Last year I bought an iPhone 7 Plus, but I struggled to enjoy the experience when it became obvious that iPhone is still not a top-notch device if you need it as a work tool. The lack of a full-function keyboard, primitive media sharing tools, and the multiple extra steps iOS makes you go through to navigate from app to app, all wore me down.
So, after less than a year with iPhone 7, I took the plunge and switched to Google’s Pixel XL, running Android 7.1.2 (Nougat).
But it’s certainly better than iPhone 7 Plus in my opinion, by a small margin.
The Pixel feels faster than the iPhone, the camera is very good, and the battery life is excellent. In addition, it comes with the most advanced version of Android, with guaranteed updates direct from Google, so there are no security issues.
And that verdict comes from someone who was pro-Apple before I picked one up. Here’s why:
In January, I flew from London to attend a conference in the Swiss Alps (#FirstWorldProblems, I know). I arrived at night and got lost in waist-deep snow on the way to my chalet. It was very cold and very dark. There was no one else around. By the time I found my front door I had spent 45 minutes staggering around in sub-zero night air. I used my iPhone flashlight app as a torch and the battery held out the whole time, with juice to spare, even though it was at the end of the day. My iPhone saved me from hypothermia that night.
That made me realise why people stick with iPhone: If you want a phone you can rely on, iPhone is your friend. The battery life was the best of any phone I have ever owned. It was probably the most reliable — least buggy, non-crashy — phone I have owned so far.
The problem is that on most days I am not lost on a Swiss mountain. Most days, I need my phone to help me work: Email, calendar, camera, social media, notes and news take up 99% of my smartphone’s life. And iPhone 7 Plus was not great at many of these tasks.
So, when I dropped the iPhone one day and the screen shattered into a thousand pieces, I decided it was time for change.
After several weeks with the Pixel XL here are all the positives and negatives.
- The Pixel feels faster. If there is any delay or lag when you’re using the phone it’s imperceptible.
- The touch-to-wake fingerprint scanner is excellent. It doesn’t just switch on your phone, it unlocks it at the same time. That reduces two clunky steps on the iPhone into one flawless, fluid movement on Pixel. Having the scanner on the back turns out to be the right location, too. That’s how you hold your phone when you look at it.
- No home button is cool. iPhone is about to copy the “no home button” trend that started on Android. I can tell you it looks awesome and works just fine.
- The snooze alarm is actually 10 minutes. And not Apple’s overly fussy 9 minutes.
- A swipe keyboard that actually works. You can buy a swipe keyboard app for iPhone, but it’s not as good as the free built-in one on Android.
- Google’s apps all work properly. One of the final incidents that tipped me out of iPhone and into Android was when I met a source who works for Spotify and saw he was using a Pixel. I asked him if he liked it and he said he loved it. Spotify uses a lot of Google apps internally, he said, so he needed a phone that worked with them flawlessly. I don’t know why Google’s apps are so truncated on iPhone, but they are.
- The built-in gif keyboard is awesome. So much easier to send funny gifs on Android than it is in iPhone.
- An actual “back” button that works. Apple’s refusal to create a fully functional back-button inside iOS, and to rely instead on a jumble of different functions that differ via app, just feels dumb by comparison.
- An actual “menu” button that works. Android lovers know what I’m talking about here. This is the button you push to find out what else you can do right now, wherever you are in your phone or in an app. It’s like having a trusted friend giving you good advice on how to use your phone.
- The Android notification screen. There is no way to explain this adequately to iPhone users: Android’s biggest strength is its notification screen which lets you jump into any area of the phone from a single place. iPhone has a simplified version of this but it’s just not the same.
- Battery life is great. Not quite as good as iPhone 7 Plus, but in the same ballpark. I have never run out of juice in a single day, and I never carry a charger.
- It is very, very reliable. Android phones were once known for having all the most exciting new functions and designs, even when they weren’t ready for primetime. That often made them buggy. Restarting your Android to get it to work properly was a normal condition of life in Androidland two years ago. Not anymore. Pixel just works.
- The system folder is baffling. Android has almost comically endless system options. If you are a hardcore user, this is a plus. But at the moment, tapping Android’s system icon is like diving into the movie “Inception” — it’s tough to tell which level of the dream you’re in, and whether you need to go down a level or escape back up while you still can.
- The phone did not come with earbuds. WTF Google. This is entry-level stuff.
- The Uber app is worse. To be fair, this is Uber’s fault not Google’s. But my phone is now my car, and so I need this basic service to function properly. (And as Apple is discovering in China, users tend to be more loyal to apps than they are to the devices they sit on.)
- The selfie camera has excessive “beauty face,” and you can’t nix it. If you think I’m looking a little bit pink these days, that’s why.
- The volume buttons are next to the on/off button. For right-handed people holding the phone with their left hands, this puts your fingers gripping those buttons — leading to many accidental button pushes.
- Android phones come with everything in the default “on” position. There is a ritual Android users go through in the first few weeks when they own a new phone: You spend that time hunting down functions and apps that came in the default “on” position out of the box, and switching them to “off” or “silent.” I understand that Google wants to show me what the phone can do. But it’s a drag on battery life when every little thing inside your phone is screaming for your attention all day.
The Pixel, in short, is proof that high-end Android will continue to threaten Apple’s dominance of the smartphone market.
There is something about Android done properly — as opposed to cheaply — that is very, very compelling. After all, now that Android is as reliable as iPhone then the two systems compete head-to-head on functionality and usefulness, which are both areas where Android has long been ahead.
Don’t believe me? Check out Samsung’s mobile revenues recently, and bear in mind that the 15% increase in unit sales came despite its flagship product literally blowing up in people’s faces.