Although Google’s Pixel smartphones typically aren’t the most powerful, they consistently pack the most intuitive and thoughtful software on the market. So, what on Earth was I thinking when I traded in my Pixel 4a for Samsung’s terrible Galaxy S21?
It’s been a few months since I bought the S21, and pretty much every day, it finds a new way to perplex, annoy, and disappoint me. It is hands down the singular technology purchase that I regret the most.
The Pixel, Part I
The Pixel, Part II
I’ve been a fan of Google’s gear for years now and am happily entrenched in its product ecosystem. Over the years, I’ve purchased many of Google’s Nexus phones and nearly every Pixel smartphone and I’ve loved all of them. Heck, the Pixel was the first smartphone that really got me excited about smartphones in general and tech at large. It’s what made me think about how tech could (and would) evolve in the future, and I love it for that.
With a Pixel in my hand, I can’t help but feel at home. To me, those phones do a perfect job of blending beauty, brains, and power. They’re everything I could ask for in a smartphone, and they keep getting better with each new iteration. And sure, they haven’t always been as flashy as newer iPhones, but the Pixels offer a vanilla Android experience bolstered by Google’s thoughtful software, which makes my everyday life a little easier.
The Pixel phones also aren’t overly expensive. They offer a ton of phone for the price, and it never feels like Google is trying to push anything on you or strong-arm you into buying a thousand accessories to lock you into its ecosystem. Additionally, Pixels are never loaded with bloatware or find some way to, well, get in your way. Google does throw a few of its own apps on there, but they’re actually useful so it’s not a big deal; plus, the Pixels let you delete those apps if you want.
That’s not to say that I haven’t had my share of issues with the Pixel over the years. Little quirks—like the reboot loop, myriad battery problems, and eventually my Pixel 4a only showing a black screen when I tried to open the app tray—are perhaps what finally made me frustrated enough to (perhaps somewhat impulsively, in retrospect) switch to a different phone.
But if I knew then what I know now, I would have just sucked it up and dealt with it.
The Pixel, Part I
The real trouble began when my partner decided to buy a Samsung Galaxy S21. He was using a Pixel 5—and before that, the Pixel 4XL—and wanted a phone with a faster processor for cloud gaming and other activities. He liked the specs on the S21, so we ventured over to Best Buy to see one in person before ordering it.
Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to the S21 before we went, and if that was the phone he wanted, cool. But once we got in the store and I held the phone in my hand, I was hypnotized. It is so gorgeous. My brain started thinking, “we could ditch this boring, problematic phone right now and have this attractive new phone that’s gorgeous and couldn’t possibly have any problems whatsoever because it’s brand-new and pretty.”
I know, I know—what a stupid thought! But the fact is, the phone’s irresistible siren call took me in, and it’s all I thought about for the next few weeks. Once my partner’s phone arrived, I spent the following few weeks watching him unlock it effortlessly with the under-screen fingerprint reader and customize every last little detail to his liking. The phone just looked so much cooler and exciting than the Pixel. And best of all? It wasn’t having battery issues or failing to show the app drawer.
So one evening, after my Pixel 4a was having an especially rough day (read: glitching a bunch), I finally snapped and put in the order for my very own S21. I’d never been happier. Farewell, idiot phone. I’m moving on to bigger and better things.
I was so damn hypnotized by this phone that I even forsook my go-to plain-but-tough Spigen phone case for a flimsy transparent one just so I can look at it more. Plus, I am one clumsy moment away from throwing away a thousand dollars in a serious way.
Only once I stopped drooling over the phone and actually started using it did I realize that the honeymoon was over. From there, it didn’t take long for me to become fully disillusioned and to accept the fact that this phone’s beautiful design was utterly useless to me and that that, in fact, is not a good reason to buy anything.
My experience with the phone quickly pointed out some glaring (and annoying) issues. Let’s take a look at a few:
I expect there to be software issues on a phone, but I’m always bummed when there are issues with the hardware. The physical design and functionality should be rock solid and ready to go by the time it gets into the consumer’s hands, so it’s frustrating when things don’t work or when the design is poorly thought out.
- Under-Screen Fingerprint Reader: This doesn’t always work for me. On some days, it’ll accept my thumbprint just fine, and on others, I end up having to click the physical power button, swipe up, and enter my PIN. How annoying is that? If I wanted to do that, I’d opt for a cheaper phone without biometrics. The issue could partially be because I don’t use the Always On display, but I know exactly where the sensor is, and it should be reading my print without issue. Meanwhile, the Pixel’s dedicated fingerprint sensor on the rear of the device never messes around.
- Button Configuration: The power and volume buttons are switched from the Pixel, and I’m still not used to it. I don’t think it makes sense to have the power button below the volume buttons. It’s the same kind of problem you have when switching between Nintendo and Xbox controllers, which is, admittedly, more of a personal problem, but it just doesn’t make sense.
- Non-Responsive Buttons: For no good reason, the volume buttons don’t always work. I usually find this out when I’m trying to watch a video quietly, and my volume levels are loud from something I was watching or playing earlier. Far too often, there is just no response from either of the buttons and the only way to get them to work again is by restarting the phone. While I’m glad there’s a fix for that, I shouldn’t have to restart my phone so often just to get the volume buttons to work—just another little quirk contributing to a negative experience.
- Downward-Firing Speaker: When I hold this phone, my pinky sits underneath the bottom of the phone, right where the downward-firing speaker is located. As a result, the sound is muddled, and I have to reposition my hand, which is never as comfortable. This is a design issue, as most folks are right-handed and put their pinky underneath on the speaker to prop it up. Remember the antenna-blocking issue with one of the earlier Apple iPhones? Same vibes here.
While none of these issues are absolute deal-breakers, they do diminish the overall experience the phone attempts to offer. When I am left to deal with them, I can’t help but question Samsung’s design process and become wary about buying another smartphone from the company in the future.
As I mentioned above, a device’s software is where I expect the bulk of the issues to lie. Between bugs and personal idiosyncrasies, this is the area that can really cause someone to feel disconnected from a device. And that is precisely the case with this Samsung.
- Too Much Customization: One of the big-ticket features that draws me to Android over iOS is the freedom to customize literally everything on the device. And although I was comfortable with the Pixel, I was excited to work with a Samsung (its devices are renowned for their customization options). However, to get the phone to a baseline usable point, it took so much effort just to set right so many things that should just be common sense. The setup felt like an everlasting chore and I quickly realized that I didn’t want or need half of the options I was afforded. While I love the idea of a blank slate, a good phone should still do some of the work for you as the Pixel does.
- Samsung’s Bloatware: Few things in the tech world annoy me more than when companies install apps on their device and give you no option to delete them if you don’t want them. No, I don’t want to use Samsung’s no-name browser, photo gallery app, calculator, or game launcher. On my mobile device, I need to use the apps I’m already connected to on my other devices (mostly Google apps), not another separate group of apps that only work on one company’s device. I ended up hiding all of the bloatware apps, but if you give me the option to hide them, why not just let me delete them? While the Pixel also comes preloaded with apps, they are mostly apps I actually use and that can work cross-device
- Google Assistant Inconsistencies: For no good reason, Google Assistant often fails to work correctly on my S21. Sometimes I ask it to do something simple, like set a timer, and all it does is return a search result for “set a timer for 20 minutes,” which is useless and super frustrating. I shouldn’t have to manually open the clock app, swipe over to the timer or stopwatch, and set it up myself when other phones can. Why have a smartphone at all? Why not carry around a separate kitchen timer that I can manually twist the dial on? The Pixel would never do me dirty like that.
- No Call Screening: Here’s something I didn’t realize I was taking for granted on my Pixel: Google’s underappreciated Call Screen feature that automatically filters and handles spam calls for me, so my day isn’t interrupted by them. Now, I’m pestered by spam calls all the time, and the ringing regularly disrupts my workflow and pulls my attention away from whatever I’m working on. It’s 2021—I should not have to field spam calls at this point.
- Voicemail Dysfunction: If I miss a call, I like to check my voicemail to make sure I don’t miss anything important. However, Samsung makes that near impossible. While it does have a sort of visual voicemail option, you have to download the file first. When I tap the download button, it usually just says the request has been sent but it never gets it. I have yet to read a voicemail transcript on this phone successfully. The phone never plays any audio for voicemails, either, even when I press play. In comparison, the Pixel’s visual voicemail app is baked into the phone’s dialer and it always works without issue.
- Notifications Issues: For whatever reason, notifications just aren’t a buttery smooth experience on this phone. When I’m using my phone in landscape mode—say, for watching a movie or gaming—it’s impossible to access them. I can pull down on the notification tray, and it’ll show me basic settings and my recent media, but it doesn’t let me continue scrolling down to see texts, calendar reminders, app notifications, or anything else. The phone is also similarly finicky when I try to scroll through notifications from the lock screen; sometimes it’ll work just fine. Other times I’ll have to pick the phone up and unlock it to scroll through them all.
- Photos? More Like No-tos: I’m not a photographer, nor am I any sort of vlogger. At best, I like to take out-the-window photos of pretty scenery as I drive by it and post photos of dinner on Instagram. That said, I still have an eye for what makes a good photo and am plenty capable of discerning whether or not the hardware and software at hand are up for the task. So, let me just say this: The S21’s camera system isn’t even in the same dimension as the Pixel’s. Instead of true-to-life images, the S21 outputs ones that are overly bright and warm, and none I’ve taken with the phone so far have ever looked right (even with editing).
- App Drawer: Horizontal app drawers are lame, and Samsung provides no option to switch to a vertical mode. Not being able to whoosh down to the bottom of my apps with one swipe and, instead, having to swipe through multiple pages just doesn’t make any sense. And no, I don’t want to install a launcher to rectify this—that’s even worse.
- No Standard Google Messages: Having to download Google Messages because it’s not the default on Samsung is ridiculous. Enough said.
- App State Memory: Samsung has this weird quirk that sets my patience on fire where it sets you back to wherever you left off. Opened an app folder, then sat your phone down? That folder will still be open the next time you access your phone. Swiped to a certain page in the app drawer? That’s the page it’ll show first the next time you access it. Took a selfie? The next time you open the camera, it’s the front-facing camera that’s active. That logic may make sense when I’m doing something two seconds later, but when it’s four hours later, it’s insufferable.
The Pixel, Part II
After spending several months with the S21, I have learned exactly two lessons. One—just because a phone is pretty doesn’t mean it’s any good. And two—nobody does Android quite like Google does. In retrospect, it’s clear that the problems that existed on Pixel phones will often crop up on any phone. Sometimes, it takes switching phones to realize that and to realize that good enough is sometimes just good enough.
Unfortunately, the Samsung Galaxy S21’s laundry list of quirks and serious issues extends far beyond its benefits. Yes, it’s drop-dead gorgeous and has powerful high-end specs, and if I hadn’t spent years using a Pixel before this, I probably wouldn’t have as many issues with it. But that’s just not the case. I have experience using the Pixels, and they are just better.
My smartphone is something I use all day, every day. It’s my alarm clock, camera, entertainment, news source, and the way I get answers to all the questions I have throughout the day. It’s also what keeps me connected to friends, family, coworkers, and everyone else. My smartphone is more than just another tech gadget—it’s my daily companion, and as such, it should be designed with that in mind.
The Pixel showed me how thoughtful a device can be and that it is possible for a device to impact my life positively and not just be yet another gadget. It has a thousand little features that I (regrettably) never gave much thought to and definitely took for granted, but now realize how truly awesome they are and how much they benefited my life now that I don’t have them anymore. Whatever little quirks my Pixel had that I previously deemed unforgivable are now forgiven, as I now understand that the benefits that phone offered me far outweigh its few quirks and shortcomings.
If nothing else, this experience has taught me to be more mindful of the tech I choose to bring into my life. Flashy designs and empty promises benefit no one. We shouldn’t buy tech simply because it’s new or pretty, but rather because its design goes beyond creating an impressive specs sheet and actually takes humans into consideration. If the user experience isn’t streamlined and fails to keep the user in mind, then dozens of megapixels and a gaming PC-level processor don’t really matter.
This was the experience I had with the Samsung Galaxy S21. It’s attractive and looks good on paper, but it’s just another obtrusive gadget that doesn’t actually benefit my life. While I feel a bit stupid for falling prey to its irresistible siren call and impulsively purchasing one, I don’t entirely regret doing so, as it made me realize how truly remarkable the Pixels are.
Pixels are the smartphones that have helped me live life comfortably the past few years, and it’s the smartphone I’m looking forward to returning home to when the Pixel 6 is announced.