Google is expected to show off a ton of new hardware at a press event in San Francisco this week, and -- as expected -- most of the hype is centered around a pair of new Pixel phones. Now, the Pixel line itself is only a year old, but Google's smartphone ambitions have been part of the company's vision for over a decade now, and we felt that was worth celebrating ahead of Wednesday's big reveal. Join us as we take a look at Google's surprisingly long history in smartphones, starting with a device many of us had forgotten about completely.
Google had no way of knowing it at the time, but the roughly $50 million it shelled out to buy Palo Alto–based Android Inc. would turn out to be one of the best deals in its history. Frustrated by the fragmentation of yesteryear's mobile industry, Google directed its new team to develop a smartphone of its own, running open-source software that would ensure Google's web services would have a place in people's pockets. Easier said than done.
In 2006, the team worked closely with HTC (a name that's going to pop up a lot) to build a prototype phone that looked a whole lot like a BlackBerry. Code-named "Sooner," it had a four-way d-pad and a four-row physical keyboard that bubbled up from the phone's lower half. Given the competition back then, it was exactly what people would've expected a smartphone to look like, just with some of the utilitarian edges sanded down. BlackBerrys might have been meant to be all business, but the Sooner? It was more rounded, with a friendlier color palette -- pretty cute, I'd say. The 320x240 display wasn't a touchscreen, but the rest of it seemed pretty solid: it packed 64MB of RAM, a 1.3-megapixel camera and a pokey GPRS radio for data connections.
T-Mobile eventually came on as a partner to help with testing the phone, but Steve Jobs' iPhone unveiling changed everything. Android co-founder Andy Rubin was reportedly in a car when the announcement happened, and the news caused him to (a) have his driver pull over and (b) rethink what the first Android phone would look like.
HTC/T-Mobile G1 (2008)
Flash-forward one year and Google's partnership with HTC and T-Mobile had finally come to fruition. The HTC Dream, known locally as T-Mobile's G1, was the chunky, chinned smartphone that started it all. The Dream shipped with Android 1.0 at launch, and, while totally functional, it mostly served as a foundation for things to come. The notifications shade was a new paradigm for how to handle the inevitable influx of information on smartphones, and niceties like the ability to copy/paste and send MMS messages gave Google's software an edge over iOS. And deep integration with Google's services meant Gmail and YouTube devotees had no better choice than the G1.
Of course, you didn't need to use Google's software for everything. The search giant's push for openness meant it paid a lot of attention to fostering developer support. The Android Market was up and running when the G1 launched (Apple's own App Store had only just gone live by then) and it included 50 apps you could download for free, mostly because Google hadn't cooked up a way to charge for them yet.
Actually interacting with the phone could seem a little strange, though. There was a 3.2-inch touchscreen for general navigation, but multitouch support was noticeably absent. In a nod to classic smartphones, it also had a trackball and a five-row QWERTY keyboard for bashing out texts and emails. Google would eventually bring a virtual keyboard to the Dream, and the update couldn't come soon enough for some: the physical keyboard featured deep-set keys that could be a little hard to use, and your hand had to reach over Dream's trademark chin to access it.
The Dream also featured a quartet of navigation keys -- there was one to launch the phone dialer, one to bring you back to the home screen, one to bring you back one level in whatever app you were using, and a call end key that doubled as a power button. Oh, and don't forget the Menu key -- it lived just below the screen and allowed quick access to your options. Throw in a dedicated button for the Dream's 3.15-megapixel camera and that's, well, a lot of buttons.
While it was conceptually more convoluted than the iPhone's touch-and-go interface, it was easy enough to wrap one's head around. And it seemed far easier to use than other smartphone platforms available at the time -- I'm looking at you, Windows Mobile. More important, the Qualcomm-supplied chipset and 192MB of RAM kept things running at a reasonable pace, though it was pretty clear there was a long way left to go. Still, not everything was perfect: the Dream used a proprietary Mini-USB port for charging and audio rather than a headphone jack, and T-Mobile's 3G network was very limited.
HTC Magic/Google Ion (2009)
The HTC Magic was yet another device with many names -- Google used a version of the phone it called the Ion as one of its development devices, and it launched in the US as T-Mobile's MyTouch 3G. It was essentially an upgraded Dream in a slightly sleeker body that ditched the physical keyboard. Screen size and resolution remained the same, but better parts meant a brighter, more colorful display. The camera stayed the same, too, which was kind of a disappointment.
Still, the Magic made waves because it took the G1 package and shrunk it into a more pocketable, more attractive body. And despite all that shrinkage, the Magic actually had better longevity thanks to its larger battery. (Then again, just about every battery back then was user-replaceable, so many people just carried around spares.) The most notable addition to this second-generation device was Android 1.5 Cupcake, the first Google update to feature a delicious-sounding release name. The update had started hitting G1s just prior to the Magic's US launch as the MyTouch 3G, and it brought with it a bunch of bug fixes, lots of interface polish, support for stereo Bluetooth and that virtual keyboard. Kind of crucial for an all-touch phone, no?
|HTC Dream (T-Mobile G1)||HTC Magic (Google Ion, T-Mobile myTouch 3G|
|Pricing||$179 (on contract)
$399 (off contact)
|$200 (on contract)|
|Dimensions||117.7 x 55.7 x 17.1mm (4.63 x 2.19 x 0.67 inches)||113 x 55 x 13.65mm (4.4 x 2.17 x 0.54 inches)|
|Weight||158g (5.57 ounces)||118g (4.16 ounces)|
|Screen size||3.2 inches (81mm)||3.2 inches (81mm)|
|Screen resolution||480 x 320 (180ppi)||480 x 320 (180ppi)|
|Screen type||HVGA LCD||HVGA LCD|
|Video capture||None||320p at 15fps|
|SoC||Qualcomm MSM7201A||Qualcomm MSM7200A|
|GPU||Adreno 130||Adreno 130|
|Operating system||Android 1.0||Android 1.6|
Motorola Droid (2009)
When it came time to launch Android 2.0, Google turned to an unexpected partner. Motorola went to work on what would become the Droid, and in doing so, it gave the platform what it really needed: a premium flagship that felt as good as it ran. Born of a partnership between Google and Motorola (with a little licensing help from Lucasfilm), the Droid traded the soft contours of earlier Android phones for a sharper, more in-your-face aesthetic. It was, for lack of a better term, badass.
Despite being just a hair thicker than the iPhone 3GS, the Droid managed to squeeze a superior 3.7-inch screen running at 854 x 480 and a four-row physical keyboard into its svelte frame. The former made images and websites look remarkably crisp, and the latter... well, it was actually pretty tough to use. The Droid's keys sat almost flush with the device, and it was offset by a directional pad on the phone's right side. Motorola also moved away from the standard physical navigation keys in favor of a capacitive quartet of buttons beneath its screen.
Meanwhile, performance was more than respectable at the time, thanks to the TI OMAP 3430 chipset -- remember when smartphones used chipsets not made by Qualcomm? -- and 256MB of RAM. What really drew many to the Droid, however, was Android 2.0 and its slew of new features. There was a new unified inbox for Gmail and Exchange accounts, Facebook integration and double tap to zoom in the stock browser. Let's not kid ourselves, though: the marquee addition was a new version of the Google Maps app that provided free turn-by-turn navigation. It had its issues at launch -- like, say, telling you to plow down a one-way street -- but it generally worked well, and announced the eventual irrelevance of the standard satnav.
|HTC Magic (Google Ion, T-Mobile myTouch 3G||Motorola Droid|
|Pricing||$200 (on contract)||$199 (on contract)|
|Dimensions||113 x 55 x 13.65mm (4.4 x 2.17 x 0.54 inches)||115.82 x 60 x 13.7mm (4.56 x 2.36 x 0.54 inches)|
|Weight||118g (4.16 ounces)||169g (5.96 ounces)|
|Screen size||3.2 inches (81mm)||3.7 inches (94mm)|
|Screen resolution||480 x 320 (180ppi)||854 x 480 (265ppi)|
|Screen type||HVGA LCD||FWVGA LCD|
|Video capture||320p at 15fps||480p at 30fps|
|SoC||Qualcomm MSM7200A||TI OMAP 3430|
|GPU||Adreno 130||PowerVR SGX 530|
|Operating system||Android 1.6||Android 2.0|
Nexus One (2010)
By 2010, Android's popularity was on the rise, thanks to OEMs building new phones and loading them up with Google's software. Those software builds, however, were often completely unrecognizable -- they were loaded up with third-party apps and painted over by elaborate interfaces as device makers tried to differentiate their phones. In response, Google (and its loyal partner HTC) built the Nexus One to show off what Android was really capable of. The One was also the first phone that Google would sell direct to consumers -- in eschewing the traditional carrier sales process, Google build a model it would revisit in time.
The Nexus One was among the sleekest devices of its time, with a curved, comfortable two-tone body and 3.7-inch, WVGA AMOLED display. (Too bad the display was pretty lousy in broad daylight.) Like the Droid, the One used capacitive navigation keys rather than physical ones, but for some reason HTC added a classic trackball for good measure. More important, the Nexus One leaned on a first-generation Snapdragon chipset with 512MB of RAM, and it absolutely flew because of it. Unfortunately, a microSD card was almost a necessity, since the One came with only 512MB of internal storage -- incidentally, this was the first and last Nexus phone ever to feature expandable storage. Throw in a perfectly decent 5-megapixel rear camera and the Nexus One instantly became the go-to device for true Android aficionados.
The Nexus One was notable for more than just its hardware, though. It shipped with Android 2.1, which brought with it an improved home screen layout and a handful of other changes that were mostly meant to smooth out some of the platform's long-standing jagged edges. The big stuff was to come a little later: in an update released shortly after launch, the Nexus One received multitouch support, a feature Android users had spent the past few years clamoring for, and it eventually served as the launch vehicle for Android 2.2 FroYo.
|Motorola Droid||HTC Nexus One|
|Pricing||$199 (on contract)||$180 (on contract)
$530 (off contract)
|Dimensions||115.82 x 60 x 13.7mm (4.56 x 2.36 x 0.54 inches)||119 x 59.8 x 11.5mm (4.69 x 2.35 x 0.45 inches)|
|Weight||169g (5.96 ounces)||130g (4.59 ounces)|
|Screen size||3.7 inches (94mm)||3.7 inches (94mm)|
|Screen resolution||854 x 480 (265ppi)||800 x 480 (252ppi)|
|Screen type||FWVGA LCD||WVGA PenTile AMOLED|
|Video capture||480p at 30fps||480p at 24fps|
|SoC||TI OMAP 3430||Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 (QSD8250)|
|GPU||PowerVR SGX 530||Adreno 200|
|Operating system||Android 2.0||Android 2.1|
|Ports||microUSB||3.5 headphone jack, microUSB|
Nexus S (2010)
Google would eventually settle into an annual upgrade cycle for its smartphones, but the Samsung-made Nexus S was officially announced and released at the end of 2010. It was just as well, too: despite positive reviews, the Nexus One just didn't sell very well. In a bid to change that, Google continued its direct consumer sales, while Best Buy and Carphone Warehouse slung phones in their stores.
Clearly, Google was itching to make more of a splash with its Nexus phones, and the S was well equipped for it. With its slightly curved plastic build and 4-inch Super AMOLED display, the Nexus S was very distinctly a Samsung phone. The Nexus S also came with 16GB of storage, which was absolutely necessary, since Google had moved away from expandable memory in phones for the foreseeable future. Also new to the fold was support for NFC -- uses were limited at launch, but the feature would come to greater prominence when Google and Sprint launched the WiMax-ready Nexus S 4G and began their first Google Wallet trials. (While Google Wallet still exists, the ability to use NFC for in-store mobile payments was eventually folded into Android Pay.)
Hardware aside, the Nexus S also served as a canvas to show off Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The interface was tweaked to run more smoothly, and the keyboard benefited from a cleaner layout and support for word suggestions, selecting text, and copy-pasting. Gingerbread also made it much, much easier for people to dig into their power settings and see which apps were really chewing through their batteries. Still other improvements took place under the hood: Google added a host of features to help app creators develop better games for the platform, not to mention richer support for VOIP apps. All told, the Nexus S was a strong contender, but it was Google's next collab with Samsung that would really get people excited.
|HTC Nexus One||Samsung Nexus S|
|Pricing||$180 (on contract)
$530 (off contract)
|$529 (off contract)|
|Dimensions||119 x 59.8 x 11.5mm (4.69 x 2.35 x 0.45 inches)||123.9 x 63 x 10.9mm (4.88 x 2.48 x 0.43 inches)|
|Weight||130g (4.59 ounces)||129g (4.55 ounces)|
|Screen size||3.7 inches (94mm)||4 inches (100mm)|
|Screen resolution||800 x 480 (252ppi)||800 x 480 (233ppi)|
|Screen type||WVGA PenTile AMOLED||WVGA Super AMOLED|
|Video capture||480p at 24fps||480p at 30fps|
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 (QSD8250)||Samsung Exynos 3|
|GPU||Adreno 200||PowerVR SGX 540|
|Operating system||Android 2.1||Android 2.3|
|Ports||3.5 headphone jack, microUSB||3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB|
Galaxy Nexus (2011)
2011 was a huge year for Samsung and Google -- the former released the Galaxy S II to critical praise, while the latter redesigned Android for tablets and took what it learned back to smartphones. It was little surprise, then, that the fruit of their combined efforts -- the Galaxy Nexus -- generated so much excitement. While Samsung went with some chintzy-feeling materials to build the body, a layer of slightly curved glass sat atop a 4.65-inch, 720p Super AMOLED display, giving the phone some distinct visual flair. It also became one of the most widely distributed Nexus phones -- the Galaxy Nexus launched as an unlocked HSPA+ device, but LTE versions for Verizon and Sprint followed soon after. The camera needed some work, but the flagship's first-rate performance and excellent battery gave Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich a lot to work with.
With Honeycomb for tablets, Google ditched Android's long-standing look with the distinctly digital "Holo" aesthetic; it was all blue-on-black, with a crisp new font and on-screen navigation buttons. While Google would eventually move away from that Tron-esque color scheme, that trio of navigation buttons -- Back, Home and Recent Apps -- became the standard for Android devices. Additional features included Face Unlock (yes, it's been around for a while), resizable home screen widgets, improved notification management and voice recognition that was finally worth using. While Ice Cream Sandwich was the single biggest leap forward for Android on phones since 2008, some felt the new software was difficult for average users to understand.
|Samsung Nexus S||Samsung Galaxy Nexus|
|Pricing||$529 (off contract)||$400 (off contract)|
|Known dimensions||123.9 x 63 x 10.9mm (4.88 x 2.48 x 0.43 inches)||135.5 x 67.94 x 8.94mm (5.33 x 2.67 x 0.35 inches)|
|Weight||129g (4.55 ounces)||135g (4.76 ounces)|
|Screen size||4 inches (100mm)||4.65 inches (118mm)|
|Screen resolution||800 x 480 (233ppi)||1,280 x 720 (316ppi)|
|Screen type||WVGA Super AMOLED||PenTile Super AMOLED|
|Internal storage||16GB||16 / 32GB|
|Video capture||480p at 30fps||1080p at 24fps|
|SoC||Samsung Exynos 3||TI OMAP 4460|
|GPU||PowerVR SGX 540||PowerVR SGX 540|
|Operating system||Android 2.3||Android 4.0|
|Ports||3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB||3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB|