When we reviewed the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL last year we slated them for having terrible battery life. It was with some incredulity that we and the rest of the tech press found that Google had dropped the ball on the matter.
The Pixel should be challenging the iPhone’s dominance. It should be a strong alternative to the Galaxy S, but it doesn’t even last a full day on a charge!
But what if it really isn’t meant to be any of those things? What if the Pixel line really is just Google’s Android playground where it throws often-crazy ideas at the wall and only intermittently sees them stick?
The first Pixel’s drab design, the display issues on the Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 3’s RAM management (and the 3 XL’s huge notch) and now the Pixel 4’s dreadful battery life show there’s usually one big reason not to buy a Pixel phone, even if the allure of two years of software and three years of security updates is tempting.
In fact, it’s pretty easy to say that the best Pixel ever is the cheapest one, the Pixel 3a – it has the great software, updates and camera with none of the downsides.
Google tends to veer off in new directions with each major Pixel release rather than build an improved version of the last generation. I don’t think that’s by accident.
All of the Pixel phones follow a rough design language but really, from generation to generation, they equate to a mishmash of hardware ideas built around solid software. It is the hardware that lets down Google’s exceptionally good Android software to the point at which it’s easier to recommend the better – and cheaper – OnePlus alternative. How did that happen?
The first Google Pixel looked like a reference device on the front but had an attractive two-tone glass and metal rear. It shipped with the excellent plain Android, ran well, and had a camera far better than the iPhone 7. It was a good start.
Pixel 1's design was drab, save for the two-tone rear
But a year later the Pixel 2’s improvements were all software based, with an improved, outstanding camera that let us know that computational photography in phones was here to stay. But the small phone was squat, square and ugly with huge bezels, and the 2 XL's screen had a blue tint and ghosting issues. The entire hype of the Pixel by this point was already around its class leading camera, but this has not proven to lead to class leading sales.
Google put barely any effort into ensuring the Pixel was in the majority of operator stores, odd considering it is the company that owns and distributes Android. Did Google even want to sell any phones?
By the time the Pixel 3 appeared in late 2018 things were looking up, and the phones reviewed well despite the 3 XL’s unnecessarily enormous notch that looked like a dog’s nose. But sure enough, a crippling RAM management issue plagued the devices well into their lives where other Android manufacturers have no trouble avoiding this. Why couldn’t Google optimise its own software to run well on its own hardware?
It goes to show that just because Google owns and distributes Android, it doesn’t mean it can waltz into the hardware game with a perfect product. As the tech adage goes, hardware is hard! Google may even be cautious about treading on the toes of its OEM partners like Samsung by not turning out hardware that clearly mimics something like the Galaxy S line.
The Pixel 4, like some of its predecessors, includes gimmicks - this time, radar
Indeed, the Pixel 4’s design with the matte back, square camera module and no notch is far from where Samsung now finds itself. The '4' added radar to wave your hand at the phone to change tracks on Spotify, a gimmick if there ever was one. It also doesn’t work in some countries thanks to laws on radar, and the phone’s face unlock still isn’t built into anywhere near every app, meaning you’ll have to type your PIN in several times a day where a Face ID iPhone will let you waltz right in.
The Pixel phones feel like experiments, each one a departure from the last, adding new hardware features or design flourishes while hoping people will pay increasingly more for Google's version of Android.
Sure, the camera is great – but is a class-leading stills camera on a phone worth paying at least £669 for if the battery is down to 20% by 2pm? I think we all know the answer to that, deep down. Phones at a third of the price can do better.
Better alternatives everywhere
If you want to use iOS you have to buy an iPhone, but you’ll be pleased with what you get in 2020. If you want to use Android, the Pixel is not the default choice – Samsung is, but Google doesn’t mind if it stays that way.
I’m not for a minute suggesting Google purposefully makes its Pixel phones worse or gives them gimmicky features in order to keep Samsung popular, but these product decisions make it clear that the Pixel team is not tasked with creating a blockbuster, best-selling device. It’s within Google’s wider financial interest to keep Android OEMs competitive in the market to make sure Android stays the world’s most popular mobile OS popular.
Pixel's stock Android experience is the main reason to buy one
Google’s flagship Pixel phones are niche, expensive devices that serve as the Pixel team’s playground. Google reportedly held internal competitions to design the Pixel 4, hardly the sign of an established hardware design team in full flow.
Enthusiasts only need apply
On evidence of the phones, cracks are beginning to show. Companies like OnePlus have sprung up out of nowhere and overtaken the Pixel in less than five years.
But I don’t think we should even be looking at it like this anymore. The Pixel is a Google curiosity, an expensive, flawed line of phones with the redeeming features of superb cameras and guaranteed software updates. The Pixel 4 had enough issues for it to be considered an enthusiast’s device that you have to charge twice a day.
Maybe I’ll eat my words when the Pixel 5 is Tech Advisor phone of the year 2020. But for now, I will keep recommending the Pixel 3a if people really want a Google phone, and suggest the superior, cheaper, better made OnePlus flagship Android phones to everyone else.
You can’t hang the sales of Pixel phones on their great cameras forever. But after anything but mainstream Pixel 4, I’m not sure Google is even bothered - and it shows.