Google's Pixel Can't Win on Software Tricks Alone

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

After four generations of Pixel phones, one might imagine that Google with its vast resources and massive reach would be enjoying a similar position to what Apple enjoyed following the launch of the iPhone 4, or at least something close to that. But even after accounting for a wildly different gadget landscape and the passage of a decade, the Pixel line still struggles mightily against its biggest competitors, accounting for just 2.3 percent of the U.S. smartphone market compared to 27.4 percent for Samsung and over 50.5 percent for Apple. So what gives?

Naturally, there are a lot of factors at play here—like the first couple generations of Pixels only being sold by a single carrier and possible consumer confusion following the death of the Nexus brand. However, more than anything else, sometimes it feels Pixel phones have had a hard time breaking through because Google tries to get too cute with its hardware.

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

When you’re making a smart speaker like the Nest Mini, you really don’t need much besides good mics, solid audio, and friendly design to have great success. But smartphones are a different animal. Take the Pixel 4. Despite being Google’s flagship for 2019 and boasting fancy abilities like Motion Sense, 3D facial recognition, and being the first Pixel to get a slew of exclusive new software features and apps, the Pixel 4 arguably isn’t even the best phone Google released this year. For that, we’re looking more at the Pixel 3a.

That’s because on Google’s first ever mid-range Pixel, it kept things simple. For $400 (or a lot less recently if you’ve been keeping track of deals) the Pixel 3a combined a no-frills design with an OLED screen, solid specs, and Google’s super clean Pixel Android experience. And then Google pulled off some tech wizardry by giving the Pixel 3a a kickass camera that’s every bit as good as its flagship siblings.

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Even though it costs half the price, the Pixel 3a’s camera is just as good as it’s flagship sibling, which means a lot when the phone starts at $400.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

It didn’t matter that the 3a only has one rear camera or that its body is made out of plastic, the Pixel 3a is a simple, straightforward phone that made practically every other phone in its price range look bad (aside from a few spec-heavy phones from Xiaomi and others that are only really available overseas). Oh, and not axing the headphone jack was a nice touch too.

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But when you look at the $800 Pixel 4, its value proposition isn’t quite so clear. Ditching the fingerprint sensors used on previous Pixels for 3D facial recognition tech is nice, but doing so two years after Apple put the same tech on the iPhone X means the upgrade just doesn’t feel impressive.

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Then consider Motion Sense. While the idea of controlling your phone with hand gestures sounds pretty sweet, in practice, the feature ends up feeling way too subtle. Motion Sense’s presence detection—which the Pixel uses to figure out if anyone is nearby, and if not, saves battery life by turning off the screen—is entirely passive, and for the average person, due to its nature, it’s hard to tell when it’s actually working. It’s a similar situation for Motion Sense’s hand recognition, which it uses to detect when you pick up the phone so it can wake up the Pixel 4’s 3D dot projector so you can unlock the phone faster and more smoothly. But once again, it’s a subtle effect, blink and you might miss it, and definitely not appreciate it.

Aside from snoozing alarms, silencing calls, and skipping songs, Motion Sense is used for gimmicks like petting Pikachu, which is fun, but people aren’t buying phones just for that.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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There’s the Motion Sense gestures themselves too. They’re a handy and novel way of skipping between songs, silencing your ringer, or snoozing alarms, but since those three functions are currently the limit of Motion Sense’s abilities, the gestures often leave you wanting more.

With Motion Sense, Google is in a tricky place, because not only is it trying to develop an entirely new way of interacting with a phone, Google also has to make these new gestures easy enough to use and understand so that the average person won’t get overwhelmed. So in this case, both phone maker and phone buyer are learning as they go, which means both parties have to take it slow. I suspect Motion Sense is capable of a lot more and hopefully, we’ll see it get new abilities in the future, but that doesn’t fully alleviate the frustation of starting out so small.

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But even more than all of these previous grievances, the Pixel 4’s biggest failing is falling short on hardware. After seeing how the Pixel line has evolved throughout the years, it’s hard to question the validity of Google’s software-first approach to smartphone design. Features like Google Duplex, automatic call screening, the Pixel’s wonderful Voice Recorder app, and more really do make the Pixel 4 the smartest smartphone around. But that still doesn’t give Google the freedom to skimp on specs.

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Unlike practically every other flagship phone this year (iPhone 11 Pro, Galaxy S10, OnePlus 7 Pro, etc.), the Pixel 4 only gets two rear cameras: a primary wide angle cam and a telephoto camera. There’s no ultra-wide cam, which is not a forgivable offense in 2019. And with a 2,800 mAh or 3,700 mAh battery on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, Google’s 2019 flagship has smaller batteries than almost every other high-end Android phone as well. Now this wouldn’t be an issue if Google’s software could allow the phone to last longer despite having less juice in the tank, but it doesn’t, and one of the biggest shortcomings of the Pixel 4 (particularly the non-XL model) is relatively weak battery life. And with 6GB of RAM. 64GB of base storage and no microSD expandability, the Pixel 4 also has less memory and room for files than other Android flagships too.

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This makes it feel like Google is trying to cut corners on the Pixel 4’s hardware (a sentiment that holds true on previous Pixels too), with Google seemingly hoping that its software will pick up the slack. But as good as Google’s software is, it’s not that good, at least not yet, which makes the Pixel 4 feel deficient. Right now, there’s no real software replacement for an ultra-wide angle camera or bigger battery pack, and when people are out there trying to decide which phone to get, shortfalls like that hurt. What I’d love to see is Google offer the same level of hardware you get on other similarly priced phones, and then throw its bag of software tricks on top. Doesn’t that sound great?

In response to criticism like this, Google often says that it designs its phones to accommodate 85 to 90 percent of its users. But to me, this sort of feels like a flawed design principle, because when edge cases happen and a phone lets you down, that’s what people really remember. It’s like that classic poker quote from Jack King, “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” When a phone runs out of battery when you need it the most or can’t fully capture a gorgeous landscape the way you see it, those feelings of inadequacy stick.

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Recently this came to a head for me when I went on vacation to Asia, trying to decide which phone to use. I had brought both a Pixel 4 XL and a Galaxy Note 10+ with me, but in the end, the Note 10+ became my primary handset while the Pixel 4 XL mostly turned into a dedicated point-and-shoot camera for times when I wanted to use Night Sight. The Note 10+’s better battery life meant I didn’t have to worry about the phone dying when I used GPS all day to find my way from place to place, snapped hundreds of pics, and so on, and its larger on-board storage meant I could save way more movies and TV shows to my phone for offline viewing during 15-hour plane flights—when all the cloud storage in the world couldn’t help me.

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As a gadget nerd, this was kind of depressing, because some of the photos I shot with the Pixel 4 I couldn’t have captured on any other phone. Now I will admit that the Note 10+ costs slightly more than a Pixel 4 XL, but I’m certain I would have been just as happy with a Galaxy S10+, as the Note’s stylus wasn’t really a factor. Regardless, when it comes to traveling, you have to prioritize things like storage, number of cameras, and longevity before things like Night Sight and Motion Sense, the latter of which didn’t even work in Japan because Google’s Soli radars don’t have government approval there yet.

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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So despite the Pixel 4 having a unique, eye-catching design and the best software on any phone out right now, it’s hardware—or lack thereof—meant it had a hard time keeping up with its competition. And while I recognize and appreciate what Google is doing with smartphone software, the Pixel experience isn’t quite a true killer feature, at least not yet.

In 2019, the iPhone got a massive upgrade for its image processing, eliminating a lot of the lead Google had in computational photography. And elsewhere in the Android world, OnePlus’ Oxygen OS is damn good, while Samsung’s OneUI has become pretty respectable too. So until Google can transform the Pixel’s software into something that’s an unquestionably unassailable advantage, Google really needs to stop being so precious with the Pixel’s hardware.

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About the author

Sam Rutherford

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.