The iPhone, the Pixel, and the tragic anxiety of having to choose

I’ve had a restless weekend that’s spilling over into my work week. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that my work week has spilled over into my weekend. Whatever it is, I’ve been gripped by a fever of indecision caused by comparing Apple’s iPhone X and Google’s Pixel 2 XL side by side. I’m that rare human that has access to both phones and the ecosystem flexibility to not be immediately tied to iOS or Android. As a result, I’ve now become a most wretched electronics consumer, spoiled by the bounties on offer before me and paralyzed to choose between them.

Things didn’t use to be so neurotic. Ever since the release of the original Google Pixel in late 2016 — a moment that coincided with Apple dropping the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 — I’ve been wearing a happy shade of Android green everywhere I go. The Pixel camera never lets me down and it simply kills any fear of missing out that I might have in relation to alternative phones. Other than review devices, the only phone that disturbed the Pixel’s dominance in my life was the HTC U11, and that was only because it had a camera that was sometimes superior (okay, it also looked gorgeous in red).

Then the iPhone X came out and for a couple of blissful months I shrugged it off. I thought the notch looked goofy while having the potential to be iconic, and I knew from the reviews that the camera was no threat to Google’s Pixel greatness. I also blanched at the $999 price tag, which inevitably spiraled up into four figures. So that was that, I would learn to live with the Pixel 2 XL with the iffy screen and accept life’s imperfections. But then I got an iPhone X in my hands at the start of this year, and that’s when all the trouble started.

Whether you want to track its lineage back to the Palm Pre, Nokia N9, or BlackBerry whatever, the iPhone X’s gesture interface in iOS 11 is a well-lubricated triumph. There is pure kinetic joy in swiping up from the bottom of the phone to summon the home screen, or sideways to switch between apps. I marvel at the fluidity and beauty of this human-machine interface. It’s fast, unerringly smooth, and unfailingly satisfying to use.

That bezel-less (but notched) display on Apple’s device is also sumptuous to look at. And as to the notch? It’s a complete non-issue. My best analogy to explain it is that it’s rather like dust or lint: if you see it on a static photo of a phone, it bothers you because it’s obvious and glaring. But once you’re actively using your phone, all the stuff clogging up the speaker grilles, all the tiny scratches on the screen, all the lint in the world doesn’t matter one bit.

More iPhone niceties: the Taptic Engine is subtly awesome, Face ID streamlines a ton of security operations, the stereo speakers sound better than the Pixel’s (seriously), I can charge it wirelessly, and third-party apps are still mostly a win for Apple.

Confronted by this wave of “ooh, I rather want that in my life,” I constructed a flimsy excuse that I have a professional duty to know iOS as well as Android, and so I switched to the iPhone X. Cue my devastated discovery of a fact I was already keenly aware of: the iPhone doesn’t match the Pixel 2’s camera, and in my experience it’s not even close. Additionally, the way I had set up my Pixel 2 XL, I was getting a full two days of battery life out of it, and this iPhone is never going to approach such heights of endurance.

So I switched back.

But as soon as I was back on the Pixel, tapping the multitasking button like some 20th century plebeian, looking at the less impressive display, listening to the less stellar speakers, swiping through the Twitter app with the buttons at the top instead of the bottom… I started feeling sad. The life that had, up until that point, felt perfectly adequate to me now had rough edges that hurt my sense of fulfilment. The iPhone is every Android fan’s worst nightmare: the outsider that shows you how nice life couldbe.

Google’s Pixel, however, is also every iPhone lover’s dreaded enemy for the exact same reason. The Pixel 2 and 2 XL come with the equivalent of a mid-range DSLR strapped to their slender bodies. They are great cameras, no “smartphone” qualification required. The photos I’ve shot with the original Pixel and its second generation have made me downright emotional. I traveled through some of the great sights of Europe this winter, and I captured photos with the Pixel 2 XL that I will treasure forever. To move to an iPhone X or Galaxy S8 or any other phone short of an HTC U11 now feels like the retrograde move.

Google invented the greatest mobile camera ever, which also happens to be one of the best Android phones. The iPhone X is just a (superb) phone.

This is the contradiction that leaves me restless and inconsolable: the iPhone X is a shockingly beautiful step into the sublime future of touchscreen devices. I love so much about it. But the price to take that step forward is a step backward into a world where my phone doesn’t take photos as great as my DSLR does.

More than that, the Lightning-strapped iPhone X disturbs my perfect USB-C harmony. I have a MacBook Pro, the Pixel 2 XL, and Beyerdynamic’s Aventho Wireless headphones all leeching power from a single charger, and this lean and mean setup is fantastic for travel. Apple’s slower-charging iPhone X needs a recharge much more quickly than the Pixel, and so it reintroduces anxieties I’d managed to set aside when I moved to the bigger 6-inch device.

Unable to make up my mind about the big differences between these phones, I descended deeper into the rabbit hole.

Android’s way of consolidating notifications from the same person or app is vastly superior to iOS’s massive bubble for every single message, Twitter like, or email. When I wake in the morning with the Pixel, I get a complete account of what I’ve missed just from my lock screen: a dozen unread emails, three Telegram chats, and maybe a DM from a colleague 10 timezones away. That same information load on the iPhone X is an endless scrolling list of puffy notification clouds.

When I want to actively use my phone, though, my hand tends to sneak toward the iPhone. Twitter, Slack, Telegram, and Speedtest each have meaningfully superior apps for iOS than Android. Every communication app uses the iPhone’s screen space better, giving me larger, more legible text without sacrificing information density. The Microsoft Authenticator app has a one-tap code-copying function in its iOS version, which I have to dig two taps into the Android app to match. My banking app on iOS is light-years ahead of the Android alternative, BBC iPlayer Radio consistently streams live content 30 seconds earlier on iOS, and Gmail for iOS fetches emails faster than Gmail on Android. And it looks better, dammit!

It doesn’t matter how many people in the world use Android, the slickest and best applications are still happening on iOS first, which synergizes nicely with the company’s present lead in having the slickest user interface. That being said, I did discover that my favorite game, Slidey, plays much smoother and better on Android. A stray ray of hope for some sort of balance, perhaps.

All this comparative shopping has yielded one hard conclusion for me: I know what I want, but nobody is going to sell me an iPhone with a Pixel camera and a USB-C port. The iPhone X kicks the Pixel 2 XL’s aluminum butt in a number of significant ways. The Pixel 2 XL returns the favor by winning in multiple other parameters of user satisfaction. The crux of the problem is that, while they’re beating each other up, neither phone is actually winning. They’re both outstanding in unique ways.

Because the Pixel 2 XL exists, I can’t be happy with the iPhone X. Because the iPhone X exists, I can no longer be happy with the Pixel 2 XL. The sober solution is, of course, to rank what I value most highly in a phone and see which device gets me closest to that goal. As of right now, my answer is that I treasure the Pixel camera more than any other feature. But I spent my weekend making that same declaration and then denouncing it in favor of the iPhone’s gloriously smooth and pretty gesture UI. It’s almost bad enough to make me wish I was locked in an ecosystem so the choice can be made for me.

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