Commentary: The Pixel 6 shows how Google can make its phones stand out as hardware upgrades have become less exciting.
The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have been praised for their excellent cameras, aggressive prices and sharp designs, making them the first Google phones that might truly rival Apple and Samsung's devices. But to me, none of those qualities are what make the Pixel 6 so interesting. Instead, it's the ways in which Google is trying to push the basic smartphone experience forward with new software features that make its new devices stand out.
Google has struggled to challenge Samsung -- the no. 1 smartphone vendor worldwide -- since its first Pixel launched in 2016. But the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro come with features that make it easier to accomplish simple tasks like calling a customer service number or dismissing an alarm -- things that many of us do routinely without much thought. These features still need some work before they're actually useful, but it feels like a promising step forward.
That type of edge may be critical to the Pixel's future at a time when many new smartphones have only introduced incremental upgrades in recent years, like a slightly better camera or a refreshed processor. Google's edge in software is also important because hardware advancements are only useful when paired with helpful software features that utilize them, an area where Samsung has traditionally fallen behind.
Google's Pixels come with two new phone-centric features: one that automatically pulls up projected wait times before calling a toll-free number and another that transcribes automated menus when dialing a toll-free business.
Wait Times, as its name implies, shows the estimated wait times for the current day and the rest of the week when calling a toll-free number. It's similar to how Google Maps will show you the times of day when restaurants and subways are most busy. Direct My Call transcribes automated menu options so that you don't have to remember which number to punch when calling your bank or cable company.
Both features are currently exclusive to the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. They follow other similar capabilities that Google has launched in the past, such as Hold For Me, which prompts the Google Assistant to wait in your place while on hold and notify you when the representative is available. It also builds on Google's previous work with Duplex, a technology that can do everything from book appointments for you over the phone to filling out web forms for tasks like renting a car. You can also pause or dismiss alarms with your voice just by saying "snooze" or "stop" on the Pixel 6, a feature that will soon be available for accepting or declining phone calls, too.
It should be said that the Pixel 6's new additions are far from perfect. The Wait Times function was inconsistent; it worked when dialing Verizon support and the US State Department's number for scheduling a passport services appointment. But then it didn't when I tried calling FedEx's toll-free support number. And you must manually dial a phone number to see Wait Times rather than just tapping it from a Google search result or your call log. Direct My Call also struggled when the Verizon automated operator began speaking in Spanish.
Still, these updates suggest Google has a plan for improving today's smartphone that extends beyond taking better photos, refreshing the design and adding a faster processor. It also shows how Google is thinking about what it means to have a virtual assistant tailored for your phone that can do more than just answer voice commands and surface app suggestions.
If you've been following the trajectory of Samsung's smartphones in recent years, that might sound familiar. Samsung also had a vision that involved using a virtual assistant to make your phone feel more convenient: its digital helper Bixby.
Injong Rhee, previously Samsung's head of research and development for software and services, called Bixby "a new intelligent interface on our devices" when announcing the personal assistant in 2017. Samsung hoped to differentiate Bixby by emphasizing its ability to help you navigate apps and menus with your voice in an effort to make mobile devices easier to use. Rivals like Amazon's Alexa were more focused on traditional voice commands, smart home controls and integrations with third-party apps.
But Samsung struggled to make Bixby a success, partially because the virtual helper's launch came so much later than Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant. It also had a hard time convincing app developers to get on board with its voice platform. Samsung also gave phones like the Galaxy S8 -- which was the first phone to support Bixby -- a dedicated hardware button for triggering the voice assistant. That irked some users, because it resulted in a lot of accidental presses, giving Bixby a less-than-ideal first impression with consumers.
Samsung has improved Bixby by giving it a more simplified look and adding suggestions for customized voice commands. And it removed that pesky button, too. But it's still far behind voice assistants from Google, Amazon and Apple, particularly when it comes to smartphone usage. A study from Voicebot.ai that measured smartphone virtual assistant usage between 2018 and 2020 found that Apple's Siri was the most frequently used mobile digital assistant, with 45.1% of the market in 2020. The Google Assistant placed in second with 29.9%, while Amazon Alexa claimed third with 18.3% and Samsung's Bixby only accounted for 6.7%.
Samsung's smartphones have always stood out for their hardware, but software has traditionally been a weak point. The company's Galaxy line made a name for itself, thanks to the vibrant screens and sharp cameras on Samsung's smartphones. Samsung also popularized phones with large screens in the US via its Galaxy Note family, a move that Apple and other phone makers soon followed. Now, Samsung is among the first companies venturing into mobile devices with foldable displays that can function as both a phone and a tablet.
Yet earlier Galaxy phone models like the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5 were criticized for their software, which felt cluttered with too many settings, features and interface options. Samsung has come a long way in this regard, now deploying software that's cleaner, more streamlined and generally easier to navigate.
While Samsung has improved its smartphone software, it's not pushing the experience forward in the same way as Google. Aside from the recent Google Assistant-powered phone features, Google's smartphones have gained notoriety for their software-powered camera features as well.
Take Night Sight, for example, which enables Pixel phones to snap better photos in the dark. That feature relies on Google's machine-learning algorithms rather than hardware alone, meaning Google was able to bring it to older Pixel phones as well when it launched in 2018. Critics praised the feature, and rivals like Apple soon followed suit. The Pixel 6 family comes with another nifty new feature called Magic Eraser, which makes it possible to get rid of photobombers with just a tap.
Google also has a history of improving the camera and other apps by adding new features through regular software updates, often referred to as "feature drops." Since the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro run on Google's own Tensor chip, hopefully we'll see even more significant software upgrades for these phones in the future. Google also has a history of rolling out new capabilities across older devices and new phones simultaneously -- as it did with Night Sight in 2018 -- while Samsung's update schedule can feel a bit more scattered.
Samsung's camera, on the other hand, stands out for its hardware more than its software. The Galaxy S21 Ultra achieves unprecedented zoom shots, thanks to its four camera lenses, two of which are telephoto lenses. (One has a 3x optical zoom, while the other has a 10x optical zoom.)
Samsung's next big smartphone software update, called One UI 4 and launching at the end of the year for Galaxy S21 devices, also seems more like a refinement than a big leap forward. Many of the new features are focused on personalization and privacy, including more polished widgets, the ability to set AR emojis as your Samsung profile photo, and more control over how location data is shared. In some ways, the software feels like an effort to catch up to the iPhone rather than an upgrade that competitors will want to emulate.
That doesn't mean all of Google's ambitions have been a success. The Pixel 4's touchless gestures, which were powered by Google's radar technology, weren't well-received by reviewers. The phone was ultimately panned for being overpriced. It's also worth remembering that new features like Wait Times and Direct My Call mean giving Google even more insight into our phone activity as privacy concerns have emerged in recent years. (Google says all audio transcriptions are processed on the device, and audio isn't shared with Google unless you choose to do so. The information that powers Wait Times is also based on call length data that isn't linked to identifiable users.)
Google's Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are promising choices for Android device owners, but it still has a long way to go to catch up to Samsung and other rivals when it comes to sales. Samsung is the world's top smartphone maker in terms of shipments, followed by Chinese tech giant Xiaomi and then Apple, according to Gartner and Counterpoint Research. Google isn't even in the top five rankings and is instead lumped into the broader "Other" category.
It's unclear if new tricks like having a virtual assistant that can wait on hold for you will be enough to change that. Google has struggled with Pixel sales in the past, and few companies have been able to challenge Samsung and Apple's dominance. Just ask LG and HTC.
But what has become clear is Google's vision for pushing the smartphone forward, and how that differs from Samsung's. Google is all about using its virtual assistant and artificial intelligence prowess to power new features that make using core apps like the phone, camera and alarms feel more convenient. Samsung, meanwhile, is more fixated on hardware, as it's proven with its quadruple-lens Galaxy S21 Ultra and flexible Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3.
In an ideal world, you'd have the best combination of hardware and software. After all, coming up with new features that are forward-looking and useful rather than just gimmicky is the only way to make hardware advancements matter. Google has a seemingly clever way of putting that into practice through the Google Assistant and other software features, even if those features still need some refinement. Now it's your move, Samsung.