New vs used smartphones: Trying Google Pixel

-September 26, 2017

My memory is notorious for dropping bits on occasion, but I'm pretty sure the last brand new smartphone I used for any extended period of time (aside from brief flirtations with review units) was Google's HTC-designed Nexus One, which first entered my possession in early 2010. Since then, everything I've run on both my (personal) T-Mobile-then-AT&T account and (work) Verizon account has been either an open box return, a factory refurb, or a used Ebay purchase. The perhaps-obvious biggest upside to such a move is that I'm able to obtain the generation-or-few-old hardware at a significant discount to what a latest-and-greatest alternative would cost.

Downsides to this strategy also need to be considered, however. Cosmetic and functional damage (the latter either already existing or eventual, caused by the same mishandling that results in near-term cosmetic flaws) is one obvious concern. Used handsets' batteries have already endured multiple recharge cycles, degrading their lifetimes as compared to brand new alternatives, and nowadays they can't be easily replaced once they definitively fail. They generally aren't candidates for extended warranty coverage, although some factory refurbs are exceptions to this particular rule. And they also tend to run latest-generation operating system and application versions more slowly and otherwise inferiorly than their successors.

With carrier-sourced and -branded smartphones, specifically Android-based units, the problems further multiply. Even if you're able to eventually "unlock" them in order to use them on another carrier, their still-locked bootloaders prevent you from, for example, upgrading their O/Ss beyond carrier-blessed versions (or, for that matter, downgrade them if you find that an upgrade is buggy). Why? Once a carrier has your money, its motivation to continue supporting that hardware (versus, say, selling you new replacement hardware down the road instead) is low. Pragmatically, even if your smartphone is completely open, its manufacturer isn't going to support it forever, either ... but at least in this case you can delay its obsolescence ... sometimes significantly so.

This all sums up the situation I've run into with both of my most recent smartphones, both of which I've mentioned in past writeups: a HTC One (M7) on AT&T (mine's blue):

and a first-generation Moto X on Verizon:

Source: Flickr user andsnleo

I was particularly fond of the HTC One (M7), courtesy of its full aluminum chassis construction and ... dare I say ... sexy form factor. Both handsets were (and remain, especially for a non-gamer like me) reasonably well equipped from a processor standpoint: the dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro on the Moto X, and the quad-core Snapdragon 600 on the HTC One (M7). And both handsets were solidly reviewed at the time; see, for example, Ars Technica's coverage of the Moto X and HTC One (M7).

Unfortunately, both handsets were severely performance-hampered by only being equipped with 2 GBytes of LPDDR2 SDRAM, thereby resulting in swaps to and from much slower flash storage in response to system memory starvation situations. And since both were carrier-bootlocked, I was unable to upgrade them beyond Android 5.0.1 on the HTC One (M7), which dates from December 2014, and Android 5.1 on the Moto X, dating from March 2015. I also recently ran into the same contacts database access problem on the HTC One (M7) that I'd previously encountered on my Nexus 7 tablet (which I solved in that case by upgrading to Android 6 ... not an option here). And although I could temporarily dodge this particular glitch by avoiding installing offending applications such as Microsoft's Office suite, Facebook, and (believe it or not) Federal Express app, neither O/S was getting bug fixes nor security patches any longer, either, leaving both smartphones vulnerable to malicious attacks.

Instead, I've bitten the bullet and gone brand new, big-time. Thanks to a briefly offered "back to school" promotion, I picked up two HTC-designed Google Pixel smartphones (one 32GB for Verizon, one 128GB for AT&T), each at $125 off the normal price and each with a Daydream View VR headset also tossed in for free. They run "stock" Android builds and, since I got them directly from Google instead of through Verizon, their bootloaders are also unlocked.

The quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 SoC is wicked fast, ably assisted by 4 GBytes of LPDDR4 SDRAM. The 5" FHD AMOLED 1920×1080 pixel display has room for an extra row of home screen icons compared to what I'd gotten before, while not delivering a dramatically larger form factor than my pocket had previously experienced. And the front and rear camera subsystems were also substantially upgraded thanks to the transition; the Google Pixel takes amazing, speedy photos. The Google Pixel has been solidly reviewed everywhere I've seen it covered; see, for example, these Android Central and Wired writeups, or the long-term eval of its slightly larger Pixel XL sibling at Android Police. The only significant "ding" folks seem to be able to come up with is that it's not water resistant.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones
: Wikipedia Maurizio Pesce

The phones came standard with Android 7.1; as soon as I powered them up and connected them to Wi-Fi, I was immediately offered the Android 7.1.1 update. The Google Pixel uses a nano SIM, whereas both of my previous phones leverage micro SIMs, so in both cases I had to contact the carrier to obtain a new SIM. Once I received them, activation and transition from the old handsets was rapid and straightforward. And aided by a line-jumping trick, they're both now running the latest Android 8.0 "Oreo" release.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about the Google Pixel in upcoming posts, as I become more intimately familiar with its strengths and inevitable shortcomings. For now, however, I'll close and invite your comments and questions.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter.

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