Opinion: As the Pixel goes on sale, how is it being received and what about the future of Android?
Yesterday, on Pixel launch day, I went along to a local store to see the phones for myself, and how they were being received by the general public.
I visited an out of London EE store yet to put the phone out on display, but by mid-afternoon it had already sold one. Yes, one.
Not exactly iPhone-launch day success, but with little mention of it in the shop itself, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that a lot of people wouldn’t have had a clue what ‘Pixel’ was. A nearby Carphone Warehouse also had nothing on show, bar a sticker outside.
It was pointed out that London EE stores were actively promoting the phone, helped by the massive advertising in the Metro newspaper that morning. Currys and Carphone Warehouse stores held in-store events, with staff adorning Pixel-branded T-shirts.
I was told that the Pixel has a way to go to becoming as big as an iPhone in terms of branding, reputation and desirability. We each agreed that the customer will likely hear about a Google phone and think ‘I’ve got Google on my phone already’.
Even iPhone owners get access to most Google services.
So after the initial hype and in-your-face advertising (Google, unsurprisingly, is using YouTube and other social media to heavily push the Pixel), will ordinary people shell out iPhone money for a Google-branded phone?
Time will tell, but it didn’t feel like much had happened on the day from where I was standing.
I did resist the temptation to write the headline about EE selling just one phone on the first day, so perhaps Gizmodo can do that instead, to accompany its many anti-Google stories in recent days.
I realise my thoughts might seem anti Google too, but I’ve been trying to look at the bigger picture.
The Next Step in Google’s plan
When Google set the pricing, it was clear it was to go after the success enjoyed by Apple. Samsung has already done it pretty well, and others like Sony are trying to do it but not quite managing.
Up the prices and you increase your margins. It makes sense. Networks should like it too, although increasingly the networks are becoming more keen on people buying phones offline and selling SIM-only contracts instead.
Believe it or not, networks aren’t that interested in subsidising phones. To offset various and obvious risks in giving away expensive goods, they have to increase monthly payments to levels that don’t seem that competitive.
If you’re being sold a phone that’s going to cost £50-60 a month, it’s a harder sell than having someone getting their Pixel from the Google Store and then walking in to get a 12-month £19.99 plan.
Arguably, when it comes to an iPhone or Galaxy S phone, it’s an easier sell, but now there’s another player that isn’t well known at making hardware trying to muscle in.
Getting rid of subsidies is something networks have wanted to do since the 1990s, and there’s no sign of there ever being any success in doing so. It’s the age-old problem of who goes first, and will everyone else follow? (Answer; no they won’t).
I always recommend someone buys SIM-free, funded on credit if necessary, as in almost all cases you’ll be better off in the long run. Especially when it comes to playing networks against each other if you’ve got more freedom on a shorter contract (or even pay as you go).
When Fanboys Attack
It’s always fun to read online comments, where there’s no middle ground. Everything is the best thing ever, or a disaster of biblical proportions.
There have been many people ‘outraged’ that Google has ditched the Nexus line. I sympathise and have felt disappointment, but it was just a name. That in itself isn’t the problem, rather the way Google appears to want to do things in the future.
Google wanted to ditch Nexus last year, and what became the 5X and 6P were each at some time likely to have become the first Pixel phones (you could see Google’s influence in things like the standardised image sensor). For whatever reason, Google decided to keep Nexus going one year more, and my guess is it was down to the need to get certain services up to scratch.
Now Google is going it alone, with no mention of HTC being the manufacturer anywhere on the phone, box, or marketing. But, for most people, that doesn’t really matter one bit.
What might matter is that it wants to create a line of products that promote the best of Google, restricting some of these features from everyone else in order to make their own devices stand out.
You’re now asked to pay top-dollar to enter this exclusive club that gets you the latest features, the fastest updates, and enjoying certain features that nobody else ever will.
This perceived exclusivity has already had an effect on some forums, where people are bragging about it being the first phone that an iPhone user could ever consider moving to.
Seriously? There was never an Android phone before the Pixel range that could be considered? And what are the features that have enabled this conclusion? Was it Google’s Assistant (which is still very much a work in progress) or the VR support?
Thinking inside the box
It appears that one loyal iPhone user put it down to nothing more than the nice packaging and the premium price.
So, as long as something is expensive and has had a lot of money spent on something you’ll look at just the once (the box), you’ve got an iPhone killer.
Ironically, last time Google bumped up the price (the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9) each sold in miserable numbers, to the point where Google apologised.
But if this is how some people are looking at the Pixel already, maybe Google has judged the market well and will reap the rewards after all. Especially as elsewhere, history is being re-written as people comment that the 6P was ‘cheap rubbish’. The Nexus 6P was never cheap, but it was certainly cheaper than the Pixel XL, and I can’t remember anyone talking about ‘poor build quality’ or ‘cheap materials’.
There was for a time some fuss over bending, but for some reason both the Nexus 6P and iPhone 6 plus issues magically went away soon after. Perhaps on account of users realising that a large, thin, device probably has to be looked after a bit more carefully.
Side by side, the 6P looks every bit as premium, even more so at some angles, than the Pixel XL. The glass back on the Pixel and Pixel XL doesn’t help, even if it serves a purpose to improve signal reception.
Just as Google tried to make the Nexus brand disappear overnight by taking it off sale and removing all references, now the online community are also trying to pretend everything that preceded the Pixel was not worth mentioning.
Android 7.1.1 rollout for Nexus users
Just as the Pixels hit the shelves, Android 7.1.1 (beta) rolled out to the 5X, 6P and Pixel-C. (You can see a bit more on this, including a video running through the changes, here).
With the update comes a lot of Pixel features, but not all. Of course the Pixel launcher remains only for the Pixel, but the Google Now launcher now has the app shortcuts, where you long press on an icon to bring up shortcuts (rather than using 3D touch, given most Android phones don’t have pressure sensitive displays).
In comes the Moves menu too (sans dragging down the notification window via the fingerprint sensor), a new support tab in settings, seamless updates (future OS updates will download and install automatically, when you next reboot your phone), an extra quick link in the notification bar, the option to remove photos and videos that are backed up automatically if storage space runs low, and much more.
The new camera app also makes an appearance, with new exposure settings and other tweaks.
VoLTE support for EE (working from day one on the Pixels) is also still on the cards for a future update, once Huawei can get it working properly with EE’s network.
Night night, night-mode
One omission from the latest build for Nexus owners, and the Pixel-C, is the night mode. Having featured in earlier builds for the 6P, it has now disappeared for good and the reason is that Google has changed the way it works, using hardware present only on the Pixel instead of software as included on earlier beta releases.
The fact that many other handset manufacturers have implemented modes to reduce blue light in software quite successfully seems not to be important to Google. Is it really thinking that such a mode will force people to buy a Pixel, when many other phones have this feature too?
The phone itself
I brought along my Nexus 6P to compare alongside a Pixel XL to see if my decision to hold off buying a Pixel was the right move.
I didn’t take any photos, but the net is hardly devoid of other people doing comparisons in photo and video form. When I hopefully get a model to review, I’ll do all that then.
First impressions in the hand is that, despite being thicker than my 6P, the phone feels more manageable. I’d be lying if I said anything else, even if it would better support my case, but I would add that few phones feel bad in the hand these days. It’s a pretty basic design requirement.
As I’ve often said I’d prefer a thicker phone in return for a better battery, I can hardly complain about the extra thickness. In this case, it’s not for a massively bigger battery, but to accommodate everything else given the smaller footprint. The phone is smaller in the hand, not due to smaller bezels and an edge-to-edge display, rather a smaller screen.
Can I live with a smaller screen? Well, the difference isn’t that great, but then again the 6P was already a reduction from the Nexus 6, so in two years, half an inch has been lopped off. Surely with the way things are going, the XL will soon become the entry model, making way for an XXL version.
A bigger problem will be the loss of the front-facing speakers. Given HTC first gave us loud stereo speakers with BoomSound, it’s a real disappointment. Something that I feel a lot of people are skipping over in their early reviews.
The 5-inch Pixel is equally nice in the hand. Similarly sized to the Honor 8 I also brought along, and with beautiful curves and a solid, pebble-like, feel in the hand.
Both phones, from the front, look good. But, at the same time, not dissimilar to the other gazillion phones out there.
So, flipping over, there’s the back (duh!). If the 6P sparked controversy with the visor along the top, the Pixel is sure to polarise opinions even more. With many people having their first experience of the Pixel in an in-store environment, the bright lighting didn’t do either colour model any favors as it makes the top 1/3 panel look very cheap indeed.
If Google wanted it to stand out from a crowd, mission accomplished, but it doesn’t look that good, let alone premium, to me.
“Get a case” I was told. Good advice, assuming you’ll be able to buy cases easily from high-street stores.
That, in itself, conjures up another thought in my head; will the Pixel be accompanied by hundreds of cases and accessories, as iPhone users can enjoy? But maybe I’ll save that question for another day.
Both seemed equally snappy, but at no time did I do anything that would reveal if Snapdragon 821 vs 820, or an extra gig of RAM, would make the Pixel faster in the long run.
Even before benchmarking, I know the Pixels are faster. A LOT faster. However, Snapdragon 810 for all its faults, was no slouch. In the 6P, Huawei managed to tame the beast exceptionally well, getting rid of most of the heat-related issues that dogged other phones released in 2015.
I’ve also seen how fast the autofocus is on the Pixel XL. It’s impressive. In fact, the camera quality looks great – but is there such a massive difference over the 6P camera? The IMX378 does have improvements, which Xda-developers has explained in great depth, but is it as groundbreaking as some people have been making out?
I was unable to take any photos with the Pixel, but I did go out to try my 6P with the latest Pixel camera app, as well as checking out the autofocus speed on the 6P (in 4K mode no less).
When looking at Pixel/Pixel XL reviews and cameras tests in particular, the following can be used to get some perspective.
Obviously I’ll need to do a proper comparison of my own in due course, but I don’t think anyone can write off the 6P or 5X just yet.
Nevertheless, while a 6P owner might not wish to upgrade, a lot of other people might. In that regard, the Pixel phones offer definite improvements in many areas – but the price is a stumbling block.
Key things the Pixel XL adds over the 6P: Cat 12 4G speeds (compared to Cat 6), VoLTE support from day one on EE, Google Assistant, Free original quality photo/video uploading without using your Google allowance. It’s up to you to decide if that’s worth the money.
An Ideal Future – from the eyes of Google
Perhaps Google has a vision that the future will see us walking into a store and having a counter for Apple products and a counter for Google products. Prices will remain consistently high and with no other real competition, there will never be any need to do promotions or price cuts.
The smaller players will be free to compete, but without all of the Google features. As time goes on, people will gradually decide to stump up and the other phones will just disappear forever.
An Ideal Future – from my eyes
I don’t have a problem with expensive phones. I don’t think a lot of people need to drop almost a grand on a new phone, but we live in a capitalist society and people are free to choose how to spend their money.
Anyone who does shell out for a Pixel won’t be disappointed. It’s a fantastic looking phone, pricing and other issues aside. A phone that I still intend to get and review like any other phone.
But, for the future success of Android, we surely don’t want Google trying to do its own thing at the expense of others, until we no longer have the other players even bothering, or able, to compete.
For me, Google needs to put its services on all phones. If Assistant is to become as great as Google said at its launch event, it can’t cost upwards of £600 to use it.
Maybe Google isn’t interested in the phones that are being ‘churned’ out for as little as £50 these days, but in 2016 there have been few phones that can be considered terrible. No longer are cheap phones giving people a poor Google experience that impacts on the reputation of Android.
There is a case to argue that these cheap phones do harm Android with the lack of updates, but surely Google can be tougher on manufacturers in this regard, forcing updates for longer periods of time.
Google should be careful that its desire to ‘go it alone’ doesn’t backfire in the long run.
It does prove one thing though, for all the time Samsung was trying to develop its own platform (Bada, then Tizen) it knew what was likely to happen. It failed both times to move away from Android, but in the next year or two, we may well see further attempts being made industry-wide.
I’d hate to see major changes that reduce choice for users. I can see some benefits of a much more tightly controlled market, but many more disadvantages.
What are your thoughts on this?
Is the Pixel just another phone, at a high price, that nobody should really worry too much about either way, or is it a sign of further changes that could impact the whole Android marketplace?