During the original iPhone introduction, Steve Jobs referenced a favorite quote of his from legendary computer scientist Alan Kay: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” This philosophy has formed the bedrock of Apple’s business strategy for decades now, save for that brief dark period during the mid-90s when Apple sanctioned an ill-fated Mac clone initiative.
Apple’s devotion to both software and hardware is part of the reason why the iPhone often outclasses every other smartphones on the market. Undeniably, the ability to fine tune software and hardware to work together seamlessly and efficiently is a huge competitive advantage.
That being the case, I’ve been especially intrigued with the Google Pixel as it marks Google’s most serious effort to date to exert strict control over the entirety of the Android experience, from both a software and hardware perspective. We’ve seen Android flagships before, no doubt, but the Google Pixel was designed by Google from the ground up.
As Google’s Rick Osterloh explained to Bloomberg not too long ago, the Google Pixel has Google “managing inventory, building relationships with carriers, sourcing components, making supply chain deals and managing distribution.”
When reviews of the Google Pixel first started appearing online, I was excited to see if the hype behind the Pixel was real. Because competition is often a necessary component and driver of innovation, I was eager to see if the Google Pixel was a device that could potentially force Apple to step up its game.
Most of the Google Pixel reviews I came across where overwhelmingly positive, but I couldn’t help but notice that Google’s smartphone, in many respects, was being afforded a pass that Apple’s iPhone rarely, if ever, receives. Whereas the iPhone is seemingly criticized for minute and arguably petty reasons, some of the Google Pixel’s shortcomings were curiously and conveniently glossed over with gusto.
Touching on this very point, Rene Ritchie has a great piece up on iMore where he explains how the Pixel was graded by tech reviewers on curiously favorable curve. Remember: Google is a serious player in the smartphone business and the Pixel is priced as a premium handset. Consequently, one would imagine that the Pixel would be held up to the same level of scrutiny as the iPhone.
Alas, this was hardly the case.
The design of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s was lambasted mercilessly, and rightfully so given those unsightly antenna lines. In fact, many even brought up said design as evidence that Apple had lost its innovative edge along with its eye for industrial design. Meanwhile, the Google Pixel borrows many design elements from Apple’s 2014 iPhone design and nobody bats an eye.
It strikes me as odd that in 2016, an iPhone and an Android phone can look extremely similar and evoke completely opposite sentiments from reviewers. The Google Pixel by and large looks like an iPhone but some reviews viewed this as a positive because it was “familiar.” Meanwhile, if Apple doesn’t introduce a groundbreaking new iPhone design every year, it’s a sign that there’s trouble in Cupertino.
So, everyone who’d been criticizing Apple and iPhone design immediately called Google out for aping it?
Not so much.
Well, at least they called Google and Pixel out for the same things they called Apple and iPhone out for?
Again, not so much.
Bizarrely, some of the subtle improvements Apple incorporated into the iPhone 7 that were immediately categorized as minor or insignificant are completely missing from the Google Pixel.
Surely they drew the line at Google’s 2016 flagship missing optical image stabilization — not just in the regular-size, but in the Plus XL model as well — stereo speakers, and water resistance — things that were pointed to last year as indicators Apple was falling behind?
I’m not saying that Apple should be immune from criticism, but it’d be nice if other companies, especially big players like Google, were held to the same set of expectations and standards that Apple has to live up to.
Taking a look at any number of Pixel reviews, Google is given a pass for items that the press would absolutely obliterate Apple for.
Take Walt Mossberg’s review, for example. Calling the Google Pixel “first rate” and the best Android phone he’s ever tested, Mossberg quickly mentions that that the device’s battery life was disappointing relative to Google’s advertised specs.
“It also isn’t water resistant, and is exclusive to only a single carrier, Verizon,” Mossberg mentions before quickly moving on.
And then there are the Google Pixel headphones. Oh wait, the Pixel doesn’t come with any headphones.
Speaking of earbuds, there’s good and bad news. The good: Google retained the industry-standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The bad: it doesn’t supply any earbuds for a $649 phone. The company says it assumes everyone has many pairs of buds lying around. I wound up using an old Samsung pair.
Can you imagine the vitriolic outrage that would have resulted if Apple shipped an iPhone of any model with no headphones?
It’s also interesting that Google’s new AI feature — Google Assistant — is being heaped with praise mostly because of its underlying potential. Google Assistant does seem to be a step up from Siri since it can handle contextual queries much more ably, but is it really that compelling of a feature in its current form?
Here’s a series of questions I asked about the state where I live, without ever saying the state’s name except in the first question. The Assistant answered every question but one with a vocal reply, and answered all quickly and accurately:
— What’s the population of Maryland?
— Who’s the governor?
— What’s the average household income?
— What’s the land area?
— Show me the state flag.
— What’s the biggest county?
I’m pretty sure I could have gone on. When I tried this with Siri, it handled the first one nicely, vocally and with a Wikipedia page. It answered the second by displaying an article defining the term governor.
That’s a nice perk for the Pixel, but is this really a huge selling point? As far as I can tell, the AI that Viv Software showed off is far more impressive. Besides, there are things that Siri can do that Google Assistant can’t do quite yet, like reserving an Uber or Lyft.
Still, not everyone was a fan of Google Assistant, as evidenced by this review from Michael Nunez of Gizmodo.
I was particularly disappointed with Google Assistant because it’s such a promising concept. Google is moving attention away from the search bar more than ever. Instead, the company wants you to “Google” by using the messaging app Allo or voice search in Google Assistant. Ultimately, the Pixel and Pixel XL are gateways for feeding the Google brain more information about yourself. As Google’s AI gets smarter, the Assistant will become more helpful. While some people might find this creepy, I think the idea is exciting, and it’s a letdown that the tech isn’t there yet. In fairness nobody has it, and Google’s is better than what’s offered by competitors like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. The point is that as a whole, smartphone assistants aren’t smart enough to be defining features. They’re gimmicks, and Google unwisely decided to build a phone around one.
Meanwhile, another Pixel review on The Verge was quick to call Google’s smartphone a “home run.” Almost comically, one of the first few paragraphs reads:
The Pixel is not waterproof, which is dumb and annoying. I should also note that a very short fall managed to crack the screen on the smaller Pixel during our review. A sample size of one is obviously too small to say that these devices are less durable than they ought to be, but it’s not a great sign.
All that said, I think it’s great that Google released the Pixel. It’s nice to see some solid competition in the premium smartphone space from a company not named Samsung. The Pixel seems like a compelling device, but let’s be honest, the grading curve for Android is still a whole lot more lenient than it is for the iPhone.