Google’s I/O 2022 keynote was disappointing if you were expecting a major Android upgrade that tackles deep-seated issues, at least based on the details shared so far. The company didn’t spend much time discussing Android 13, and most of the announced updates were known, minor or both. They were largely defined by media and privacy controls. Unless you own the tablet, the release won’t be a revelation in situ. While we haven’t seen all the features of Android 13 yet, and there are some real useful improvements already (like a new Wallet app), the status quo will remain largely intact.
And that’s unfortunate. While Android is a very capable platform with some exceptional hardware, there is no device that delivers every experience consistently well. Buy a powerful phone and you’ll probably be annoyed by quirky software; Get the Android version of your dreams and you might have to put up with mediocre cameras or chips. It’s time for Google and manufacturers to work together to create tools that you can more easily recommend to others.
Software: Too Much or Not Enough?
Sam Rutherford / Engadget
To be fair, Google is only partially responsible for the current situation. The beauty of Android is the ability for vendors to add their own spin – a similarly built experience by Google would beat the point.
However, the company still plays an important role, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it can do much more. Use a Pixel 6 or any other phone with ‘pure’ Android 12 and you’ll feel the stock OS, while visually cohesive and free of fluff, is still relatively bare. You won’t find an advanced camera app, extensive media integration, special browser features or other clever tricks you often get with optimized Android experiences. Polish isn’t always there, either—just ask Pixel owners. Apple has had its share of dodgy updates over the years, but it appears Google has patched up the occasional left-over glitch.
You can install apps, launchers, and other utilities to even things out, but that’s just not realistic for some users. I wouldn’t hand the Pixel over to a newcomer or someone who wants strong out-of-the-box capabilities. Google could stand to improve its functionality and quality to compete directly with its partners beyond the usual handful of (usually) temporary Pixel exclusives. While the company has recently shifted more towards regular feature drops than mammoth OS revisions, it’s still somewhat disappointing on this front as we know it.
This is not to let those partners off the hook. While phone makers don’t do as much customization as in years past, some non-stock Android experiences still include their share of arbitrary changes. Samsung is the classic example. While One UI is much cleaner and friendlier to third parties than previous Samsung interfaces, it still duplicates Google features or push services that you probably won’t use. Do you really need two browsers, or to buy apps from the Galaxy Store? You’ll also see some over-the-top Android implementations from Chinese brands, though we’ll note that Xiaomi is reining in MIUI.
And in some cases the situation seems to be getting worse. OnePlus originally attracted enthusiasts because its customizations were limited and generally very helpful, but there has been evidence of the creeping influence of parent company Oppo’s top-heavy software design on devices like the OnePlus 10 Pro. OnePlus Shelf pop-up menu got in the way during our review, for example. Update policies have also sometimes taken a step back, as Motorola still does not guarantee more than one major OS upgrade for some phones. It would be great to see OnePlus and other vendors striking a more delicate balance, adding a thoughtful touch without over- or limiting software updates.
Hardware: flies in ointment
Igor Bonifacic / Engadget
If the devices were more well rounded, the software hiccup wouldn’t be so problematic. It’s all too common to find an Android phone that performs great in most cases, but it has at least one weakness that makes the experience worse or even proves to be a dealbreaker.
A quick survey of the leading Android phones shows it all very well. The regular Galaxy S22 series is one of the best all-rounders on the market today, but it has modest, non-expandable storage, a 1080p screen (okay, but 1440p isn’t something you crave) and fewer features than its smallest version. Pixel 6? An excellent value, but the notoriously fussy fingerprint reader and limited storage can kill interest quickly. The OnePlus 10 Pro is only a minor improvement over its predecessor, and still suffers from low camera quality. You can overcome some of these limitations with extra-no-cost flagships like the S22 Ultra or Sony’s Xperia 1 IV, but then you can spend well over $1,000 for the privilege.
With more affordable models it becomes even more of a challenge. Motorola is becoming increasingly popular among budget users, but its confusing lineup and missing features (such as NFC) cause serious problems for buyers. Samsung’s mid-tier phones can be sluggish or otherwise unwieldy, and the Galaxy A53 even feels like a step back. Handsets like the Poco F4 GT and the upcoming Pixel 6a offer high-end processing power at a low price, but you can safely assume that you’re compromising in areas like camera technology. And don’t get us started on companies that offer huge but low-resolution screens that may prove to be prying eyes.
To be clear, every phone has its own accord. It wouldn’t be realistic to expect a perfect product from any brand, including beyond Android. Apple is often conservative with iPhone design, and has been slow to adopt common Android features—120Hz and USB-C, anyone? More often than not, though, you’re choosing an Android device based on the major flaws you’re willing to tolerate, not because it’s clearly the best you can get for the money. Combine that with the software dilemmas mentioned earlier and it can be very difficult to find a truly well-rounded Android phone.
This is not to say that the Android phone industry is in dire straits. The very catch at the heart of this piece underscores how far the stage has come. Android 12 (and soon 13) is decidedly more polished than previous iterations. Sometimes obnoxious brands like Samsung have shown some restraint, and it’s all too easy to buy a budget phone that will please you, albeit with obvious drawbacks.
You can also point to some of the tools that are showing the way forward. While Sony’s recent Xperia phones are increasingly expensive and geared towards specific audiences, they offer strong performance, good cameras, top-notch displays, and moderately optimized software. And if the Pixel 7 can overcome some of its predecessor’s hiccups, it could be the Android phone to beat in the second half of the year.
Rather, what is worrying is that there is still room to grow. Companies should take a more holistic approach to phone design, where price, bragging rights, storage upsell or pedaling services are some of the obvious sacrifices to be made. There’s much more Google can do to lead by example, like match the more advanced software features of its vendor partners. It’s entirely possible to build a phone that excels through its lack of obvious weaknesses – it’s just a matter of finding the resolve to do so.
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