Here are two statements that sound like opposites, but in reality exist in parallel:
- The iPhone is a gorgeous, remarkable device.
- The software running on the iPhone is adequate at best.
The iPhone 7 — Apple’s latest iPhone model — is an especially impressive piece of hardware. Just look at this sleek object as personal technology:
It’s even better in person — it was my “daily driver” phone from December until last week. Even with signs of wear, the iPhone 7 is a ridiculously gorgeous thing. And using it, most of the time, is a pretty good experience. It takes great photos! It’s fast!
Last week, I switched to the Google Pixel.
When it comes to phones, good looks only get you so far — this is a device I use every day, all the time. How it fits into my life is far more important than how much I like to look at it. In this respect, the Pixel is a far better phone.
It’s not as pretty as the iPhone 7, but it’s better in every other way. Here’s why.
The Pixel nails the most important aspects of modern smartphone design: It's light without feeling cheap, large but not too large, and it has a sharp, large screen.
In many respects, the Pixel looks like a bizarro-world version of the iPhone. It's got a similar shape, thickness, and screen size. It's got the typical curved rectangle look. The size of the border around the screen -- the bezel -- is near-identical.
That's not a knock against it -- the iPhone's design is the bar by which smartphones are measured in 2017. For the Pixel to feel and look as solid as an iPhone is a real accomplishment, especially considering this is Google's first real crack at making its own high-end smartphone.
But there are two crucial differences in the Pixel's design that distinguish it from the iPhone 7: a fingerprint sensor on the back, and a headphone jack on top.
Ever since the iPhone first got the fingerprint sensor, it's been in the same place. It's a great feature -- you tap you finger on a spot and, like magic, your phone is unlocked! But its placement is tremendously flawed.
You're just as likely to accidentally drop your phone while pinching it from the bottom in an attempt to unlock it. I certainly am, anyway.
The Pixel solves this flaw in an elegant way: by moving the fingerprint sensor to the back, where your finger naturally rests anyway. As I'm pulling the phone out of my pocket, my finger is already on the sensor. Thus, as I look at my phone, it's unlocked. It's a small difference, no doubt, but it has a major impact on daily use. It makes the Pixel a faster, easier-accessed device. It also makes it a more secure device, as I'm never holding it by a sliver from the bottom -- I'm always gripping it with my full hand, thus preventing needless risk.
I have nice Bluetooth headphones. I love using them at work, because there's no wire to get in the way of my hands flitting between keyboard and mouse. I take them off at the end of the day and plug them in; When I arrive the next day, they're fully charged and ready to go. It's an ideal situation for Bluetooth headphones, which require recharging.
Using those same headphones in my personal life -- on the NYC subway, or while travelling, for instance -- is an entirely different experience. Frankly, they get in the way. Another device to charge? And shutting them off means futzing with buttons instead of just taking them out. Not having a wire dangling is nice, of course, but not worth the tradeoff in my opinion.
I say all this because Apple notoriously removed the traditional headphone jack from the iPhone 7. If you really want to use wired headphones, you can plug them in to the Lightning port. Otherwise, you're stuck with Bluetooth headphones. It's a non-ideal solution to say the least.
Going back to having a headphone jack in a phone was a major relief.
If I want to use Bluetooth headphones, I can -- the Pixel is able to do that, just like most major phones. But with the iPhone 7, I was being forced into it, and the choice didn't fit into my life well. It turned any of my wired headphones into useless items, and added work to my life (babysitting headphones every day that needed to be recharged). I could've used the dongle that Apple sells for connecting traditional headphones to the Lightning port, but that's a genuinely terrible solution. Bless your heart if you're dealing with that nonsense; I will not.
The one downside to the Pixel's headphone jack is its bizarre placement on the top of the phone rather than the bottom. Having the jack on the bottom enables you to use the phone's screen while headphones are plugged in without having to deal with a wire. There could very well be an engineering reason for why the headphone jack is located on top, but that's ultimately a concession. It's a small flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.
However, I cannot stress enough how enormously that small flaw is overshadowed by the total absence of a headphone jack in the iPhone 7.
I spent years using the iPhone, starting with the iPhone 3G through to the iPhone 6. I like many things about how iOS works, but modern Android is full of smart additions that iOS is still missing.
There are basic things, like being able to much more thoroughly customise the look and feel of the home screen. Apps and folders can be placed wherever, rather than being magnetized in reverse gravity to the top of the screen. Any apps can be placed or removed -- the home screen is a sort of staging area, similar to Windows or MacOS, rather than a file system. It's a small difference, sure, but it's a philosophical difference that appeals to me greatly. Best of all, there's no need to assemble a folder full of apps I'm never going to use that I can't delete -- that this is still the case on iPhone is bananas.
The notification tray is another great example of why Android is a superior experience. It's a means of controlling music, or quickly responding to emails, or learning tomorrow's weather. You can customise what appears in it, though it seemingly knows what I want before I've done anything. Most crucially, it acts as a command center for any recurring communication on my phone -- social media, text messages, work email, etc. -- and that's amazing. It streamlines how I use my phone. Instead of visiting several apps and checking in, the notification tray smartly combines it into one place. It's my favourite part of using Android, and it's what keeps me coming back.
Of note: The Google Pixel runs a 'stock' version of Android created by Google. Many Android phones from Samsung, HTC, LG, and other third-party smartphone makers run custom versions of Android. In my experience, the version of Android that Google creates is the best version of Android.
Swiping left on the home screen, you've got immediate access to Google Now -- the best AI assistant (that isn't quite an AI assistant).
On my Google Now page, it tells me:
-the weather at home and at work
-the travel time to work, with traffic factored in and any subway delays
-a warning about a bill that's due soon
-news, with a focus on tech, food, and politics coverage
I didn't program any of that. Google Now pulls information from my many Google services -- Gmail, Maps, Calendar, Chrome, etc. -- and collates that information into a digest of my digital life. It's a tremendously useful service, and it's often proactive. Every night, it puts a notification into my notification tray about the next day's weather in comparison to today. If I have an upcoming flight and the gate gets changed, it alerts me ahead of departure.
There is no comparison to Google Now on the iPhone. It's a service I'm consistently impressed by, and one that reminds me why using the iPhone 7 felt off. How Google Now is integrated is representative of the greater focus of Pixel's phone: as a crucial utility above all else.
Between Google's tight service integration into the Pixel and the hardware itself, it's no surprise that we consistently rate it as the best phone you can buy. I fully agree with that assessment, and can attest first hand.
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