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October 19, 2016

Google Pixel exclusive features explored: A cut above the rest of Android?

by John_A

Google’s phones have always been dependable for one thing: giving you the best of Android. With the launch of the Pixel and Pixel XL, Google has shifted the goalposts slightly, so that might not be the case anymore.

The Nexus devices aren’t Google phones, not in the same way that the Pixels are. The Pixels are designed by Google and made by Google (ish), and they launch with exclusive features that the rest of Android won’t get.

So are these must-have features, or can you live without these Pixel additions?


Pixel Launcher

This is the starting point of any Android handset and in many ways it defines the daily experience. Pixel Launcher is exclusive to the Pixel, but as any Android fan knows, it’s already leaked and we’re sure it will leak again in newer forms for those who want to side load it.

  • How to download Pixel and Pixel XL’s Launcher for Android

Pixel Launcher is an evolution of the Google Now Launcher; Google Now lives a swipe to the right as it did before, but there’s now a Google logo that looks like a pull-tab on the home screen and a new weather and time display.

Then you have the apps tray. This is a swipe from the bottom, rather than a tap on the icon. That also means – compared to many launchers – that you don’t need an “apps” button. That means there’s more space for apps and you can put something in the centre. 

Accessing the apps tray isn’t a huge deal and removing the apps button doesn’t make a huge difference either. Devices like the Samsung Galaxy S7 supported more shortcut or folder positions than stock Android launchers anyway, so it’s not hugely different. 

Could we live without it? We’re pretty sure you’ll be able to sideload it, so it’s a moot point. We’re also sure someone will replicate the app tray and make it an option in other launchers too, and we’re betting that this exclusive feature eventually gets released on Google Play for everyone. 


Google Assistant home button

Part of the launcher experience, however, is the new home button. This was once the access point for Now on Tap and now Google Assistant has taken its place. Google Assistant is an exclusive feature on the Pixel phone (for how long?), so it’s a persistent access point for Google’s new Assistant service. 

This is also a feature that swings into other launchers too. If you move on from Pixel Launcher and use something else, you will find this feature there. That’s what Google means by having it baked to the core. We installed the BlackBerry launcher and found the Google Assistant home button stayed put.

Is that button essential to the experience? As an immediate access point to Assistant, it’s very useful; you can use “Ok Google” to open Google Assistant, but if you’re in a public place and don’t want to start talking to your phone, then this home button becomes an important part of things.


Google Assistant

This is perhaps the biggest single feature that Google is pushing on the Pixels. Google Assistant is an evolution of Google Now and existing “Ok Google” voice control. It’s accessed the same way with voice, or through that home button we just discussed. 

Google Assistant offers a wide range of features and functions. Some of those things already exist, like turning on the torch, opening apps, quizzing your calendar or asking it to play specific music on Spotify.

Google Assistant goes deeper, firstly by remaining contextually aware. For example, you can ask “what is Green Day’s latest album?” and once you have an answer, you can say “play it on Spotify”. So Google Assistant understands contextual pronoun use in this case, making conversational interaction more natural.

  • What is Google Assistant, how does it work, and when can you use it?
  • Google Assistant tips and tricks: Master your Android assistant

There are other things, like knowing the difference between a photo and a selfie and opening up the camera automatically and completing that action, or being able to play a specific programme from Netflix. 

Google’s example is always finding a restaurant and booking a table, but that’s probably not a daily thing you need an Assistant for. But being able to ask Google when you’re flying somewhere, in addition to asking what flights you have is really clever – it understands different ways of asking questions, so it’s not formulaic. 

Then there are clever things like Google Photos interaction and being able to ask to see photos of specific things from your album. Ask to see pictures of your mum and you’ll get mother and baby pictures as it knows what a mother is. Ask to see pictures of your cat, and you’ll get them. 

Google Assistant might be an evolution of existing services, but we suspect with the upcoming launch of Google Home it will rapidly become much more talented. 

So talented, in fact, that we can’t believe it will be a Pixel exclusive for very long. More than anything else, however, if you’re a big voice and Google Now user, Google Assistant will make a big change to the things you can do.

  • What is Google Home, how does it work, and when can you buy it?

Unlimited Google Photos storage

This is an interesting play, as it offsets anxiety about lacking expandable storage, while also making it very easy for Google to be the natural home for all your photos and video. Unlimited storage in Google Drive for photos and video taken on your Pixel, at full resolution.

Currently you can opt to store as many reduced resolution images as you like from any Android phone with Google Photos, but full resolution images are limited by the capacity of your Drive. You can pay for more storage, it really depends how much you want to store from your device.

We’ll never say no to more storage and with Apple now selling expanded iCloud storage to a number of people, we can see the appeal.


Smart storage

Smart storage plays into the same territory as the photo storage above, dealing with anxieties that might arise surrounding space. This is obviously an issue for smartphone users as Nextbit created an entire phone to deal with this. 

Smart storage lives in the Storage section of the settings menu and we haven’t seen it in action, because we’ve not filled our Pixel with data. What it will do, however, is make space by automatically deleting photo and video backups from the devices. As you’ll have them all synced to Google Photos at full resolution, it’s basically using that online storage to manage on-device storage. 

You can specify time limits for this – over 30, 60 or 90 days – so if you want the last few months of photos ready to view and share instantly, you can opt to do so. Thanks to Google Photos giving you access to thumbnails all the time, not having them on the phone’s storage really isn’t a huge deal. 

Smart storage is nice. It might be aimed at Pixel devices, but really Android should be better at handling what you need locally and what you don’t, like Nextbit does.


That calendar icon

As we’ve mentioned things that Android should be doing, let’s talk about the dynamic calendar icon. 

Google Calendar is really good. It displays appointments in a clean fashion, with locations providing maps or images and some categories getting their own graphics too.

But one thing that Google Calendar has always done is show the date as 31. That was just the icon for the calendar. Have you ever noticed that Apple has the actual date on its calendar app icon? Google should have done this a long time ago: it’s like being able to see the sky, it’s should be a basic human right. 

New setup and Apple transfer

So enthusiastic is Google about stealing iPhone owners, it’s bundling the hardware and software in the box to do so. We’ve given you a rundown of the process of setting up your iPhone from your Pixel and it’s very easy. 

Sure, this is being pushed as a Pixel feature, wrapped in a new setup design, but Android users probably won’t worry too much, as you’ve already got an Android phone. Whether the universal transfer from Apple devices becomes part of the setup process generally, who knows. As it is, many manufacturers provide routes for transferring content anyway.

  • Apple iPhone to Google Pixel: How to transfer contacts, messages, calendars and media

The new Pixel Camera

The Pixel offers a great camera and we’ve been very impressed with the performance from it. It has some limitations, like the white balance gets a little confused indoors at times, but generally, it’s very fast and gives some very good results.

There are also some exclusive features in the app. The Android camera app has always been a little basic, it doesn’t lavish features on like Samsung or Sony might. Some of the features that Google has pushed for some time – Photo Sphere, Lens Blur effect – still remain in the Pixel camera, which is basically the same in appearance as it was before.


There’s the addition of slow motion, offering 120 and 240fps options, which can easily be adjusted so only the action parts are in slow motion. There’s also the option for Smartburst that will capture continuously if you hold down the shutter button.

From this, Google will automatically create animations, but also offers you a view of all those photos, with the option to pick and save the best one, which is great for action scenes. 

Both these elements play into the speed of the Pixel camera. It’s hugely fast, from capture to focusing to viewing previews. 

Outside of those, a couple of elements have been added to the app viewfinder. There’s now instant access to a number of grids as well as white balance controls. When you tap to focus/meter, you also get an exposure compensation slider so you can tweak the exposure in your photo before you press capture, making it easier to capture the photo you want.

Finally, you can lock the exposure and focus with a long press (AE/AF lock). This means the camera will stay on those settings as things move in front, giving consistency. It can also be applied to video, so you can put it on a tripod, for example, and film on a desk for example, without the exposure of focus changing and pulsing.

From a software point of view, it’s not hugely different visually, but even if you did have the app on other Android devices, you won’t have the speed, which is really what makes this camera. Those “pro” features make the camera more fun, but again, it’s not as fully featured as many rival camera apps. 

24/7 support

With Google now wanting to design phones, sell phones, do the software for phones and claim “Phone by Google”, it needs to add another string to its bow. Unlike Apple, you can’t just walk into a Google Store in a shopping mall when you have a problem.

The solution on the Pixel is 24/7 support in the form of a new tab in the settings menu. You simply click over to it and you can get phone or chat support, including the option to have Google take a look at your screen and sort out your problem.

Things that all Android 7.1 devices will get

Google claims that all of the above is exclusive to the Pixel.

However there are plenty of features that should arrive on your device when you get Android 7.1. If you’re a Nexus owner, that could be pretty soon.

  • When is Android 7.1 Nougat coming to my phone?

Here’s a rundown of what you will get, and how great it is:


New wallpaper picker

Yes, within the Pixel Launcher you have a new wallpaper picker. Well, guess what. Google has already released this so that anyone can get to it. It’s an app called Wallpaper and it’s on Google Play now.

This gives you plenty of options for picking your wallpaper, with sections for different types and the option to have have it changing wallpaper daily, from a number of categories – earth, landscapes, cityscapes, life and textures.

What you don’t get is the Pixel’s live wallpapers that will give you a little bit of movement when you unlock your phone or return the the home screen, or the live data wallpapers.

Wallpaper won’t change the world, but it does put a little bit of Pixel on any Android phone.

Night Light

Night light changes the colour temperature of your display. It’s something that’s widely offered – even the iPhone has it – and the idea is to reduce the blue light from your display, which has been shown to cause sleep problems.

It’s simple and can be enabled in the display settings in Android 7.1. There’s no option to change the intensity, but we’re happy with it as it is. There’s also the option to have it automatically switch on at sunset.


Moves gestures

Android 7.1 contains a couple of gestures, which it bundles together in a menu section called Moves in the Pixel. The first is an old Android element from Marshmallow, and that’s a double press on the power button to instantly launch the camera.

The second is the swipe on the fingerprint sensor to view the notifications. This is something that works especially well for devices with a rear fingerprint scanner, like the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. It works so well, that Huawei has had it for some time in devices like the Huawei P9 or the Honor phones. We like it, but if you have a front fingerprint scanner (HTC, Samsung), it’s perhaps not going to work as well.

The final gesture is flip camera, which switches between the front and rear cameras with twist of the wrist. We’re not sure if it’s coming to other Android devices and to be honest, we can’t say we’re that bothered about it, as it involves waving your phone around, meaning you’ll probably drop it.


Round icons with app shortcuts

We’re bundling these together. The round icons are super cute, but you’ll notice that on the Pixel they’re only for a selection of Google apps. Chrome has always been round and there’s no shortage of those round icons, like Citymapper.

Android 7.1 will bring support for these circular icons according to Google, although we guess they could just be changed in Google Play.

What’s more important about app icons is the app shortcuts that Android 7.1 offers. This provides shortcuts to functions of that app without opening that app. For example, if you want to send a message, a long press on Messenger opens up options to start a new conversation or continue a recent conversation. 

Similarly, a long press on Google Maps opens the option to navigate to home or to work. It’s a great feature and makes your home page a lot more useful, with less need to open apps to carry out basic functions.

Summing up

There’s a lot that’s offered by Android 7.1 that adds polish to the good work already started by Android 7.0 Nougat. At the moment, the Pixel and Pixel XL enjoy a level of exclusivity that other devices don’t have, with a version of Android that’s not yet been made available to other devices. 

But much refinement will be coming and for many day-to-day app tasks, the update to 7.1 will bring your typical Nexus device into touching distance of the Pixel. As they say, though, the Pixel is more than just the sum of its parts: it’s the whole experience, the speed and smoothness of Android that makes it great.

  • Android 7.0 Nougat review: Subtle but super-sweet OS update

Google Assistant is the elephant in the room. It’s so closely related to the existing functions offered by Ok Google voice integration on Android devices that we can’t believe that Google will deny it to other devices for any great length of time.

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