Google is right — and wrong — to focus on the camera
The Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL tout some of the best photography capabilities available in a smartphone. Just like Apple, Huawei, Samsung, and others, Google knows that a cutting edge camera is priceless in terms of punditry praise and glowing reviews. For better or for worse, smartphone reviews are fast becoming all about the camera, with performance and other features taking an undeserved backseat.
Part of the problem for smartphone reviewers is that there are increasingly fewer features by which to differentiate products. Flagship and even mid-range performance is at the point of diminishing returns (except for gamers), display technology is tough to tell apart with the naked eye, and build quality has been great for a number of years now.
Smartphone cameras are arguably the last bastion of meaningful innovation. Consumers care about group selfies to capture a night out, the quality of their Instagram photos, and capturing photos of pets and kids. There’s also the growing popularity for bokeh portraits, long-range zoom, and wide-angle options. Cameras get people talking because we all share so many pictures.
Camera capabilities register with consumers because we all take and share so many pictures.
In this sense, Google is completely correct to double down on camera quality and capabilities. Even if Astro mode is a gimmick, the sheer quality of the front and rears camera and the Pixel 4’s machine learning enhanced pictures put the phone on the radar and give consumers what they want.
Google has built its reputation on camera quality — it’s the Pixel’s biggest marketable feature. From the original Pixel through to this year’s Pixel 4, photography prowess has been the company’s way of barging into conversations that previously revolved exclusively around Apple and Samsung. The problem is, would the Pixel 4 get a mention without such good cameras?
Great cameras can’t make up for missing fundamentals
Various issues with the Google Pixel 4 have already been thoroughly documented in our review and elsewhere, so I won’t rehash too many points. However, it’s clear that the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL don’t get everything right. In fact, the handsets fall short in one major sticking point for a lot of consumers.
Our readers have previously informed us that battery life is the most important aspect they look for when buying a new phone. No one wants to be caught out with a flat battery in the middle of a busy day, especially when rival smartphones can make it through two. Unfortunately, Google has compounded this problem. The Pixel 4’s headline features all sap extra juice. Processing images is power consuming, a 90Hz rather than 60Hz display uses more juice, as does powering the Soli radar system.
Furthermore, consumers outside the enthusiast bubble aren’t so quick to be won over by 90Hz displays, 3D face unlock, and gesture radars. Especially when these technologies bring with them a host of new bugs and issues. New features need to fit with consumer expectations, not cause headaches or detract from the core experience — namely seamless performance and long battery life. The Pixel 4’s design choices fail in this regard and feel underbaked as a result.
Google risks undoing its hard-won reputation with half-baked features and poor battery life.
While it’s easy to point to cool new features when a phone is fresh out of the box, it’s the consistent niggles and poor design choices that linger in the memory. These are what stick out when it’s time to consider whether to upgrade or switch brands.
Infuriating features or the terrible battery may come to dominate consumer perceptions of the Pixel brand in the near future. Google risks tainting its hard-won reputation by focusing too heavily on photography and ignoring some of the essential dos and don’ts of successful smartphone design. For us as reviewers, it’s also very hard to recommend a phone that doesn’t get some of the basics right.
How long can Google get away with it?
Of course, none of this may hurt the company in the short or long term. The Pixel 4 certainly appears popular enough and next year’s model may right today’s wrongs. Plus, the Pixel series mostly appeals to Android enthusiasts, who appear more willing to put up with the odd annoyance. Though, it didn’t take more than a couple of dodgy generations for fans to permanently fall out of love with HTC, LG, and BlackBerry.
Photography is Google's way of barging into conversations that previously revolved exclusively around Apple and Samsung, but the Pixel needs to nail the fundamentals too.
Worryingly, Google has a history of irking consumers. The original Pixel abandoned microSD memory cards, the Pixel 2 killed off the headphone jack, and the Pixel 3 struggled with performance with just 4GB RAM. Top-notch camera quality and Assistant integration keep the Pixels relevant, but this goodwill isn’t guaranteed to last forever.
An excellent reputation for photography has been Google’s ticket to the big leagues. However, with photography competition fiercer than ever, this reputation can only carry the Pixel range so far. Google has to offer above par experiences elsewhere to cement itself as a practical choice for every consumer.