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Pixel and Pixel XL unveiled: Google's post-Nexus phones come out swinging (hands-on)

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Google decided it's time to bring its phones out of their shadowy niche and duke it out directly with top manufactures such as Samsung and Apple. Welcome to the new Pixel phone era.

With premium features exclusive to Pixel phones and a sales plan that means you might actually find one in a store, the company is showing significantly more ambition than it did with the last six years of Nexus-branded phones.

The 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL are officially called "Pixel, a phone by Google" and have a "G" on the back, signifying how Google designed the phones on its own instead of tweaking another company's product into a Nexus. Google is now the one picking components, providing support and promoting the phones.

So what does that ambition get you?

Unlike last year's mid-range Nexus 5X and premium Nexus 6P, the Pixel phones are both top-shelf models. Google wants you to think of them as rivals to the most prestigious models out there, Apple's iPhones and Samsung Galaxy models. They each have quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processors -- two cores running at 2.15GHz and two at a more battery-efficient 1.6GHz -- with a boost from Qualcomm's Hexagon technology for tasks such as image and audio processing. The phones have OLED screens, 4GB of memory and either 32GB and 128GB of storage space.

Starting at $649 in the US, £599 in the UK and AU$1,079 in Australia, the 32GB Pixel is about the same price as Apple's iPhone 7 and Samsung's Galaxy S7. The 128GB model costs $749, £699 or AU$1,229 and the corresponding Pixel XL models cost $769 and $869, £719 and £819 or AU$1269 and AU$1,419. Preorders begin now, with the phone arriving in stores and online on October 20. There's no expandable storage.

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Below the Pixel phones' "G" logo is one of several accents showing where antennas can harness radio signals.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google went adverb-happy with the colors: "very silver," "quite black" and "really blue." Limited availability means only the US will get the blue version initially. The back of the phone is actually two-tone, with a glossy "glass shade" across the top to make antennas work better and a more ordinary bead-blasted metal finish across the bottom. Like the front display, the glass shade employs Gorilla Glass 4 for scratch resistance.

In the hand, the Pixel's metal-and-glass body definitely feels a step above Google's previous Nexus handsets, with fewer exposed seams. The smooth aluminum makes for a premium, iPhone-like feel, but with chamfered edges that make it a bit less slippery.

The blue is pretty flashy, but looks surprisingly attractive in person.

James Martin/CNET

And while the glass shade might look a little odd, it feels pretty good to the touch, adding a bit of tacky grip. The fingerprint reader also rests neatly under one's index finger, like last year's Nexus smartphones. And I particularly like how Google weighted these phones: they've got some nice solid heft without feeling too heavy like many all-metal phones, or so light (like the Nexus 5X) that they feel hollow.

A few features will help the phones stand out from other models powered by Google's Android software. They'll be the only ones to include Google Assistant, a new beefed-up version of Google's conversational system to control the phone and answer questions -- Google's rival to Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa. It'll also store all photos and video in original resolution for the life of the phone, shuttling older shots to cloud storage if you run out of room. And if you need to call Google's support, a technician will be able to remotely control your phone. Android 7.1 -- the latest version of Nougat -- debuts with the Pixels.

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Fans of the decades-old 3.5 mm audio jack standard will be happy to see one on the Google Pixel phone.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Unlike the iPhone 7, the Pixel phones retain a 3.5 mm headphone jack -- but Pixels come with no headphones, because really, don't you already have some?

There's no camera bump, but the Pixels aren't the thinnest phone around. They're slightly wedge-shaped, tapering from 8.6 mm at the top end to 7.4 mm at the bottom. The Pixel is 69.5 mm wide by 143.8 mm tall (2.73 by 5.66 inches), while the Pixel XL is 75.7 by 154.7 mm (2.98 by 6.09 inches). Screen resolutions are 1,920x1080 at 441 pixels per inch for the Pixel and 2,560x1,440 at 534ppi for the XL.

Based on a brief test, it seems Google has made good on its promise that the main 12-megapixel camera performs much faster than last year's Nexus models -- see CNET's in-depth look at the Pixel camera for more detail. Another useful feature of Android 7.1 is that there's no more long pause when you rotate the phone from portrait to landscape orientation. The company stuck with Sony for the camera's sensor but promises faster autofocus. There's no optical image stabilization like in the iPhone 7 -- nor are there the dual rear cameras of the iPhone 7 Plus -- but Google thinks its fast image processing will do the trick when trying to compensate for your unsteady shooting.

The front-facing camera has an 8-megapixel sensor, and twisting the phone back and forth switches to it from the main camera.

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Stephen Shankland/CNET

The fingerprint reader on the center of the back gets a new trick, too: if you swipe down on it, it shows your notifications even as it unlocks the phone.

The Pixels, like the Nexus models of 2015, use the newer USB Type-C port for data links and charging. When watching video or browsing the internet, battery life should be 13 hours for the Pixel and 14 for the Pixel XL. The batteries can't be removed.

And careful by the pool, because the Pixel phones are only rated to IP53 when it comes to dust and liquid resistance -- good enough to handle a splash and some rain, not a full dunk like the Samsung and Apple flagship phones can.

Google is leaning on HTC to assemble the phone. The Taiwanese manufacturer has a long history with Google, building the first-ever Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 "Dream" that debuted in 2008, and the Nexus One that inaugurated the Nexus line in 2010. Google has also partnered with Samsung, LG Electronics, Motorola and Huawei to build Nexus phones.

Android partnerships remain. But there's no more pussyfooting around here -- Google is competing directly against Samsung and other partners who use Google's Android software.

Discuss Google Pixel Phone and Google Pixel XL Phone

Quick Specifications See All

  • Service Provider Verizon
  • Diagonal Size 5.0 in
  • Weight 5.04 oz
  • Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, digital compass, barometer, magnetometer, gyro sensor, hall sensor, advanced x-axis haptics sensor
  • Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
  • Additional Features Adaptive audio amplifier
    Android Sensor Hub
    Wireless Emergency Alerts function
    Google Caller ID
    HD Voice
    Knock Knock function
    MIMO technology
    Quick Switch function
    RGB LED notification light
    Three microphones with noise-cancellation
    Wi-Fi Calling
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