Google introduces the Pixel, initially available exclusively through Verizon

As predicted, Google used its highly anticipated media event today to introduce a new smartphone as it stepped up its hardware efforts. Somewhat surprising, though, is the news that Verizon will be the exclusive carrier at launch.

The internet giant unveiled the Pixel and Pixel XL, two new gadgets positioned to compete against the iPhone as well as high-end smartphones from Samsung and other vendors. Both phones are powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor and run Android Nougat 7.1, and are available in three colors with 32 GB or 128 GB.

The Pixel features a 5-inch screen and starts at $650, while the Pixel XL flaunts a 5.5-inch screen and starts at $770. Verizon will start selling the phones Oct. 20 and is taking preorders until then. The operator is also offering a free Daydream, Google’s $80 virtual reality headset, to users who preorder the Pixel.

Google executives didn’t dwell on the phone’s specs, opting instead to tout the phone’s features and functionality. And artificial intelligence took center stage during the entire presentation.

“The next big innovation is going to take place at the intersection of hardware and software, with AI at the center,” said Rick Osterloh, the former Motorola chief Google hired in April to unify its hardware line. “Building (hardware and software) together lets us take full advantage of capabilities like Google Assistant,” Google’s rival to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo.

“We’re building hardware with Google Assistant at its core so you can get things done without worrying about the underlying technology,” Osterloh continued. “Hardware isn’t a new area for Google, but now we’re taking steps to showcase (Google’s offerings) across a family of devices built by us.”

Executives also crowed about the Pixel’s camera, citing a review from DxOMark, which rates smartphone cameras as well as dedicated cameras. DxOMark gave the Pixel’s camera a rating of 89, according to Google, which is the highest rating it’s ever given for a smartphone camera.

Google has never made smartphones a top priority – it never marketed the Nexus line aggressively, for instance – but there are indications the company hopes the Pixel will grab a significant share of the market. Pixel owners will get unlimited cloud storage of their mobile photos and videos, for instance, and a live customer care app is preinstalled in the phone.

Google’s big bet on mobile hardware is a risky one, however. Smartphones produce notoriously thin margins, and Apple and Samsung dominate the high end of the market in the U.S. And while the Pixel will surely receive some promotional benefits from Verizon’s exclusivity, the strategy limits the addressable market for Google in a big way. The upcoming holiday season is likely to be seen as a harbinger for Google’s long-term prospects in the space.

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