Hands On: Google's Pixel Smartphone

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Every inch of Google's new Pixel smartphone is designed by Google. That's a detail that initially seems obvious and unimportant until you get your hands on the phone, which I did at the Pixel launch event in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Because Google designed the hardware and software, it was able to perfect features that may be half-baked on other Android-powered devices. The most readily apparent is the fingerprint reader. It's on the back of the phone, which means you'll want to record your index finger's print, instead of using your thumb as you might with an iPhone.

Once the phone recognizes your print, the fingerprint reader turns into a mini touchpad, which Google calls Pixel Imprint. Swiping down on it reveals a revamped notification area on the phone's display that's designed specifically for Pixel. It offers access to all your apps, texts, and emails, as well as the ability to change settings like screen brightness and Wi-Fi networks. Once you're done, swipe up to close it.

Longtime Android users will note that this fingerprint-reader-cum-touchpad feature is available on other devices, including midrange phones like Huawei's new Honor 8. But the notification aspect on Pixel, while not a huge difference, demonstrates Google's mastery over the hardware and software.

That mastery is also on display with Pixel's other nifty shortcut: swipe up from the bottom of the screen to view all your apps. It's a welcome feature, especially if you find vertically scrolling through apps to be more convenient than swiping horizontally through individual screens of apps.

A Google representative at the event said Pixel's Android customizations will be available on other devices in the future. It's unclear whether that means every phone running the next version of Android (7.1) will get them, or whether device manufacturers will have to specifically request and enable them.

While I was impressed by Pixel's tight software and hardware integration, it was more difficult to get a feel for what is perhaps Pixel's most heralded feature: its 12.3MP camera, featuring an f/2.0 aperture. The demo room was just too dark and crowded to put the shooter through its paces, but Pixel owners will appreciate the fact that Google managed to fit such a powerful camera into a housing that's flush with the rear of the handset. That's something Apple didn't do with the iPhone 7. You might need to have the sensitivity of a princess sleeping on a pea to feel the difference in your pocket, but your eye will certaintly notice the sleekness.

Google says Pixel's camera achieved 89 DxoMark Mobile score, which is the highest rating ever awarded to a smartphone. The iPhone 7 got an 86. Check back soon for PCMag's full Pixel review to see if its camera really is better.

Besides its new Android features and camera, Pixel's other major claim to fame is that it's the first phone with Google Assitant built in. For more on how Google Assistant works, check out our hands on with Google Home.

On Pixel, you can either say "OK, Google" or touch and hold the Home button to wake up the Assistant, a process that's nearly identical to waking up Siri. In the crowded demo room, Assistant understood all of my commands perfectly, which mostly included looking up Beyonce's YouTube videos. Google employees were also on hand with their personal Pixel phones to demo contact recognition, which also worked flawlessly. Still, it was a relatively small sample size.

The main difference between Assistant on the Home hub and on Pixel is extra customization. On Pixel, Assistant can automatically send a text or start a phone call to anyone in your contacts. A Google representative said engineers are still finalizing the Home's companion smartphone app, so there may eventually be contacts support on Home, too.

I tried the larger 5.5-inch Pixel XL in Quite Black (yes, that's a color; Pixel is also available in Very Silver and Really Blue). The smaller 5-inch Pixel looks identical, with slight spec differences compared to its larger counterpart: Pixel has a FHD AMOLED at 441ppi display to the XL's QHD AMOLED at 534ppi; and Pixel runs a 2,770 mAh battery, while XL has a 3,450 mAh one. So you'll have to decide how big you like your phone.

In the US, the Pixel is a Verizon exclusive, though Google will also sell it unlocked on the Google Store and it will work on Project Fi. Pre-orders are now live in the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the UK starting at $649 or $27 per month for a 32GB device; a 128GB version is also available.

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