Google's Pixel 2 embraces the reality everyone else is ignoring

The question now is how long it'll take other manufacturers — and ultimately customers — to come around to the idea.

Google Pixel 2

I'm just gonna come out and say it: If you're still obsessing over bezels, you've got your eye on the wrong prize.

Sure, most smartphone manufacturers want you to see those sexy edge-to-edge screens and feel that tingly, gotta-have-it sensation. They're fresh, they're new, they're futuristic-looking — the gadget within must be better than what you have now, right?

Well, maybe. The truth, though, is that that sort of superficial quality is far from the most significant factor most people should be prioritizing when pondering a new phone. Selling hardware isn't easy, especially these days, and device-makers know they need to latch onto readily visible or measurable marketing points if they want folks to open up their ears and wallets. That's why we saw obsessions over things like extreme thinness, maximum megapixels, and utmost display density in the past.

The current bezel craze is no different. (And like those previous gimmicks, it actually brings with it some significant downsides — especially if you're an Apple user but for those of us on Android as well.) It's a trend, the latest in a bottomless bag of tricks that's more about selling smartphones than providing anything of practical benefit. It may make a product seem different enough from its predecessor to catch your eye, but it sure as hell won't enhance your life in any meaningful way.

You know what will? Software. Software is what matters the most when it comes to a modern smartphone, on Android in particular — and if there's one thing to take away from this week's Google Pixel 2 launch, that oughta be it.

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After dancing delicately around the subject for the past few years, Google outright acknowledged the reality most of the industry is working desperately to ignore — and it did so just moments into its Pixel presentation.

"Core features are table stakes now," Google Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh confessed shortly after taking the stage. "It's gonna be tougher and tougher for people to develop new, exciting products each year, because that's no longer the timetable for big leaps forward in hardware alone. And that's why we're taking a very different approach."

Do those sentiments sound familiar? They should. We've been talking about them in this column for some time now — about how phones have become mere vessels in our mobile tech adventures. As I've written before, our phones have essentially turned into frameworks for the more important and impactful software, ecosystem, and overall user experiences that exist inside. And 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 mobile device.

It's not something most companies that make their money selling hardware want to admit, but think about it: Software is what makes the Pixel's camera special. It's also what makes managing photos from the phone spectacularly simple. Google Photos is unparalleled when it comes to the ease of image backups and ongoing image management (including intelligent searching and sharing).

And while any device can take advantage of the basic Photos service, the Pixel is the only one that makes it a core part of the phone-using experience. The product provides unlimited full-res backups at no extra cost — a privilege you'd otherwise pay anywhere from $2 to $100 a month eternally to have, depending on how large your photo and video libraries grow — along with an automated system for thoughtlessly freeing up local copies of media whenever they're synced and space is needed.

On a broader level, software is what makes the experience of actually using a phone pleasant — or not. So many Android manufacturers change things for the very sake of change, and the result tends to be a disjointed mishmosh of an interface in which graphical styles and even navigation methods are wildly inconsistent throughout a device (not to mention its surrounding ecosystem).

Software is the difference between your phone having all sorts of confusingly overlapping apps and superfluous services — services larded on to benefit the coffers of some company at the expense of your user experience — and your phone having only the typically-best-in-class Google services, from the voice assistant to the app store, that you actually want to use.

And perhaps most significantly, software is the ongoing maintenance and updating of your device to ensure it improves and stays secure over time. Most Android manufacturers are inexcusably awful at providing timely ongoing upgrades to their existing users, both with OS releases and with monthly security patches. Google is, quite literally, the sole exception. With this year's Pixel 2, the company is upping the guarantee from two to three years for both security patches and OS updates — something I called for last year and am delighted to see answered today.

With most other devices, you're lucky to get a single OS upgrade six months after its release, let alone ongoing and near-instant upgrades for a full three years. The importance of that contrast can't be overstated.

Plain and simple, software is the part of your phone you interact with most intimately and most often. It's the part of your phone that has the potential to evolve over time — if the maker of your device is so motivated — and to keep your device feeling fresh year after year. So think about your phone over the 12, 24, or 36 months you might use it, and ask yourself: Do you want a neat-looking vessel that's bound to be mostly ignored or even outright abandoned after you buy it, or do you want a pragmatic gadget that's going to give you an optimal and always-up-to-date user experience for the next three years?

And let's not forget: The most common complaints about Android — the messy UIs, the bloatware, the inconsistencies, the performance hiccups, the slow and unreliable upgrades and resulting dated devices — all revolve exclusively around software. Consequently, they're all irrelevant non-issues on a Pixel. That's no coincidence.

This isn't 2010 anymore. In 2017, it's a smartphone's less tangible qualities that matter the most in the long run. No doubt, the beauty of Android is the diversity of devices its open model allows, and there are certainly still arguments to be made for buying feature-laden flagships from third-party manufacturers.

For the majority of users, though, Google's own Pixel is differentiated in the areas that are going to be the most meaningfully and practically impactful, even if they aren't the ad-friendly areas that grab the most immediate attention. As someone who recommends devices to others, it seems increasingly appropriate to view the Pixel as the de facto "best all-around balance" standard for most people — the "iPhone of Android," as it were — with other devices serving more niche-oriented needs and priorities. And, you guessed it: That's all because of software.

Now let's see if Google can ever figure out how to get the phone on store shelves and actually sell it in a way that counts.

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