Well, after much excitement about owning a Pixel smartphone, I have alas returned it.
The main reason is that it wasn't working properly. Maybe it was a lemon, just a randomly malfunctioning product. Or maybe, because I bought it in the US but used it in Europe, something was incompatible with the antennas. Whatever the reason, I wasn't getting any signal in my Berlin neighborhood, and the data was spotty and unreliable. I couldn't sign in to some apps and couldn't make calls. So I returned it to Amazon, and I'm back to using my iPhone 7.
I'm wondering now: if data and reception weren't such problems, would I have been happy with the Pixel 3? If I had been able to solve these issues, how long would I have kept it? For the record, I did try to fix it, and my inability to find adequate help confirmed by decision. (There's no Google store in Berlin, for instance, and Vodafone was absolutely useless.) But let me recap my experience, revisiting why I bought a Pixel in the first place, and how it was insufficient.
Most superficially, I have grown bored with Apple design, especially my current model. It's ironic, because their revolutionary products during my adolescence (the iMac, the iPod, the first iPhone) are what made me such a devout user in the first place. My favorite product ever is the 2013-2015 MacBook Pro with retina display. I still use this. My second favorite product was probably the iPhone 5 (and 5S, and SE, and to a lesser extent, the 4). Their boxy, hard glass edges were manufactured just right, creating a very elegant, serious object. Small, simple, classy - those were gorgeous gadgets. The redesigned, rounded chassis of the iPhone 6 was the thinnest ever, and the 7 improved on that with a matte black option that erased the antenna bands.
Since 2016, Apple has stalled. (We'll ignore all the controversy and annoyances of their laptops beginning that year.) The iPhone 8 changed nothing from the 7 except a more delicate glass back, and the strange, inferior "space grey" color option. Why not black?? The iPhone X was their revolutionary product, but I for one wasn't eager to lose touchID in favor of faceID, and the notch looked like an abomination. Since then, Apple has stayed committed to its new normal, while Samsung, Huawei, 1+ and Google have actually dared to actually "think different". Body styles have altered, fingerprint readers moved to the back, notches diminished or replaced, extra camera lenses in the front as well as back, and on and on.
The Pixel 3 stands out as the most attractive pocket computer since the iPhone SE, in my opinion. The beautiful OLED screen features true, deep blacks (pixels are actually turned off), with an always-on display for the clock. That’s standard for many Android devices. The body is partly matted glass, with a dual look on the back that's quite elegant. It's a great size, akin I suppose to the iPhone XS. Quite simply: I am happy to carry around a Pixel product. But this isn’t a big deal. The point is that Apple isn’t alone in great product design.
UX / UI
The truly daring redesigns, though, come in the software. The iOS icons are my number one complaint as an Apple person. I hate that I'm stuck with the app grid anchored to the top left corner. It makes zero sense to demand users reach all the way up the screen to access these apps. I never want any interface buttons up there, let alone applications.
With Android, the only items in the top half of my phone were things I never clicked on: time, date, weather, maybe notifications. Everything I need to access in the phone is accessible where my thumb naturally rests. Beyond the dock, I can add another row or two of apps just above it. I can also add widgets. I can place anything anywhere I like. This is easily the number one advantage of owning anything besides an iPhone. And the app drawer continues this philosophy. Instead of opening folders, which are stuck in a 3x3 grid, I can scroll through all my apps, which are conveniently alphabetized. They're then hidden when I don't need to see them.
I can download different "launchers" too, which lets Android users customize their UI to their heart's content. I made my icons look like iOS versions, so my Google Play store had an App Store skin. I can design pages however I wish, put a full calendar on display, change its size, add numerous weather widgets. The choices with Android are dizzying. And yet, with Google's "stock Android" experience, it's as streamlined and clean as Apple's, without all of Samsung's redundant apps. No clutter, no junk. Delete what you don't like, hide it, replace it.
The user experience and user interface customizability was something I loved about briefly owning a Pixel. But it wasn't perfect. I couldn't do *everything* I wanted. I couldn't redesign the camera app exactly as desired, put the shortcuts and options where I wanted them. I couldn't design every icon to any color I wished, or change every font, line spacing and kerning. It didn't let me become a UX designer or software developer, after all, but it did let me do a lot more than Apple. For that, I was grateful.
So as a lifelong Apple user, of course I've been frustrated here and there with the Apple ecosystem, beyond the iOS layout. Technical difficulties have plagued me. I've had maybe two dozen support cases over the years, seriously, and many phones replaced. Underdeveloped jumps in technology (the cloud!) have led to major workflow disruptions and even lost data. It's easy to wonder if other systems have the same problems, or are perhaps better than Apple at addressing them. Bottom line: I've been curious about what else is out there. I'm an Apple fan and general believer, but not a fanboy with insurmountable dedication. Android is the obvious alternative to iOS, and Google is my preferred brand there, despite its own evil empire practices (mostly about privacy).
It turns out that I was very uncomfortable during my month outside the Apple ecosystem. I never fully left, though, since my laptop remained on MacOS, and I still had my iPhone 7, which, despite its worse screen and many software hiccups, I kept using for some things. (Instagram runs smoother on iOS, for instance.) And combining these products led to some interesting discoveries. I suppose the main points are the following: photos, calendar, notes, documents, messages.
Messages weren't too bad. Living in Europe, I mostly use WhatsApp anyway, and the desktop version continued to work for me. I did lose some conversations during this switch, but no big deal. Losing iMessage was a little tricky. My few conversations switched from blue bubbles to a green ones; this isn't as embarrassing if you're outside the US. Still, I do wish I could continue to use iMessage, even if using Android. Alternatively, I wish I could run iOS on an Android device.
I actually use Google Docs already, so managing documents wasn’t too bad. The only thing I missed here was AirDrop, which is an awesome Apple feature. I wanted to airdrop some documents from my phone to my laptop, and vice versa, but using Google Docs instead worked out ok. I could get used to that. Between other friends and colleagues, it was a bit more difficult, but not a dealbreaker.
Notes was very tricky at first. I use Apple Notes all the time, every day. At first I was upset to not have Notes on the Pixel, but then I downloaded Evernote for Android and Mac, and now I'm using that instead. It's actually better! I like using tables, inserting and resizing images, organizing things in Evernote more than in Apple Notes, so this was an interesting, beneficial discovery. Hopefully Evernote doesn’t bug me too often about upgrading to their premium account.
Calendar is more of a problem. Google and Apple directly compete here, and I haven't found a viable alternative that works on both platforms. It's a shame, because I'm actually quite frustrated with Apple, since I can't override its timezone behavior. (My events in New York show up 6-7 hours late in my calendar, as if I was eating dinner in NYC at 3am. All because I’m looking at the calendar in Europe. Stupid.) Google has the same problem, though, so it's not an ideal alternative. I like using a desktop app for my calendar, so opening a web browser isn't something I'm keen on doing, and Google necessitates that. I ended up using two calendars, which was annoying, obviously. And now I have duplicates in my Mac calendar. AI needs to recognize these duplicates and make better sense of them.
Photos are by far the most difficult thing, and I say this as a user of stand-alone, professional photo applications. The Apple Photos program is far from perfect, but I do use it. I have plenty of complaints, but it’s still a great way to quickly and conveniently gather all my pictures in one chronological place. Google does the same thing (but reversed, newest on top, oldest on bottom), but Google has no desktop application. Why not? It's also not possible (apparently) to plug in a Pixel to a MacBook and drag off the images. I ended up downloading all my Pixel shots from the web and adding them to my iCloud library. Ridiculous, right? And should I do the reverse as well, from Apple to Google’s cloud? Google's storage plan might be better than Apple's - it's hard to say. They’re basically equivalent. You definitely have less privacy with it, and that matters a bit to me.
Photo library management aside, photography is the number one reason I got a Pixel phone. As a photographer, I've felt too limited by the iPhone 7. Every incremental iPhone upgrade since 2016 has felt too small, not quite worth a new device. I have a "real" camera anyway, so it wasn't hurting my proper work. But of course, as a lover of photos, I deeply desire the best possible camera in my pocket, always on my person.
Google has made the most advancements in the field of computational photography. This is a term that sums up how a tiny smartphone sensor can even compete with a proper CMOS sensor from the makers of "real" cameras (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji). It's mostly done through image stacking, in which the electronic shutter of a smartphone is always on, always recording, and captures dozens of images per second (like video), combing and combining them for the best possible result. Night photography especially has seen huge advances in the last year, pulling out light where there seemingly isn’t any, without burdening the tiny photo pixels on the tiny sensor. The pictures made my the Pixel 3 are unrivaled by anything the iPhone XS could accomplish.
A big reason Apple has been slower in this field is because they've been committed to the user experience of seeing the image on the screen before snapping. Android manufacturers care less about this. The display shows one thing, you click, and your image looks different. Better, but different. Apple wants it to look the same. That means more processing power to display the true capture in real time. Not easy.
I've already covered my love for the Pixel camera, and it's not even the best one out there, technically. (Huawei and Samsung feature more lenses, more built-in abilities, more focal range, if less able computation.) But the Pixel has been better than anything Apple has done... until now. It's September 2019, and the iPhone 11 Pro has been released. With it, Apple finally matches the power of the Pixel series, and even outdoes it. The Pixel 4 will come out in October, and can leapfrog the iPhone 11. Meanwhile, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro and Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ are even better, but I'm not interested in those products.
Modern smartphones are miracles of science, and create so many opportunities we lacked a decade ago. But it comes down to how you use it, and what you use it for. Given the competing ecosystems, I now better understand what I need my smartphone to do. It must simplify various things in my life, provide a tolerable, multifaceted experience. Let me explain this by focusing a little more on the camera, and also on perhaps my second most-used app: the map.
Google Maps continues its superiority over Apple. The funny thing about the Pixel was that it integrated itself into my life more overtly. Whenever I visited a place, my phone would notify me: How was the Louvre? I was prompted to leave a review of each and every place I went. Sometimes I would, which gave me some fake internet points for participation. I'd get notified that my review was helpful. The phone knew more and more about me. Is that a good thing? I'm not sure it's as bad as some dystopian sci-fi interpretation, but it's slightly disconcerting. I did like leaving some reviews, and I won't do it nearly as often now that I'm not prompted to. Google was solving a problem I didn't really have in the first place.
Pixel’s camera app, as good as it is, actually performed worse for me. There's one key feature on the iPhone that makes it more usable, and that's the swipe-to-open gesture. From the raise-to-wake screen, if you move your thumb left on an iPhone, the camera opens. This is magnificent. The quickest way to open the camera on the Pixel is to double-tap the power button. You have to do that quickly, and of course there's resistance. This is vastly inferior for me. It takes more time to place your thumb on that little button and press hard, twice, than to swipe anywhere at any intensity. There's also the issue of orientation - more often than not, I'd take the Pixel out of my pocket upside down. This further slowed me down. I missed more than a few snapshots because of these things.
These might be minor points, but they accumulate and create an overall sense of usability. I can say, despite my frustrations with Apple, that it is actually the best ecosystem and overall design, still. For me. Apple makes sacrifices here and there, revolutionizes less, follows more, and has the highest walls around its hardware-software integration - the ecosystem. But overall, it’s the best series of quality and trade-offs.
The iPhone 11 has just been released. It's added the number one feature I'm interested in: night mode, and it integrates it into the photo experience more seamlessly (automatically kicking in when needed, not a special selection). Taking pictures in very low light is vital to me because that nice dinner and the bar afterwards are exactly where I won't have my "real" camera with me. That's when I want to make casual pictures that still look good. And finally, in 2019, the iPhone can do it. It's also added an ultra-wide angle, which can be very handy, along with wide, better quality selfies. The camera system, simply put, appears to be the best of any smartphone, especially when factoring in the class-leading video features, with great image stabilization.
Upgrading from the 7 will feel just as amazing as the Pixel felt. More so, since the A13 processor is even faster, and the learning curve less intimidating. Actually, another major knock against the Pixel 3 were the various minor hiccups in the OS. Online, in forums, there were also many complaints. Crashes, battery drainage (a huge problem with the Pixel), unresponsiveness… as glitchy as iOS is, no other company seems any better. Modern tech isn’t perfect. It’s the the nature of the beast.
Staying with Apple makes sense for me, and I've overcome my anxieties about being "stuck" with them. I know I could leave if I really wanted to, and now I know why I don't want to. So, it's an issue of Apple competing against itself. There are maybe 10 iPhones to choose from (iPhone 8 Plus through 11), and that's ignoring the color and storage variations.
There are also iPhones of the futures to consider. I wonder if I should wait until 2020, when Apple likely redesigns the iPhone to resemble the beautiful chassis of the 5 series that I loved so much. This is also what the current iPad pro looks like. By September 2020, 5G might actually be a thing. They'll probably hide the notch by then, and move to USB-C charging. If they did all these things, would I prefer the iPhone 12 over the immediately available iPhone 11?
The problem with waiting for ideal tech is that you will wait forever. Great tech exists now, and depending on the category, has existed for years. USB-C is a funny example. Reviewers and insiders lament that iPhone still uses the lightning port to charge. This is not at all a problem at all for me, and is over-exaggerated in inner circles. The Pixel was my first USB-C device, and it was actually a nuisance. Even if this cable/port is the future, most people don't use it for everything already. My camera and batteries use micro USB. My computer uses MagSafe. My speaker uses lightning, and all my friends still use lightning. So I'm in no rush for everything to move over to USB-C. When everything does, that will be swell, but who cares?
Same with 5G. It will be way faster than 4G I guess, but who cares? I have complaints about data service and WiFi, for sure, all around the world, in cafés, etc. But the iPhone 11 will already address those issues, since it's way more advanced than the 7 regarding connectivity. It doesn't need to be a whole new generation of grid coverage to be more reliable. It just has to have better antennas and processors. Apple already addresses this.
I think I will get the iPhone 11 Pro, as soon as possible, and use it for two years, more or less. There's no need to use such rapidly evolving tech forever, and no need to upgrade every year either. Upgrade when you're ready, and upgrade to the right thing. Our lives can - and are - improved by these evolving products.