Review: Google Pixel and Android
I switched to Android a week ago. My motivation for switching was simple: when you watch an Apple keynote, and you see Tim Cook paint a vision of the future, it increasingly feels like a celebration of cosmetic design choices. “Rose Gold!” By contrast when you watch a Google keynote, much of the polish you expect from Apple is missing, but in its place it feels like Google really wants to push the bounds of what it means to have a supercomputer in your pocket at all times. “ML-powered context-aware persistent search!” I’m clearly cherry picking a bit to make this point, but the Zeitgeist feels like Apple is stagnating in innovation, and Google is riding machine learning to level up its business across all fronts. I felt like it was time to give Android a real shot, and the Google Pixel launch was the catalyst that made me jump.
One week later, I feel like I have come to some conclusions, though I’ll know even more in a month once my muscle memory has built up to all the new workflows.
The best parts of the switch to Pixel and Android:
- My Pixel has a filesystem. If I want to put media on my device, I drag files onto it, and they copy just like any rational communication of data between two computers. No iTunes! No DRM preventing me from moving data in the “wrong” direction between devices. If I want to organize my content, I can create a new folder. While this all sounds so basic and old school, I found it a refreshing change from Apple’s post-filesystem-abstraction world. I have a mobile computer now, as opposed to the iPhone’s more “media sandbox”-esque experience.
- I can change the default application for any task I want. This system in Android is called “intents” though you don’t have to know that word to use it. If you download a new browser, then next time you click on a link in any app other than your browsers (lets say your email), then Android asks you which browser you want to use to open the link, and if you’d like to set this as the default application. This works for all applications in Android, not just third-party browsers. Again, this seems so basic for anyone that has used a desktop computer, and yet you cannot change the default browser, mail app, calendar, etc on an iPhone. Instead, you occasionally get ported back to these native 1st-party applications against your will in iOS, despite what apps you most commonly use.
- Setting up the phone is really easy. Just log in to your Google account once and all your calendar, mail, contacts, etc start porting over. I’ve already made a full commitment to the Google data ecosystem in desktop land (both Work and Personal contexts), and so I found the Android on-boarding to be totally seamless and far less painful than setting up a new iOS device. I did not use the phone porting system that Google built to move over all your phone’s local data to your new phone (I really like starting from scratch without all the data cruft the accumulates over time), so I can’t comment on whether that system is any good or not. Reviewers I read seemed to like it.
- Google Photos is completely magic. You can get Google Photos on iOS, and I highly recommend you do if you’re carrying an iPhone, but it’s default experience in Android means that far more people are likely to experience just how great it is without a recommendation from a friend. The search in Google Photos always delights me with it’s deep understanding of the subject matter of all my photos, and it’s blazing fast in both searching and scanning contexts. Apple would be best served by shipping all iOS devices with Google Photos and Google Maps preinstalled; they’re just better it’s not clear to me how Apple will be able to catch up. The advantages are data-powered (just like Web Search), and you don’t see Apple trying to build its own search engine.
- The fingerprint scanner placement in the upper-backside of the device is better than iOS, and it unlocks the phone lightning quick. Android also has some intelligence that merges bluetooth devices with the phone unlocking process that will keep my phone unlock while I’m in the car driving. Sounds small, but it’s delightfully clever.
- The Google Assistant is great. Of the voice interfaces I’ve used, I’d rank them Google Assistant > Alexa > Siri. Though the delta between Assistant and Alexa is much smaller than the delta between Alexa and Siri. The feature that puts Assistant over the top for me is the persistent knowledge of context. You can ask follow-up questions more intuitively. I don’t use it much, but am happily surprised when it happens.
- The notifications workflow on Android is better than iOS. If you receive a notification you find annoying, you can do a small swipe to expose the notification settings for that app and modify its permissions directly in context. For the first three days of being on Android, I found the notifications overly chatty due to too many thirsty consumer apps competing for my attention. After reining in a couple offending apps using this in-line system of controlling notifications, I’ve arrived at a nice balance. You can take actions on notifications directly on the lock screen or in the tray (which you can do on iOS too, but not as intuitively). The notifications’ tiny icons at the top of the screen are useful for managing my constant-partial attention (without taking any action, I know the mini “F” icon is something I can ignore, where as a mini “Messenger” icon is worth reviewing now).
- Using the provided USB-C charger is pretty magic. My phone charges nearly completely in an hour! I can connect the phone to a computer USB port to charge too, but on older computers, the phone will notify me that its charging in “slow mode” vs “fast mode.”
- Home screen widgets are a better experience. I only use a weather widget right now, but it saves me one or two taps every day.
Some features of both phones and operating systems are at parity. For example, I can’t really tell the difference between the cameras. On both the Pixel and the iPhone 7, they are excellent, and are superior to my digital camera for most use cases, expect the moments I want significant zooming. The screen quality/visual-fidelity seems comparable to me too. Both devices are encrypted by default, which is great.
All that said, Android does have its rough edges. For example:
- The biggest issue that is Google’s fault (as opposed to the true biggest issue that isn’t Google’s fault at the bottom of this post) is the third party app quality. 40% of the third party apps I use are at parity with their iOS equivalents (like say Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Slack, some games…). But 60% of apps feels like a muddy facsimile of their iOS cousins. For example, Goodreads is particularly underwhelming; it feels like they just put their mobile website in an Android app wrapper. All the airlines various applications are pretty terrible by contrast.
- Speaking of airlines, Apple’s Wallet (nee Passbook) experience is much better than Android’s lack of an equivalent. In theory, Google Now is supposed to understand I have a flight upcoming and present me with my boarding pass. None of this works for me for some reason. I can’t find a way to get my boarding passes accessible from my lock screen, all of which “just works” in iOS land. I’m sure there is some component of “user error” involved here, but my one-week-in conclusion right now is that an iPhone is a better device for heavy travelers, unless I can resolve this issue.
- Battery life is only “OK,” and knowing how batteries degrade over time, I’m concerned it will be a bigger issue in the future. I’ve never had my phone die on me yet, despite regular heavy usage (especially in the first two days when I was obsessing over customizing everything). But I’m reliably in single-digit battery remaining at the end of each day, and I set my batter saving mode kick in below 5%. I have a regular Pixel, not a Pixel XL. Reviewers have reported mediocre battery life for my device, and a better experience with the XL.
- I loved being able to Tap The Time in any app to instantly scroll up to the top of the page I was viewing. I used this on webpages, in emails, on Twitter, etc… This doesn’t work in Android. There is a third-party app you can download from the store to turn this functionality on (which, by the way, is a pro for Android… the level of customization that apps can do to the operating system is pretty darn cool), by this third-party app doesn’t work that way I’d ideally like. This should just work well natively, but it doesn’t… I’m guessing because Google thinks it would confuse users in relation to how the notification tray functionality works.
- I miss dragging addresses between the various To, CC, and BCC fields inside the email app. Google’s default mail app on the Pixel is Gmail, and the Gmail app can’t do this on iOS or Android. Instead, you have to retype out each address in each field to move them around. This just seems like an inferior design choice to me.
- If you like being able to walk into the Apple Store to pick up accessories or resolve issues, Google doesn’t have a solution with the Pixel. I have found that the Apple Store customer experience has gone significantly downhill as they have scaled in their growth over time. But the convenience of a store around the corner is nice nonetheless, and I wish I didn’t have to give it up.
- I have yet to find perfect comfort with a browser. I’ve downloaded all the most popular ones from the store. None of them all the perfect Goldilocks “just right,” including Google’s default of Chrome.
Lastly, the biggest “Con” in the switch is Apple’s fault more than it is Android’s fault (which is why its visually separated out from the list above), and yet, it’s probably the biggest pain point worth noting: iMessage. iMessage is one holy hell of a roach motel. I am not surprised to learn that it has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit. I cannot delete my iMessage account, period. Why NOT? All the people I text with continue to have their phones’ default action attempt to send me messages via iMessage’s phone-number-based-username as opposed to falling back to text messaging gracefully. I took all the precautionary steps that blog posts recommend before switching, knowing that a number of my geek friends that moved from iOS -> Android hit this same problem. And despite being what I thought was diligent in turning off iMessage on all my various Apple devices, removing my IDs (phone numbers and email addresses) from my iMessage settings pane, and lastly deregistering my phone number from iMessage via Apple’s website, I cannot affect my friends’ devices into sending me text messages instead of iMessages by default. It’s really a terrible experience, one that Apple has already been sued for, and it is still not resolved. If I were to ever switch back to iOS in the future, I would not turn on iMessage on that device.
If you’re thinking about making the jump to Android, I hope this hit list of experiences helps you in your decision. This review was much more personal to my experience than an attempt to be objective to a typical use case so the usual YMMV caveat is important.
Update: My friend Whitney McNamara asked me a good question on Twitter. If you’re already on Android and just want to know if the Pixel hardware is a good choice, here’s my feedback: it’s an iPhone with a better thumbprint placement and a silly big bottom bezel.