Recently, we looked at Snapchat’s first foray into hardware, Spectacles, which are sunglasses that record video at the tap of a frame-anchored button. Spectacles form a natural comparison to a previous hardware offering from Google, the Glass. Unfortunately, Google Glass was unable to live up to its lofty expectations due to a high price point.
Now, Google is making another push into hardware manufacturing with its first smartphone: the Pixel.
Google has always been indirectly involved in the smartphone business through its relationships with phone makers like Samsung, LG, and HTC. Plus, Google plays an important role in the mobile experience on practically any smartphone, regardless of operating system. These partnerships with separate builders have allowed Google to showcase its Android mobile operating system, all while avoiding the costly process of physical design and manufacturing.
That’s all over now. The Pixel will be designed in-house, a first for Google. Reviews from consumer tech publications are already starting to roll in, and so far, the feedback is quite good. It’s likely that Google executives see an entry into the smartphone battle not merely as a pursuit for its own rewards (which are significant), but also as a perfect platform to introduce the world to its highly advanced AI assistant.
Also, Google’s Pixel will likely benefit immensely from the misfortune of Samsung (its partner on the Android-powered Galaxy devices), who was unable to recover from the fiery malfunction that plagued its Galaxy Note 7 model. It opens the field for Google to compete and establishes it as the best platform for its Android software.
Let’s take a look at how the Pixel’s first weeks have gone and see where it might fit amongst the more entrenched smartphones like the iPhone and Galaxy.
The Specs of Google Pixel
The Pixel carries on the precedent set by Apple and Samsung by offering two versions of a smartphone whose main difference is size. The Pixel XL has a 5.5″ display, while the standard Pixel is 5″. The screens for both options are immersive, AMOLED hi-definition and are hailed by most reviewers as extremely vivid.
As for cosmetic design, Google went surprisingly conservative. In fact, most reviewers have observed that the phone looks like the iPhone. With the Pixel being its first phone designed in-house, one might expect Google to be more aesthetically bold. As we all know, the visual branding of new gear can be extremely important to its eventual marketability – or lack thereof.
But this may make sense. After all, Google has always tried to be more substance than flash. Though its logo alterations have always been greeted with great anticipation, they’ve actually been quite minor, not to mention glacially paced. As for site design, Google’s made a living out of spartan design (with the exception of the occasional doodle, of course).
Pixel is meant to wow us with what it does, not what it looks like. Its camera figures to be a dominant part of that. Google’s VP of product management, Brian Rakowski, called the Pixel’s camera, “[Not] only the best camera we’ve ever made, it’s the best smartphone camera anyone has ever made.” Comparing smartphone cameras can be a difficult game, as subjective factors like personal preference and screen quality can be major influences. But early reviews of the Pixel all indicate a highly advanced smartphone camera, at or beyond what we’re used to from Apple and Samsung.
Finally, Google was similarly bold in its claims about the Pixel’s battery life, citing its ability to wring seven full hours of usage from only 15 minutes of charge time. Some reviewers have noted that this herculean charging power was hard to replicate under normal circumstances, and the fine print on Google’s website seems to confirm this. Still though, it’s a step forward.
Project Fi Compatibility
Google’s Project Fi is an attempt to build a wireless network that combines cellular data and local Wi-Fi hotspots to provide efficient, relatively low-cost internet access across the country. When a Wi-Fi hotspot is not in reach, it uses cellular data from Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular to provide service.
One interesting thing to note here is that in some places, Google has referred to Verizon as the “exclusive carrier partner” of the Pixel. This begs the question: how can Pixel owners take advantage of Project Fi, considering Verizon is the one cellular network not included in its scope? Well, for now, Verizon users won’t be able to. Luckily for them, they already enjoy what’s widely considered the best and most reliable mobile network.
As for non-Verizon customers, they can still purchase unlocked Pixel phones, just not from their carrier’s in-store locations. Unlocked Pixels are available online straight from Google. This is likely the result of Verizon giving Google some software control that other carriers weren’t willing to give. Either way, there’s plenty of carrier flexibility with the Pixel – even with regard to Project Fi – as long as you know where to make the purchase.
One of the more important Pixel vs. iPhone battles to be fought will be between the digital assistants. While Siri has gained some cultural cachet over the past few years, much of it has been derived from funny Easter eggs and glitches, not her legitimate usefulness. Meanwhile, Google has spent significant resources building up its own personal assistant. Google Assistant (apparently, extensive resources weren’t allocated towards coming up with a creative name) is one of the most talked about aspects of the new Pixel phones, and Google has been very vocal about how far beyond Siri it is.
Writing for The Verge, Walt Mossberg refers to Google Assistant as having “shredded Siri, which has a five-year lead. It not only did on-phone tasks reliably – like launching an app, or creating reminders or notes or playing music – but it understood most of the wider-world questions I asked it. Even more impressively, it remembered the general subject I was asking about, so I didn’t have to repeat the topic with every question.”
Ultimately, Google Assistant’s superiority in things like information retrieval and alarm activation will be moot if it doesn’t continue to push things forward in terms of advanced artificial intelligence. There’s little doubt that both Google and Apple see their assistants eventually being able to learn, communicate, and, well, assist, at or beyond the level of a high functioning human brain. The fact that Google is better at the small stuff, though is a good start.
In terms of the rollout, the aforementioned positive press has led to some feverish demand from customers. In fact, the demand was enough to cause shipping delays for new buyers. As a way to make up for this, Google offered $50 in Google Play Store credits to those who preordered the Pixel and had orders delayed.
Of course, a move like this won’t mean much if the delays become chronic and lengthy. Still, it’s a nice way to show customers – especially those who like your product enough to preorder it – that you appreciate the loyalty. Plus, if you’re Google, having delays caused by higher-than-expected sales is a pretty good problem to have. As for how the phone will fare in the long run, those early sales and glowing reviews are certainly a good start.
Also, it’s always a plus that the phones don’t spontaneously combust.