The Saga Of The Nothing Phone (1) & Google’s Pixel 6a

The two biggest smartphones of July 2022 are the Nothing Phone (1) and the Google Pixel 6a. We have known these two phones have been inbound for a while. Google made its announcement in May at Google IO where it was telegraphed that this phone was coming to India. The case of Nothing was a curious one. In 2020, when Carl Pie left OnePlus, Nothing was on the cards. But the first product was the Ear (1) TWS earbuds. But when last year, Qualcomm announced that it was investing in the new gadget company, Pei came out of the woodwork. So while they did their announcement in bits and pieces to build Carl’s hype machine, we knew a phone was coming. The fascinating thing here is one is a phone by a completely new smartphone brand founded by a co-founder of a very popular smartphone brand, while the other is the first phone by Google for the Indian market in 18 months. It is also the first phone by Google which has its new Tensor chip which was launched in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro were launched in the US last but never came to India.

OnePlus was the quintessential enthusiast smartphone brand that was the brainchild of Carl Pei. When it launched in 2014, it was taking the space of Google’s Nexus line of smartphones which were designed and sold in partnership with a leading OEM partner. It appealed to the enthusiasts as it represented the purest and smoothest form of Android. Nexus gave way to Pixel which was supposed to be more premium and a more complete smartphone experience with its camera technology as its USP. The Pixel was supposed to be the iPhone of Android. But Pixel never could be the iPhone of Android in 2016 when it launched.

Google did have the scale of Apple, not it has the vertical integration between hardware and software that Apple had been developing since the late 2000s with the iPhone. Incrementally, Google kept getting closer which has culminated in its unique camera technology and more recently with Tensor, yet, Pixel is no iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 line remains the iPhone of Android. While this happened, the OnePlus also started becoming more like Samsung. It got merged with Oppo fully. It added more gadgets to its portfolio. It wasn’t an enthusiast brand anymore and Carl was pushed out or left of his own volition.

So for their unique reasons both phones have had parallel lives. And when the pricing was announced for both the devices again they were destined to converge. In the UK their price is the same — 399 pounds. In India, the Pixel 6a comes in at Rs 43,999 while the Phone (1) by Nothing starts at Rs 32,999 topping out at Rs 38,999. There is a school of thought that they shouldn’t be compared, but even if they were meant to be competitors and we would discount the fact that Google’s phone doesn’t benefit from local manufacturing, hence is more susceptible to Indian taxes — the phones have been designed for completely different users.

On one side, there is a user who values simplicity, who values the now iconic Google brand and also needs a dependable camera. That’s the consumer for the Pixel 6a. This consumer doesn’t care too much for the hardware design — the Pixel phones haven’t been the prettiest gadgets around. But people do care about pure unadulterated Android and that HDR+ camera tech that Google has mastered since 2017 with the Pixel 2. And today, perhaps, if not true interest, there must be some curiosity about the Tensor chip, despite initial reviews not infusing a lot of confidence.

On the flip side, the Nothing Phone (1) is predicated on design. It is for the user who is bored with the modern smartphone. It is for someone who wants to stand out, and have a cool brand and Carl Pei sure as hell has mastered cool, if not in a tangible product, but in the way, he sells his phones. It also promises an interface close to stock Android but with customisations in the Glyph interface. The transparency and the LED lighting system which not only works when you’re getting notifications is an interesting yet risky take on smartphone design. For a lack of a better word, the phone is left exposed which is exposing many manufacturing issues to initial users. And we haven’t even gotten started about the software.

Google’s reticence towards scaling its smartphone business rapidly in markets has also led to a point where now people don’t revere “stock” Android or the Pixel experience as much as they used to. Android 12 did its bit to impact the halo effect of the Pixel experience but more than that the fact brands like OnePlus diverged, while Xiaomi became even more popular and Samsung has been there and there about for now for 13 years. The three combine to be the top 3 Android smartphone makers in the world. Their takes on Android — Oxygen OS, MiUI and One UI are ubiquitous and have reached a point that they are more reliable than Google’s own Android.

Bugs have been a hallmark of Pixel phones in the last couple of years. The Pixel 6 has been notable as many people even in India have imported the device as it was never launched. But even before that, the Pixel 3 was notable for RAM management issues, the Pixel 4a which was the last phone from Google to launch in India hasn’t agreed perfectly despite being excellent and now that the 6a competes with more mature phones like the OnePlus 10R, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Xiaomi’s 11T line of phones, its camera edge not proving to be as decisive and software being now an Achilles heel, this phone needs more to dazzle. The iPhone SE 2022 also doesn’t make life easier thanks to its stupendous horsepower and general round ability and exceptional build quality.

The reality is that both phones don’t measure up. If anything the Pixel 6a is likely better because of its battery life, its camera and just simpler software even if it is a buggy experience. It also is faster thanks to Tensor. Nothing is prettier, more eye-catching and of course cheaper. It also gets a slightly better screen thanks to the high refresh rate but people likely aren’t buying a phone for the refresh rate. People don’t buy televisions like that so less likely that is the case for phones. Nothing will undoubtedly get better, while the Pixel will likely get cheaper just in a few months.

But at the end of the day, everyone is talking about them because — the top reviewers have been excited about these phones more so than anything else. Nothing Phone (1) being a phone buy the founder of OnePlus who is very media savvy and is known to channel a Steve Jobs-like “reality distortion field”. The Pixel 6a for being the paragon of stock Android by Google itself which isn’t just the parent for Android but for YouTube, the platform which is home to most tech reviews. It also helps that an 18-month gap from its previous phone would’ve created a yearning of some kind.

If one thinks about either of these phones — they don’t have the fastest hardware, nor the best battery tech and hardware wise the camera could also be at best comparable to the competition in the case of the Pixel, but that too just barely.

The hype train is behind these phones; they perhaps are also very unique phones as the product philosophy is very different from what’s par for the course in the market, but one can be pretty sure both aren’t the best in their class. And if you had to choose between the two — monies aside — it is a case of form over function — brains over heart — or vice versa. Nothing else!

By Sahil Mohan Gupta

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warpcore

Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta