Google has taken the fate of its Android flagship phones into its own hands, and the resulting devices -- the Pixel and Pixel XL -- are superb.
Google is taking firm ownership of the flagship Android phones it produces each year. Only now they’re no longer called Nexus phones, but Pixel phones. In October 2016, the search giant formally unveiled the Pixel and Pixel XL, two top-of-the-line smartphones made in partnership with Taipei, Taiwan-based electronics maker HTC.
The Pixel and Pixel XL may be produced by HTC, but they’re unquestionably “Google phones” — they’re the first handsets in history to carry the company’s new “made by Google brand,” in fact. And they’re an impressive first attempt.
Price and availability
Since release, the Pixel phones have proven popular, with stock often running low, so patience may be needed if you’re looking for one. The most likely place is from the online Google store. Both come in 32GB and 128GB storage capacity options, in either black, silver/white, or blue colors. Google cheekily calls these “quite black,” “very silver,” and “really blue.”
Here’s how the pricing breaks down:
- 32GB Pixel: $650 or $27 per month for 24 months
- 128GB Pixel: $750 or $31 per month for 24 months
- 32GB Pixel XL $770 or $32 month for 24 months
- 128GB Pixel XL: $870 or $36 per month for 24 months
In the United Kingdom, the Pixel and Pixel XL are sold through the Google Play online store. The 32GB Pixel is 600 British pounds, and the 32GB Pixel XL is 720 British pounds. Opt for the 128GB model and you’ll pay 700 British pounds for the Pixel, and a massive 820 British pounds for the Pixel XL.
For a start, only the black and silver versions were sold in the country, but from February 24, the “really blue” limited edition model will arrive. However, it appears to only be available through Carphone Warehouse and the EE network. Shortly before the U.K. announcement of the blue Pixel, Canadian network Rogers exclusively secured the limited edition model.
Both phones, differentiated more by size than hardware, bear the hallmarks of high-end smartphone design: they’re dominated by polished aluminum, Gorilla Glass 4, and an almost incidental amount of plastic to accommodate wireless radios. The Pixel and Pixel XL’s edges slope gracefully, as do its wedged sides — a design language that not-so-subtly evokes Apple’s iPhone. And they’re pleasingly minimalist. On the front, selfie cameras and earpieces; on the right side is a power button and volume rocker; and on the rear is a dedicated shooter, LED flash, and circular fingerprint sensor.
Google’s new phones aren’t just pretty faces, though: they’re powerhouses. The Pixel XL packs a 5.5-inch, Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440 pixels) AMOLED screen with an impressive density of 534 pixels-per-inch. The Pixel packs a smaller and lower-resolution AMOLED screen at 5 inches and Full HD (1080 x 1920 pixels), respectively, but squeezes it into a slightly more compact package.
Beneath those displays is one of the fastest mobile processors around. The Pixels have the distinction of packing Qualcomm’s brand-new, top-of-the-line quad-core Snapdragon 821 processor, a chip 10 percent more power efficient than the predeceasing Snapdragon 820. The variant in the Pixels is clocked at a 2.15GHz and paired with 4GB of RAM — more than enough to crunch webpages, benchmarks, docs, and games with ease, Google said.
Those aren’t the only highlights. The Pixels share a pair of cameras that promise impressive captures in both daytime and dim surroundings — Rick Osterloh, Google’s head of hardware, called them the “best smartphone camera anyone has ever made.” The rear-facing sensor’s a 12.3-megapixel model with f/2.0 aperture, 1.55um sensor size, and optical image stabilization, and the front-facing shooter’s an 8-megapixel specimen. And they work in tandem with proprietary algorithms that enhance those picture-taking capabilities. Smart Burst shot takes multiple snaps in milliseconds and automatically chooses the best. HDR Plus takes “clear, vivid pictures” in “challenging conditions.” But perhaps most impressive is video stabilization: thanks to a custom algorithm that samples gyroscope data 200 times a second and compensates for rolling shutter, videos turn out smooth as butter.
Powering all those features are impressively large batteries. The Pixels sport Lithium-ion power packs of capacities that promise hours, if not days, on a charge: the Pixel XL packs a 3,450mAh battery, while the Pixel sports a 2,770mAh pack. Better yet, both support quick charging, which Google said can deliver up to 70 percent in after 15 minutes on a charger.
Familiar accouterments abound on both Pixels. Both feature USB Type-C connectors, Bluetooth, NFC, and 3.5mm headphone jacks. And they come with what Google calls a Quick Switch adapter: a plugin that automatically transfers your contacts, photos, videos, music, texts, calendar events, and messages from an iPhone to a Pixel.
Hardware is only part of the Pixels’ appeal, of course. Android 7.1 Nougat is the other, and it’s a doozie of an upgrade from the version of Android — 6.0 Marshmallow — that shipped on Google’s Nexus 6P and 5X. Launcher Shortcuts provide quick access to activities and settings menus within apps. Pressing and holding a Google Maps icon, for instance, might surface a pop-up for turn-by-turn navigation to saved locations; a Google Calendar icon might include buttons for quickly creating a new event or reminder; and a Google Play Music icon might include shortcuts to a saved playlist or recently played songs.
Android Nougat may be destined for smartphones old and new, but the Pixels retain a few exclusive features. First is the Pixel Launcher, a proprietary Google-made home screen. Most notably, it features a “G” tab for quick access to the Google Assistant, Google’s AI-powered intelligent assistant. The Assistant is activated by pressing and holding Android’s home button or say “OK, Google,” and works much as it does in Google’s messaging app, Allo. You can ask it to show pictures you too last October, for instance, or surface event listings for a nearby concert venue. And it integrates with third-party apps and services: the Assistant can play music from YouTube and Google Play Music, text friends via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and more, and place reservations at a restaurant with OpenTable.
Beyond the Google Assistant, the Pixel Launcher sports a pull-up dock provides quick access to apps, plus a search bar for quickly parsing through software previously installed.
The Pixels also include a Google Photos benefit: free “unlimited” storage for full-resolution photos. And they pack an app that provides 24/7 live customer care. If you encounter an issue, you can reach a support agent via chat and even share your screen to let the agent see what you’re seeing. The Pixels also ship with Allo and Duo, Google’s latest text and video messaging apps, pre-installed.
Android Nougat packs other changes, too. Android’s familiar navigation icons are now white and distinctly geometric: the middle home button has an extra ring around it. Notifications now wrap to the edges of the screen and sport Direct Reply, a feature that allows you to respond to incoming messages from Facebook, Hangouts, Whatsapp, and more straight from the tray. And a new split-screen mode lets you use two apps at once.
If you want to know more about Android 7.0 Nougat, you can check out our roundup for a full list of what’s new.
Article originally published in October 2016. Updated on 02-17-2016 by Andy Boxall: Added in availability news, and the “really blue” version’s announcement for the United Kingdom.