The ‘Google Phone’ is real and I saw it today. In some ways it looks similar to the iPhone and in many others it is as Googley (or in the words of a Google executive “Pixel-y”) as you would expect a product from Google. For Google’s product team, the Pixel project (it started with a Chromebook) is something they are very passionate about. The products are an expression of what Googlers think what hardware should do for users, in conjunction with online services, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I guess with the Pixel smartphones, Google is now formally a hardware company.
But the fact of the matter is Google is not your typical hardware company and it shows in the new Pixel smartphones. From the front and the edges, the Pixel and Pixel XL look inspired by the iPhone. The Pixel XL in particular looks almost the same and is nearly the same dimensions as the iPhone 6s Plus, if you can ignore the absence of a physical home button. The Pixel, on the other hand, is surprisingly bigger than the iPhone 7. Both the Pixel variants have pretty wide bezels under the display despite not having any physical or capacitive buttons.
The back is a different matter altogether, where it seems the designers could not decide whether to go with a metal or glass finish and in the end went with both — the lower part is metal while the top has a shimmery glass panel, which is made of 2.5D Gorilla Glass. It comes in three colors – quite black, very silver and deep blue. The metal portion of the black variant looks like that of the iPhone 7, while the glass back has the same glossy look as the ‘jet black’ color. The very silver could pass off as white, while the blue really pops out. It is an acquired taste.
The Pixel and Pixel XL are identical devices barring the battery capacity and display size and resolution. The Pixel comes with a 5-inch 1080p display and a 2,770mAh battery whereas the Pixel XL comes with a 5.5-inch QHD display and a bigger 3,450mAh battery. Apart from that both the devices are the same with a Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 12.3-megapixel rear camera and the works. Both the phones feature a fingerprint sensor at the rear. Unlike the iPhone where you get marginally better features on the bigger phone, Google makes it easy to decide which phone to buy depending on how big you like your display. This makes sense.
On the hardware front Google is highlighting the 12.3-megapixel camera, which DXOMark has scored at 89, the highest any smartphone camera has scored. To achieve this, Google worked with a custom camera sensor with Sony and both the Pixel smartphones use a Sony IMX 378 sensor, which has 1.55 microns large pixels and an aperture of f/2.0. The cameras are assisted with PDAF and laser auto-focus, which Google claims ensures you get sharp photos even in low light conditions. At the event, Google had a dark room setup to demonstrate that, and the Pixel did come up with sharper photos than my iPhone 6s Plus. Unfortunately, there was no iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus to compare the results. The thing I couldn’t help noticing was the lack of any lag in clicking the photos, which happens especially in low-light conditions.
But the highlight of the Pixel smartphones is the new Pixel launcher and the Google Assistant, both features which will be exclusive to Google smartphones. And that really is the secret sauce of these smartphones. The launcher has a few unique elements starting with the rounded icons and the Google logo on the top left bar which converts into the good old search bar. Swiping from left to right on the homescreen takes you to the Google Now page. The Pixel smartphones run on Android Nougat 7.1, which comes with some interesting tweaks of its own like you get to see your most frequently called contacts by long pressing on the phone icon, and you can even pin them to the homescreen.
And then there is Google Assistant, which is becoming the core of almost every Google product. To activate Google Assistant you will have to long press the onscreen home button. It is like Siri but smarter. Even in the noisy demo area, Google Assistant was able to understand my voice. One feature I liked the most was onscreen content recognition. Suppose you get a text message from your friend who is asking whether you’d like to go to a pub. In the message window itself, long press the home button and swipe upwards and Google Assistant will read the contents of the screen and pick up the relevant bit automatically — in this case the name of the pub and give you more information about it.
Hardware is easy to replicate but at the end of the day it is the user experience that defines the product. And to that extent, I think the new Pixel smartphones hit the right notes. There are a few misses — there is no optical image stabilization in the camera and not integrating Allo with the default messaging inbox, like Apple does with iMessage, is a little baffling.
Then there is a case of pricing as well, which starts from Rs 57,000 in India and go up to Rs 76,000. With the Nexus, Google had offered top-of-the-line hardware specifications at affordable prices and that’s the perception that people have, who will find it hard to justify paying almost the same as the latest iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. But these new Pixel smartphones are no Nexus and that’s what Google is trying to establish. Unlike the Nexus phones, which were aimed at tech savvy, developer community, that could play around with stock Android, the Pixel smartphones are mainstream and are all about giving the most premium, cutting edge experience of Google services. And that’s the price Google feels that experience is worth. But is it worth it? Wait for our detailed review.
Disclaimer: BGR India attended the Pixel launch event at the invitation of Google.