The Nexus program, which many years ago kick-started the concept of a “pure” Android smartphone, has now evolved. The Nexus brand has been shelved for the moment, and it is a case of new beginnings. Google has unveiled the Pixel phones for 2016, and with it, a completely new direction forward to tackle the smartphone ecosystem.
This time around, the more things have changed, the more they remain the same.
The phones still retain many of the same characteristics that made the Nexus devices, over the years. They still retain the clean and unadulterated Android software experience. There are no modifications that smartphone makers tend to make in their phones (Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and a million other features, for example). Also, they will still be the first phones to receive any new Android update, be it a monthly security update or a bigger version change, just as Nexus phones used to. With Nexus, Google wanted to show how Android is supposed to be, and that continues with the Pixel phones as well.
There is also the aspiration to pack the phones with the latest hardware. The Pixel has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chip, 4GB RAM, 32GB/128GB storage, 5-inch (1920x1080 resolution) display, and a 2770mAh battery. The larger sibling, the Pixel XL, has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chip, 4GB RAM, 32GB/128GB storage, 5.5-inch (2560x1440 resolution) display, and 3450mAh battery. That makes Pixel and the Pixel XL one of the first phones with the latest generation Snapdragon 821 chips, in the markets globally. Both phones will run Android 7.1 (Nougat) out of the box.
But a lot has changed as well, and it is mostly software driven.
Firstly, the Google Assistant. It was only logical that the artificially intelligent assistant emerged from the limiting walls around the Allo instant messenger, and get baked into the Android operating system. This means you get much smarter and responsive answers to almost any query. Also, deeper integration means you can ask it to set up a calendar entry, or an alarm, for example. Whether you are on the home screen or using an app, Assistant can be called upon for information or help with certain tasks. Things like “show me my selfies from September” will show you images that match the search criteria.
From what we had experienced with the Assistant in the Allo app, this genuinely comes across as a value-addition for the Pixel phones. It is unlikely though that Google will push Assistant with the other Nexus phones, and could instead keep this exclusive to Pixel phones for the time being.
Secondly, the camera. We often like to say that megapixels don’t matter beyond a point. The image processing algorithms that work in the background, make or break a photo. For example, a badly optimized 23-megapixel camera will always remain inferior to a better algorithm driven 12-megapixel camera, even though the former has a hardware advantage.
Google has given the Pixel and the Pixel XL 12.3-megapixel cameras each, with large 1.55μm pixels. This should mean improved low-light performance, but where they could still lose out is with the f/2.0 aperture (in comparison, the iPhone 7 has f/1.8 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 has f/1.7 aperture—lower number being better, in this case). A lot of image processing tweaks have been made as well, though we will need to test the devices in detail before making any judgements.
The Pixel and the Pixel XL will run what is now known as the Pixel Launcher. The icons are rounded, the search bar on the home screen is now a slide-out saving space and Google’s own Duo video call app is now its response to Apple’s FaceTime. It is interesting to note that Google will be offering unlimited photos’ backup to Google Photos for Pixel phone users—the rest of us get unlimited backup limited to only 16-megapixel resolutions, on other phones.
The Google Pixel phones will be arriving in India later this month, with a starting price of Rs.57,000.