A couple of weeks ago I made a spectacular and quite unexpected return to Android, after a long period of being exclusively in Apple’s mobile devices ecosystem. My last Android phone was the Sony Xperia Arc, which I bought way back in 2011. Afterwards I got an iPhone 5(S?) in 2012/2013 and never looked back.
There are several reasons for this, which I’ll list very briefly:
- I wasn’t happy with the updates Android hardware vendors were providing (back then most phones would get 1-2 major OS upgrades for their entire lifespan)
- I hated the custom skins all Android vendors had developed, as most of them were inferior to the stock Android experience
- It seemed that often apps were more polished on iOS than on Android (despite Android have more users in total)
- Privacy concerns with Google
- I had bought a few Apple devices (laptop & tablet) and I was curious how would the phone experience be
My last iPhone was the XS, which I got exactly 4 years ago. I can say without a doubt that was the best phone I ever had and I’m still pissed with Apple for killing this amazing form factor (5.8 inches). The XS has been showing its age lately - the A12 struggles with some modern apps, the phone gets (pretyy) warm under load, the battery life is poor and the camera is not getting any better either (it’s good for day shots, but it’s pretty bad in low-light conditions). I was planning to get an iPhone 14 (Pro) this year, but the iPhone 14 was super underwhelming and the 14 Pro is both hard to find and has a ridiculously big camera bump. And the lovely iPhone mini was discontinued.
I was wondering whether to make some compromise and get an iPhone mini 13 and wait for Apple’s next bigger refresh, but then I noticed that the Pixel 6A was discounted to only $300 (before taxes) on Amazon and I thought “Why not?”. I’ve been using the Pixel 6A for the past couple of weeks exclusively and below I’ll share a few initial impressions. Disclaimer - this won’t be some in-depth review.
Given that it’s a super cheap phone, the hardware is pretty decent overall. Sure, the phone is mostly made out of plastic and definitely doesn’t feel as nice as an iPhone or a Pixel 6/7, but I’m quite pleased with the build quality and the overall feel.
I don’t care about wireless charging or 120Hz displays, so not having those doesn’t bother me at all. My only real gripe on this front is that they opted to use an ancient Gorilla Glass 3 for the screen, instead of the modern Gorilla Glass Invictus that they use on the premium Pixel devices.
The 6.1 device definitely feels quite bulky to me, coming from the more compact 5.8 iPhone XS, but the size is manageable and pocketable. Still, I can’t imagine how one handles bigger devices like the Pixel 7 Pro.
The performance is pretty decent, while nothing spectacular. Same with the battery life. The camera gets the job done, despite using some pretty outdated sensors. It’s not in the same league as modern iPhones and premium Pixels, but it’s the best camera I’ve ever seen at this price point. In optimal conditions the photos are great (although not as good as those from my XS) and low-light it definitely takes much better pictures than my ancient iPhone.
I’m pretty happy with having a fingerprint sensor again. A lot of people say it’s slow, but this wasn’t my experience with it. COVID really taught me a thing or two about the shortcomings of Face ID. Still, I have to admit that Face ID is not without its benefits, especially now that it’s winter here and I have to wear gloves often.
Did I mention that the phone uses USB-C instead of the damn lightning port? It’s not like I don’t have a dozen lightning chargers at this point, but I’m pretty glad to put that damn port behind me. Hopefully Apple will finally kill it next year.
Also - I totally love the camera bar design! It makes the phone quite unique visually and it means it can sit firmly on my desk without any wobbling caused by the camera bump. That’s by far my favorite camera bump design!
The only thing that’s really missing for me on the hardware front is a physical button to silence the phone.
Android 13 is a pretty nice OS and I’m quite happy with it. I like the overall UX and I like that a ton of things are configurable. Applications are allowed to do more in Android in terms of integration with the OS and things like notifications definitely feel a bit better and more powerful.
The Google services that you get out-of-the-box are definitely better than the Apple Equivalents (e.g. Maps, Google Assistant, etc), although the privacy concerns still remain. One thing that’s really important for Bulgarians is that Google has perfect support for Bulgarian (unlike Apple):
- The OS has been translated to Bulgarian since day 1 (quite important for people like my parents)
- When you’re typing in Bulgarian you get some meaningful suggestions/corrections
- Voice dictation in Bulgarian works flawlessly (iOS has no support for it)
Other than a few different gestures and the new keyboard (gboard) that I had to get used to, I was super productive and comfortable with Android from the get go. These days iOS and Android seem more similar than ever. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but it certainly makes switching between the two easy.
Google’s web apps (e.g. Google Photos) also make it very simple to fetch data from your phone on your computer.1 Turns out you can even check your text messages online after pairing your device with the Google Messages service. Also, if you happen to use Windows, the “Link to Windows” app is pretty cool and provides pretty deep integration of your phone with your computer (you can even do phone calls through it).
Most apps felt essentially the same on Android and iOS, so there’s no much to report on this front. Given that more and more mobile apps are just some thin wrapper around a web app, I guess that’s not exactly shocking.
One small feature that I grew to like quickly is “Now Playing” - when enabled your phone will auto-shazam whatever songs are playing around you. While it certainly raises a couple of privacy alarms that’s extremely useful!
Google Pay is essentially the same as Apple Pay, but I like the Google Wallet a bit more, especially when it comes to dealing with boarding passes, as it automatically track the flight of my flights and so on.
I also love some of the clever tricks the phone has up its sleeve:
- launching Google Lens straight from the camera app
- being able to strip the text from an image
- the Tensor-powered image editing functionality
- the quick backtap functionality (iPhones also have this, but it’s less advertised there)
- auto-dnd mode when you turn your phone face down
One victim of the switch to Android was my beloved Apple Watch, which is quite useless without an iPhone. As a stop gap measure I bought a heavily discounted Fitbit Charge 5 and I’m reasonably happy with it. Down the road I’ll likely get a Pixel Watch as well, as I developed a lot of fondness for smartwatches over the past few years.
On the bright side - it turned out that my Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds have great support for the Google Assistant, which was a nice upgrade from the experience I had with them and Siri.
My wife hates my new phone because we can’t use Facetime and AirDrop anymore. On the bright side - now she uses Signal even more.
You win some, you lose some…
So far, so good. The Pixel 6A exceeded all my expectations and I’ll definitely stick around with it for a while. It’s nice to know that Apple has a real alternative in the form of the Pixel phones and I hope that the Pixel brand will thrive.
For something with such outstanding value and quality I’m really surprised that it’s still pretty niche compared to other Android brands. Seems to me that Google has a lot of work to do in the Marketing and Distribution departments to make the Pixel truly successful.
In the end of the day, the grip that Apple has on me is weaker than it has been in the past decade. Now I’m down to one MacBook Air and that’s it. Choices are hard and often involve making some compromises, but I prefer having choices. And as a constant learner I like breaking out of my comfort zone every now and then and doing something different/learning something new. Let’s see where this Android adventure will take me!
P.S. Switching from expensive “flagships” to a cheap mid-range phone has one more “feature” - you no longer worry about breaking/scratching/losing your phone. We already have plenty of things to worry about in life, so reducing them by one is not a bad thing.
Even though I was mostly an iOS user in recent years, I kept syncing all my photos with Google Photos and Dropbox to be on the safe side. When I got a Windows PC I also synced them with OneDrive for good measure. You can never have enough backups! ↩