Only a Few Rough Edges Hinder the Pixel from Luring the Apple Mainstream
I have owned a number of iPhones including the 5S, 6S, 7, 7+ and the SE. I also currently have a Google Pixel and have had every major flagship from HTC, LG, and Samsung over the course of the last year as well as the always excellent OnePlus 3.
I like this market, I like where is has come from, I love what it has morphed into and I am hopeful for what the future holds. Being an early Android adopter and using it regularly every year since, I have watched as a massive shift unfurled: Android has grown from a toddler-like OS trying to find its legs, transitioned into its awkward teen years where changes were inexplicably coming from all over, and blossomed into maturity with its most recent releases. All the while though, iOS has been trading blows with it, leapfrogging each other in an endless cycle with each new or recycled “innovation” and major staple release as a catalyst for another battle. While many aspects of the core operating system have had Android leading in recent releases, Google still has the ever-present problem of not having ground-up optimization (‘vertical integration’, as they call it) on Android handsets it does not design, and the “built for this hardware” advantages that the iPhone uses so well. Google’s Pixel was supposed to fix that with its release 3 months ago, and in many ways it achieved it.
So how does it hold up? Has Google finally got the formula right to go toe to toe with iOS and it’s equally combative iPhone? Or has Google done what it always does, go 90% of the way and leave the rest to chance?
Pixel Imperfect Performance…
Important Note: While this article is going to focus on the Pixel and its Android, the same can be applied to most Android skins and their hardware.
When people talk about the iPhone, one of the most common advantages mentioned is that “it just works”, and this is actually true. While hardware and software bugs plague every OS, the iPhone has the distinct combined advantage of ground-up optimization, little device diversity and variance, and a far larger user base on its latest and greatest, making bug finding and fixing more effective. The Pixel, nonetheless, compares surprisingly well in day-to-day operation — one might even call it uncanny considering Google’s past record, and the device ultimately plows through a solid workday with polish and consistency.
A common issue with Android devices has been the need to either reboot them or otherwise take them through a short maintenance (like cleaning cache) after a while, especially if you are any sort of heavy user who cares about performance; while Samsung devices are particularly bad, 5X and 6P owners have noticed similar issues over time and I’ve personally had it with every Android phone I have used. While most mainstream users may ignore the dropped frames or slowed-down app launches, we notice them. However, the Pixel is vastly improved in this area. Out of the 5 or so owners of Pixel phones here at XDA, most of us have been able to go 2 or 3 weeks without issues — crashes, sudden slowdowns, etc. While this seems like a small thing, it is huge for mass market adoption and just goes to show that Google paid attention to cleaning up some of the user experience friction with the Pixel.
Unfortunately, it’s not perfect, and personally I have had to manually reboot my Pixel a few times after just a few days due to random issues like the Play Store repeatedly crashing or WiFi Calling failing to engage. This is in comparison to the iPhone which might as well not have a power off function. My iPhone’s have all been rebooted only for OS updates (I’m a beta user) and little else to break the routine. On the surface, this is a small thing, but small slowdowns and inconsistent performance add to the frustration that users have mentioned as the reason for switching to or back to iOS. “It just works” means you shouldn’t have to dig through the settings menu to clear the cache or manually delete leftover data from applications that were uninstalled.
Further along those lines of “it just works” is Google’s continued issues with Bluetooth audio. While I personally do not have any issues with BT in my Nissan Rogue, there are a number on the forums and Reddit who have considerable issues pairing, playing music, or having random disconnects.
Battery life is also a major concern for users. Again, this is an area where the Pixel excels as the smaller 5” model almost always exceeds the longevity that I expect a phone of its size. I say “almost always” for a reason, and that is the unpredictability of massive sources of battery drain. True, sometimes it is poorly coded applications like Snapchat or Facebook, but other times you may see Android System or Android OS or the Google App running rogue in the background and there is almost nothing you can do to stop it aside from a reboot which seldom works. Sometimes, even with excellent monitoring and being sure to avoid commonly-bad applications or practices, your efforts are in vain when you notice it dropping without reason. If there is one thing my parents always mention when we talk about phones, it is that “the other day” their phone randomly just started eating battery and needed to be plugged in midday, “but its fine now”... In comparison, both of my iPhone 7’s get consistently fantastic battery life, with my 7+ going hard all day and not dying.
User Experience Matters
Another area where the Pixel and Android falter is in messaging. Now, this issue is largely minimized outside the US where large IM clients like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or WeChat reign supreme; but in the US, Google has got to get a handle on messaging and quickly. While I am not going to get into the fine details of the issue, as everyone has their own priorities when it comes to messaging, the fact is that like it or not, Apple has a stranglehold on the market due to iMessage. This is due in large part to the almost perfect widespread reliability and a “so simple anyone can use it without anything more than signing into their phone” approach. Google has introduced client after client and with its newest offspring Allo and Duo dying on the vine, it seems that RCS is its best chance at a true competitor, but that has gotten off to a rocky and slow start and if there is anything Google has learned recently it’s that poor adoption kills messaging clients… and social networks.
Finally there is the restore and backup system. So, story time: I got my iPhone 7 Plus the other day, and had my 7 setup the way I wanted it. With no effort, I signed into my Apple account on the Plus, selected restore from iCloud Backup (which is done every night automatically), and sat my phone down for 45 minutes to an hour. When I returned I can confidently say 100% of my SMS conversations, Call Logs, and settings were restored and 75% of my applications had their logins restored, with no guesswork or effort. This makes things stupid-simple for going from device to device and ensures that when you buy the next one, most of your work is already done for you. When announced, Google claimed the Pixel featured full device backup as well, yet it is anything but. In my personal experience, if you are fortunate enough to even have your device show up in the selection field of backed up phones, you will likely have to hope your phone navigates the literal minefield of issues. Google Play Services needs to be updated, restore failure. The Play Store gets updated, restore failure. Try to install an application, may cause restore failure. Did your SMS fail to restore like this poor guy from Reddit? Well, just wipe and try again…
Let’s not even go into the fact that few applications actually use the backup function for anything of worth, as it seems to be overwhelmingly optional that any vital data backs up — out of 160 applications on my Pixel a whopping 67 are located in the backup and not all have a snapshot-style backup like on iOS. For reference, my open Safari tabs were synced to the new iPhone…
There are numerous other situations and scenarios in which Android is just downright annoying to use and its reliability waivers; but it’s the Android we’ve grown to love despite its faults. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help new users and converts who have grown to expect excellence in reliability and functions from their iPhone’s, and is likely a major cause of why the iPhone is quickly regaining traction and slated to overtake Android very soon in the US. It does, however, paint a promising picture for the future. Google has made a tremendous leap in the past 18 months making Android more secure, reliable, and pleasurable to use. The age old “there are more/better apps on iOS” is no longer an argument either, there are just different apps for iOS. But the tide has turned yet again away from Google’s favor as current market indicators look, and they are slated to fight an uphill battle in 2017 with the 10th anniversary iPhone looking to eat up all the media through the summer.
Google has done a great job on the Pixel, and regular feature and security updates have only made it better
This article isn’t saying that Android is inferior to iOS, but it also is not saying that Google got it completely right with their first try in a top to bottom UX-tuning with the Pixel. There are a lot of flaws that the Pixel has in both hardware and software that need attention in order for the mass market to really grab on. The iPhone is no perfect unicorn either. Bluetooth audio issues, relatively (abysmally) poor notification management, a back button located in the exact worst spot for a large 5.5” device, and the worst abuses of white space this side of Windows 10, make iOS a chore to use and even harder to love. But the iPhone excels at being gloriously, wonderfully, annoyingly boring; its monotone reliability in both hardware and software is its biggest flaw and greatest asset. This holds true even if they virtually tie their hand behind their back by making largely-unpopular decisions with their phones… you know what I’m talking about.
It’s a Great Start…
However, Google has done a great job on the Pixel, and regular feature and security updates have only made it better, and will likely continue to do so. Google got off to a great start but the competition is tougher and has a lot of momentum. To truly be a start to finish competitor with the iPhone and iOS, Google has to put more effort into making the little things work flawlessly, every single time, and less effort into major feature pushes. There is no use trying to launch a spacecraft into orbit with the biggest best jet engine and the shiniest coat of paint if they forgot to bolt the windscreen into place.
So when push comes to shove, what phone have I recommended most in these last three months? Well, what I tell people is the following: if you are a die-hard lifelong Android user, dislike iOS, are ready for a change, or you just have to have a headphone jack; get the Pixel. Otherwise (and especially if I haven’t met you on XDA or an Android forum), the iPhone is still the hardware and reliability king and you can’t go wrong, because “it just works”, even today. Maybe this year and with a new Pixel, that small gap that’s left will close enough for the phrase to phase out of existence.>>> Check out XDA’s Google Pixel Forums!