Culture

Google Launches Its Own Smartphone: the Pixel

Twitter screenshot of the launch of Google's new Android phone, the Pixel.

Google has been in and out of the hardware business, but today they’re back in in a big way, particularly with smartphones. No longer are they working with other companies that have designed phones for them, labeled under the Nexus brand.  They’re creating their own products to better compete with Apple and to better show the full potential of Android.

Google introduced two Pixel-branded smartphones, the Pixel and the Pixel XL, the first with a 5-inch HD display and the second with a 5.5-inch QHD display. They both run a new advanced version of Android, and include features no other Android phone has. They’ll cost $650 and $770 for the 32GB versions, compared to the Nextel devices that cost as little as $380.

It’s a bold move because there are an increasing number of very good Android phones from companies such as Huawei, Motorola, and Xiaomi that cost less than $300. But Google wants to compete with Apple and Samsung and aim for the premium market where the phones have the fastest processors, best cameras, sharpest displays, and best software.

Like the iPhones, the Pixels are constructed of aluminum, but with a slab of glass inset on the upper back, where there’s a fingerprint sensor. Otherwise they are the same shape as an iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, and from the front look much the same. The Pixel’s most important feature is software, including the new Google Assistant. This personal assistant is always available and stands ready to answer your questions or solve a problem at the touch of a button or a shout-out.

While it sounds much like Siri or Amazon’s Echo, Google claims that it will be much more advanced and it will things no other voice assistant can do, such as asking you follow-up questions to better understand your requests. This may be the killer feature, and it’s unclear when or whether it will become available on other Android phones.

One of the things the Google phones will do that iPhones can’t? It will be able to actually make use of the data it gets from the users’ activities — for advertising purposes. In fact, one of the reasons for Google developing their own phones is to have more opportunities to increase the company’s advertising revenue in the mobile space. The company will be better able to access raw data by selling its own phones.

The other software difference is a new appearance of what’s displayed. Swiping right gives you the Google Now cards as before, but now your icons sit in a drawer rather than filling your screen. It’s hard to judge the value of this feature, but it should reduce the randomness of icons spread all over your screens and improve the aesthetics.

More Pixel features: an excellent camera, fast charging, and new app storage in the cloud.

Other features include a very good camera with a 12-megapixel sensor and an f/2.0 aperture, matching the performance of its competitors. All your images can be stored at full resolution for free with the included Google Photos app.

The phone also has an advanced memory option to automatically move less-frequently-used apps from the phone to the cloud to make room for new apps or data, and then reinstall them when needed, to avoid running out of storage space.

The Pixels also offer a fast-charging feature to give you 7 hours of use in just 15 minutes. The Pixel has a battery that’s 50% larger than the iPhone 7, which currently has the lowest capacity of all major smartphones with the smaller 4.7 to 5 inch displays.

But for the phones to succeed, Google will need to step up its customer service. Up to now, owners of Google hardware had abysmal customer support and had to contend with online forums for help. Google said that Pixel owners will now have access to phone support and phone chat.

Google has been dabbling in the mobile market for many years, including co-branding the Nexus phones and even buying Motorola and then selling it to Lenovo. But now they are back in earnest and committed to be a full-fledged hardware company, in order to control the full user experience from software to hardware. That’s been Apple’s territory and Google seems serious about providing them with some formidable competition.