The hardware in Google’s latest phone, developed in house and using parts from flagging former flagship HTC, doesn’t look from the outside like a revolution. It is a 5-inch phone (or 5.5-inch for a bit more money) with an 820 Snapdragon processor, a 1440 x 2560 display, up to 128GB of storage, and a fingerprint reader on the back. If you are confusing it with nearly every other Android smartphone released this year that’s okay. They’re all basically the same.
What separates the two Pixel phones from all the other guys is the software. It’s very cool stuff. While it might look like a phone made by HTC or Samsung, or even Huawei and it might have a lot of the same guts, it’s got some of the smartest software available in a phone today.
Both Pixels use USB-C.
Google Assistant, the company’s AI-powered question and answer helper bot, is particularly impressive. There’s no fussing or fidgeting. If you’ve searched for a local shopping centre (like Ghirardelli Square, where today’s announcement event was held) than Google Assistant will instantly list out all the local shops, and even rank them if you’ve searched or shopped at them before. Shout “OK Google” and ask for “that big monument near Houston” and it will know, immediately, that you’re talking about that terrifyingly huge Sam Houston stature on I-45.
There are no repeated requests to listen to what you say as with Siri, and Google Assistant’s ability to understand context in questions is at once a minor improvement, and a tremendous seachange. If you’re regularly using Siri or the precursor to Google Assistant, Google Now, then you will be pleased, and even if you don’t spend all your time furiously shouting out every request at your phone, Google Assistant is neat.
Of particular interest is how deeply Google is integrating this tool. Though it’ll look somewhat familiar to the old Google Now assistant that the company launched. The idea that Google is baking AI deep into the central operation of a phone tells you a lot about where Google thinks phones and services are going.
And it’s all about AI, something I heard again and again throughout demos today. The highlight of the event wasn’t the phone or the VR or the tiny Google Home. It was behind-the-scenes computing that powers these devices. With Pixel, Google is trying to making computer science cool.
The multiple lectures throughout the live event did not make computer science cool again. But that camera on the Pixel almost did.
The phones camera takes rich, nicely saturated photos, even in the garbage light of the venue where the demo occurred. In fact it seemed to handle the bad light better than my £1000 worth of DSLR and lens.
The photo app instantly fixes the white balance in a room with REALLY bad lighting.
Google’s built-in camera app is as barebones as the one on an iPhone, but barebones is totally fine when the photos look good after a snap. I didn’t get to play around with the camera as much as I would have liked, but it’s definitely fast and the images look nice and clean. If it’s as good as Google promised then it might be enough to convert a lot of iPhone lovers, who tend to drift towards iPhones because of their very easy to use and very nice cameras and because of their very easy to use and very nice operating system.
The only outstandingly silly feature of the Pixel thus far is the fingerprint scanner which doubles as a scroll wheel. It feels half finished. On the phones I tried it only allowed me to swipe down to open the notifications menu, but not swipe up to open the app drawer, and I couldn’t swipe to scroll through the app menu or websites either.
It’s a minor complaint after only a little time with the device. We’ll have a full review of the Pixel up as soon as we get to play with one for more than an hour. Until then there’s only the promises Google made today. The hardware might have put all our butts in the seats, but the software was the real star of the show.