The Google Pixel 2 leak highlights how ho-hum hardware has become

But believe it or not, that's not a bad thing -- because it lets us focus on the part of a smartphone that matters the most in 2017.

Gather 'round by the fireplace, kiddos, 'cause Granpappy Writer Guy wants to talk about the Good Ol' Days™ of mobile technology.

'Twas a time, you see -- way back in the ancient early part of this here 2010 decade -- when every new smartphone release was downright exhilarating, all because of each device's newfangled physical hardware. Maybe the display was light-years better than what we'd seen before, in a way that was obvious even to the untrained eye. Maybe the camera took glorious photos that made our previous devices look like potatoes in comparison. Maybe the phone was sleeker, snazzier, stronger, speedier, or just plain sexier in a difficult-to-describe, je-ne-sais-quoi sort of sense.

Whatever it was, for a while, every new generation of smartphone put the last one to shame. Things were progressing by leaps and bounds, and with Android in particular, it often felt like each month brought transformative new technology that turned existing phones into near-instant relics.

Then something happened: We reached a point where the hardware was pretty darn spectacular -- and the generational leaps thus evolved into mere tiptoes, or sometimes even just baby-sized sidesteps from what we already had. Sure, phone-makers kept working to cram in more pixels, faster processors, thinner thigh-meat, better this-and-thats -- anything that'd provide an impressive-sounding bullet point to put on a marketing graphic or into a made-for-TV ad. But from a practical perspective, most of it simply stopped mattering in any meaningful way.

That's important context to keep in mind as we gear up for what's sure to be a flood of fresh leaks showing off Google's next-gen Pixel phone. The first real trickle wet our virtual tootsies this week when the dedicated detectives at Android Police published a purported image of the upcoming 2017 Pixel XL device. And you know what? There's no denying it's a nice-looking device.

Google Pixel XL 2017 Leak Android Police

Someone asked me on Twitter what I thought about it, though -- and I realized I didn't have much to say. "Looks...kinda like a phone," I responded. And it'll be interesting to see what meaningfully sets it apart from the previous-gen model.

Now, don't get me wrong: I think the first-gen Pixel is a fantastic phone and one that still today, coming up on a year from its release, provides the best all-around Android experience available for most people. I think there's a good chance the second-gen Pixel will follow in those footsteps and retain that position. But the hardware itself -- yes, even that reduced bezel-to-screen ratio that's all the rage these days -- is only a tiny sliver of the picture.

I've written before about how phones have become mere vessels in our mobile tech adventures -- frameworks for the more important and impactful software, ecosystem, and overall user experience that exist inside. Those latter pieces of the puzzle are the ones that affect us most significantly on a day-to-day basis over the life of a modern smartphone. As the vessel, the best thing a phone can do is get out of the way and allow those core elements to shine without screwing them up.

The Pixel is the perfect example. Sure, the current model has a stellar camera, a stunning display, and all that jazz. And sure, you should like the way it looks and feels and find its size suitable for your phone-carrying preferences. But at a certain point -- one I'd argue we've more or less reached -- all of those elements are simply part of the baseline expectation for what a high-end smartphone should be. What makes the phone exceptional is what's inside and how that holds up over time.

And that's where the factors I mentioned a minute ago -- software, ecosystem, and overall user experience (which, yes, includes post-sales support for future OS upgrades and security patch rollouts) -- come into play. With the Pixel in particular, those are the factors that place the phone in a league of its own. There's a reason the Pixel has become a standard of comparison for pretty much every Android device that's followed, and that reason has little to do directly with specs or design.

To be fair, leaks may or may not be entirely accurate -- and even when they are, they often don't tell the full story of what a phone entails. There may end up being something about the next-gen Pixel's physical form that truly does wow and intrigue. (It could be the device's reported squeeze-based gesture capability -- maybe?! -- or who knows; it could be something else we haven't yet seen.)

If recent trends are any indication, though, it'll be the phone's less tangible qualities that matter more in the long run and end up having the greatest practical impact on potential owners' lives. With modern mobile devices, those are the differentiating characteristics that have become the most significant -- and the most important for discerning users to seek out and consider.

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