google pixel 4 vs pixel 3 vs pixel 3a - Pixel feature drops

Opinion post by
Oliver Cragg

We’re all pretty familiar with the smartphone hype cycle at this point. A phone comes out, the reviews follow, it hits the market, and then rumors and leaks start to emerge for its successor about six months later. Then the upgrade comes out, usually as part of an annualized tick-tock model, you get a fleeting moment of joy out of holding that shiny piece of new tech, and then we repeat the whole process all over again.

This pattern is largely transferable to consumer buying habits, though many consumers in the Western world are happy to wait until their contract agreements (usually 24 months) expire instead of trashing their old phone (recycle it please!) for the very latest model every twelve months.

One year, two years, maybe even three years or more for those that stick with phones until they fully croak — that’s a whole lot of days and hours spent with a device that barely changes, at least not in ways you might immediately notice.

That’s why I’m really intrigued by Google’s “feature drops” initiative for Pixel phones, and why I hope it represents a small step towards making our phones more exciting well beyond launch.

What are Pixel Feature Drops?

google pixel portrait blur filter

For those that missed the news, Google announced in a blog post that it would be rolling out a bunch of new features for select Pixel phones in one huge batch. The first drop included a very cool Google Photos tweak that lets you add a bokeh-style portrait effect to photos not originally taken in portrait mode. Check it out in the GIF above.

You can read about all the other additions here and the second drop that followed in March here, though my real interest isn’t in the specifics, but the structure and intention. The initial announcement post kicks off with a blunt mission statement:

Your phone should get better over time. Your Pixel automatically updates regularly with fixes and improvements. Now, your Pixel will also get bigger updates in new Pixel feature drops.

Google later clarified that these feature drops will have a “quarterly cadence,” which in non-flowery speak means Pixel users will be seeing a raft of new features hit their phones every three months or so.

Old phones made new again

Google Pixel camera cluster closeup

It should go without saying, but Google isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here. Pixel phones have leveraged software to paper over the cracks left by increasingly disappointing hardware for years — both for the phone’s initial feature set and in software updates following launch.

It’s also, of course, not the only OEM that provides significant phone upgrades long after release through software. OnePlus, in particular, has been leading the charge on this front. It seems like a month doesn’t go by without its OxygenOS-powered phones enjoying a sweet new treat, for new and old models alike. Likewise, Samsung’s One UI is rapidly and organically growing into a versatile, feature-rich Android skin.

What if your old phone felt new again every 90 days?

You could argue Google is taking a page out of OnePlus’ playbook by committing to frequent feature updates for its Pixel series phones. The difference, however, is that “cadence.”

Instead of relying on a feast and famine rollout of fresh features through new hardware, seemingly random iterative updates, or flagship Android upgrades, Google is making it clear to Pixel users that new camera modes, apps, and other tweaks will be arriving in bulk on a quarterly schedule. Never mind having to wait for Android 11 or the inevitable Pixel 5, your old phone can feel new again every ninety days.

Let the hype cycle die… kill it if you have to

It should be noted that Google almost certainly won’t be busy crafting new features specifically to suit these drops. Many of the features will have already been in the works months prior, the only difference is they’re being bundled together.

Yet, this simple act could prove to be a savvy move that goes some way to replicating the feeling of instant gratification that comes with experiencing something new, only this time on devices that launched months ago — or for phones like the Pixel 2, devices entering their twilight years.

For starters, the feature drop scheme adds prestige to the Pixel brand. The guarantee of timely, feature-rich update bundles is another reason Google can recommend its Pixel line over the competition. If it wants to fully commit to the concept, Google could also use the drops to further showcase its ever-evolving vision of what Android should look like on a quarterly schedule, rather than waiting around for Google I/O once a year.

If Pixel feature drops catch on, other OEMs may be forced to up their software game too.

While it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, Google’s initiative could even prompt industry-wide change. It’s no secret that the smartphone industry has hit a kind-of hardware plateau where it’s becoming harder and harder to really raise the stakes (at least until foldables find their feet), resulting in stagnation and falling sales. The real innovation is coming in the software. Not convinced? Just look at how Google’s approach to crafting its widely-acclaimed Pixel cameras.

Instead of looking to the latest chipset or higher megapixel camera for a minor jolt of excitement, we should instead be asking more from our phones’ software suites. As the creator of Android and with an armada of software and AI experts under its command, Google is in a prime position to push software expectations in the wider smartphone culture.

Google Recorder on Pixel 4.

Unfortunately, while Pixel users have always enjoyed updates with new features throughout their lifespans (albeit at random intervals until now), consumers with other phone brands haven’t always been as lucky. If the Pixel feature drops catch on, it will hopefully force other OEMs to up their game or risk being left behind.

Related: Google Pixel 4 vs Pixel 3 vs Pixel 3a: Which Google phone is right for you?

Whether it’s delivering something as groundbreaking as Call Screening or as seemingly mundane as an overpowered voice recorder app, Google’s quarterly feature drops are a smart, simple way of piquing smartphone fans’ excitement levels outside of breakout leaks, flashy launch events, and that rush you get when you turn on a brand new smartphone for the first time.

Who knows if other manufacturers will follow in Google’s footsteps, but until they do, I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next drop.

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