Earlier this week, Google finally unveiled the new Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones that we knew were coming since earlier this year. It was a pretty big deal for Google as well as the wider industry, as Sundar Pichai and Rick Osterloh – someone we used to associate with Motorola – took to the stage to announce a new kind of Google. A Google that isn’t afraid to do things on their own, a Google that wants to own the letter “G” all over the world. With the Pixel and Pixel XL, Google have shown that “G” really is “for Google” and that Alphabet’s main earner is, without a shadow of a doubt, now a hardware company. The two devices have what it takes to be successful on paper, but there’s a lot at work here, and not everyone will be happy with the price, the design and perhaps even the features involved with the new Pixel and Pixel XL. Given that everyone is a little different, people will no doubt form their own opinions on the new devices, but let’s explore the good, the bad and the ugly.
With the Pixel and Pixel XL, Google have gotten a lot of things right. Chief among them would be the camera experience, which Google received a rating of 89 from camera obsessives DxOMark, the highest a smartphone has ever been given. The 12.3-megapixel camera in the Pixel might not have the resolution some will be looking for, but the amount of detail these sensors bring in will help to convince people otherwise. Traditionally, Google has had issues creating devices with good cameras, and Android itself has often been thought of as lacking in this department. This is no longer the case, and Google has built on the decisions they made with the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P to deliver a simple, speedy and high-performance camera experience. What users want in a smartphone camera is something that works well all of the time with little to no effort from the user. With features such as Smartburst and HDR+, this is just what Google has done, and the sample images already look good. On top of this, Google is including full resolution uploads of photos and videos to Google Photos, too.
The camera experience is one thing, but the overall software experience is a massive plus point, too. Gone are the days of users having to compromise between stock Android and extra features, as the Pixel and Pixel XL blend the two. Shipping with Android 7.1, both of these phones still have stock Android at their core, but they’re no longer the boring, bland and basic phones of the past. Instead, users get the Pixel Launcher, a simple and effective way of accessing apps and getting straight to Google, some visual tweaks and a support option built right into the settings menu. These changes are subtle ones, to be sure, but this is arguably all that Google needed to do to Android in order to make it a little more appealing.
Then, there’s the hardware, which Google isn’t skimping on. The Snapdragon 821 and 4GB of RAM at the heart of these two devices make these the fastest on the market, and that’s exactly what a device launched towards the end of the year should be. The Snapdragon 821 here makes virtual reality much smoother and better-looking and it also ensures that these are devices that won’t start to slow down or feel old for at least two or even three years. There might not be any special hardware you might see in the Galaxy Note 7 or LG V20 here, but what Google have done is make sure that all the features a user expects in a smartphone are the best they can be. This is a big deal, as Nexus devices have often had to skimp in the past, “making do” because they were designed to be a little cheaper or for niche users. That’s no longer the case, and when you buy a Pixel or Pixel XL, you know you’re getting the best of the best, at least for now.
Another key advantage that Google has put forward here is choice. This has always been one of Android’s strengths, and with a 5.0-inch and 5.5-inch device, Google are offering two clear choices to satisfy everyone. This choice comes with few compromises, as the two devices are practically identical save for their screen size, their batteries and their display resolutions. Put the two side-by-side however, and a user will definitely tell you that “one is bigger than the other”, which is exactly the sort of choice other companies should be offering. We see Lenovo offering the Moto Z in Force, Droid and Play Editions that confuse customers and some manufacturers, such as Samsung, provide little to no choice when it comes to their flagship offerings.
It’s clear that Google has learned a lot during the times they’ve partnered with manufacturers such as LG, Samsung and Huawei throughout the years they’ve released Nexus devices together. This time around however, it’s a reset for the hardware Google is offering, and there are bound to be a few hiccups here and there. This is perhaps down to personal preference, but Google might not have nailed the overall design of the Pixel line. It’s pretty easy to put the iPhone and a Pixel side-by-side to see where Google got some of their inspiration from. The antenna lines and metal design isn’t all that original, but perhaps that’s not Google’s fault, after all big names like Huawei have been doing this for years now, and this generic metal design is everywhere these days. The glass panel on the back is perhaps a way for Google to stand out from the crowd, but that, along with all of the cutouts for the sensors and such come together in a crowded and busy design that could have been a lot cleaner.
The color choices that Google are offering – “Quite Black”, “Very Silver and “Really Blue” – are fun names, but it’s about time that the industry moved on from limited edition colors. Customers are fed up of not being able to get their hands on a different color purely because it’s “limited” or “exclusive” to a certain retailer, and we would have thought that Google, for all the change they want to introduce into the industry, would have just let the Really Blue color be a standard look.
Something that Google could have worked better at, especially as this is a device designed for everyone, is to get it into the shelves of more carriers and retailers. In the United States, users looking to get their Pixel or Pixel XL from their carrier will have to go through Verizon. Sure, they can purchase it in installments from the Google Store, and take it to any of the four networks – including Verizon themselves – but the vast majority of people still get their device from their carrier on a standard 24-month contract. The tide is changing on this, but it’s not there yet, and Google should have made it available to more customers on different networks. Across the pond in the UK, it's even worse, as EE has been chosen as the official and only network partner of the Pixel and Pixel XL. While users can get the Pixel from the Google Store as well as Carphone Warehouse outright, these prices are a lot higher than in the United States, at least they feel as much for a lot of users, which could easily cut out a lot of customers for Google.
On the face of it, Google has put together a pretty great package overall with the Pixel and Pixel XL, with some great software tweaks and an excellent camera experience, but there’s one major hurdle that appears to be overlooked by a lot of people, and that’s the price.
Starting at $649 for a 5.0-inch smartphone with 32GB of storage, it’s pretty easy to balk at the price of the Pixel, and the Pixel XL starting at $769 is perhaps even more eye-watering. Sure, it's easy to argue that a quality device like either of these is well worth these asking prices, but considering that the Nexus devices have never really been thought of as "worth it" by the majority of customers, Google will have a fight on their hands. The Pixel might get a lot of things right that the Nexus line of devices never did, but there's still not a huge amount that sets them apart from one another. The camera experience is vastly improved, but then shouldn't a device from Google and partners like Huawei have a great camera anyway? The special features of the Pixel and Pixel XL aren't even that special, either. Yes, they are nice additions, but with prices like these, we would expect more from Google. Prices of $649 and $769 for the base models is what a lot of customers have become used to from the likes of Samsung, but the average user is still going to find it hard to find extra value in a device like the Pixel. With devices like the OnePlus 3 offering similar specs, and a superior 6GB of RAM for just under $400 and a myriad of devices available from China with similar specs for a whole lot less, Google could be seen as pricing themselves out of the market. Or, at the very least, asking a little more than most people think their new devices are worth.
With all that Google has announced this week, it's easy to see why people are excited, and even easier to see why the industry is holding its breath. The idea that Google is now an outright competitor to Samsung, while at the same time being a partner is a strange idea. We've seen Microsoft do this with their Surface line of devices however, and if anything, this push from Google could be a great way of showing everyone else how it's done.