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 $100 more) with an 821 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. It might look like a phone made by HTC or Samsung—or even Huawei—and it might have a lot of the same guts. The Pixel’s got some of the smartest software available in a phone today.
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 mall (like Ghirardelli Square, where today’s announcement event was held) then Assistant will instantly list out all the shops nearby, 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 the terrifyingly huge Sam Houston stature on I-45.
Google Assistant doesn’t bug you with repeated requests like Siri does, and so the software’s ability to understand context in questions is at once a minor improvement, and a tremendous sea change. If you’re regularly using Siri or Google Now (the precursor to Google Assistant), then you will be pleased. 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. It does look somewhat familiar to Google Now, but it’s much more useful. 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. It’s all about AI—which is 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. Google wants us to believe that one day we’ll have Assistant everywhere we go, and at a glance at least, the Pixel makes this seem like something I actually want.
Beyond the Assistant, the Pixel camera is intelligently designed as well. 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 the $1,500-worth of camera and glass I’d taken with me to the event.
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 promises, 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 as well as the very easy-to-use and very nice operating system. It seems that Google’s caught up on a camera that just works.
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 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 up and down when reading webpages.
And of course there is the one dealbreaker I couldn’t account for in a quick hands-on testing and that’s that the phone isn’t waterproof. That sucks!
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.