If you want to know what I do for a living, the answer is I fret. I spend my summers swapping Android phones every week, never finding one that does everything I need quite as well as I want it to. Then the iPhone comes along in the fall, acting all polished, refined, and ultra competent, and I find a brief moment of tranquility. For the past month, I’ve been at peace with my smartphone, focusing my fretting instead on other things like headphones and backpacks. But technology never stands still, and Google has decided to interrupt my cozy stasis with a smartphone that truly rivals, and in multiple ways bests, the iPhone. Google’s Pixel is a disturbingly good phone.
When the Pixel first arrived, I confess to being unprofessionally excited about it. I just love the idea of Google taking the reins of both hardware and software design and producing an Android phone it can be truly proud of. Much of that enthusiasm was diminished, however, by the Pixel’s industrial design: it’s pedestrian, unexciting, and frankly mediocre. I saw unibody phones of this caliber on offer from no-name Polish companies during MWC and IFA. The cutting edge of Android design nowadays is embodied by devices like the Nubia Z11, Huawei P9, and of course Samsung’s Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, and the unfortunate Note 7, which still stands as a gorgeous exhibit of thoughtful craftsmanship, battery issues notwithstanding.
Read more: Google Pixel and Pixel XL review
The thing to understand about the Pixels, though, is that these phones are not at all about the hardware. Google needed control over the hardware simply to unshackle the full potential of its software. This is nowhere more evident than with the camera, which is simply stunning. I struggle to believe this even as I type it, but the Pixel’s camera is, in most circumstances, better than the iPhone’s. The first time that Google has stepped in to handle more of the camera stack already sees it striding ahead of Apple’s 800-strong camera team. Okay, the Pixel isn't much better. Most photos that I take, I’m struggling to find conclusive differences. But I do find the Pixel producing consistently greater sharpness and dynamic range, more pleasing colors, and better low-light results. It’s a slight edge, but just having it is a huge accomplishment.
I’ve been saying for a long time that to beat the iPhone, you have to beat the iPhone’s camera. Apple's flagship combines reliable high quality with effortless operation in a way that only Samsung has so far been able to match. You rarely need more than one attempt to get the best iPhone photo, whereas other smartphones like the OnePlus 3 can sometimes outperform it on sharpness, but demand more careful operation. The Pixel is the best of both worlds: it’s both sharper than the iPhone and super easy to use. In fact, I strongly believe Apple should just copy Google's idea of double-pressing the power button to launch the camera — it's an ingeniously rapid shortcut. With the Pixel, I’ve pretty much never needed to take a second shot because the first one was blurry or suffered from bad white balance or exposure. And Google’s camera app is fast and efficient — just like everything else on the Pixel.
So now I’m left pixel-peeping photos of my breakfast, wondering how Google has managed to show off the serrations of my bread knife better than Apple can. I’m opening Slack on both the Pixel and the iPhone 7 and comparing responsiveness and information density (the iPhone wins on that front). I’m running Wi-Fi and cellular speed tests from weird spots to see which might have the better antenna performance. I’m judging them on which phone is receiving notifications faster, and even assessing whose notification jingles I like more. In other words, these devices are now equivalent in my mind and I’m trying to come up with some — any — reason to pick one over the other. It’s hard.
Picking between the Pixel and iPhone is hard, which is a huge achievement for Google's first try
Ahead of the Pixel’s release, a lot of people were taken aback by Google’s iPhone-matching pricing and openly questioned why anyone would spend iPhone money on something that isn’t either an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S. The answer is simple: Google’s Pixel costs as much as an iPhone because it’s almost as good as an iPhone. Why "almost," after all of my foregoing praise? Because of a number of practical reasons that don’t show up in spec sheets or reviews.
The iPhone still retains the crown when it comes to resale value. Even today, you could probably work out an arbitrage whereby you buy a jet black iPhone 7 Plus in a place that has stock of them and then resell it someplace where there’s a deficit. A year from now, you’ll be able to resell your iPhone 7, provided you’ve taken good care of it, and jump aboard Apple’s grandiose 10th-anniversary iPhone. The Android handset you might buy today, on the other hand, will grow much cheaper much faster.
Then there’s the unfathomable strength of Apple’s third-party ecosystem. Yes, I loathe that phrase, too, but it’s a legitimate consideration. Google’s Pixels are nowhere near the iPhone in terms of purpose-built — or merely compatible — accessories. We’ll soon see a whole wave of Lightning headphones to fill the void left by Apple’s removal of the headphone jack, but a corresponding USB-C headphone revolution is unlikely. Apple’s got hundreds of millions of Lightning devices out in the world for audio companies to sell headphones to; USB-C isn’t even close to matching that degree of universality.
iPhone inertia keeps it in the lead for now
Third-party apps are also consistently better on the iPhone. Android keeps inching closer, and the Pixel’s performance is top notch, but the fact remains that I enjoy my iOS apps that little bit more than their Android counterparts. It's not just smoother animations and better-considered interfaces, sometimes it's functionality too. My banking app, for example, accepts Touch ID authentication on the iPhone, but makes me punch in a password on Android. The iOS keyboard is also more responsive to my rapid-fire typing and I happen to passionately loathe Google's emoji, which look like a weird mix of melted faces and poopmoji. And, if we're going to talk specs, the iPhone has the water resistance and stereo speakers that the Pixel lacks.
So with all of that fretting and overthinking in mind, if I’m buying a new phone today, it would still probably be an iPhone. But my decision rests on the fact that I find its industrial design more appealing than the Pixel’s and on the anticipation that any iPhone bought now would be a resale candidate come the next one in a year’s time.
For Google, the Pixel is nothing short of a triumph. The Mountain View company has brought out a phone that both costs and performs like an iPhone. I understand why the price is set where it is: Google might have sold more Pixels today if it had gone lower, but it's not easy raising prices in the mobile world, and where Google wants to be is right next to the iPhone, not on some budget tier below it. The first Google phone is a welcome disturbance and disruption for those of us believing that only the iPhone could satisfy all our needs without drastic compromises.
And the best part about it is that Google’s only just getting started.