9 next-level tips for your Google Pixel phone

Attention, Pixel owners: Grant your phone new powers with these easy-to-follow pointers for unlocking hidden potential.

Google Pixel Tips

Oh, hello there. Welcome to 2017.

As we ease our way into the annual avalanche of overhyped device launches and overly confident tech rumors, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the one Android phone that truly stands out at the start of this new year -- yup, you guessed it: Google's own Pixel.

You know the spiel by now, right? The Pixel excels not for any single element or feature but rather for the whole package it provides -- the overall user experience, which includes everything from the hardware to the user interface and the tight integration of complementary Google services. Crucially, it also includes an unmatched commitment to timely ongoing updates and support -- something that meaningfully sets the phone apart from almost every other Android option.

As I've put it before, it's all the good parts of Google and Android, amplified -- and without all the usual downsides.

It only seems fitting, then, to kick off 2017 in this column by talking about some simple ways to make the Pixel even more powerful. Whether you picked up the phone as a gift over the holidays or have had it in your pretty little hand since its launch last fall, these next-level (and not entirely obvious) tips can help you get the most out of your pocket-sized Googley gadget.

Tip #1: Teach your Pixel the art of tapping

One of my now-favorite Pixel features showed up with the recent Android 7.1 software update (which should hopefully be on your device by now as well). It's the ability to have your phone's screen turn on and give you a quick glance at any pertinent info whenever you double-tap its display.

The screen lights up only partially at first -- with a dimmed image showing you the current time and any pending notifications. If you touch the screen again, it'll illuminate all the way and let you interact with that info or just proceed normally to your home screen.

It's similar to the Ambient Display feature on Google's Nexus phones of yore (and the Active Display feature introduced on Motorola phones before that) -- except while those features flash the display on anytime you bump your device or pick it up, this one requires a more deliberate action. I find I actually prefer that, as I don't necessarily want my screen to light up every time I move the phone and would rather have a more intentional way of triggering the at-a-glance view.

Pixel Tips: Double Tap jr

To give it a whirl, head into the Moves section of your system settings and look for the item labeled "Double-tap to check phone." (You'll also find an option there called "Lift to check phone," which will give you the motion-activated Ambient-Display-like alternative.)

Tip #2: Make your Pixel light-sensitive

Our second item is another useful Android 7.1 Pixel addition: the presence of a new Night Light mode that tints your phone's screen to make it easier on your eyes in dim conditions.

It really does work well -- and if you're anything like me, once you get used to it, you'll want it on whenever the evening hours arrive. And that gets at the best part of the feature: You can actually set the Pixel's night mode to activate and deactivate itself automatically based on the amount of daylight wherever you are.

Pixel Tips: Night Light Schedule jr

Just dance over to the Display section of your system settings and tap the line labeled "Night Light." Select "Turn on automatically" and choose "Sunset to sunrise" to have the screen light soften itself whenever dusk hits and go back to normal when morning arrives.

Tip #3: Let Google give you the gift of free data

Mobile data can be a precious (and costly!) commodity these days, so take note: A little-known Pixel feature can help you tap into readily available high-quality Wi-Fi connections and limit the amount of carrier-based mobile data you use.

It's a core feature of Google's unusual Project Fi wireless service -- and it's now available to all Pixel (and Nexus) owners as well. The way it works, in short, is that whenever Google senses a fast and reliable public Wi-Fi network in your vicinity, it'll connect you to that network while encrypting all of your incoming and outgoing data for security. That way, you'll stay online without burning through any of your mobile data allotment.

Pixel Tips: Wi-Fi Assistant jr

All you've gotta do is go to the Google section of your Pixel's system settings, then select "Networking" and activate "Wi-Fi Assistant" to opt in. (If you're using Project Fi as your carrier, the option should already be activated by default as part of the service.)

Tip #4: Expand what your Pixel's fingerprint scanner can do

The Pixel's fingerprint scanner is great for security, sure, but why not expand its usefulness and make it do even more?

A third-party app called Fingerprint Gestures lets you assign all sorts of custom actions to the Pixel's fingerprint scanner so it can have a purpose even after you unlock your phone. I use it to create a more convenient Home button, for instance -- one I can easily tap without shifting my hand at all, especially when I'm using my Pixel single-handedly.

It's far more practical and powerful than the single (and somewhat silly) fingerprint gesture offered in the Pixel's own settings.

Tip #5: Turn Google into your communications gatekeeper

For Goog's sake, it's 20-freakin'-17. Shouldn't we be past the point of dealing with spam calls and texts on our supposedly "smart" phones already?

If you have a Pixel, thank your lucky stars -- for the answer is a resounding "yes." The phone's software actually has some pretty advanced spam-blocking tools, and all you have to do is get in the habit of using 'em.

The next time you get a call from someone questionable, head into your Phone app and tap the clock icon (the second icon from the left) at the top of the screen to pull up your call history. Find the offending number, then press and hold it for a second and select "Block/report spam" from the box that appears. Once you confirm that's what you want to do, Google will prevent that number from ever reaching you again and will also report it as spam to Google's own evolving database.

Any numbers you block will be prevented from texting you in Google's Messenger app, too, and best of all: Your list of blocked numbers will automatically sync up with any Android phone you use in the future (as long as it also runs Android 7.0 or higher).

Oh, and one more thing: You can see a list of all the numbers you've blocked -- and manually add a number to the list, if you're ever so inclined -- by tapping the settings icon in the upper-right corner of the Phone app and selecting "Settings" followed by "Call blocking."

And while you're in the Phone app's settings, take a minute to look under the "Caller ID & spam" option and make sure that option is activated. It'll allow Google to show you the name of an incoming caller even if their number isn't saved in your own contacts and will alert you when an incoming call is from a number associated with spam.

Tip #6: Unlock your Pixel camera's potential

The Pixel has a spectacular camera, but there's one asterisk to be aware of: By default, it won't capture certain types of content at the highest possible quality.

To fix that, open your phone's Camera app, tap the menu icon in the upper-left corner, and select "Settings." Find the option labeled "Back camera video resolution," tap it, and then select "UHD 4K." (Remember, your Pixel comes with free unlimited photo and video storage on Google Photos, so you don't have to worry about how much extra space the higher quality format will take up.)

While you're there, look for the option labeled "Panorama resolution" and change it to "High." If you ever take a panoramic photo with your phone (which you should, at least once!), you'll be grateful for the better quality.

Tip #7: Take photos without lifting a finger

The new Google Assistant brings some confusing inconsistencies to the realm of Android voice commands -- but along with that, it brings some handy new features to owners of Pixel phones. One of them is the ability to start a countdown and take a photo simply by speaking out loud.

It couldn't be easier, either: Just say "OK Google, take a picture" to start a three-second countdown with your rear-facing camera -- or "OK Google, take a selfie" to do the same with the front-facing one.

If you want to set a specific amount of time for the countdown, just add that into either command -- "OK Google, take a picture in 15 seconds," for instance.

And don't forget to smile, you good-lookin' son-of-a-gun.

Tip #8: Bring your Pixel's wallpaper to life

Live wallpapers have been around on Android for ages, but they haven't gotten much love from Google in a long time -- and as a result, they've kind of stagnated in terms of excitement and evolution.

The Pixel changes that. Touch and hold on any open area of your home screen and select "Wallpapers" to explore the numerous new possibilities created specifically for this phone. I like "Aurora Time Lapse" (under the "Live Data" category), which shows you subtly shifting gradients based on the time of day and the current weather conditions wherever you happen to be.

Pixel Tips: Live Wallpapers jr

I also enjoy the "Daily wallpaper" option in the "Earth," "Landscapes," "Cityscapes," "Life," and "Textures" categories. It rotates through an array of lovely images for your background, with a new one appearing automatically on your home screen about once a day.

Tip #9: Get lucky

This last one's more silly than practical, but it's pretty fun -- and it can be an entertaining way to kill some time by yourself or with others (hello, family road trips!).

With your Pixel nearby, say "OK Google, I'm feeling lucky." I'll let you find out what happens next.

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