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Hands and ears on Apple vs. Google’s high-end phones and wireless earbuds

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Unless you count those early Blackberry-like devices, the modern smartphone era started in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone. The following year saw the HTC Dream, the first Android phone and since then, Apple and a slate of Android developers have been competing to win the hearts and minds of smartphone buyers around the world.

Globally, Google’s Android is beating Apple’s iOS by a factor of nearly 7 to 1, but that’s partially because there are plenty of relatively inexpensive Android phones on the market — in the U.S. where buyers are much wealthier than in say, Africa and Latin America, the gap is much narrower with Apple enjoying a 45 percent market share, compared with 53 percent divided among the various Android vendors. Other than Apple, Samsung is the next biggest player with 23 percent market share in the United States, according to Statistica.

The fact that Apple is the only hardware vendor that makes iOS phones gives it a huge boost over any of the Android phone makers including Google. Following the same playbook that Microsoft forged for PC sales, Google initially opted to provide only the operating system and software and let others build the hardware. But just as Microsoft is now making its own Windows laptops, Google is now putting its name on the Pixel brand of Android phones. Its market share is still tiny but, I suspect it will grow.

Right now, I’m carrying both an iPhone X and a Google Pixel 2 XL, and I’m also trying out Google’s new Pixel Bud wireless ear buds that compete directly and competently with the wireless AirPods that Apple offers to its iPhone customers.

Google’s Pixel 2 XL and Apple’s iPhone X have a lot in common. Both have large (5.8 inch for Apple and 6.0 inch for Google) OLED screens with little (Google) or virtually no (Apple) space wasting bezel. Both have amazingly good cameras, and both can be unlocked instantly, without having to enter a pass code or PIN.

You unlock the iPhone X by glancing at it so it can recognize your face, even at an odd angle or in dim light. There’s amazing (and expensive) technology behind Apple’s face recognition, but Google — taking a less ambitious approach, made substantial improvement in its fingerprint recognition system.  And what these two phone unlocking features have in common is both speed and accuracy.

In my testing of the iPhone X, I’ve been able to unlock virtually every time with my face. It’s so smooth and automatic that I forget I’m unlocking the phone — I’m just looking at it. With the Pixel 2, I simply touch the sensor on the back, which is in a convenient and easy to reach spot, and it, too, comes to life — virtually every time I’ve tried it. And although I give Apple higher marks for innovation, I give both phones unlocking features equal marks.

Apple’s AirPods allow you to invoke Siri, while Google’s Pixel Buds work with Google Assistant, enabling you to ask questions or order-up a song or podcast. Google gives you more control such as start, stop and volume controls by touching the right bud. The most interesting feature of Google’s Pixel Buds is near simultaneous translation. Long-press the right bud and say “help me speak Spanish” (or any supported language) and it automatically launches Google Translate on your phone. Say a word or phrase, and the translation app speaks it out loud in that other language. If you’re having a conversation, the other person can respond in their native language and you hear it in your language through the Pixel Buds. This feature along with other tricks of Google Now make the Pixel Buds a potentially powerful accessory to a Pixel phone, which will only grow in sophistication over time. Based on Google’s vision of Pixel Buds being an information appliance, I give it the nod in the wireless ear-bud contest.

So, which phone do I recommend? The answer is both — and neither. Both are can’t-miss options for anyone willing to spend big bucks (starting at $849 for the Pixel 2 XL  and $999 for the iPhone X). But there are plenty of other excellent phones on the market that do the same job for a lot less.