It’s fitting, in a way, that Google’s new Pixel phone resembles the iPhone. Apple’s world-changing gadget is the very device Google is aiming for. The 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL are meant to be the best, most powerful, most unified Android phones ever. They have best-in-class specs, best-in-class design, best-in-class everything. And for the first time, Google seems to want you to buy one.
If you’ve ever owned an Android phone, I can all but promise that you didn’t own the best one. The best have almost always been Google’s own Nexus devices, from the Nexus One to the Nexus 6P. Nexuses (Nexii?) offered high-end hardware specs and (usually) refined design with truly current software, which is otherwise entirely too hard to come by in the Android world.
It sounds lovely, except you probably never knew about them. You’d walk into the Verizon or AT&T store when your contract was up, buy the best phone you could find, and never realize the wonderful world of unlocked devices you were missing. And no one could blame you.
Next time you walk into a Verizon store, at the very least, the Pixel and Pixel XL will await you. They’re the same price as the iPhone 7, starting at $649 for the small one and $769 for the big one. The Pixel features a 1080p screen, and you’ll get 1440 x 2160 from the XL. Both sport Snapdragon 821 processors, fingerprint sensors on the back, 4GB of RAM, 32 or 128GB of storage, and a big battery. Choose from three delightfully named colors: Really Blue, Very Silver, and Quite Black. (If you don’t love the look, slap on a customizable Live Case and go about your merry day.) Both phones are solid and sturdy, and a smidge heavier than I expected. And the plastic panel at the top of the phone’s back looks a little cheap next to the unibody design of some other devices. Still, though, in the few minutes I played with one, the Pixel looked and felt great.
The Looking Glass
Pixel arrives Daydream-ready for the best of Google’s new VR experiences. According to DxO Mark’s tests, the Pixel’s 12-megapixel camera surpasses the iPhone’s 12-megapixel shooter. Actually,it surpasses everyone’s camera. According to those tests, which the entire industry respects, Pixel features the best smartphone camera ever, so just for good measure Google also offers unlimited storage in Google Photos. Oh, and yes: Pixel comes with a headphone jack. Alas, Pixel is not waterproof, but beyond than that there’s nothing about it that will immediately turn you off.
Google worked with HTC to make the phones, but stressed that this isn’t the same relationship it has had with phone makers before, where they supplied the hardware and Google provided software and some design ideas. Even the name change seems to communicate a new way of thinking. Google selected and approved every square millimeter of these phones. HTC merely built them. They look a bit like the iPhone, especially in that they don’t really look like anything at all–they have the same inoffensiveness, a design that’s maybe hard to get excited about but definitely hard to dislike.
Here to Help
Even as it has taken on a decidedly more crap-giving position in the hardware process, Google’s still a software company. The Pixels are running Android Nougat 7.1, a software update so new it didn’t even exist until today. The Allo and Duo messaging apps also comes pre-installed. The most important thing about the Pixel, for Google and Android and probably you as well, is that this is the first phone to have the Google Assistant built in. Google Now is dead, long live the Google Assistant. It’s a core piece of the phone, available everywhere just the way Siri is on the iPhone.
In a very real way, the Assistant is the future of Google. It’s the Google brain, distilled and personified and right there waiting for you to ask who won the 100-meter dash in 1996. (Donovan Bailey.) You can hit that home button, or say “OK Google.” This is the showcase feature here. I’m pretty sure Google only made the Pixel this good so that a few more people might try the Assistant.
Over the last few years, tech pundits have set up a sort of horse race between Google and Apple. Could Google get better at hardware faster than Apple could figure out software and services? Or would Apple make Siri and iCloud great long before Google made a phone anyone really wanted? The race is still on, and is nowhere near finished. It’s also not as simple as we tech pundits made it out to be. But if Google’s goal was to make a phone that might finally make you think twice before walking over to the Apple shelf at your local Verizon kiosk, it seems to have succeeded.
The new Pixel phones are available for pre-order today, and will start shipping later this month. If you’ve always loved Android but wanted something that felt a little less like Samsung or Huawei and a little more like what Google imagined, you’re going to want to pick up a Pixel.