Google Pixel: stand aside smartphone, the genius phone

By | 5th October 2016
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Smartphone vendors have a tough job. They need to convince consumers that theirs is the best, bar none. Better than last year’s model. Better than the competition. And not just incrementally better. Quantum leap better. Otherwise, who would want to upgrade?

The narrative around the new Pixel phones is that they are so good and so different from what came before that Google even had to find a new brand name for them. So it’s farewell to the Nexus — which was last year’s most awesome Google smartphone — and hello to Pixel, Google’s newest bestie.

As Google vice president Jason Bremner put it: “Nexus was the best of Android [the Google operating system]; Pixel is the best of Google.” While most consumers would probably not appreciate that subtle differentiation, the intent is clearly to make the Pixels much more than a “pure Android” phone.

The Pixel phones are an entirely new created-from-scratch, flagship smartphone that combines the high-class hardware with Google’s software smarts in an integrated way that, apparently, has not been done before.

Reviewing a new phone at a launch event is a bit like test driving a car in a showroom. You can’t do much more than kick the tires and check the comfyness of the seats. And let’s face, there is a sameness now to all top-of-the-range smartphones, they all come in the “candy bar” shape, all come clad in glass and aluminum, with super-dooper high resolution screens, awesome multi mega pixel cameras and most also have a headphone jack.

The Pixel and the phablet-sized Pixel XL both conform that that familiar spec described above. Save for the fingerprint sensor, which sits on the back the device. Unlike the iPhone, there is no camera bump, the lens sit flush to the surface. Also unlike the iPhone 7 and newer Samsungs Galaxys, Pixels are not promoted as being water or splash resistant.

But here are six features, in no particular order, which I think deserve special mention:

1. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has called it. The mobile first era is over and it’s being replaced by the Artificial Intelligence (AI) first era. And we thought they were called smartphones! Well apparently, you ain’t seen nothing yet. But the Pixel phones are the forerunners of the next generation of really smart phones where stuff like AI, machine learning, voice and image recognition and neural networks are baked into the operating system.

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Google Assistant is to the Pixel as Siri is the iPhone, only she’s been sucking up humanity’s collective wisdom for a lot longer than Siri has. Google Assistant is part bot, part concierge, part life coach. It’s how Pichai says the company will “build a personal Google for each and every user”. Creepy, maybe; useful, for sure.

2. It’s hard enough switching from Android to Android let alone iPhone to Android. To salve the the itch to switch, the Pixel phones come with software and an adapter you can use to tether phones together so that everything comes across rapidly and painlessly.

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3. It is clear that the Pixel cameras are a cut above the competition. Tests by DxOMark, a respected independent source of camera and lens image quality measurements and ratings, has given the Pixel cameras a score of 89, placing it above the competition. Google also uses a lot of clever software to trick up the photos so that they look like they were shot with a proper single lens reflex camera.

4. The Pixels are the first to support Google’s Daydream virtual reality (VR) platform. I don’t think this can be underestimated as a selling point. Yes, it’s early days, but turning your phone into a VR projector — once coupled with the $119 Daydream View goggles — will bring new uses to these phones that you never knew existed. Mums and dads, lock away your new Pixel phones because someone is going to have an irresistible urge to strap them to their face for extended periods.

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5. Google has one-upped Apple’s Genius Bar concept with built-in 24/7 support. When they say built-in, they mean exactly that. It’s built into the phone so that as long as you can switch on the phone, which admittedly is sometimes the problem, you can dial up for voice or chat support. There’s even a feature to screen shot and share the problem you’re seeing.

6. Hoarders rejoice! Pixel owners (should we be calling them Pixies?) will get unlimited storage in the cloud for their photos and videos at the original resolution. Google Photos already provides video and photo cloud storage, but larger files are crunched down in size. Coupled with dynamic caching, which parks stuff you haven’t seen for a while in the cloud, Pixel phones will never run out of photo and video storage space.

Prices: The 5-inch Pixel will range in price from $1079 for the 32GB version to $1229 for the 128G model. The Pixel XL 5.5-inch model will start at $1269 for the 32GB version and $1419 for the128GB model. They will both run on the Android 7.1 version of Google’s mobile operating system.

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