Pixel 8: the good, the bad, and the Google


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Tags: Google, mobile

Imagine the following scene: you enter a restaurant, sit at the table and start looking at the menu. The chef comes out of the kitchen, goes to your table and says:

All the food that is served is made out of edible goods! Oh, and I don't poo in the dishes I make!

Now, what would you do? Would you happily point at items on the menu to make an order, or would you leave the restaurant hastily?

A few weeks ago, my 6 year old Samsung Galaxy S7 died. I had not planned on buying a new phone, since I really hate electronic waste and this phone was still doing a pretty good job, despite a broken screen, but I was now on the market for a new device.

I originally had my eyes on the Fairphone, but I live in Taiwan and they don't sell their phones here. It was early October and Google was launching their new Pixel phones, with a promised 7 years of software updates. I was conflicted: 7 years of software updates sound really good. But this is a Google product, so it would be full of trackers to siphon as much private data from me as possible. But, being a Pixel, it would probably be easy to unlock and install third-party OS on it. But I had had a terrible experience installing Lineage OS on my Galaxy S7 because the camera became garbage (to the point where I had to re-flash the stock OS, because the camera on a smartphone is one of the reasons I have a smartphone to begin with).

I still needed a smartphone, so I went ahead and bought the Pixel 8.

And, as I expected, even though the hardware seemed great, the software was a nightmare.

I had read somewhere that the Google phones were so much better than the competition because they were not bloated with third-party apps when you started them for the first time. Well, upon starting my Pixel 8, I was welcomed with Google Search, Google News, Google Fitbit, Google Assistant, Google Photos, Google this and Google that. Sure, it was not third-party per say (Google bought Fitbit a few years ago), but it surely felt like the phone came pre-bloated with a lot of crap I didn't need.

But the worst came when I tried to operate the phone.

You want to change the wallpaper? Sure, let's do that with the power of AI! Oh, Google will send some stuff online, but don't worry, it's for your good!

You want to type anything, anywhere? Let's use Gboard. Oh, by the way, Google needs to upload some data online so that everyone gets a better experience. But don't you worry, there's nothing personal!

You just took a picture and want to see it? There's Google Photos for this (Google Camera will not open photos in any other app). Is it OK if we force-upload all your photos on our servers so they can be used to train our models or to extract anything we can from it so we can sell it to anyone willing to pay for it? Oh, you clicked "Don't turn on backup"? I guess you were supposed to select "Turn on backup", so we'll just block the whole thing until your change your mind1.

You want to record some audio? Sure! How about we send everything on our servers so we can provide a few services that could actually be done offline, but, you know… No? Oh, OK. Oh, by the way, your recordings are stored locally in a directory you cannot access, so you won't be able to use them unless you agree to send them to our servers ♥

Hey, we thought you might like that feature where we listen to you all the time and upload that to our servers so that if you happen to be in a room with some music, we will capture that too and tell you what tune it is!

It's so bad that Google is trying to show they're the good guys in the very rare occasions they don't actually send your data online by explain such and such features are working offline.

Now go back to the beginning of this article, and re-read the little introduction story. See the pattern?

You would assume that paying a month of minimum wage2 for a smartphone would grant you the privilege of not having your private data hoarded by the phone maker to extract even more juice from you, but you would be wrong…

Using a Pixel is a nightmare. Every time you start using an application, you have to fight to disable all the privacy-invading features. By default, all the Google apps will be forced-synced with your Google account. You can turn this off, but it takes extra steps (pretty well hidden, I must say), and along the way, Google will threaten you that you will lose access to features.

After about a week, I had enough, but I thought third-party OS would not have caught up and I would have to wait months before I could escape the Google claws. After all, the Pixel 8 had just been released two weeks before…

Fortunately, a colleague suggested on Mastodon to have a look at GrapheneOS, and that was a revelation. If you don't know about this fantastic open-source project, go check its website and features page.

But of course, switching OS meant losing all hopes to get decent pictures from the camera, right? Wrong!

GrapheneOS has the same camera capabilities and quality as the stock OS. It will match the stock OS when comparing the same app on each OS. (…) GrapheneOS Camera is far better than any of the portable open source camera alternatives and even most proprietary camera apps including paid apps. On Pixels, Pixel Camera can be used as an alternative with more features.

I couldn't really believe it, but here is a video comparing the quality of pictures and videos taken with the GrapheneOS Camera and the Google Camera apps.

So I went ahead and installed GrapheneOS. The installation guide is clear and quite easy to follow3, and in no time I had it running on my smartphone.

And it feels so much better! It feels so liberating! By default, no Google apps are installed. You can, however, install them along with the Google Play Services, but the good news is that all of these are sandboxed as if they were regular Android apps (on the stock OS, these apps have deep roots into the system and can do anything as they please, and the worst is that you cannot uninstall them). This means your banking app will likely work without a problem, and you will get a nice notification from GrapheneOS when the Play Store wants to refresh apps on your behalf.

On top of that, GrapheneOS prevents any app (Google apps included) from accessing the network. Access can be granted at install time, or whenever you feel like it by going to the app's permissions screen. This means you can safely install Google Camera and Google Photos and be sure that nothing will ever be sent to Google.

I've been running GrapheneOS for a week now and so far, so good! It's exactly like running the Pixel phone with the original OS from Google, without feeling like being abused by Google all the time. I highly recommend it!

  1. True story: the Google QA team is so sure everyone will use Google to store their photos that they didn't even bother trying the other option, so when I clicked on it, the spinner icon showed up and nothing happened… half an hour later, I gave up and killed the app. And when I finally managed to deactivate my Google account, most of my photos suddenly disappeared. I thought I had lost them forever until I rebooted my phone and they magically reappeared… Thank you once again, Google QA! 

  2. Minimum wage in Taiwan is NT$ 26,400, the Pixel 8 256GB I got is NT$ 26,900. 

  3. They even have a Web-based installer to unlock the phone and flash the system on it!