Following an hour of announcements on how generative AI will fundamentally change your Google experience at the 2023 I/O developer conference, the company finally turned its attention to hardware. While AI is decidedly the theme of I/O this time around, hardware has become increasingly important to the event over the time, and this right now is Google's biggest push to date, culminating in three hardware launches this year.
More and more, Google is positioning itself as a viable alternative to more mainstream Android manufacturers like Samsung — which I suspect might have to do with a plan B, should regulatory actions ever make it lose its strong grip on Android. This week's event made very clear that Google still has a ton of lessons to learn in the hardware department, though.
Google's new lineup is so close to being great
Don't get me wrong: Google's newer devices look a lot more focused than past efforts, and I get the sense that there's a real vision behind them. With the Tensor chipsets, for all their flaws, Google is making clear that its hardware is here to stay, and that it puts a ton of resources into these devices, being one of only a few companies in the industry to rely on fully customized chips (even if they heavily lean on Samsung's Exynos SoCs).
Even the more tangible parts of the user experience — like the hardware design — is on a different level these days. Google took its smartphone ambitions to the next level with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro and their signature camera visors after sticking with more generic-looking designs in years past. The company seems very much interested in retaining this unique look, with all phones to be released after the Pixel 6 following the same general design — including the just-introduced Pixel 7a and Pixel Fold.
It also helps Google's case that the company is adding a ton of exclusive software features that help Pixel devices stand out from the crowd — something the company has been doing consistently even before the big Pixel 6 strategy overhaul. The Pixel's call screening capabilities are still unrivaled, its camera processing stack and ease-of-use are on another level, and its quality-of-life features like always-on music recognition, Google Recorder's automatic transcriptions, and fast, predicable updates are such serious value-adds to Android that I always find myself missing when I review other (otherwise perfectly fine) great Android phones.
But at the same time, it's baffling to me that Google still gets some fundamentals wrong, with some of its latest hardware decisions almost universally criticized by the press and consumers alike.
The Pixel 7a turns the Pixel 7 into an awkward middle child
Let's start with the Google Pixel 7a. When you look at it in isolation, it's a wonderful device (well, battery concerns aside) that elevates Google's budget A-series phones to a new level. It offers flagship-level internal hardware, a 90Hz screen, a versatile and more-than-competitive camera system, and even wireless charging — all features that were previously either missing or not as fleshed out on the Pixel 6a. We do get a price hike from $450 to $500, but those upgrades make it well worth it.
However, the Pixel 7a considerably shifts the equation for the Pixel 7 series as a whole, making the regular $600 Pixel 7 feel almost obsolete. Why would anyone pay $100 more for a phone that's half a year older and that only offers a slightly bigger screen and a glass build as truly differentiating features? Google even seems to acknowledge that the Pixel 7a is too expensive as a budget phone, with the company keeping the Pixel 6a on sale at a permanent price cut to $350. This leaves two almost identical phones in the middle of the lineup between the Pixel 6a and the Pixel 7 Pro, which doesn't just risk confusing prospective buyers, but also shows a certain lack of attention to detail.
The Pixel Tablet should have been Google's chance to re-think Nest displays and speakers
Let's keep moving to the Google Pixel Tablet, which the company also finally revealed in full after teasing it for a whole year. The $500 device is Google's latest stab at entering the tablet market, after it unceremoniously left following the ill-received Pixel Slate. Interestingly, the Pixel Tablet pulls from a similar dual-purpose concept as its predecessor — though that one wanted to be both a tablet and a laptop. The Pixel Tablet ships with a dock that turns it into a smart home display whenever you don't use it, basically making it a portable Nest Hub Max. The idea is neat, but again, the execution is flawed.
As the excitement of the announcement died down, it quickly became clear that even after a full year of extra development, Google hasn't come up with any good idea about what to do when someone in your household uses the tablet, leaving the charger/speaker dock behind. You might think that the dock could serve as a standalone Nest speaker when the tablet is on the move, but: no, it can't. It's basically an ugly paperweight until the tablet is ready to be returned to its home.
Let's be real, the Pixel Tablet is a Nest Hub in all but name when docked
This also makes me question why Google even sells the dock on its own, charging a whopping $129 for a glorified charger with a speaker that doesn't even seem to be all that good. At that price, you can almost get a Nest Hub Max, a Nest Audio, or two Nest Minis. Think about that last point — the $50 Nest Mini's speaker drivers are about as big and powerful as the ones in the Pixel Dock, so what does the dock have that justifies making it more than twice as expensive?
If Google really thought through this hardware to the end, it would make the docks standalone Nest Mini-like speakers, making it possible to set two or three of them up around your home, and use them as extra spots for you to drop off your tablet. This would also be a good opportunity for Google to upsell people who already have their homes decked out with Nest Minis.
The dock is a phone-sized paperweight without the Pixel Tablet attached to it
It also seems like Google is too careful not to position the Pixel Tablet as a Nest device. Instead of going all-in, the company makes clear that this isn't meant as a replacement for your Nest Hubs, adamant that it's not a smart display — even if it clearly is a smart display when docked to its stand. This kind of opaque communication will only confuse anyone who doesn't live and breathe Android news, and it doesn't inspire confidence in a new product.
The Pixel Tablet has the chance to revamp and modernize Google's languishing smart home lineup, yet it stops short of rising to the challenge.
The Pixel Fold is too expensive for its own good
The last device Google introduced at I/O 2023 is the Pixel Fold. It's the company's first foray into the folding market, and there's understandably a lot of excitement and anticipation surrounding it. Even though I haven't had hands-on time with the phone yet, I really like what I've seen in videos and articles about it so far. It offers a wide, usable exterior screen, it folds shut, and it has all the software features that make Google Pixel phones so special. Overall, I think it's the best device to come out of this year's I/O — and the one with the least (obvious) flaws. The only real caveats I see right now are the big bezels at the top and bottom of the interior screen, and that hefty $1,800 price tag.
You see, once the Pixel Fold hits the shelves, it will have to compare itself against the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4. Side-by-side, the Pixel Fold just looks more dated thanks to those bezels inside. Sure, you could say that it has a much more usable exterior screen and folds shut, but let's be real. Don't forget that the Z Fold 4 is a fourth-generation product and Samsung is already much more of a household name than Google in the hardware department. Plus, most of the time, Samsung will offer some kind of rebate to sweeten the deal on its devices.
Google is trying to woo those who preorder with trade-in deals and a free Pixel Watch, but the $1,800 price is still hard to swallow when we consider that the rest of the folding market is moving to lower price points, fast. Honor's Magic Vs foldable is finally gracing the international markets, selling for only £1,400 in the UK, with an early bird rebate bringing it down to £1,200. Compare that to £1,750 for the Pixel Fold and £1,650 for the Z Fold 4 in the country.
There is also the Tecno Phantom V Fold, which isn't on sale in the UK or the US, but it comes in at the equivalent of just about $1,100 in markets where it is available. For people who don't know and trust Google as a hardware brand, there's no reason why they would go for the Pixel Fold when there are other, much cheaper options — and I haven't even talked about the Huaweis, Oppos, and Xiaomis of the world, companies that currently focus their efforts on the Chinese market.
Google doesn't directly compete against many of these folding phones since they're available in different markets, but this still paints a rough picture for the future as more foldables become available internationally. Unless Google is willing to drastically lower the price in the long run with a successor (which would tarnish its premium brand now that it established it with the high price tag), the company sets itself up for a tough fight in the up-and-coming foldable market.
Google might simply not care about hardware
There is also the possibility that Google simply still doesn't care about moving large numbers of units. In a commentary, Wired's Boone Ashworth makes the case that Google is largely just introducing its foldable to pioneer the market and to get a better understanding of how to build software for this still-quite-novel form factor. It's also true that the folding phone market is presently tiny compared to smartphones at large. Ashworth argues that Google's hardware is in essence still developer-first and meant as a showcase for how Google wants to evolve Android.
While that's certainly part of the equation, I suggest that Google is long past this point, which we can see most notably thanks to its big shift from the Nexus brand to the Pixel name. With Pixel phones, Google suddenly started adding custom features to its hardware that isn't always becoming available on other Android phones — stuff like Soli radar on the Pixel 4. The company clearly wants to woo customers with exclusive capabilities. Google's foray into chip design with Tensor also speaks for itself.
Additionally, Google is trying hard to lure Samsung and Apple owners with trade-in deals that will almost certainly come out at a net loss for Google, as 9to5Mac spotted. When you trade in an iPhone 14 Pro for the Pixel Fold, Google will give you $900 towards it, which is almost the price of a brand-new Apple phone. If Google wasn't super-interested in people buying phones, it wouldn't offer lucrative deals like this.
Even if Google wants more people to buy its product, Google I/O 2023 shows me that the company still has a lot to learn in the hardware department. Its current lineup may convince smartphone enthusiasts and Google fans, but to win over the rest of the market, the company needs to think more like Samsung and Apple, demonstrate its commitment, and it certainly shouldn't put products out on the market that lack a clear vision — like is happening now with the Pixel Tablet and, to a lesser extent, the Pixel 7a.
Google Pixel 7a
If you are looking for a new device at a midrange price, the Google Pixel 7a checks off all the boxes. It has a fantastic camera system, strong power, great software support, and good battery life. It may be midrange in price but feels closer to its flagship siblings overall.
Google Pixel Fold
Google's first foldable has arrived with a wider aspect ratio — inside and out — as well as the Tensor G2's AI finesse to help squeeze every pixel out of the cameras and every iota of productivity out of your day.
Google Pixel Tablet
Google announced the upcoming Pixel Tablet at its annual I/O conference in 2022. Official details are still scarce — we really only know it'll have a Tensor G2 chipset and a charging dock — but rumors have been plentiful. We're expecting a two-in-one device that doubles as a standard Android tablet and a Nest Hub-like smart display. Google's said the tablet is set for a 2023 release.