Google has a new phone. Two new phones, actually — a 5-inch Pixel and a 5.5-inch Pixel XL — that are packed to the brim with brand new software from the tech giant, including a new Google Assistant that takes the fight to Apple's Siri, a camera that is apparently the best ever on a smartphone, and all of Google's massive trove of search engine and artificial intelligence machine learning know-how packed inside.
The Hardware: Simple, Basic, Powerful
We got the chance after Google's live-streamed unveiling of the new Pixel family wrapped to get some solid hands-on time with the new devices. Both the smaller 5-inch Pixel and larger 5.5-inch Pixel XL are built by HTC, but you won't see that logo on them: Google wants to own every piece of this phone from the inside out, and that extends to the flat dark grey G on the lower of the rear.
The phones themselves are built from metal and glass — which is interesting, because they feel almost like plastic in the hand. The Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor is in the centre top of the rear, which is the second best placement possible (we think) after a physical home button on a phone's lower front bezel. A knurled power button and volume rocker are on the Pixel's right bezel, and there's no physical or tactile interface buttons beyond those two, since everything including navigation is done in software.
The sizing feels right, but the Pixel and its larger XL sibling will probably get some stick from reviewers for being a bit boring. There's no curved glass or fancy design fripperies to speak of — just a curved rectangle with large top and bottom bezels and a screen in between. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that — it's a formula that the iPhone has used successfully for many generations now. The Google Pixel doesn't stand out in a crowd, which ain't necessarily a bad thing.
The hardware is identical internally on both the large and small Pixel, apart from the obvious difference in screen size — which also translates into a higher resolution on the Pixel XL. The 5-inch Pixel uses a 1920x1080pixel AMOLED display while the XL gets a 5.5-inch 2560x1440pixel AMOLED, both cut from the same cloth in terms of colour and contrast and maximum brightness. Otherwise, both phones run the newest Snapdragon 821 processor from Qualcomm and support up to 200Mbps 4G download speeds on Australian networks.
The camera is probably the Pixel's standout feature beyond any kind of software addition. It's a 12.3-megapixel sensor using 1.55um pixels with a f/2.0 lens, and the resulting photos that the phone can capture are really impressive. We discounted the Pixel's camera a little after seeing the relatively small physical aperture that it showed in leaked renders, but we're more than happy to be proven wrong. Here are some low-light shooting examples that nonetheless show incredible detail in the plants within the frame and one quick snap with the 8-megapixel f/2.0 front-facing camera:
The Software: Meet Google Assistant
Everything on the Google Pixel is built around the new Google Assistant, an incredibly smart piece of machine learning and artificial intelligence software in the same vein as Apple's Siri. Google Assistant will process your natural language questions — "what's the weather like in Rome today?" — and give you an answer from Google search data or third-party sites, as well as responding to follow-on contextual questions — "find me the best theatre there" — and will hook into hundreds of different booking services and Web applets to make your life easier.
The Pixel phones run Android 7.1 Nougat and a new 'Pixel Launcher' interface, which throws the Google search bar from its usual pride of place at the top of your Android home screen onto the left-hand side, where it can be brought to life with a tap. You can activate Google Assistant just by speaking to the phone — "OK Google" still works just fine — or you can long-press the on-screen home button to bring up a search/response prompt. Assistant will give you access to just about everything on your phone and on the entire internet as long as you know what to ask for.
Running Nougat means that software updates are all delivered in the background and installed when the phone restarts — no more annoying prompts and no more forgetting to update your phone to fix potential security issues. Google's first-party chat apps, Allo and Duo, are pre-installed, and free unlimited online storage for Google Photos means Pixel owners will never have to shell out a monthly fee for Google Cloud — unless they're storing data in Drive or another one of the software giant's digital lockers.
Here's how Google describes the software that runs on Pixel, and what it wants to do with that software: "Google has traditionally been known as a software company, but of course, advances in technology are driven at the intersection of software and hardware. So, we want to showcase our software capabilities in hardware that’s tailored to the needs of all of our users.
"Through search, Google has long been dedicated to its mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful...for billions of people. With hardware, we’re taking the next step in helping organize your information. We’re creating devices that put the magic of Google in your hand (or in your home). The Google Assistant features prominently in our new hardware, and helps you answer questions and get things done in the real world. The Google Assistant allows you to talk or text with Google in a natural way — think of it as if you’re having a conversation with Google in order to help you get things done in your world."
Pixel's other unique and interesting feature — for now — is its support for Daydream, a virtual reality platform and accompanying Daydream View headset that aims to make virtual reality easy to understand and interact with. There's a little motion-sensitive wireless controller in the packaging of the $119 Daydream View headset which launches in Australia in November. No cables or plugs — just place the Pixel into the Daydream View headset and clip it up, and you're away.
Australian Pricing & Release Date
Want to know how much they cost? You could look here, or you could just scroll down a little bit more. If you don't want to stump up any money upfront, Telstra will sell you a Pixel or Pixel XL on a 24-month contract. Two of the three colourways — Very Silver and Quite Black — will be available in Australia on October 20, at prices starting at $1079 outright:
Pixel: 32GB: $1079 128GB: $1229
Pixel XL: 32GB: $1269 128GB: $1419