Several years ago, if someone told you they had an Android phone, then it would have been safe to assume they were not talking about Google’s Pixel. Until recently, “Android” had a much stronger association with hardware from Samsung, OnePlus, Huawei, or even LG when it was still making phones. But that mindset may finally be shifting as the Google Pixel slowly gains more name recognition amongst the Galaxies of the world.
The goal of the Pixel is to bring out the best of Android and invite manufacturers and consumers to see what Google’s operating system could — and perhaps even should — look like. After all, the iPhone’s always been known for its consistent interface and cohesive ecosystem across Apple’s devices, while Android phones have long suffered from fragmentation leading to major differences in how the OS felt across manufacturers.
For Google, its strategy to push out devices that it sees as the perfect form of Android is a feat deserving of recognition, regardless if it’s a runaway success amongst consumers or not. The 2010 Nexus One, for instance, got Apple and Steve Jobs’ attention. And Android as an OS was able to take on the iPhone in a way that Blackberry, Palm, and Microsoft were unable to do. Google learned from some of the best in the industry on how to build phones like the Nexus line by partnering with manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, LG, and Motorola — a company Google owned for a little while.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane and see not only every Pixel phone Google has made but also the phones that lead to it:
The Pixel 6A is the latest phone released by Google and is part of the affordable lineup that normally focuses on having the best available camera. But with the Pixel 6A, Google is instead focusing on performance by including its new Tensor chip. That means the 6A uses last year’s 12MP sensor. The phone is a little smaller than the 6 with a 6.1-inch screen, and it only has a 60Hz refresh rate. There’s no wireless charging, less RAM, and Google removed the headphone jack that came with every A-line phone before it. Like the Pixel 6, the 6A has the new camera bar design and under-display fingerprint sensor, though it’s using plastic instead of glass on the rear. But at $449, $150 cheaper than the Pixel 6, it’s one of the best deals in smartphones right now.
Google went for a total redesign with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro in an effort to bring its phones back to competitive flagship status. It uses premium metal and glass materials, has a distinct new camera bar design, and lets go of the reliable rear fingerprint scanner in favor of a slower under-screen one. The company debuted its custom Tensor chip, which powers AI and Machine Learning on the Pixel 6, and it has new camera sensors for the first time in years. Both have wide and ultrawide cameras, but the Pro has a telephoto and also a wider and better 11MP front-facing camera. They’re huge compared to the 5: the Pixel 6 ($599) has a 90Hz 6.4-inch screen, and the Pro ($899) has a 6.7-inch 120Hz one with curved edges. The Pixel 6 supports Sub-6GHz 5G and mmWave, though the latter is not on the unlocked model. The Pixel 6 Pro has both 5G options no matter what model and also has 12GB of RAM vs the regular 6’s 8GB.
The Pixel 5A did midrange right. For $449, you got a bigger-than-ever 6.3-inch display, excellent battery life, IP67 waterproofing, a headphone jack, 128GB of storage, a metal body, and the same Snapdragon 765G from the Pixel 5. There’s no wireless charging, though, and even though the 5A had 5G, it didn’t have support for mmWave like some 4A 5G models, plus it lacked C-band 5G despite Google admitting the hardware is there. It also came in just one color called “mostly black,” though it looked like a dark green and was complemented by a mint-green power button.
Google released just one version of the flagship Pixel in 2020, and it completely let go of the experimental Project Soli features that the Pixel 4 phones had. Gone was the huge forehead that also had the infrared face unlock feature; now there was just a hole-punch camera and thin bezels all around. The Pixel 5 was announced on the same day as the 4A 5G, but the latter shipped a month later. Both phones shared the same Snapdragon 765G processor and also the really good wide and ultrawide cameras. The Pixel 5 at $649 was $200 more than the 4A 5G, though, but you got IP68 waterproofing, 8GB of RAM compared to 6GB, a premium aluminum design, wireless charging, and a 6-inch 90Hz OLED screen compared to an only slightly bigger 6.2-inch at 60Hz on the 4A 5G.
Pixel 4A and Pixel 4A 5G (2020)
The Pixel 4A was released about two months before the 4A 5G, and the Pixel 5 was released in between the two. The 4A was the most affordable Pixel yet at $349 and came with a sizable 5.8-inch screen with a hole-punched front camera that finally gave the Pixel thinner bezels. You got one camera on the 4A, but like the 3A, it was very good despite lacking an image processor that sped things up between snaps. The 4A 5G had a bigger 6.2-inch screen and included an ultrawide camera that took the place of the Pixel 4’s telephoto. The 5G version was more expensive at $499, but it also had a faster processor and larger battery than the Pixel 4A. Google did save some money by not adding water resistance ratings and wireless charging to the 4A pair, but in exchange, you got the headphone jack again.
Verge Score: 8 out of 10 and 7.5 out of 10 (5G)
Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL (2019)
If I had to describe the Pixel 4 and 4 XL in one word, it would be “ambitious,” but that’s not in the best of ways. Google decided to make its Project Soli radar technology the star of the show that year, which enabled features like waving your hand to snooze your alarm or skip music tracks. It could even tell if you were sitting near your phone or reaching for it with a feature called presence, and it could wake up ahead of time as you pick it up. The ideas were cool, but they didn’t work very reliably. Combined with a new infrared sensor for face unlock, the Pixel 4 pair had to be designed with a magnificent forehead and still had a bit of a chin on the bottom. You did get a nice 90Hz screen, and Google added a telephoto camera as well — though an ultrawide would probably have been more welcome. On the software side, the phones shipped with Android 10 and had a useful Live Transcribe feature. All these features, along with less than stellar battery life and starting with 64GB storage, could be had for $799 and $899 for the XL — the most expensive Pixels yet.
Verge Score: 8 out of 10 and 8.5 out of 10 (XL)
Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL (2019)
Google started releasing affordable A-line versions of the Pixels earlier in the year, and the Pixel 3A and 3A XL were the first in the trend. At $399 and $479 (XL), the phones took the most important parts of their flagship counterparts and made them accessible to more people. The screens were still OLED and sized at 5.6 inches and 6 inches, respectively, but the processor was downgraded to a Snapdragon 670. They also lacked the dedicated image processor, but the quality of the camera remained legendary, and the devices sport great battery life. You can’t easily tell that the bodies are made of cheaper plastics than the more expensive Pixel 3 phones, but there are other compromises like no wireless charging and no waterproof rating. Finally, Google also stopped offering free full-quality photo backup it offered with previous models, but you’re still getting the best bang for your buck here.
Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL (2018)
The Pixel 3 ($599) and the Pixel 3 XL ($699) gained wireless charging and larger, higher quality OLED screens — but the XL model got a huge notch cutting into it. The 12.2MP rear camera is the same sensor from the previous model, but Google upgraded the dedicated image processor from 2017’s Pixel 2, making pictures come out faster and better. The phones also had a wide front-facing camera so you could selfie with more people. There were still relatively large bezels compared to the competition, but the great front-facing speakers remain and sound even better. The headphone jack didn’t come back, but at least it came with wired USB-C headphones. Google debuted its call screening feature with the Pixel 3 that lets a robot talk to the caller to confirm it’s not a marketing call.
Verge Score: 8.5 out of 10
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL (2017)
The Pixel 2 welcomed IP67 waterproofing and an amazing camera with AI processing that would set the bar for years. Google dropped the headphone jack but included a dongle to hook up your own headphones. You could squeeze the Pixel 2 to activate Google Assistant, and the lock screen had a Shazam-like feature that displayed what song was playing around you. The XL model had a vivid 6-inch screen, but the regular model’s 5-inch screen quality was lacking in quality. There was still no wireless charging, and while the front still had huge bezels, it at least housed very good quality front-facing speakers.
Verge Score: 8.5 out of 10 and 8 out of 10 (XL)
Pixel and Pixel XL (2016)
Google’s Pixel ($649) and Pixel XL ($769) were the company’s first phones to be developed internally and served as a blueprint for the “pure” Android experience. Other manufacturers continued to push their own custom launchers and features, but the Pixel served as a way to remind them what Android should look like. Google Assistant was the star of the show, and it seemed leaps ahead of what Siri was capable of — and that hasn’t changed to date. It looked similar to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, but it still had a headphone jack. The Pixels had excellent battery life and OLED screens (5-inch, and 5.5-inch for the XL) but lacked waterproofing. Google enticed customers with free full-quality photo storage on Google Photos for the lifetime of the phone.
Nexus 6P by Huawei (2015)
Our trip down memory lane doesn’t end at the first Pixel; Google has at least 10 more phones it’s had a hand in making. The Nexus 6P was Google’s final form for the line that preceded its Pixel, and it was the best phone the company made at the time. Built by Huawei, this big phone had a pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow experience, had a huge AMOLED screen, and had a fingerprint sensor on the rear. It had USB-C, which was uncommon at the time but would later become ubiquitous. The camera quality was excellent, though it was one of the first to add a big camera bump to accommodate it.
Verge Score: 8.8 out of 10
LG’s Nexus 5X has a design based on the Nexus 5 from 2013, but now it’s faster and has a bigger 5.2-inch screen. It was still easy to use with one hand despite the growth, had better battery life, and was even more affordable at $379. It felt cheap overall, though, and it had a slow camera — though image quality was good. If you wanted a better-built phone, you’d have to go for the Nexus 6P that released alongside the Nexus 5X.
Verge Score: 8.3 out of 10
Nexus 6 by Motorola (2014)
The “phablet” trend, spearheaded by Samsung, became the focus of Motorola’s go at the Nexus line. Its 6-inch screen was larger than the iPhone 6 Plus, and at $649, it was $100 cheaper, too. It had stereo front-facing speakers and 32GB of internal storage but no SD card expansion. Stock Android Lollipop with the “material design” interface was a big focus on this phone, and it was also the first to work with Google’s Fi MVNO cellular network.
Verge Score: 8.6 out of 10
With the success of the Nexus 7 tablet, Google started getting serious about marketing Nexus phones to consumers rather than just developers / power users. It had a big 4.95-inch 1080p screen, but Samsung’s Galaxy S4 had a slightly larger one that had better quality. The Nexus 5 did finally get LTE, and it was the first to get Android KitKat. The new OS was smoother than ever and continues to be the oldest system that supports Google Play services.
The Nexus 4 is LG’s first go at the Nexus line, and it focused on build quality. While it was a solid phone, the Gorilla Glass rear was a concern for shattering, and like the iPhone, the battery was no longer removable. Phones at the time were starting to gain LTE, but this didn’t take advantage of that. It has a 4.7-inch IPS screen with a 1280×768 resolution, and it came with Android 4.2 Jellybean, which brought widgets to the lock screen and a quick settings menu that let you access Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in a few swipes. It also had a swipe-like keyboard for easy typing. The device supported wireless induction charging, a flagship feature of the Palm Pre (no one says “induction” anymore, but they did at the time).
Verge Score: 8.3 out of 10
Galaxy Nexus by Samsung (2011)
Samsung’s second Nexus phone was the first to get Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which had cool new features like transferring files via NFC and facial recognition for unlocking. It later got the Jellybean update, with features like expandable notifications. The Android menu buttons became part of the system instead of the hardware, appearing on the bottom of the 4.65-inch Super AMOLED screen that made the iPhone 4S look tiny. It had a teardrop shape design and a 5MP camera with flash, but it didn’t have an SD card slot — although 16GB built-in storage was sizable for the time.
Verge Score: 8.6 out of 10
Nexus S by Samsung (2010)
Before the Galaxy, there was the S. The Nexus S was Samsung’s first Nexus phone and the second Nexus phone ever. Samsung installed a big 4-inch Super AMOLED screen in the Nexus S, and the display was slightly curved, which gave it a unique look. The body of the device was made mostly of plastic and had a glossy finish. The phone was the first to ship with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, adding a much-improved interface. The power button on the right and a headphone jack on the bottom were unique design choices at the time.
Nexus One by HTC (2010)
The Nexus One is the phone that made Steve Jobs’ blood boil. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this,” Jobs said, according to his biography by Walter Isaacson. It’s the phone that could stand up to the iPhone 3GS, with a larger screen than Apple’s at 3.7 inches. It was slightly thinner as well. HTC and Google made a phone that truly could be the “Google Phone,” and it broke away from carrier lock-in and branding. Android controls were capacitive buttons below the screen (a trend that continued for several years), and physical controls were reduced to a sleep button and a trackball — making this the most touch-oriented Android phone to date.
HTC Magic / T-Mobile myTouch 3G (2009)
The second Android phone ever ditches the Keyboard, navigating closer toward the full-screen iPhone design. Released widely as the T-Mobile myTouch 3G in the US, it had a 3.2-inch screen, which was smaller than the iPhone’s 3.5-inch and didn’t have a very good software keyboard in comparison. While it only had 4GB of storage, you could extend it via microSD and get more pictures and music on it, though you’d have to connect a dongle to plug headphones in.
HTC Dream / T-Mobile G1 (2008)
You’ve made it to the begging of time — well, at least for Google’s hardware story. Before the Phones by Google — the Pixels and Nexuses of the world — there was the phone with Google. That’s what was printed on the rear of the HTC Dream since it was the first phone to run Google’s new Android OS. The Dream was known more widely as the T-Mobile G1 because many phones sold in the US at the time needed a carrier partner with its own marketing and branding to succeed. The HTC Dream was designed for those who wanted to cautiously step into the full-screen phone world that Apple was selling. It included a built-in slide-out keyboard like some Windows Mobile phones had at the time, plus a Blackberry-like trackball to help navigate.