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First Look: (Fantastic) Google Pixel and Daydream View VR

Google made a push to be taken seriously as a hardware brand (Pixel Phone), but its software and services still take top billing

Google officially staked its claim as a bona fide hardware brand Tuesday with the launch of the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones, the Daydream View virtual-reality headset and a bevy of other accessories for a more (Google-)connected life. So, at first look, how did the company do?

Pixel Phones

Google is taking shots at Amazon, Apple and Samsung with its new line up of hardware products announced Tuesday.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are essentially the same phone, and they look a lot like iPhones—or at least like the iPhone look-alike made by Google’s Pixel-manufacturing partner HTC Corp.

The 5-inch and 5.5-inch displays look great, even when held close to your face as the visual element of the Daydream View headset. Displays are one of the few areas where the two phones differ. The Pixel has a 1,920 x 1,080 display, and the Pixel XL has a higher-resolution 2,560 x 1,440 display. (If you’re buying one of these to use with the VR headset, note that the larger one has greater pixel density. This isn’t the case with the two Samsung Galaxy S7 models, for instance.)

Both phones have aluminum and glass backs and a fingerprint sensor just below the rear camera. Google didn’t make any promises about how long the Pixel’s battery will last, but it did say 15 minutes of charging will give either model about seven hours of battery life thanks to fast-charging technology. Google is using this speed as justification for why it left out wireless charging from both models—a feature found in Nexus phones as far back as 2012.

One hardware element that is clearly missing is some kind of water-resistance. Now that Apple and Samsung both have it in their flagship phones, it is a surprising omission from the two Pixels. There also is no MicroSD slot, to expand memory on the cheap. (Like the iPhone 7, the smaller Pixel starts at $650 for 32GB, but it costs $100 more to get to 128GB.)

Google is bragging about the 12.3-megapixel camera, however—going so far as to say it’ll be the best smartphone camera you can buy. But we’ll have to test its performance, which wasn’t possible Tuesday.

The Google Pixel runs a special version of Android that isn’t available on other phones yet.

pixel
The Google Pixel runs a special version of Android that isn’t available on other phones yet. PHOTO: GEOFFREY FOWLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

What was ready for a tryout was Google’s latest Android software, appearing first in the Pixel phones. The star is Google Assistant, available with a long press of the on-screen home button. Ask it the usual questions and you get reliable answers, but it goes deeper: “Show me Kanye West’s Twitter page” automatically opened the rapper’s profile in the Twitter app. If you have an upcoming flight, for instance, it can remind you when to leave for the airport.

Because the Assistant is baked into Android, it even can scan what you’re looking at on screen and predict what action you’d like to take next, like its predecessor, Google Now on Tap.
Google changed the look of Android on the Pixel: giving every app a circular icon, replacing the search bar found atop the home screen with a “G” button and adding a frosted-glass-looking tray for the apps pinned to the bottom of the phone’s home screen—yet another possibly iPhone-inspired design choice.

Another Pixel-specific software tweak: Every photo and video you shoot on a Pixel phone automatically will be uploaded to the cloud via the Google Photos app, in full resolution.

Pixel Daydream
Google’s Daydream View headset is made of soft fabric and comes with a motion-sensing controller. PHOTO: GEOFFREY FOWLER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Daydream View VR Headset

The Pixel and Pixel XL are the first two phones to serve as both the brains and display of Google’s $79 Daydream View. Made of lightweight plastic and a soft, pliable fabric, it is a significant step up from the flimsy Cardboard phone holder.

So far, there are only a handful of VR games and 360-degree experiences, but Google said more than 50 will be available by the end of the year.

Putting it on, the first thing you see is a floating menu of tiled options. I watched a 360-degree YouTube video of an aquatic dinosaur swimming through a museum and played a racing game where I used the Daydream’s small motion controller, about the size of a car’s key fob, to move virtual objects so characters clumsily could cross the finish line.

Still, with only a strap around the back of your head, and no support on top, the Daydream View felt like it could slide off, especially if you whipped your head too quickly.

Google said a handful of major phone makers have committed to deliver Daydream-compatible phones by the end of the year and those phones will work with Daydream View as well.

After spending a half-hour with the Pixel, Pixel XL and Daydream View, one thing is clear: While Google is taking more control over its consumer hardware, the company is still more squarely focused on software and services.

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