I was sitting in a motel watching the World Series, when I heard Stephen Hawking telling me to buy a Pixel 4.
That could be the beginning of a drug-fueled picaresque novel, but our power had been cut out, we had to move out of the house, and I wanted the Washington Nationals to win, and here was a Pixel ad interrupting.
The ad was charming in its way. With Hawking’s voiceover, it reminded us to look up at the stars and take pictures with the Pixel 4’s Night Sight.
Yet using Hawking’s uplifting tones to sell what really is just a feature update seemed an overly grandiose way of selling Google’s latest phone.
I’d read somewhat lukewarm reviews of the phone. “Perfectly disappointing,” my colleague Jason Cipriani described it.
What could I do, then, but take a look at it myself and see how carrier stores were presenting it?
I drifted to a Verizon store in the hope of being astronomically inspired.
I was immediately greeted by a kindly-looking salesman who, when I told him I’d like to peruse a Pixel 4, walked me to the back of the store.
This was poignant, as with previous Pixels that were exclusive to Verizon the displays had been right by the door.
Still, this salesman — I’m sorry, solutions specialist — was a Pixel enthusiast.
“I’ve got the Pixel 3,” he said. “And I love it.”
He showed me his Pixel 3 XL and it did, indeed, look like it had enjoyed considerable use.
“Why do you love it?” I asked.
“Because it’s pure Android. When Samsung takes Android, it puts its own layer over it so that it feels more like an iPhone. This is the authentic Google phone.”
I hadn’t often thought Google to be authentic. Still, I wondered what made pure Android more attractive.
He explained that it gave him free storage for his pictures and videos, whereas, he said, “at a certain point Apple starts charging you.”
“It’s just a little thing,” he admitted. Yet the longer he talked about the Pixel 4, the harder it seemed for him to make it exciting. Somehow, his suggestion about greater CPU’s wasn’t quite moving.
Seeming to sense this, he offered a negative: “I’ll miss this button on the back of my 3 that lets me scroll.” It sounded just like those people — Donald Trump, for example — who miss the iPhone’s home button.
I explained that my wife was a Verizon customer and was clinging to her Samsung Galaxy S7 like some cling to their deities, sports teams, and weapons.
“If she already has a Samsung,” the salesman said,” I’d recommend she stays with Samsung.”
“Why? Why not this Pixel? At least it’s different.”
“To be honest, I’m going to switch to a Samsung after this Pixel 3,” he confessed.
Yes, the store staff switch phones relatively regularly, but even this Pixel-lover couldn’t demonstrate much passion for the 4.
Indeed, he walked me over to the Samsung display, where he suggested the Note 10 not only had a better camera than the Pixel but also was prettier because of its edge-to-edge display. I wasn’t about to disagree. The Pixel 4 looks desperately ordinary and the Notes are very nice.
Then he paused, to add: “There is one other thing that’s better about the Pixel. Google’s translation feature is the best. Use it when I travel all the time.”
I had to mine the darkest question.
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic about the Pixel 4,” I said. “So who does actually buy them?”
“Angry people,” he replied.
I had to chuckle. “Google’s phones are for rageaholics?” I asked.
“Mostly, it’s people who have had a really bad experience with either Samsung or the iPhone and just want a total change.”
“And people from overseas who have never had a US phone before.”
It’s a tantalizing thought that Google may have created a brand for the disaffected. It would certainly make for quite wonderful ads.
Google could mock both Samsung and Apple, presenting customers’ horror stories with their phones and claiming that Pixel was the phone for the #resistance.
In essence, he told me, most of the phones on display were pretty good. “Is an Audi better than a Mercedes or a BMW?” he said. “It depends on how you feel about them.”
I fear the Pixel 4 was a little more like a Honda. Top of the range, of course.
It was sad, however, that he really couldn’t find a persuasive reason to buy the Pixel 4. Ultimately, he resorted to joking that the orange color was so precious that the store didn’t have it on display.
I’ve never been entirely clear how deeply Google cares about phone hardware. Somehow, its wares sometimes seem half-hearted.
I thanked the salesman for his openness and asked him about the Pixel’s astrophotography angle.
He wasn’t familiar with it.