Google Pixels are great phones — so why aren't more people buying them?

Google Pixel 7 vs iPhone 14 cameras
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If you were to draw up a list of the best phones to come out in the past year, Google's Pixel phones would rankly very highly. But write down a list of the top-selling phones, and Google's handsets would be hard to find.

It's a dilemma that's faced Google ever since the original Pixel phone debuted in 2016, but the question has only become more pointed as each subsequent handset brought further refinements to the lineup: Google makes great phones with the Pixels — why aren't more people using them?

"Google has invested heavily to build the Pixel brand, but in comparison to Apple and Samsung it still has a mountain to climb," agreed Ben Wood, chief analyst and chief marketing officer at CCS Insight. "The brand has resonated well with technology enthusiasts, but getting broader adoption is challenging."

Google Pixel 7 vs PIxel 6a cameras

(Image credit: Future)

This year's Pixel releases have really highlighted the gap between what Google's phones deliver and how that translates (or fails to) to smartphone sales. The Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro have received extremely favorable reviews, with their cameras gaining the usual enthusiastic praise. For me, though, the phone of the year was the Google Pixel 6a, a midrange offering that delivered one of the best camera phones for the money while also using its Tensor chipset to power experiences unique to Google's phones.

Those particular models are selling better than previous Pixels, but Google's share of the smartphone market is still just a ripple when compared to the likes of Apple and Samsung. Market research firm Canalys puts Google fifth in U.S. phone market share, with just a 1.7% sliver of the market for the the third quarter of 2022.

"Pixel is still a rounding error in the overall market," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential.

Here's a closer look at why the Pixel should be making a bigger splash in the smartphone world than it does now and whether that trend can change for Google in a market dominated by the iPhone and various Galaxy flagships.

What Google got right with the Pixel in 2022

In six years of Pixel releases, Google has built a reputation for equipping its phones with a superior camera experience, with computational photography augmenting and improving upon what the phone's lenses capture.

After upgrading the main camera on its flagship phones to a 50MP shooter with 2021's Pixel 6 releases, Google made only modest changes to the camera setup with the Pixel 7. The front camera on its latest phones saw an upgrade to a 10.8MP sensor with a wider field of view. Even with the minimal hardware improvements, both Pixel 7 models could still go toe-to-toe with any top camera phone — see our iPhone 14 Pro Max vs. Google Pixel 7 Pro camera shootout for a look at just how evenly matched these two devices are when it comes to mobile photography.

Google Pixel 7 Pro photo app

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Hardware is only a small part of the story when it comes to the Pixel's camera prowess. Google's phones also benefit from the company's expertise with computational photography, as we've seen with a number of photo-processing and editing features rolled out to the Pixels. 

We're thinking of the Magic Eraser tool introduced with the Pixel 6 and enhanced for the Pixel 6a to not only remove unwanted objects and people from photos but to also make them less prominent. The Pixel 7's Photo Unblur tool can sharpen up the faces in photos — even ones shot by entirely different phones. And I've been impresed with how the upgraded SuperRes Zoom feature on the Pixel 7 lets me zoom in for clear shots without a lot of artifiacts even though Google's standard phone has no dedicated telephoto lens.

Magic Eraser in action on a Pixel 6 Pro

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Some of these photographic features benefit from the Google-built Tensor processor that's been powering Pixel phones since the Pixel 6 last year. (As Apple does with the iPhone SE, Google even includes its own silicon in its budget phone, so the Pixel 6a uses the same Tensor chipset introduced in the Pixel 6.) The newer Tensor G2 silicon inside the Pixel 7 models introduces even more unique features, including call management and improved transcription and translation.

As impressive an addition as the Tensor chipset has been to Google's phone lineup, it's not the sort of thing that resonates with a larger audience. "We see little evidence consumers care that much about the chipset in their devices," Wood said. "Design, battery life, camera capabilities and other anchor features typically drive consumer purchasing decisions for smartphones."

Still, Wood added, Tensor gives the Pixel an edge over other Android devices "as it allows [the Pixel] to have much deeper integration between hardware and software."

It's an assessment that Greengart shares. "Your average consumer doesn’t pay too much attention to silicon specifics, but the fact that Google is designing its own processors — and calling out that it dedicates more attention to AI — is a differentiator," he said.

Google's market share — small, but growing

[Google has] had challenges, and it remains to some degree, but they're trying to improve upon them.

— Nabila Popal, IDC

Even that differentiating factor hasn't been enough to elevate the Pixel's profile among smartphone buyers. In terms of global market share, to call the Pixel's sales a drop in the bucket would be to seriously over-estimate the size of drops.

Market-research firm IDC puts the Pixel's share of the global smartphone market at 0.8% for the third quarter of 2022. Focus in on the U.S. market — the biggest source of Pixel sales for Google — and that figure jumps to a still small 5%. That's well behind Apple (47.2%) and Samsung (25%), which account for more than 70% of the smartphones sold in the U.S. by IDC's calculations.

As stark as those numbers may be, they're actually on the rise. The 2.3 million phones Google shipped in the third quarter was the biggest tally ever for that three-month period, IDC said. (And that number doesn't take into account any Pixel 7 sales, since those phones launched in October.) That's 334% growth year over year for Google's global market share.

"[Google has] had challenges, and it remains to some degree, but they're trying to improve upon them," said Nabila Popal, research director with IDC.

What needs to change for future Pixels?

Put another way, the Pixel's struggles to gain much of a foothold in the market come down to brand awareness. Google may be widely recognized for its search engine, Popal pointed out, but phones are another matter altogether.

"Despite rave reviews, Google’s biggest challenge in gaining share, globally and in the US, has been weaker marketing and presence with carriers, areas that are currently dominated by Apple and Samsung," Popal added "Pixel is not yet a household brand like Samsung or Apple."

Google Pixel 7 review

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Google may be trying to change that, analysts say. The Pixel 7 has benefitted from Google's biggest marketing push to date, CCS Insight's Wood said, as the tech giant looks to grow the Pixel's audience beyond the kind of tech enthusiasts who've been responsible for most Pixel device sale.

Wood added that past Pixel releases have been hit by supply constraints, particularly outside the US, along with negative publicity around technical issues with past Pixel versions. "The good news is that the Pixel 7 phones appear to have overcome some of these issues, and this will definitely improve Google’s reputation with key sales channels and consumers," Wood said.

"Google has been putting money behind television advertising and its influencer program," Greengart agreed. "But it still needs to do more at retail."

You may remember that the original Pixel was either sold unlocked or exclusively through Verizon. That put Google at a disadvantage relative to other phones, since most U.S. shoppers get their handset directly from a wireless carrier. With subsequent releases Google has added more carrier support — you can now buy the Pixel 7 from any of the three major wireless providers — but Google still finds itself playing catch-up with other phone makers on that front.

Like Microsoft, we suspect that Google is keen to 'show the art of the possible' via Pixel devices in order to provide a reference point for other Android phone makers.

— Ben Wood, CCS Insigh

Of course, there's a question as to just how much Google wants to catch up with other Android devices. "Competing with your own channels is always a huge risk," Wood said. "It is the same dilemma Microsoft has faced with its Surface products. Like Microsoft, we suspect that Google is keen to 'show the art of the possible' via Pixel devices in order to provide a reference point for other Android phone makers."

Greengart puts it another way: "Google would love to take share away from Apple, but it does not want to destabilize Android by hurting Samsung, its largest licensee."

What's next for Pixel

If that's the case, expect Google to continue to look for ways to keep the Pixel among the top camera phones, as that's an area where the Pixel can provide a rather compelling alternative to the iPhone. Tensor-powered AI features also give Google a way to stand out from the smartphone crowd, perhaps earning a second look from iPhone owners who remain unimpressed with the Siri assistant.

We won't have to wait long for Google's next move. The Pixel 7a is likely to make an appearance toward the middle of 2023, with the latest midrange model likely to adopt the Tensor G2 chipset introduced in the Pixel 7. Beyond that, next fall should see the release of another round of Pixel flagships, with the likely focus on yet another new Tensor chipset plus more camera improvements.

It may not be enough to vault Google past others in the smartphone market. But it could help the Pixel continue to gain a wider audience.

Next: This is big. Apple is reportedly opening up the iPhone to outside app stores

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.

  • Bone Datt
    I have the Pixel 4XL and the Pixel 7 Pro. The camera was never a huge factor in buying both phones. It was the idea of faster updates, and less bloatware that drew me to the Pixel. Now it's helpful features like call screen that keep me buying Pixels. Google needs to move away from marketing cameras only, as most flagship cameras are great now. They need to market other unique features of the Pixels, like crash detection, call screen, privacy (VPN). Reviewers too should start highlighting other Pixel specific features in their reviews. Almost every review that I read dedicate a huge amount of time to cameras.
  • Morw
    Share numbers exclude pixel 7. If you watch forums there is a huge uptick of iPhone migrators, I'll bet the share doubles, if not more when 4th quarter analysis happens.
  • GeoMcc
    Trying to get hold of a Pixel 6 over Black Friday in the UK it seemed like everyone had been buying them, but when the best price was £299, and a few places at £349 I guess that isn't surprising.
  • RobinMichael
    I have been studying phone reviews leading up to Black Friday. I have two Chinese value for money phones - Xiaomi and Oppo.

    I bought the Xiaomi from Amazon and the Oppo second hand. Both were sim free and they are now about two or three years old.

    I read very negative reviews about the Pixel 6a performance as a phone.

    I found the Pixel 6 attractive. But there were no extra specially good deals. They were basically all at the same price.

    I will keep my eye on the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro. But of course, other phones are getting cheaper as well.

    The idea of buying a phone with good software does not particularly appeal.

    1. I expect the software will become widely available.

    2. I want a camera that is technically good. So if I take a shot, I can come back to it in the future.

    Of course, in practice I rarely do. I have realised that ready to use photos are more useful than photos that require any sort of work.

    In the end I bought a OnePlus Nord 2T. This had a genuine heavy discount and good reviews, 218 GB.

    I bought it for my daughter as a stop gap measure. She is not interested in phones but requires a phone for her work.

    She is careless with phones too.

    So, it is not a good idea to buy her an expensive phone.

    I realised after reading the reviews that my current phones are not bad. I would have to spend a lot of money to make an appreciable difference.

    And then you have something you have to be careful with.

    So I have read the reviews on Pixel phones. There is a tendency to favour phones that I already have some knowledge of. Particularly if it is a big one off purchase.
  • Penfolduk01
    First. Honesty. I'm too tight-fisted to spend £500+ on a phone. Especially when it doesn't have expandable storage.

    I've got a Samsung A71. Prior to that a S7 and an ancient Galaxy 500 that run on Android Frodo.

    Like what I've got. Magic Eraser sounds good, but not good enough for me to fork out the extra.
  • ember1205
    First, it's important to know and be aware that the Google Pixels are not "great phones." There is a long-standing issue with SMS and phone call reliability on these devices that Google doesn't want to acknowledge, let alone fix. It's not something that affects the devices in a way that most people will even notice as it basically is a drop in reception to where incoming calls won't ring the device (or your caller will tell you it rang a bunch of times but you only heard one ring or similar), text messages (SMS specifically) won't deliver, and then things will go back to working correctly. The drop-outs have no fix and I know full well that Google is 100% aware because they ended up taking my Pixel 6 Pro back for a full refund because they had no fix.

    A second, possibly related, issue is that the device goes into a sleep state where no inbound communications are received of any kind. I've had my devices sitting on my desk while working from home, connected to WiFi, plugged in, and even fully charged (while plugged in). The phone provides zero indication of texts, calls, emails, etc. All the while, I see pop-up notifications and hear alerts on my computer for emails and other incoming communications. Pick up the phone and it "blows up" with every notification trying to alert all at once like they've been queued up and waiting.

    Second, the reason that Google isn't taking any market share is because they kind of can't. Apple Fans aren't going to switch because they've bought into the "blue bubble" idiocy. Samsung fans aren't going to switch because Google isn't going to actively try and compete with their biggest source of data via the Android operating system. Pixel devices are updated much more quickly than other Android devices and this is a very good thing. Samsung isn't going to take that on because of their add-in bloatware - they will leave the updates to the carriers which is a horrible approach for the consumer as devices are left unsecured (without patches) for sometimes months on end because of delays with carriers pushing them out and no way to get the updates directly for the consumer.

    I've owned the 2XL, 3XL, and 6Pro - loved them all until I finally got 100% fed up with the phone/SMS issue that became an issue I was no longer to deal with when the ability to get me via phone/text became 'critical' (and I was missing calls and texts were delayed). I've since switched to a Samsung but am literally months behind on security patches because of major lag in distributing their version of Android 13 to the handsets. I use all Apple products for my compute needs and have an iPhone for work. So, there's no reason I can't easily switch to an iPhone for personal use.
  • ember1205
    Morw said:
    Share numbers exclude pixel 7. If you watch forums there is a huge uptick of iPhone migrators, I'll bet the share doubles, if not more when 4th quarter analysis happens.

    Let's say that the share TRIPLES. That's about 5% of the market. Essentially meaningless.
  • R2E
    Pixels are not really well supported. Google doesn't really bother to support them outside their select key markets. VoLTE wasn't supported on my carrier with the Pixel 2, Pixel 4XL and Pixel 5a 5G that I owned. The Pixel 4XL developed DRM failure after a monthly security patch that left the phone unable to play any HD streams from Netflix etc and it took then 10 months to finally fix it. The Pixel 5a 5G died after 6 months of use and suddenly shut down and unable to power up. The Pixel 4XL and Pixel 5a 5G have given me a lot of grief overheating to 42°C during use in a tropical climate with 28°C ambient temperatures, where the camera would disable features like HDR preview after shooting just 3-4 photos, and Google Photos would pause backup because the phones were too warm. And hardware is probably not Google's focus anyway when they make most of their income from selling targeted ads. So they will never be serious about it as if their survival depended on it. So we can expect more half-assed hardware from Google and more products from them heading straight to the Google graveyard.
  • EasyJep
    Unfortunately Pixels get an unwarranted reputation from people that leave huge walls of text explaining supposed issues and repeating whatever clickbaity articles told them doesn't work on them whenever they're mentioned. I personally have had 2 Pixels (3 XL and 6 Pro) and never had any long lasting issue (bugs do occur occasionally, but find me perfect software, anywhere) and recently two of my friends bought a 6a and a 7 Pro. I've had my Pixel 6 Pro for a while now and as I said, all smooth sailing. I wonder if I'll hear about any issues from my friends, ever, or it will be business as usual and I'll exclusively hear complaints from anonymous folks on the internet, most of whom has never seen a Pixel in person.
  • peterwinters111
    For me "Once burned twice shy". More than a few times since 2007 Google has entered and exited the phone market as well as other products and services. Apple on 2007 shot to the lead and never looked back.

    I've been an Android user, so I have used Google SW, since the beginning. I started with Motorola, then moved to Samsung 10 years ago. I only switched to Google now with the Pixel 7 Pro since it seems like they may stay in the market. We'll see.

    Other reason
    No built stylis like Note series Samsung. Very useful for design sketching (ie. Napkin)
    No back button or symbol. Swipe is the one and only way to go back unless the app or website has a left arrow or loop back symbol.
    No edge display like Note with handy side bar app access.
    Google doesn't prefill Top pulldown menu with useful tools like the Note.
    No Headphone jack.
    No SD card storage.
    While the last two may boost short-term sales of accessories and cloud storage it doesn't endear me too Google as a vendor. Are they raising money to get their Deep Mind product to actually work, legal defense fund for Government oversight and fines or is their an Android autonomous vehicle in our self-serving Coke or Pepsi.

    After reviewing this I'm glad I have 30 days to try before I buy the Pixel 7 Pro.