You may have heard two weeks ago that Google released a new phone called the Pixel, and Pixel XL. What makes them different to the vast stable of Android phones, and Nexus devices though? The Pixel brand of phones are Google’s first that have been designed by them from the ground up. Nexus’s (Nexii?) that have come before these have been designed and built by partners, with Google providing their pure Android software experience to these devices at a very late stage.
With Pixel, Google are assuming ownership of their first mobile phone, with the responsibility of promoting and providing support for it at a premium level. They are aiming to compete with the best offerings from Apple and Samsung currently out there (RIP Note 7). Google proudly proclaim the Pixel as ‘Made By Google’. It is their baby, however they are still using HTC as a manufacturing partner, and you’ll probably notice more than a few subtle hints in its design to the HTC 10 phones.
As mentioned above, there are two variants of the device, Pixel and Pixel XL, which only vary in 4 ways; Size (5″ vs 5.5″), Battery (2770 mAH vs 3450 mAH), Display resolution (1080p vs 1440p) and Price (£599 vs £719). Inside all Pixel variants, you will find that the rest of the specs are identical. Aside from these two options, you can further choose between a 32GB or 128GB model, and in two shades; either ‘Quite Black‘ or ‘Very Silver‘. Both phones use the latest and greatest Qualcomm chipsets, however I won’t delve into this. If you want more technical information, you can find it straight from Google here: https://madeby.google.com/intl/en_uk/phone/specs/
I’ve now had the phone to play with for two weeks, and I must say that they are vying for an Apple-like experience straight from the moment of unboxing. When you cut the tape at the side, and slide the box apart, you will find the phone face down and wrapped nicely in a frosted sheet of plastic. Beneath this, you will find 2 cables (USB A to C to connect to your PC, USB-C to C to charge your device and future PC connections) and also an USB-C OTG dongle to help transfer ex-iPhone users to the Pixel, as well as connect up USB devices to do a bunch of other stuff that you can do with USB-OTG standard.
It feels very solid in hand, and has a nice even weight to it. The metal is cold to touch, and feels a slightly heavier than an iPhone 6S, and is also slightly taller and a touch wider. The 2.5D curved glass on the front of the screen looks lovely, and feels more ‘glidey’ to touch than the iPhone. Your index finger will naturally rest on ‘Pixel Imprint’ fingerprint sensor on the rear of the phone, which is used to unlock your device from your own fingerprint. Flanked around the fingerprint sensor is a layer of glass, which takes up the upper third of the back of the phone, and is said to allow the wireless radios to transmit better, but also remains as a debatably weird design choice. I have attempted to mildly flex the device, and I’m happy to report there is no creaking or flex that is apparent as there are with other plastic-built devices out there.
Upon powering it on, the first thing you will notice is the vibrancy of the coloured bouncing Google balls as they animate over each other on the screen. The AMOLED display really pops in a way that makes any iPhone display look drab and washed out.
What is immediately apparent from initially using this phone is how damn quick it is just navigating the device, which is a pleasure to use. This is running Android 7.1 Nougat and using the new Pixel launcher, and it is really slick and exhibits no lag. In terms of responsiveness, every action I’ve performed has been near-instantaneous from browsing the web, to social messaging on Facebook; Google have nailed touch responsiveness on these devices.
What makes the Pixel different?
When I first got this phone and showed it around to the friends and colleagues, the main response was that it was very Apple-like, or Apple-y, which isn’t surprising, as this is the market that Google are aiming for. People have complained not only about how boring it looks in design, but also about the large ‘Apple-like’ bezels on the top and bottom of the screen, as well as it’s premium price. What usually attracted many to Android or Nexus devices previously were unique design with a high screen to bezel ratio, and a cheaper cost, which Google have forsaken on this occasion in terms of Apple-like familiarity. But what actually sets the Pixel apart from other phones?
The main features that make Pixel stand out from the rest are as follows:
- Camera – DxOMark viewed the camera before release and rated it 89, with Google proudly remarking that it is the highest rated smartphone camera ever, and it certainly does live up to the hype. It has a 12.3MP camera without OIS, which is surprising, but where it’s magic lies is in software. When you fire up the camera, it is constantly taking rapid pictures before you even press the shutter button. When you do snap your picture, it will select the best pictures of the scene from before and when the button is pressed a clever post-processing is applied to create a pleasing image. It really works! It also applies some of that Google magic to videos, by using the inbuilt gyroscope to take care of stabilisation, reducing shaky-cam and jello effects. If you are shooting video and moving, videos will looks more like footage from a drone attached to a gimbal, which is pretty cool.
- Unlimited Photo and Video uploads to Google Photos at full quality – This is a feature that may eventually pay for itself. Every photo and video that you take on your phone will be uploaded to the Google Photo’s cloud service at full uncompressed quality for free, for life! Currently, it is possible to do this with other devices at high quality for free, but a degree of compression is applied, so it won’t be the original quality. So your Pixel 4K videos will be preserved in all it’s glory!
- Google Assistant – Google has baked in smart AI Assistant to tend to your queries in a more intelligent way than any other presently available Voice AI system (such as Apple’s Siri, or Microsoft’s Cortana). What makes it special is that you can be more conversational, and it will remember subsequent requests in context. So for example, you can find out the president of a country, then further ask about details regarding the person without having to rephrase the entire context. It is intuitive and very impressive! I’m looking forward to how this will develop over time.
- Pure Google experience with updates – One of the big reasons to own a Nexus device previously were that users were privy to the latest updates first. This tradition carries over with the Pixel line, but also introduces a method of silently downloading updates in the background in a less intrusive way, and allowing users to choose when to apply the update, or by doing so upon the next phone reboot automatically.
- Daydream VR – The Pixel is ready to take on VR duties using Googles upcoming Daydream headset and controller. The experience will be better on the higher resolution XL. It is worth noting that only the newest devices using the latest Qualcomm SnapDragon 821 processors and above are likely to be approved for Daydream compatibility.
- 12/7 Support directly from Google – On every Pixel device, there is an area where you can seek support by phone, or chat directly with Google technical support for any manner of query. I haven’t tested the phone support, but via chat, I’ve had some pleasant conversations on how to solve minor issues or just help with guidance around aspects of the phones OS. This could potentially be a great feature for the less technically inclined, as it will offload support directly to Google, rather than your tech family member or friend.
- Headphone socket – With the iPhone 7, Apple insinuates that this is going the way of the dodo, but I think it still serves a big purpose, as there are millions of 3rd party products out there that still use the good old headphone jack, and there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it that leads to quality being compromised. Good thing that Google still has it intact with the Pixel.
- No spontaneous fires or explosions – Samsung are going through an absolute nightmare dealing with the issues regarding exploding batteries with their Note 7 devices. They’ve cancelled the device completely, and are now dealing with a complicated recall procedure. Thankfully, there have been no early reports of spontaneous combustion with the Pixel lines of phones.
Some notable omissions from the current Pixel line are water resistance, wireless charging and stereo speakers, which some of the competing handsets currently have. I do not think that these mar the general appeal of the Pixel, which I consider to be a solid and very pleasing device that has a broader appeal than any other Android device before it. If you can get over the cost, the Pixel will fit right at home with a techie, the social-centric millennials, and even your mum, as the experience is as user friendly as it gets for a pure Android experience.
All in all, Google have done remarkable well for their first premium ‘Google Phone’, and sets the precedence for future Android to follow. It is a solid first offering, with an excellent camera and very speedy operation that will breeze through any app currently available. Battery life will get you through the day, although your mileage may vary depending on your usage. This is a smartphone that is pleasing to use, and has a broad appeal, if you can overlook the price of entry.
Only time will tell how well it’s main features will hold up. With Google guaranteeing 2 years of support and updates, it could be the ideal device for those that prefer 2 year contracts (of which you can get the Pixel on EE on contract, through Carphone Warehouse on contract or SIM free, or SIM free from direct from Google). However, with features such as free full resolution picture and video uploads captured by the camera , phone/chat support direct from Google, and the excellent Google Assistant, the Pixel is a device that will grow with the user, and it will be exciting to follow how well this plays out over the next year and onwards.