I WRITE ABOUT gadgets, which means everyone asks me what laptop or dishwasher or whatever to buy. I struggle with this, because the answer often starts with, “It depends.” Unless you ask about a phone. In that case, I usually say get an iPhone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Android. But the phones can be… frustrating. Clever features too often seem overwrought or poorly designed, or they’re buried beneath 15 Verizon apps on the homescreen. The iPhone is the Default Phone, the one you buy when you want a phone, not a project.
The Google Pixel changes that. It offers the look and competence of an iPhone, with a truly great camera and loads of innovative software and services. It changes my answer to the question I hear most often: What phone should you get?
Talk To Me
Google’s new phone arrives Thursday, starting at $650 for the Pixel and $770 for the Pixel XL. You can get it in blue, black, or silver, with 32 or 128 gigs of storage, from Google or from Verizon. You should buy it directly from Google, and soon. Most models already are backordered.
Not long after I got my Pixel XL, I flew to Colombia for a week’s vacation. It was a very Google-y getaway: I had a Project Fi SIM card, I kept my itinerary in Google Trips, and, given what Verizon charges for international data on my iPhone 7, I relied entirely upon the Pixel because Project Fi gives standard rates in most countries.
The trip provided a perfect way of testing the limits of Google Assistant, Pixel’s distinguishing feature. If the Pixel is Google’s iPhone, Assistant is its souped-up Siri. Long-press the on-screen home button or say “OK Google” and ask it anything. How many dollars is 290,000 Colombian pesos? How hot is it in the Tatacoa desert? Where can I find coffee? Assistant was my guide, translator, and researcher. It knew where I needed to go, how to get there, and when to leave. It told me about Simón Bolívar, and knew enough about current events to explain the recent protests in the plaza that bears his name.
Assistant does share common stumbling blocks with Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. It likes to answer easy questions by showing web results, and it speaks at unexpected, often jarring moments. “HERE ARE YOUR EVENTS!” is not a useful thing to yell when asked about my calendar. I wish I could type questions into the pop-up prompt instead of saying everything aloud like a tourist or opening an app like a nerd. In theory, Google’s deep knowledge of you and your life sets Assistant apart, but that didn’t always pan out. Assistant has all the information needed to handle me saying, “Wake me up 30 minutes before I need to leave for the airport,” but it failed to do so. On a later attempt, it set the alarm for almost seven hours before my flight. There’s traffic in Bogotá, but not that much traffic.
Still, Assistant is the best voice assistant yet—though not as far ahead as advertised. Its lead is the difference between being surprised when Siri works and being surprised when Assistant doesn’t. Its speech-to-text recognition is almost perfect, even when I butchered Villa de Leyva. I don’t open as many apps anymore. I tell Google to do stuff for me. The biggest challenge to enjoying Assistant has been my own inertia. Assistant makes everything faster and easier, if you remember to use it.
The Best Camera You Have With You
I spent one night in the Tatacoa desert, at a small hotel miles from the nearest town. Returning to civilization, our taxi driver Hermes took us on a tour of photo-friendly spots. He’d lead us down some tiny side road, point to a big rock or cool crevice, and with two hands gesture for me to hand him my phone so he could take a picture.
I also took hundreds of 12-megapixel photos and 4K videos, and more selfies than I’m proud of using the 8-megapixel front cam. (For the record, I didn’t bring the selfie stick. I just used it.) In every case, the colors, dynamic range, and sharpness matched or exceeded every phone I’ve used. You don’t get the cool zoom or soft-focus features of the iPhone 7 Plus, but you get killer photos nonetheless. Everything automatically goes into Google Photos, where the Pixel gets you unlimited free storage for full-resolution video and stills.
In fact, the real difference between the Pixel and the iPhone’s camera is a matter of approach as much as of execution. The iPhone faithfully reproduces the exact light of the image, even when it’s boring or flat or dark. The Pixel, like most Android phones, subtly enhances everything to make it a little brighter, a little more vibrant. You can watch the automatic HDR processing in real time, if you open a photo right after shooting.
Most of the time, the Pixel takes a nicer photo than you’d expect. Some photographers prefer to make those creative decisions. But I like that my photos look awesome on Instagram, no filters necessary. I’ve never been more confident shooting with my smartphone.
The Highest Form of Flattery
Yes, the Pixel looks like an iPhone, and that’s totally OK. My review unit is the 5.5-inch Pixel XL: a teensy bit smaller in my hand than the iPhone 7 Plus, but so similar that I confuse the two. The beveled aluminum body is a little sharper and harder than the round, smooth iPhone, but feels solid and nice to hold.
The Pixel’s only standout hardware features are the large, round, rear fingerprint reader and the glass panel that takes up about a third of the back. I’m of two minds about the fingerprint reader placement: I love how easy it is to turn the phone on and unlock it with my index finger while sliding it out of my pants, but it’s annoying to have to pick it up every time unless I want to manually enter the passcode. The glass panel feels sort of pointless (It is, at least functionally, I’m told.). It’s different for different’s sake. I prefer the iPhone’s unified, monolithic feel.
You know what sucks about the Pixel? It’s not waterproof. Every phone should be waterproof. Beyond that, my hardware complaints are nitpicky. I think it’s dumb to only have one speaker, and the headphone jack should be on the bottom edge. But none of this matters to most people.
Specs-wise, it’s exactly what a phone this expensive should be, and as fast as you’d expect. It’s the first Daydream-ready phone, prepared to handle Google’s new VR platform, but I haven’t tested that yet. I suspect it’ll look better on the Pixel XL’s 5.5-inch, 2560×1440 display rather than the Pixel’s 5-inch, 1080p screen, though. The battery on the Pixel XL always survived a day of travel mapping, menu translating, and election news searching with 20 to 30 percent left when I went to bed. I haven’t tried the Pixel, but I suspect that its lower-res screen means it should last about as long despite having a smaller battery. Otherwise, the two devices are identical.
Google clearly wanted to make something high-end yet widely appealing. It isn’t going after someone who loves a good stylus, or who wants funky design touches or niche productivity features. It’s just a really, really good smartphone.
The Pixel continues the tradition, established by Google’s discontinued Nexus line, of being the only way to enjoy the best of Android. (In fact, it’s even more extreme than that: Assistant is exclusive to the Pixel for the foreseeable future.) It’s a shame, because the Pixel addresses almost all of the annoying little things about Android.
For example, until now, app icons were different sizes, which is a great litmus test for whether you’re a little OCD. (Guilty.) On the Pixel, they’re uniform, and most of them are round. It feels carefully considered in a way Android rarely does. An unobtrusive icon that leads you into the Google Now stream replaces the giant Google search bar. You can swipe up from the bottom of the homescreen to access apps, instead of tapping the four-dot button some people never even discover. The software even uses App Shortcuts, which are basically like 3D Touch for Android—hardly any apps use it so far, but I hope that changes.
I’ve always loved Android because it felt so much more alive and connected than iOS. The sharing menus are smarter and more prominent, apps refresh in the background so they’re always up to date, and widgets and notifications are useful and interactive. But iOS was always so much simpler, with shallower learning curves. It’s dictatorial, but painless. The Pixel’s software doesn’t totally close that gap. It’s still too easy to clutter your homescreens with multiple versions of the same icon, and it’s still too hard to find cool features like the thing where you can swipe down on the fingerprint reader to see your notification shade. But the Pixel is the most coherent and cohesive Android ever.
I’ve always been an iPhone guy, honestly. I’ve used just about every flagship Android phone ever made and always returned to Apple. That’s partly because I bought an iPhone 4S in 2011 and signed up for iMessage, and leaving iMessage is a monumental pain in the ass. But mostly I liked having a phone I didn’t have to think about. The iPhone always offers great hardware, a good camera, fantastic apps, and data security. I don’t want to worry about my phone, or spend my time tinkering with it. My phone’s too important to risk any extra effort, or worse, unreliability.
But I’m switching. For real. I’m turning off iMessage, re-buying apps, and warning friends that I probably won’t get their texts for a few days. I am a little worried about Google’s long-term commitment to this new hardware push (and the customer support that comes with it), given its propensity for killing products that don’t get billions of users. But I’m totally in love with the Pixel. I love this camera, I love Google Assistant, I love that I’ll get to use it with a comfy VR headset, I love that I finally get a version of Android that is both powerful and attractive. I love that there’s a kickass Android phone that (probably) doesn’t explode.
The immediate joke everyone, including me, made on Twitter after the Pixel launch was that Google made an iPhone. Well, that’s true. As it turns out, an iPhone running Android is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.