Google unveiled the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones yesterday, more expensive Nexus replacements intended to compete directly against the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The devices are already available for preorder and will launch in stores in the coming weeks. Some Android enthusiasts might be thrilled to see these Galaxy S7/Note 7 alternatives and Google appears to have done an excellent job with its new mobile initiative. But the Pixels aren’t perfect, and the worst thing about them has nothing to do with hardware, design or specs.
Sure, the Pixel and Pixel XL look like the iPhone 6/6s/7 and iPhone 6/6s/7 Plus. It’s HTC that makes them, and it’s hardly a surprise to see more iPhone clones running Android. But that’s not the worst thing about them. After all, there are so many ways you can design a smartphone these days, and Apple is the obvious source of inspiration.
You might say that the strange glass-and-aluminum back is the worst thing about the Pixel phones. That rear case is unsightly, and Google hasn’t even tried to explain it. We’ll have to wait for teardowns to understand why the Pixel need that much glass on the back. After all, they don’t come with wireless charging, which would somewhat excuse Google’s design decision.
The worst thing about the Pixel is that Google’s hardware initiative kills vanilla Android for good. Does that even matter at this point? It’s not like hordes of consumers were purchasing Nexus handsets and tablets so they could experience the latest version of Android.
Yes, it does matter! And it’s not about the Nexus devices either. With Pixel phones, Google appears to be taking a different approach to Android. The Pixels ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, which will come with certain features that Android 7.0 Nougat devices do not have. The unique Pixel features include the Pixel Launcher, Google Assistant support, Smart Storage, unlimited Google Photos backups, 24/7 customer support, and a bunch of impressive camera tricks.
If you think that the incoming Android 7.1 Nougat update will bring those features to your Nexus device or any other high-end handset that supports Nougat, then you’re wrong. A change log for Android 7.1 reveals that Nexus phones and other devices will not get Pixel-specific features. Not even the Pixel Launcher and Google Assistant will come to other Android devices.
Google is trying to set the Pixels apart by giving them special features, and it’s not like that’s an irrational business decision. But the Pixels might change the way Android fans buy devices. Before, you could go for Nexus to get the hottest Android features as soon as Google released Android updates, or you could buy anything else and hope for speedy software upgrades. Now, it seems that you’ll have to buy Pixel to get a full Android experience as Google envisions it, or get anything else and never experience Android in its full glory.
Google often advertises the openness of Android and defends fragmentation by saying that its mobile operating system lets users choose exactly what kind of hardware to buy and still get the same perks. But with Pixel, it looks like more and more like Google wants to close down some aspects of Android and limit the options buyers have.
The full change log for Android 7.1 follows below, as found by Android Police.
- Pixel Launcher – swipe up for all apps, new Search Box, date/weather header on home
- Google Assistant
- Unlimited original quality photo/video backup to Google Photos
- Smart Storage – when storage is full, automatically removes old backed up photos/videos
- Phone/Chat support (new support tab in settings), screen-share functionality
- Quick switch adapter for wired setup from Android or iPhone
- Pixel Camera:
- Electronic Image Stabilization (“video stabilization”) 2.0
- Pro Features
- White Balance Presets
- Exposure Compensation
- AE/AF Locking
- Viewfinder grid modes
- HW-accelerated (on Qualcomm Hexagon coprocessor) HDR+ image processing
- Sensor Hub processor with tightly integrated sensors (accel, gyro, mag) + connectivity (Wi-Fi, Cell, GPS)
- Solid navbar icons with home affordance for Assistant
- SysUI accent color theming
- Wallpaper picker with new wallpapers and sounds
- New setup look and feel
- Dynamic calendar date icon
Android Nougat 7.1
- Night Light
- Touch/display performance improvements
- Moves (Fingerprint swipe down gesture – opt-in)
- Seamless A/B system updates
- Daydream VR mode
- Developer features:
- App shortcuts / shortcut manager APIs
- Circular app icons support
- Keyboard image insertion
- Fingerprint sensor gesture to open/close notification shade
- Manual storage manager Intent for apps
- Improved VR thread scheduling
- Enhanced wallpaper metadata
- Multi-endpoint call support
- Support for various MNO requirements
- PCDMA voice privacy property
- Source type support for Visual Voicemail
- Carrier config options for managing video telephony
- Manual storage manager – identifies apps and files and apps using storage