tecosystems

Back to Android: The Google Pixel Review

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My decision to switch to the Google Pixel from an iPhone 6S began the day that Apple announced that they were eliminating the headphone jack on the 7. While I could reasonably expect another solid year of service at least from my 6S – particularly since Apple had swapped my old one for a brand new replacement due to a battery issue – the 6S was also more valuable from a resale perspective today than it would be a year from now. As it indeed it proved to be, fetching close to $500 on Swappa – a pretty simple way to resell your electronics, incidentally.

It is likely that headphone jacks are going away for phones moving forward, but the 7’s decision was a non-starter for me for two reasons. First, I think we’re a year or two too early for wireless alternatives like the Airpods to be truly regarded as a replacement. If you can’t get through an 8 hour workday or 6 hour transcontinental flight without recharging, that’s not viable for my usage at least, though many of my friends disagree. I also happen to be a big fan of my Bose 20‘s, and dealing with a dongle every time I use my headphones – which is a few times per day, every day – was not in the cards. But assuming you’re going to eliminate the port, Lightning over USB-C was a questionable decision from my perspective, and I’m not the only one who’s skeptical. But more on USB-C later.

The net of the September iPhone 7 announcement then was that most of the Apple users I know bought one without a second thought, but I didn’t like the writing on the wall and jumped back to Android.

As far as which Android device, that wasn’t terribly complicated. Having seen the fruits of their efforts, I’ve never been interested in hardware manufacturers’ attempts to outperform Google on the software front. When I’ve been on Android, therefore, I’ve carried either Nexus devices or Motorola flavors with a vanilla, unspoiled Android base. As soon as I knew I was going back to Android, defaulting to a Pixel was essentially inevitable.

So how is the Pixel?

The tl;dr

It’s a nice phone, one that I’m comfortable recommending. I don’t miss my iPhone, though you might.

Android

At this point, how you feel about Android probably depends on the smartphone platform you’re most used to – Baby Duck Syndrome, in other words. iOS is more elegant in some areas, but Android is on par in my view whether we’re talking aesthetics or usability. It even has some advantages; I vastly prefer Android’s notification system, for example. As someone who’s spent a lot of time on both platforms, I’m comfortable with either, but probably have a slight preference for Android because of the aforementioned notifications and the number of times I use those per day. Having a “Back” button is also nice.

The application ecosystem is mostly evened out these days as well. There isn’t anything I used in my time on iOS I haven’t been able to replicate on Android with the exception of Tweetbot. Fenix is a fine Android Twitter client, and vastly better than the official Twitter client for Android which is a hot mess, but it’s no Tweetbot. My Twitter experience on mobile then has taken a slight hit so that I don’t need to deal with a dongle every day.

This is true for me, however, because I’m careful to rely only on applications that aren’t platform specific. My music, for example, wasn’t managed by the iOS-only iTunes but Google Music, which is available on both Android and iOS. Same with podcasts (Pocketcasts, not iTunes), file storage (Dropbox not iCloud), books (Kindle not iBooks). Basically, if using something ties me to a given platform, I’m out. The exception was iMessage, but I’ll get to that.

The net is that if you’re used to using Android, the new flavor is solid. If you’re coming from iOS, it’ll be harder to use and you might prefer iOS conventions versus their Android alternatives, but it’s not systemically worse.

Camera

Most of the tests I’ve seen say that with the exception of portraits where the iPhone 7’s double lens produce a legitimate bokeh affect, the Pixel’s camera is roughly as good as the iPhone 7’s. I’m not a photographer so I can’t say one way or another, but I have not noticed any dropoff in going from iPhone to Pixel. For my usage, then, the camera is fine.

Battery

One of the intial reviews of the Pixel from the Verge claimed that the Pixel was outperforming the iPhone in terms of battery life, “In my experience, the Pixels are lasting a couple of hours longer than comparably sized iPhones or Nexuses.” The bad news is that relative to my iPhone, I have not noticed the Pixel outperforming the iPhone. The good news is that neither is the Pixel performing worse than my last iPhone. With both devices, during a normal workday, I can get to late evening typically with somewhere between 25-35% charge remaining. To be fair, though, the reviewer did note that he was referring to the XL, while I got the regular sized Pixel.

In other words, if you’re getting the smaller model as I did, expect something similar to what you get from an iPhone. That may seem like faint praise, but Apple is the best in the industry at extracting battery life, at least outside of their laptops, so this is a huge improvement for Android devices.

One nice thing that’s new is that if you’re charging off something with sufficient juice, the battery charges quickly. I’ve gone from 10-20% to a full charge in around an hour, and even 15 minutes will give get me to 60-70%.

Fingerprint Reader

The two things to care about with fingerprint readers: placement and speed. The Pixel places the reader on the back of the device, which I thought would be more unpleasant than it actually has been. I still prefer the iPhone style front placement, however. As for speed, I’ve never noticed it being slow. It just works, as it’s supposed to.

iCloud / iMessage

I don’t use iCloud for reasons cited above, so losing iCloud in the transition was not disruptive. Frankly, Apple’s repeated insistence on trying to get me to use iCloud for everything on iOS was irritating; not having to repeatedly decline to activate it is something I don’t miss.

As mentioned above, I don’t use single-platform services because I don’t feel I’ll be able to predict which hardware platform I’ll be using at any given point in time. I didn’t expect to switch to iOS because Android phones got too large, for example, nor did I expect to switch back to Android because the headphone jack was removed. The one exception to this rule on iOS was iMessage, but I only relented on that after Apple (finally) got around to providing a way to get your number deregistered. Which works, incidentally, as I’ve had no issues getting or receiving texts since leaving iOS. A few years ago, this would have been a big deal, but at this point the only people I text with regularly are my best friend, my brother and my parents – for whom iMessage never really added anything that I’m missing. The only difference on their end is that I’m now a green bubble, but thankfully they still text me anyway. Everyone else has shifted onto some sort of messaging platform, Slack most commonly.

Losing iMessage then, particularly since I can still text via my desktop via MightyText, isn’t an issue for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Reader Question: How do I deal with my pics, tunes, etc. if I’m currently in the Apple ecosystem?

On a related note comes this question from a reader. What if your pictures are in iCloud, your music in iTunes, etc? The first answer is that it depends on whether the asset in question is protected with DRM. Movies and TV, for example, are inextricably tied to iOS as far as I’m aware. So if you need those, you’re not switching.

Music is easier, as long as it’s been purchased DRM-free or if you’ve unlocked it with iTunes. There are any number of homes for your media, but I’ll just cover what I use which is Google Music and Google Photos.

Google Music will ingest the unprotected AAC format Apple uses, as well as MP3, FLAC and a number of other types. The upload client is here. You can then play your music via Android, iOS or a browser. And while I don’t love the Google Music client, I find it to be less awful than iTunes. As a side note, if your music is already up in the cloud somewhere you can dramatically lower your upload time for thousands of tracks: here’s how I did that.

For photos, it should be pretty simple. Wherever your photos reside, simply upload them to Google Photos – here’s the desktop version and the iOS app. Once they’re uploaded, some of the features of Photos are pretty exceptional: face detection, auto-panorama, auto-animation and so on.

If anyone has alternative recommendations, I’m sure those would be useful as well so please share them in the comments.

Physical Design

Some of the original reviews of the Pixel claimed that apart from an uninspiring design, the actual construction of the device was superior to the iPhone. It’s not. The iPhone feels like a more tightly manufactured device to me, not that that matters much as far as I’m concerned. Nor does the design, which pretty much everyone considers “meh.” As aesthetically attractive and well built as an iPhone was, both of those were rendered irrelevant as soon as I slapped on a case. Same with the Pixel. It may not be a match for the iPhone in terms of its design, but who can tell when they’re both garbed up in a case.

The one thing that does bug me about the design is the size. If you’ve read any of my former reviews, you’ll note that I hate large phones – that was why I was on iOS, in fact. The regular Pixel is around five millimeters taller than a 6S, which is fine, but it’s about 2 mm wider and 1.5 mm deeper, which is less fine. I will never understand the trend towards ever larger phones, but the smaller of the Pixels is probably as large as I can tolerate. It’s workable, but I wish it were the size of the 6S, or better yet the original Moto X.

USB-C

The emerging new standard for power and data transmission, along with everything else you could want, USB-C has been taking heavy fire of late. First, because Apple users who preferred MagSafe or differentiated ports are unhappy about their new USB-C only future. Then there’s the fact that no one yet has all of the dongles or connectors they’re going to need, and to add insult to injury, can’t get them. This is a direct quote from a private Slack room I’m a part of “every usb-c cable or device I want to buy is out of stock.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the possibility that if you buy the wrong USB-C cables, they’ll cook your device.

And no, before you ask, I’m not even going to get into Apple’s bizarre USB-C vs Thunderbolt port/cable confusion. If you’re trying to understand which is a Thunderbolt port and which is a USB-C and which version of that spec, may God help you, because he’s the only one that can.

Anyway, the net is that USB-C has, somewhat surprisingly, accumulated a lot of negative baggage in a short span of time. But I’m here to tell you that USB-C is actually great. Here’s why.

  1. It’s Symmetrical:
    The old USB-A standard was famously problematic because of its asymmetry: when Heisenberg gets invoked about the plugging in of your cable, your design has issues. USB-C by contrast is painless – upside or down, it will just work.
  2. Having the Same Port on Your Phone and Computer is Awesome:
    Given that I carry the 12″ MacBook which has but the single USB-C port, my phone and my laptop for the first time charge the same way. When I go to a conference then, I can simply throw my MacBook brick and cable in the bag. Then, during the day, I just swap the cable between whichever needs a charge. No need for a second cable and worse, second brick. I can also plug them into each other sans dongle. It still amazes me that Apple, of all companies, is shipping laptops and phones that can’t be plugged in to one another.
  3. You Don’t Have to Buy From Apple:
    While Apple has temporarily reduced its prices on USB-C cables and dongles in attempt to put out some of the brushfires they created, their regular USB-C component pricing is like their non-USB-C component pricing, which is to say expensive. Because USB-C is an open standard, I can and have gotten USB-C cables, bricks and dongles from manufacturers other than Apple, saving significant amounts of money in the process. But what about those bad USB-C cables that will fry your machine?
  4. The USB-C Community Has Your Back:
    On the one hand, I do remember the days were I could hop on Monoprice and buy a bunch of micro-USB cables for $0.40 a pop. But for those wondering where to start with buying USB-C cables that are known safe, I suggest you start here. They’ll give you not only ratings and descriptions of what to buy, but pricing information, speed ratings, USB revision info (if you care), and in the case of chargers, which devices it will and won’t charge.
  5. It’s Not Vendor Specific:
    Traveling but forgot your charger? If you had a Mac, it used to mean that you’d need to find someone with a Mac charger – and more specifically, the right generation of MagSafe. Moving forward, you could potentially plug in to chargers from Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP or Lenovo. Even phone chargers will work in some cases, depending on how much juice they have.

The Assistant

Many people argued that the real reason to get the Pixel was the Google Assistant, which is Google’s equivalent of Alexa or Siri. In practice, I use this, but not a ton yet. On my phone, at least – I have a Home device at the office which I use frequently. Basically, I’ll leverage the Assistant when my hands are full: it converts measurements for me when my hands are coated with varnish, for example, or will set an alarm for me if I’m in bed and can’t reach my phone. Part of the limited utility for me is the Assistant itself, but part of it is user based as well: I’m used to looking up the weather via the Wunderground app, so while it’s probably faster to ask the assistant than it is to unlock the phone, swipe to the app and pull it up, by the time I remember that I’m halfway through the latter process.

In short, for me, the Assistant is useful, and probably will become more so, but is not the reason to buy this phone.

Bonus Review: Project Fi

After getting the Pixel, one the things I did that I didn’t expect to was look hard at Project Fi. Project Fi, for those unfamiliar with it, is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) run by Google. Basically it’s a wireless carrier that is made up of other wireless carriers; Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular specifically, in the case of Project Fi. The phone automatically determines the strongest network available and routes you through it, so from a customer experience it shouldn’t be any different than a standard carrier.

Until recently, Fi wouldn’t have been viable in Maine given that their primary carriers were Sprint and T-Mobile whose coverage up here ranges from poor to non-existent outside of the interstate corridors and major cities. After learning that they’d added US Cellular to the mix, however, I started to more actively research it because as much as US Cellular is a regional carrier, their coverage in Maine – particularly some rural areas – can be better than even AT&T or Verizon.

The first thing I did was look at my AT&T bill, and what I discovered was interesting. First, I was paying substantially more for my grandfathered “unlimited” data plan. Second, I didn’t actually need unlimited data. My average over an eighteen month period, in fact, was under 4 GB. Which made things easier, because “losing my unlimited data” plan was no longer a blocker in switching to another carrier: one way or another, it was going.

Second, I ordered a Project Fi SIM in November and used the service for a few months while I evaluated it. It was observably worse in certain areas: fine along the interstate running from Portland out to Freeport, for example, but spotty along the ME-88 route between them that I favor. For the most part, however, I didn’t notice much difference. It’s fine at home and at the office, and it was not noticeably poorer when traveling to Las Vegas through JFK and BOS late in the year.

Fi also promises painless data roaming in 140+ countries, which is convenient. I don’t travel internationally all that much, particularly now that we have a little one at home, but getting off the plane at Heathrow for Monki Gras and not having to buy a data SIM from a vending machine for 20 pounds would be nice.

And so I killed my AT&T account, which I’ve had dating back to the original iPhone, and cut my number over to Project Fi. Which, conveniently, both went off without a hitch and didn’t require me calling anyone.

There are enough issues with Fi’s coverage around here that it’s certainly possible that this is a limited experiment, and that I’ll be back on AT&T within six months. It’s also possible that Fi will go the way of so many Google services, and be neglected or killed as a non-core business. But should that occur, I can simply hop back to one of the existing carriers, and until then I’ll be giving Fi a legitimate shot.

2 comments

  1. I assume you’re also using Wifi calling with Fi? That’s been seemless/flawless for me.

    1. @Mike Dolan: TBH, I’m not even sure. I had issues with it not activating initially, had to turn Hangouts on and off, then made some test calls that were seamless, but I don’t actually know whether the bulk of my calls from home are or are not.

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