Google's new Pixel leaves Nexus enthusiasts in the lurch

The Google Nexus is dead, long live the Pixel.

At a press event in San Francisco last week, Google showed off its new Pixel smartphone.

Touted by the company as a phone that provides the best Google experience, the Pixel has been described by Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer in a Bloomberg interview as "the purest form of Google, which is Android plus a whole lot of other stuff like the Assistant, our VR platform and so on".

The Pixel starts at US$649 (S$892) in the United States for the base 5-inch model, which is identical to Apple's pricing for the iPhone 7. Compared with the launch prices of most Nexus devices in the past, this is pricey.

Mr Lockheimer also revealed that Google does not plan to do any more Nexus devices.

As a long-time user of Google Nexus devices, I am sorely disappointed by the axing of the affordable Nexus line. The Nexus devices are far from perfect, but they often hit the sweet spot in price and performance.

Three years ago, my Nexus 5 cost me a relatively affordable $680, despite the fact that I had effectively paid taxes twice on top of shipping charges, by importing it from Japan, as Google does not sell the Nexus devices here.

If you wish to get the Pixel in Singapore, you have to go through similar steps but, this time round, it will be far more expensive for a device that is not supported here.

Google launching Pixel with a big bang - and budget.
Google launching Pixel with a big bang - and budget. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

As a result, I do not see myself upgrading my Nexus 5 to the new Pixel. And judging from the online chatter, I am not the only one that shares this sentiment.

Nexus fans are reeling from the demise of the brand, as well as the premium pricing of the Pixel.

Android enthusiasts at Reddit and XDA Developers are filled with angst and posting topics like "Google Pixel and the five stages of grief". Others discuss cheaper alternatives to the Pixel.

In its favour, the Pixel's rear camera has been rated as the best in the market. The phone also comes with the smart Google Assistant that can answer your queries and accept voice commands. It can even control compatible smart home devices.

But taking a page out of the Apple playbook goes beyond pricing products at premium levels. Unlike its competitors, Google does not have physical stores for consumers to visit and fix their Pixel phones. Google is clearly aware of this and is offering live customer support via chat or call for Pixel owners.

This is in stark contrast with the laidback approach Google took with the Nexus devices. In the past, it would collaborate with existing Android handset makers to release a new Nexus device.

But Google did not market them heavily and rarely reached out to telcos to sell them. Unsurprisingly, the Nexus devices never had much traction beyond the enthusiast community.

It is already different with the Pixel. Google has partnered Verizon in the US to offer the new phone. The company has launched video ads introducing the Pixel. The day after the launch, it splurged on a full-page ad on the front page of USA Today.

Google is just getting started. The company says it is already working on next year's Pixel and I won't be surprised if Google, like Apple, intends to build its own mobile processor in the future.

If Google was a band, the Pixel would be that album considered by fans as the moment it sold out by focusing on the mainstream market.

But the rationale behind launching the Pixel is closer to what Microsoft tried to do with the Surface devices. It is about wresting control back from Android manufacturers who have largely dragged their feet when it comes to updating their handsets with the latest Android software.

After years of seeing the Android platform massacred by hardware makers who care more about selling devices than providing the best user experience, can you blame Google for thinking that it can do a better job?

The Nexus programme was about Google's vision for Android, but the Pixel will showcase Google's vision for smartphones. As for me, I'll be keenly following the Pixel - perhaps the second iteration will be more persuasive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Google's new Pixel leaves Nexus enthusiasts in the lurch'. Print Edition | Subscribe