Are Google’s new Pixel phones up or down a notch?
So it happened. Finally, Google launched their two handsets for 2018: Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, amid a host of other products, in a somewhat muted event on October 9, 2018.
Given that the sets were the most eagerly awaited gadgets after the iPhone, why isn’t there much more excitement around the tech sphere? Because, just like the new iPhones, almost every detail about the handsets had been leaked earlier, be it their size, screen resolution, processor, RAM or even battery capacity – all were known entities.
Pixel 3 is the smaller set, with a 5.5-inch display while the Pixel 3 XL sports a 6.1-inch display. Both have identical specs except for screen resolution, size and battery. And for the first time, the excitement was definitely down a notch. Yes, a literal notch that lends a unique ugliness to the fascia of the Pixel 3 XL.
Before we move further, let’s discuss notches — unfortunately the hottest smartphone design trend for 2018. A notch is a cut-out in the display that houses the camera and other sensors, theoretically allowing more screen space on both sides of the phone. In that way, manufacturers can build larger screens into a body with slim bezels. There is just one thing wrong with this justification: it is not true.
iPhone X was the not the first smartphone to have a notch, but it was the first mainstream one. Apple didn’t justify the notch – the reviewers did. They said that thanks to the notch the iPhone X had the thinnest bezels and highest screen-to-body ratio in the business. However, Samsung exceeded that ratio a year earlier and continued to do so, with their S8, Note 8, S9 and Note 9 – all without a notch.
Predictably, almost every Android manufacturer, from LG to Huawei to Oppo to Nokia, jumped on the notch bandwagon, churning out sets with a notch which in most cases was accompanied by large bezels on the top, bottom and sides, therefore serving merely as a design element and, more bluntly, a ‘homage’ to Apple.
Alas, Google's two sets turned out to be exactly as leaked with the notch on the Pixel 3 XL hiding nothing but two selfie cameras. What’s more, we are all in for a nasty sticker shock: the “smaller” Pixel 3 starts at $799 while the XL version starts at $899 and goes up to the magic number of $999, a significant bump over last year’s pricing and putting the Pixels once again squarely up against the iPhoneXs, iPhone Xs Max and Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
However, when Google’s Pixel 3 XL was leaked, complete with the largest notch in the business, the very idea of the notch met with renewed disdain and resistance. Many enthusiasts, myself included, were hoping that either the notched design was a red herring, throwing us all off before Google revealed a truly stunning set, or the notch contained some magical technology such as Apple’s face ID.
Alas, the two sets turned out to be exactly as leaked with the notch on the Pixel 3 XL hiding nothing but two selfie cameras. What’s more, we are all in for a nasty sticker shock: the “smaller” Pixel 3 starts at $799 while the XL version starts at $899 and goes up to the magic number of $999, a significant bump over last year’s pricing and putting the Pixels once again squarely up against the iPhoneXs, iPhone Xs Max and Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
What was surprising was this: the RAM was retained at 4 GB while the storage capacities remained locked at 64 GB and 128 GB. The camera specs remain the same too. So why the premium?
One word: software. Despite not having the best hardware, the Pixel cameras are considered to be the best in the world, by virtue of Google putting all of its enormous cloud presence and information behind the processing of each photo. That means that these phones can snap a great shot in any condition, by pulling in data from around the world and tweaking the photo to look just right. Google also adds technologies such as HDR+, allowing the phones to capture several exposures of the same shot and combining them. What’s more, it is getting better as more and more people hand over their photos to Mama Google through their amazingly useful and nifty Photos app.
Similarly, Pixel phones optimise themselves constantly, analysing your usage and loading up apps in advance, therefore becoming the fastest phones on the market. That was true for Pixel 2 series and is likely to continue with Pixel 3. Google continuously adds new features to Android but usually to Pixels first, and one such feature is a virtual call screen that allows the phone to answer and transcribe incoming calls on the user’s behalf.
However, the competition is tough. Apple’s new iPhones offer more bragging right and dual cameras, while Samsung’s Note and Galaxy S series offer a slew of features absent on the Pixels (such as expandable memory, dual cameras, arguably better design, NO NOTCH), and same or lesser prices.
In a way, Google finds itself positioning its flagship sets the same way Apple did until last year – don’t focus on the hardware, the real magic is inside. However, despite the proven credentials of the Pixel 2 series for being the fastest phones with the best cameras, it remains to be seen how consumers respond to the increased prices and mostly static specs.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. firstname.lastname@example.org