In a year when Apple has been robustly criticized for its anti-repair antics, Google has taken note and returned to its Nexus roots with tinker-friendly Pixel phones.
The company has announced a raft of repair-positive and longevity measures recently. From the seven year software support promise, by the far the longest of any smartphone on the market right now, to its partnership with iFixit to supply genuine parts for the same amount of time. There’s also a new diagnostic tool to help owners find potential issues with the device at a glance.
The message is clear: buy Google and we’ll look after you for years to come. The Pixel range needs it because previous phones have been riddled with problems that go right back to the Pixel 2, which was blighted by a blue-tinted display.
If you scan Google’s community forums, or the Pixel Reddit sub, you’ll find long-in-the-tooth Pixel buyers who say the latest problem is their last straw. The frustrations run deep, I wrote in 2017 about Google’s horrible hardware year that saw device defining problems for several of its products.
Six years on and the company is doing something about it. It’s too early to say if Google’s latest flagships will fall victim to the Pixel Problem curse, but after two months all is mostly well.
If something does pop up, there is now a level of security that wasn’t available before, thanks to more repair options. The software support also goes against the grain for a company that has a habit of unceremoniously cancelling its Next Big Thing. A practice so common, there’s a website dedicated to remembering services Google has thrown overboard.
We might look back at 2023 as a pivotal year for Google’s hardware business, with the Pixel 8 being a turning point. I remain slightly sceptical that Google will keep up with its seven year promise of security patches and Android updates, but I’m ready and willing to believe. I will be keeping an eye on the graveyard, though.
This new lease of life for the Pixel brand is in stark contrast to Apple’s 2023, in which the iPhone maker has repeatedly shown how little it thinks of independent repair.
For the uninitiated, Apple has a parts pairing policy, otherwise known as serialization, which makes it hard for non-authorized people to fix the company’s devices, as I explained in a recent story.
“The company is adding integrated circuits to individual components with unique serial numbers. If you want to replace your iPhone 15 battery for example, or any other component, you will need to use a genuine part—that can only be purchased from Apple—with a corresponding unique serial number, and the parts have to be synced up using Apple’s proprietary calibration tool. Serialization can be found all over the iPhone, MacBook Pro and iPad—from the camera to the display.”
To break it down further. If I take an iPhone 15 display and put it onto another iPhone 15, the device won’t recognize the new screen as genuine and some features may be lost. It has to be calibrated with Apple’s authorization tool.
That calibration tool is only available to Apple and Apple authorized repair shops. As it stands, you may lose battery health features on the iPhone 15 if the battery is replaced incorrectly. Or your Apple Pencil may draw squiggly lines if the iPad display is replaced. This happens all over several Apple devices. The Google Pixel 8 has no parts pairing.
Apple’s defence is that it is protecting its hardware from cheap third party components that might affect the experience. A completely fair argument that is shared by the repair community. But why is the most crucial part of the repair, the calibration software, gatekept? As repair specialist Ricky Panesar, founder of iCorrect, once told me. “If you replace a genuine part at home, you should be able to just recalibrate the software yourself because you own this product.”
It just so happens that Apple withholding the calibration software, which is needed to authorize a replacement part, dramatically restricts who can repair your device. The list is Apple, select approved repair companies, or the self service repair program if you buy the part directly from Apple. This, of course, makes cheap repairs with repurposed parts near impossible.
In its defence, Apple has made self repairs somewhat easier. There’s a recently released diagnostics tool for people with faulty devices. The company also makes tools and parts available for people who want to undertake a repair themselves. But that diagnostics tool, according to a statement from iFixit to ArsTechnica, failed “to recognize the ambient light sensor in a new part we’ve installed,” which the repair company attributes to parts pairing.
Also, the self repair service program relies on customers buying a new component from Apple. If you repurpose a part from another Apple device, you may run into the disabled features issue.
As phones become more expensive and tech companies talk about their commitment to the environment, giving people the power to keep their phones for longer (a natural trend among smartphone buyers that’s happening anyway), with plenty of repair choices, should be the only direction the smartphone industry heads toward.