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.
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.
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.