Google’s new Pixel phones may be its most ambitious smartphones to date.
The devices, home to Google Assistant and what Google says is the best smartphone camera ever, are the company’s first to launch under a name other than Nexus. While Google emphasized its manufacturer partners with the Nexus line, for Pixel, Google has joined its hardware and software efforts to create the “best Google experience.”
Picking up the Pixel and the Pixel XL, it’s clear their time was well spent.
From the moment the first Pixel images leaked, it was apparent the handsets would closely resemble iPhones. This is even more obvious when you see them up close, and that’s a good thing. The finish is a lot like that of the iPhone 6 and 6S (Apple’s is a tad more glossy), and the bezel looks very close to that of an iPhone, though the bottom part feels large considering there isn’t a hardware button.
The phones themselves come in three bizarrely-named colors: quite black, very silver and really blue. Weird names aside, the colors look good, though the “quite black” looks more silver/gray than black, and the silver looks more white.
Like the Nexus 5X and 6P, the fingerprint sensor is on the back of the device. Half of the Pixel’s backside is a glass panel that makes the phones look unusual. The piece — made of Corning Gorilla Glass — apparently serves no purpose and is just a “design element,” according to a Google spokesperson. While some may appreciate the look, it does make the phone a lot more slippery, and I’m not sure that adding an unnecessary glass element to an already slippery phone is a wise design choice.
Unlike last year’s release of the 5X and 6P, there are very few differences between the Pixel and Pixel XL. The only differences between the two are the display size (5.2-inches for the Pixel and 5.5-inches for the XL), resolution (1920 x 1080p vs. 2560 x 1440p) and battery capacity (2,770mAh for the Pixel, compared with 3,450mAh for the Pixel XL.)
This is a good thing, as it makes the choice much clearer for those considering buying one of the devices. You don’t have to sacrifice features or a better camera for a smaller size
Both phones ship with Android Nougat 7.1, and you will notice a few changes from previous version of the operating system. For one, there is a Google shortcut at the top of the screen (part of the new Pixel Launcher) that gives you quick access to Google Search with just one tap. The app drawer icon has also been removed — you access your apps with a quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This may take a little getting used to, particularly since the home button is now also a shortcut to Google Assistant (more on that in a minute.)
Google also added something called “Moves,” which are hardware-based gestures you can use as shortcuts. Double-tapping the power button, for instance, brings up the camera while swiping down on the fingerprint sensor brings down the notifications shade. You can also twist the phone when the camera is open to switch between the rear-facing and selfie cameras.
The best camera ever?
Speaking of the cameras, Google made a big deal about the Pixel camera being the best smartphone camera ever — a claim that’s going to take a lot longer to vet than the few minutes we had with it. The cameras do seem significantly better than those on the last generation of Nexus devices, and the shutter speed was impressively fast.
We’ll have to wait for our full review to really test the camera, but I came away impressed with what I saw. The cameras did remarkably well in the low-light venue, and none of the photos came out blurry despite the low light and constant movement.
You can check out the image quality for yourself below: the photo on the left was taken with a Pixel and the one on the right with an iPhone 6S.
It’s all about the Assistant
Camera hype aside, Google Assistant is the star of the phones. You can call up the feature by pressing on the new home button or by saying “OK, Google.”
If you’ve used Google Now, then Google Assistant will feel like a better version of that. (Google has confirmed it is folding Google Now into Assistant.) You can ask for information you would normally just Google, like news headlines, sports scores and weather updates, but you can also get personally relevant information such as your schedule, upcoming reservations or commute time. In my testing, it had no problem picking up my questions even in the noisy demo room, and it expertly handled follow-up questions.
The main difference between Google Assistant and Google Now is that Assistant structures all of your interactions more like a conversation. After you ask a question, the assistant will provide shortcuts to related queries (this looks a lot like the Smart Replies in Allo.)
Overall, it works much the same way that Google Assistant does in Allo, Google’s new messaging app, but with a few extra advantages that come with having it baked into the phone itself. You can ask the assistant to launch other apps, for instance, or open your device settings. Eventually, it will work with a lot more third-party apps ,which will make it even more useful.
Google’s first flagship
While the Pixel devices are certainly impressive, Google may find their premium pricing a harder sell to Nexus fans who embraced the previous brand’s (relative) affordability. And, no matter how many jabs they take at Apple, the reality is few companies can successfully make the case for a “premium” Android handset.
But Google has made every effort to make the Pixel and Pixel XL feel flagship-worthy (as good as the Nexus 5X and 6P were, they didn’t even come close to feeling like an Apple or Samsung device.) Now that Google is finally taking control of its hardware and baking its AI and search smarts right in, it might finally be able to compete with it’s “premium” competition.