In the battle for premium smartphone market share, Google has unveiled its fall lineup to take on Apple Inc.’s new iPhones and further burnish the company’s hardware credentials.
Called the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, the pair of devices announced Wednesday during a keynote in Mountainview, Calif. are the successors to the company’s smartphone debut last year.
The Pixel 2 will come in 64GB ($899) and 128GB ($1,029) models, in Just Black, Clearly White and Kinda Blue colours. Meanwhile, the Pixel 2 XL will be $1,159 (64GB) and $1,289 (128GB) and available in Just Black and Black and White. Pre-orders start Wednesday through Google, all major carriers and select retailers.
Like last year, the new Pixel smartphones fall under the company’s “Made by Google” hardware lineup, which borrows from Apple’s playbook as it melds the hardware with the software to offer a far more integrated experience than Samsung, Sony or others that use a modified version of Android can provide.
“Partners get an operating system from Google and then they make their hardware choices and their choices with what they do with software or AI themselves,” said Mario Querioz, Google’s vice president of hardware product management, in an interview prior to the keynote.
“With Pixel, you really have the best package of Google experiences built into one phone where we have really tightly coupled the operating system with the hardware, sensors and Google’s AI.”
Last month, Google said it was buying HTC Corp.’s mobile division team for about US$1.1 billion. Querioz said that 2,000 engineers were coming to Google from HTC as part of a larger hiring spree of people that specialize in design, mechanical and electrical engineering.
“We created the consumer hardware group at Google about a year and a half ago,” he said. “In order for us to have successful products we have to have the best hardware components.”
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL build off the design of last year’s models but have been refined after research, user feedback and the company’s desire to make Google services more accessible.
Both devices have a glass-aluminum design using 3D Gorilla Glass 5. The finger print sensor is faster, the camera has been improved with a better aperture and smarter algorithms (DxOMark has given the camera a score of 98, the highest of any smartphone), plus the battery still boasts fast charging that gives you up to seven hours after being plugged in for 15 minutes. There is also an optical image stabilization and video stabilization to help shaky hands.
While the Pixel 2 has a five-inch OLED display for those wanting a smaller device, the Pixel 2 XL’s screen is what really impresses this year. It has a large 6-inch OLED curved screen with very little to no bezel — much like competitors Apple and Samsung — which makes for an 18:9 aspect ratio and quad-HD resolution. While the first Pixel XL may have looked a little clunky, this one looks premium and feels good in the hands.
“The OLED allows us to do an always-on display this year. We’re really proud of the way that works,” Brian Rakowski, vice president of product management at Google, said during a pre-keynote interview. “It’s a super helpful feature, as you can just glance at your phone to see the time, date or any notifications.”
There are a couple of new features being added to the Pixel’s home screen as well, starting with moving the search bar to the bottom for the dual purpose of searching both online and on the device itself.
Google has something new at the bottom of the Always On display that the company sounds even more excited about than the new search bar. Called Now Playing, the feature is essentially like the app Shazam as it can identify the music being played nearby, however it uses machine learning and an on-device database of tens of thousands of songs so it can always be used — even in airplane mode.
“We have a team that has gone off and figured out that we can build a model that will detect music playing in the environment when you are completely disconnected,” Rakowski said. “It becomes an ambient way that you can glance over at your phone if you’re in a coffee shop, gym or in the car and see what song is playing.”
Another new featured added to the Pixel 2 and 2 XL this year is within the Google Assistant, called Active Edge, but technically it is physically outside of it. While the Assistant has been given more functionality in terms of software — such as being able to turn on and off new settings within the phone or apps — it can now be accessed by physically squeezing the phone, another example of designing the hardware and software together.
“We asked our researchers — and we have some amazing researchers, such as ACM fellows in the discipline of input, human-computer interaction — what is the best way to open the Assistant? If we can do anything, now that we are building hardware, what would you like to see?,” Rakowski said.
“They looked at things like dedicated buttons, gestures and things you can do on the screen, but they came back and said the best thing is if you just squeeze the device as you are holding it.”
After taking the advice, Google’s hardware engineers found a way to embed tiny sensors into the sides of the device and apply machine learning so Pixel knows the difference between an intentional squeeze, firm grip or someone running with the device.
“There’s nice vibration feedback that reinforces the metaphor of squeezing the device and something happening,” Rakowski said.
Goodbye headphone jack
In a perhaps controversial move, Google has decided to remove the headphone jack on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Instead there will be an adapter for the analog 3.5mm headphone in the box which will connect into the USB-C port for digital audio. In a similar fashion to competitors Apple and Motorola, Google said it believes wireless is the future.
“We’ve seen that people are more and more going wireless, so we put a lot of effort into upgrading to Bluetooth 5.0 and Hi-Fi (audio) codecs,” Querioz said.
The new Pixel phones also have dual front-facing stereo speakers, which will work for both phone calls and multimedia playback.
“We really worked hard to achieve the right balance of volume, clarity and frequency response,” Querioz said. “We know people like to watch video in landscape mode and hold it with their right hand. That will muffle the speakers on some devices, but you won’t have that problem with these.”
As for other upgrades, the cameras have been calibrated for augmented reality — a claim also made by Apple in its new iPhone models. The company didn’t get into many specifics for its AR ambitions, but it did say animated stickers and emojis will be coming exclusive to the brand that will use the technology (including some in partnership with major brands such as Star Wars or Netflix’s Stranger Things).
New customizable Live Cases are also coming for the Pixel 2 and 2 XL again this year, plus a new Google stamp-of-approval branding on Pixel accessories made by partners such as other cases, cables, or headphones as part of a new “Made for Google” line.
Google Lens and Portrait mode
The Pixel 2 and 2 XL are the first smartphones to get Google Lens, a technology that will look at an image and then use machine learning to get you more information on what it is. You will be able to take photos of landmarks, books, music albums, movies, artwork and even posters or business cards, and Lens will tell you more about it or give you options for what to do with it.
Speaking of the camera, there is also a portrait mode now for photos to create an extra level of depth digitally to images — similarly to a professional digital SLR camera — that only uses one lens thanks to dual sensors inside and Google’s algorithms. Since the Pixel’s Portrait only uses one lens, it can also be applied to the front camera for Portrait selfies.
“Because we are designing the hardware, software and AI together in Pixel, we are able to bring these sort of things to Pixel first,” Querioz said.
“Whether it is music detection, squeezing your phone to get to the Assistant, the optical image stabilization and video stabilization, or the depth map for selfies… You’re going to see more and more of these experiences either exclusively on Pixel or Pixel first.”