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Google Pixel makes a bid for Android history

A key Google executive tweeted last month that we'll be talking about the company's news today for years to come. So, yeah, expectations are high.

It's difficult to tell when you're in the midst of a landmark moment in history.

Few guessed that in 2008 when Google debuted the G1, the first phone to run Android, the mobile software would transform the wireless world. It didn't help that when Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin went up on stage, they were wearing roller blades.

Page and Brin are probably laughing their inline skates off these days. Nearly nine out of every 10 phones sold run on Android software.

On Tuesday, Google took its best shot at making history again. The company introduced the Pixel and Pixel XL, which represent the first time it will offer superphones in the same class -- complete with the full backing of Google, a lofty price tag and an exclusive partnership with Verizon Wireless -- as Apple's iPhone franchise. At long last, Google's phones give us a showdown between two of the world's most powerful tech titans.

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The devices, which will start at $649 for the Pixel and $769 for the Pixel XL (£599 and £719 in the UK), are the closest things we've ever seen to a true Google Phone. More than any other phone the company has put out in the past, the Pixels aim to capitalize on the search giant's brand power as one of the best-known corporate names in the world. This new line of phones is officially called "Pixel, a phone by Google," and each handset has the company's signature G emblazoned on the back.

"The company has the best vehicle available for continuing to deliver its software and services -- and now, products too," said Jefferson Wang, a senior partner at IBB Consulting.

History or hype?

Another key company executive already sparked the history talk, suggesting in a tweet last month that we'd look back at this event with the same reverence as the original launch of Android.

"We announced the 1st version of Android 8 years ago today," wrote Hiroshi Lockheimer, who heads up Android. "I have a feeling 8 years from now we'll be talking about Oct 4, 2016."

Google has traditionally launched phones through its Nexus program: the search giant handles the software and other manufacturers, including LG, Huawei and Samsung, build the hardware. (The Nexus brand doesn't seem to be dead yet. Rumors of future Nexus devices are starting to crop up.)

With Pixel, Google teamed up with a partner to manufacture the hardware. This time, it's HTC. The Taiwanese phone maker seems to be the go-to when a tech giant wants to put its stamp on phones. The company made the HTC First, Facebook's ill-fated attempt to turn its social network into a quasi-operating system for phones.

Or perhaps Google is just a fan of history. HTC made the G1, too.

It's still about Google Assistant

The history chatter may reference Google's focus on artificial intelligence. In fact, Google CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off today's event talking about that topic.

"We're moving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world," he said.

Google Assistant, a digital assistant that uses artificial intelligence to help you search for info like news and driving directions or to turn on the lights in your house, is the marquee feature in both the Pixel phones and the Google Home smart home hub it announced in May.

"It's a great example of hardware and software come together beautifully," said Brian Rakowski, software manager for Pixel.

The company devoted most of its Google Home presentation to showing off Assistant's "knowledge graph" capability, supplying information from its database and snippets from other sources like Wikipedia. "Finally, you have an assistant who can bring the knowledge of Google just by asking for it," said Rishi Chandra, a vice president at Google.

Google isn't alone in its AI ambitions. Microsoft has long pushed its Cortana assistant, and Amazon has steadily gotten its Alexa helper into homes through its Echo speakers (the $50 second-gen Amazon Echo Dot just debuted). And, of course, there's Apple's Siri, which kicked off the voice assistant craze back in 2011.

Tripling down on the home

Beyond Google Home, the search giant also unveiled a new version of its Chromecast streaming stick and a smart Wi-Fi router.

Chromecast Ultra is an update to Google's streaming stick that now takes advantage of sharper 4K resolution. But the new Chromecast, which costs $69 or £69 -- double the price of the old one -- comes as Roku and Amazon have added new choices for streaming media. Roku's cheapest option, the Express stick, costs just $30. Amazon's $40 Fire TV Stick comes with a remote that responds to voice commands

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The Chromecast Ultra costs $69.

Google

Google also showed off its latest attempt at a Wi-Fi router. It's called Google Wifi. The company entered the router fray last August with the OnHub, touted as a router for the smart-home age. The idea behind it was simple: make a router that's not an ugly box so you won't hide it in a corner and obstruct the Wi-Fi signal.

Google Wifi was developed by the same team behind OnHub and designed in-house without a third-party manufacturer. The company envisions you buying multiple Google Wifi devices to expand coverage in the home. One unit costs $129, and a three-pack costs $299. Preorders begin in November, with the product shipping the following month. It's only available in the US for now.

Bringing VR to the masses

Google also unveiled Daydream View, a virtual-reality headset that will run on the Daydream VR platform first unveiled at its May developer conference. It represents a step up from the cheap $15 Cardboard VR viewers the company introduced in 2014.

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Google's Daydream View headset is its take on the VR headset.

James Martin/CNET

The original intent of the cheap Cardboard viewer was to give smartphone users a way to play with VR. Today's announcement is an acknowledgement that Google needs a more polished experience, with more content.

"Google's strategy to design a VR experience optimized for existing content libraries like those available from Netflix, Hulu and HBO, while also partnering to create immersive VR experiences, gives consumers plenty of ways to immediately enjoy a range of VR experiences," IBB's Wang said.

The $79/£69 View, available in November, is meant to serve as a road map for other companies looking to build their own smartphone-powered VR headsets. Companies such as Samsung and Alcatel OneTouch have already built their own units, but those devices typically only work with the company's own phones. Daydream View takes an open approach, letting you use any Android phone that's compatible with the Daydream platform. Naturally, the first Daydream-ready phone is the Pixel.

Google is hoping history repeats itself and that it sets the pace in the new areas of VR and AI. We'll see.

Update, 12:41 p.m. PT: To include a comment from a consultant.