There’s never been a better time to buy a great smartphone. Which is part of the problem, when you think about it.
Just this year alone, we’ve been swamped with great choices, each of which offers some part of an emerging matrix of modern features such as curved and bezel-less displays, high-end cameras, and tall new form factors. From the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and Note 8 to the OnePlus 5 to the Apple iPhone X and, soon, Google’s new Pixels, and probably several others that simply aren’t on my radar, we are practically drowning in choice.
But when it comes to actually making that choice, we all have our own criteria. You may—or may not—agree with all three of attributes I cited above. You may place one over the other. You may have concerns, as I do, that phone prices are rising uncontrollably, and uncertainties about whether you can even afford these devices. Sometimes the best choice is sticking with what you’re already using.
Personally, 2017 has been a struggle. The iPhone 7 Plus I purchased last fall has been an ongoing disappointment, and it marks the first time an iPhone’s camera—a key attribute in my own internal smartphone ratings system—has performed more poorly than its predecessor. The photos it takes are uniformly hazy and lackluster, and they lack the HDR-like “pop” I get from many Android handsets, like the Nexus 6P/5X, Galaxy S8+, and Pixel XL. And the Portrait mode that Apple and its fans so routinely tout is terrible, with poor edge detection. I can’t recall ever being this disappointed in an iPhone camera.
That the iPhone is generally superior to Android is so many other ways shows the struggle of the choice we have. Apple’s iOS is stable, reliable, and, after a few messy years of transition, starting to become more consistent again too. The iPhone just works, which is a tired phrase, I know, but one that really does apply to the iPhone in the real world in a way that it cannot with almost any other product or service.
But you don’t need to be paying much attention to know that I’ve been teetering on the edge of abandoning the safe world of iOS and iPhone all year.
You could see it in my excitement about the expensive new Samsung Galaxy S8+, which I ultimately decided was just too costly. In my examination of low-end and mid-range Android devices that provided much better value but fell short from a camera perspective. In my belief that the Note 8 could offer all of the advantages of the S8+ combined with a bigger screen and an even higher cost. And my crushing disappointment with Apple’s lackluster new iPhone 8 and its terribly-notched and too-expensive iPhone X.
But it is Google’s coming second generation of Pixel handsets that has me the most excited. And, if I’m being honest, worried. What if Google screws this up?
I did eventually decided to switch to Android, of course, did, in fact, reveal this change on the eve of Apple’s new iPhone announcements, knowing that these devices would be uninteresting and uninspiring. (And boy did I nail that one.) And while it took longer than expected to make that shift, thanks in part to a bad decision on my part and some terrible customer support from Google, it did eventually happen. Yesterday, for the first time in several years, I only brought one smartphone, the Pixel XL, on a work trip. I know, that sounds unimpressive. But I’ve had two—sometimes three—phones with me every time I’ve traveled for work since I don’t know when. Many years.
I’m OK with Android. Am particularly OK with the pure Android that Google provides on its Pixel devices.
But that’s not really the point, though it does factor into my own decision-making process. That is, Android has improved enough that it’s no longer a point in the “Cons” column. It’s kind of a wash. It works fine. I understand it.
What this decision has made me realize is that my own smartphone choices are being driven by a number of things. And that it’s not as simple as camera, display, and form factor. In that order.
The real reason I am using a Pixel XL right now and will almost certainly be using a Pixel 2 XL going forward is that the combination of a superior camera and Project Fi cellular networking, with its inexpensive and transparent pricing and superb international capabilities, is what puts it over the top for me.
That is, I could have used the Pixel XL on AT&T and retained my phone number, which dates back to 2007. It would have been easy. But I went through the stress and pain of converting that number to Project Fi so that I could use that phone with the service that really matters to me. It’s the best of both worlds.
Looked at a different way, it is possible—remotely, but possible—that some phone—the iPhone X, the Note 8, whatever–has a camera that is superior to that of the Pixel XL or the coming Pixel 2 XL. But even if those cameras are rated a bit higher than that on the Pixel handsets, I wouldn’t switch. Because of Project Fi? Sort of: In many ways, Google’s network has emerged, for me, as the most important attribute. But that is also reliant on a compatible phone—like the Pixel—have an excellent camera. They go together.
That I can save money each month using Project Fi and not AT&T helps with the decision. That I will save tons of money each time I use Project Fi in Europe (or elsewhere) instead of AT&T really helps.
So, for me, the deck is stacked for the new Pixels. Which will almost certainly have a nearly bezel-less design, with that tall form factor that seems so modern and forward-leaning. That’s great.
The new Pixels will also most likely drop the headphone jack, will almost certainly not include expandable storage, and will absolutely certainly be super, super expensive. All of which is bad.
But that’s how the decision gets made. There is no perfect choice. You just weigh the pros and the cons and you pick according to what matters most to you. What’s goofy about this year, and the various things I looked at as it progressed, is that I really didn’t know what was most important to me. That it was, in fact, the combination of camera and network service.
Anyway, it’s G-Day. Today at noon ET, Google will announce those new Pixels alongside a new Chromebook, new Google Home devices, and more. And I’ll watch, rapt, and will likely skewer them a bit on Twitter because that’s what I do. But unless they drop the ball completely—and I’m trying to imagine what form that could take—I will almost certainly rush to beat the crowds and order an expensive new Pixel 2 XL that I can use for the next year or so.
Until it’s time to make a choice again.