Defective By Design: the Failure History of Google Pixel phones

in Project HOPE6 months ago

After dipping their toes in the smartphone market with the LG and Huawei-manufactured Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, in 2016 Google took a decidedly more hands-on approach launching their first in-home developed mobile device - the Google Pixel. Since then, the promise of a device designed by the same company that makes Android and equipped with exclusive features - such as the best camera software, bar none - has developed into a full-fledged product line that has received new models every year and lured many customers into a purchase.

However, as sometimes happens when a software company designed and integrated their hardware (such as Microsoft Surface), Pixel smartphones earned a reputation that ranged from unremarkable to defective, with little redeeming qualities in between. How much of that is deserved? The answer depends on each model.

Prequel: the Nexus 5X and 6P

Even before releasing phones of their own, Google had to face quality issues and consumer actions. The Nexus 5X (manufactured by LG) was prone to a bug that would cause an endless bootloop; while an official fix was never released, users from the tech forum XDA Developers developed a hack that resolved the problem by disabling the high-performance cores of the 5X CPU and leaving it running on the power-efficient cores only. That came at the cost of performance but allowed users to save the phone.

Meanwhile, the Nexus 6P (manufactured by Huawei) suffered from the same boot loops as well as early shutdowns due to faulty battery sensors, where the device would turn itself off even with plenty residual charge (between 10% and 60%). The latter was serious enough to spark a class action that Google eventually settled with a reimbursement three years later, in February 2020.
The Nexus 6P also became famous for having critical structural flaws that exposed it to catastrophic failure by easily bending and breaking in the middle, as demonstrated on YouTube by Zach Nelson's channel JerryRigEverything.
Nexus 6P: don't put it in your back pocket.

First generation: Pixel and Pixel XL

Pixel and Pixel XL were not bad devices per se, but nothing groundbreaking either (except for a very good camera backed by impressive image processing software). However, they suffered from progressive degradation of performance like most Android devices despite running on hardware and software designed by Google, and some bizarre bugs, such as the "PIN lock screen loop" that would make the devices unusable.
Users of the original Pixel would also experience problems from defective microphones, which would stop working and make phone calls impossible. After initially acknowledging the issue "only on a limited amount of devices" (taking a page from Apple's textbook) due to “a hairline crack in the solder connection on the audio codec” which caused all three of the device’s mics to go out at once, Google was hit by another class action for knowingly selling defective devices and eventually settled for a total of $7.25 million in May 2019.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

The selling feature of Pixel 2 XL was a high resolution OLED screen - quite a novelty back in 2017; yet the LG-sourced component turned out to have several display issues, suffering from washed-out colors as well as burn-in: "Several different complaints have been reported, ranging from a blue tint when viewing the screen at an angle, screen burn-in or image retention, lines of dead or colored pixels, low light graininess, dull (if accurate) color profile, light bleed, and even a strange shadow arc." (source: Android Police).
Another common issue on Pixel 2 models was the presence of high-pitch frequencies and clicking noises from the speaker.

Then, it took Google more than two years to mitigate (and not resolve) an officially acknowledged bug where "some images available through the Google Wallpapers app make the core SystemUI process crash repeatedly to the point of device shutdown. With no chance to change the wallpaper in that timeframe, users have to factory reset their devices to make them functional again" (source: Android Police). The solution eventually adopted by Google has been to remove the wallpapers that caused a crash (!) while still working on a fix at the time of writing this article.

On top of that, many users reported that the phone USB-C connector would break and prevent charging, something that could be solved only under warranty by a replacement unit (which in some cases would exhibit the same issue and require another replacement, as Paul Thurrott experienced two times).

The Pixel 3/3XL dumpster fire

Already a few weeks after their launch in October 2018, the Pixel 3 and 3XL situation was so bad that Android Police started maintaining an Unofficial Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL bug and issue tracker. Common problems experienced by users describe a phone that sometimes had an extra notch, refused to launch the camera, had an unfixable speaker imbalance, did not always save your pictures, and was specifically designed to record crappy sound on video.

The iPhone has a notch? We can do better than that.
(source: Twitter)

At the end of 2019, reports started appearing on the internet that updating to Android 10 would break device sensors, such as the ambient light sensor for screen brightness, orientation sensor for auto-rotation, and Active Edge sensor.

In general, all Pixel 3 models suffered for their entire lifetime of inadequate amount of RAM (only 4GB on both models while many competitors in the same class were already equipped with 6 or 8GB), another design blunder which caused general performance issues that Google was never really able to overcome.

The Pixel 3/3XL series, despite being positioned as flagship-class devices and priced accordingly high, is widely regarded as one of the worst mobile phones of its generation and tarnished the brand to the point of forcing Google to release after a few months a smaller, cheaper, and simpler smartphone - the Pixel 3a - which scored much more favorably with customers thanks to its no-nonsense proposition, based on solid reliability and decent value for money.

(to be continued in Part 2)

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You know, I owned the Motorola Moto X, which Google collaborated on. Much of the phone flipping gestures and always-on display features have originally debuted on the Moto X.

It was a great device software wise and that made up for the rather unimpressive hardware. I also know someone that owned the Nexus 5 which came right after the Moto X. Also a very impressive device.

I don't know what happened, but Google used to make(in collaboration) good phones.

Before the Nexuses, Google cooperation enabled certain OEMs to deliver some pretty nifty devices indeed. The Moto X was a very good phone in its times.

I believe the problems started when Google decided to take the matter in their own hands - which makes perfect sense from a certain point of view, being nothing less than Apple's playbook, to own both the vertical and the integration. Problem is, Google is not Apple. Google has the attention span of a hummingbird towards their projects, and has proven over time that anything can be binned; while Apple used to have a manical attention to details (which has somewhat declined in the past 10 years in favour of style for the sake of style, e.g. the awful butterfly keyboard), Google is a pure engineering company. It is my opinion that it's just not in Google's DNA to stick to a product (like a mobile phone family) that requires dedication across several generations of development, and they don't have the know-how required to put things together.
Building great mobile phones can't happen overnight, no matter the amount of engineering prowess, and Google is proving it... the hard way.

That's a great explanation. I agree Google is known to abandon projects rather quickly. I'm not excited about phones as I was a couple of years ago, but even then the nexus lineup was pretty bland.

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