Can Google Pixel 3 take on other Android flagships?

Google has been trying to challenge Apple and Samsung in the smartphone market but never really succeeded in taking the business to a scale sufficient enough to make it a significant player in the segment. But the tech giant is not giving up yet.

Signaling its ambitions to carve out a niche for itself in the hardware field, Google on Tuesday unveiled two new Pixel smartphones that boast enhanced artificial intelligence-driven features.

The third generation of the Pixel devices — Pixel 3 and a larger Pixel 3 XL — claim advanced camera capabilities, among other specs, thanks to machine-learning software, promising to elevate smartphone photography to a new level.

The new handsets, Google hopes, will put it in a better position to challenge Apple as well as various Android phone makers in the market.

The renewed efforts come after Google snapped up the bulk of the smartphone design unit of Taiwanese tech firm HTC and brought the phone hardware business in-house.

The US$1.1 billion HTC deal, which was announced in September last year and officially closed in January 2018, saw more than 2,000 HTC engineers moving to Google.

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are the first series of products designed by the team after joining Google. The new phones come with larger displays, better cameras, updated processors and also feature a new mobile security chip.

Just like its predecessors, Pixel 3 is touting the “world’s best camera”, with a Google official also bragging that the device could be world’s most helpful phone. It is because the phone is powered by Google’s AI digital assistant software that allows users to order the phone to complete some tasks.

The camera may be a key feature for Pixel 3 to stand out from Apple iPhone XS series. Google has stuck with a single rear 12.2-megapixel camera on both its new phones, continuing to resist the dual-camera industry trend.

But for selfies, both the Pixel 3 and 3 XL have two front-facing cameras; one of them offers a wider field of view for getting more people or a greater sense of surroundings into a selfie, as tech news website The Verge noted.

The new Pixels have a feature to make it easier to take good photos. The tool, Top Shot, captures a series of images when someone takes a photo. Google uses algorithms to recommend the best photo among the shots.

The analysis of the photos is done on the Pixel 3, not in Google’s cloud. Users will see a small chip icon marking the recommended photo, the New York Times reported.

The Pixel phones could enable better photos, but that alone may not be enough to lure smartphone users on a significant scale. Apple’s iPhone XR, which will be open for pre-order on October 19, is Pixel 3′s closest rival in terms of camera system. iPhone XR also comes with a single lens camera system but it can also take portrait mode photos with bokeh effect via a dedicated chip within the phone.

Apple has said the iPhone XR camera system works with the “neural engine”, part of an advanced processor that the firm developed to power the iPhone X, and its ability to perform five trillion operations per second.

From a user’s perspective, iPhone’s camera is easier to use than the Android camera. It’s not about the hardware specification, but about the user interface and its operation. There is no additional step users need to consider for taking a photo on iPhone. It will generate a photo naturally. The Pixel may come with enhanced user interface but it still has room for improvement before it can catch up with Apple.

Google is featuring its Google Assistance service on Pixel 3 series. The service aims to provide convenience to user’s daily life. But given the multiple cases of data breaches involving tech firms in the recent past, users may not be confident about interacting more with a chatbot as such activity would only allow Google to collect more information from the users.

The new Pixel has a new Titan M security chip, which Google says provides “on-device protection for login credentials, disk encryption, app data, and the integrity of the operating system.” That would be a differentiation with other Android smartphone. But in general, the phone is not that outstanding and one can point to a lack of truly unique features compared with other Android phones from key brands like Samsung, Huawei, LG and Xiaomi.

As the global smartphone market has gone flat, Google may need to rethink its device strategy together with its Android operating system. Smartphone sales, in terms of the industry as a whole, have begun to lose steam due to lack of new innovative applications and economic uncertainties.

Google has signaled that it wants to be a leader in the Android camp, but for any real breakthrough it must first need to lay out a clear market positioning vis-a-vis other Android phone makers. The company needs to do more, or else it will only be a minor player. And Pixel will remain outside the mainstream, remaining under the shadow of other phone makers.

Originally published at on October 11, 2018.

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A columnist in political development in Greater China region, technology and gadgets, media industry, parenting and other interesting topics.

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