The Myth of the Super Smartphone

8 GB of RAM or more. 1 TB of storage. The latest Snapdragon processor. These are some of the specs that are being thrown around these days by the likes of Samsung, Huawei and others. But do we really need all of these high end specs in a pocketable device? Google seems to think not.

The “spec wars” seemed to first heat up with the release of the original OnePlus One with its then staggering 3 GB of RAM. Deemed the “flagship killer”, OnePlus set out to prove to the world that you can have a high end phone with high end specs at an affordable price. They achieved this admirable feat with the release of the iconic OnePlus One, but in so doing created a vicious cycle between the other phone makers to out-do the other with constant spec bumping. All of a sudden, we needed 4 GB of RAM, then 6 and now a whopping 8 GB on current Samsung models. Only 1 camera? Heck, how about putting 2 on there. Nowadays, 3 seems to be the norm. Except for Google. They are proving to the world that you don’t need 12 GB of RAM and 4 cameras to create an unique and compelling smartphone experience.

Looking at the now four generations of Pixel phone, one thing stands out ... their modest specs and feature set. Each model only comes with a maximum of 6 GB of RAM (seen on the Pixel 4 XL), a slight bump to the processor and shockingly, only two cameras on the current Pixel 4 series. They have yet to hit three cameras. Yet, Pixel phones have been generally well received by photo enthusiasts and sites like DXOmark. What Google does with photography is achieved by their computational algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI). Their photography is more computer based.

Then in 2019, Google did the unthinkable, and started a new trend back towards the other direction. They released a very affordable phone in the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. This sent shock-waves around the tech world because the trend had been, for at least two or three years prior, of smartphones with a price range north of the $1000 mark. Samsung and Apple were largely responsible for that upward trend in pricing. Google was just trying to keep up, and compete in a market whereby you have to match your competition, otherwise your product would be seen as less “luxurious”. The budget Pixel 3a series was also very well received and loved by many. Google proved that one can have a great smartphone experience in a budget device.

But the Pixel line (and the Nexus line before it) were never really about pushing the boundaries on hardware specs anyways, but rather, a platform to showcase stock Android. Google’s vision of what Android should look and feel like is most evident in the Pixel line. For that reason, I would say that the Pixel line has been largely successful because Google proves continuously that software is just as important as hardware, and stock Android is finely tuned to run optimally on Pixel hardware, even with modest specs.

I cannot wait to see what Google does with the Pixel 5, and/or the Pixel 4a should the latter one come to fruition (which as of July 2020, looks like it is happening). Even though purely from market penetration and overall sales, the Pixel series is widely seen as a flop by business analysts (Google does not make as many phones as Samsung or Apple), it’s really refreshing to see that Google has not given up on this smartphone line, and abandoned it to the infamous “Google graveyard” where so many other projects have been sent to die a slow but impending death (I’m looking at you Google Reader and Google TV).