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Should you get a Pixel 4?

After years of owning Pixels, not having a headphone jack still sucks

If you’re like me, you research obsessively research your phones before you buy one. With the upcoming release of the Pixel 4, I figured it might be a good time to do a retrospective of my two-year experience with the Pixel line. Should you get a Pixel for yourself? Possibly. Read on to hear the ups and downs of owning a Pixel (aka what it’s like trying to survive without a headphone jack), and a note about the Pixel 3a (which does have a jack).

If you want to skip to the headphone jack portion of the review, click here!

The Good

I really wanted to like the Pixel line. I bought my first Pixel because I really admired what Google was doing to the telecom industry. Way back with the Nexus line they started making unlocked smartphones at a time when nearly all phones locked you in a contract. Google Fiber has been giving some lucky people, long enslaved by evil internet provider monopolies, an actual choice. Google’s Project Fi is an exciting service for people living working in wifi-rich environments (if you rely heavily on cellular data… it can get prohibitively expensive). The company has probably done more monopoly busting in the past few years on its own than all of that antitrust business the federal government was supposed to do, and I love them for it.

So it was with a great deal of excitement that I bought my Pixel 2. Here’s what I loved and here’s what I hated:

Google’s customer service is amazing

They are 24-7, and will answer even my stupidest of questions when I can’t figure out how to work my phone at 2 in the morning.  They don’t bat an eye at replacing what needs to be replaced and are a genuine pleasure to work with.

The thing is indestructible

I mean, don’t do anything dumb with your phone, but I am the king of cracked screens.  I’ve cracked the screen of every phone I’ve had, but this one… It’s been a year and no peering through a spiderweb of cracks!  The craziest part: I never bought a screen protector or a case. No, I’m not insane. Phones have just gotten so damn big I can barely fit them in my skinny jeans anymore so, yeah, my phone has been going commando and it’s not broken. Did I mention it’s not broken?  And that doesn’t mean I haven’t dropped it.  I don’t know how many times in the morning I reached for it to turn off the alarm and…. SMACK! It made this horrifying noise as it landed face first on my hardwood floor. But it’s totally fine!!!  So, yeah, the glass is pretty hardcore, but the plastic on the back of it… errr… maybe I might have chipped off a corner or two dropping it so much.

It’s an android

Yes, I went through a phase. The kind where I owned Apple products, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was to be back to something I could modulate.  Probably my favorite thing is being able to tweak my own launcher.

The Annoying

Quick access to updates.  

Updates– those things that break your computer, break your phone, make your apps and programs permanently stop functioning, remove core features you need and make the remaining features impossible to find.  Updates. I find it somewhat amusing that Google’s marketing team has turned updates into something you’d actually want.

My first google phone was a Nexus. I loved it until an operating system update fried the whole thing. I was supposed to speak at a conference and suddenly I had no uber, no guide to local busses, nor did I have my speech notes.  It was a wreck. Google support was very gracious and did everything they could. But I will say this about the Pixel 2: the updates might be annoying (whyyyyy did you think it was a good idea to replace the ringer volume controls with media controls?), but none have fried my phone.

The Disturbing

It knows everything

How exciting was it to see my brother speak to his phone for the first time!  “Okay Google…” and then it did stuff!!!! The voice recognition is great. I can tell it to identify a song, set a new alarm in an hour b/c I want to sleep in, check the weather, make a call or navigate somewhere all without touching the phone. Awesome, right? 

Ever wonder how that ad you saw on your computer or phone somehow knew you were looking for underwear? They are constantly on, recording every conversation you have day and night, and storing it in an enormous database. Everything you’ve ever said, easily converted into searchable database.  In the UK, a man used their version of the Freedom of Information Act to request the transcripts of what Alexa was recording, and they had transcripts of everything. Those transcripts stay forever. It’s a huge controversy.

Turn off your location setting and take a picture. Google still tags where it is. Don’t get me started on facial recognition. It knows who you took a picture of and what their phone number is, and asks you if you would like to send it to them. Is it merely convenient, or the beginning lines to the next YA techno-dystopia novel? I spent days trying to turn these features off. I called customer service four times. 

SkyNet does not have an off button.

You don’t think this is a problem?  HAVE YOU NOT SEEN CITIZEN FOUR?

Seriously, Edward Snowden basically sacrificed his future to tell all of us that our privacy and civil liberties are being violated… and the response for us to rush out to do the 10 year facial recognition challenge or fill out DNA testing kits like lemmings rushing off a cliff. Meanwhile Google co-founder Larry Page’s conspicuous absence from a recent congressional hearing is telling… or, errr, maybe not telling. If this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable it should be noted that Google has in the past provided AI services to the military.

There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned, beyond the irrational fear that your off-color sense of humor will land you with a bag over your head on a boat to Guantanamo. 

There is a very real history of federal and local surveillance of activists, the latest news coming from an ACLU case revealing illegal police surveillance targeting black lives matter and environmental activists.

Stalkers are also a big problem for these kinds of features that can’t be turned off.

The bad

Okay really I could have made this review just one sentence:

There are no headphones

Most everyone is well aware that both Apple and Google took the bold step of removing the headphone jack, and Samsung is soon following. That’s right, all you’ve got is that single USB-C port and that’s it. “It’ll be fine,” the friendly salesperson had assured me, like a doctor consoling a cancer patient, “The phone comes with a dongle.” I was ready to drop 6 Benjamin’s and give it a try. And now know this about myself: I don’t ever want to own a phone without a headphone jack ever again. Apple’s stock is a dumpster fire for about a year now, and I seriously hope its divine punishment for taking out their headphone jack.

Even if the dongle worked well (it doesn’t) it is absolutely no substitute for a headphone jack.

The main point of having an earphone jack is that I can talk to my co-workers and relatives (lets face it, they’re the only people that call instead of text) while walking around, using my hands, washing dishes or typing or whatnot.  The dongle is awkward, clumsy and solid– placing the phone in your pocket while the dongle is attached will either disconnect your dongle or ruin your phone’s USB-C port. Using the dongle in your pocket loosens the port, meaning your phone ultimately won’t charge. Not only could I not speak on the phone, I couldn’t listen to music.

Need to both charge your phone while driving and sit on a conference call for work without speakerphone noise?  You can’t. Want to charge your phone in the car *and* hear google maps over all that car noise? You can’t. Your phone is just not there when you need it most.

Some would say to just use bluetooth earphones. Aside from the expense there are two reasons I refuse to do that:

  1. You look like an a-hole. I didn’t pop my collar in the 80s and I’m not vaping while wearing bluetooth headphones now.
  2. I don’t want cancer. The World Health Organization lists cell phone waves as a possible carcinogen which is a pretty big deal since the telecom industry is basically in control of their advisory group which is a huge part of the reason I use headphones in the first place. As far as bluetooth goes, they emit the same radiofrequency EMFs (those waves that might cause cancer) as cell phones do. There isn’t enough evidence to be sure one way or the other (that could take decades), but while I’m waiting for the evidence to build up, I’m not juiced about putting any bluetooth devices right up next to my brain for long periods of time.

Over the last two years, I noticed some changes in how I used the phone:

  • I found myself avoiding making phone calls altogether. Without the headphones, I couldn’t catch up with family while driving, doing other activities, or even being someplace relatively noisy.  It meant I didn’t have as much time to speak to them anymore and strained our relationship.
  • My battery kept dying on long work days because I couldn’t charge the phone in the car
  • I had a harder time navigating.

Even a year later, the lack of a headphone jack was something I notice every single day. I have to say the headphone issue made this the worst experience I have ever had with a phone. Honestly, since I stopped making calls, anything I used my phone for a computer or tablet could have done better.

Google did introduce a headphone jack for the Pixel 3a (You didn’t know there was a 3a? Neither did anyone else there wasn’t much marketing…), but they also downgraded it with a slower processor, reduced RAM, polycarbonate instead of glass, no free backups for images, no dual cameras, and no water-resistance certification.  At least it’s half the price….

Verdict

Google and Apple did us a tremendous disservice in removing the headphone jack. Samsung is about to join their ranks. I can say that so long as I can help it, I will never again own a phone without one. The Pixel 2 had no headphone jack. The Pixel 3 had no headphone jack either. The 3a did, but without advertising that fact, few people were aware of it, and the cheaper materials and lack of an IP rating.

It is entirely possible to have a thin phone that is durable and water resistant with a headphone jack. As the new phones come out in the next two years, that’s what I’ll be looking for, even if it means I have to abandon Google, Apple and Samsung to do it.

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