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New Statesman Tech’s first glance at the Google Pixel phone

Google has unveiled its top-end Pixel phone, to the delight of many and to the consternation of others. Some people aren’t sure of the future of the company’s existing Nexus range. Meanwhile Google is trumpeting the Pixel as the first phone it’s made completely, inside and out. I’ve been having a play with one, the XL version with 32 gigabytes.

First, the big headline for Google: nobody actually cares who makes the phone. The fact that, say, Apple outsources the physical putting-together of its handsets hasn’t hit sales at all. The big question is going to be whether it’s any good; the subsidiary question will be whether it justifies the hefty £719 for the 32 GB version and £818 for the 128GB edition (prices will no doubt be discounted and spread across the life of a contract so few people will feel as though they are actually paying this much).

Pixel phone is pure Android

The price suggests that Google is pitching this phone into the high end of the market. It will compete directly with the iPhone 7, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and other “luxury” offerings. It certainly looks and feels solid enough to hold its own, but the big secret here is – whisper this – mostly they look the same. The release notes say it’s “Made to look good in your hands” – it’s a black obelisk on which the screen is the main feature, just like all the others. It’s a good, high resolution screen, but few phones actually look all that different.

Where it scores above a lot of the competition is in the sound quality from the speakers. Home and leisure customers will find their music playing loudly and well. Video conferencers for business should find both visual and audio clarity are as good as the equipment at the other end can make them. Video conferencing is easier than before with Google Duo, which allows you to make one-tap video calls, although the other person has to be using Duo as well.

The extra functions and the better camera are useful, if your business needs visuals, the camera is good for low light pictures and lens blur allows for some depth, so that an extremely nearby subject is in focus and the background blurs out. It’s not as comprehensive as a DSLR but it will be adequate for a large number of business users.

The real advantage of the phone to the corporate market, however, will be to the beleaguered IT department. Faced with an increasing onslaught of extra apps and tweaks to a lot of Android phones and the need to support them as users want to carry their own device rather than the company phone, it’s a great thing to have a phone with only Google’s apps; no extra email app or browser as you’d get from some of the manufacturers. This will make the job easier.

The other pleasant surprise is the speed at which the phone charges. Seven hours of battery life from a 15 minute charge? I don’t mind if I do.

There are disadvantages too; Google has joined Samsung and Apple in not trusting the customer to carry a spare battery, opting to sell the phone as a sealed unit. Also, the 32 GB phone works well but if my requirements changed and I wanted extra storage for when I wasn’t near an Internet connection, that’s tough. Unlike, say, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, there is no expansion slot for a memory card.

Google’s market opportunity

The balance of the above, as well as a more responsive Google Assistant than I’ve found on other phones (I speak to this one and it works; I speak to my other phone, wait, start typing the question in and watch my family fall about laughing) and fingerprint recognition that works from where I’m likely to have my finger when I’m holding it, point to a usable and decent enough phone.

The big opportunity for Google, however, has come from outside its own development. It couldn’t have suspected the rough press that Samsung would be facing over its Galaxy Note misfortunes at around the time of the launch. Samsung is likely to get over this as the rest of its range is solid. However, in the shorter term, buyers might well be looking for an alternative top-end Android phone. Google coming out with something this likeable and easy to use at the same time is just about the jammiest stroke of luck in the history of marketing.

Is the phone worth the premium cost? It’s a good phone, certainly, although it works like any other Android handset. If your business finds photography important then perhaps it’s worth the money, although most individuals and companies on budgets can get more phone for their money elsewhere. Its success may well depend on how the market reacts to the competition’s trouble.