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The Pixel is a real testament to good software

We're used to bad software ruining good hardware. But in the Google Pixel's case, outstanding software saves relatively bad hardware.

Published onAugust 19, 2017

For years now the importance of smartphone software has taken a back seat in the arms race known as the specs war. How often have we lamented a beautiful piece of hardware – take most HUAWEI phones prior to the EMUI 5 update or Xiaomi phones to this date – ‘ruined’ by a bad software experience? But with the first Google Pixel, those poles were reversed, and largely horrible hardware was miraculously saved by superior software.

The Pixel's camera software has its origins in Google Glass

I know there are plenty of fans of the Pixel hardware out there – our own Joe Hindy is one of them, and we’ve debated the merits of the Pixel’s nuts and bolts at length. And while I’m not straight-up calling the Pixel’s hardware a dumpster fire, I would definitely call it dumpster fire adjacent. Defend the Pixe’s build quality if you will, but you can’t tell me it’s on the same level as the Galaxy S8, LG G6 or even the OnePlus 5. But there’s a good reason for why this is so…

Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica did a superb piece of sleuthing when the Pixel was launched to back up his convincing claim that the Google Pixel was simply a gutted HTCmid-ranger. Google’s original hardware partner, HUAWEI, reportedly backed out at the last minute over a branding dispute, resulting in HTCoffering up a sacrifice of one of its children to the Google gods.

I’ve acknowledged elsewhere that what Google achieved in such an incredibly short timeframe was nothing short of a miracle and it should be applauded for the result. But again, that sentiment relates primarily to the software and camera, not the hardware generally (even if the chipset, RAM and so on naturally contribute to the software experience). Then, as now, I find the Pixel – as an object – to be uninspiring and infinitely forgettable.

Then, as now, I find the Pixel – as an object – to be uninspiring and infinitely forgettable.

The Pixel feels cheap, the glass on the front and back scratches incredibly easily, the ‘paint’ rubs off on the edges where it gets the most action and if you ever drop the thing, it fails to even vaguely hide dents and scrapes. If this phone had appeared under HTC’s banner it would’ve been mocked for what it is: a nondescript mid-range chassis that looks and feels like one. But add that Google logo – and again, that software and image processing – and suddenly perspectives change.

The reason I’m bashing the Pixel’s lackluster hardware and undoubtedly inciting rage in Pixel fans, is to point out the redemptive power of software. We rarely see a phone’s hardware dominated by its software these days and when we do, it’s usually in the reverse direction mentioned above.

The Pixel software is so good that it makes me forget there's a cheap HTCshell around it.

But the Pixel software is so fluid, so enjoyable, so clean, that it makes me forget there’s a cheap HTCshell around it. I don’t even care what chipset is in the thing or how much RAM it has, that’s how good Android is on it. With software that good Google had no need to get into a specs pissing contest with the likes of Samsung, LG and others, and the Pixel experience is in no way diminished by the lack of it.

While I know several folks have had issues with the Android O developer previews, my Pixel has been remarkably stable with no noticeable battery drain. I’ve bounced around this year between the cream of the flagship crop, and yet I keep coming back to the worst piece of hardware in my drawer. Because of the software.

I keep coming back to the worst piece of hardware in my drawer this year. Because of the software.

This is exciting for several reasons:

  1. It proves that the specs sheet, as enticing as it can be, is not the be all and end all of a device. That a company can put out uninspiring hardware and still end up with a phone I’d easily rank among the year’s best;
  2. As Adam Sinicki duly noted in his recent Android Instant Apps explainer, we’re steadily entering a post-specs era where expensive hardware will be increasingly less important because most processing will be done off-device;
  3. And Android (at least on the Pixel) has almost fully entered the mature phase we saw the first hints of in Marshmallow, where the OS has become so good that it is now the main event rather than the shiny glass and metal that surrounds it. As much as it pains me to say it, that’s something iOS users have enjoyed for a while, but now Android has caught up.

With every Android phone I’ve had over the years, I’ve suffered slow down, lag, stutters, crashes and worse. But on the Pixel, even running developer previews, I’ve enjoyed a more stable and polished software experience than I have on many previous stable builds. I can’t wait to put Android 8.0 on my phone on Monday. Even if that phone is still the Pixel.

When the Pixel 2 drops later this year, I’ll be among the first to pick one up. I can’t wait to see the improvements Google will have made to the already outstanding Pixel camera processing. I’ll be psyched to see what new Pixel-only exclusives might make it to the handset, where barely a year ago I, like most Nexus fans, wasn’t too happy about missing out on new features. That it’ll be running stable Android 8.0 out of the box only makes it more enticing.

That is the redemptive power of software at work. I haven’t been this excited for a new device, primarily because of its software, in a long time. If ever. Perhaps because I dislike the current Pixels’ hardware so much I’m basically guaranteed a better hardware experience in its successor. But if my distaste for the original Pixel has taught me anything, it’s that hardware, at least to me, doesn’t matter as much as software anymore.

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