Magid: Google Pixel is a high-end phone that gets to know you

While Google has helped design several smartphones under the Nexus brand, it has always done so with partners such as HTC, Huawei or LG, with the manufacturer’s logo on back of the phone along side the word Nexus. But the new Pixel phone is pure Google.

Just like Apple, Google doesn’t own the factories that build the phone — for that the tech firm partnered with HTC — but it designed the Pixel, is marketing it and put only one logo on the back — a “G” for Google.

There are two versions of the Google Pixel. The one with a 5-inch screen starts at $649, and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL starts at $769, putting them at exactly the same price as Apple’s 4.7-inch iPhone 7 and 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus.

The Pixel and the iPhone have more in common than the same price. They’re both premium phones whose hardware comes from the same company behind the operating systems, many of the phones’ most popular apps and — most important — the back-end services that power the phones. Other common features are excellent cameras, good battery life and an overall great “out-of-box experience.” Like the iPhone, the Pixel is easy to set up and pleasant to use.

One noticeable difference between the iPhone and the Pixel is that Google put the fingerprint sensor on the back. For the most part, I find that convenient because it’s easy to touch the sensor with your index finger when you have it in your hand. Another difference between Pixel and both the iPhone and newest Samsung products is Google’s phones aren’t water resistant, which is too bad.

Like the earlier Google phones, Pixel uses a USB-C charging cable, which — like Apple’s lightning cable — doesn’t have a top or a bottom. You can just stick it in the hole and it connects, and it’s also more rugged than the micro-USB connectors on most Android phones.

With the exception of size and battery capacity, both the Pixel and Pixel XL are identical, with a 12.3-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, 4 GB of RAM and either 32 GB or 128 GB of storage. They’re made from anodized aluminum and Gorilla glass.

Google makes a big deal about the phone’s camera, which got the highest rating ever from DxOMark, the self-described “industry standard for camera and lens image quality measurements.” In my real-world tests, the camera performed very well. It doesn’t have that 2x zoom like the new iPhone 7, but it does produce some pretty sharp pictures as camera phones go. It comes with free online storage for full-resolution (not compressed) images and video through Google photos, so you can backup and quickly access your files from your phone or any other connected device.

Battery life is important, and the Pixel XL is doing quite well compared with other phones I’ve used. Google claims seven hours of battery life on a 15-minute charge, but I never take these statistics seriously. I can say that I can typically get through an entire day without a recharge as long as I don’t have GPS or other energy-hogging apps running. But I mostly use GPS when I’m in the car, connected to a power source.

Beyond the nice hardware, the biggest selling point of the Pixel is Google Assistant, which you can launch by holding down the home button or by saying “OK Google.” At its core, Google Assistant is similar to the Google Now feature on all Android phones, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana — all of which allow you to use your voice to ask questions, get directions, play music or launch applications.

But Google Assistant goes a step further by allowing you to carry on conversations. You could say, for example, “OK Google, how far is it to San Francisco” and ask it to recommend a restaurant. You don’t have to repeat San Francisco because, just like a person, it will remember what you’re taking about. After you pick a restaurant, you can say, “Make a reservation,” and it will start a conversation by asking you how many people are in your party and when you want to eat, and will then try to make the reservation via Open Table.

You can also ask Google to tell you about your day and it will give the time, the weather and your appointments for the day.

Google Assistant has a great memory, but it’s not as smart as I’d hoped. I told it my birth date, and if I ask it when I was born it will tell me. But if I ask it “how old am I,” it will say, “I don’t know how old you are.” You’d think it could do the math, but I guess Google didn’t think to program that in.

It’s important to remember that Google is making major investments in artificial intelligence, including its DeepMind project that uses machine learning and neural networks to rapidly expand its knowledge base and ability to work with and adapt to whatever data it can access.

Over time, that research will find its way into Google Assistant and Google devices including its phones and its new Home Assistant, which, like the Amazon Echo, will be standing by in your home to play music, control appliances and answer questions. All of this, of course, assumes that you’re willing to allow Google to collect lots of information about you, which is an important subject for another day.