ANDROID

The Evolution of Google Pixel Phones: From 2016 to Present

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When you think of buying an Android phone, the Google Pixel series is probably not the first one that comes to mind. Despite being a tech giant, Google's smartphone market share is close to negligible. In a way, this makes sense because Google is not a hardware company, but a software company.

Regardless, its journey has been something worth monitoring. And with the latest Google Pixel 6 being a supposed game-changer, the company is aiming to steal some of that pie. Let's look at what led the Google Pixel series this far.

2016: The First All-Google Phone

google pixel phone

Technically, the first Google phone was not the Google Pixel but the Nexus One. It was manufactured by HTC in 2010. In fact, the whole Nexus series was made in collaboration with other brands such as HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Huawei.

Released in 2016, the Pixel and the Pixel XL were Google's first native in-house smartphones that came with Android 7.1 out of the box. Right from the get-go, Google's approach to the Pixel was very clear: clean software, great camera, and unlimited cloud storage for Google Photos. It was a pretty sweet deal.

And for a long time, the Pixel family remained the best camera phones you could buy. With great colors, accurate bokeh effect, high dynamic range, and that iconic high-contrast confident look, the Pixel had it all. That was until its own successor one-upped it.

2017: The Black and White "Panda Pixel"

Pixel-2-XL
Image Credit: Damien Wilde

The Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL were yet again the best stock Android phones on the market at the time. The Pixel 2 XL variant came with a black and white design—nicknamed by many as the "Panda Pixel".

The Pixel 2 family came with Android 8.0, and it was the first time a Pixel device offered optimal image stabilization in the main camera unit. The base storage was now increased to 64GB instead of the 32GB on the predecessor.

The battery life on the Pixel 2 family was still a bummer, though. The vanilla Pixel 2 capped at 2700mAh (the first Pixel had 2770mAh), while the Pixel 2 XL saw a negligible bump at 3520mAh capacity (the Pixel XL had 3450mAh). The colored power button on the side definitely added flavor to its design, though.

2018: The Infamous Bathtub Notch

The Pixel 3 family launched with two devices in 2018: the vanilla Pixel 3 and the premium Pixel 3 XL. Later in 2019, Google added on the Pixel 3 family with a new affordable Pixel 3a and the affordable-premium mashup Pixel 3a XL. It was a mess.

Adding to that mess, the Pixel 3 XL was by far the most awkward and hated design we've seen on the series due to that giant notch at the top of the screen. Fans sometimes referred to it as the "bathtub notch" given its comically large width and shape.

Although we'd take the Panda Pixel any day over the notch-city Pixel 3 XL, the latter did have some noticeable improvements. The Pixel 3 family came with an IP68 rating, a Snapdragon 845 chip, Android 9, and wireless charging. Sadly, the battery life remained a bummer on both devices.

2019: The Almost Tolerable Pixel

Pixel-4
Image Credit: Marques Brownlee

By 2017, most manufacturers had already moved to a dual or a triple camera setup. But Google stuck to its single main camera setup until 2018.

When asked, Google said it found adding a second lens unnecessary as its machine learning tech and computational photography were enough. The company even made an ad mocking Apple for adding a second lens.

Not long after, Google did what most companies do after mocking Apple: take back their words and pretend it never happened. Nearing 2019, Google took down the ad and released the Pixel 4—Google's first dual main camera phone.

But before you get all excited, do note that the second main lens was not an ultra-wide lens, but a telephoto one. Google said it thought the latter is more important. Now, we're not necessarily disagreeing, but do keep in mind that you can't widen a photo after taking it, but you can zoom in. Just saying.

Design-wise, you'd think that after that ridiculous bathtub notch, Google would've worked to create a better screen. But nope, instead of a bathtub notch, the Pixel 4 had a giant top bezel which was also much larger than the one at the bottom—giving the device an awkward look.

Google's justification for that giant notch was all the new sensors that it housed including the selfie camera, infrared projector, receiver, and radar. Although the sensors did help make face unlock faster, the added features and overall execution were way too clumsy to be useful and not worth losing screen estate for.

2020: A Cautious Upgrade

Google-Pixel-5
Image Credit: Marques Brownlee

If we had to describe the Pixel 5 in one word, it'd be cautious. The device is not trying to prove to be something that it's not. The Pixel 5 finally brought a design we could live with in the form of a minimalistic punch-hole front camera.

Add to that the new ultra-wide main camera, no gimmicky radar features, more RAM, a respectable 4080mAh battery, fingerprint sensor on the back, reverse charging, and most importantly, a cheaper price tag.

In a lot of ways, the Pixel 5 made way more sense for a mainstream buyer as opposed to just enthusiasts and tech geeks. However, 2020 was also the year when Google launched the Pixel 4a which carried most of the features of the Pixel 5 but cost only half as much.

Naturally, the Pixel 4a drew more attention than the Pixel 5, despite not having an ultra-wide camera and worse battery life. Google phones are not exactly known for their hardware anyway, so it's not surprising that the cheaper device that can house all of Google's software ended up being preferred more.

2021: A Leap of Faith

google pixel 6

As great as Pixel devices are with their camera glory and special Google features, they have been hard to recommend given their obvious compromises. For average consumers, buying a phone is more so about reliability and value for money than flashy features.

That's where Google Pixel phones couldn't live up to the expectations due to the poor hardware, questionable design choices, and an overall lack of improvements. So far, the Google Pixel series has mostly targeted enthusiasts—as evident by their poor sales.

In 2021, Google wants to change that with the Pixel 6 family. This time, the devices not only have a major design refresh (allegedly inspired by the Nexus 6P) but also come with Android 12 out of the box with a fresh new UI called Material You.

With the Pixel 6, Google is promising three years of major Android updates and five years of security updates to sit alongside a new all-Google custom processor, better camera performance, tons of new software features, a faster charging speed, and more. The device is packed with significant improvements including solid hardware and the gold ol' stock Android.

The Best Software on an Android

Google's journey in the smartphone industry hasn't been the most dramatic, but it has definitely been worth keeping a watch over. With every new Pixel, we get to see the latest and greatest of Android. While Pixel devices have suffered in the past, the Pixel 6 is a breath of fresh air.

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