11 things Android phone makers should copy from the Pixel

Google is setting the bar high for its Android partners. Here are a few things Samsung, LG, and others can learn from it.

google pixel xl
School is in session

Google has turned up the heat on its Android partners by controlling every aspect of software and hardware for its Pixel line. While it doesn't have every single feature you'd find in comparably-priced phones from LG, Samsung, HTC, or Sony, it does so many things right that it's currently the phone to beat.

Here are some of the things we like about the Pixel that we hope to see in future premium phones.

google pixel app drawer
Swipe up for the App Drawer

Eliminating the app drawer button is a tad confusing at first, but then you realize that you can quickly access your apps with just a swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

In exchange for giving up a dedicated button to open the app drawer, you gain an extra app in the bottom dock.

I’ll take five apps in the dock over four any day of the week. It's just as fast, just as simple, and visually cleaner and more appealing. But it doesn't give up an ounce of functionality.

google pixel smart storage settings
Don’t hide smart storage

Instead of forcing users to use some proprietary maintenance app to manage storage space, leave the Smart Storage feature in the Settings app. This is a feature debuting in Android 7.1, and we'd hate to see custom manufacturer Android builds eliminate it, hide it, or replace it with some proprietary nonsense.

Using Smart Storage, you can clear out old apps you no longer use, photos and videos that are backed up and no longer need to be stored locally, as well as clear out the downloads folder of old items.

google pixel support
Built-in device support

Without a retail footprint like Apple has, getting support for a problematic device is a hassle. Even then, visiting an Apple store without a Genius Bar appointment is one of the most frustrating experiences ever.

Google is giving Pixel users access to support representatives 24/7 directly in the Settings app via text or phone calls. Those who call in to support can share the screen of his or her device for advanced troubleshooting; no appointment required.

Samsung already has its Samsung+ app to accomplish this, but more vendors need to make this a reality. And Samsung would do well to simply bake this into the Settings, rather than require yet another installed app.

google pixel app drawer free of bloatware
Say NO to Bloatware!

Google finally convinced Verizon Wireless (of all companies!) to limit the number of Verizon-branded apps on phones sold through its stores. Nothing is preinstalled, and only three Verizon apps are downloaded from the Play Store when you first activate a SIM on the network.

Better yet, you can delete the apps instead of just disabling them.

Samsung—the biggest smartphone maker in the world—seems to not have the same influence over carriers to limit bloatware. Or maybe it doesn't feel pressure, because everyone does it, and the carriers will kick over a few bucks? 

It’s time to follow Google’s lead. It’s not just Samsung, all the usual Android players bend to the will of the carriers.

When carriers aren't bloating up phones with their own apps, the manufactuerers are. The saddle us with third-party apps like Amazon, Facebook, Evernote, and Lookout Antivirus. Then there's the manufacturer apps and services that duplicate Google's own, only are never as good. You know, like fitness apps or S-Voice. 

If we want this stuff, we'll get it ourselves. Come on, let’s put an end to bloatware. Pretty please?

google pixel fingerprint reader trackpad in moves
A fingerprint reader pulls double duty

Android 7.1 introduces a new Setting called Moves. For Nexus owners, Moves adds a central place to control features like twist the camera to switch to selfie mode, or double-press the power button to open the camera.

Pixel users gain an added option of using the fingerprint reader as a sort of limited trackpad. Right now it’s limited to swiping down across the reader to show the notification shade—again making single-handed use easier—but hopefully this is something we see implemented in things like Twitter apps or Chrome for scrolling through timelines and webpages.

Android makers will need to implement Android 7.1 and supporting hardware in order to take advantage of the feature, but since they’re all taking our advice and moving finger print readers to the back of the phone, that shouldn’t add too much more work.

And while we're at it, they should follow Google's lead by putting all "gesture" controls under a single menu in Settings, with clear explanations. No more spreading this all over the Settings, or in separate apps.

google pixel software updates
Simultaneous, timely software updates

When there's an Android operating system update, or even just a security patch, it gets released by Google. Then the phone makers build their version of Android for their phones. Then the carriers get it and they test it out, and then finally push it out to the phones on their network. The whole process takes ages, with users on one carrier getting important updates weeks or month ahead of those on another.

Somehow, Apple gets to release major updates to all its phones on all carriers and it's not the end of the world. In fact, carriers are thrilled to sell you an iPhone.

At least Google found a way to persuade Verizon to commit to releasing software updates at the same time Google releases one for unlocked devices.

Instead of reading news that the AT&T Galaxy S7 Edge is getting Nougat, leaving users on a different carrier asking "What about me?" phone makers need to work with the carriers to streamline the update process. 

If an update is released for a device, it needs to be released across all carriers at the same time. And updates need to land much sooner after Google issues an Android update. We're not saying anything new, but perhaps Google has got the ball rolling on this for all Android partners.

google pixel google photos unlimited storage
Unlimited online photo storage

Forget special promotions adding 100GB of space to my Google Drive account (that eventually expire). Forget Dropbox adding bonus storage for uploading photos from a phone, or some third-party photo service no one has ever heard of.

Google Photos is where it’s at.

Google’s unlimited photo and video storage at full resolution for the Pixel line is something all device makers should implement ASAP. LG, HTC, Samsung, Moto: Make a deal with Google to bring this feature to all devices.

Apple, if you happen to stumble upon this, you need to copy this feature too. Give iPhone users unlimited iCloud Photo Storage.

google pixel home button playful
Little animation flourishes

Look, the Google inspired bouncing balls that move when you tap on the home button isn’t a ground-breaking feature. It’s not even something that serves a real purpose other than adding to the user experience. The same goes for the little sound waves emenating from the handset icon in the status bar when you're on a call. 

But you know what? Those small thoughtful additions to the overall experience add a playfulness that makes using the Pixel fun, and it’s integrated across various apps and aspects of the device starting the moment you turn on your new phone.

This doesn’t apply to Samsung, who has had to trim down on the amount of playfulness in its devices over the past couple of years, but LG and Moto offer up what I think is a rather bland take on Android.

What we want to see from Android makers is mindfulness. Show that you care enough to make the experience better without slowing anything down. Sometimes, polishing the basic stuff is worth more than piling on new features.

google pixel fingerprint reader
Fingerprint reader on the back

As phones get bigger, and thus taller, one-handed use becomes more difficult. Holding a phone with one hand while trying to stretch your thumb down to the bottom of the display to register a fingerprint is often a balancing act, with potentially disastrous results.

Placing the fingerprint reader on the back of the phone means you can hold it naturally, and still have access to the reader.

It’s quick, painless, and something all Android manufacturers should do.

google pixel vs iphone 7 plus camera bump
Dat (lack of) camera bump

I still don’t quite understand the trend of adding a camera bump to the back of a smartphone. It’s ugly.

It also limits the ways you can use your device. You can't place it flat on a desk without it wobbling.

Wouldn’t you rather have a device sans camera bump that’s a tiny bit thicker, but with a bigger battery and no bump? I sure would. You can sculpt the edges to make it feel thinner in the hand if you have to.

pixel xl benchmarks pcmark
Real speed, not just high benchmarks

The Pixel performs just fine in benchmarks. It doesn't score higher than every other Android phone, but it's in the ballpark of where we expect high-end phones to be.

And yet, when you actually use it, it certainly feels so much faster than every other Android phone you've ever used. 

We can't explain exactly why, except to say that Google has probably spent a lot of time optimizing all parts of the Pixel's software stack. From touch latency to device drivers, cache sizes to polling rates, Google tweaked it all.

Android manufacturers, go and do likewise. Don't be satisfied with whatever libraries and drivers your SoC vendor (like Qualcomm), camera vendor (like Sony), or storage vendor gives you. Work with the OS, the firmware, the drivers, everything. Compile, test, measure, and re-compile. 

Ultimately, we don't care that the phone we buy has the longest bar on a benchmark chart. We care that when we ask it to do something, it does it right away. That we can instantly switch apps, scroll smoothly through any page, and that all of our swipes, taps, pinches, and slides are met with instantaneous feedback.

Combined with a simple and elegant interface design, this is what makes the Pixel feel good. It's not the kind of "checkbox feature" you can easily market, but believe me, reviewers will take notice, and word-of-mouth from customers will be worth it.