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Google’s New Pixel Phone Matters (But You’re Not Going to Buy It)

The device is the first phone Google designed from scratch, and it has its AI-powered personal assistant built in.
October 18, 2016

At first glance, the new Pixel phone looks much like any other high-end Android phone—a sleek, five-inch rectangle topped with glass. But turn it over and you might notice an unusual detail: “Phone by Google” is etched on the gadget’s back. The small letters are a subtle reminder of the Pixel’s significance; it is the first phone that Google developed from scratch.

Over the years, there have been a number of “Google phones,” from the first Android phone in 2008 to the Nexus series. However, Google jointly created those devices with phone makers, among them HTC, Huawei, LG, and Samsung. The Pixel, by contrast, is a 100-percent Google design that the company hired HTC to manufacture. Google describes it as “the first phone made by Google inside and out.”

The Pixel is the linchpin in Google’s plan to incorporate new services—chiefly its voice-operated helper Google Assistant and its virtual-reality platform Daydream—into a family of complementary devices. When Google’s Daydream VR headset is released in November, the Pixel will be the first phone that works with it. 

The Pixel is also Google’s best shot at a phone that can reduce Android’s reliance on Samsung and compete with the iPhone. Samsung has dominated the high-end Android market for years, but the demise of its Galaxy Note 7 creates a rare opportunity for Google to lure Galaxy users to the Pixel. In fact, the timing of Samsung’s phone disaster couldn’t be more fortuitous for Google. Pixel preorders started on October 4, several weeks after the Galaxy Note 7’s first recall, and shipments will begin on October 20, about a week after Samsung officially ceased producing and distributing its fire-prone device. 

Most of Google’s previous smartphones wouldn’t have matched up to the Galaxy Note 7, but the Pixel is a premium phone with a premium price. The cheapest Pixel model costs $649, which is $150 more than the base model of Google’s most expensive Nexus phone, and the same price as the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7. (A 5.5-inch version of Pixel, called Pixel XL, costs $769, which is the same price as the iPhone 7 Plus and $80 less than the Galaxy Note 7.)

Fortunately, the Pixel looks and feels worth the cost, thanks to its vivid AMOLED display, Gorilla Glass covering, and seamless aluminum casing.

It can do some cool tricks, too. Its fingerprint sensor, which is located on the phone’s back, doubles as a trackpad. Swiping downward on the sensor brings up a list of notifications, such as missed calls, which is convenient when using the Pixel with just one hand. When the camera app is open, users can flip between the rear-facing and front-facing cameras with two flicks of the wrist—perfect for capturing a selfie.

Google's new Assistant in action.

Unsurprisingly, Pixel’s software is Google-centric, including its marquee feature, Google Assistant, which is currently exclusive to the phone. Google is promoting the service, which speaks with a female voice, as “your own personal Google, always ready to help,” and has touted its conversational abilities and contextual knowledge.

Assistant performed well on simple, common tasks, such as locating directions to nearby stores; finding videos online and playing them in YouTube; and transcribing and sending text messages, but it stumbled on follow-up requests. For example, the Assistant was able to set up the phone’s alarm, but when asked to alter the time or cancel the alarm altogether, it merely opened the relevant app on the phone’s screen.

Assistant isn’t vastly different from Apple's Siri, but it can access a wider range of online information, including videos and images, and it seems capable of answering some more complex general knowledge questions. It’s also possible to loop Assistant into a text conversation with a friend, via Google’s messaging app, Allo. Both Assistant and Siri are increasingly integrated with third-party apps, such as Spotify, Pinterest, and Uber.

Overall, the Pixel is impressive. But like the Nexus phones before it, which developed a geeky reputation, it is going to struggle to attract a wide audience. It is missing some popular smartphone specs, including water resistance and wireless charging, and its exclusive features, such as compatibility with Google Assistant and Daydream and the fact that it runs the latest version of Android (7.1), won’t remain unique for long because it’s not in Google’s interest to limit the availability of those services.

There’s also the matter of the confusing marketing surrounding the Pixel. Google convinced a large wireless carrier in each of the Pixel’s geographic markets to help publicize the phone and stock it in stores. (Verizon is the official U.S. carrier.) As a result, the Pixel is being advertised more heavily—on TV, outdoors, and in newspapers—than any Nexus phones were. However, those ads misleadingly characterize the Pixel as available only on the official carrier—even though Google is also selling unlocked models through its online store. Some consumers may pass over a Pixel because they think it won’t work with their wireless service.

Even if the Pixel isn’t a success, though, Google’s broader hardware-plus-software strategy bears watching. Company executives have said that Google is in the hardware business “for the long run” and that Assistant-type conversations could be the next generation of computing, replacing the search box.

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