Google has tried everything but building the best phone

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At 1PM ET, Google will try its best to convince millions of people to buy a Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro instead of Apple’s iPhone 13 or a Samsung Galaxy. Will it work? That depends on whether Google does something it’s never managed to do with a phone launch: fire on every cylinder.

The Google Pixel has never been the it phone, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink phone, the phone early adopters crave. Samsung originally cornered the Android side of that market with the Galaxy Note, and it was 2017 when Apple crossed the $1,000 mark with the iPhone X and followed it up with the pricey Pro and Pro Max.

Google has arguably never had a truly flagship phone to call its own: while the search giant’s incredible camera software has made the Pixel punch above its weight for years, the company’s otherwise been competing in the budget flagship tier. The Pixel, Pixel 2, Pixel 3, and Pixel 5 were all priced to take on an entry-level iPhone, instead of shooting for the moon — which makes some sense, considering how little in the way of marketing, carrier partnerships and raw hardware prowess Google could muster for each.

While Google has arguably had a hand in every flagship Android phone release going back to the T-Mobile G1 / HTC Dream in 2008 and the Nexus program from 2010 to 2015, it was never in charge of its destiny to the degree an Apple or even Samsung is today. Until 2019’s Pixel 3a, every Google phone relied on a revolving door of third-party smartphone manufacturers for its hardware stack, including Motorola, HTC, LG, and Huawei.

The budget Pixel 3A was the first device to find a sales niche by bringing Google’s excellent camera to a $399 phone (briefly winning an estimated 0.4 percent marketshare). It was also the first phone that was fully developed by a Google team including former HTC designers and engineers. (The company acqui-hired them for $1.1 billion in 2018.) After the failure of the Pixel 4, that Pixel 3A’s balance of simplistic design, capable camera and mid-range features has informed every subsequent Google phone launch — until now.

Google has been signaling for months that the Pixel 6 is a turning point. The Google phone is premium again. We haven’t seen Google-branded hardware this comparatively ambitious since the priciest Nexus phones, and we likely haven’t seen a marketing budget this big since the very first Pixel, if ever. Google hardware boss Rick Osterloh told us in August that the company is “ready to invest a lot in marketing” in order to grow the brand, and the budget was apparently significant enough for CFO Ruth Porat to namedrop it on an earnings call.

The Pixel 6 design.
GIF: Google

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro also have a design like no other phones, placing their multiple cameras into a huge camera bar reminiscent of a Star Wars droid, with a distinctive pop of color up top. The reported presence of a new 50-megapixel camera that pulls in 150 percent more light shows that Google’s finally moving forward, alongside a wide-angle sensor and a 4x periscope zoom on the Pro — while up front, large curved screens with high refresh rates, hole-punch cameras, and minimal bezels cement the premium look of both phones. They’ve reportedly got gigantic batteries, too, up to 5,000mAh, addressing the biggest issue that sunk the Pixel 4, and an under-display fingerprint reader.

And for the very first time, a Pixel will have Google’s own chip at its heart: a new SoC called Tensor designed by Google itself with “totally differentiated” AI performance (it may contain an unusual combination of off-the-shelf CPU and GPU cores).

The idea seems to be that Google will pull an Apple — by controlling the whole hardware and software stack, it could theoretically offer features and optimized performance like we’ve never seen from the company’s previous Qualcomm-based phones.

According to leaked product pages, the new Pixels will introduce four perks in particular that likely owe something to the new chip: a Magic Eraser feature that can automatically remove an unwanted object from a photo, a Face Unblur feature that can stabilize a blurry photo, a Live Translate feature for real-time language translation without an internet connection — and a guaranteed five years of security updates. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if any of it will be enough.

Apple’s iPhones have never been stronger, with the iPhone 13 lineup improving on the already-capable iPhone 12 in practically every way, and this year it’s the Pixel’s cameras that are playing catch-up. Carriers have been pushing unheard of iPhone trade-in deals that effectively offer even a $1,000 model for “free” over 24 months even if you’re trading in a three-year-old iPhone, making those offers even sweeter. Given the relative value of an old Pixel phone, it’s very hard to imagine AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon offering Google’s customers the same.

Leaked prices are giving me pause, too. Multiple sources are reporting Target is internally listing the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro at $599 and $898 respectively. That would mean they start cheaper than the Pixel 5, which seems weird — while I’ll happily take a lower price if I can get it, it suggests that Google’s either subsidizing these phones itself (perhaps because it’s not getting that boost from carriers) or it’s cutting some corners. While I would hope Google has figured out its quality control, many of the company’s phones have had some ugly issues in the past, including manufacturing defects and battery issues that led to bootloops with the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, screen quality control issues with the Pixel 2 XL, and a growing number of mysteriously bricked Pixel 3s. Some Pixel 5 phones also had a weird display gap. I know people who won’t even consider a Google phone anymore, burned by one too many bootloops.

At the very least, the prices suggest to me that Google probably doesn’t have other premium hardware features up its sleeves — Google might meet the iPhone, but it probably won’t beat it this year.

Luckily for Google, its definition of success is relative. The Nikkei reports that Google is merely trying to produce 7 million of its new Pixel 6 phones, reportedly only double the company’s smartphone shipments last year. (Apple and Samsung have been known to ship 80 million phones per quarter.) The company doesn’t need to break the Apple-Samsung duopoly by convincing us to forgo an iPhone or Galaxy this year; it just needs a win.

Google just needs a phone that stands out from the pack, a massive marketing and awareness campaign, carrier partnerships across the globe, a class-leading camera, great battery life, speedy performance, an attractive design, good reviews, and no red flags. If it all works out — if Google can hit on all cylinders — perhaps it can use that success as a springboard to go even harder next year.

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