At first glance, the new Google Pixel phone is a solid effort to bring customers a ‘great piece of hardware supporting a solid implementation of the Android operating system.
Google says it will support the phone directly, which isn’t actually manufactured by Google, even though the search giant claims it is.
The fact that Google contracted production of the Pixel to HTC isn’t a game changer. After all, the iPhone isn’t actually manufactured by Apple, either. Both are put together by two different companies under contract and both Google and Apple played significant roles in the design of their phones.
The Pixel phone, which will be released around Oct. 20, looks a lot like an iPhone, and while the screen on the standard Pixel is slightly larger than the iPhone’s, both devices are about the same size. The larger version of each phone, the iPhone 7 Plus and the Pixel XL, are the same size.
You can do iPhone and Pixel comparisons of the feature and components of these phones, but you probably won’t ‘find that much difference in quality or performance.
Both have seriously good cameras, at least for a phone. Both have a software assistant—Siri on the iPhone and Google Assistant on the Pixel. Both will read your fingerprints to unlock the phone. However, the fingerprint reader is on the Pixel’s back panel, which might be more useful.
But that’s not what’s really important with the Pixel. What matters is that Google is making the whole package and the company is supporting it all. For Google, this means there is one target for operating systems updates and for security refreshes, which it can accomplish immediately.
This is a major change from other Android devices, with which updates may or may not ever happen as the respective carriers ponder to update or not to update. Historically, those updates mostly haven’t happened, leaving Android phone owners in a vast wasteland of expired operating systems with no chance of rescue.
Unfortunately, Google chose to go with only one carrier for in-store sales, which is Verizon. Anyone who wants to have a Pixel on a different network will have to buy their phone from Google and work with their carrier to set it up. This isn’t exactly an onerous requirement, but it likely will suppress sales. The iPhone, by contrast, is available from a wide variety of carriers in stores that essentially are ubiquitous.
This arrangement also may sound similar to Google’s Nexus phones—although with Nexus, other companies openly made the phones and Google provided Android and the software updates. The apparent reason for the name change from Nexus to Pixel is that Google has been more deeply involved in every step of bringing the Pixel models to market.
Many iPhone owners may recall that Apple had an exclusive distribution deal with AT&T for several years after it introduced the iPhone in 2007.
With Pixel Google Aims to Exert Greater Control Over Phone Support
This meant people who wanted to run an iPhone on other carriers’ networks had to buy the phone at full price from Apple and then ask their carrier to support it.
Still, the obvious market for the Pixel is existing Nexus owners who want something new. Many of those owners chose the Nexus because they wanted to surety of updates and the support of Google in making sure their phones weren’t abandoned. So, I went looking for a Nexus owner to see whether the Pixel would make a sensible upgrade.
The answer is, maybe not. I asked my neighbor, a retired tech executive and a Nexus aficionado, whether he’d buy a Pixel. The neighbor, who declined to be identified in this piece, said the answer was no. The reasons he gave were instructive and probably apply to other would-be adopters.
First he didn’t like the fact that the pixel has moved to USB Type C connectors, of which he has none. The Pixel also does not support wireless charging, unlike the Nexus 5, which did. The Pixel also costs nearly twice as much as the Nexus, which is a deal-breaker for him.
This all leads to the big questions ‘hanging over the Pixel: Will anyone buy the new phone, and, if so, who?
The answer is that Google will sell some Pixels, but it’s not clear how many. But it may not matter. That’s because the Pixel is really Google’s first effort to market a broad range of devices, which is why the company also announced a few other hardware products, including a virtual reality headset; Google Home, which is a smart speaker similar to Amazon’s Echo with Google Assistant built in. There’s also a WiFi router and a new version of Google’s Chromecast.
What’s really going on here is much more than a new mobile phone: Google has introduced an entire device ecosystem in one fell swoop, and it’s planning to use it to take on Apple.
The result will be that Apple is going to have to ratchet up its game to stay ahead of Google. This means Apple’s devices will have to be better than they might be otherwise; they’ll have to be more broadly useful; and Apple is going to have to offer more to stay ahead of Google’s Pixel as well as the rest of the competition.
Meanwhile, over in another corner is Samsung, which until now has been the premium seller of Android devices. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 series of phones has been giving Apple a run for its money, interrupted only by the sound of explosions from its big-screen Galaxy Note7 devices. Once Samsung gets its act together and its batteries replaced, it will remain the third competitive force in the smartphone market.
While Samsung doesn’t make an entirely separate version of Android, it does have significant influence on what is included in the OS. This means Samsung’s version of Android is different enough to be effectively a third player.
In all, this nexus (pun intended) of forces could produce a really competitive market for high-end phones, lowering prices, raising the quality and generally making things better for smartphone buyers.