Early buyers of electric cars in the 1990s coined a term to describe the gnawing dread that their battery might run out before they got home: “range anxiety”.
Today, range anxiety is far more ubiquitous due to our pocket supercomputers. Not only are we worried about our smartphone’s battery lasting the day, but also whether its memory will be sufficient to hold all those photos, videos, songs, apps and software updates.
This problem is a moving target. As the resolution of mobile cameras improves, image sizes increase, particularly with 4K video. Apps and games are becoming more sophisticated, consuming more processing power. A lot has to do with users: the more time we spend staring at our screens, the faster the batteries drain.
Makers have been slow to compensate for the increasing strain we put on our phones. The latest handsets from Apple and Google go some way to solving it, with more storage — on the device and in the cloud — and much-improved battery life. Longevity is relevant because both companies are pushing their phones into the most demanding territory yet, by trying to turn them into personal portable concierges.
I have been testing the iPhone 7 Plus alongside the Google Pixel XL for about a week. (I prefer the more expensive larger phones, but most points in this review also apply to their small-screen siblings.)
The Pixel is the latest in a long line of would-be “iPhone killers” from Google. I loved last year’s Nexus 6P but Google argues that the Pixel is different because it had greater involvement in shaping both hardware (which is built by HTC) and software.
That approach of tying the two together has been Apple’s playbook for decades, so it is disappointing that the Pixel is not more distinctive. Its rounded black rectangle is different primarily because the fingerprint reader is on the back. It lacks the iPhone’s camera bump but as a result, the wedge-shaped handset is slightly thicker, though also lighter and shorter than its rival.
When it comes to software, inspiration seems to be travelling in the opposite direction. A new feature of iOS 10 apes Google Now: swipe sideways from the iPhone’s homescreen to see live widgets, such as the weather, calendar and suggested apps based on time, place and user habits.
In many ways, the devices are evenly matched. Both excel on battery life. Whereas previous iPhones and Android devices often failed to last a full day (I admit to being a heavier user than most), I often went to bed without even hitting the “red zone” of low power on either device. Battery management software in both Android and iOS now kicks in to preserve the life of the phone by cutting background processes to essentials, such as calls and texts. Anyone who shares my daily frustration with battery life would benefit from upgrading.
There is one crucial difference in endurance between the two devices, though: the iPhone 7 is waterproof while the Pixel is not.
Where the two devices begin to part ways is in their connected cloud services, which are key to alleviating the pressure on internal memory. Google’s neat solution to this kind of range anxiety is “Smart Storage”. If your device is running low on memory, flip a switch in the settings and it will delete older images that have been backed up to the cloud on Google Photos. It is also offering Pixel owners unlimited storage on Google Photos at full resolution — including hefty 4K videos.
Even if you do not own a Pixel, Google is already slightly more generous with its free cloud storage than Apple. Where iCloud offers only 5GB free, Google allows 15GB — but that has to cover Gmail and Drive storage as well as photos.
Pricing for extra storage evens out: Apple charges $1 a month for 50GB, Google charges $2 for 100GB. Apple has a 200GB tier for $3 and both offer 1TB for $10 a month.
All this cloud storage, however, is only useful if you have a good search tool to find your files once uploaded. Pixel is the first phone to feature Google Assistant, a digital butler that is accessed Siri-style by pressing and holding the home button or calling out “OK Google”. I found Assistant good but not significantly better than Siri.
In one test, I asked both Siri and Assistant to “show me photos of camping” from the large library of images I had previously uploaded to both Apple and Google’s clouds.
Siri heard me right first time and produced about a dozen pictures. Most were of the tent from my most recent camping trip and a few were random outdoorsy photos that were taken nowhere near a campsite. Not terrible but not particularly comprehensive, especially as I’ve been using iCloud to back up my pictures for years.
Assistant first tried to show me web search results for “my face has a campaign”. A second attempt at machine-readable elocution was more successful but showed only web search results of camping pics, not my own pictures.
After adding the possessive “Show me my photos of camping”, Google produced many happy camping memories I had uploaded to its Photos service, stretching back more than a decade. These included not just pictures of campsites but fireside suppers and beach walks from the same trips. Bafflingly, however, it did not find the most recent tent photo that Siri did.
It is worth noting that Google Photos is also available as a standalone iOS app. It even comes with a “free-up space” option that clears all the original photos from your iPhone once they are backed up to Google. The files will be stored at a lower resolution than if you buy a Pixel, though.
Both the iPhone 7 and Google’s Pixel provide long-overdue ways to mitigate range anxiety. But solving one problem may lead to another kind of nervousness, this time about privacy. Taking full advantage of the Pixel’s cloud back-up and Assistant means going all-in on Google, giving its smartphone constant access to your location, your photos and your most personal information.
If that sounds too much to entrust to one company, then combining Apple’s hardware with some of Google’s software may provide a better balance.