In January, I flew from London to attend a conference in the Swiss Alps (#FirstWorldProblems, I know). I arrived at night and got lost in waist-deep snow on the way to my chalet. It was very cold and very dark. There was no one else around.
By the time I found my front door, I had spent 45 minutes staggering around in subzero night air. I used my iPhone 7 Plus flashlight app as a torch, and the battery held out the whole time, with juice to spare, even though it was at the end of the day. My iPhone saved me from hypothermia that night.
That made me realise why people stick with the iPhone: If you want a phone you can rely on, the iPhone is your friend. The battery life was the best of any phone I have ever owned. It was probably the most reliable — least buggy, non-crash-y — phone I have owned so far.
The problem is that on most days I am not lost on a Swiss mountain. Most days, I need my phone to help me work: Email, calendar, camera, social media, notes, and news take up 99% of my smartphone's life. And the iPhone 7 Plus was not great at many of these tasks.
So when I dropped the iPhone one day and the screen shattered into a thousand pieces, I decided it was time for a change. I took the plunge and switched to Google's Pixel XL, running Android 7.1.2 (Nougat).
Concept Creator/YouTubeIt's great.
But it's certainly better than the iPhone 7 Plus in my opinion, by a small margin.
Last year, when I bought the iPhone 7 Plus, I struggled to enjoy the experience when it became obvious that the iPhone is still not a top-notch device if you need it as a work tool. The lack of a full-function keyboard, its primitive media-sharing tools, and the multiple extra steps iOS makes you go through to navigate from app to app all wore me down.
By contrast, the Pixel feels faster than the iPhone, the camera is very good, and the battery life is excellent. In addition, it comes with the most advanced version of Android, with guaranteed updates direct from Google, so there are no security issues.
And that verdict comes from someone who was pro-Apple.
After several weeks with the Pixel XL, I've found some positives and negatives.
The Pixel feels faster. If there is any delay or lag when you're using the phone, it's imperceptible.
The touch-to-wake fingerprint scanner is excellent. It doesn't just switch on your phone — it unlocks it at the same time. The iPhone has this too, but on the Pixel, it is one flawless, fluid movement. My old iPhone often required several attempts. And god forbid my fingers were wet or cold. On the Pixel, the error rate is close to zero. Having the scanner on the back turns out to be the right location, too. That's how you hold your phone when you look at it.
No home button is cool. The iPhone is about to copy the "no home button" trend started on Android. It looks awesome and works just fine.
The snooze alarm is 10 minutes, not Apple's overly fussy nine minutes.
It has a swipe keyboard that works. You can buy a swipe keyboard app for iPhone, but it's not as good as the built-in one on Android.
Google's apps all work properly. One of the final incidents that tipped me out of the iPhone and into Android was when I met a source who works for Spotify and saw he was using a Pixel. I asked him if he liked it, and he said he loved it. Spotify uses a lot of Google apps internally, he said, so he needed a phone that worked with them flawlessly. I don't know why Google's apps are so truncated on the iPhone, but they are.
The built-in GIF keyboard is awesome. It's so much easier to send funny GIFs on Android than it is on the iPhone.
A back button that works. Apple's refusal to create a fully functional back button inside iOS, relying instead on a jumble of functions that differ among apps, just feels dumb by comparison.
A menu button that works. Android lovers know what I'm talking about. This is the button you push to find out what else you can do right now, wherever you are on your phone or in an app. It's like having a trusted friend giving you good advice on how to use your phone.
The Android notification screen. There is no way to explain this adequately to iPhone users: Android's biggest strength is its notification screen, which lets you jump into any area of the phone from a single place. The iPhone has a simplified version of this, but it's just not the same.
Battery life is great. Not quite as good as the iPhone 7 Plus, but in the same ballpark. I have never run out of juice in a single day, and I never carry a charger.
It is very reliable. Android phones were once known for having all the most exciting new functions and designs, even when they weren't ready for prime time. That often made them buggy. Restarting your Android to get it to work properly was a normal condition of life in Android Land two years ago. Not anymore. The Pixel just works.
The system folder is baffling. Android has almost comically endless system options. If you are a hardcore user, this is a plus. But at the moment, tapping Android's system icon is like diving into the movie "Inception" — it's tough to tell which level of the dream you're in and whether you need to go down a level or escape back up while you still can.
The phone did not come with earbuds. WTF, Google. This is entry-level stuff.
The Uber app is worse. This is Uber's fault, not Google's. But my phone is now my car, and so I need this basic service to function properly. (And as Apple is discovering in China, users tend to be more loyal to apps than to the devices they're on.)
The selfie camera has excessive "beauty face," and you can't nix it. If you think I'm looking a little pink these days, that's why.
The volume buttons are next to the power button. For right-handed people holding the phone with their left hands, this means your fingers are gripping those buttons — leading to many accidental button pushes.
Android phones come with everything in the default "on" position. There is a ritual of Android users in the first few weeks they own a new phone: hunting down functions and apps that came in the default "on" position and switching them to "off" or "silent." I understand Google wants to show me what the phone can do. But it's a drag on battery life when every little thing inside your phone is screaming for your attention all day.
The Pixel, in short, is proof that high-end Android will continue to threaten Apple's dominance of the smartphone market.
There is something about Android done properly — as opposed to cheaply — that is very compelling. After all, if Android is as reliable as iPhone, then the two systems compete head-to-head on functionality and usefulness, both areas where Android has long been ahead.
Don't believe me? Check out Samsung's mobile revenue recently, and bear in mind that the 15% increase in unit sales came despite its previous flagship product literally blowing up in people's faces.