Google Pixel Preview

Posted on October 5, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, Mobile with 43 Comments

Google Pixel Preview

This week, Google announced that it will now design and build its own smartphones alongside a more cohesive family of hardware devices that take better advantage of the firm’s online services. First up, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL handsets.

News that Google has unveiled its “first” smartphones raised some eyebrows, given that the firm previously owned Motorola’s smartphone business and has been selling Nexus devices for six years. But to be fair, Pixel is in fact different.

For the Microsoft fans in the audience, you might consider Pixel to be roughly analogous to Microsoft’s Surface lineup. That is, Google is designing and making its own phones, and is handling sales, support, and carrier relations. But the devices are of course manufactured by a third party, in this case HTC.

Nexus was more like Microsoft’s Signature PC program, though like all comparisons, it’s not exact. In this case, we saw devices that were designed mostly and built solely by third party hardware makers—though Google had more input on more recent devices—but were sold via Google exclusively (for the most part) and with clean Android images. But you can see the problem: Last year’s Nexus 6P and 5X were (and still are) excellent handsets. But you don’t need to be a design expert to notice that they don’t look alike, don’t present a common familial design.

Worse, the Nexus 6P and 5X likewise bear no resemblance at all to Nexus tablets like the terrible Nexus 9 or the Pixel C, or to Google’s other hardware products, like Chromecast, the OnHub routers, the Nest home automation devices, and so on.

So like Microsoft before, Google has finally given up on the partner strategy—sorry, augmented the partner strategy—and is adopting the Apple playbook. It will design its own hardware products. They will look alike. They will work similarly where possible. They will work well together. And they will offer unique capabilities that are not available to other hardware makers who use Google’s platforms. That last bit is perhaps less controversial than it deserves, but I bet that changes over time.

There are good discussions to be had about this interesting change, and about the other devices that Google announced this week. But here, I’d like to focus on the Pixel.

As is the case with many smartphones these days, the Pixel and its larger Pixel XL sibling, owe a lot to the iPhone. And I’m not just talking about the strategy: Just look at these phones. They look an awful lot like iPhones.

phones

That’s good and bad, though I reject the claim that Google had little choice. Yes, phones will always take on the same basic shape, but as Nokia proved during its brief and disastrous fling with Windows phone, you can still innovate here with the general look and feel, with materials, and with capabilities.

Google is doing none of that. It’s both safe and disappointing.

The basic form factor is an aluminum and glass rounded rectangle, with the same exterior antenna bands we see on iPhone. (They were present on last year’s Nexus 6P as well.) There are 5-inch and 5.5-inch variants, just like iPhone (yes, I know the smaller iPhone is really 4.7-inches; whatever). And there are basic white and black colors, plus something quirky, in this case a limited edition blue color.

Google does of course veer off from Apple in some key areas. On the Pixel, Touch ID—sorry, the Pixel Imprint fingerprint reader—is on the back, not on the front. I like both positions, and each has its pros and cons. Google is retaining the headphone jack, which many will appreciate. There’s no camera bump, as on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, which many, too, will appreciate. (We’ll have to wait and see on camera quality, of course.) It can fast charge to 7 hours of battery life in just 15 minutes.

charge

And Pixel owners get some unique services. The Pixel is the first phone to feature Android 7.1, the first with Android Assistant built right in. It offers unlimited free storage of full-sized photos in Google Photos, which is a nice perk. These phones will of course work with Project Fi, which I find superior.

The specifications are high-end, though my experiences with Android suggest there will always be some performance issues. The Pixel devices—both are basically identical save screen size—both feature a quad-core 2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, 4 GB of RAM, 32 or 128 GB of storage, and a 12.3 MP rear-facing camera and an 8 MP front-facing camera. The Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch AMOLED display running at 2560 x 1440, whereas the 5-inch Pixel features a 1080p AMOLED display.

There are things Google never mentioned. That camera, which it describes as the best smartphone camera ever, inexplicably does not include optical image processing or any kind of optical zoom. The storage is not expandable. And there is only a single mono speaker (where the Nexus 6P had stereo speakers).

Worse is the price.

The Nexus 5X started at $380, while its bigger Nexus 6P sibling started at $500. These were reasonable prices.

The Pixel? A base Pixel with 32 GB of storage starts at $650 (!), while a based Pixel XL starts at $770. Choose 128 GB of storage and the price for each jumps by another $100. Those are luxury price tags for devices that, quite frankly, are unproven. Worse, the pricing delta between the Pixel/Pixel XL and their predecessors is simply too great. How on earth is the Pixel worth $270 more than the Nexus 5X?

In the past, I could recommend the Nexus 6P and 5X because you got so much phone for the price. This is no longer the case with the Pixel.

So we’ll see. I’ve preordered a 32 GB Pixel XL so it can go head-to-head with the Apple iPhone 7 Plus I’m currently using. I will keep an open mind, of course. But I have so many questions here. And a nagging feeling that this first generation of Google-built phones may not be as ready for prime time as Google may believe.

 

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28 Comments
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  1. 5 | Reply
    dcdevito Alpha Member #220 - 1 month ago

    I sold my Nexus 6 in preparation for yesterday's event, and I am whoafully disappointed. The leaks were spot on, which was what I afraid would happen. People have pointed out that some Nexus phones were full retail (ballpark) which was true, the Nexus One, Nexus 6 and Nexus 6P were all retail priced handsets, yet only the Nexus One and the 6P stood the test of time and didn't have any huge corners cut. But even then they were still a lot cheaper than the Pixels.

    But what those same people have missed is that those phones, all of them, were backed and loved and purchased by their hardcore loyal fanbase - I would know, I was one of them. But yesterday turned most of us away, which is fine considering none of them sold well. But targeting iPhone and Premium Samsung customers aren't going to make them sell well on their own either. Google may not have cut corners in hardware but they made many mistakes here, namely:

     

    1. Making the Google Assistant an exclusive app for Pixel phones, leaving even Nexus phones in the dust. They cannibalized themselves and thus pissed off a lot of Nexus owners, their only loyal fans.
    2. Pushing off Android 7.1 for existing Nexus phones to a BETA release by the end of the year. WTF?! Wow, that was awful. Android's biggest issue is fragmentation and all Google did was add fuel to their own fire.
    3. They took a rebranded HTC10 with updated components and called it theirs. #MadeByGoogle is an utter lie and disingenuous
    4. If you're going to sell the phone for that much then supporting it for only 2 OS updates and 3 years of security updates is not nearly enough.
    5. Copying the iPhone is everything - design, price, etc - was, in which I agree with Paul, safe. And closes off the exits and ensures a two horse race. So the open platform they've promised is officially dead, and thus creating a 2nd walled garden. Thanks Google
    6. The storage upsell from 32GB to 128GB. There was no reason the 128GB should exist, especially at that price. The 64GB option should have been there, many users have 64GB so no way would they want to downgrade, so they decided to upsell everyone to 128GB and thus adding an extra cost of $129 - that's an Apple like move. Not cool, and it pissed off many of us. I priced a 128GB Black XL which landed at ~$960 - wow - are you kidding me Google? Screw you.
    7. They left out premium handset features - OIS, water resistance, wireless charging. At $500-$600 that's acceptable, but not at that price.
    1. 1 | Reply
      rlcronin Alpha Member #1704 - 1 month ago
      In reply to dcdevito:

      I agree with all your points. I'm keeping my 6P. That price has simply got to come down.

       

    2. 1 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 1 month ago
      In reply to dcdevito:

      I feel I need to add that the current iPhone models of late look a lot like many other phones before them...  Let's all face it, the age of innovation in smartphone looks is over.  There's no other place to go that's worth the black eye it could give any company trying to vie for your wallet.  As long as it's non-offending, it will sell.  That's all I'd ever ask for, and all anyone truly needs.  If you want, or feel you need "bling" on your smartphone, buy a case.  Most smart folks use cases anyway, so most don't give a rat what it really looks like.

  2. 2 | Reply
    dcdevito Alpha Member #220 - 1 month ago

    I'll conclude my rant by saying I ordered a OnePlus 3. 

    1. 0 | Reply
      Matt Lohr Alpha Member #698 - 1 month ago
      In reply to dcdevito:

      I am content with my OnePlus One. I see no justification for replacing it, or spending more than $400 on a replacement.

    2. 0 | Reply
      ben55124 Alpha Member #1468 - 1 month ago
      In reply to dcdevito:

      My OP3 has gotten me through WP withdrawal.  Paul should review one of the growing number of $400 high spec android phones.

    3. 0 | Reply
      mebby Alpha Member #219 - 1 month ago
      In reply to dcdevito:

      I am thinking in the same direction as well.  Looking for a great Android phone (went back to my 950XL after a subpar Android phone experience) and was thining the Pixel XL would be it.

  3. 1 | Reply
    EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 1 month ago

    I was interested in the Pixel, and had held off on my iPhone order to see if there was a compelling reason to choose Android over the iPhone.  retiring my 950, and honestly, that price is so high, that I don't believe it offers value over the iPhone any longer.  The Nexus 6P did..the Pixel...not so much.

  4. 1 | Reply
    stillfurther Alpha Member #449 - 1 month ago

    HOW MUCH??

    Personally, I'm waiting for a Yahoo-branded phone. Wi-fi supplied free by the NSA as standard. 

    1. 0 | Reply
      Markld Alpha Member #349 - 1 month ago
  5. 1 | Reply
    KPRROK Alpha Member #302 - 1 month ago

    Totally agree.  I understand that a "premium" phone from Google would carry a higher price tag, but I just can't justify the cost for this phone.  I ordered a "new" Moto X Pure yesterday evening as a replacement to my Nexus 5.

  6. 1 | Reply
    MacLiam Alpha Member #229 - 1 month ago

    On a cost/benefit basis, the 6P still looks to me like the no-bloatware Android phone to beat. I like new directions and reimagined products, but I'm not sure the Pixels are new enough or reimagined enough to make me reach for my wallet right now. Maybe next year.

    I still prefer a Windows phone, but I can see that feeling fading in the course of the coming year without strong and frequently delivered evidence of Microsoft's long-term commitment to the platform; I have made about as many excuses for them as I can and still keep a straight face. Android 7 looks like the better replacement option for general use. My iPhone is as useful as it needs to be without a SIM in it, so I don't think I'll be replacing that one this year, next year, or even the year after. But a radical shift in mobile design and utility might make me commit to one system or another on the spur of the moment. We'll see.

  7. 0 | Reply
    ponsaelius Alpha Member #1328 - 1 month ago

    Free unlimited storage for photos and videos. I wonder if anyone else could have thought of that to promote their mobile offerings......

    Oh yes - Amazon photos for prime members.

     

  8. 0 | Reply
    wolters Alpha Member #390 - 1 month ago

    I'm usually slow to react to news stories but if the Note 7 that burned today was indeed a replacement (Sorry but I don't buy that the Verge already has pictures of this persons box), I may ditch mine for the Pixel XL.

  9. 0 | Reply
    BBoileau Alpha Member #1196 - 1 month ago

    No expanded storage via SD card is the reason I didn't buy the Nexus and why this Pixel is a no show for me. I want my music and haven't found a cloud solution that is reliable with a large volume. If I'm on the go (on average 4 hours each day), I gotta have my music. Why is it, that this is not an option that these premium phones can't have. 

  10. 0 | Reply
    Siv Alpha Member #451 - 1 month ago

    The price is ridiculous!

  11. 0 | Reply
    Narg Alpha Member #420 - 1 month ago

    If these things were the right price, I'd be in like Flint.  But, sorry, not at that price.  Especially as Paul states "unproven".

  12. 0 | Reply
    jaylesh27 Alpha Member #1586 - 1 month ago

    I wonder how much the Verizon carrier exclusive will help the sales of this device.  The 5X and 6P were not available in any brick-and-mortar locations as far as I know, and having a store where people can go check the out the physical device itself will be great.  Supposedly Google is to be going all-in on marketing this phone, and it will also be interesting to see if Verizon pushes people to the Pixel phones over, say, Galaxy phones or iPhones.

    I still haven't decided on whether or not I'll be buying the iPhone or the Pixel, but I seriously hope Google doesn't abandan its efforts with its new hardware division.  Surface Pro took 3 years to be a viable product and a success, and I want to see Google doggedly pursue iterating well on their Pixel branded phones.

  13. 0 | Reply
    asarathy Alpha Member #1139 - 1 month ago

    I don't think it's a great value that's for sure. The real question is if and how quickly it drops in price like other Android phones do.  The 6P was a decent enough deal to buy at launch, even though better deals came later.  But there is no compelling reason to get one of these right now unless you just really need a new phone, and until Google can prove it's support will out strip Apple, paying the same price for their phones is a hard pill to swallow.  For now I will ride my 6P. 

  14. 0 | Reply
    cheetahdriver Alpha Member #1190 - 1 month ago

    I agree. I don't see any delta besides processor between this and the 6p, and my 6p works excellently as a backup phone on Fi. My only problems with Fi so far have been in a rural environment, and to be fair, AT&T occasionally will drop calls there too. These phones stumble hard out of the starting gate. How long until we see the sale prices show up?

  15. 0 | Reply
    lightbody Alpha Member #2190 - 1 month ago

    I agree with what Paul has written.  I'd add battery into the mix.  The 5" Pixel's in particular seems rather small.

  16. 0 | Reply
    TheDude Alpha Member #1843 - 1 month ago

    Despite being 'Google' phones, the Pixel looks a lot like other recent HTC phones, which are very Apple-esque. They look fine, but at that price I think I'll stick with my Nexus 6P for now.

  17. 0 | Reply
    Waethorn Alpha Member #2235 - 1 month ago

    "How on earth is the Pixel worth $270 more than the Nexus 5X?"

    Daydream support.

    Double the RAM.

    Double the storage.

    A better camera.

    More cables in the box.

    Faster charging.

    A faster processor (AND GPU).

    Subsidized cloud storage.

     

    ....

     

    Did I miss anything?

    1. 2 | Reply
      jaylesh27 Alpha Member #1586 - 1 month ago
      In reply to Waethorn:

      Their storage is also no lonver eMMC but UFS 2.0, so that's also a nice upgrade.  Also, I think the camera is pretty much the same as last year's phones from a hardware perspective, the only differences are on the software side since both the Pixels now have EIS (and not actual OIS).

      Overall, I think a price increase from the Nexus 5X is understandable but not such a huge price increase especially when the hardware features that iPhones and Galaxy S7s have still eclipse the equivalently-priced Pixel.

    2. 2 | Reply
      ben55124 Alpha Member #1468 - 1 month ago
      In reply to Waethorn:

      Or a better 2016 comparison would be how does it justify $250 over a OnePlus 3?

      Daydream support

      2/3 the ram

      1/2 the storage

      Camera - no OIS

      Bump on processor

      Subsidized cloud storage

      Consistent google OS updates

      ...so $250?  Perhaps to some, but not me.

    3. 0 | Reply
      Markld Alpha Member #349 - 1 month ago
      In reply to ben55124:

      Waethorn, think he is correct in lots of his comments, but, im agreeing with you...priced me out for what you get, a OnePlus3 is better deal. Im sure glad I won't be in the market for a new phone for awhile.

       

  18. -1 | Reply
    glenn8878 Alpha Member #2387 - 1 month ago

    Apple should sue. Looks very much like an iPhone with prices to match.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 1 month ago
      In reply to glenn8878:

      Yeah, that's what we need, more frivilous litigation.  No.

      There are a lot of phones that look like the iPhone, even some made way before the current iPhone models hit the market.  You can cover a "slab" only so many ways.  It's kind of like clothing almost.  You can't copyright clothing because the law states it's too pedestrian to not copy.  Smartphones are getting that way.  The only thing you can do to save face is your logo on the back (or front in case of a tshirt...) to keep the lawyers at bay.