To make Pixel phones great, Google needs to nail the basics

Having ventured outside of the Pixel phone realm over the past few years, I’ve come away from my experiences with devices from OnePlus, ASUS and Samsung with a better feel for what exactly makes Pixels stand out from the crowd, and I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Google knows what that thing is.

In the Android phone space, the challenge is always how to compete with Apple and Samsung in one way or another. Different companies have different ways of going about it, but the end result is always the same target: stand out at whatever cost so customers might choose your brand as opposed to the others. Many have tried here in the US market and many have failed to overcome the vice grip Samsung and Apple have on the market at this point, and it could be argued that Google is still operating in that group.

While not a complete failure to the point of getting out of the phone game altogether, Google hasn’t made a huge splash in the 6 years they’ve been building phones, and part of that is due to the fact that they are still dabbling in the “look what I can do” game instead of simply building the best phone they can and marketing it as such. At the end of the day, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are great phones that don’t come with too many goofy gimmicks and keep the price tag more in-check than the competitors.

Feature Drops are nice, but distracting

But Google isn’t immune to the lure of the gimmick. Their attack in the feature set war comes via Pixel Feature Drops. These regular updates drop a bunch of new features for Pixel users months and years after the initial purchase. It’s a cool part of being in the Pixel club and I like looking forward to new abilities for my phone just like the next person; but there’s a difference between adding truly useful features and being a bit distracted from the main goal by constantly working on new stuff when the standard features of your smartphone are still broken.

For instance, no one wants a Feature Drop when their LTE and 5G keep dropping. No one is asking for more features when their basic fingerprint authentication is basically useless. No one is looking the other way when simple, long-standing features like Wi-Fi fail to function as they should. Feature Drops are cool, but Google is delusional if they think these new, sometimes-fringe features are going to account for basic smartphone functionality failures.

Am I frustrated as a Pixel fan right now? Sure! Aren’t you? While I don’t expect Google to have the full-blown ecosystem tie-ins that Samsung and Apple have at this point in the journey, I do expect them to have the basics cleaned up after 6 years of phone manufacturing. And I don’t think that is an unrealistic thing to expect of them, either.

But what I’ve recognized as I’ve used, left, and returned to the Pixel so many times is the fact that Google just does Android better than everyone else from a UI standpoint. All things being equal (if the connectivity bugs were all squashed and the fingerprint scanner worked better), when I pick up a Pixel phone, I enjoy the overall Android experience better. Period. And I feel like Google has forgotten that this is a winning formula for attracting people wandering around in the Android phone market.

What Google used to lean on with Pixel

While no one else does Android quite like Google, that gap is narrowing quite a bit. Samsung’s latest iteration of their One UI, OnePlus’ OxygenOS and even ASUS’ basic take on Android these days isn’t that far off of what you get on a Pixel. Is Google’s take better? Sure, but not by a huge margin as it once was. Instead, the clean UI of the Pixel is becoming a minor feature instead of a haven of what many refer to as the “stock Android” experience.

Then there’s the camera. Is the Pixel camera still the best you can get? That’s a subjective yes from me, but even then the gap is once again very narrow. I even wrote a piece about how my time with the Samsung Galaxy S22+ didn’t really have me missing the Pixel 6 camera at all. Though I’ve parted ways with that phone, I still feel that way. The camera on my Pixel 6 is great, but it’s not better enough than the competition for Google to continue leaning on it as THE REASON to pick up a Pixel. The truth is the Pixel camera is just not that much better than the rest these days.

What Google needs to focus on moving forward

So, what is the Pixel’s claim to fame if not the clean UI and staggering camera? To me, the answer becomes solidity. The Pixel lineup needs to become the most cohesive, bug-free, simple-to-use Android phones you can buy. The price needs to stay reasonable, the cameras need to stay top-notch, and the UI needs to stay clean. But with those things, Google must begin putting a premium on overall usability: maybe at the cost of Feature Drops for a bit.

What if they decided for 6 months to skip most of the new, little features they were planning and simply fixed the big issues users are complaining about. Would it be flashy? Nope. Would it make users happy and satisfied with their purchases? Yep. My Pixel 6 still drops network connections with shocking regularity. The fingerprint scanner seems better, but it could speed up a bit. And there are a few glitches here and there with the UI that could stand to be cleaned up.

Am I excited for the Feature Drop that should land later this month? I guess, but I’d be way more excited with a phone that absolutely nails the basic stuff without fail. The Samsung Galaxy S22+ wasn’t without its issues, either, and those little nagging failures in Samsung’s phones will likely always be there. I expect that from companies like Samsung since they are a hardware company trying to be good at software.

But Google is a software company trying to make it in the hardware business. For that reason alone, I really wish they would focus in on the core parts of that equation and make Pixels the most solid, most reliable phones on the market. Can they do that? I absolutely believe they can, but I’m not convinced they will. New, helpful features are fun and exciting, but not at the cost of basic functionality. It feels like Google has veered a bit too far to the side of feature bloat at the expense of the core issues. And that’s a mistake I don’t think they can afford to keep making. Here’s hoping some clarity and renewed focus can right the ship.