Meet Google's first homegrown smartphones: Pixel and Pixel XL

04 October 2016

Google has been making software for smartphones for almost a decade now. It's also worked with partners including Samsung, LG, and Huawei to make Nexus devices running unmodified versions of Android. But today, Google has unveiled the first two smartphones it can truly call its own: the Pixel and the Pixel XL.

While the devices are technically built by HTC, they're being marketed as "made by Google" and are devoid of any other branding. Nexus devices, which the Pixel family appears to be replacing, still featured the logo of the original manufacturer.

As with recent iPhones, Google is offering what's essentially the same device in two different sizes. The Pixel measures in at 5-inches, while the Pixel XL is a slightly larger 5.5-inches. Other than screen size, screen resolution, and battery capacity, the phone's hardware is identical.

Key specifications include a Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, either 32GB or 128GB of storage, a 12.3MP rear-facing camera, and an 8MP front-facing camera. As with last year's Nexus devices, the Pixel phones have a rear-facing fingerprint reader and charge over USB Type-C.

The smaller 5-inch Pixel boasts a 1080p display, and is powered by a 2,770mAh battery. The larger 5.5-inch Pixel XL ups screen resolution to Quad HD, and runs on a 3,450mAh battery.

In terms of design, the Pixel handsets are predominantly built from aluminium. They do however feature a glass cut out on the rear, surrounding the camera, flash, and fingerprint reader.

Both phones run the latest version of Android - Nougat - customized with what Google calls the Pixel Launcher. Rather than taping an app drawer icon, users now swipe up to access their apps. Google is preloading the phones with its new Allo and Duo chat apps, and a 24/7 live customer care app that gives users the ability to share their screen with a Google support professional.

The Pixel and Pixel XL standout from the crowded Android competition thanks to a couple of unique software features. The most important of these is that the phones are the first devices to feature Google Assistant baked into the core operating system.

Google Assistant is ostensibly "OK Google" on steroids, that is, a context aware virtual assistant. Users can summon Google Assistant at any time by holding down the home button or saying "OK Google". Google Assistant can be used to bring up photos taken on a certain time or at a certain location, find events on at venues, make dinner reservations, check directions and traffic conditions, and play music.

Notably, Google Assistant understands context. If you're looking at a restaurant, you can then simply ask Google Assistant a question like "how far is it to the Opera House from there", without having to specify the original location.

Google's software smarts have also gone into improving the camera. A feature called Smartburst will rapidly capture a series of photos, and then automatically pick out the sharpest one. Google also claims that the Pixel phones excel in dark and tricky lightning, and that they have the fastest capture time of any smartphone of the market.

While benchmarks aren't always a reliable indicator of real world performance, camera comparison specialists DxOMark Mobile gave the Pixel a score of 89, the highest score it has awarded a smartphone to date.

Google will also give Pixel owners unlimited cloud storage for storing full resolution photos and videos, even if users choose to shoot in 4K.

Locally, the Pixel phones will be priced as follows:

  • 32GB Pixel: $899
  • 128GB Pixel: $1,029
  • 32GB Pixel XL: $1,049
  • 128GB Pixel XL: $1,179

They'll be available in a choice of "Quite Black" or "Very Silver".

The phones will be available outright directly through Google or on a contract through Bell, Rogers, Telus, Fido, and Koodo. Preorders start today ahead of an October 20 release date. 

Both Pixel and Pixel XL will be compatible with Google's Daydream View virtual reality headset. Google has yet to confirm local pricing for the headset. 



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