All the leaks and prejudgment in the buildup to the launch of Google’s Pixel 3 this week reminds me of how the original Pixel made its way into the world. Two years ago, as now, Google’s flagship phone set a new high-water mark for pre-announcement leaks. The original Pixel was also a dowdy slab of big-bezel electronics, and the new Pixel XL doesn’t do much better, featuring arguably the ugliest and most intrusive notch — a hotly-contested prize — we’ve yet seen.
The new Pixels look every bit as unexciting and quotidian as their predecessors. They have no sliding camera modules or iridescent paint jobs, and their new color this year seems almost reluctant to admit to being pink. I’ll understand if you find yourself underwhelmed.
But haven’t we already made the mistake of judging things on their appearance too quickly? Many of us freaked out about the iPhone X’s notch, however Apple’s iPhone sales have hardly been upset by it. I derided the unattractiveness of Apple’s AirPods when they were first announced, only to later eat my words. And when the original Pixel arrived at my home for review, I’ll never forget this, I found its design so bland that I left it in its box and instead spent time with Sony’s forgettable, but prettier, Xperia X-whatever of the time.
When I did get around to checking out the Pixel, it’s safe to say that it transformed my mobile life. There is a distinct break between the pre-Pixel era of my phone photos — characterized by liberal use of filters, edits, and transformations from apps like Prisma — and the ones I started taking with the Pixel. It was the first phone that could legitimately compete with DSLR camera quality while still being a respectable modern smartphone. Unlike Nokia’s 808 PureView or Lumia 1020, the two previous awesome cameraphones, the Pixel ran the latest and best edition of Android, and so it was a device I actively wanted to use for everything else beside images.
The second-generation Pixel couldn’t possibly improve on the camera of the first, I thought, and it really didn’t need to. When Google reduced the pixel size (ironic or what?) on the imaging sensor of the Pixel 2, I worried that things might actually get worse, but the Pixel 2 turned out to be significantly better than the original. This year, I used the Pixel 2 XL exclusively to capture all my photos from the Paris and Geneva Motor Shows. And all my photos from Photokina in Cologne. Oh, and every single shot from Computex in Taipei. I also went to Tokyo for the first time, and my Pixel was the only device I needed: both to find my way around the world’s most intricate transport system and to capture the local sights.
Every year before the Pixel, I would take a few hundreds photos on my phone. Since I switched to using Google’s phone, I’ve shot more than 20,000. The camera’s quality has enticed me to keep trying new, more challenging scenarios — but an often overlooked feature of the Pixel’s stickiness for its users is the free cloud storage that Google provides for full-resolution photos and videos shot with the device. I’ve long ago blown past the default 15GB of free storage I get with my Google account, but because all I’m shooting is Pixel content, it doesn’t count against my quota.
Stop and think about the possibility of Google actually improving on the Pixel 2 camera. The same camera that has replaced my professional camera. The same one that takes the sheen off Apple’s best iPhone camera ever. I refuse to be so jaded as to not acknowledge how freaking exciting that makes the Pixel 3. Improving the Pixel’s camera would be raising the bar for the most widely-used sort of photography today: shooting with our phones.
I may sound like a broken record singing the Pixel’s praises, but the people who say the Pixel doesn’t matter constantly reiterate that few people even know about it. And they’re right. Google has failed to distribute its devices widely enough, limiting availability to only a handful of mostly Anglophone countries, sometimes further limiting choice by opting for carrier exclusives. The Pixel is the best combination of smartphone and camera the world has ever witnessed, but Google makes it incredibly difficult for most of the world to witness it in person. So I’m here banging the drum for everyone to pay attention.
We’ve seen enough of the Pixel 3 to know it won’t be beautiful. But Google’s hardware business is about selling us pretty pixels, not pretty Pixels.