The evolution of the Google Pixel series: from OG to Pixel 4
It’s not often that we think about the evolution of a brand. Sure, we compare the phones year after year, but we rarely take a step back and examine the long-term growth. Google has taken a bare minimum approach at upgrading their phones annually, especially with the most recent launch. But how much has the Google Pixel series evolved since the beginning?
Before I get into the evolution of the Pixel series, I want to talk about Google’s philosophy. The Pixel series was never meant to compete on maxed-out specs; it was supposed to be a phone made “The Google Way.” The Pixel phones integrate very closely with Google services and provide easy and fast access to Google’s best software. The Pixel phones are meant to make your life easier by making you interact with your phone less and still get a lot done.
Part of the Pixel philosophy was about doing the most with the least. This is why Pixel phones traditionally don’t have tons of RAM or a handful of cameras. They didn’t get dual cameras until 4 years in. Google was capable of doing a lot without going all out, so they didn’t. This is obvious when you look in-depth at all the changes Google made throughout the Pixel series over the past four years. So let’s do just that.
Pixel and Pixel XL
The original Google Pixel, also known as the OG Pixel, was Google’s first flagship smartphone. This phone had Google’s new Google Assistant. It also had Google’s first real attempt to get into the camera game. At the time, it had the best camera. It also had pretty basic specs for late 2016. The Snapdragon 821, 4GBs of RAM, 32GB or 128GBs of storage, a 3450 mAh battery, a single 12.3 MP rear camera, and a 5.5-inch QHD display. This is, by all means, a very basic 2016 phone.
The average hardware of the Google Pixel was easily forgotten because of Google’s absolutely fantastic software. The phone felt fast and clean. There was no excess bloatware or meaningless changes to the software. Google made changes where needed and did not make excessive changes. The lack of changes along with the new Google Assistant made the Pixel the best phone at the time.
The OG Google Pixel also looked fantastic. It came in three colors, Quite Black, Very Silver, and Really Blue. These three colors were absolutely fantastic and had very accurate names to the colors of the phone. It was the start of Google’s infamous dual-tone design with a glass and aluminum combo on the back. The OG Pixel was one of the best Pixel phones in the series because of how Google essentially came out of nowhere with game-changing camera software.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were a pretty big step up. Unlike the OG Pixel, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL did look pretty different. The Pixel 2 kept some chunky bezels at the top and bottom of the phone while the Pixel 2 XL had slimmer bezels. Both phones had stereo front-facing speakers, the Snapdragon 835, 4GBs of RAM, 64GB or 128GB storage options, a single 12.2MP rear camera, and OLED displays. The smaller Pixel 2 had a 1080p display while the larger Pixel 2 XL got a 1440p display. These specs were, again, nothing crazy, but they were the minimum Google needed to get a great and simple device onto the market.
They kept Google’s approach of making interacting with the phone easier while the phone improves your life without needing to do anything. This came through Google’s new features, Now Playing and Active Edge. Now Playing recognizes music playing around you without using much battery and keeping all the processing on the device. Active Edge made Google Assistant easier to use by just needing a simple squeeze on the sides to activate it.
The design of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were also very practical. Google didn’t really go all out on design or features. They kept only a single rear camera in a time where dual cameras were becoming popular. Google also kept their dual-tone aluminum and glass back. It came in a total of four different colors between the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel 2 XL came in Black & White, also known as Panda, and Just Black. The Pixel 2 came in Kinda Blue, Just Black, and Clearly White. The Pixel 2 XL was one of my favorite phones of all time.
The Pixel 2 wasn’t perfect, though. There were lots of issues with performance and RAM management a few months after the phone had launched. Google tried to figure some of these out with software updates, and it did help for some. There was also the issue with the Pixel 2 XL display. There was insane blue shift in some units. It was a lottery if you were to get a good or bad display. This was also the first Pixel to drop the headphone jack, which was controversial at the time.
Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL
The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL was not the huge upgrade many believe the Pixel line needed. Google kept with their classic approach of bare minimum specs and life-improving software. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL had very minimal specs for a 2018 flagship. It came with the Snapdragon 845, 4GBs of RAM, 64GB or 128GB storage options, dual front-facing cameras, a single 12.2MP rear camera, and a fully glass back. This was, once again, nothing extreme, but it got the job done.
Besides design, which I will get into later, most of the new features from the Pixel 2 to the Pixel 3 came in the camera. Google added a bunch of new features including Top Shot, Motion Auto Focus, Night Sight, and Super Res Zoom. While it didn’t reinvent the whole camera experience on the Pixel, it made it much better. Night Sight, in particular, was another game-changing camera feature. It drastically improved what you could get out of a smartphone camera in bad lighting conditions. Now, similar modes are present on nearly every flagship phone on the market.
One of the bigger hardware changes and upgrades in the Pixel 3 was the all-glass back and wireless charging. This all-glass back was, of course, for wireless charging and Google’s own Pixel Stand. This glass back was one of the first glass phones with a frosted glass finish. It was easy to scratch but felt absolutely amazing to hold. The Pixel Stand also helped make wireless charging more useful in your life by essentially turning a Pixel on a Pixel Stand into a Google Home. This, once again, makes the Pixel phone more useful for you and helps bring Google’s services into your life.
It might sound great, but there were some issues with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The notch on the Pixel 3 XL was ginormous, which was more of a design flaw than an issue. The actual issues come with the performance and black frosted glass back. The black Pixels would get permanently scratched. The pink and white Pixels would as well, but you couldn’t see it because of the color. The performance issues came from the lack of RAM in the Pixel. My Pixel 3 XL would force stop playing music if I were to take a picture or even simply send a picture through a chat app. Sometimes switching between two apps would even force all background apps to close. It was a real issue with the Pixel 3, but Google did its best at fixing it. Over time Google was able to help the RAM management, but it still isn’t as good as a phone with more RAM.
Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL are the first of their kind in the Pixel series. They were meant to be cheap and very good phones for the masses. They launched at $400 and $480 respectably. The interesting part about these devices wasn’t the price or the features you got on the phone, but what you got in comparison to the Pixel 3.
The Pixel 3a came with a Snapdragon 670, 4GBs of RAM, 64GBs of storage, a single front ultra-wide camera, a single rear 12.2MP camera, and 5.6-inch and 6.0-inch FHD+ OLED displays. This is pretty similar to the Pixel 3. In actual usage, it ended up being about the same speed as the Pixel 3 even though the processor wasn’t as good.
The combination of price and features is what made the Pixel 3a so interesting. For half the price, the Pixel 3a had the same features as the Pixel 3. The hardware wasn’t as good as the Pixel 3, sure, but it was also half the price. This was a huge deal and actually became the best selling unlocked phone on Amazon for a while. A lot of reviewers actually considered the Pixel 3a better than the Pixel 3 simply due to value. The Pixel 3a will likely be known as the most successful Pixel.
Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL
These past generations have all lead to the newest, latest, and greatest: the Pixel 4. Just a few weeks ago, Google launched the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. These Pixels are known in the tech community to be a bit of a flop. The reason is, once again, they don’t have insanely large batteries or crazy specs. They are the bare minimum Google thinks it needs to give you the features you’ll need to simplify your life.
The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL come with the Snapdragon 855, 6GBs of RAM, 64GB or 128GB storage options, a single wide front camera, two rear cameras, and a 90hz display. The Pixel 4 comes with a 5.8-inch FHD+ display from LG while the Pixel 4 XL comes with a 6.3-inch QHD+ display from Samsung. The Pixel 4 has a 2800 mAh battery while the Pixel 4 XL has a 3700 mAh battery. These battery sizes are actually one of the main reasons not to get the Pixel 4 or Pixel 4 XL. The battery life isn’t really that great. The rest of the specs are not even close to what we are seeing in 2019. This was the first Google phone without a fingerprint scanner and the first Pixel phone with a dual camera. Neither of these are necessarily impressive hardware-wise, but make the Pixel experience better.
There are really only two features Google has added that anyone will actually notice. Those are Project Soli a.k.a. Motion Sense, the second rear camera, lack of a fingerprint scanner, and the 90hz display. Project Soli is a small radar chip Google uses to make changing songs or unlocking your phone faster. It will recognize when you are about to pick up the phone and start scanning your face for the new Face Unlock feature, making it much faster than competing phones with 3D facial recognition. The 90hz display just makes things extra smooth.
Powerful Software NOT Powerful Hardware
Throughout the development of the Pixels, Google has focused on software over hardware. The idea of the Pixel is to get Google’s software into your pocket and make it work for you. The Pixel phones really do that. They have always had the newest and best Google Assistant features first, like Google Duplex or Google Lens. They have the smartest and best cameras while using the same camera sensors as $300 budget phones.
Google has always been able to do more with less, and that is what the Google Pixel is all about. On a spec sheet, you can look through the evolution of the Pixel design or specs or even features, and what you’ll notice is Google has worked on bringing useful software features over hardware. That’s why Google put a thick top bezel in the Pixel 4, they know the trade-off in design is worth it in functionality. Project Soli in the Pixel 4 is working to make your experience better, faster, and more natural without you even knowing it’s there.
The original Pixel came out with average hardware but exceptional software in Google Assistant. The Pixel 2 came out with, once again, average hardware, but the cameras and ease of access to Google Assistant with Active Edge and ambient music recognition with Now Playing made the Pixel 2 one of the smartest phones without you knowing it. With the Pixel 3 Google kept up the trend with average hardware, but outstanding cameras and the ability to turn your phone to a home speaker with the Pixel Stand. With the Pixel 4, Google has gone even further than before. The Pixel 4 will work to help you without you even knowing it’s working.
The evolution of the Google Pixel phones shows the evolution of ambient computing. Google is on the leading edge of software and they don’t need that extreme hardware every other OEM is using. The Pixel series has always been about making your life better and easier without you knowing it.
The evolution of the Pixel isn’t hardware or software, it’s that the phone is working in ways you don’t even recognize to help you. At the first Made by Google event on October 4th, 2016 Google said that we would remember that day as an important day in history because of the products they were launching. Almost four years later, I agree.