You can spot an Apple iPhone from 20 paces away. I bet you’d be able to tell a Samsung Galaxy from that distance, too. Yet, until last year, a Google phone didn’t have an eye-catching design language all its own.
But this week, Google revealed that its most distinctive, in-your-face design element ever is here to stay. Not only did it feature on last year’s Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro — and will appear on the Pixel 6A this July as well — but Google has also already shown us an even bolder, harder-hitting version will jut right out of this fall’s Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro.
I’m talking, of course, about the camera bar.
Or, as Dieter Bohn jokingly called it before he coincidentally left us to work for Google: the “shelf.”
Whatever you call it, it’s immediately divisive: this thing jutting out the back of your phone. But that’s how we originally saw Apple’s iPhone notch, too, or its ugly white earbuds. I’m old enough to remember when its original candy-colored translucent iMac G3 was ridiculed for looking like a toy. But all of those weird designs became iconic strengths for fans (and ads) to rally around. (Heck, we even get nostalgic for transparent gadgets these days.)
And it doesn’t hurt that Google’s camera bar has some of that playfulness, too. Where Apple and Samsung’s multi-eyed camera arrays originally looked a bit insect-like, the Google camera bar has more of a robotic, R2-D2-esque look — fitting for the company behind Android.
I’m not saying Google didn’t have a design language before the Pixel 6, but it felt borrowed rather than new. Originally, of course, Google didn’t design Android phones at all. The T-Mobile G1 and Nexus One were from HTC; the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus were from Samsung; the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, and Nexus 5X were from LG; the Nexus 6 came from Motorola; and the Nexus 6P was a Huawei phone.
Aside from giving half those phones a horizontal “Nexus” wordmark, only the LG phones had any common design language at all.
All of that changed with the Google Pixel in 2016. But not necessarily for the better because Google was gunning for the iPhone right from the start. We noted that the original Pixel looked way too much like an iPhone, only with the fingerprint sensor divot of a Nexus 5X and a partially glass back — not bad, that two-tone glass, but not really a distinctive look you’d recognize from across the street.
Rather than get more distinctive, Google wound up removing more and more glass each year, save the Pixel 4’s all-glass back. Then, the Pixel 4 failed, Google pivoted cheaper, and the glass disappeared altogether in 2019.
It also probably doesn’t help that in late 2019 / early 2020, Apple and Google and Samsung all settled on the squircle as their camera corral of choice. Oops! While Samsung quickly found a way out by blending its camera bump into the S21 metal rail, Google’s phones wound up looking more like low-rent iPhones than ever… until the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro finally arrived last October with the camera bar in tow.
There’s nothing low-rent about the Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, and even the new Pixel 6A isn’t ditching that premium look — though it does have a “3D thermoformed composite back” instead of the Gorilla Glass you’ll find on pricier models.
But the thing that ties it all together is that camera bar. It’s the centerpiece (that isn’t technically centered because dead center would be a dumb place to put a camera). It’s the feature that now gives Google’s Pixels an actual silhouette instead of just being yet another rounded rectangle. It’s the line dividing the two tones of Google’s two-tone design language for the entire Pixel family.
Here’s the new Pixel family portrait, so you can see what I mean:
Except… wait, what the heck? What is THAT?
Oh Google, what have you done now… you promised!
I’m so, so sorry, everyone.