Whether you were impressed at what was shown at the Google Pixel launch event or not, there was surely a thing or two shown by the Google Hardware team you really liked. While they were focused on showing what the Pixel phones can do, there wasn't much talk about what was part of Android 7.1 and what was specific to the Pixel phones themselves.
Other than a mention, not much detail about Android 7.1 was made available at the event. We expect to see the new branch in the source code tree and all the developer documentation soon, and until then we can't know the full list of changes or features. But we do know several things shown that are specific for the Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as a few of the features that are part of the new Android version.
What makes a Pixel a Pixel
Let's start with what is going to be a feature of the phones themselves. The one that is quickly noticeable is the launcher. The opaque shelf and round folders (as well as the wallpaper picker) are not part of Android and remain a Google application. There was no word on whether the launcher would be made available for other phones through Google Play or if it will replace the current Google Now Launcher. Off the record, I'm hearing yes it will be available, and no it won't replace the current app. This makes sense because of Google Assistant.
The Pixel's features come from various sources — the hardware, the newest version of Android, and some just because the Pixel is Google's baby.
As of today, the Pixel and Pixel XL are the only phones that can use Google Assistant outside of the Allo app. If you want to use Google Now on Tap (if that even remains as an option) and use Google's launcher you can stick with the existing Google Now Launcher. Replacing it in a way that works differently with different models seems counter-intuitive, and the backlash over round icons because of a forced change would be valid. I just hope the dynamic Calendar app icon finds its way to phones not using the Pixel-style launcher.
The next Pixel feature is Google's 24-hour tech support service. If you buy a Pixel or Pixel XL, you can call or chat with a trained representative right from the device settings. There is even an option for remote administration, and I've been assured that enabling this feature is optional. This is similar to what Samsung and Motorola (as well as other manufacturers) have been doing for a while. Samsung and Moto also offer a way to easily migrate from another brand to their offerings, as does the Pixel with its Quick Switch feature (and dongle).
Another feature getting a lot of attention is the unlimited full-resolution photo and video backup. If you use a Pixel phone, you have unlimited storage through Google for an online backup of every photo and video you take with your phone — and they aren't downsized or compressed in any way. Even full-length 4K videos. The Smart Storage option will offload images and videos from the phone's storage to your personal cloud automatically when your phone's storage starts to get full. Anyone who is using a Nextbit Robin will tell you that this is pretty great if you take a lot of pictures and videos.
Taking 4K video with your phone is great. Having free storage for the ones you end up keeping is awesome.
Finally, there are a few cosmetic differences — things like blue accents and custom navigation bar icons — that are part of the Pixel and not part of Android 7.1.
There are also a few features that are part of the Snapdragon 821 and not the next version of Android. Support for the EVS codec through the X12 LTE modem will mean excellent voice quality for VoLTE calls. The new Aqstic audio codec enables 192kHz/24bit audio playback through the Pixel's headphones. Improvements to the Spectra ISP in the Snapdragon chipset are a big part of the excellent camera. These are features any vendor using the Snapdragon 821 will be able to incorporate.
Android 7.1 brings its own list
As of this writing, Google says that "Nougat-ready" devices will be updated to Android 7.1. There will also be a 7.1 developer preview program sometime in Q4 2016. We're not about to read too much into that, and hopefully on a day not about the Pixel we'll get some details. But we do know that some of the features showcased during the Pixel event are part of the next version of Android, as well as some others we didn't get to see.
Daydream VR got a lot of attention. What we didn't get are a lot of answers about other phones being able to use it.
The biggest thing here is Daydream VR support. Everything we saw and heard about VR on the Pixel and Pixel XL is because they run Android 7.1. Any phone updating will be able to incorporate the same features. Google tells us that new phones supporting Daydream are coming, but we have no word on any existing phones getting certified. We know that the Nexus 6P is able to be a Daydream targeted device right now, with the caveat that the experience is less than optimal and there is no certification, so the hardware requirements put plenty of other phones in the running, but software is the big unknown.
Fingerprint gestures — things like swiping down on the sensor to open the notification tray — are part of Android 7.1. Google's Night Light feature — a blue light filter, is coming with 7.1 as are improvements for screen sensitivity and display refresh — the latter being pretty important for Daydream.
Another feature talked about is Seamless Updates. We know that any phone built to run Android 7 or higher can use them, but we also know that unless the device storage is partitioned with Seamless Updates in mind, it can't be used. Google did make a big deal of it during the launch event, so it's worth mentioning that the feature is available for everyone.
We still expect plenty of API changes and other features aimed at developers, of course. When we get those full details and the documentation, we'll talk more about it. For now, we'll have to be content sparring with each other over the Pixel's features and price.
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