Google was disappointing if you were expecting a major Android upgrade that tackles some deep-seated issues, at least based on the details shared so far. The company didn’t spend much time discussing Android 13, and most of the updates announced were known, minor, or both. They were largely defined by media and privacy controls. The as-is version won’t be a revelation unless you’re a . While we may not have seen all the features of Android 13 yet, there are some genuinely useful improvements already (like the status quo that will remain largely intact.
And that’s a shame. While Android is a very capable platform with great hardware, there isn’t a single device that nails every experience consistently. Buy a powerful phone and you’ll probably be stuck with quirky software; get your dream Android variant and you may have to put up with mediocre cameras or chips. It’s time for Google and manufacturers to work together to produce devices that you could more easily recommend to others.
Software: too much or not enough?
To be fair, Google is only partly to blame for the current state of affairs. The very beauty of Android is the ability for vendors to add their own spin – a uniformly Google-designed experience would defeat that point.
However, the company still plays an important role and it is increasingly clear that it can do more. Use either phone with “pure” and you’ll find that the stock OS, while visually consistent and free of fluff, is still relatively stripped down. You won’t get an advanced camera app, extensive media integration, special browser features, or other clever tricks you often get with custom Android experiences. The polish isn’t always there either – just. Apple has had its share of dodgy updates over the years, but it seems to have fixed the issues that Google sometimes overlooks.
You can install apps, launchers, and other utilities to flesh things out, but that’s not realistic for some users. I wouldn’t give a Pixel to a newcomer or anyone who wants solid out-of-the-box capabilities. Google could improve its features and quality to compete more directly with its partners beyond the usual handful of (usually) temporary Pixel exclusives. While the company has lately leaned more towards regular feature removals than gigantic OS overhauls, Android 13, as we know, is still somewhat disappointing on that front.
It’s not about letting these partners off the hook. While phone makers aren’t overdoing customization as much as they once did, some non-stock Android experiences still include their fair share of arbitrary tweaks. Samsung is the classic example. While One UI is much cleaner and more third-party friendly than , it still tends to duplicate Google features or push services you’re unlikely to use. Do you really need two browsers or buying apps from the Galaxy Store? You’ll also see over-the-top Android implementations from Chinese brands, although we do notice that Xiaomi has held back on MIUI.
And the situation seems to be getting worse in some cases. OnePlus initially attracted enthusiasts precisely because its customizations were limited and generally very useful, but there’s been evidence of the creeping influence of parent company Oppo’s top-heavy software design on devices like the . The OnePlus Shelf context menu got in the way during our review, for example. Update policies have also backed off at times, as Motorola still won’t guarantee more than one major OS update for some phones. It would be great to see OnePlus and other vendors strike a more delicate balance that adds thoughtful touches without veering overboard or limiting software updates.
Material: Flies in the ointment
Software hiccups wouldn’t be so problematic if the devices were more comprehensive. It’s all too common to find an Android phone that performs superbly in many ways, but has at least one weakness that tarnishes the experience or even proves to be a dealbreaker.
A quick survey of the leading Android phones illustrates this all too well. The regular series is one of the best all-rounders on the market today, but it has modest, non-expandable storage, a 1080p display (good, but not the 1440p that some people dream of) and reduced functionality in its smaller version. Pixel 6? Exceptional value, but the notoriously finicky fingerprint reader and limited storage can quickly kill interest. The OnePlus 10 Pro is only a slight improvement over its predecessor and still suffers from poor camera quality. You can overcome some of these limitations with no-cost flagships like the or Sony, but you’ll likely spend upwards of $1,000 for the privilege.
It becomes even more difficult with more affordable models. Motorola is increasingly popular among budget users, but its missing features (like NFC) are creating serious problems for buyers. Samsung’s midrange phones can be slow or otherwise unexciting, and they even feel like a step backwards. Handsets like the Poco F4 GT and future versions offer high-end processing power at a low price, but you can safely assume you’re compromising in areas like camera tech. And don’t get us started on companies that offer huge but low resolution screens that can turn out to be eyesores.
To be clear, every phone has its trade-offs. It would be unrealistic to expect a perfect product from any brand, including those beyond Android. Apple is often conservative with iPhone design and has been slow to embrace mainstream Android features – 120Hz and USB-C, anyone? More often than not, though, you choose an Android device based on the major flaws you’re willing to tolerate, not because it’s clearly the best you can get for your money. Combine that with the previously mentioned software dilemmas and a truly fully-featured Android phone can be very hard to come by.
glimmers of hope
That’s not to say the Android phone industry is in a dire state. The very gripes at the heart of this piece underscore how far the platform has come. Android 12 (and soon 13) is decidedly more successful than previous iterations. Once-obnoxious brands like Samsung have shown some restraint, and it’s much easier to buy a budget phone that will make you genuinely happy, even if there are obvious shortcomings.
You can also point to certain devices that show the way forward. While Sony’s recent Xperia phones are increasingly expensive and aimed at niche audiences, they tend to offer good performance, good cameras, class-leading displays and moderately customized software. And if the can fix some of its predecessor’s problems, it just might be the Android phone to beat in the second half.
On the contrary, the concern is that there is much more room to grow. Companies should take a more holistic approach to phone design where there are little to no obvious sacrifices in the name of price, bragging rights, storage upsells, or peddling services. Google could do more to lead by example, such as matching more advanced software features from its allied vendors. It’s entirely possible to create a phone that excels simply by having no glaring weaknesses – it’s just a matter of finding the resolve to make it happen.
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.