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Google Just Announced the Pixel, a $650 Smartphone That Aims to Topple the iPhone At Last

Google isn’t a new player in the smartphone game. They’ve always been there, in the background, acquiring Android in 2005 and serving up smartphone alternatives to the other big-name players since 2008. I remember when Google’s Nexus One came out in 2010, I shrugged off the idea that it could ever be successful. I was right that it never ended up as a true rival to the iPhone, which was already a dominant force by then. But past-me wasn’t entirely right to shrug off Android, which has kept up a small but nonetheless steady percentage of smartphone sales in the past decade.

Slow and steady wins the race, as we know, and today Google has announced a new smartphone that aims to be a real contender, not just a hanger-on. It’s called the Pixel, and this time, the product is “the first phone made by Google inside and out,” as they specify in their announcement. This isn’t the first time Google has used the name Pixel before; they called one of their Chromebooks that a couple years ago, which they acknowledge in their announcement, and they also make passing reference to their Google Nexus phone line. They know they’ve tried this before, but this time, the specs are a whole lot more high-end.

The commercial and all of the announcement focuses on the word “new” in the rundown of all the features that the smartphone has to offer. Well, except for the joke in the commercial about the headphone jack, which is “old,” and also, a clear reference to the fact that the new iPhone doesn’t have one. On that topic, though, one can’t help but notice that the entire rest of the phone doesn’t exactly seem “new” in the sense that, uh, it looks a whole lot like an iPhone, doesn’t it? It comes in different colors (I do love that “new” blue), but there are a whole lot of visual similarities there that can’t be denied.

In spite of the Google-only branding, Cult of Mac reports that HTC designers were brought on board to design these phones, so those of you who liked Google’s HTC smartphones might be relieved to hear that their influence is still there. It’s just that now those designers are on Google’s payroll, I guess?

The aluminum unibody outside will still remind everyone of the iPhone. But what about the interior? Turns out the specs are pretty comparable as well, at least at first glance. Both the Pixel and its slightly more expensive counterpart, the Pixel XL, boast a Snapdragon 821 processor. As for whether it’s as nimble as the iPhone 7’s processor, we’ll have to wait until reviewers get some hands-on tests of the device. That said, the Pixel does offer 4GB of RAM, in comparison to the 3GB that the iPhone 7 Plus offers, or the 2GB in the iPhone 7. That should, in theory, help the device run smoothly.

The Pixel’s big claim to fame is its camera, which promises more megapixels than any other competitor thus far at 12.3, but skeptics have pointed out that what really matters in a camera are aspects like stabilization and ease-of-use. Once again, hands-on reviews will have to determine whether or not this camera is as great as Google promises, but the specs do sound spiffy.

The Pixel and the Pixel XL will be the first devices to ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, and they’ll also be fully integrating the AI “Assistant” feature, which is Google’s answer to Siri. You say “OK Google” to command the assistant, who doesn’t seem to have a name or characterization beyond “Google,” but does have a female voice actor (just like Siri and also like Microsoft’s Cortana).

The Pixel also works with Google’s new virtual reality peripheral called the Daydream VR headset, an upgrade to their previous Google Cardboard headset. Like the Samsung Gear VR, you can slide the Pixel phone into the Daydream VR headset and enjoy some 3D experiences. That headset is a cool $79, which is on par with the Samsung Gear VR headset (which was originally $100 but is going for $70 these days).

Speaking of prices, the Pixel’s $650 price tag has caused sticker shock for some, but the iPhone 7’s price is exactly the same. Of course, that price tag will likely get knocked down a bit if you’re willing to sign some sort of pesky contract; Google’s Pixel has launched alongside a partnership with Verizon Wireless. That said, the reason why some prefer Androids is that typically, they’re cheaper than iPhones. Now that the Pixel has a fancy aluminum exterior and a high-spec interior designed to truly rival the iPhone, Google must have figured it was worth the risk to have the price tag match as well.

That gamble will only pay off if the Pixel really is as good as Google has promised. If it is, though, then Apple might be shaking in their boots this year. (Samsung, meanwhile, is still down for the count after their Galaxy Note 7 misfire.)

What do you think? Does the headphone jack make a big difference to you?

(via Google)

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