(And also the most subjective).

All of us at AC recently got together for a fun roundtable talking about features in a phone that we think are the most important.

Out of all the features that were mentioned, “camera” stuck out as the thing that was brought up the most — and rightfully so. It’s a hugely important feature, as our phone is often the only tool we have to preserve family gatherings, sleepy pets, and jaw-dropping sunrises.

Cameras also happen to be one of those features we talk about quite frequently when a new phone comes out. It’s a spec that we can judge and compare next to something else, just like we do for so many other aspects of a device. The same goes for the processor, display, RAM, storage, and battery.

All of those things play a massive role in how a phone performs, but for me personally, there’s something that stands above all of that. Something that’s even more impactful in deciding which phones I’m interested in — software.

Whenever you do anything on your phone, you’re interacting with its software. From checking your notifications, navigating your home screens, using an app, etc. Your phone’s software is at the core of all that and is what allows things to work the way they do. Furthermore, it also determines what various elements on your phone look like, certain features you may or may not have access to, and how quickly (or slowly) you get updates.

The Pixel 4 is flawed in more ways than one, but its software keeps me coming back for more.

My Android phone of choice is a Pixel 4 XL, which admittedly isn’t the most technically-impressive phone on the market. It doesn’t have an ultra-wide camera and battery life is mediocre at best, but since I love Google’s software so much, I continue to use and enjoy the phone in spite of those things. I appreciate its clean user interface, not having to mess with duplicate apps, and knowing I’m first in line for software updates as they become available.

Similarly, software is why I often don’t get very excited about Samsung’s Galaxy S or Note flagships. These are phones that are typically filled with the highest-end specs you can think of, but because I don’t personally like One UI, I don’t ever seriously consider buying them.

That’s what makes the whole topic of software so interesting. Unlike a display or processor that serves one main purpose and can be objectively judged, the software powering a phone is a multi-layered thing that’s not as easy to directly compare. The Snapdragon 865 is objectively better than the 665, just like a 5,000 mAh battery is larger than a 4,000 mAh one — there’s no arguing those two points. However, while I prefer the software of a Pixel phone and dislike One UI, someone else could have the exact opposite taste. They aren’t wrong, that’s just their preference.

I also think that’s why software plays such a big role in a phone buying decision, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. If you’ve been using a Samsung phone for years, you’re likely very familiar and comfortable with Samsung software. The Pixel 4 might take better low-light photos than the S20, but having to adjust what you know and love about how your phone works isn’t worth it for a slightly better camera, sharper display, or faster processor.

Whether you’re a fan of One UI, OxygenOS, Pixel software, or anything else in between, that’s great. All of these have various pros and cons over each other, but it’s impossible to say that one is definitively better than the other for all users. What I do think, though, is that the software on your phone plays a bigger role than you may give it credit.

Your phone’s display, processor, and other bits are necessary and a lot of fun to discuss, but if you don’t have good software and don’t enjoy the UX you’re interacting with day in and day out, all of those fancy components are for naught.

The most important features in a phone — ranked by the Android Central staff

Google’s latest

Google Pixel 4 XL

From $ 900 at Best Buy
From $ 900 at B&H

The best software in my book

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the Pixel 4, but despite its flaws, it’s the phone I continue to carry with me. Google’s take on Android is the one I prefer to use, largely thanks to the simplistic user interface and snappy updates.

« »