Google launches brand new ‘Pixel’ smartphone series

Goodbye Nexus, hello Pixel, and welcome to smartphones #madebygoogle.

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Meet the Google Pixel, and Pixel XL (what a tongue twister!), the first of the smartphones to be launched under the Pixel brand. While they are manufactured by the Taiwanese firm HTC, you will find no hint of that on the device or in any of the promotional materials. Google really wants to drive home the point that this is their phone.

The Nexus 5X (left) and 6P (right)
The old guard — the Nexus 5X (left) and 6P (right). Note the manufacturer logos and lack of Google branding.

If you’re reading this, and have zero idea what a Nexus is, then you’re exactly the target audience for these devices. Nexus devices were also Google’s devices, but were always marketed as [Manufacturer] Nexus [model]. Examples are the LG Nexus 5X, and Huawei Nexus 6P. No mention of Google, as you can see. The overwhelmingly large majority of users who knew about Google actually making these devices were Android enthusiasts (yes, Android, the OS which 99% of smartphones other than iPhones and Lumias run).

Now, though, Google has decided to put their foot down. It’s time for the world to associate the venerable Silicon Valley firm with smartphones, to showcase to the average consumer that Android doesn’t have to be bloated like Samsung’s TouchWiz User Interface, or UI, (yes, even Galaxies run Android) and Xiaomi’s MIUI.

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With Pixel phones, Google allegedly has greater control than the Nexus series to demonstrate that just like Apple’s iPhones and iOS, what a completely unadulterated Android experience is like. The issue with Nexus devices were that they weren’t exactly advertised to the masses, and had carved out a niche for themselves. Enthusiasts, and perhaps their families, were the only ones with proper understanding of what pure Android had to offer.

Nexus devices were talked about in the same breath as “partners”, and “setting guideposts for OEMs”. They weren’t exactly taken seriously by Google. Pixel, though, is Android’s most direct answer to Apple’s iPhones. Read Android Police’s great piece to understand more about why the Pixel line is an immeasurably important, even if seemingly intangible, upgrade over Nexus.

Such teasing for a Google smartphone? Wow.
Such teasing for a Google smartphone? Wow.

By rebranding the series, going all out on marketing, removing manufacturer logos, and slapping a ‘G’ Google logo onto the devices, Google is finally attempting to carve their image into the minds of those who make a beeline for ‘Galaxies’, because they are what are at the forefront of nearly every smartphone billboard.

What do the Pixels have to offer, then? Let’s start by having a look at their specifications.

Specifications

Pixel Pixel XL
Processor (SoC) Quad-core, Qualcomm Snapdragon 821

and

Adreno 530

Quad-core, Qualcomm Snapdragon 821

and

Adreno 530

RAM (Memory) 4GB 4GB
Storage 32GB or 128GB UFS 2.0 32GB or 128GB UFS 2.0
Display 5.0” Full HD (1080p) AMOLED with Gorilla Glass 4 5.5” QHD (1440p) AMOLED with Gorilla Glass 4
Dimensions and Weight 143.8 x 69.5 x 8.6 mm, 143 grams 154.7 x 75.7 x 8.6 mm, 168 grams
Camera 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55um pixel size, 1/2.3” sensor, Electronic Image Stabilisation

4K @ 30 FPS, 1080p @ 120/60/30 FPS, 720p @ 240 FPS

12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55um pixel size, 1/2.3” sensor, Electronic Image Stabilisation

4K @ 30 FPS, 1080p @ 120/60/30 FPS, 720p @ 240 FPS

Front Facing
8MP
Front Facing
8MP
Battery 2770 mAh, fast charging (7 hours’ worth in 15 min) 3450 mAh, fast charging (7 hours’ worth in 15 min)
Launch OS Stock Android 7.1 Nougat Stock Android 7.1 Nougat
Fingerprint Sensor Yes, rear Yes, rear
Other Features USB 3.0 Type-C reversible connector, NFC, 3.5mm headphone jack USB 3.0 Type-C reversible connector, NFC, 3.5mm headphone jack
Exclusive Benefits Free Google Photos storage at full resolution Free Google Photos storage at full resolution
SIM Size NanoSIM NanoSIM

Actually… a pretty good package. Let’s examine what’s good, and what’s not before diving into pricing and launch details.

What’s Good

It’s Stock Android

The Pixels run Android 7.1 Nougat
The Pixels run Android 7.1 Nougat

The absolute number one reason why the Nexus, and now the Pixel series, were and should be bought. “What’s so good about stock Android, Shikhar,” you ask? Well, here we go.

There’s no bloat, so your device is faster

Some examples of bloatware
Some examples of bloatware (e.g. S Voice)

Not present are pre-loaded, and uninstallable apps such as Microsoft Office Mobile, or Amazon, which serve little to no use, or are simply unneeded duplicates of apps already included with Android (e.g. Calendar, Chrome/’Internet’).

What this does is free up a significant amount of storage on your device, and keeps it running much smoother than devices which have such applications installed. Sure, some can be disabled, but they’re not completely gone. Worse still, some apps don’t even allow themselves to be disabled and/or update themselves whether you like it or not, consuming even more storage.

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The UI of most OEMs also falls under bloatware — the extra layer of skinning applied to Android means that your device has to not only load up the Android framework, but also the whole new look applied by manufacturers (often to the point of unrecognizability) which goes down deep all the way to system-level (think ‘glued onto the framework’). What does this mean for your phone? Well, it’s faster, of course.

Updates are almost immediate, and don’t stop until a long time

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Given that Google is in direct control of stock Android, it follows that it will be first to receive the updates before other manufacturers get their grubby hands on it. The situation is similar to Apple, where iOS updates are released immediately to users because there are no carriers or third-party OEMs to get in the way to install their own apps and UIs, which also contribute to bloat (as said above).

This speed means that you don’t have to wait for Android X.0 to arrive on your device months after it had been announced, meaning you get new features and important security fixes quicker and for longer. What’s more, OS updates are guaranteed for two years from release, and security updates for three years. This has historically also been the case. For example, the 2 year-old Nexus 6 just started to roll out the 7.0 Nougat update.

This is very unlike many third-party manufacturers who often drop support for a huge number of devices, sometimes even flagships, within a far shorter period. Some do provide updates, but withhold key new features to push you onwards to their next generation of devices.

Your device keeps going smoothly for really long

An example of third-party custom ROMs
An example of third-party custom ROMs

Thanks to the above two reasons – no bloat as well as quick, long-lasting updates – your device is guaranteed a long, and largely lag-free life. Dropped frames, frozen inputs and other issues of the sort are rarely present on stock Android. If they are, they’re not there for long.

What’s more, the openness of stock Android means that long after Google has finished its responsibility of updating your phone, trusted third-party developers continue to make ROMs (custom, near-stock Android in layman terms) to prolong your device’s life. For example, the Galaxy Nexus, released in January 2012, has a working and rather stable third-party Android 7.0 Nougat ROM available. That’s nearly 5 years of usability!

Of course, flashing (aka installing) custom ROMs isn’t always a bed of roses, but there are always detailed guides included that hold your hand and guide you through the seemingly dangerous process. With some care (and perhaps some practice), this process becomes extremely easy.

It’s an AMOLED display

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Currently only seen on the flagships from Samsung, the Pixels too use the absolutely superb (albeit one version older) Samsung manufactured AMOLED panels. AMOLED panels are different from IPS LCD panels, in that they offer more vivid colours, true blacks (since the pixels can individually switch off), and infinite contrast. You do trade-off some colour accuracy, but that can be remedied after you’ve tinkered with the device.

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The ability to turn off pixels and display true blacks not only improves your contrast, but also gives you an immense battery boost when using apps or browsing web pages that have predominantly black backgrounds. A pixel that is turned off doesn’t draw any power, unlike LCD where the panel has to generate the colour black and true black is only seen when the whole screen is switched off.

The camera is shaping up to be pretty great

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The camera of the Nexus 6P was arguably the best when put into HDR+ mode, but only decent without it. In some situations, it beat the legendary S7/Note 7 camera under blind testing. Furthermore, in HDR+ it took a loooong time to get ready to take another picture.

The Pixels scored 89 on DxOMark -- the highest for any smartphone
The Pixels scored 89 on DxOMark — the highest for any smartphone

With the Pixels, this problem is eliminated — there’s zero shutter lag. Not only that, the sensor is getting a minor bump from the Sony IMX377 to the IMX378. Presumably this will spell better colour reproduction and/or noise management. The front camera is also the same one we saw as the main camera  for the Nexus 5 — the IMX179, so that’s pretty cool as well.

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Videography has also taken a huge step forward. Now included is a digital video stabiliser that works absolute wonders with almost any kind of shake — even the haphazard jerkiness you get when you’re taking a brisk walk downhill. Video warp is absolutely imperceptible, even with heavy shake.

For video options, you also get 4K recording at 30 FPS, as well as something only the iPhones have for now — 1080p recording at 120 FPS. This means that we finally get high quality slow-mo. Also included is 720p recording at 240 FPS.

The fingerprint sensor is at the back

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What’s the benefit of having the sensor in the back? Try it yourself. Pick up your device with either hand, and see where your index finger (or another) falls to support the back. That’s right — it’s right where the fingerprint sensor of the Pixels is located. Of course, the other location where your finger easily rests is at the side, such as how Sony implemented it, but this placement is almost as good too.

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

LG was the first to identify this, taking the radical step of shifting their power button to the back of the device on the G2. With the G5, the fingerprint sensor joined it. Other manufacturers have also adopted this idea with their flagships, such as Xiaomi, however Samsung, Apple, and HTC (to name a few) have not.

Google Assistant is awesome

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

You may already know about Google Now, and Now-on-Tap. Assistant is pretty much the same thing. On any screen, it can pull information via OCR and standard text recognition.

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Want to know more about the play you’ll be attending? You can even get the bios of the individual actors. Or make a reservation at a new restaurant.

It’s got the latest processor

qualcomm-snapdragon-820
It’s like the 820, but better

The Snapdragon 821, while just a 15% increase in performance over the 820, is a newer and more powerful processor. Simply put, this means better and longer lasting top-tier performance. Of course, the added power could mean a higher power draw, but it’s too early to say if that cannot be counteracted by efficiency gains.

Absolutely free, unlimited full-resolution photo/video backup

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Yup. Today, if you want to upload full-resolution photo and video backups, you’ve only got 15GB. If you want it free, you’ve got to compromise on quality. With the Pixels? No more. Upload as many petabytes you want, whether it was shot on the Pixel or not. Go on, Google won’t tell.

Virtual Reality at US$79

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The Pixel is the first device that is fully, officially compatible with Daydream. Alongside the Pixels, announced was the US$79 Daydream View headset made for VR use with the Pixel.

The Daydream View comes together with a small motion controller that is allegedly precise enough to allow you to even draw with it. Once you’ve had your fun, the controller has a compartment inside the Daydream View headset itself for safe storage.

24/7 Live Customer Support

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Any time of the day (or night) you’ve got an issue, Google’s got your back. Call them and yell, or send your sardonic jibes through text, it doesn’t matter. What more could be better for someone who’s not familiar with Android’s idiosyncrasies?

And…

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And it’s got a 3.5mm headphone jack. Sorry, couldn’t resist sneaking that one in (neither could Google).

That’s the good, but what’s the bad? Let’s find out.

What’s Bad

Waterproof? No.

Go ahead, nothing's gonna happen!
The Samsung Galaxy S7 is waterproof, unlike the Pixels

Yeah, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S7, Note 7, and even the Sony Xperia XZ, the Pixels are not waterproof. Personally, this is not an issue with me at all. While I have been using the Sony Xperia Z1, and then the Xperia Z2 until present, I have not encountered any situation which had a pressing need for waterproofing . No scenario — not in the rain, pool, or the shower — made me feel especially satisfied to have a waterproof phone (other than to show off).

The truth is that every phone, at least today, has what the Pixels have — IP53 splash-proofing. This mean it can truck through a little rain soaking through your bag, or splashing up from the side of the pavement. Every waterproof device’s display goes bonkers when it encounters water anyway, so I naturally used to put my devices back into my pocket since I couldn’t use them much, if at all.

Nevertheless, this is still a feature that the competition offers, and the Pixel lacks. It might just be worth keeping in mind.

Front-facing speakers? No.

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Granted, the only 2016 flagship device that does feature front-facing speakers is the Xperia XZ, it’s still an omission that’s made even more glaring by the thick bezels on the top and bottom of the Pixels. Furthermore, the spiritual successor of the Pixels — the Nexus 5X and 6P — both had this feature, so it is a definite step back. Try not to block the audio with your hand when playing a video, then.

Looks are polarising, and there’s wasted space

pixel_xl_canadian_bell_leak.0

As said above, it’s a mystery (at least for now) why Google has decided to include Sony-level thick bezels on the top and bottom of the Pixels. While they did not bother me in the Xperia series, the Sony flagships, from the Z2 onwards, have always featured front-facing stereo speakers that took up the room. The whole Z series, the X Performance, and XZ are all also waterproof.

Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Photo: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Unlike Samsung or OnePlus, the Pixels also do not have capacitive navigation buttons but instead have on-screen buttons, which remove another excuse for sizeable bezels. What’s worse is that Samsung, despite the capacitive navigation buttons, managed to have a smaller bezel size on the Note 7 than both the Pixels do. The battery is also non-removable, unlike LG’s module implementation which took up that space on the bottom bezel.

Combining this supposed waste of space, and the general design of the Pixels, some have been turned off by their looks. The iPhone 4 near-facsimile also doesn’t help ward off (admittedly ridiculous) accusations that Google have gone back 6 years to resurrect a design.

pixel-launcher-app-drawer-100682360-orig
Pixel’s UI and app drawer

The UI also hasn’t been received with the thunderous applause Google might have wanted from its die-hard fans, with the Google search pill being the key offender. The frosted-glass look on the dock, and the new home button have also been identified as two UI elements that might go against Google’s own Material Design guidelines.

Demonstration of the Pixel UI
Demonstration of the Pixel UI

Another one of those potential offenders might be the new icon style itself — everything is now ensconced in a circle. It matters not if the app icon is a square, triangle, or something else — unless it is already circular, it’s going to get a white circle as its background. While this does increase uniformity, it’s garnered brickbats from quite a few people, and reduces your effectiveness in quickly identifying an app by its shape when scanning through your app drawer.

There are, of course, those who don’t mind it or even love it, but it’s no doubt that the design has been polarising.

Still no expandable storage (micro-SD card slot)

microSD cards
microSD cards

No Nexus device since the 2010-released HTC Nexus One has had a micro-SD card slot to expand your storage, and this hasn’t changed in the Pixel series either. Of all its competitors, only Apple is the one who has stayed away from implementing this feature as well. Otherwise, the Galaxy S7/Note 7, HTC 10, and LG G5 all feature a micro-SD card slot.

It is possible that Google is trying to go the Apple-route by dictating that internal storage is all you need, and if you need more, get the higher-end variant, but it could simply be Google seeing no reason to change their formula (for better or for worse).

Conclusion

The three colours
The three colours — Quite Black, Really Blue (US exclusive), and Very Silver

Aha, now we come to it. First, release date? 20 Oct, but pre-orders start today in the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the UK (13 Oct in India).

The, the big one: how much do both devices cost? Well, here it is.

The first column lists the official prices in USD, the center column lists them when converted to SGD, and the third column lists prices by local third-party reseller Mobyshop in SGD.

  Official Pricing Currency Converted Price Mobyshop Estimated Price
Pixel (32GB) US$649 S$889 S$699
Pixel (128GB) US$749 S$1026 S$899
Pixel XL (32GB) US$769 S$1054 S$999
Pixel XL (128GB) US$869 S$1191 S$1199

Wow. Expensive, and right into Note 7 and iPhone territory. Of note is the fact that if the prices in Singapore are what are estimated, then the Pixel is actually a great deal. On the other hand, the savings on the XL are smaller (and non-existant for the 128GB variant).

Both devices, in my opinion are actually really really good. The identical battery of the Pixel XL, for example, from the Nexus 6P with a smaller physical display does reduce power draw, and internal optimisations should definitely be boosting battery life. The Pixel too should be enjoying similar if not even better battery life.

There are also some other features that could have been included (highly debatable if they were useful), were simply a glaring omission, or just eh, but there’s nothing else that I feel stands out (good or bad). Sure, the devices are expensive, and yes maybe Android enthusiasts may not like it. However, there are two things to consider.

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The first is the value you accord to stock Android. For someone like me, with a disappointing continuation of the Xperia series, my next device is almost sure to be one of the Pixels. Stock Android is something I value very highly, as well as the incredible longevity that is assured together with it. Lag even on the latest Note 7 has simply confirmed my fears that as good as skinned devices might be, they will eventually slow down.

The other consideration that should be taken is that this device may not be for the majority of the Android enthusiasts. Yup, I said it. With the way Google has gone about creating the Pixel line — a name that has (at least until now) espoused a Premium experience above all else — and their marketing thrust, it does seem to be the phone to draw iPhone users, or unaware ‘Galaxy-not-Android’ users to them.

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This point is somewhat reinforced by the pricing as well. It is no secret that price ties into perception heavily. A $10 bottle of wine might taste better than a $500 one, but if one knows which is which, it is incredibly easy to accord bias to the more expensive one. As such, pricing the Pixel series on par with the iPhones might give it the same perception — Android isn’t for cheapos, and is actually a truly Premium experience.

Of course, with just details from the launch event all the way in San Francisco, it’s hard to pronounce any final judgement — we have to wait for reviews to roll in first. Nevertheless, opinions are already forming, and with sales just around the corner, it’s time to think if this might be the phone for you. It definitely is for me. How about you?

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