How Google’s smartphones have evolved since 2007

Chris Velazco

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.

Sooner (2006–2007)

SONY DSC

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)

(Steve-Troughton Smith) (T-Mobile)

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 3GPricing $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 Battery 1,150mAh 1,340mAh Internal storage 256MB 512MB External storage microSD microSD Rear camera 3.15MP 3.2MP Front-facing cam None None Video capture None 320p at 15fps NFC None None Bluetooth v2.0 v2.1 SoC Qualcomm MSM7201A Qualcomm MSM7200A CPU 528MHz 528MHz GPU Adreno 130 Adreno 130 RAM 192MB 288MB WiFi 802.11b/g 802.11b/g Operating system Android 1.0 Android 1.6 Ports ExtUSB ExtUSB

Motorola Droid (2009)

(Motorola)

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 3GMotorola DroidPricing $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 Battery 1,340mAh 1,400mAh Internal storage 512MB 512MB External storage microSD microSD Rear camera 3.2MP 5MP Front-facing cam None None Video capture 320p at 15fps 480p at 30fps NFC None None Bluetooth v2.1 v2.1 SoC Qualcomm MSM7200A TI OMAP 3430 CPU 528MHz 550MHz GPU Adreno 130 PowerVR SGX 530 RAM 288MB 256MB WiFi 802.11b/g 802.11b/g Operating system Android 1.6 Android 2.0 Ports ExtUSB microUSB

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 DroidHTC Nexus OnePricing $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 Battery 1,400mAh 1,400mAh Internal storage 512MB 512MB External storage microSD microSD Rear camera 5MP 5MP Front-facing cam None None Video capture 480p at 30fps 480p at 24fps NFC None None Bluetooth v2.1 v2.1 SoC TI OMAP 3430 Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 (QSD8250) CPU 550MHz 1GHz GPU PowerVR SGX 530 Adreno 200 RAM 256MB 512MB WiFi 802.11b/g 802.11b/g/n Operating system Android 2.0 Android 2.1 Ports microUSB 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB

Nexus S (2010)

(Google)

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 OneSamsung Nexus SPricing $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 Battery 1,400mAh 1,500mAh Internal storage 512MB 16GB External storage microSD None Rear camera 5MP 5MP Front-facing cam None VGA Video capture 480p at 24fps 480p at 30fps NFC None Yes Bluetooth v2.1 v2.1 SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 (QSD8250) Samsung Exynos 3 CPU 1GHz 1GHz GPU Adreno 200 PowerVR SGX 540 RAM 512MB 512MB WiFi 802.11b/g/n 802.11b/g/n Operating system Android 2.1 Android 2.3 Ports 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB

Galaxy Nexus (2011)

(Google)

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 SSamsung Galaxy NexusPricing $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 Battery 1,500mAh 1,750mAh Internal storage 16GB 16 / 32GB External storage None None Rear camera 5MP 5MP Front-facing cam VGA 1.3MP Video capture 480p at 30fps 1080p at 24fps NFC Yes Yes Bluetooth v2.1 v3.0 SoC Samsung Exynos 3 TI OMAP 4460 CPU 1GHz 1.2GHz dual-core GPU PowerVR SGX 540 PowerVR SGX 540 RAM 512MB 1GB WiFi 802.11b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n Operating system Android 2.3 Android 4.0 Ports 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB

Nexus 4 (2012)

When it came time to build the Nexus 4, Google instead turned to rival LG for a more affordable kind of flagship. An unlocked 8GB model would have set you back $299, while 16GB of storage cost $349; that's the cheapest an unlocked Nexus had ever cost at the time. Customers got a lot of phone for the price too: based on LG's Optimus G, the Nexus 4 was an elegant unibody phone with panes of scratch-resistant glass on both sides and a laminated, 4.7-inch IPS display. The improved 8-megapixel camera and performance were excellent, but the Nexus 4 didn't have everything people wanted. The lack of LTE support at launch was a notable omission, since later versions of the Galaxy Nexus got it, but the price tag made the overall package hard to resist.

The Nexus 4 was the first device to ship with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, which mostly polished up features introduced in the 4.1 Jelly Bean release in mid-2012. The update packed more than the small version number bump indicated: notifications could finally be expanded, the Quick Settings menu made its debut, and HDR was added to Google's stock Camera app. Android 4.2 also brought the ability to shoot so-called PhotoSpheres: 360-degree images that the phone would automatically stitch together. Lock screen widgets were also added to the mix, though they ultimately wouldn't survive very long, and we also got Daydreams -- you know, those screensavers Google seemed mildly fond of until it decided to use the name for something better.

Samsung Galaxy NexusLG Nexus 4Pricing $400 (off contract) $299, $349 (off contract) Dimensions 135.5 x 67.94 x 8.94mm (5.33 x 2.67 x 0.35 inches) 133.9 x 68.7 x 9.1mm (5.27 x 2.7 x 0.36 inches) Weight 135g (4.76 ounces) 139g (4.9 ounces) Screen size 4.65 inches (118mm) 4.7 inches (120mm) Screen resolution 1,280 x 720 (316ppi) 1,280 x 768 (318ppi) Screen type PenTile Super AMOLED TrueHD LCD Battery 1,750mAh 2,100mAh Internal storage 16 / 32GB 8 /16GB External storage None None Rear camera 5MP 8MP Front-facing cam 1.3MP 1.3MP Video capture 1080p at 24fps 1080p at 30fps NFC Yes Yes Bluetooth v3.0 v4.0 SoC TI OMAP 4460 Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) CPU 1.2GHz dual-core 1.5GHz quad-core GPU PowerVR SGX 540 Adreno 320 RAM 1GB 2GB WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n Operating system Android 4.0 Android 4.2 Ports 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB

Nexus 5 (2013)

(Google)

Google's next collaboration with LG, the all-polycarbonate Nexus 5, was the subject of what felt like countless leaks in 2013. That didn't matter, though -- what did matter was that the Nexus 5 was another incredibly powerful, incredibly capable phone that wouldn't make your wallet groan. While Google and LG went with a design that was more simplistic than striking, the phone's 5-inch 1080p IPS LCD screen was generally a joy to behold. It's too bad the 8-megapixel camera wasn't a particularly big improvement over the Nexus 4's sensor -- the inclusion of an HDR+ mode definitely helped, though.

The 5 debuted with Android 4.4 KitKat on board, and it might not have felt dramatically different to people at the time. That's mostly because it was an update meant to optimize Android's performance on low-powered devices. (Devices with as little as 512MB of RAM could run the 4.4 update.) Project Svelte aside, KitKat also brought bigger icons to displays and gave minor face-lifts to apps like Hangouts and the phone dialer. A new technique called sensor batching also meant that the Nexus 5 could be used to track a user's steps for long periods of time without completely burning through the phone's battery. Oh, and app creators got a big gift in the form of immersive mode, which allowed them to craft software that would use every pixel on the screen and leave the system interface out.

LG Nexus 4LG Nexus 5Pricing $299, $349 (off contract) $349, $399 (off contract) Dimensions 133.9 x 68.7 x 9.1mm (5.27 x 2.7 x 0.36 inches) 137.84 x 69.17 x 8.59mm (5.43 x 2.72 x 0.34 inches) Weight 139g (4.9 ounces) 130g (4.59 ounces) Screen size 4.7 inches (120mm) 4.95 inches (126mm) Screen resolution 1,280 x 768 (318ppi) 1,920 x 1,080 (445ppi) Screen type TrueHD LCD Full HD LCD Battery 2,100mAh 2,330mAh Internal storage 8 /16GB 16 / 32GB External storage None None Rear camera 8MP 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size Front-facing cam 1.3MP 1.3MP, f/2.4, 1.9µm pixel size Video capture 1080p at 30fps 1080p at 30fps NFC Yes Yes Bluetooth v4.0 v4.0 SoC Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064) Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU 1.5GHz quad-core 2.26GHz quad-core GPU Adreno 320 Adreno 330 RAM 2GB 2GB WiFi Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Operating system Android 4.2 Android 4.4 Ports 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB

Nexus 6 (2014)

Google bought Motorola Mobility in 2012, so it was really only a matter of time before it tapped its new phone division to whip up a Nexus. That was the Nexus 6, and it was proof that bigger phones weren't always better ones. We loved its Moto X-inspired design, and the Snapdragon 805 chipset Motorola used ran very well. The 13-megapixel rear camera worked slightly better than expected too, though the mediocrity of earlier Nexus cameras meant the bar was already pretty low. What really made the Nexus 6 so troublesome, though, was its middle-of-the-road battery and incredibly cumbersome size. Big phones obviously still have their place, and more recent models have stripped out the bezels to make them feel surprisingly manageable. The Nexus 6 didn't, so it was nigh impossible to use with one hand.

At least Android 5.0 Lollipop was a pleasure. For one, it updated Android's design language again, this time with a focus on flat, minimal elements that were loaded with color and nifty little animations. At last: the age of Material Design had arrived. Notifications were displayed on the lock screen as cards, and they were finally grouped by app in the notifications shade. Support for Bluetooth Low Energy was added, as were battery saver and Do Not Disturb modes, multiple user accounts, and the ability to launch a search by saying "OK, Google" while inside other apps. Whew. One of Lollipop's most radical changes took place completely under the hood. When the Android 5.0 update was installed, the new ART runtime would replace the existing Dalvik runtime, which led to improvements in app efficiency and overall power consumption. In hindsight, the Nexus 6 wasn't a bad phone -- it was just overshadowed by its software strengths.

LG Nexus 5Motorola Nexus 6Pricing $349, $399 (off contract) $649, $699 (off contract) Dimensions 137.84 x 69.17 x 8.59mm (5.43 x 2.72 x 0.34 inches) 159.26 x 82.98 x 10.1mm (6.27 x 3.27 x 0.40 inches) Weight 130g (4.59 ounces) 184g (6.49 ounces) Screen size 4.95 inches (126mm) 5.96 inches (151mm) Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080 (445ppi) 2,560 x 1,440 (493ppi) Screen type Full HD LCD QHD PenTile AMOLED Battery 2,330mAh 3,220mAh Internal storage 16 / 32GB 32 / 64GB External storage None None Rear camera 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size 13MP, f/2.0, 1.4µm pixel size Front-facing cam 1.3MP, f/2.4, 1.9µm pixel size 2MP, f/2.2, 1.4µm pixel size Video capture 1080p at 30fps 2160p at 30fps NFC Yes Yes Bluetooth v4.0 v4.1 SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 CPU 2.26GHz quad-core 2.7GHz quad-core GPU Adreno 330 Adreno 420 RAM 2GB 3GB WiFi Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Operating system Android 4.4 Android 5.0 Ports 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB

Nexus 5X (2015)

Google broke from tradition in 2015 by building two Nexus smartphones. It tapped LG to build that year's smaller, less expensive model, and the resulting 5X proved to be a great value. To keep costs low, the phone was made entirely of polycarbonate, and its 5.2-inch LCD screen ran at 1080p. Performance was definitely solid, although some people claimed their 5X units had the same random reboots and boot loop issues that LG's G4 and V10 did, prompting at least one class action lawsuit years later. At least the fingerprint sensor worked well, and at the time, the 5X's $379 starting price was awfully enticing.

Similarly enticing was Android 6.0 Marshmallow, even if it wasn't as huge a step forward as Lollipop was. By far, Google's Now on Tap was the most notable new feature -- when you long-pressed the home button, Google would attempt to feed you useful information based on the stuff on your screen. Users also got more granular control over app permissions and the ability to revoke them at any time, plus a handful of system-level improvements meant to maximize a phone's battery life. There didn't seem to be much of an underlying philosophy tying Marshmallow's features together, but no matter -- they made an already solid platform feel much more complete.

Nexus 6P (2015)

The Nexus 6P debuted with the exact same software the 5X did, but from a hardware perspective, it couldn't have been more different. For one, it was a big slab of aerospace-grade aluminum built by Huawei, a total newcomer as far as Nexus devices went. Sure, the glass hump around back was an odd design choice, but it allowed wireless signals to pass through the metal body and housed a surprisingly good 12.3-megapixel camera. Since it was built to be the more premium model, the 6P was the faster of 2015's two Nexus phones. Huawei and Google's choice of an octa-core Snapdragon 810 with 3GB of RAM made for performance that rivaled the rest of the year's flagships. More impressive was that the sleeker, slimmer body meant people could actually use the 6P and its 5.7-inch, Quad HD screen without straining their hands too much.

Motorola Nexus 6LG Nexus 5XHuawei Nexus 6PPricing $649, $699 (off contract) $379, $429 (off contract) $499, $549, $649 (off contract) Dimensions 159.26 x 82.98 x 10.1mm (6.27 x 3.27 x 0.40 inches) 147 x 72.6 x 7.9mm (5.79 x 2.86 x 0.31 inches) 159.3 x 77.8 x 7.3mm (6.27 x 3.06 x 0.29 inches) Weight 184g (6.49 ounces) 136g (4.8 ounces) 178g (6.28 ounces) Screen size 5.96 inches (151mm) 5.2 inches (132.08mm) 5.7 inches (144.78mm) Screen resolution 2,560 x 1,440 (493ppi) 1,920 x 1,080 (423 ppi) 2,560 x 1,440 (518 ppi) Screen type QHD PenTile AMOLED Full HD LCD, Gorilla Glass 3 WQHD AMOLED, Gorilla Glass 4 Battery 3,220mAh 2,700mAh 3,450mAh Internal storage 32 / 64GB 16 / 32GB 32 / 64 / 128GB External storage None None None Rear camera 13MP, f/2.0, 1.4µm pixel size 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size Front-facing cam 2MP, f/2.2, 1.4µm pixel size 5MP, f/2.0, 1.4µm pixel size 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size Video capture 2160p at 30fps 4K at 30fps 4K at 30fps NFC Yes Yes Yes Bluetooth v4.1 v4.2 v4.2 SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1 CPU 2.7GHz quad-core 1.8GHz hexa-core 2GHz octa-core GPU Adreno 420 Adreno 418 Adreno 430 RAM 3GB 2GB 3GB WiFi Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Operating system Android 5.0 Android 6.0 Android 6.0 Ports 3.5 headphone jack, microUSB 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C

Pixel/XL (2016)

It was becoming clear to Google that working with outside partners to build their phones was no longer the right strategy. Instead, the company tapped HTC to produce a phone that Google would design and develop all on its own. That internal work eventually led to Google Pixel and Pixel XL, both launched in 2016. Neither phone had striking good looks (unless you were a fan of the "Really Blue" variants), but they were impeccably well-made and comfortable to hold. More important, the Pixels packed some truly excellent hardware -- we're talking a Snapdragon 821 chipset, big batteries and 12.3-megapixel cameras that consistently churned out some of the best photos we'd even seen out of a smartphone. That had just as much to do with Google's much-improved HDR+ mode as it did with the sensor the company decided on. Even now, after another handful of high-profile flagships has launched, people still swear by the Pixel's excellent cameras.

The differences between the regular Pixel and the XL model were minimal: the former used a 5-inch, 1080p screen, while the latter ran with a 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED panel. This led to very obvious differences in device size, which also allowed Google and HTC to give the XL a huge 3,450mAH battery -- quite a jump over the 2,770mAh cell in the Pixel. More notable is that Google created a shared hardware foundation that was built into bodies of different sizes, rather than collaborate with two different hardware partners.

Both phones launched with Android 7.1 Nougat, which Google was quick to call an "incremental" update. They weren't wrong -- the build was mostly full of bug fixes for Android 7.0 features -- but Google Assistant was clearly something special. Unveiled at Google I/O 2016, Assistant gave users the ability to have informative conversations with Google's new AI concierge. The company's Pixel Launcher experience was definitely something special too. Rather than give users a completely clean version of Android, Google figured out that adding handy features on top of stock software made for a more pleasant experience. Long-pressing icons brought up contextual menus for in-app actions, images could be sent straight from the keyboard, and a night mode was finally added. Yeah, these were relatively minor additions, but they were enough to keep Google running in pace with some of its biggest competitors.

LG Nexus 5XGoogle PixelHuawei Nexus 6PGoogle Pixel XLPricing $379, $429 (off contract) $649, $749 (off contract) $499, $549, $649 (off contract) $769, $869 (off contract) Dimensions 147 x 72.6 x 7.9mm (5.79 x 2.86 x 0.31 inches) 143.84 x 69.54 x 7.31mm (5.66 x 2.74 x 0.29 inches) 159.3 x 77.8 x 7.3mm (6.27 x 3.06 x 0.29 inches) 154.72 x 75.74 x 7.31mm (6.09 x 2.98 x 0.29 inches) Weight 136g (4.8 ounces) 143g (5.04 ounces) 178g (6.28 ounces) 168g (5.92 ounces) Screen size 5.2 inches (132.08mm) 5.0 inches (127mm) 5.7 inches (144.78mm) 5.5 inches (139.7mm) Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080 (423 ppi) 1,920 x 1,080 (441 ppi) 2,560 x 1,440 (518 ppi) 2,560 x 1,440 (534 ppi) Screen type Full HD LCD, Gorilla Glass 3 Full HD AMOLED WQHD AMOLED, Gorilla Glass 4 Quad HD AMOLED Battery 2,700mAh 2,770mAh 3,450mAh 3,450mAh Internal storage 16 / 32GB 32 / 128GB 32 / 64 / 128GB 32 / 128GB External storage None None None None Rear camera 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size 12.3MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel size Front-facing cam 5MP, f/2.0, 1.4µm pixel size 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size 8MP, f/2.4, 1.4µm pixel size Video capture 4K at 30fps 4K at 30fps 4K at 30fps 4K at 30fps NFC Yes Yes Yes Yes Bluetooth v4.2 v4.2 v4.2 v4.2 SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1 Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 CPU 1.8GHz hexa-core 2.15GHz quad-core 2GHz octa-core 2.15GHz quad-core GPU Adreno 418 Adreno 530 Adreno 430 Adreno 530 RAM 2GB 4GB 3GB 4GB WiFi Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual band, 802.11ac Dual band, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual band, 802.11ac Operating system Android 6.0 Android 7.1 Android 6.0 Android 7.1 Ports 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C