Android 12 is here, and we’ve seen how all OEMs put their own spin on the OS. Companies like Samsung, OnePlus, and others have made their own UI deal with Android 12 to make it look, feel, and act the way you want it to. Meanwhile, Google has made a pretty drastic change to the Pixel UI with the latest version, focusing on more colors, unique widgets, and larger buttons. I didn’t own a Pixel smartphone until very recently, and I have to say the Android 12 experience on the Pixel is what makes me want to keep using Samsung and One UI.
I’ll start by saying that it was hard not to get excited about Google’s Android 12 user interface when it was first revealed. Thanks to Material You, it’s such a massive OS overhaul from what we’ve seen in previous Google phones, and it’s a phone that mirrors the new Pixel 6 hardware. It’s hotter, more personal and, dare I say it, fun. But as time went on, I became more and more concerned about some of the questionable choices Google was making with its user interface, and frankly, I hoped with all my might that other OEMs wouldn’t adopt them.
Bigger is not always better
My main complaint? Everything is so big on the Pixel UI, that I feel like the Pixel has turned into an Android caricature. Why in the world does Google have four oversized buttons on the Pixel 6 Pro’s quick settings menu, which open up to show me Just Eight in the dropdown? Compare that to the six switches I can access in the Galaxy S22 dropdown, letting me display up to 12 switches before having to scroll to get more.
The UI for notifications is also unnecessarily large on the Pixel. I keep coming back to my Samsung device because everything is so compact, that Samsung can fit the brightness bar in the dropdown menu and still take up less space than my Pixel, while still giving me quick access to the Settings app without forcing me to scroll down again as Pixel must. Samsung is also making its user interface more accessible by including a huge banner for different screens throughout the UI and apps, pushing everything down. Perhaps this is the only case where it makes sense to waste space.
On the other hand, it’s easy to go into the Pixel settings to make the screen smaller, so some of those UI elements aren’t in your face, but the problem is that they make everything else in the UI smaller, like app icons, text, and stuff look very weird and small. Plus, it doesn’t solve my problem with having fewer quick settings toggles to access
Speaking of settings, the layout of the Settings app is another thing I like about One UI. Everything is laid out in a way that makes sense. On my Pixel, Google combines Wi-Fi and data for the new Internet dashboard, which I’m also not a fan of, but I decided to give us a separate “Connected devices” option in the Bluetooth and other connections settings. Samsung puts all of these things in the “Connections” option in the Settings menu. Plus, Samsung breaks things down nicely so they’re less cluttered, and you can get an overall sense of where a particular setup is. Google seems to be just taking care of the wind and spreading its settings all over the place.
I also like Samsung’s Edge panels, which basically give me another quick settings menu but for other apps and functions. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a native equivalent on the Pixel (but if there is one, please indicate it).
If it doesn’t break…
My colleague, Nick Sutrich, notes how Google made such a drastic change to the user interface on its Pixel phones, but the switch from One UI 3 to One UI 4 on Galaxy devices wasn’t as dramatic. He argues that Google will likely do what it can to differentiate itself as it tries to compete with the iPhone through a visual (and unique) hardware and software overhaul. After all, the Pixel 6 series is probably Google’s first flagship. Previous Pixels hardly made a huge impact in terms of sales, but that’s slowly starting to change with Google making a big push for these phones.
On the other hand, Samsung is one of the most successful Android manufacturers in the world and constantly produces many of the best Android phones around the world. You didn’t need some comprehensive visual overhaul of One UI 4 to help make it work; It’s just. And as someone who uses both now, I can see why. Samsung’s user interface is clean, compact, and consistent, something it has gone out of its way to include on all of its devices, from the Galaxy Watch 4 to Windows laptops.
Mishaal Rahman, chief technical editor at Esper and former editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, says he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Google is making Android 12 a big update to the Pixel. He notes how Google dictates changes to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), developing Android “mostly in secret” before “pushing source code into the walled garden they’ve created for AOSP”.
“The reason this is important to note is because it explains the decision-making process that goes into a lot of the features and UI changes you see in Android 12, both in AOSP and on the Pixel,” explains Rahman in an interview. “Google develops a lot of proprietary software additions, but what isn’t wholly proprietary in AOSP is still likely to be influenced by what the Pixel team needs. For example, Android 12 in AOSP has added a user interface for setting up and using an under-display fingerprint sensor because the Pixel team I need it for Pixel 6. “
In a blog post in January, Abdul Rahman also indicated that this is likely to lead to more problems for the Pixel series. “Android 12 was Google’s biggest OS update in years, and given the transformation that took nearly a year to develop, it’s no surprise that the initial release had a lot of bugs and unresolved issues.” Meanwhile, Samsung’s Android 12 update went mostly smooth, again, likely due to the fact that Samsung didn’t need to do such a drastic overhaul of its user interface.
This does not mean that there is not a lot to like about the Google Pixel UI. On the Pixel, it’s smooth, simple, and bloatware-free, which unfortunately is still a win in 2022. The vertical scroll in the app drawer is my personal favorite and something my colleague Chris Fidel points to as a reason for his preference for the Pixel user interface. Unfortunately, you can only achieve this on Galaxy when using Good Lock, but it’s easy enough, even if it’s a less than perfect solution. Plus, Pixel-exclusive apps and services like At a Glance definitely add to the experience. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for me, and I find it hard to take the Pixel seriously with this user interface. My annoyances are the reason why I often recommend Samsung smartphones to my friends who are looking to upgrade from older Pixel phones.
Let’s be together. Not the same thing.
Yes, I’ve spent this article researching the Pixel UI (and I could go on, but there’s only so much space on the internet), but part of buying a phone is the experience and feel of using it. I can’t help but feel that Google is wasting a lot of space with their UI options by making everything comically large. But while the Pixel might not be my phone of choice, that’s okay because a lot of people love what Google has done with Android 12 on the Pixel.
I might try to convince my friends to go for the Galaxy, but some decided to upgrade to the latest Pixel because it’s familiar, and they’ve learned to love the new user interface. Just as you’re used to Samsung’s user interface—and arguably better—other Android users love what they like from various OEMs. As Jerry Hildenbrand points out, Android’s best feature is choice, so find a phone that makes you happy. As for me, I’ll keep standing on my soapbox telling everyone to stay away from the big Pixel buttons. But again, it’s not like Samsung needs my help selling phones.