25/09/2018 – 9:11am
The launch of Google’s Pixel handsets is a yearly event which grabs a fair amount of media attention; in fact, the announcement is usually only second to the confirmation of a new Galaxy or iPhone model. The Pixel line – like the Nexus series before it – is seen as Google’s ultimate vision for Android; it takes a pure version of the OS and skillfully combines it with the latest developments in hardware to give Google’s partners an aspirational reference point for the next 12 months.
The first Pixel phone was a revelation; it delivered a gorgeous-looking device with serious tech and software smarts that finally seemed to offer a viable alternative to the iPhone. It was sleek, dependable and super-fast, giving Android purists the handset they’d always dreamed of. Last year, though, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both surprised and disappointed in almost equal measure; the smaller version featured massive bezels at a time when Samsung and Apple were thrilling buyers with ‘big screen’ mobiles, while the Pixel 3 XL was beset by problems with its AMOLED display. Despite this, both offered powerful internals and one of the best camera options on the market – despite only using a single sensor.
Fast forward to the present, and our first glimpse of the 2018 Pixels has triggered a real sense of déjà vu. The leaks seen so far are, of course, a long way off being official confirmation of anything, but there have been so many that it’s almost impossible to deny that both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will look very similar to last year’s phones. The smaller variant is still sporting large bezels when compared to the competition (although they are smaller than those on the Pixel 2) while the Pixel 3 XL retains the larger body-to-screen ratio of its forerunner (and actually surpasses it, by including an iPhone X-style notch complete with what looks like a face). On the rear, both phones look almost identical to the 2017 editions; there’s the signature glossy texture at the top, the familiar G logo and the single camera.
Specs are still rumoured at present, but we’re hearing that the two phones will be running Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipsets with Adreno 630 GPUs, will come with 4GB RAM and a 2,915mAh battery with support for wireless charging (although it’s not clear what capacity the larger XL model will be sporting – it could well be larger, and it could also come with more RAM). New display technology is apparently in the works, but this again is speculation rather than confirmed fact. There are even rumblings that Google will include a pair of Pixel Bud earphones in the box.
Picking through these rumours to separate the fact from the fiction is all well and good, but even if all of these things turn out to be true, I can’t get even the remotest bit excited about the Pixel 3 line. Unless Google has some amazing hardware secret up its sleeve – or a software advancement which puts Android way ahead of the competition – I can’t see that situation changing, even after the anticipated October 9th launch.
Both Pixel phones this year seem to be treading water rather than making an attempt to genuinely innovate or break new ground; for me, the biggest blow is that Google hasn’t given the more pocket-friendly Pixel 3 a bezel-free display. I’m not a mobile designer and I’m sure reducing those pesky bezels is quite an engineering challenge, but given that everyone and their auntie is releasing phones with tiny bezels these days – even those operating in the budget sector of the market – it seems almost silly that Google is going to go up against the likes of Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi with a flagship device that still sports big bezels at the top and bottom of its screen.
Bezels instantly date a phone, and given how fickle consumers are when it comes to design flourishes, they may well choose to leave the Pixel 3 on the shelf when they make their next smartphone purchasing decision. Who wants to spend all that cash on a handset which looks like it’s a relic from the past?
It might seem hypocritical, but the Pixel 3 XL’s big problem is that it does exactly what I’ve just attacked the Pixel 3 for not doing – it copies Apple’s notch almost to the letter, plopping a large black area in the top section of the screen. This setup includes two sensors and the earpiece, which (perhaps unintentionally) creates an amusing face.
I’ve never been a fan of the notch but I appreciate that it has become a design choice that many phone makers are now seeking to emulate, but Google’s interpretation feels off somehow; I’m also stunned that despite the introduction of the notch, the Pixel 3 XL still has a noticeable ‘chin’ bezel at the bottom of the screen – which is almost like an admission that while the phone’s designers have been clever enough to work in that ‘on trend’ notch, they haven’t been quite smart enough to give the phone a ‘true’ big-screen display.
Of course, all of this negative thinking is based solely on a few leaked specs and renders; I could well be singing a different tune when Google officially lifts the lid on these phones. However, with Samsung promising big things with the Galaxy S10 and the latest iPhones retaining that alluringly massive body-to-screen ratio, it’s hard to shake the impression that this year’s Pixel handsets are little more than an iteration on 2017’s models.
The single-camera setup will no doubt produce some of the best bokeh shots you can get on a smartphone, but surely there’s a limit to how far Google’s AI-assisted camera software can go? When the rest of the industry is moving towards two cameras or more, why stick with one? Also, in-screen fingerprint readers are the big thing in 2018, yet Google has retained the old-fashioned rear-mounted scanner instead. Finally, the Snapdragon 845 may be a cutting-edge chipset, but there are hordes of phones on the market which use it already, so where’s the incentive to upgrade if you already have a 2018 flagship? Will the Pixel 3 have any hardware-based shocks to deliver on October 9th? It’s looking less and less likely.
I have no doubt that from a user experience perspective, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will prove to be perfectly serviceable phones, and Android purists will buy them regardless. However, it would seem that Google’s hardware partners are the ones doing the really exciting stuff when it comes to hardware design, leaving the master of Android on the sidelines, re-heating design ideas from 2017.
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