First came the Nexus, then, as Google continued to try and build its own iPhone: a winning (in theory) mix of mobile software and hardware that it has full control over, we got the Pixel. The Pixel feature drop is its latest ploy in getting you to switch, and we’re here to explain what exactly that is, and what exactly it gives you.
The iPhone update cycle is now well established—we get new phones every September, and a new version of iOS too. New features and major app updates get pushed out once a year, which means the likes of Apple Maps, Apple Music, Apple Mail, Notes, Reminders and the rest stay more or less the same for 12 months.
That pattern is changing a little bit: iOS 13.1 added the ability to share your ETA in Apple Maps, for instance, while iOS 13.3 just added tighter parental controls so you can set limits on how much FaceTiming your kids can do. By and large though, the big upgrades roll around once a year.
Google decoupled updates for Gmail, Google Maps, Google Drive and its other apps from the rest of Android a long time ago, not least to mitigate the damaging effects of Android fragmentation—even if your Samsung or LG phone isn’t running Android 10, at least you have the most up-to-date version of Gmail.
Now Google is going further with the ‘Pixel feature drop’—incremental upgrades for Pixel owners that may or may not appear with any regularity (the plan is for quarterly drops, but with only one on the board so far, we’ll have to wait and see). This has been unofficially happening for some time, with features like Night Sight rolling out independently of Android updates and Pixel launches, but now Google wants to put everything on a more formal footing.
“Your phone should get better over time,” says Google Group Product Manager Shenaz Zack in a blog post. “Your Pixel automatically updates regularly with fixes and improvements. Now, your Pixel will also get bigger updates in new Pixel feature drops.”
Since the first Pixel appeared back in 2016, Pixel Android has effectively replaced stock Android in allowing Google to show off how good its mobile OS can be. It’s still very close to the stock Android experience you’ll see on other phones like the Nokia range, but there are extra Pixel bells and whistles, starting with that distinctive weather and calendar widget on the home screen and moving out from there.
In the years since the original Pixel, Pixel exclusives have become more ambitious and more desirable, and more closely tied to the hardware of the phone too—take squeezing the sides of your Pixel to launch Google Assistant, for example, or turning your Pixel into an Assistant-powered smart display when it’s being wirelessly charged (a mode introduced with the Pixel 3 and carried over to the Pixel 4).
The Pixel 4 arrived with a very clever real-time audio transcription app, an app which is now making its way to the Pixel 2, the Pixel 3, and the Pixel 3a phones as part of the first Pixel feature drop happening now.
This inaugural drop also includes improvements to the Call Screen feature on Pixels: Unknown callers are screened in the background, and either silently declined in the case of robocalls, or displayed with a transcript of the caller’s message if the call appears to be a genuine one.
Meanwhile, new features being added to Duo mean you (and your friends) are kept in the frame when you make calls from a Pixel 4. Improvements are being added to Portrait Mode in Google Photos too, enabling you to add a background blur to pictures you took yesterday or several years ago (it uses AI processing, so it doesn’t matter if the original image includes depth data).
A special Focus Mode is being added to the Digital Wellbeing tools in Android with the first Pixel feature drop as well, letting you mute apps with a tap when you want to... well, focus. Other updates are less noticeable, like more efficient background processing in Google Maps so you can expect “better location quality” in the future.
Better memory management is also coming to all PIxel phones with this first feature drop: “your phone proactively compresses cached applications so that users can run multiple applications at the same time—like games, streaming content and more” Google says.
From what we can tell from the first Pixel feature drop, some new features will be exclusive to the latest Pixel phone, some new features will be rolled out to additional countries and regions, and some new features will be pushed out to older Pixels—the Live Captions feature that debuted with the Pixel 4 is now headed to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a, for example. You can also expect Google Assistant improvements to come to Pixel phones first as well.
The timing of these feature drops doesn’t look like being particularly precise, at least not based on the first one: Google’s blog post says that the new features “are already rolling out” but might take “weeks” to arrive on every Pixel. In other words, we’re not going to get a specific Pixel feature drop day (this might be tightened up in the future, VP of product management Sabrina Ellis told The Verge).
With only one Pixel feature drop on the board so far, it’s a little early to judge how this might improve the appeal of the Pixels—but the plan seems to be to keep on pushing out new and innovative features that affect the very core of the phone throughout the year, not just the Google apps that run on top of it.
And really it’s not too far away from the way Apple is going too—the Deep Fusion photo processing update for the iPhone 11 phones arrived more than a month after the phones themselves, for example. Software is never finished these days but is constantly evolving instead.
What it should do is keep Android—and the Pixel phones in particular—in the news on a more regular basis, and that can only be helped if Google is going to continue launching a mid-range phone in the middle of every year. Google is going to have to work hard though to make these feature drops a compelling reason to switch.