Google’s new Pixel and Android fragmentation

Pixel 2 XL

Google have just launched their latest phones, the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. They’ve had their own phones for a long time, originally under the Nexus brand. The Nexus phones were good value and represented a kind of reference design for Android – aimed at enthusiasts, they offered pure Android on a budget but didn’t really make an impact in the wider market.

With the Pixel branding launched last year, Google started making a pitch for the consumer market. Last year’s phones launched to massive fanfare in the Android community but with mixed results commercially – barely a statistical anomaly compared with market leader Samsung.

I was bit taken aback by how much the Android press, especially in America, raved about the first Pixel phones. The hardware seemed ordinary, nothing special, and there were rumours that it was rushed due to a change of manufacturer from Huawei to HTC. Unlike other flagships of that generation, there was no water resistance, no micro SD slot and the other specs were about par. One of their selling points was the retention of the 3.5mm headphone jack in a direct dig at Apple, who’d controversially dropped it from their new models.

So how have things changed this year?

Pixel 2

Well first of all the headphone jack has gone. So much for that selling point, but then many of this year’s flagships have followed Apple’s lead in that respect. Micro SD cards were never going to feature – Google really want you using the cloud. It’s a pain if you have a limited mobile data plan or simply want to preserve battery life – streaming music over the internet will kill your battery a lot faster than playing it from the device.

Otherwise it does look like Google has done a better job at being competitive with class leaders this time round. The phones are water resistant and the Pixel 2 XL has the minimal bezel design that’s now standard in higher end phones. The smaller Pixel 2 looks a bit old fashioned by comparison, with large bezels top and bottom.

Google made a point at the launch of saying that opting for a smaller phone shouldn’t be a compromise, that the specs are the same and you can just choose the size that feels right for you.

To a certain extent they’ve succeeded but nowhere near as well as Samsung. The smaller Pixel 2 has a lower resolution screen, a smaller battery and a very different design. The large bezels also make it physically larger than it needs to be for the screen size – dropping the bezels would’ve allowed for the 18:9 ratio used by the Pixel 2 XL.

I think Samsung have done a better job with the S8 and S8 plus. Other than battery, the specs are identical, with the smaller phone offering identical screen resolution and design. While the battery is smaller, it’s still larger than that of the Pixel 2. If anyone can say they have the same phone in two different sizes it’s Samsung, not Google.

Samsung S8

Samsung have also packed larger screens into phones that are narrower and only slightly taller than their Google equivalents – 5.8″ and 6.2″ diagonals compared with Google’s 5.0″ and 6.0″ screens.

Personally I find the narrow phones easier to hold, and the S8 is my phone of choice. It’s as large as I really want in a phone but still has the same class leading – or at least equalling – specs of the S8 plus.

So why am I still interested in the Pixel phones and why, if I hadn’t just got the S8, would I be tempted by one? I’d have to go for the larger one, which is both too big and eye wateringly expensive at £800 for the 64GB model and £900 for the 128GB model.

The answer is in software. The Pixel phones are Google’s idea of what Android should be. They have minimal bloat and always get the latest features from Google – things that filter slowly, if at all, to other devices. More importantly they’re always the first to get security and OS updates.

Minimal bloat is a big draw. Samsung phones are burdened with all manner of Samsung apps and services. Does anyone really need Samsung’s own browser? Or email app, SMS app and so on? There’s even a dedicated Galaxy App store that has a habit of popping up notifications, as does the ever annoying Upday news app.

And then there’s the Bixby button. Let’s not talk about Bixby

Samsung’s flavour of Android also has its own launcher, TouchWiz, that generates a real love/hate response. It’s been toned down in recent releases and it’s not a big deal if you don’t get on with it – you can always install a third party launcher. One of the first things I do when I get a new phone now is install Nova Launcher, and I’m so used to it I’d probably end up using it even on a Google Phone.

The point is that Samsung phones can be hammered into being closer to stock Android and most of the bloat can be disabled, but it takes work.

So what would be the perfect phone? For me, it would probably be Samsung hardware running the Pixel’s software. Samsung are a good hardware company that makes poor software decisions. Google are a good software company that releases uninspiring hardware.

It’s a shame they can’t just stick to their strengths and get together to release the ultimate Android device, but while I’m not much good at predicting the future that’s one thing I think I can safely say is never going to happen.

in Mobile

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