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Google Pixel 7 review: Time to change the winning formula?

The Google Pixel 7 is just as good — or not — as any other Android phone. That is its biggest pitfall and strength too

The Pixel 7 marks Google’s return to the Indian smartphone market. (Google)

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In 2010, Google, in partnership with the then-venerable HTC of Taiwan, unveiled ‘Nexus’ — the first rendition of a phone that ran on a ‘clean’ version of Android. Six years later, Google (and Alphabet) chief Sundar Pichai said at the unveiling of its new generation of smartphones, called ‘Pixel’, that its devices offered “an experience of Android exactly the way Google imagined it”. More than anything else, that is what made Google’s own phones stand out from the rest.

This is important, since Android is the most popular operating system in the world. As of last month, market researcher Statcounter’s data found Android to be running on more than two of every five consumer devices around the world — even ahead of Microsoft’s Windows. But, with Android being an open-source platform, any phone brand that builds its devices on Android adds its own color to the software experience.

The difference between the brand’s software design, and the underpinning platform’s design as envisaged by Google, quickly came to be known as the differentiating factor for every Nexus and Pixel smartphone. This started making the Pixel feel special, even among the never-ending sea of Android-based smartphones.

The Pixel 7, sadly, feels more like a drop in the very same ocean where its predecessors stood out.

The smartphone marks Google’s return to the Indian smartphone market four years after it had launched its previous device, the Pixel 3. Since then, phone buyers in India have become more cautious, and the rampant excitement around a new phone has somewhat cooled off. Users today are holding on to their phones for approximately two-and-a-half years, and over the past one year, the average buying price of a phone in India has nearly doubled.

Yet, even as the buyer becomes less kinder to phone sellers, the Pixel 7 appears to have lost some of its ‘elite’ sheen. It is a large, shiny and bulky phone, reminiscent of a Kelvinator single-door refrigerator that nearly every middle-income group family in India owned in the ‘90s. It feels well-built for sure, but it doesn’t particularly do well in terms of ergonomics.

As a result, even with a 6.3-inch display, the Pixel 7 feels like a much larger and heavier phone than what it perhaps could have been. Everything about the phone feels like a standardized affair — from the trimmed bezels to the display cutout that houses the front camera, the Pixel 7 does everything that any phone today can. In fact, the power/unlock button, which is the one physical button that you’d use the most on this phone, feels decidedly inexpensive on what is to be deemed as one of the most premium examples of an Android smartphone.

Yet, strangely enough, the Pixel 7 makes sense. If you want a ‘performance’ phone that will feel super smooth and premium, this one’s it. The Google Tensor G2 chip that powers the phone is a custom one, and given that Google custom-built it (based on Arm’s core design) to its own specifications, you can feel the iPhone-esque smoothness on the Pixel.

Google’s famed camera algorithms are here as well, and they make their presence felt particularly in low light. Even in dimly lit environments, Google’s camera offers perhaps the best image noise handling in a phone camera that you can buy today. Night Sight does an excellent job of balancing contrasts and exposures — all the while retaining the actual colors of a scene.

It is something that you really will enjoy, if you happen to be a novice, hobbyist photographer. Google’s long-exposure and ‘action pan’ toys in the camera also work rather well — clearly showing a seasoned balancing of shutter speeds. This, however, is only possible because the camera software is so well trained to understand light and process it in accordance with the scene.

The Google Pixel 7 in lemongrass color. The two core aspects of camera and performance make the Pixel 7 a recommendable phone.
The Google Pixel 7 in lemongrass color. The two core aspects of camera and performance make the Pixel 7 a recommendable phone. (Google)

For instance, if you have too much whites, the Pixel 7 camera manages to not bleach everything out in the frame. Instead, it takes cues from the shadow areas of a frame, or from colors of darker shades and with greater contrast levels, to adjust how the rest of a frame is processed.

The two core aspects of camera and performance make the Pixel 7 a recommendable phone. Add to its 59,999 price tag — which is no longer too lofty for a premium phone today — and the Pixel 7 suddenly starts making sense. It offers everything that any other phone does including an impressively crisp and almost OLED-like AMOLED, full HD display — with the added advantage of a fantastic camera and excellent performance.

Why wouldn’t you buy it, then?

Well, for starters, Google’s history of firmware bugs and hardware issues with the Pixel phones of the past few years do not particularly induce confidence. That Google offers a one-year, limited period warranty on the Pixel 7 here in India, does nothing to alleviate these concerns, either.

There are other aspects, too. For instance, the face unlock feature hardly ever appears to work. The fingerprint sensor is not the most reliable, and more often than not, I ended up needing to key-in my passcode to unlock the phone. It also comes with a limited 128GB internal storage size, without any option to expand. Google clearly wants you to use more of its Drive cloud services (for which you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription if you really want to store anything substantial), but restricting local storage is not a prudent idea for the long term.

To be fair, the Pixel 7 attempts to do nothing outside the norm, but everything that every phone should — and that is a positive. Its strengths are definitely there to see, but at the end of the day, if you buy a different phone for the same price, you wouldn’t really rue a missed chance.

You may do a double-take on the odd occasion when you see your friend post an absolutely stunning photograph from their Pixel 7. But, apart from that one odd day, you wouldn’t really be missing out.

Also read: Google Pixel 7 Pro review: For those who believe in AI

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