Some important things to know about Google's Pixel phone and Verizon (updated...again)

Google is selling its new Pixel phone through Verizon, but take note: The arrangement has some big asterisks that aren't immediately obvious.

Google Pixel Phone, Verizon

The relationship between Google and Verizon is best summed up with the age-old adage: "It's complicated."

Things started off well enough with the two companies' earliest flirtations. It feels like a lifetime ago, but way back when Android was virtually unknown (yes, there really was such a time), Verizon played a pivotal role in getting Google's then-unproven mobile platform off the ground. Remember those iconic commercials for the original Motorola Droid? They helped turn Android from a small-scale experiment into a global phenomenon.

In the years that followed, Google and Verizon's courtship got a little more rocky. For a long time, Verizon become synonymous with slow updates and lackluster support for devices on the Android platform. It's a reputation the carrier has had a tough time shaking, all the way through to today.

Now here we are, seven years after that first Droid, and Verizon is teaming up with Google once again -- this time as the "exclusive" carrier partner for Google's new flagship Pixel phones. But hold the phone: Staying in line with the companies' complicated history, this new arrangement isn't quite what it seems.

Yup -- there's a lot of incomplete and misleading info out there about what exactly is going on with Google's Pixel phones and Verizon here in the U.S. of A. So let's take a minute to clear things up, shall we?

(And be sure to read all the way through this, because the last point may be the most important one of all.)

1. The Pixel isn't really a Verizon "exclusive."

I've seen lots of language -- in marketing materials, promotional tweets, and ads all over mainstream news sites -- touting the Pixel as being "only on Verizon" or "exclusively available" on Verizon. Here's one blatant example:

We can quibble all day over semantics, but here's the real deal: The Pixel phone is not a Verizon exclusive. You can buy it unlocked, directly from Google, and use it on practically any carrier.

Verizon is simply the only carrier that's selling the phone directly -- on its own website and in its own stores. That's it.

And in fact:

2. Even if you want to use Verizon, you don't have to buy the Pixel from Verizon.

This isn't 2012, where Google sold one version of its flagship phone and Verizon sold another. Whether you buy a Pixel from Verizon or from Google, you're getting the same physical device. And it's going to be compatible on virtually any network, including Verizon's, regardless of where you get it.

So, yes, you can buy the Pixel from Verizon if you want -- or you can buy it unlocked from Google, then put a Verizon SIM into it and use it on Verizon's network. Either way will work fine, as I confirmed directly with Verizon ("Folks are welcome to purchase unlocked through Google or through Verizon; both models will connect to our network," a spokesperson told me).

Pixels sold through Verizon are even unlocked -- so if you buy the phone from the carrier and decide you want to switch to another provider at some point down the line, you should have no problem swapping out the SIM and moseying onward.

That being said...

3. There are some differences between buying the Pixel from Google and buying it from Verizon.

The hardware itself may be the same, but the experience of buying the Pixel from Google and buying it from Verizon is not identical.

The basic pricing is the same either way you go: $650 outright for the base Pixel model or $27/mo. if you want to go the financing route (which both Google and Verizon provide as an option). And both Google and Verizon are currently offering free Daydream View VR headsets along with all pre-orders.

If you buy the phone from Verizon, however, you'll have the option to trade in your old phone and get credit toward your new purchase. Verizon says it'll go as high as $300, depending on the device and condition. (On the other hand, of course, you could always sell your old phone independently and probably get close to that same amount.)

Both Verizon and Google offer device protection plans, meanwhile -- though according to the details posted on each company's website, Verizon's offering appears to be significantly more expensive. (You can compare the specifics for yourself if you want; here's Verizon's protection plan page and Google's protection plan page.)

And at the risk of complicating things further, I should also point out that Best Buy is running a promotion right now where if you buy a Pixel phone there and activate it on Verizon, the store will give you a $100 Best Buy gift card and a free 2015 Chromecast. So that's another possibility to consider -- though it appears buying the Pixel from Best Buy is equivalent to buying it from Verizon, which is a relevant distinction to keep in mind for the next few items.

4. If you buy the Pixel from Verizon, your phone will come with some bloatware.

Google's Pixel phones are all about the "pure Google" experience, and part of that means you don't get all the superfluous gunk and overlapping services manufacturers and carriers love to bake into Android phones.

If you buy the Pixel from Verizon, that's mostly still true -- but not entirely: Pixels sold through Verizon will come with three preloaded carrier apps (the My Verizon account manager; the Go90 video streaming service; and Verizon's custom texting app, Verizon Messages). Verizon tells me all of those apps are removable, though, so it's a pretty minor point.

Beyond that:

5. Pixels sold through Verizon won't have unlockable bootloaders.

Unlocking a bootloader isn't something most smartphone owners concern themselves with -- and if you don't know what a bootloader is, you probably don't need to worry about this -- but for the tinkerers among us, be aware that you won't be able to unlock the bootloader and get under the hood on a Verizon-sold Pixel.

If that's important to you, get your phone from the Google Store. End of discussion.

And finally, the biggest asterisk of all:

6. If you buy the Pixel phone from Verizon, you may or may not get future OS updates immediately.

Update [10/12/16]: Google and Verizon seem to have reached a revised and more firmly defined position on this matter. In a new statement provided this morning, Google now says: "Google controls the distribution of all OS updates and security patches for Pixel devices. OS updates and monthly security patches will be updated on all Pixel devices (Verizon and non-Verizon versions) simultaneously."

Verizon has also provided its own corresponding new statement, saying: "Verizon will be releasing operating system and security updates for the Google Pixel at the same time as Google."

This two-pronged assurance is absolutely a step forward from the originally stated position -- one that may well have come about as a result of all the attention this issue ended up getting following the publication of this story. Regardless of why things changed, though, the end result is without question a good thing for consumers, as it states that all Pixel phones will be equal in terms of ongoing software support -- regardless of where they were purchased. That's obviously the way it should be.

The original text of this section follows. 


This last item is critical. (Hey, don't say I didn't warn you.)

One of the biggest benefits of owning a Pixel device, just like with the Nexus line before it, is that you get software updates directly from Google as soon as they're released -- without all the months of waiting and uncertainty that accompany upgrades on most other Android products. It's a huge perk, and one whose importance can't be overstated.

But as anyone who's watched Android for long knows, it's also a perk that's typically true only for unlocked devices sold directly by Google. When you buy a phone from a carrier -- even a Google flagship phone -- that carrier has the potential to become a middleman in the upgrade process and delay software deliveries.

For its part, Verizon says it's committed to providing security patches to the Pixel at the same time the unlocked Google-sold phones get them. But -- and call Sir Mix-A-Lot, 'cause this is a big one -- the carrier is remaining decidedly less firm about its commitment to full-fledged OS updates.

Here's the statement:

We don’t have specifics to share about software updates at this time but our goal is to always provide software updates in a timely fashion so our customers have the best experience. But I can say yes, the Verizon models will receive Android security updates/patches at the same time as the unlocked model.

Take it for what you will, but what's clear is that while Verizon is committed to providing security patches to its self-sold Pixels at the same time as Google, the carrier is not willing or able to give that same assurance for full OS updates as of now. In other words, there are no guarantees; the exact timetable for OS update deliveries with Verizon-bought Pixels is currently an unknown.

(Update [10/7/16]: A representative from Google tells me the actual OS updates for all Pixel devices are handled directly by Google -- but that with carrier-sold phones, the carriers do have to certify those updates before they're rolled out to customers. Google's goal, the representative says, is to have all Pixel owners receive timely updates regardless of that requirement.)

So what to make of this irksome uncertainty? Well, I'd say this: One glance at Verizon's home page right now is enough to make you understand why this relationship is so valuable to Google. Google is clearly working hard to promote its Pixel line, and the phone is plastered all over Verizon's website -- with visibility that dwarfs even iPhone promotions:

Google Pixel Phone - Verizon Website

Especially if the carrier's in-store placement and promotional efforts are anywhere near that same level, a push like this could go a long way in getting the Pixel in front of typical smartphone shoppers -- those who don't follow tech news closely and simply turn to their carriers when it's time to make a purchase.

But for those of us in the know, buying the Pixel directly from Verizon raises a significant risk -- a risk of neutralizing one of the device's most compelling qualities. And if you ask me, that's a tough condition to accept.

Only you can fully weigh the pros and cons of buying the phone from one source vs. another for your own personal situation, but if you want my advice, it's simple: If you're going to get the Pixel, get the Pixel from Google. Regardless of anything else, putting such a big asterisk after one of the phone's most important benefits is a risk I wouldn't want to take.

(Note: Story updated on 10/7/16 to add comment and context from Google and updated again on 10/12/16 to add new statement from Google and then Verizon.)

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