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The case for Google’s Pixel 3, despite everything

You shouldn’t deepen your ties to Google without considering the implications. But it’s gotten really good at melding hardware, software, and services.

The case for Google’s Pixel 3, despite everything
[Photo: courtesy of Google]

Google’s Pixel 3 is the best Android phone on the market right now. It might even be a better choice than Apple’s latest iPhones. But if you’re attuned to the ongoing backlash over tech companies and consumer privacy, you might feel a bit guilty about using it.

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You’ve heard the arguments: While Apple offers privacy as a selling point, Google uses Android to track your every move and build upon its near-monopolies in search and web page advertising. While Apple boasts of being the “most effective security organization in the world,” Google won’t even fully encrypt its messaging platforms or disclose a potentially embarrassing data leak. And while Apple has strong safeguards against bad behavior by third-party apps, Google’s looser policies allowed Facebook to quietly collect call and SMS data from Android users for years, and don’t allow the same granular controls over location data.

All of this has left me feeling pretty conflicted about the Pixel 3, which by every traditional measure is the pinnacle of Google’s in-house hardware efforts. It takes killer photos, has a playful design, and–most importantly–ties into the broader Google ecosystem in ways that might even make Apple users envious. But how much does any of that matter if you’re increasingly wary of the company behind it all?

It took me a while to come to terms with this phone and the way it deepened my relationship with Google—but I finally did. I reviewed both the Pixel 3, which starts at $799 and has a 5.5-inch display, and the Pixel 3 XL, the $899 big-boy model, with a 6.3-inch display. (Both models are currently cheaper at Google’s web store, thanks to a holiday sale.)

The new Google ecosystem

I should note up front that I’ve always had a soft spot for Android phones. I like how well they integrate with services such as Google Maps, and how they enable neat little tricks like bypassing the lock screen when paired with a trusted Bluetooth device. I also prefer the way Android condenses multiple notifications into a brief, easy-to-read view. Pixel phones haven’t always offered the best hardware–see, for instance, the various display issues of last year’s Pixel 2–but they’ve always presented Android in its best possible light.

That said, the best thing about the Pixel 3 isn’t any particular feature, but rather how everything comes together in service of Google’s broader vision. More than any other phone–including other Android phones–the Pixel 3 feels like it’s part of a new ecosystem of Google products.

This starts with the Pixel 3’s design, which seems like it’s trying to disarm our notions about the powerful tech company behind it. Yes, you can buy the phone in all black, but the review units I received came in white, with frosted glass on the back and a mint green power button along the side. There’s also a pale pink version (“Not Pink,” the official description deadpans) with a bright orange button.

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[Photo: courtesy of Google]
These are friendly-looking phones, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Google is applying the same cheery aesthetic throughout its hardware line. The company continues to swaddle its Google Home speakers in fabric, with bright color options like aqua and coral, and the recently launched Google Home Hub was a deliberate effort to avoid designing a stereotypical tech product. (“We had sort of a mantra for ourselves: No more blue screens, no more blinky lights, no more black boxes,” product lead Ashton Udall recently told me.) The Pixel 3 wouldn’t be out of place next to any of Google’s smart home devices; you can even buy a fabric case for it to drive the point home.

Aesthetics aren’t the only way the Pixel 3 ties itself to the broader Google ecosystem. The phone is also the centerpiece of Google’s efforts to build a platform around AI.

Google Assistant remains an impressive way to control your phone by voice, seldom failing to recognize proper nouns and place names. A recent redesign makes it easier to use with touch controls as well, and the Pixel-exclusive Call Screen feature, which makes people say why they’re calling and shows you a live transcript of their answer, is a fun way to deal with telemarketers.

More importantly, Assistant no longer feels like it’s bound to your phone. Set a reminder on the Pixel 3, for instance, and it’ll show up on Google Home speakers (as a single illuminated dot) and Google-powered smart displays (written out in full). Say “Hey Google, broadcast” to a Pixel phone, and you can send a one-way message to other Google Assistant devices around the house. Connect a Chromecast to your TV, and you can ask the phone version of Assistant to start playing Netflix or YouTube on the big screen.

Granted, you can also use Google Assistant on other Android phones, and on an iPhone by installing Google’s app. But on the Pixel 3, it feels inescapable. The phone is always listening for you to say, “Hey Google,” and if that feels too burdensome, you can just squeeze the phone to raise Assistant instead. Alternatively, you can press the Assistant button in the Google search bar, which persists across the Home screen, app tray, and app switcher.

Assistant even gets proactive on Pixel phones when you swipe right from the Home screen, looking at your search history and providing updates on topics you might care about. It’s a quintessential creepy-but-useful Google feature, and it’s steadily won me over.

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The third pillar of Google’s new ecosystem is photos, so of course the Pixel 3 takes excellent pictures. Plenty of other reviewers have done detailed comparisons with other high-end phones, so I won’t belabor the point here, but I’ve yet to be let down by the Pixel 3’s camera. Being able to zoom out for selfies with the dual-lens front camera, get unrealistically great low-light shots with Night Sight, and quickly wake the camera by double-tapping the power button all make the Pixel 3’s camera feel indispensable.

[Photo: courtesy of Google]
But again, the camera alone isn’t the point. What really matters is that Google automatically saves those photos online at full resolution for three years–a Pixel-exclusive perk that no other phone offers today. And once those pictures land on Google Photos, Google’s AI gets another chance to shine. Beyond just recognizing faces, Google Photos can automatically update albums with new pictures of specific people, and then share those albums with people you trust. If you have a Google Home Hub or Pixel Stand wireless charger, those photos will then live on your desk or nightstand. The Pixel 3 isn’t just a nice camera phone, it’s a key part of a complete photo experience.

The conventional wisdom about Apple is that all its products just work together as part of one unified ecosystem, so that the more products you buy, the better your experience will be. With the Pixel 3, Google has finally figured out how to capture that same magic, not just through hardware and software, but through AI and aesthetics. The Google ecosystem still has its blind spots–smartwatches remain a mess, and Google is still working on a way to make wireless earbuds as convenient to use as AirPods–but the overall gravitational pull toward owning more Google products feels stronger than ever.

The Google tax

The magic only fades when you start thinking about the implications of giving in to Google.

It’s a fact that Google collects more data from Android users than it does from iPhone users. A recent study out of Vanderbilt University found that Android devices running Chrome send 10 times more data to Google than iPhones with just Safari. A recent investigation by the Associated Press also found that Google was quietly recording users’ locations through Chrome even when those users had opted out of sharing their location histories. Using the Pixel 3 can feel deeply satisfying, but it can also make you feel a bit like you’ve surrendered to surveillance capitalism.

Google might counter that users are in control of their data. You can, for instance, delete what Google knows about you–either over a precise period or over your entire usage history–through your account page, and the company recently added a link from Search to make these controls easier to find. You can also shut down location tracking entirely by disabling a setting called “web and app activity.”

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But even these controls have limits. Disabling web and app activity is a crude option that cuts you off from all kinds of useful features, well beyond location tracking. (One example: With web and app activity disabled, Google Assistant will refuse to control your smart home devices.) And while being able to manually delete your data is nice, you can’t tell Google to automatically expunge old data on a regular basis.

One might also argue that Google’s data collection isn’t really harming anyone, as it’s only being used to serve more relevant ads. But as we saw with Facebook’s recent data breach, in which millions of users had their personal data stolen, even the biggest tech companies aren’t immune to security snafus. (Google has had a couple of its own with Google+.) Using a Pixel phone turns practically everything you do online into a potential security nightmare. And even if the practical risk is small, knowing that the risk exists at all is a burden that doesn’t affect iPhone users as much.

How does one justify using a Pixel 3 in spite of all that? Ultimately, my rationalization looks a lot like the one that Apple CEO Tim Cook recently offered, in explaining why his company still accepts billions of dollars from Google to be the default search engine in Safari:

I think their search engine is the best. Look at what we’ve done with the controls we’ve built in. We have private web browsing. We have an intelligent tracker prevention. What we’ve tried to do is come up with ways to help our users through their course of the day. It’s not a perfect thing. I’d be the very first person to say that. But it goes a long way to helping.

In other words, even the best products involve compromises, so you do what you can to work around them. In Apple’s case, that means building in more privacy protections to offset Google’s thirst for data. And in the case of owning a Pixel 3, that means deleting old browser and search data regularly (you can even ask Google Assistant to remind you), cutting out apps that are bad actors (if I really want to use Facebook on my phone, I’ll just log in from the web browser), and even using anti-tracking web browsers (like Brave or Firefox Focus) as needed.

These aren’t perfect solutions, but they go a long way toward justifying a phone that just works better for the things I care about.

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