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Pixel 2 really is the mythic Google Phone

The search giant wants you to buy its new phone. The pitch? The Pixel aims to be good at everything Google's good at.

Google's Pixel 2

The Pixel 2 highlights Google's popular services, like Google Translate. 

James Martin/CNET

Ever since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone a decade ago, gadget lovers, the press and industry watchers have waited for Google to make its move. The battle became the stuff of tech lore, akin to the rivalries of the ages: Coke versus Pepsi, Magic versus Bird, Yankees versus Red Sox.

So when Google finally released its first branded, flagship phone last year, it fulfilled the fantasies of tech bloggers everywhere. Except the device wasn't called the Google Phone, and at first the name left many people dumbfounded. CEO Sundar Pichai and his team instead went with Pixel, an unproven brand known mostly to a small niche of Google fans.

But make no mistake: With generation two of its Pixel phone line, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, Google really wants to deliver the Google Phone. And by that I mean Google wants you to buy this sleek, shiny phone, on presale now, because it's designed to do something even Apple and its Jesus phone can't: tap into everything Google does well.

"Smartphones might be reaching parity in terms of specs," Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware chief, said Wednesday during a presentation in San Francisco. So, he said, Google is focused on integrating its software and artificial intelligence tech into the hardware. "It all starts from reimagining hardware from the inside out."

Wednesday's presentation also saw the introduction of several other devices, including a $250 standalone camera called the Google Clips and a $400 premium version of its smart speaker, called the Google Home Max.

Now Playing: Watch this: Google's parade of new products
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But Google, at its heart, is in the software business. It's world famous for its iconic search engine. People rely on it every day for Google Maps. YouTube, which Google owns, is the largest video site on the planet. Seven of its products, including the three just mentioned, boast more than a billion users. The others are Android, its mobile operating system; Google Play, its marketplace for apps and entertainment; Chrome, its web browser; and Gmail, its web-based mail service.

The new Pixel phones -- the Pixel 2, priced starting at $650, and the Pixel 2 XL, starting at $850 -- try to tap into Google's 19 years in the search business. The most intriguing tie-in doesn't even have to do with the phones themselves. On Tuesday, Google introduced Pixel Buds, a $160 set of wireless (Bluetooth) earbuds with touch and voice controls. They work with any phone.

Though they'll inevitably draw comparisons to Apple's equally priced AirPods for the iPhone, the Pixel Buds offer one feature that's exclusive to the Pixel phone: a real-time translation mode that works with Google Translate. Tap the side of the right earbud to trigger the voice controls, say "Help me speak French" -- or any of the 40 other supported languages, including Greek, Swahili and Vietnamese -- and then speak a phrase you want to be translated. The translated sentence comes out of the Pixel's speaker. When the person replies in French, the English translation is piped directly into your ears.  

It's a neat feature. I tried it last week at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, with simple phrases like, "How are you doing today?" I used it only very briefly, but it worked well enough. The feature isn't earth-shattering; earbuds from a company called Waverly Labs promise something similar.

But the translation feature highlights the sorts of things Google can do to try to make its phone stand out, using machine learning and all the data it's collected from billions of users over time.

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The Pixel 2 is the first phone to get Google Lens. 

James Martin/CNET

The stakes are high for Google and Pichai. If you've been following the news around smartphones this year, you know there are lots of choices. Apple last month introduced the 10th anniversary edition of the iPhone, called the iPhone X (as in 10), which will offer facial recognition tech and an edge-to-edge screen. Then there's the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, the follow-up to last year's phone (and its exploding battery), which boasts a huge display and a dual lens camera. Together, Apple and Samsung control almost 40 percent of the smartphone market worldwide, according to research firm IDC.

So for you to buy something else, Google needs to make a pretty compelling pitch.

"Every company needs to ask, how can you really distinguish yourself?" said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst with Technalysis Research. For O'Donnell, nothing really stood out about the Pixel 2's hardware, but "the services piece is what really lights it up." 

'These products are from Google'

There are other features exclusive to the Pixel, too. Google Lens, which the tech giant showed off in May during its I/O developer conference, is Google's attempt at visual search. Take a photo of a book with your phone and you'll get information on the author and see reviews. Eventually, you'll be able to point the phone's camera at a restaurant and see reviews and pricing information on a little digital card that pops up on the screen.

The service is coming exclusively to the Pixel phone, for now. Google says it will be offered on other Android phones as well.

"Google Lens is kind of the future of what a smart camera can do," Brian Rakowski, Google vice president of product management, said during a briefing earlier this week.

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The Pixel line is the only Google-branded phone. 

James Martin/CNET

Another Pixel-only feature is called Now Playing. It's an opt-in service that automatically detects what music is playing in the environment, and tells you the name of the song and artist. The information comes from a Google-generated database. It's like Shazam but happens automatically. Again, not groundbreaking, but a nice touch.

Up until last year, the closest things we had to a Google Phone were devices from the company's Nexus line. Those were phones that ran "stock" Android, unburdened by the extra apps and skins that wireless carriers and manufacturers usually add. But they were still made and branded by hardware manufacturers like LG and HTC. Google ditched the Nexus line last year when it introduced the first Pixel phone.

With Pixel, Google took the hardware design in-house, just as Apple does with the iPhone. And it's bought itself some help. Last month, Google announced a $1.1 billion deal with HTC to bring 2,000 HTC engineers, most of them already working on the Pixel, to Google.

There have been reports that while Google partnered with HTC to build the Pixel 2, it worked with LG on the Pixel 2 XL. Asked about the LG rumors last week, Mario Queiroz, Google's general manager and vice president of phones, wouldn't acknowledge the company as a partner.

Instead, he doubled down on the point that these phones were designed in-house. "These products are from Google," Queiroz said.

Put another way: The Pixel is the Google Phone.

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