I spend my summers swapping Android phones every week, never finding one that does everything I need quite as well as I want it to. Then the iPhone comes along in the fall, acting all polished, refined, and ultra competent, and I find a brief moment of tranquility. For the past month, I’ve been at peace with my smartphone, focusing my fretting instead on other things like headphones and backpacks. But technology never stands still, and Google has decided to interrupt my cozy stasis with a smartphone that truly rivals, and in multiple ways bests, the iPhone. Google’s Pixel is a disturbingly good phone.
When the Pixel first arrived, I confess to being unprofessionally excited about it. I just love the idea of Google taking the reins of both hardware and software design and producing an Android phone it can be truly proud of. Much of that enthusiasm was diminished, however, by the Pixel’s industrial design: it’s pedestrian, unexciting, and frankly mediocre. I saw unibody phones of this caliber on offer from no-name Polish companies during MWC and IFA. The cutting edge of Android design nowadays is embodied by devices like the Nubia Z11, Huawei P9, and of course Samsung’s Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, and the unfortunate Note 7, which still stands as a gorgeous exhibit of thoughtful craftsmanship, battery issues notwithstanding.
The thing to understand about the Pixels, though, is that these phones are not at all about the hardware. Google needed control over the hardware simply to unshackle the full potential of its software. This is nowhere more evident than with the camera, which is simply stunning. I struggle to believe this even as I type it, but the Pixel’s camera is, in most circumstances, better than the iPhone’s. The first time that Google has stepped in to handle more of the camera stack already sees it striding ahead of Apple’s 800-strong camera team. Okay, the Pixel isn’t much better. Most photos that I take, I’m struggling to find conclusive differences. But I do find the Pixel producing consistently greater sharpness and dynamic range, more pleasing colors, and better low-light results. It’s a slight edge, but just having it is a huge accomplishment.
I’ve been saying for a long time that to beat the iPhone, you have to beat the iPhone’s camera. Apple’s flagship combines reliable high quality with effortless operation in a way that only Samsung has so far been able to match. You rarely need more than one attempt to get the best iPhone photo, whereas other smartphones like the OnePlus 3 can sometimes outperform it on sharpness, but demand more careful operation. The Pixel is the best of both worlds: it’s both sharper than the iPhone and super easy to use. In fact, I strongly believe Apple should just copy Google’s idea of double-pressing the power button to launch the camera — it’s an ingeniously rapid shortcut. With the Pixel, I’ve pretty much never needed to take a second shot because the first one was blurry or suffered from bad white balance or exposure. And Google’s camera app is fast and efficient — just like everything else on the Pixel.