Google's Pixel is a superphone built to take on iPhone 7
The company opts to go with the Pixel brand instead of Nexus to signify a shift in its phone strategy.
Ben Fox RubinFormer senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Watch this: Hands-on with Google's Pixel and Pixel XL phones
This is the first official Google phone. Sort of.
Google on Tuesday introduced its 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL phones, which represent the first time the company has taken full control of the handset development process. The Pixel will be the first phone built with Google Assistant, the company's new digital butler that helps play music, check traffic, find specific photos and make restaurant reservations, all through simple voice queries.
At a press event in San Francisco, Rick Osterloh, head of Google's newly formed hardware group, told the crowd Google is using devices like Pixel to more seamlessly connect hardware with its software -- a central strategy Apple has used since the company's founding and one Microsoft has adopted with its Surface gadgets.
"Building hardware and software together lets us take full advantage of capabilities like the Google Assistant," Osterloh said. "This is a natural step and we're in it for the long run."
The Pixel name, already used for Google-made tablets and Chromebooks, will replace the company's Nexus phone brand, which Google used since 2010 for handsets developed with a manufacturing partner such as LG and targeted to hard-core Android fans and developers.
The new phones are coming out at a time when Google has been trying to become a bigger name in hardware, using these devices to glean more about its users (so it can sell that information to advertisers) and build up the ecosystem around its main search engine business. The phones, along with the new Google Home smart speaker, should act as conduits to get people to keep pinging Google for more queries, helping it make more money along the way.
The new Pixel phones' specs and higher price tag -- $649 for a base model in the US -- point to Google's intention to make these devices direct rivals to top-tier phones, including the Apple's iPhone 7 and Samsung's Galaxy S7.
But with the Pixel name still an unknown to most customers, Google should have its work cut out for it when it comes to carving out a place at the top of the cutthroat phone market. The search company failed in a prior attempt to go it alone in the phone business, selling off its Motorola handset business in 2014, less than two years after buying it.
Additionally, if Google finds too much success with these phones, it might upset phone makers who use its Android software to run their own devices. Google's decision to sell off the Motorola business helped reduce some friction related to that issue.
"Google's relationship with [device makers] like Samsung has always been complicated, but today's announcements made it even more so," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said. That's especially because Google is coming out with both a phone and new virtual-reality headset -- two product categories led by Samsung.
Google executives touted the Pixel's top-grade camera, which comes with no bump on the back of the device. They pointed to the camera's sharp pictures, quick shutter speed and image stabilization for avoiding shaky videos and shots. Offering up a strong camera will be vital for Google if it intends to take on the new iPhone 7, which Apple heavily promoted for its ability to take crisp photos, even in low lighting.
To get shutterbugs especially interested, Google has made the Pixel available with unlimited photo and video storage at full resolution (Google Photos offers unlimited storage at a lower resolution already). The company added that its new phone also includes a "satisfyingly not new" headphone jack, in a dig at Apple for removing the plug from its new iPhone 7.
Google also came out with a new tool to help iPhone users more easily transfer all their data over to a Pixel phone. (Apple offers a similar tool called "Move to iOS.") And the Pixel is compatible with Google's new Daydream virtual-reality headset.
Preorders for the phone start Tuesday in the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia. The devices start shipping in about two to three weeks, preinstalled with the latest version of Android software, dubbed Nougat. The phones are available with two storage sizes -- 32 gigabytes and 128GB -- and three colors: "quite black," "very silver" and a limited-edition "really blue." Verizon is the exclusive US carrier for the phones, but the Pixels are also available unlocked through Google.