Google this week threw its weight behind breaking the Apple-Samsung smartphone duopoly, unveiling its first true ‘Google phones’, the Pixel and Pixel XL.
Unlike its Nexus series, where the device hardware made by manufacturers like Huawei and LG, the Pixel is the “first phone made by Google inside and out”.
“Since 2010, we’ve partnered closely with mobile handset partners around the world to bring you the best of Android,” product management vice president Brian Rakowski said.
“Through Nexus, the goal was to work with these various partners to push the boundaries of what’s possible with a smartphone.
“We’ve now decided to take the next step and provide our take on the best Google experience, by bringing hardware and software design together under one roof.”
Though Google has now brought smartphone hardware in-house, many of the drawcard features of the Pixel are in software.
One of those is the inclusion of Google Assistant, the company’s take on virtual assistant software.
Google touted Assistant’s natural language capabilities at the Pixel launch in San Francisco this week.
“Ask it for a brief update on your day or to play a video on YouTube,” the company said.
“If your friend texts you to meet up at a new restaurant, you can just say ‘navigate there’.”
Early reviews of the Pixel – mostly based on limited time afforded to reviewers at the launch – confirmed Assistant as one of the key reasons to look at the Pixel.
“In our limited time with the Pixel phones, the Assistant's capabilities were highlighted … it picked up our voice accurately in the loud hustle of the press room and the way it uses context to answer questions is quite astonishing,” Wired said.
“Google's Assistant finally feels like the futuristic promises of intuitive AI have become a reality. We're excited to see how it works during a longer trial.”
“The company is clearly hustling to catch up with Apple and Amazon’s Siri and Alexa, while at the same time making a play for Google Assistant to become much more powerful,” MIT’s Technology Review said.
“The more invested in Google’s existing products and services you are, the more powerful Assistant becomes.”
Also on the software side, both Pixel devices ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, and Google said the process of receiving updates would be handled in much the same way as Microsoft does with its Surface devices.
“Phones will get software and security updates as soon as they’re available, directly from Google,” Rakowski said.
“We’ve also made the update process easier. When a new update is available, it can download and install in the background — no more waiting around for your phone to update.”
Turning to hardware, one of the touted features of the Pixel is its 12.3MP camera, although some of its power also comes from software effects and add-ons, such as the “free unlimited storage for original quality photos and videos at full resolution in Google Photos” that will be offered to Pixel owners.
The handset design itself drew only a lukewarm early response, being fairly indistinguishable from what has become a fairly standard design for smartphones.
“It’s not a bad design, but it doesn’t feel up there with the best efforts from Samsung and Apple this year,” the Telegraph UK noted.
“But the phones are comfortable and light to use, and the XL doesn’t feel oversized compared to other phablets.”
“I understand how the Pixel, assembled from off-the-shelf components and exhibiting no radical departure from existing forms and designs, can seem underwhelming,” the site said.
“But let’s not forget that this phone’s greatest advantage and uniqueness will come from the software within it.
“So it’s certainly too early to pass any definitive judgment on the Pixel, other than to declare that its existence is a positive sign for the Android ecosystem.”
Australians will be able to get their hands on the Pixel devices from October 20, but only Telstra will be selling the device on a plan. The Pixel will also be available to purchase outright from the Google Play Store or JB Hi-Fi. There are two colours available outside of the US, and pre-orders are being taken.