After years of threatening to leave the iPhone for Android, I finally did in 2017 with the launch of the Google Pixel 2. I thought I’d never look back.
The Pixel 2’s user interface, which lacked the quirkier animations of iOS, was quiet and refreshing. Its dedicated back button, a feature that was coveted by Steve Jobs, was incredibly useful. And the Pixel’s spartan black lock screen, which just showed the time instead of notifications, saved me countless lost hours I’d once spent thinking I was just checking the time, only to be sucked into Twitter, email, and Instagram. It was the stupidest, simplest, and best feature I’d had on a phone for years.
The Pixel wasn’t trying to be an iPhone. It embodied an alternate future for smartphones, a place where minimal design could live in harmony with super-powered AI and capable digital design.
Then a Pixel 4 review unit arrived at my house. In a single design iteration, the Pixel has gone from a quiet appliance to an aggressive, attention-hungry machine that tries to be part of your environment, powered by new airborne and on-screen gestures that are akin to carrying around a tray of wine glasses, hoping you don’t drop them.
I hate to say this, given Google’s insanely talented design team, but I want the old Pixel back.
In defense of buttons
Before the Pixel 4, the Pixel had a fingerprint reader on the back of the device. It made a whole lot of sense ergonomically: It meant that you’d pick up the phone, feel a little tap on your index finger, and the phone would unlock. It was a mindless gesture, but it still meant you were making a choice to bring the Pixel to life. You had control.
The new Pixel goes the way of Apple’s FaceID, using computer vision to unlock the phone by scanning your face (many point out that face recognition is more secure than fingerprint recognition). The phone also contains the Google-invented Soli radar, which uses radio waves to constantly scan the air around the phone for physical objects. This allows the Pixel to recognize hand motions and other gestures in air.
In practice, both of these features mean that, sometimes, just walking by the phone will wake it up like an overeager puppy (“are you going to play with me now? Please play with me now!”). It often completely defeats the purpose of glancing at my phone at all, because it can actually unlock itself all the way to my apps, at which point I can’t see the date and time anymore.
You can turn Soli and the face unlock feature off, but using the Pixel then becomes a punishment. You have to password unlock your phone constantly, a pain I’d taken for granted since shifting over to a fingerprint. Even if you do prefer a passcode to the facial recognition tech, Android Q is shifting the entire Google software ecosystem away from buttons and toward swipes and other on-screen gestures.
The Pixel’s back button, a feature which Steve Jobs himself reportedly wanted in the first iPhone, is also gone. (Note: You can actually reactivate the back button in the settings.) Android users have loved this button for a decade now. It was originally a hard, physical button on phones and has become a virtual button on the screen over the years. But it always allowed you to tap the bottom left corner of the screen to go back on a web page, or back out of an app. No matter where you were, it was easy to return to where you’d been. This was immensely helpful, for instance, for exiting out of those links you open in email, which take you to an in-app browser.
To go back using the Pixel 4 default UI, you need to swipe perpendicularly across the screen. But guess what? That doesn’t always work, and you can accidentally do it when you don’t mean to. It’s also an uncomfortable stretch of the thumb to get just right in my experience. In any case, it’s no better than the old, dedicated back button, and in many cases, it’s notably worse. If you refuse to use the new swipe gesture, have fun using the in-app interface buttons in the upper left corner of the phone—literally the farthest possible spot for your thumb to reach.
Meanwhile, the phone’s Soli features don’t allow you to swipe back in midair without actually touching your phone; for whatever reason they don’t mirror the on-screen gestures. Soli does allow you to swipe to dismiss an alarm, or move forward or back a track in Spotify, though. Eventually, Soli may lead to other gestural functionality. For instance, Google has proven Soli can be used to identify any object it sees, though this feature doesn’t appear to be in the Pixel 4.
The current Soli gestures do work, but it’s unclear whether they’re truly an improvement over conventional touch interactions. According to one piece of research (PDF), midair swiping actually requires more cognitive load than swiping or pressing a button on an actual screen. Air swiping is neat! It makes for a futuristic-looking video. But in practice, wouldn’t you rather just hit a button on a screen than mime a gesture above that screen?
A phone that points to Google’s ambitions
I get why the Pixel 4 was designed the way it was. After spending a lot of time talking to designers at Google over the last year, it’s clear that the company sees its next big play as your environment. At the recent Milan design fair, the company demonstrated how rooms designed in various ways could literally calm your body down. If you can look beyond the privacy concerns raised by that concept just a moment, it’s downright inspiring: What if all of our technology, from our thermostats to our laptops to our lamps, was optimized for our health and well-being?
I can imagine how the Pixel 4 emerged out of this thinking. In theory, a phone designed to enhance our well-being needs to literally see us and sense us. It needs to scan the environment and know its context.
Perhaps, one day, Google will realize this vision. But the Pixel 4 marks an awkward first step into that future, like a poor baton pass in the middle of a relay race. The perfect phone is not one that vies for more of my attention. It’s one that knows when to be quiet, that offers me control, and that doesn’t just adopt features to keep pace with the competition. It’s one thing to adopt new features to keep pace with evolving standards across the industry, but the Pixel 4 loses a lot of what made Google’s smartphones unique in the process. Google may never return my headphone jack, but I’d settle for an unlock button.
Update: A previous version of this article implied you could not reactivate the back and Assistant buttons in Android 10, but you actually can in the settings. I’ve updated the story accordingly.