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Google's Pixel phones: 7 essential technical upgrades we want to see

Jason Cross | Sept. 22, 2016
It looks like "Nexus" is out, and "Pixel" is in. This is what we hope to see as Google updates its flagship phones.

Google will, if the persistent rumors are true, forego releasing “Nexus” phones this year in favor of a pair of phones under the “Pixel” banner. Is this just a re-branding, or are there material differences between the two product lineages?

Well, the Nexus heritage is based on affordable hardware that runs stock Android—phones that have always been aimed at developers and enthusiasts. The Pixel brand, whether it’s the Chromebook Pixel or the Pixel C Android tablet, is more aspirational. The Pixel hardware is higher-priced and higher-quality, and brings unique features to bear. Beyond that, the Pixel devices not only compete with high-end hardware from other manufacturers, but also point the way forward for those companies. They show “what can be done” if you pull out all the stops.

Google’s got a big event on October 4 where it’s expected to announce (among other things) a pair of phones: the 5-inch Pixel and 5.5-inch Pixel XL. We don’t really know all that much about the phones, as the presumptive specs are rather vague. They’re also what we would expect to see in any high-end phone: high-end processors, high-res AMOLED displays, and fingerprint sensors on the back.

It’s what we don’t know that interests us. So when October rolls around and Sundar Pichai gets on stage, these are the marquee features we’d like him to announce.

A much better camera

The photos delivered by the 12-megapixel camera on the Nexus 6P and 5X are really quite good. They’ve got a decent aperture at f/2.0, though we’d prefer the new cameras improve to f/1.8. The sensor is about as large as you ever see in a phone. It performs well in low light. The shots it takes are, honestly, not bad at all. The burst mode works well. Slo-mo video on the Nexus 6P is on point.

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The Nexus 6P takes great photos, but the camera is slow and not flexible enough.

But Google’s camera still needs a lot of work. Let’s start with performance. The camera app launches way too slowly. Other manufacturers cut camera launch times by keeping most of their camera app in memory all the time, simply waiting to be “woken up” when you launch the app. With 3GB or 4GB of RAM, Google can easily afford this strategy.

The app is slow in other ways, too. With HDR+ enabled (or in the default auto mode), you don’t see HDR results live on screen as you do with the best Android phones. After taking the shot, there’s a long processing delay before the HDR image is ready. The best Android cameras take HDR shots instantly, with no delay. What’s more, shot-to-shot latency on the Nexus phones is terrible. Shutter lag is really poor, too. You hit the shutter and the photo captures half a second later—or longer if it has to hunt for focus.

 

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