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Opinion: Has Google made a major misstep with the Pixel phone and Pixel XL?

This week sees Google’s first own-brand smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL hit retail. Chris and I each took one away to test out, sharing our opinions on each other’s devices once the time came to assemble our respective reviews, and as you can see, both phones left us pretty impressed.

If you’re not familiar with these new smartphones, Google’s taken the reigns for 2016, moving away from the old formula of its Nexus devices, which were built in publicised partnerships with known manufacturers like LG and Huawei, instead slapping its own name on its latest mobile hardware.

Google Pixel XL behind Google Pixel

As well as being the first phones on the market to boast the latest available build of Android, version 7.1 Nougat, the Pixels are also the debut devices for the Google Assistant; the newest iteration of Google’s Siri/Cortana/Alexa-like competitor, designed to better understand and answer your questions, requests and more.

Anyone who’s used these phones, which right now will likely fall to a relatively small mix of Google employees, journalists and early adopters, will know that the hardware that makes up the Pixel (and the Pixel XL) is excellent.

To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best

The aluminium unibody design, the responsive fingerprint sensor and the exceptional camera technology all place the phone(s) up amongst the top tier of the current flagship crop. But for the Pixels to be a success, for consumers beyond the Nexus fans, the tech-savvy and the actively informed to even consider either phone, they have to beat the likes of Apple and Samsung at their own game. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best; in this instance by releasing a pair of smartphones that equal or outdo the top competition in every aspect, but despite coming close, the Pixel and Pixel XL don’t achieve this.

Taking on Samsung

Unless you’ve been lost in the Himalayas for the past few months, Samsung has been having a tough time of it with its combustible (and now discontinued) Galaxy Note 7 phablet. As part of the extensive damage control the company is placing on the situation, it’s pushed its marketing focus back onto the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge; two other flagships from this year that launched back in March.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL screens macro diagonal

Despite almost seven months with which Google could have analysed and improved upon the standards set by the S7 duo, the Pixels only match these phones in a couple of areas. They look bulky and bland next to the elegant curves and thin waistlines of the S7 phones, the smaller Pixel is stuck (with an admittedly great) but comparatively low-resolution Full HD display, the S7s offer fast charging like the Pixels, but also wireless charging and fast wireless charging, and they both boast far superior water resistance to Google’s IP53-certified handsets.

Being able to decide which pair of phones offers better picture quality is also arguably a matter of personal preference at this level, as technically speaking they both appear to be at the top of their game. But the S7’s additional functionality, including manual control out-the-box, might render it the better option in the eyes of undecided buyers.

Taking on Apple

There are plenty of technical ways in which the competition between Google’s and Samsung’s phones also overlaps with the new iPhone 7 family, but the pricing of the Pixels presents a wholly different problem for those also considering Apple’s latest smartphones.

Apple has built a name for itself on selling high-end highly priced consumer electronics and whilst you could argue that Google’s handsets expertly replicate the formula of the iPhone in a number of ways, the Pixel brand is a relatively unknown quantity to the average consumer right now.

Ask anyone on the street whether they’d heard of the Apple iPhone and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hadn’t, ask them to tell you what a Google Pixel is and I’d hazard a guess that only the smallest percentage of the general public would even know these phones (or the Chrome OS-powered laptop that bore the name before them) even existed, let alone that they were called Pixels.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL 3/4 view side by side

That’s not to say that Google isn’t clearly aware of this issue, as evident by the billboards and web ads suddenly strewn throughout the world ahead of the phones’ arrival in stores. All that said people are comfortable paying a higher price for Apple products because they’ve been conditioned to do so over the years; the majority of the products that people know Google are responsible for have either been free or competitively priced; including phones like 2013’s Nexus 5.

As much as Google might wish it were true, you can’t buy success or brand loyalty, especially when you’re pushing a completely new name into the market like the Pixel; then again, stranger things have happened in the last month alone. These are interesting times for the mobile industry and the Pixel’s arrival is one of the most thought-provoking offerings so far this year.

Read next: Google Pixel XL vs the best big phones you can buy in 2016

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