Somewhere inside a deep, dark lab in Mountain View, a fully assembled Pixel 2 is being put through its paces. With a launch likely less than five months away, Google has all but wrapped up development of its next flagship phone, and very little about it is going to change between now and when it lands this fall.
But unlike last year, when the Pixel was a pleasant and somewhat unexpected surprise, there’s a whole mountain of expectations on this year’s model. The original Pixel was sort of given a pass on some of the premium features we normally expect from a $700 phone, mainly because the overall experience was so good. But as 2017 phones like the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 pack on the features and make the Pixel seem more and more outdated, there are some things this year’s model absolutely needs to do to keep pace.
We already know that the Pixel will have the smoothest version of Android O, but it’s going to need a little more than that if it wants to take the best phone crown away from Samsung.
What makes Pixel so good?
The greatness of the Pixel can be summed up in one word: friction. “Friction” is everything that gets between you and having a good experience doing what you want to do. The Pixel is the lowest-friction of all Android phones.
Waiting for Android OS updates is high-friction. With Pixel you get them immediately (and it was first with Android N, and first to support Daydream).
Dealing with photo and video backups and running out of storage space is high-friction. Pixel gives you unlimited full-resolution cloud backups of all the photos and videos you take with it.
Getting a great photo can be a high-friction activity. The Pixel has a dead-simple camera (maybe too simple) that is super fast and delivers a killer shot every time.
Slowdowns, jittery frame-skipping, unresponsive touchscreens...other Android phones are littered with minor performance annoyances that make using the phone “feel” worse than it should, even with top-end hardware. The Pixel’s performance may not lead all benchmark charts, but its instant response and consistent smoothness remain unmatched by any other Android phone.
Apple or Motorola taking away our headphone jacks? That’s the very definition of a high-friction move. While we would prefer the headphone jack to be on the bottom, the Pixel kept it right at the height of headphone-removal hysteria.
Battery life is probably the most universal low-friction feature. Keeping an eye on your battery gauge, carrying chargers or cables, that’s a source of friction we’ve become all to familiar with. The Pixel’s great battery life meant that you could go all day every day without worrying about topping up.
Of all the features the next Pixel could incorporate, we think the “zero friction phone” concept is key to its success. Therefore, we would like to see Google focus on those features that make the phone simpler and less stressful, the kinds of things that don’t require any space in the Settings menu. Some smartphone features are great, but ask too much of you—new accounts, sign-up processes, or lots of custom settings. We want the Pixel 2 to demand less, deliver more.
The least attractive thing about the Pixel is its design. While it’s not necessarily bad looking, its giant bezels, enormous forehead and chin, and two-tone back are more utilitarian than seductive, and in the shadow of the G6 and the S8, it’s really starting to seem kind of stale.
The Pixel doesn’t necessarily have to be a Galaxy S8 clone—and in all likelihood, it won’t be—but it will have to update its design if Google expects it to compete against this year’s hottest premium phones. An 18:9 screen is a strong possibility, especially since Google has already started to convince developers to embrace the new format. The landscape certainly seems to be shifting away from 16:9 in premium phones, and if Google waits another year to jump on the bandwagon, it’ll likely be one of the last on board.
And along with the new aspect ratio, it’ll hopefully have a greater screen-to-body ratio. Oh, and one more thing: Please keep the headphone jack (and move it to the bottom).
The camera on the Pixel is already one of the best we’ve ever used, but with Samsung and LG stepping up their game this year, there’s definitely room for improvement. Like Samsung and Apple, Google works most of its magic behind the scenes, and we fully expect the Pixel 2 to take its awesome image processing to the next level. Google has already teased incredible results from its experimental nighttime photography techniques, and we’re drooling over the Pixel 2 possibilities.
But there are other ways Google could elevate the Pixel 2’s camera. First and foremost, it could add a second camera. Dual-lens photography has gone from gimmicky to great, and we’d love to see what the Google’s hotshot image processing researchers could do with a second camera. A true portrait mode, wide-angle shots, or faux-optical zoom on the Pixel 2 would all be great additions.
And optical image stabilization is practically a necessity. Google has defended its decision to use electric image stabilization in the Pixel due to its ability to improve the system over time, and while that may be true, it still pales in comparison to good OIS. And it’s not just for taking super steady videos. OIS helps enormously in low light, one of the areas where smartphones notoriously struggle.
Google’s image processing magic relies on taking lots of very fast under-exposed images and adding them together using intelligent algorithms. Sony’s new Exmor RS sensor with stacked DRAM (coming in the Xperia XZ Premium) can do more than just super slow-mo video. It’s the perfect technology to enable extremely rapid bursts of still photos, and seems like a natural fit for Google’s multi-exposure HDR+ mode.
No matter what Google does, it needs to keep it’s “unlimited full-resolution photo and video backups to Google Photos” feature intact. That’s a seriously useful benefit.
Water resistance, SD card, and wireless charging
Certain features that were novel just a couple years ago are quickly becoming staples for premium smartphones. And a few of the features that the Pixel was able to get away with not having last year absolutely must be in this year’s model to justify a premium price tag.
For one, water resistance. It was a bit of a surprise that Google didn’t include at least IP57 water and dust resistance in last year’s Pixel, but it was hardly the only premium phone that you couldn’t get wet. However, after LG brought it to the G6 and even HTC’s newest phone looks to be on board, some degree of water and dust resistance—preferable IP68 like the Galaxy S8—needs to happen.
Wireless charging isn’t a must-have feature, but it’s exactly the kind of zero-user-effort feature that the Pixel is all about. Reversible USB-C is a lot friendlier than microUSB, but it’s still a pain to have to plug in our phones every night. Wireless charging might not be as fast as a plug-in charger, but the convenience can’t be beat. There are no settings, no menu items, no accounts...just put your phone down on the pad and it starts charging.
And while we’re at it, an SD card slot would be nice too. Expandable storage is one of the main differences between Android phones and the iPhone, and just because we have 128GB of internal storage doesn’t mean we want to fill it all up. It’s not high on our list, but we’d certainly love to pop an SD card into the next Pixel.
The original Pixel and Pixel XL have 2,770mAh and 3,450mAh batteries, respectively, and still are among the longest-lasting phones you can buy. But we’d still like the Pixel 2 to push it a little further.
Google doesn’t necessarily need to put bigger cells in the next Pixel, however. Apple has been able to eke tremendous life out of relatively pedestrian batteries, Google could use Android O’s power-saving benefits and really low-level software optimization to make the Pixel 2’s battery life way better. The Pixel is hands down the best showcase for Android, and we’d like to see Google use its advantage to stretch the battery even further.
But a bigger battery would be nice, and just imagine the marketing possibilities from being able to honestly claim “two-day battery life.”
But no matter how good the Pixel 2 is, it won’t matter if you can’t get one. More than six months after its release, Google is still struggling to keep the Pixel in stock, and it’s not because of overwhelming demand anymore. It’s that Google just isn’t making enough of them.
The vast majority of U.S. buyers still get phones from their carrier stores. Verizon may be the biggest, but leaving out 3 of the 4 major carriers just won’t do. When a customer walks into AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint to buy a new phone, the Pixel 2 just can’t be a no-show.
And the production rate needs to be easily ten times what it is today. Customers should have no problem going to Google’s online store to buy one.
Above all else, the people who want to buy a Pixel 2 need to be able to find it. To do less is to betray Google’s promise that the Pixel is not just another Nexus with a name change.
This story, "Here's how the Pixel 2 can be the best phone of 2017" was originally published by Greenbot.