Google guns for the big boys with the spec-stacked Pixel

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Look out, Apple! Google’s Pixel phones represent the very best of Android with solid specs and sharp software.

Google’s poorly-kept secret, the Pixel and Pixel XL, are here. The pair are the first smartphones to be marketed as “made by Google,” which feels a little misleading considering HTC is still the manufacturer.

Google announced the Pixel and Pixel XL at a heavily-advertised event in San Francisco. The company unveiled several hardware products, including Google Home, Daydream View, and Chromecast Ultra.

The design and software of the Pixel smartphones are the first to be made from the ground up by Google. The push by the search giant to market and price these devices as competitors to the reigning mobile champions — Apple and Samsung — is exciting. Let’s take a brief look at the Pixel and Pixel XL, and how they stack up.

The all-aluminum Pixel and Pixel XL are identical to each other in the looks department — the name suggests the primary difference between the two.

The Pixel has a 5-inch screen with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The XL features a 5.5-inch screen, and a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440-pixels takes advantage of the larger screen real estate.

The front of both devices resembles the iPhone 7. The bezels seem larger in pictures than they are — we didn’t have much an issue with them.

You’ll find the 8-megapixel selfie camera on the front, along with a power button on the right edge and a volume rocker below it. The headphone jack is on the top of the phone, and the speakers are at the bottom like they are on the iPhone 7 and its predecessors.

The back of the Pixel phones are a little more interesting. They feature a half-glass back, which houses a large fingerprint sensor, a camera, an LED flash, and a few other sensors. There’s an antenna band at the bottom, sides, and top edges. The back still looks like an iPhone as well, but it’s not a bad thing. The Pixel devices stand out enough to be noticeable, and we think the phones look good.

The Pixels feel great in the hand — high-end, not too heavy, and they don’t seem fragile, even with the half-glass back. They come in three color options: really blue, quite black, and very silver. Yes, those are the actual names.

We’re partial to the blue, though it’s too bad it only comes with a white front. The black is a solid alternative, but the white doesn’t look great. The blue variant is limited to the U.S.

Google’s Pixel smartphones are the first devices in the U.S. to be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor, which reportedly sees a 10 percent performance increase over the Snapdragon 820. The 820 is Qualcomm’s chip that powers several 2016 flagship smartphones such as the LG G5, Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge, the OnePlus 3, and more.

Android manufacturers often downgrade the specifications of smaller devices, and Google is guilty of this too when looking at the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P. That’s not an issue with the Pixel and the Pixel XL. Finally, Android fans who like smaller phones have an excellent device they can buy without compromising on the specs.

Both have 4GB of RAM, Gorilla Glass 4, fingerprint sensors, USB Type-C ports, and storage options between 32GB and 128GB. The only other difference here is the battery — the larger phone has a 3,450mAh battery, and the regular Pixel has one with a 2,770mAh capacity.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra

These are really high-end specs and the Pixel smartphones could be the most powerful Android devices on the market — we’ll need to test the devices for a longer period of time to say for sure. In our brief time with the phones, they had no hiccups opening a slew of apps, moving between them, and triggering Assistant.

Specs aren’t everything. One thing most buyers look at is a smartphone’s camera. Samsung and Apple have dominated this space, and there are several worthy contenders as well. Google’s Nexus smartphones and the pre-installed Google Camera software have never been able to keep up, though the Nexus 6P came close.

But cameras are a strong focus for the Pixel phones. The rear camera has 12.3-megapixels and optical image stabilization, whereas the front has 8-megapixels.

According to DXOMark, Google’s Pixel phones scored an 89 — the highest mark for any smartphone camera to date. That’s thanks to the size of the pixels — 1.55-micron pixels, and Google’s HDR+ upgrades.

HDR+ is on for all photographs taken with the Pixel — it captures several RAW images to produce a JPEG image with minimal blur, noise, and improved dynamic range. Google says capture time is the fastest it has seen compared to other devices the company tested with, and HDR+ is processed incredibly quickly.

Related: Everything you need to know about Google Assistant

We saw that in action first hand while playing around with the camera. Snapping photos was quick and instantaneous, and so was processing. We had to wait a few seconds when we captured photos in a speedy succession, but it was still much faster than we have experienced on the Nexus 6P and the Nexus 5X. We were also shooting in a low-light environment, and the Pixels seemed to handle the photos pretty well with minimal noise and grain.

What’s neat is that if you’re a Pixel owner, you’ll get free, unlimited storage space in Google Photos for your photographs in their full resolution, so you don’t have to worry about storage.

We’ll have to test these cameras out thoroughly before we can pass final judgment, but from what we’ve seen Google may have a winner of a camera on its hands.

The Pixel smartphones are well ahead of Android 7.0 Nougat — they ship with the next best thing, Android 7.1 Nougat. The notification drawer is black, and the brightness slider is blue. The Settings menu also has some slight cosmetic changes to match the Pixel theme. The navigation buttons are filled in white now, and the middle home button has an outline.

Pressing and holding the home button activates Google Assistant. It’s a voice search function that allows you to ask Google’s artificially-intelligent bot for help — ranging from search queries, booking a restaurant, to ordering an Uber. More third-party integrations will be on the way.

Triggering Assistant when you’re in another app, like a conversation with a friend, will have it read the messages to offer relevant information. This is the same thing Google Now on Tap does, except it’s essentially rebranded to Assistant and is more personalized.

The Pixel smartphones come with a Pixel Launcher, which is similar to the Google Now Launcher. Swipe right and you’ll find yourself at Google Now. The main difference is the date at the top right, and the Google tab on the top left, which directs you to a standard Google search.

Related: Everything you need to know about Android 7.1 Nougat and the Pixel Launcher

There’s also no app drawer icon — swipe up from the bottom to access the app drawer, where you can search for apps as well.

The Pixel phones will also feature an integration with Google’s live support team — from the Settings menu, swap to the Support tab to chat or talk to the team about any issues you have with the device. You can share your screen too, in case the support representative needs to take a look at your device. It’s a great feature for customers and it elevates support for Pixel phones well above most other Android phones.

A Google spokesperson said Assistant will only remain on the Pixel and Google Home for now. There are no plans for a future Nexus smartphone, and the company is exploring ways to bring Assistant to other Android devices.

That doesn’t mean Android 7.1 Nougat isn’t coming to other Android phones. The new version brings Launcher Shortcuts, which are almost identical to 3D Touch on iOS. Tap and hold an icon to open a pop-up box with quick actions, like “Compose an email” for Gmail.

It’s unfortunate that Assistant isn’t going to come to previous Nexus devices for now, and that several features are Pixel-exclusive. Android 7.1 will look much sleeker on a Pixel phone than on a Nexus, for example. Still, what we’ve seen so far is a promising start to the Pixel line.

The Pixel and the Pixel XL are available for pre-order now and will ship toward the end of the month.

The Pixel will cost $650 for the 32GB variant or $27.04 a month for 24 months via Google’s device financing program. The 128GB model costs $750.

The Pixel XL costs $770 for the 32GB storage option or $32.04 a month for 24 months on Google’s device financing program. The 128GB model costs $870.

If you pre-order a Pixel smartphone, you’ll get a Daydream View headset for free. It costs $80 separately.

These devices are unlocked from Google, meaning you can use them on various carrier networks. For Verizon, however, Google is following Motorola with carrier exclusivity — you’ll only see Pixel phones sold in Verizon stores.

The prices for the Pixel and Pixel XL on Verizon mostly match Google’s.

Unfortunately, the price may kill these smartphones. While they offer fantastic specs and promise great cameras, they do lack a “wow” factor and a few features you’ll find on competitors like the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge, such as water-resistance.

There are also other smartphones that have similar specs with a much lower price tag, like the OnePlus 3 and ZTE’s Axon 7. It’s going to be tough for people to jump into the high-end smartphone market, especially when it’s the mid-range one that’s booming.

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