If you’ve been around here for any amount of time, you’ve likely been made aware of my affinity for Google’s hardware. I like nearly everything they’ve made in-house (Pixel Slate aside) and I’ve been a Pixel phone owner since the very first model. I’ve taken pride in the camera and suffered dejection with the poor screen of the Pixel 2XL. I hated (then got used to) the bathtub notch of the 3XL. And I loved the white-on-black of the Pixel 4XL while shaking my head constantly at the Apple-chasing face unlock tech that forced Google to include a ridiculous forehead on the phone. We won’t even get started on the goofiness of Project Soli.
Through all the odd hardware choices, however, two things have remained very consistent: camera performance and an unmatched overall software experience. If you know anything about Pixel phones, you know the cameras are top notch. The camera software is better than anyone else’s, making the mediocre lenses and sensors look like they are of another caliber completely. In tough lighting conditions, in solid lighting conditions, in nearly all conditions, the Pixel cameras are my absolute favorite for grabbing photos.
However, it’s that second part – that unmatched software experience – that matters most to me and is always the hardest to define. Google just knows Android better than anyone else and it shows. Period. The overall software experience on the Pixel phones isn’t really ‘stock Android’ anymore. Instead, it is Google’s vision of what Android should be at it’s best. With helpful features like their brilliant always-on display, the ability for your phone to tell you the song at a glance, the buttery smoothness of the UI, and the overall attention to details that most phone makers just don’t get, I can’t stress enough how good Google’s UX is on their phones. Sure, other phones have gesture navigation. Pixel phones absolutely nail it. That’s the stuff I’m talking about, here.
I’m back home
I’ve known and lived with all this for years, yet I have been a OnePlus user the last year at this point, and there’s a reason for that. You see, the moment Google decided to scale things back for the Pixel 5 instead of releasing another flagship-level phone, I knew it wasn’t the phone for me. From the smaller size to the slower processor, the things I tend to do on my phone simply don’t line up with what the Pixel 5 offers. I tried and I just could not get on board. I figured Google either conceded to stay in the mid-range phone game from this point forward or they had something up their sleeves for the Pixel 6.
It turns out my hunch was correct and as we’ve recently learned, a Pixel 6 (presumably) is on the way with Google’s own, custom silicon dubbed the GS101. While there’s no way to know how good this phone will be, as a Pixel fan I’m already on board with whatever it turns out becoming. It looks like there will be a big and small version again and if Google’s silicon does what we expect, performance will be great and these new devices will likely possess features and abilities that other Android phones won’t be able to match. Vertical integration is powerful and Apple has been successful with it for years at this point. Now its Google’s turn.
So, with this news and what I’m very much looking forward to later in 2021, I’ve decided to go back to the last Pixel phone I can see myself driving on a daily basis – the Pixel 4XL – in order to get back to that Pixel life I so miss. The Snapdragon 855 inside is no slouch, the screen is 90hz, and the build quality is simple and pleasing. Is it the best phone ever made? No. Are there goofy additions like face unlock and a motion-detecting radar that serve little purpose. Sure. Hardware is definitely not why I’m back. Instead, it’s for the software and for the camera. And after using my old Pixel 4XL just for today, I can tell you I’m glad to be home.
I’ve been away from the Pixel life for a while and as I’m settling back in, it just feels like putting on a favorite old t-shirt: familiar, fitting, and comfortable. So many things about my OnePlus 8T are technically better. The screen, the size, the processor, the RAM, and the storage are all superior on the spec sheet versus the Pixel 4XL. The only hardware win the Pixel 4XL gets is the vibration motor: there’s just something about tight, solid haptics that make a difference.
But hardware has never fully been what the Pixel experience is all about. Instead, I’m enthused by the smooth animations all over the place, the thoughtful touches like ambient display and the always-listening music identification, and I’m just reminded at every turn how much more cohesive Google’s vision for Android is when compared to anyone else’s. Even with OnePlus’ clean, no-frills take on Android, they can’t quite make things as integrated as Google can at this point. I really did forget how nice it is to use a Pixel.
And now I wait. I hope that at the end of this year I’ll be holding a new, flagship-level Pixel phone with not only all the best and most unique hardware we’ve yet seen in a Google-made phone to this point, but with all the stuff about Pixels that we all know and love so much. It’s time Google had a win with this brand and with this line of devices. Those who use them love them and those who’ve not tried are really missing out. For the Pixel 6 and for Google, my hope is we see a triumphant return to flagship contention and that this year we get a phone worthy of the software Google has so carefully crafted for it.