One week with the Google Pixel
Posted on 04 November 2016
A couple of months ago, I published a post that criticised Apple and praised Google. I titled it ‘The Apple-Google shift’ because I was attempting to put into words the shift that had occurred between the two tech giants and the shift that had, as a result, slowly but surely started to occur in my mind and the minds of other Apple fanboys and fangirls.
Shortly after that post, Apple announced the iPhone 7 and I found myself feeling pretty ‘meh’ about that, as anticipated. About a month later, Google announced the Pixel: their long-rumoured (proper) foray into total hardware and software integration. I decided to put my money where my mouth was: I pre-ordered a Pixel to replace my iPhone.
The Pixel arrived just over a week ago and a lot of people have been asking how I’ve been getting on with it, so here we are: a few initial observations from a nine-year iOS user.
(I’ll preface this by saying that some of these observations are specific to the Pixel, some to Android in general, and some to this specific flavour of Android. Not having been an Android user until now, you’ll have to excuse my naïvety.)
10 things I instantly love
1. The seriously fantastic camera
The main reason I switched was for the camera. To be more accurate: I was ready to upgrade my phone for one with a better camera, and the iPhone 7’s wasn’t enough of an upgrade to keep me in the iOS ecosystem (the 7+ has a great camera, but I really don’t want a phone that huge). Of course, you’re still ultimately shooting on a phone, but it’s the best camera I’ve used on a phone without a doubt, both in terms of the end result and the usability of the software. It’s seriously fast, and it does a load of handy Google Photos-powered things like instantly creating animations out of photo bursts. I anticipated it being mildly annoying that you have to switch off HDR+ every time you open the camera, but actually it isn’t, because —by and large — the HDR+ mode does actually produce better images. (And no HDR and non-HDR pairs!)
One thing that’s bugged me about Apple for ages is their noise-reduction algorithm and Google’s is far gentler, in my opinion. And although the iPhone 7 has an f/1.8 lens and so in theory can produce a shallower depth of field and let in more light than the Pixel’s f/2, the overall quality seems consistently better on the Pixel.
2. A neat Home screen
I suppose this is a general thing about Android, but being so customisable, I love that I can just keep icons for my essential apps — everything else is tucked away neatly in the alphabetically-sorted app launcher. This, in my opinion, is a far better experience than iOS, where you’re forced to find a position and / or folder for every app you have installed. If you’re like me and likes to keep things clutter-free, you’ll love this.
3. Deep Google integration
This shouldn’t be surprising in any way, but having Google built into pretty much everything you do on the phone is seriously useful. For example, I was making the note of an electrician’s number I saw on a van parked on our street; I called the number and hung up before it rang so that I could store it easily. Before I could save the recently-dialled number to my contacts, the company name appeared all by itself — Google had already identified it.
4. A more intelligent assistant
One of my constant frustrations with iOS was Siri. It isn’t so much that Siri gets things wrong; more that it’s dumb when it comes to interacting with other apps. Not so with the Google Assistant. I can say, “OK Google, play The Healing Bowl on Spotify,” and it’ll take me to the correct album on the Spotify app, and start playing. (Side note: I recently got an Amazon Echo and it can do the same thing, but it frequently gets the name wrong; I’ve yet to get the wrong album, track, or artist with the Pixel.) Beyond this, it’s just very fast and very accurate. And being aware of context puts it above any other AI I’ve seen. For instance, ask it to search for an actor and then ask, “what films has he starred in?” It knows you’re still talking about the same person. Impressive.
5. The best notification / control centre I’ve seen
Again, I’m not sure if this is unique to the Pixel or Android, or this particular version of Android, but the notification / control centre is great. It’s customisable (of course) so that you can put your most-used icons within easy reach and you can do a lot from the notification alone, like archiving emails. So handy.
6. You can use Facebook Messenger to handle text messages as well
One less messaging app on my phone is absolutely a good thing. Now if they could just roll WhatsApp messages into that, too…
7. App-switching is super-fast
I never thought iOS’ double-click of the Home button would feel like a sluggish way to switch apps, but with Android’s dedicated app-switching button, the difference is surprising. All open apps are treated like tabs in Chrome, and similarly there’s an easy-to-reach ‘clear all’ button — something that doesn’t exist in iOS at all.
8. Android really can look beautiful
As I mentioned in my previous post, the only version of Android that would (and did) interest me is one free of the cruft and skins installed by carriers, and this pure, Google-controlled Android on the Pixel is everything I’d hoped for. But going beyond that, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how beautiful Android apps can be, even — or perhaps because of — when they don’t stray too far from the Material Design guidelines. Flamingo is a great example. I thought I’d miss the iOS-only Tweetbot, but I don’t, and Flamingo is vastly superior to Twitter’s own app, especially if you have multiple accounts. Oh, and Gmail has Material Design at last! That, and a few subtle improvements over the iOS version.
9. You probably won’t drop it
Although I bought a case because dropping phones is an inevitable truth, the phone itself grips pretty well — it feels like there’s a good amount of friction thanks to the textured back. The sides, too, have enough of an edge to keep the phone in your hands. Compare that to the iPhone. I would never hold an iPhone (6 and up) without a case. It’s like holding a slab of butter.
10. Lovely animations and oddly satisfying sounds
It’s a subtle point, but the animations are lovely. From swiping down for notifications, to the code entry when manually unlocking, there are so many nice little transitions. This is hard to describe — you just need to try it. The net result is that the whole OS feels snappy and responsive; something iOS never quite seemed to master. And maybe it’s just the appeal of the new, but the Pixel’s system sounds are really nice. I don’t think I’ve owned a phone that I haven’t switched to vibrate-only within days of use, but the Pixel still has its system sounds at full volume. The ‘lock’ sound on the power button is especially nice. Again, small points, but you know, it’s these little delights that make a lasting difference in a user interface.
7 things I was surprised by
1. Not all Googles are created equal
The Google Assistant is marketed as the Pixel’s main selling point, and it’s pretty good — and, of course, it’s set to improve over time. But the Google Assistant is different from the Google app, which lives to the left of the Home screen. They behave slightly different, which is weird. What’s also weird is that the Google Assistant’s UI looks like a chat bot, but you have to speak into it — there’s no typing. Not a biggie, but there’s clearly room for improvement here. Oh, and while we’re talking about unequal instances of Google, it’s worth noting that not all features of the phone work with the G Suite. For instance, I can get the Google Assistant to add appointments to my calendar, but only my regular Gmail account — not the G Suite account I use with my domain for all work-related stuff. This is a bit of a pain, but I expect support to be added in the not too distant future. And account switching, at least, is very quick.
2. No app badges
There are no badges on app icons to indicate you have, for instance, unread messages. Perhaps that’s not essential when you have such a robust notification centre (and mini app icons that appear in the top left of the screen if they have notifications), but it does take some getting used to when moving from iOS.
3. The Battery
The Pixel needs charging once a day, which is a little bit of a disappointment, but it charges really quickly.
4. The keyboard
If you use the excellent Gboard on iOS, you’ll feel right at home — or not. The insanely accurate predictive suggestions are there and the ‘glide typing’ is there, too, but there’s something that just feels inherently ugly when compared to Gboard on iOS.
5. Not missing the iOS ecosystem
This was one of my primary concerns when deciding whether or not to make the leap. Pretty much every app I use had an Android equivalent these days; the only actual switches I’ve had to make are Flamingo (see above) instead of Tweetbot and Google Play Music instead of Vox (to upload music that’s not available on the streaming services).
6. The screen is perhaps a little too vivid
The screen is beautiful and boasts an extremely vibrant display, but sometimes that vibrancy can be a little intense. Oranges, for instance, require sunglasses. Be careful when you open Etsy.
7. The on-screen Home button
Actually, this isn’t a huge struggle, but having a ‘soft’ button means you always have to have that button on-screen — always. It’s a shame to lose some full-screen real estate to it, especially with full-screen apps like the camera.
2 things I’m struggling with
1. The fingerprint sensor’s location
In many ways, the fingerprint sensor’s location on the back of the phone makes loads of sense: it’s a very natural resting spot for your finger when you’re holding the phone. And the sensor itself is extremely fast and accurate. Swiping down on it to bring up notifications is so handy! But what about when you’re not holding the phone? Right now, for instance, it’s sitting on my desk, and to unlock it without picking it up, I’ll have to hit the power button on the side and then manually use the numeric unlock. That’s fine, but it’s made me realise how regularly I hit the iPhone’s Home button just quickly look at the time or notifications.
2. Muscle memory
It turns out that nine years’ years of iOS usage results in muscle memory that’s extremely hard to override. A lot of that revolves around swipe gestures, but one big thing is the keyboard’s hit areas: I’m constantly tapping return when I meant to tap delete. This isn’t a criticism of the phone, though; just one of the challenges when switching.
It’s too early to say whether the Pixel will keep me on Google’s side, or to say if it is or isn’t better than the iPhone. In fact, I would never attempt to answer that — it really comes down to personal use. What are you looking for in a phone from both a hardware and software perspective? My pros might be your cons, and vice versa.
What I will say — with the caveat that this is only from just over one week’s use — is that I’m very happy with the Pixel, personally. It’s not perfect, but I’ve yet to find myself missing my iPhone at any point. The Pixel has an excellent camera, everything about the phone feels snappy, and it’s super-smart (and will only get smarter). I don’t think I’ll ever say that Android is a superior operating system to iOS, but this particular version of Android, existing exactly as intended by Google, configured to work explicitly with this hardware? Well…
Some people are saying the Google Pixel is the best phone you can buy. For the moment, at least, I’m not going to argue with that.