I’ve used an iPhone 7 for three years. It’s been a good gadget for me most of the time, but with growing frustrations. Before the 7 I had the iPhone 6, the 5, the 4 and the original. I’ve always been a fan of Apple’s first-class industrial design, and of their entire innovative, minimalist philosophy. Ten years ago, no one could match them. And even before that, their computers suited my sensibilities so much more than everything else, which just seemed lame and clunky.
The tech marketplace has changed a lot in the last decade. The Apple revolution created a new normal, where suddenly more companies prioritized design and aesthetics. Innovation also seemed contagious. It’s been kind of amazing for us consumers, but for Apple, it means they aren’t alone anymore in terms of cutting edge design. Maybe they’ve actually fallen behind. Their last great laptop was in 2015, before they killed off magsafe and all ports and forced a bad keyboard on everybody. And the iPhone X didn’t inspire me at all. The notch was ugly and Face ID seemed unnecessary. I decided to stay with my 7 until something more interesting came along. That “something more interesting” turned out to be a Pixel 3.
I’ve been super frustrated with Apple over the last few years, and finally got the courage to try and wiggle out of the ecosystem. What I’ve discovered in my research is that there are so many other possibilities. Android and Windows never interested me before, but maybe they could actually solve some of my workflow issues that aggravate me with Apple. Maybe other companies make hardware as good, if not better: more RAM, faster processors, smarter camera sensor technology. I think the final straw came when I was re-arranging app icons on the iPhone home screen: they jiggled, but I couldn’t move them in and out of folders easily. It was buggy. I really wanted to anchor them to the bottom, near my thumb. But no: Apple insists you start in the top left corner for some reason, in a very regimented grid. Surely there’s another way…
I decided to buy a Pixel 3 in August 2019, amid lackluster iPhone 11 leaks. 2020: that’s the year Apple will redesign the iPhone to suit me. In the meantime, maybe I could try out something different. I actually thought I’d get the Pixel 3a for 400; that way, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to upgrade again next year, if need be. Then I found a deal: the flagship model for 500. Seemed worthwhile for faster processing, better build and waterproofing. Obviously I was excited about the camera, in any case.
I know there are better smartphone cameras out there, technically speaking, but something about the Pixel has always enticed me. I suppose I just really admire what Google does with computational photography. I’m actually a photographer, and carry around a dedicated interchangeable lens mirrorless camera most of the time. But for the occasions when I’m out with friends, unencumbered but for my smartphone, I definitely want to take nice pictures. And Night Sight really sold me.
There’s a lot to love about the Pixel. I’m impressed by the industrial design. It’s a beautiful piece of consumer tech - I love the matte finish and back fingerprint reader, the thinness and the overall feel. It’s fashionable, fits my minimalist black-and-white wardrobe. The “just black” version strikes me as a something Steve Jobs would admire: a piece of daily tech that matches the lifestyle of style-conscious people.
The interface is similarly well-designed. The launch screen is customizable, to say the least. It blows away a lifetime iPhone user like me. I can make the whole face an opaque OLED black, add just a few favorite apps to the bottom, add an invisible search bar above that, a time/date widget at the top. I swipe up and ALL of my other apps are there, alphabetized, and I can hide the ones I don’t like. I can add screens to the right, organize things any way I like, widgets for calendar or anything else, change the skins of apps, determine the number of rows and columns, the size, literally take over the UI design. This is what I’ve been dreaming of doing. I can even install a myriad of other launchers, totally customize my smartphone experience. Finally.
But the real joy of the Pixel 3 is the camera. It’s amazing. Compared to the iPhone 7, it’s not even fair. Seriously. Obviously the 7 is an older product: a more fair comparison would be with the iPhone XS. But still, photos at night are unrivaled. I have been looking for a solution to shooting images at night without always carrying around my camera, and this is it.
The Pixel 3 is an exciting new gadget I own. Of course, any new product is pretty exciting, so let’s put things in perspective. My timing is odd, to say the least. This phone came out almost a full year ago, and the Pixel 4 is set to launch in just another six weeks or so. I’ve suffered with the iPhone 7’s weak camera, small LCD screen and glitchy features for longer than necessary. There was a reason for that: I don’t believe in always getting the latest gadget, constantly spending money on “things I don’t need”. My political self takes pride in not buying something, and for holding onto things as long as possible. Better for the environment, for consumerist society, etc. But I’ll be the first to admit: I actually need a smartphone, and I need it to be good. I won’t even say it’s for work. It’s simply a modern necessity. It’s okay to prioritize the number one “thing” in your life. What’s more important than a smartphone, really?
I own a “real” camera. I take pictures all the time with it. So why is it important that I have a good smartphone camera as well? To be honest, a photo-based lifestyle has spoiled me. I like the convenience and fun of quick online sharing. I’m just too accustomed to decent images, and I simply find it embarrassing to capture life with something as bad as the iPhone 7. It seemed so good in 2016, but only compared to other smartphones. Compared to a camera with a decent sensor in it, it’s always looked pretty bad in unfavorable conditions. And with modern computing abilities, there’s not much reason to remain limited by outdated technologies.
There are aesthetic values to inferior tech: lack of stabilization can lead to happy accidents. Digital noise can be a countercultural aesthetic choice. But generally speaking, we want the best available, with reasonable trade-off to value and convenience.
So I live in this space of conflict. I want new, great things, but I don’t want to buy them mindlessly like some shopping zombie. I want to create meaningful content with quality tools, but I want the freedom for those creations to be frivolous. I want to maximize the utility of every purchase I make, squeeze out every productive bit from everything I own, and to have fully experienced it: an old t-shirt, a vintage lamp, an Ikea table before upgrading. So when is the right time to do that? Shouldn’t I wait for 2019 flagship devices, and commit to one of those for a bit, even if I don’t entirely agree with certain design choices?
For me, I’ve decided it’s been long enough with the iPhone 7. Your mileage certainly varies. I can imagine holding onto it if I had a different set of priorities. My compromise is the Pixel 3 because it satisfies a number of cravings: it’s not too much money, for one, and as such, feels like less of a serious commitment. It’s not Apple, and I’ve been considering a change for a while now. Most of us Apple users are so stuck in its product line, it actually feels daring and experimental to get an Android phone. Rebellious, even, and that’s thrilling. It reminds me that I’m not just a pawn in Apple’s grand scheme. And of course, I genuinely covet the Pixel’s feature set. I have been yearning for these things. And ultimately, money is for spending. We don’t need to justify our purchases so much, do we? We need to enjoy them, and work them well into our life experiences.