You’ve undoubtedly seen the news about Google’s new smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL. Perhaps you’ve read a review or two. Maybe you’ve already double-checked your bank account and pre-ordered a unit. No matter which anticipatory stage you’ve reached, take comfort in knowing that some of the Pixel’s best features are based in software. Every Pixel admirer with an Android smartphone at his or her disposal can experience most of those features on the smartphone they already own, with a little patience, dedication, and electronic elbow grease.
No unsanctioned procedure is without risk, of course, and that goes double for a device as indispensable as a smartphone. We can’t stress enough: if “APK” (Android’s app file format) and “sideloading” (shorthand for installing apps from unofficial sources) sound like foreign turns of phrase to you, and if you find the the idea of dealing with instability, missing features, and all-around bugginess the slightest bit unappealing, this guide isn’t for you.
In the interest of covering our bases, there’s the elephant in the room: modified applications. Our guide links to apps that may or may not have been “messed with,” so to speak, at the code level. We’re taking care to source the files from a reputable website, but we can’t guarantee the apps in question don’t contain malicious or damaging code. Downloader be warned.
If none of that’s deterred you and you’re confident in your ability to navigate the technical webs ahead, proceed with caution.
Preparing your Android device
First things first: you’ll need an Android device running Marshmallow 6.0 or newer. You’ll need to prepare it by (1) installing a freely available file explorer (e.g., ES File Explorer), and (2) permitting the installation of apps from third-party sources.
Here’s how to allow the installation of apps from third-party sources:
- Open your device’s Settings menu.
- Scroll down and select the entry with the title Security or Lock screen and security.
- Tick or toggle the Unknown sources option.
- Press OK on the popup.
One of the undisputed highlights of the Pixel’s new software is the Pixel Launcher, a home screen (technically) exclusive to the Pixel and Pixel XL. It’s cut from the same cloth as Google’s previous home screen app, the Google Now Launcher, in that it retains Android’s iconic app drawer, folders, and app shortcuts. But improvements and additions abound: There’s a new search icon and voice shortcut, plus a dynamic widget that reflects the current date and weather. There’s a new wallpaper picker, too, and a Google Calendar icon that matches the day’s date.
If all that sounds appealing, good news: installing it is easy enough, but there’s a caveat. Thanks to myriad inter-dependencies, the Pixel Launcher won’t give you access to the Google Assistant, Google’s eponymous intelligent assistant. The Pixel Launcher’s “G” tab normally acts as a shortcut to the Assistant, but it’ll merely open the Google Search app on non-supported devices.
Here’s how to install the Pixel Launcher:
- You’ll need two application files: the Pixel Launcher itself, and another that’ll pull a rotating collection of high-resolution wallpaper images from Google periodically, in the background. Download both using your device’s internet browser.
- Once both have finished downloading, use the file explorer you downloaded earlier to navigate to your device’s download folder and install the apps in question.
- After both finish installing, tap your device’s home screen. You’ll see an option to select the Pixel Launcher; tap it.
That’s all there is to it!
If you tire of the Pixel Launcher, switching back is easy enough. Here’s how:
- Open your device’s Settings menu.
- Scroll down and select the entry with the title Apps.
- Tap the menu for the Pixel Launcher.
- Select the Clear defaults button.
- Tap your device’s home button and select the launcher of your choice.
Google Camera may be available for compatible devices from the Play Store market, but the Pixel and Pixel XL pack a newer version of the app, v4.2, with features that haven’t quite made it to other phones just yet. There’s an overlay that adds shooting grids in 3×3, 4×4, and Golden Ratio configuration, plus a slider for manual exposure control. That’s not all: there’s also a lock focus option, new animations, and performance improvements across the board.
The bleeding-edge Google Camera app doesn’t play as nicely with non-Pixel devices as the Pixel Launcher, unfortunately. Reddit and XDA users have reported success with the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, but only models that have been updated to Android 7.0 Nougat; the app appears to crash on older Nexus devices, like the Nexus 6, and handsets from other manufacturers. There’s a sliver of a chance it might work on other phones, but for now, it’s likely a Nexus-only affair.
If you’re willing to take the plunge, here’s how to install Google Camera v4.2:
- Download the Google Camera application using your device’s internet browser.
- After it finishes downloading, install it by navigating to your device’s download folder with your file manager of choice and tapping the Google Camera app.
- Tap Install.
- Once the installation finishes, you’ll see an icon for the Google Camera.
That’s all there is to it.
There’s another annoyance to note: if you’ve installed the Google Camera from the app store, it won’t replace it. Instead, you’ll have two Google Camera icons side-by-side in your app drawer. One workaround involves disabling or uninstalling the original Google Camera, but we recommend against it — put simply, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
There’s more to Google’s Pixels than a new home screen and camera app. Indeed, Google’s spruced up the Google Phone application — the dialer — with a cleaner, more intuitive UI. When you’re in a call, the background’s a translucent blue gradient atop your phone’s wallpaper. The in-call buttons have been enlarged, labeled a little more clearly, and moved below now-prominent Caller ID information. Incoming calls are now answered with an upward swipe (previously rightward) and declined with a downward swipe (previously leftward). On launchers that support it (including the Pixel Launcher and Action Launcher), the dialer’s icon lets you create a new contact from the home screen.
The dialer, as with the camera, is a little capricious when it comes to compatibility. Users are reporting that it works on the Nexus 5X and 6P, but non-Nexus phones are a shot in the dark. Your mileage may very.
Here’s how to install the Pixel dialer:
- Download the dialer application using your device’s internet browser.
- After the download completes, navigate to your phone’s download folder using a file browser, and select the Google Phone application.
- Tap Install.
In order to use Google Phone, you’ll have to set it as your default dialer. Here’s how:
- Open Settings.
- Select the Apps menu.
- Tap the Gear icon in the top-right corner.
- Select Phone app from the list, and choose Phone.
Fancy the Pixels’ spiffy rounded icons? You’re not the only one. Luckily, they’re easy to obtain: a crafty developer extracted them, packaged them in a compressed folder, and hosted the whole shebang online.
Here’s how to nab ’em:
- Download the icons using your device’s browser.
- Navigate to your device’s download folder using a file browser, and then extract the icons from the compressed folder.
- Install Awesome Icons, a free app from the Play Store.
Now you’re ready to begin assigning new icons:
- Open Awesome Icons, and tap the image icon next to any compatible app.
- Select the entry under the Icons header, and then tap Picture.
- That’ll launch the Open from menu. From it, tap your file browser.
- Navigate to the folder containing the extracted icons, and select the icon that corresponds to the app you chose.
- At the cropping screen, ensure the selection area includes the entire icon. Hit Crop, then OK.
- Repeat the process for any remaining icons.
The icons aren’t perfect, granted. They’ll only appear on your home screen, not your app drawer, and the list of supported apps is far from exhaustive, but for an unofficial fix, it ain’t bad.
There’s a way to get the Google Assistant on most modern Android devices, and it’s hardly a secret: Allo, Google’s new text messaging app. The Assistant’s accessible in a dedicated tab within the app, or by typing in “@google” before a query.
We reviewed the Assistant thoroughly a few weeks back, but our consensus bears repeating: the Assistant’s really darn cool. It can look for restaurants nearby, pull up personal photos, run searches, look at flights, and find nearby events. It can provide quick access to a restaurant’s phone number and menu. It can play games like tic-tac-toe. And it can give you alerts at specific times of the day.
Sadly, Google doesn’t intend to bring the Assistant to non-Pixel devices anytime soon. But take comfort in the fact that enterprising developers are actively attempting to shoehorn the Assistant into unsupported devices. Someday soon, you may not need a Pixel or Pixel XL to have Google’s conversational AI at your fingertips.
If you’re enamored by the incredible home screen wallpapers that ship with the Pixel and Pixel XL, good news: Google’s made it relatively easy to acquire something close to them. The firm’s Wallpaper app for Android provides a window into an extraordinary range of illustrations, photography, animations, and images optimized for your phone’s home screen, and they run the gamut in terms of content — you can expect subjects from solar phenomena to architectural hot spots. Perhaps best of all, the app packs an option to enable rotating Wallpapers: you can have the app select cycle through a gallery of pictures, if you so choose.
Obtaining the Wallpapers app is easy enough. It’s available for download from the Google Play Store, and it’s compatible with Android devices running Android 4.1 and above.