After a couple of weeks settling into using my new phone, it’s finally time to talk more about Google’s Pixel phone and their new stab at mobile VR with Daydream. When I wanted to get a new phone, I was keen to aim for something special. I hadn’t planned on a Google phone but a recent promotion here that bundled it with the headset made it hard to ignore. The model I settled on was the 128Gb Pixel XL.
The phone itself is about the size of the iPhone 6 Plus and is quite understated with a no buttons on the face (it uses virtual buttons) and a plain exterior. The rear is a little more interesting though with the main camera, fingerprint sensor and a Google logo just to remind you whose idea this phone was. The screen is bright and clear and is definitely the nicest one I’ve used on a phone so far. The phone runs Android 7.1 and some of the tweaks made to the UI (such as rounded buttons) do make it look more attractive than earlier versions but being previously locked away with a Windows Phone anything with corners is still alien territory for me.
One thing worth noting is that Google went the extra mile with what is bundled. Not only do you get the phone and charger with a USB Type-C cable but an additional cable is included with a standard USB connector (for plugging into a PC) as well as an adaptor that turns it into another Type-C cable. For people needing the extra cable for charging elsewhere this comes in very handy.
I really do like being able to unlock the phone with my fingerprint. Previously I was put off by Apple’s implementation of a fingerprint sensor on the iPhone as having it on the home button just seemed like an inconvenient location for it. On the Pixel though it is a perfect spot as your finger naturally rests there as you hold your phone. I think it genuinely makes the feature both useful and useable at the same time. After going though a simple set up involving different finger positions (you can add multiple fingers too), it is up and running and pretty accurate too.
There’s certainly no shortage of software for the phone which is great for those wanting to stock up with games and apps but for the most part I’ll be using mine mainly for contacts, calendar, office documents, a bit of browsing and that’s about it – playing cool games is a bonus. Having chosen the 128Gb version then might seem excessive but I had a cunning plan to also move my music and podcast library from my trusty iPod Classic and it’s a perfect fit. And this is where the massive software library comes in handy as apps such as Poweramp and Pocket Casts fit my needs quite well and work perfectly with my car’s Bluetooth system. So it’s even helped me replace an iPod too.
Maybe the Microsoft fanboy in me is too strong but I do miss Cortana from my Windows Phone – for handling text messages when I am driving it does so much more naturally than what Google has on offer, even with additional apps thrown into the mix. I know it’s currently in beta for Android and I honestly can’t wait for it to arrive.
Moving onto what tipped me toward the phone in the first place… the packaging for the Daydream headset is much more understated than the phone (if that is possible) with just it and the controller in the package. To charge the controller you’ll need a USB Type-C cable… lucky you have that extra one with the Pixel, eh?
The headset itself is light and comfortable. The design and it’s fabric exterior almost makes it look like a fashion accessory than a tech gadget but I think it also makes it more inviting to new users too. The front of the headset folds down to allow you to insert your phone which is firmly held in place by rubber stoppers and a spring loaded hinge that supports multiple phone configurations. Though it was bundled with a Pixel, it should be quite accommodating towards other models. It’s been designed to interact with your phone via NFC so the moment you place the phone into the headset it automatically loads the Daydream app and you’re straight into your VR experience.
There’s a lot to like about Daydream, but it’s the controller that is the real standout. Held like a miniature Wiimote, it’s made up of three buttons including the main one which also acts as a touchpad, plus volume controls on the side. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and once you have the Daydream software running, you’ll learn the basics of its use through some very nicely done tutorials. There’s not a lot more beyond that with the bundled apps but testing it with Google Street View I was amazed with how easy it was to point at icons or type on a virtual keyboard – whatever magic makes this work is genius.
One thing worth noting though is that apps made for Google Cardboard (the do it yourself VR headsets) won’t work directly with Daydream and require you to switch off NFC to prevent the app from starting. That a large number of VR apps on the platform don’t integrate cleanly with it is a bit of a bummer, especially since you can run them from within the Daydream menus.
There’s some cool software available though, including ones to let you use the phone as a makeshift VR headset for your PC. Though no where in the same league as having a Vive or Rift, it did give me a sense of what to expect from games such as Elite Dangerous but I did have some early issues with getting head tracking to center and might need some tweaking to get right. Plus, the phone does get awfully hot doing this kind of thing so you won’t be VR’ing with it all the time.
What more can I say except that the Google Pixel XL / Daydream VR combo is a great bundle that for the first time shows me some really neat uses of VR beyond what I had normally expected. It’ll be a shame if the Daydream remote does not get accepted as a standard because it works so well with the bundled software I can’t help but be impressed. The phone itself has been a great upgrade for me too and though I do miss some software aspects of it, I am happily using it right now and that’s all that really matters.