what they could do with software; by coding the phone to capture the best images on a smartphone. Also, they renamed and repurposed Google Now to Google Assistant, creating a more marketable assistant software.
But then we have to get to what continues to frustrate some about Google’s phones (that being the hardware), and it all started with the first Pixel.
At the time that the Pixel came on to the scene, Samsung had supplanted themselves as the company ahead of the innovation curve. With Samsung being the new standard-bearer for what flagship phones should be, they introduced phones that had more screen real estate and equipped with water resistance. Forcing other companies, including Apple, to try and match them by releasing their phones with at least one of those features (them choosing water resistance).
Google released the Pixel and Pixel XL without water resistance and still having a lot of bezel around the front glass. Making the phone look and feel dated, despite it being priced at a flagship level. Some were willing to overlook the hardware design in favor of the entire package that the phone came with. Particularly Google releasing it with software that supported their Google VR hardware. It also came with amazing software experience and market-leading camera quality. Plus it had the added benefit of being released the same year as the Note 7, so the issues the phone had were overshadowed by the Note 7 fiasco.
But Google’s hardware issues would catch up to them when they released the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. The Pixel 2 was released with even more bezel, as to spite those that criticized the Pixel and Pixel XL. And like the original Pixel and Pixel XL, it was made by HTC. The Pixel 2 XL, however, was made by LG.
Overall Google got the Pixel 2 XL right aesthetically. The look of the phone finally somewhat) matched what the market was doing. And yet again Google continued to lead the market in having the best smartphone camera, thanks to Google’s machine learning software.
But the dull-looking display, an annoying blue tint, and a few dead pixels on the display dominated the headlines. Leaving Google with another “yeah but” phone. A phone that had the potential to be the phone of that year if it wasn’t for the hardware issues. Something that could’ve been avoided had Google relied on Samsung for their display (on the Pixel 2 XL) versus LG. Ironically the smaller Pixel 2 did use the display from Samsung and avoided the criticism about the display, but the large bezels made the phone feel dated.
Despite all of the criticism about the Pixel 2 and 2XL, Google was yet again get praised for the software experiences on their phones. Still, the whispers about Google’s hardware would continue to get louder.
Enter the 3rd and current Pixel phones. The phones were leaked almost 2-3 months before they were officially released. Google would embrace the trend of “the notch”, but unlike other manufacturers that would try and minimize it, Google went overboard. The Pixel 2 XL had one of the largest most distracting notches on a phone yet. They also chose to skimp out on RAM choosing to go with 4 GB, despite other Android manufacturers providing between 6-8. This decision by Google showed how far behind the times they were at, as the Pixel 3XL suffered from “jank”. And I’m not even going to include the issues with Google’s Pixel stand.
The lack of hardware on Google’s part continued to be magnified, as One Plus managed to release a phone with twice the RAM at almost half the price. The One Plus 6t best the Pixel 3XL in every department except the camera. And with it running stock Android, with a little extra, it started to question the appeal of stock Android. Because the One Plus 6t ran just as smooth and fast with key features that added to the experience.
Google continued to improve and build upon their software by adding features like call screening and night mode. These features allowed for Google to show off more of its machine learning software they have been working on. And as impressive as they are, the decision by Google to not put that on competitive hardware has kept more from being able to appreciate for what Google has been doing in the software department.
Google would later release the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3aXL almost 6 months after the 3 and 3 XL, and the phones were well received. Mainly because the pricing matched the specs. Which, frankly, the 3a and 3aXL were not that far from the premium 3 and 3XL, having plastic instead of glass. And thanks to Google adding a headphone jack, some would argue that the 3a phones were the better devices to buy (versus the 3 and 3XL).
As we approach the release of the Pixel 4 and 4XL, it looks like Google may be looking to repeat history. Putting out hardware that, quite frankly, is underperforming, and not at flagship levels. Followed by the excitement of Google’s software wearing off, the question is starting to linger about the value of the Pixel phone. Even for those of us wanting a Google phone, just to use the latest software, the flagship Pixel phones may no longer prove to be a better option than the lesser “a” models. So if Google will not present flagship-level hardware for their flagship-level phones, why are they even competing in the flagship market?
But Google could surprise us all and finally get it all right with the Pixel 4. But we will have to wait a few months before presenting the final verdict.