Google’s drab-looking Pixel line of phones are going to be many things to many people, but it’s hard to overestimate just how important Google’s move into high-end hardware will prove to be for smart phones in general and portable virtual reality in particular.
We were sent a Google Pixel XL, the larger of the two models, in anticipation of the release of Daydream. Daydream is a virtual reality platform that’s set to take the basic ideas behind Google Cardboard a step further. The idea is to create a virtual reality platform that’s not as disposable as Cardboard, while offering a headset that resembles sweatpants much more than it does a piece of technology.
But Daydream isn’t here yet, so let’s talk about the phone. I inserted the AT&T SIM card from my personal phone — an iPhone 6S Plus — and attempted to use the Pixel for a week to get a sense for the hardware before it became the brain and display of our Daydream review unit.
There are two things that define the Pixel: It’s fast, and it’s boring.
My god it’s fast. Apple prides itself on creating responsive, zippy phones, but the Pixel seemed to chew through both standard tasks and complex assignments with ease. Android is many things, but it often suffers from carrier-ordained cruft and a somewhat sludgy feel in less capable handsets.
The Pixel is Google’s attempt to create a high-end competitor to the iPhone, and with Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4 GB of RAM, the Pixel delivers that. One of the Pixel’s closest competitor was the Samsung Note 7, and that thing explodes.
Google needed to show up, match the price and speed of the latest iPhone and avoid the pitfalls of the myriad flavors of Android that often feel like the digital version of walking down Times Square. It achieved those goals, and more. This is arguably the best Android device you can buy.
So yeah, if you want a responsive, powerful Android device? Google has you covered and, since it’s Google, you won’t have to wait for software updates. Pixel runs Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box.
But now let’s talk about how boring it is.
The Android iPhone
The Pixel looks like an iPhone from the front, even though there’s no front home button. There is a section of the rear of the unit that’s made of Gorilla Glass and features a fingerprint sensor, and that’s basically it. There’s a letter “G” on the back to let you know it’s from Google. The materials feel good in your hand, and it’s clear that this is a premium device, but it’s the opposite of flashy. It’s unlikely you’ll ever be using it and have someone ask what it’s like to use a Pixel.
John Gruber wrote an amazing post about the “boring” nature of Apple’s design language with the iPhone line, and Google is basically drafting behind Apple, benefiting from the decreased wind resistance.
“Here’s the genius of the black and (especially) jet black iPhones 7,” Gruber wrote. “In a very seductive way, they look like something new and desirable. And at the same time, they are instantly recognizable as iPhones. That is what ... I’m-bored-with-Apple’s-designs pundits don’t get. With a highly successful product and brand, new versions need to strike a balance between familiarity, the foundations of the brand, and hot newness. The bored-with-Apple crowd just wants the hot newness.”
Google didn’t really need to come out with a device that looked shockingly different nor did it feel the need to try to introduce you to any new design language. It’s a phone. Steve Jobs more or less decided what phones look like now when he and Apple introduced the first iPhone, and Google is secure enough to simply release a phone.
The Pixel even comes with an adapter that allows you to plug your new phone into your existing iPhone to slurp down all your content. The little fold-out “get started” guide all but assumes you’re coming from an iPhone.
What Google did was not easy. The company — along with HTC — created a phone that uses well-established design, is screamingly fast, features one of the best cameras on the market without feeling the need to announce itself visually. I see swagger where others complain about an uninspired design.
And of course the whole thing is tied so tightly into the Google ecosystem that they’re inseparable. Google is more than happy to store an unlimited amount of photos and videos, and in fact there are options to have any backed up photos or videos over 90 days old deleted. The “free up space now” button option does the same thing. When you’re the manufacturer of the phone and the designer of the services included, “cruft” turns into “features.” While Apple is adding extra lenses to extend what its cameras can do, Google is exploring software options, to great effect.
The only feature that makes me look longingly at the iPhone 7s is the water resistance, and the lack of it in the Pixel line is baffling. The counter-argument is the inclusion of a standard headphone jack, and it’s likely those two things are connected.
Google created a phone that’s easy to use, fast as hell and is filled with a number of neat little touches that only become evident once you’ve used the phone for a bit. I thought the ability to waggle the phone to switch from the rear- and front-facing cameras was silly until I started to rely on it when taking selfies with my wife.
So it looks like a phone. Big deal. That’s what we’re buying, anyway.
But what about Daydream?
That’s a good question, and it’s the reason we’re talking about the phone at all. Google is releasing a virtual reality platform called Daydream next month, and it’s the company’s next step in turning Cardboard and the content already available for it into something a bit more serious.
All that speed we were discussing above is now very important not just to drive phone responsiveness, but to allow the high framerates necessary to maintain comfort in VR. This is also a shot at Samsung and Oculus, and by Oculus we mean Facebook.
The Gear VR worked so well in part because Samsung allowed Oculus deep access to software and hardware of its phones. It was a special relationship, not to mention a selling point and a differentiator in a crowded market.
Google has responded not just with Daydream as a platform, but by baking Android VR Mode into the latest version of the Android operating system as a whole. Anyone can release Daydream-ready phones as long as they conform to the specifications. That relationship between Samsung and Facebook is not only no longer so unique, it’s actively detrimental; when people hear Galaxy they think explosions, and that’s a deal breaker in a device you’re supposed to strap to your face.
And Daydream is the reason I would suggest the Pixel XL to anyone interested in using this phone as their doorway into virtual reality. While the standard Pixel has a beautiful screen running at 1920 by 1080, that gives you a pixel density of 440 PPI, or pixels per inch, with the phone’s 5-inch screen.
The Pixel XL has a similarly beautiful screen that runs at 2560 by 1440 and measures 5.5 inches, giving it a pixel density of 534 PPI. Pixel density matters when you’re using a platform that brings the screen that close to your face, and the XL is a significant improvement over the standard Pixel.
For reference, the Oculus Rift “only” delivers a pixel density of 461 PPI. In practice this means that both models of Pixel phones are good enough for VR, but the Pixel XL will likely look better when placed in the Daydream viewer. It also means that VR enthusiasts may be surprised to find that the Daydream platform, while fueled by a Pixel XL, will have a clearer screen than their tethered head-mounted displays like the Rift or Vive.
The Pixel is Google’s attempt at showing the world it can create the best Android device on the market, while attempting to bring VR to the masses and to further lock customers into the company’s myriad services and data-collection methods. It may look boring, but the world of both smartphones and VR will likely be changed fundamentally by its existence.