This week’s Pixel 2 launch event will mark exactly one year from the announcement of Google’s first true self-branded smartphone, the “Phone by Google” Pixel. I’m eager to see what new stuff Google has in store, but before we get to that, it’s worth recounting what made the Pixel special and why it remains a terrific device today, a full year after its release.
I spent most of September swapping between the finest new Android flagship phones — the HTC U11, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 — but as the month drew to a close and my trip to my native Bulgaria came up, I settled on returning to Google’s Pixel. I just felt like using a smaller phone (and I still brought the V30 with me for the sensational sound). That decision has paid off, as I’ve once again shot photos with the Pixel that I doubt I could have made with any other phone. My love affair with the Pixel starts and ends with its photography.
As a phone, the Pixel is deeply flawed. Its design is profoundly generic, except for a glass window on the back, which picks up scratches faster than Usain Bolt runs. That window is also the only outlet for wireless signals, so if you want to listen to your Bluetooth headphones uninterrupted, you’d better not hold the phone the wrong way (or at all, I guess). The loudspeaker is mediocre, and when you plug in headphones, the Pixel’s headphone audio is even more painfully underwhelming. Battery life has never been a great strength for the Pixel, and now that I’m using it with Android Oreo on board, the phone’s endurance has been further compromised. These shortcomings should be enough to make me put the Pixel down and pick up an iridescent HTC U11 instead. And for a while, I did.
The U11 has impressed me greatly, and I think it’s probably the best phone camera to hand to someone that keeps their mobile photography casual. HTC’s optical image stabilization in the U11 makes for steadier shots, which is super useful when you’re trying to capture group selfies in a dimly lit nightclub and in a less than sober state. But the Pixel is the phone that photo tinkerers like me can do the most with. I tweak exposure, take duplicate shots for safety, and I sweat all the pixel-level details in editing my pictures. The U11 is not in the same league as the Google Pixel when it comes to processing low-light shots, and frankly no other phone is, either. Google’s mathemagical ways of controlling image noise in the dark are truly unique and ahead of the entire mobile industry, Apple included.
Going back home for a week, I photographed a bunch of tourist sights in Sofia that I’d never previously taken the time to explore, and I captured a ton of photos of my family and our new puppy. Here’s the thing I concluded from the experience: I now hate doing anything memorable without the Pixel. The U11 is still very good, but the Pixel gets me free Google Photos storage at full resolution (for both photos and videos). The Note 8 and V30 cameras offer slightly different flavors of Korean over-processing, and the iPhone 7 feels soft as a muffin compared to the Pixel. If a thing is worth photographing, I figure it’s worth photographing with the best mobile camera — and, for me at least, the Pixel will hold that crown until it’s dethroned by its successor set to debut this week.
Bringing two phones that were outstanding in one particular category — imaging with the Pixel and audio with the V30 — it was striking to me just how much more essential the cameraphone was. I used the V30 on my flight and maybe a couple more times during the week, whereas the Pixel was constantly in my hand and snapping stuff. I can’t easily imprint a memory onto a musical track the way that I can with a photo, whereas I can fill the absence of sound in my life with the laughter of friends and the fun of photography.
Whether we’re talking gadgets or people, each individual case will always have pluses and minuses, and we end up liking and loving the ones where the positives dominate. With the Pixel, I can recite what’s wrong with it, however those shortcomings are melted away by the glowing brilliance of its photography. This phone turns my pictures into treasured memories, doing them justice with image sharpness that everyone else just aspires to. I could nitpick the image quality, but on the rare occasions when the Pixel fails, even its failures look “photographic,” like something a film camera from the 90s might have produced.
The Google Pixel is the closest that any mobile device has yet come to the universal marketing promise of capturing your important memories in the best possible quality. That used to be the thing I said about the iPhone for many years, but Google has grabbed the lead with the Pixel, and I’d love to see it increase its advantage with the upcoming Pixel 2.