Google’s own phones (albeit made by a varying range of third-party manufacturers) – in the past sold under the Nexus brand and more recently under the Pixel brand – have a tiny market share (about 0.7% according to this article), but a disproportionate – and possibly undeserved degree of impact on the market.
This is not only because of the Google imprimatur (particularly valuable because Google develops the Android OS) but also because Google claims to make their phones aspirational examples of the best device capabilities, combining the most up to date version of Android and high-end phone hardware.
The general ‘heft’ of the Google brand, and the desperate way we all are searching for an alternative to what is starkly becoming an Apple/Samsung duopoly (75% of all US phones are from these two companies alone, with LG trailing as a distant third) provides more reasons to encourage Google in their efforts. On the other hand, it is interesting to contrast how commentators (including me!) have derided Microsoft for their various failed ventures into the phone hardware marketplace, but have been quick to praise Google for activities that are really similarly disastrous as those of Microsoft (with one of the last nails in the Windows phone coffin being hammered home today).
Google’s phones feature a ‘pure’ version of Android without any extra ‘bloatware’ or unnecessary customization that many other Android based phone manufacturers add to their phones in a desperate attempt to distinguish their Android phone from the hundreds (thousands?) of other models of otherwise almost identical Android phones out there. Usually such enhancements detract from rather than add to the user experience, which is unsurprising because the other reason for manufacturers customizing Android is to try and defeat the underlying purpose of Android.
Android was designed to be a generic common interface shared by multiple devices; the customizations inevitably interfere with this, while gently coaxing you into the confines of a manufacturer’s own branded rendition of Android.
Another appealing factor of Google phones is Google’s commitment to quickly push new Android updates to their phones. A side-effect of manufacturers customizing Android into their own version is that when a new version of Android comes out, there can be a long wait until manufacturers get around to adding their customizations and releasing it onto their phones. That is definitely an advantage for the iPhone – updates are available instantly for pretty much every iPhone that is eligible for any updates to their iOS software (after a few years of upgrades, it seems that iPhones stop getting updates – as do Android phones too).
So, for all these reasons, there was a degree of positivism in the air as Google prepared for its traditional early October reveal of its latest release of smartphones.
On the other hand, now that Android (and iOS too) are mature well-developed operating systems, and now that the manufacturers seem to be running out of new hardware features to add, there’s no longer much excitement when either new phones or new OS updates are released (although the latest iOS 11 was more impactful than has been the case for a few years). I’ve several Android devices with various different versions of Android on them and none of them show or lack any ‘must have’ features – hardware or software based – that other devices with earlier or later versions of Android feature or lack.
The lack of eye-opening new features mean that the launch events of all new smartphones are becoming increasingly inane and trivial. For example, a talked-up feature of the new Pixel 2 phones Google released on 4 October was a brightly colored on/off button on their sides. I kid you not. You buy your almost $1000 phone, and get given a device with a colored button on the side that looks more like it belongs on a child’s toy, not an adult’s phone. The power button is now brightly colored – is this really the best that Google has to boast about?
Skip the next section if not relevant, but you might find it interesting to understand Google’s evolving lineup of phones.
The History of Google’s Phones
The first Nexus phone didn’t appear until January 2010, almost three years after the first iPhone, and was made for Google by HTC. That was followed by the Nexus S in December 2010, made by Samsung.
The next model, the Galaxy Nexus, was unveiled in October 2011, and was also made by Samsung. This set a timing pattern – annual releases in October – that has been followed ever since. The Galaxy Nexus had to be withdrawn from sale for a week in 2012 due to a patent dispute with Apple.
A year later saw the Nexus 4, in October 2012, this time made for Google by LG. This phone showed Google’s willingness to aggressively price, and although initially released at $299 or $349 for versions with 8GB or 16GB, in August 2013, the prices dropped to a stunning $199 and $249 – amazing for a phone with a then large 4.7″ screen and 768×1280 pixels.
Yes, the next phone, also by LG, was the Nexus 5, and when released in October 2013, it was also very competitively priced, with a huge 5″ 1080×1920 screen (an appreciable increase in both screen size and screen resolution from the Nexus 4), for $349/399 (16GB or 32GB). As a comparison, this was within a week or two of Apple’s release of the iPhone 5S, offering a puny 4″ screen with 640×1136 pixels.
But so much for aggressive pricing. October of 2014 saw the Nexus 6, this time from Motorola, now priced at $649 or $699 for 32GB and 64GB models. This was a huge leap in pricing from the previous year’s model, although with a further increase in screen size (to 6″ and 1440×2560 pixels).
(Note – the Nexus 7, released in 2012, was not a phone but rather a 7″ tablet.)
For their 2015 announcement Google announced two phones – a Nexus 5X and 6P (5.2″ and 5.7″ respectively). The numbers hinted at their respective screen sizes, with the 5X being made by LG and the 6P by Huawei.
But in October 2016, rather than releasing another pair of Nexus phones, Google renamed them and called them the Pixel and the Pixel XL. Prices remained high – starting at $649 and $769 respectively. Although sales were low, Google had surprising problems keeping them in stock, and so possibly sales could have been higher if Google had done a better job of inventory control.
Which brings us to, yes, October 2017, and Google’s announcement yesterday (4 October) of its new generation of phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
Google Concedes All Phones are Increasingly the Same
It was interesting that Google started off its presentation by conceding that these days smartphones are ‘reaching parity on their specs’.
We’ve been making that point for some time – the speed of new and enhanced feature releases at the high-end has slowed, while ‘low end’ phones are moving closer and closer to the same specifications as higher end phones costing four times as much.
Google went on to try and make the point that while the hardware was becoming indistinguishable from one phone to the next, it was the software that was integrated with the hardware that was and would increasingly become the differentiator. That’s a slightly difficult claim to make, because of course, a very large part of everyone’s phone experience is built upon either the Android or iOS operating systems, and all Android phones have very similar experiences, and even the differences between Android and iOS are more stylistic than basic functional essentials.
To be fair to Google, what they probably mean is the way their phones connect in with their additional external cloud based services is what gives them distinctive extra capabilities. Some of these capabilities might possibly be restricted only to their own Pixel phones, but we think Google would rather share the new capabilities with as many other Android phones as possible. Google is primarily seeking to gather data from people, not to sell phones, so it would be a needless restriction to limit its newest and most sophisticated features only to its own phones and their trivial 0.7% market share.
Are we getting to a point where phones are becoming generic? Google, Samsung and Apple of course hope not, because their strategy is to price at a high price point, and if they can no longer credibly point to anything other than their brand name as reasons for paying twice as much as other similarly featured and similarly functional phones, that becomes a much more difficult marketing proposition.
Our point to you is, and increasingly so, that before you countenance paying $650 – $1000+ for a phone, give at least equal consideration to phones half that price and below. While the hardware is becoming more and more identical, and the commonality of software based features are also tending to merge and blur, the one most obvious remaining difference is the variation in cost.
This is clearly exemplified in our related article and attached table that contrasts a range of high-end, mid-level, and low-end phones. Can you really see why you should be paying $1000 for a phone when there are credible alternatives priced as low as $100? Don’t be tricked into chasing after vanishing returns – who needs all the extra pixels on a screen if they are too small for your eyes to individually distinguish. Anything with a pixel density over 400 ppi is just wasted pixels and not worth paying for. Try not to go much below 300 ppi, but don’t pay extra to go over 400 ppi.
The New Pixel 2 Phones
There had been quite a lot of leaking about what Google’s new Pixel phones would offer, and it turned out most of the leaks were correct.
The two phones are very little different from last year’s phones, and similarly, very little different from other high and mid level phones. This meant that the usual chorus of fanboys struggled to come up with the usual unquestioning excitement, but they duly did the best they can. For example, how about this :
I spent a few moments playing with both of the new devices and couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them
Is this a confession that rational people wouldn’t get excited by the phones?
Or how about this :
both are almost shockingly light
Does anyone care about weight these days? The truly shocking thing would be a heavy phone – aren’t all modern phones uniformly lightweight, plus or minus some fractions of an ounce? But, if there is still an interest in phone weight, does the reviewer not know that the new ‘shockingly light’ Pixel 2 phone weighs exactly the same as last year’s Pixel phone, and indeed the new Pixel 2 XL is slightly heavier (0.25 oz) than last year’s Pixel XL?
(I’ll not embarrass the commentators other than to hint they were writing in an enGadget article.)
About the only positive difference of note between last year’s phones and these new models (other than a nasty price increase in the larger XL phone, up from $769 last year to $849 this year – surprising in view of the smaller model remaining at the same $649 price as last year) is a new ‘feature’ that seems as much like a gimmick as a useful feature – you can squeeze the sides of the phone to active the Google Assistant feature. Not exactly a feature that we were all desperate for, and not even a unique innovation – it was introduced by HTC on one of their phones earlier this year.
It also seems like something that could be prone for accidental activation, much like how a slightly too long button push on an iPhone annoyingly results in Siri popping up onto the screen. Google tells us that machine learning will identify the difference between intentional and incidental squeezes. Let’s hope so. Interestingly, some early review feedback says that reviewers found it too hard rather than too easy to activate the squeeze command.
Like last year, the phones come in two different screen sizes – 5″ and 6″, and with slightly different aspect ratios – the 6″ screen is proportionally narrower than the 5″ screen. To be technical, the 5″ screen has a common 16:9 aspect ratio, the 6″ screen has a less common 2:1 (or 18:9) ratio.
The screens now have an always-on display that shows the time, date, and assorted other notification icons (we think this is probably more a function of the software than their hardware – in other words, it may become common on all Android phones, rather than be a reason for uniquely choosing a Pixel phone). It seems, based on pictured examples, this information might either be sparsely shown on a black screen, or possibly on your choice of various backgrounds of always on screensaver images.
One imagines now going into a movie theater and seeing dimly glowing shapes in everyone’s shirt pockets, and wonders if this will further feed our phone addictions, when the phone is slightly more always in our face and calling for attention. Will it be possible to dim the device at night – screen light is a known factor in insomnia and poor sleep quality. Hopefully part of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ or Mute function will not only be muting incoming calls but also switching the screen off too.
While the screens are different, just about everything else on the phones was the same in both models. You might say ‘well, of course it is’, but that’s not the case with Apple, where their iPhones have different quality cameras, for example, on the different versions of their latest generation phones.
Some of the usual things were also announced. A better camera, for example. Meh. While it may well be, based on one third-party test measure, that the Pixel camera might be better than the cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Apple iPhones, does anyone care? And, of course, there is also the almost universally announced, by every phone manufacturer, every year, upgrade in processor power. Again – does anyone really care?
No Headphone Jack
There was one change we feel very negatively about. Google is slavishly following Apple’s lead by eliminating the ‘headphone’ jack.
It is worth noting that this jack is not only for headphones. Other devices rely on this jack too, because it is possible to use this not just for microphone inputs and speaker outputs, but for any other type of analog input and output too. You may have noticed people at market stalls with miniature credit card readers connected to their phones – those readers use this feature. You may have also noticed some of the more esoteric devices such as oscilloscopes and other types of probes and test instruments connecting through this interface as well.
It was not shocking to see Apple eliminate their headphone jack, because Apple hates allowing any third-party device to attach to their phones. That’s a core part of Apple’s values, and enforced on all their hardware. But the entire concept of Android was that it was an open-ended system and service, and was deliberately designed to be the opposite of Apple’s closed operating system and environment.
One wonders if the engineers in Google who decided that because Apple has eliminated their headphone jack, they can do the same, ever thought beyond the ‘let’s do what Apple does’ concept and considered the broader functionality and the reversal of system design philosophy they were embracing. Almost certainly, they did not.
It is sad to see our world increasingly being designed and constrained by arrogant 20-something-year-olds, abundantly endowed with all the technical know-how, but sadly with none of the equally essential life-experience, wisdom and maturity to ensure they use their technical skills correctly.
So now, instead of having a nice neat headphone jack, you have a separate short cable that ‘converts’ from the USB connection to a headphone connector. How quickly will you lose that, and how ridiculously overpriced will replacements be? Plus, if you’re using this converter cable, how will you be able to charge your phone at the same time? Or, as just one more of dozens of examples, how will you be able to have an audio device connected to the USB port to input music or other audio material, and listen to it through headphones at the same time (I’ve a miniature ‘SDR’ radio I connect to my USB port then listen to through headphones).
Sure, Google will say, as has Apple already, ‘go buy a set of Bluetooth headphones’. I was an early advocate of Bluetooth headphones, but eventually, try as hard as I would to ignore the realities confronting me, I gave up on them. It was another device to keep charged (and often another charger to keep at hand, too). It was a hassle waiting for the headphones to turn on. Pairing the headphones to the phone was always a suspenseful event, because every so often, the connection would fail to be established, and maybe you’d need to re-pair them, and chances are you’ve forgotten the pairing password.
The sound quality was never as good as a wired headset, and the controls were impossible to understand – so much so that I could never be certain ‘Did I just turn the device on, or did I turn it off?’. How crazy is that? The concept of a simple slide on/off control, and/or a power on light, being of course too simple for the brilliant fools who design such things to implement.
So, no, I’m far from delighted at being forced into either taping the connector cord to the side of the phone or struggling with another Bluetooth headset. Give me back my headphone jack.
More Comments and Details
While the lack of headphone jacks is a sad loss from previous models, they also don’t have Micro SD card slots – an omission that Google has consistently followed, because it wants to force you to use its cloud services, while never thinking that we might sometimes be somewhere where the internet ‘cloud’ can not be accessed quickly, conveniently, or cheaply. Really, Google’s designers need to live a little and get out of their labs sometime and discover the rest of the world, without having expense accounts to absorb the sometimes outrageous costs of sometimes terribly slow wireless data in other countries.
One more thing that was a mild disappointment – the phones don’t support wireless charging. This was the ‘new big thing’ of Apple’s latest iPhones, announced a few weeks earlier; Google says that it hasn’t yet found a suitable wireless charging system that allows for convenient fast charging of their phones, and choose instead to boast that a quick 15 minute charge will power the phone for ‘up to seven hours of go’. What does ‘up to’ mean, and what exactly is ‘go’? Only uncool people would dare to ask such questions.
Of course, the ‘we can’t find one good enough’ is a well-worn excuse by tech companies who in truth are merely slow to implement new features. We’re unexcited by wireless charging, but it is clear that offering wireless charging is becoming a more common and expected feature in high-end phones, so it is surprising to see its omission.
High Tech Clones
As always, when watching these presentations, I’m struck by how interchangeable the people presenting them have become. They all dress the same in their elaborately casual dark-colored garb, they all use the same sound-bites and phrases and quote the same concepts and aspirations. They look similar, they’re in similar age groups, they generally vote the same, and if you were to take off their shirts, you’d probably even find matching tattoos.
Do any of them have an ounce of the personality or uniqueness that was the hallmark of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or for that matter, love him or hate him, of Steve Ballmer, too? At least these were people with personality and personal presence, but can you cite the name of anyone in Google, and point to something distinctive about them, now that Sergey Brin and Larry Page have both stepped back from the limelight? For that matter, to be an equal opportunity hater, while we probably know the name of Steve Jobs’ replacement (Tim Cook), do we know of Tim because of what he is, or because of who he is? Without meaning any additional disrespect, is it not true that Mr Cook is another vanilla ordinary person who, if stripped of his office, would not stand out in a crowd in any way at all?
eSIM Feature and Fi
An interesting new feature is that Google is supporting the new “eSIM” standard.
You are probably familiar with how most modern phones are linked to your wireless account via a SIM card – a tiny little thing similar to a Micro-SD card. You get the SIM from your choice of wireless carrier and plug it into your phone, so the phone then ‘knows’ which service to use, and so the service can identify you and your phone.
Increasingly, the best phones now have slots for two SIMs.
SIM sizes have steadily reduced – originally they were the same size as a credit card, now they are almost identical to a Micro-SD card – about 0.3″ x 0.5″. The next logical step is to make them ‘virtual’, and that is what an eSIM is. Instead of relying on a physical chip from a wireless carrier, an eSIM can simply accept a downloaded data file and assume a new identity. An eSIM could also conceivably store two or many more than two different identities, allowing you to select between them, or, like current dual SIM phones, to have two or more simultaneously active.
This is great for us as consumers, and simplifies things for phone manufacturers, who can save more space and have a simpler design without the need for the physical slot and carrier to place the SIM into. But the wireless companies are proving very slow to embrace the concept of eSIMs, because it would make it ‘too easy’ for us to change services. So Google is being forward-looking in providing an eSIM feature, even though you’ll struggle to find any wireless services that will agree to support it.
One other special thing about both the original and new Pixel phones. They are four of the only five phones that can be used in conjunction with Google’s wireless phone and data service, what it terms Project Fi. This is an interesting approach to how wireless voice/data service is provided, and in particular, charges no more for data internationally than domestically.
We like Fi, and if it would work on other phones, would seriously consider switching to Fi as our primary service. But with a requirement to buy a very expensive Google Pixel phone, or a still expensive Motorola phone, the ‘cost of entry’ is too high. For a while, Fi had been also offering heavily discounted earlier model Nexus phones as an inducement for people to join, but they no longer do this.
Pricing and Availability
The Pixel 2 lists for $649, same as the original Pixel. The Pixel 2 XL lists for $849, an increase on the $769 price of the Pixel XL. It seems Google is running a promotion for an uncertain amount of time where you get a free Google Home Mini (explained below) included with each new Pixel phone you buy.
At the same time, Google dropped the prices of the original Pixel and Pixel XL by $100 each, to $549 and $669. If you want a Google Pixel phone (although we’ve uncovered no clear reason why you would), it might make sense to get last year’s model, so as to simultaneously save $100 or $180, and also to get a phone with a headphone jack.
The new phones are already available for preorder. But there was no mention of when they would start shipping – an intriguing omission, and a suggestion that Google felt compelled to follow its annual release timing, even when the products themselves were still an indefinite distance away from being shippable.
But, can we suggest, for most of us, the availability of the phones is irrelevant, because there is no reason to choose to buy one. If you’re considering buying a new smart phone, have a look at our article and associated table comparing a range of smartphones showing their respective features and pricing. If you’re one of our supporters, we also have a supplemental report that compares all the leading high-end phones and includes some additional feature comparisons.
Other Announcements at the Google Release Event
Google is rushing to catch up with Amazon by further developing its equivalent to Amazon’s Echo device – what they call Google Home. The two product ranges even look similar, and we’re surprised that Amazon in particular has yet to adopt a more aggressive pricing policy, the same as it has done with its range of astonishingly high-value Fire HD tablets (7″ for $49, 8″ for $79, and 10″ for $149). We’d be unsurprised to see the price of Echo devices drop in time for Christmas.
Our sense is that Amazon has more to win (or lose) in this game than Google. Sure, Google wants to be in our lives and in our faces, knowing everything we do, 24/7; but Amazon’s ability to monetize its own growing omnipresence seems more direct – it wants to sell us everything we buy, no matter what we want, and then get it to us more quickly than anyone else.
Amazon brought out their Echo Dot in March 2016, and now Google is bringing out a very similar product, the Google Home Mini. It looks much the same in terms of size and shape, but has a fabric top cover rather than all plastic. It is priced the same – $49, and will be available in stores on 19 October.
Google also announced a Home Max device, with a larger and better speaker set within it. This device is interesting because it points to what is increasingly an approach to maximizing sound fidelity. In the past, speakers in particular were passive units that were designed to be as ‘sound neutral’ as possible, and if a person thought at all about the impact of the room acoustics on the sound, this was generally ignored or viewed as an unavoidable part of the sound reproduction process.
With the latest in digital sound manipulation, the new trend is to make poorer quality speakers and then adjust the sound that is fed to the speakers to compensate for speaker inadequacies and also for the coloration caused by the room itself, so that in theory you end up closer to experiencing the same acoustic as the studio or hall where the original recording was made. (Interestingly, this same design concept is being used for cameras – tiny lenses and their flaws are being compensated for by software which balances out the lens anomalies to improve the resulting image.)
This is a great concept, albeit with limitations on just how aggressively the room and speaker issues can be compensated for – a speaker with a frequency range of 150 Hz – 5 kHz can never be made to play 20 Hz or 20 kHz tones. Many modern amplifiers come with a calibration microphone that will do this compensation, and now the Google Home Max will do it too. Typically the system plays a few tones and ‘listens’ to hear how they are impacted by the speakers and room and adjusts accordingly – like a super ‘graphic octave equalizer’ if you remember back to those products.
The Home Max boasts as being 20 times louder than the regular Home speaker. But that’s not actually a huge difference, because we hear sound logarithmically rather than linearly. It is 13 dB louder, in case that helps understand the difference in volume.
The Home Max is not only much louder, it is also much more expensive, and is priced at a beyond-ridiculous $400 per unit. I’m not yet clear if it is possible to get a pair and have them play stereo music, but of course, if that is possible, you’re looking at a total spend of $800. And if you wanted to get a surround system with five speakers, well, you can do the math yourself.
This price is beyond high. We’re talking about a small unit with some tiny cheap speakers in it, plus a microphone or two (even less expensive) and probably a single chip to do the digital sound processing. How they can charge $350 more for this than their Home Mini is a question with no answer.
Oh, the grossly inflated price includes a year of free YouTube music without commercials, an inclusion few of us were seeking. A more appropriate name for this device would be the Google Home Max Price. It will be available in December (they didn’t say exactly when in December, which is not a good sign).
Although it is clear that Amazon is making a major push to advance its Echo range of products, and although Amazon has also managed to get its Echo/Alexa service installed on other products made by other companies, the fact remains that it is a frustratingly limited service that only responds to a limited number of commands and queries, quite unlike the Google Assistant or Siri. So we see this as an area where Google with its much greater prowess and history of providing voice operated services could quickly catch up and maybe even displace Amazon.
Google also somewhat speciously tried to promote its assorted Google Home and Google Assistant services by saying it would free children from spending too much screen time with other devices. But really, having a story read to a child by a device is no better and probably worse than having the child read a story themselves, either on a device or via a book.
Google announced a new Chromebook laptop – a type of device using its Chrome operating system rather than Windows, and where most of its storage is on the internet rather than in the computer. Originally these were being sold as the lowest cost way of getting a semi-working computer, which of course become completely useless without a fast internet connection and unlimited data, making them inappropriate for people traveling away from their home or office.
Now the Chromebooks do have some onboard intelligence and capabilities, but they still occupy an awkward middle ground, somewhere between high-end tablets and low-end computers. The new Google Pixelbook weighs 2.2 lbs – twice what a 10.5″ Apple iPad Pro tablet weighs and 50% more than the weight of the 12.9″ iPad Pro. The Pixelbook has a 12.3″ screen, but unlike the tablets, comes with an integral keyboard. And the ‘limited’ onboard capabilities – they will be available with up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage – one might almost say that is ‘too much’ onboard storage for a system designed to rely on network connections. Pricing starts at $999, and it will be available on 31 October.
There is also a $99 stylus available to use with the device, and the screen is touchscreen.
So, you could buy a regular laptop computer, running Windows 10, with similar specs, and about half the price, or you could buy this odd-ball Chrome OS device, costing almost twice as much. Is that a difficult decision for you?
Lastly, Google closed with a little ‘bon bon’. A tiny little device, a small camera called ‘Google Clips’. This is designed as something you might clip onto yourself somewhere/somehow, and the camera will use ‘machine learning’ to automatically take photos of what it thinks to be interesting things.
Is that a fun new device? Or is it a spooky scary step closer to total lack of privacy, everywhere we go. Because, of course, the challenge here isn’t so much what your device captures, but what the devices being worn by everyone else might also be capturing, and how that same ‘machine learning’ then stitches it all together to have an all-encompassing view of your life and everything you do and everywhere you go (well, Google already knows everywhere you go simply via its records of where your phone is).
Happily, the device is also ridiculously over-priced, at $249, so let’s hope few people will buy them.
The big part of Google’s event was the release of two new Pixel phones. Yes, they have the de rigeur ever-faster processors, the latest 5.0 version of Bluetooth, and a new feature no-one was asking for (squeeze the phone’s sides to invoke the Google Assistant). They have essentially the same form factors and screens as their predecessor phones, but now omit headphone jacks.
Should you buy one? Probably not. Check out our article on good Android phones for as little as $50 before deciding to pay $850 for a Pixel phone.