Google Pixel history: the evolution of "Google Phones"

Google Pixel history: the evolution of "Google Phones"
Google Pixel phones have not always been around. It all started with the Nexus series of phones for Google way back in 2010, but after years of making merely good phones that were sold in very limited quantities, Google decided to build a truly great, premium phone that would bring a no-compromise camera and the clean Android experience that many were dreaming of.

This is the history of the evolution of the Google Pixel series of phones, starting with the very first Pixel launched in October of 2016 that surprised us with its amazing camera system and going to the latest models.

We describe concisely the most important moment in the history of the Pixel, the landmark moments such as the arrival of the Night Sight mode that changed the way we capture images at night. So let's waste no time and get started with...

Google Pixel phones history:



Google Pixel and Pixel XL

October 2016
Codenames: Sailfish and Marlin



Google killed the Nexus program in 2016 and replaced it with a brand new type of Google phones: the Pixel.

The Pixel is a more ambitious project than the Nexus: Google claims it wants to sell the phones to the masses and not just to limited amounts of developers and enthusiasts, and Pixel phones are now premium products with a premium, flagship price.

While the Pixel retains the clean Android interface with the promise for quick updates just like the Nexus did (a rarity in the Android ecosystem), its killer feature is an amazing camera that is among the best of any smartphone. Google came out of nowhere with a camera that relies heavily on software to come up with photos with an incredible dynamic range and great ability to capture images in nearly complete darkness.

The Pixel was also the first phone to come with the powerful Google Assistant. Not only this, Google has carefully optimized Android on the Pixel and it runs smoother than on any other device that we have tested as well. All of these features combined, make the Pixel something special and long-lasting.

Major new features: Split-screen multitasking, Bundled notifications, JIT compilation

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2

October 2017
Codenames: Walleye and Muskie



The second-generation Pixel phones bring a couple of important changes: a brighter screen (this fixes the biggest issue the original Pixel had), a better camera and dual front speakers for more immersive sound experience.

Strangely, however,, just a year after the original Pixel which Google proudly advertized to be versatile with support for the headphone jack, it has removed the 3.5mm headphone jack on the Pixel 2 series.

Apart from that, the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL continued the legacy of clean software coupled with the most powerful chip on the market, the Snapdragon 835 at the time. They also came with the offer for free full-size image backups to Google Photos for 2 years.

Major new features: System improvements and battery tweaks, Quick settings & status bar, Improved iconography, Supercharged notifications

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

October 2018


By 2018, Google had already built a reputation for leading smartphones in terms of camera performance and it doubled down on that with the launch of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL where the killer new camera feature was Night Sight. Using software and combining multiple images in low light, Night Sight allowed users to take photos in pitch black conditions without using the harsh looking LED flash, so you could easily snap a picture of a bar at night or your dinner plate in a dimly lit restaurant.

On the design front, the Pixel 3 series were behind the pack, however: the Pixel 3 came with big bezels while other phones had already switched to a nearly bezel-less screen experience, and the Pixel 3 XL featured a gigantic notch that was the subject of ridicule on the web.

On the software front, Google innovated with important features for the US market like call screening that would ward off telemarketers. The Pixel 3 series also were the first to bring a robust, IP68 water and dust protection rating, a useful feature.

Major new features: Digital Wellbeing to monitor your phone use, Adaptive Battery and improved Auto Brightness

Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL

May 2019


In May of 2019, Google surprised the world with the announcement of not just a new kind of Pixel phone, but a new kind of budget phone, full stop. The Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL were priced at just $400, less than half the price of flagship phones, yet offered a comparable or even better camera experience, basically identical to the Pixel 3 series.

There were to compromises made to achieve such a revolutionary budget phone: one was rather insignificant and that was that these phones were made of plastic instead of the more premium glass and metal designs seen amongst more expensive devices, and the second one was a slower processor than on flagships. The slower processor, however, was not a dealbreaker because of the optimizations that Google made to the interface so performance still felt smooth.

These phones got a clean Android experience, the promise for years of timely software updates and all of these factors combined so that many people pointed to the Pixel 3a series as the future for the Pixel series.

Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL

October 2019


In late 2019, Google launched the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, two flagship phones at premium prices that further improved the camera performance by introducing a secondary camera, a telephoto lens. Another important new feature was a new type of AMOLED screen that refreshed 90 times a second and contributed to a smoother, faster overall experience. Also, without advertizing it much, Google brought hugely improved speakers that were the best in the class by a noticeable margin.

However, Google made a couple of critical mistakes with the Pixel 4 series: the smaller Pixel 4 model had a surprisingly small battery that would not even last a full day, a decision that drew the ire of reviewers, and then, both phones focused on gimmicky features with little practical application like a radar system for gesture based navigation.

The high prices of the phones and the problems with battery life resulted in lukewarm reviews.

Major new features: Improved gesture navigation, Dark Mode, Live Captions, etc

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21 Comments

42. tokuzumi

Posts: 2026; Member since: Aug 27, 2009

Loved my 2016 Pixel. Only reason I'm not using it today is because of the release sale Google had with the 3a (bought it refurbished just before a London trip in late 2018). Google offered great trade in values for old iPhones which made getting a new 3a very attractive.

26. pimpin83z

Posts: 641; Member since: Feb 08, 2019

I love how comments are enabled on the history of this phone but not the Samsung Galaxy Note evolution: Here's how it has changed over the years article. Probably because PA didn't want to hear about their excuse to always bring up the Note 7. SMH.

27. bucknassty

Posts: 1419; Member since: Mar 24, 2017

They always want to bring up the note 7. Only reason they write articles sometimes

25. chenski

Posts: 796; Member since: Mar 22, 2015

So how come comments are allowed on this article but disabled on the note series history article

31. Victor.H

Posts: 1115; Member since: May 27, 2011

Some authors would disable the comments for articles that are updated over time since you will see many comments from a couple of years ago that might not make much sense now.

32. Alcyone

Posts: 650; Member since: May 10, 2018

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the article he's referring to was just written. Its no more than a wk old, how would "years" of comments be possible? Different aurthors? Really? Journalistic ethics should not be relative. Seems biased to me.

36. pimpin83z

Posts: 641; Member since: Feb 08, 2019

No, dude. It's because Phone Arena brings up the Note 7 issue more frequently than when tax season comes around & you all don't like to hear about it. I've said it every year since 2016 & it still continues. And guess what? PA's gonna bring it up again in 6 months when the next Note is out. THAT'S why the comments were disabled on the Note article.

8. smallworld

Posts: 535; Member since: Jul 13, 2012

Pixel phones have been underwhelming but overrated by reviewers since the first one to the last. Bad battery life, bad design, gimmicky features, no fingerprint scanner.. All they got going for them is the camera cause the Google support isn't even on par with Apple. A shame. Finally they're terribly overpriced. At first it looked like Google wasn't even tying to sell them but now they're trying. The Pixel 4 had heavy promotion but it still flopped. Why? Cause it's not a desirable phone.

12. vincelongman

Posts: 5832; Member since: Feb 10, 2013

Apple support is underwhelming compared to Google's The OG Pixel received the Night Sight update Meanwhile the newer iPhone X didn't receive either Smart HDR or Night Mode or Deep Fusion updates

13. sgodsell

Posts: 7673; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

All Pixels, except the Pixel 4 have fingerprint scanners. Plus the pixels used their fingerprint sensor for more than authentications. You could swipe through your notifications, bring down the status bar, and more. Victor forgot a few critical things the the original Pixel brought to the table. Like Android 7 introduced Vulkan graphics. Added APIs to use for AI. The original Pixel was the first to use the SD 821, and Daydream VR support with support for 3 dof controller, as a standard. Years later Facebook came out with the Oculus Go, and that headset has the same SD 821, and roughly the same 3 dof controller.

15. sgodsell

Posts: 7673; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Pixel 2 brought the new AI chip called the Pixel Visual core, and a security chip. It could listen to music, and tell you the name of the song without asking it for the name of the song. The Pixel 3 improved the security chip with s new Titan M security chip. The Pixel 4 replaced the Pixel Visual core with the new Pixel Neural Core.

5. droidboy

Posts: 75; Member since: Nov 25, 2012

I was an android user for years. Because of my job and lack of signal in the building I got an iphone, since Imessage only needs wifi. Iphone for about a year. Then picked up the pixel 3a to see if I liked it. Turns out I did. Once I payed my OVERPRICED iphone off, I got a pixel 4. Its a great phone. But honestly I could have stuck with my 3a. May end up getting a 4a at some point. I know a lot of people don't like the pixel. But my 3a is by far my favorite android phone of all time.

6. Venom

Posts: 4109; Member since: Dec 14, 2017

I agree. The Pixel 3A XL is the best phone ever imo. I still have mine as my daily driver.

7. Fred3

Posts: 622; Member since: Jan 16, 2018

I think they should have called those the Nexus

11. Vancetastic

Posts: 1965; Member since: May 17, 2017

I did much the same thing...sold an iPhone X and bought a 3a. It's been great so far. Better as an actual phone than the iPhone, too.

30. meanestgenius

Posts: 23075; Member since: May 28, 2014

Since T-Mobile has lowered the flagship Pixel 4 series closer to what they should have been priced at launch, I've actually been considering picking one up to give it a go. Your experience with the Pixel 3A being better than the iPhone X for you has me intrigued, although I haven't had a better experience with my Pixel 3A XL than I have with my iPhone 11 Pro Max. I'm thinking I need to be comparing flagship experience vs flagship experience. But I'm skeptical because of the issues that have been so prevalent with the flagship Pixels (more so than the mid-range Pixels), but I really want to compare the Pixel 4 XL to my iPhone 11 Pro Max for myself, as opposed to reading about it online. I also really want to give flagship Pixels a chance, as I am a huge Stock Android fan (HMD's Nokia branded smartphones have provided the best Stock Android experience for me so far), but I need Google to get it together with the issues. But if the Pixel 4XL turns out to be better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, I'll sell it and keep the 4XL.

43. Venom

Posts: 4109; Member since: Dec 14, 2017

I agree. I had an old iPhone sitting around that I sold to get my Pixel 3A xl. Well worth it and has been a better experience than using an iPhone and not a fake exaggerated experience. I had my eye on the newer iPhone but I don't see anything compelling about them especially the overpriced XS Max and the X Pro or whatever ridiculous name Apple is calling them.

44. meanestgenius

Posts: 23075; Member since: May 28, 2014

XS Max isn’t part of the new iPhones. The new iPhones don’t have the “X” in their name. You’re welcome. And yeah, my iPhone 11 Pro Max offers a far better experience than the Pixel 3A XL. No need to fake about that, lol.

3. thxultra

Posts: 490; Member since: Oct 16, 2014

Google always does some great stuff with the software on Pixel Phones. Really liked my pixel 4xl and google packed some great software features in the phone. The camera was great and the built in assistant features. I really like the call screening function also. I do think they are over priced though if you pay full price. Phone should cost $500 like T-Mobile is charging now. It is a great phone for that price.

2. KParks23

Posts: 750; Member since: Oct 13, 2010

The history of pixel.. great, great, trash, trash.. too be Continued! Lol

1. Nutcase4u2

Posts: 56; Member since: Oct 15, 2015

I truly loved my Pixel 1, 2XL, 3XL, and 3a/3aXL. Camera and software keep me coming back to try them out again and again, but for the last few months the OnePlus 7 Pro has held my heart. I wanted to love the Pixel 4XL but couldn't convince myself to pull the trigger on it. That forehead is SO big. Or maybe I'm just spoiled by the notchless 7 Pro?

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