The idea that Pixel’s have stock Android likely stems from the idea that the Nexus line — which predates the Pixel line — did come with stock Android. Since the first Google Pixel in 2016, however, Google’s phones have come with a subtle software skin. Editor’s note: This article is updated as of September 2021. We will add/remove content as Google reveals more information about Pixel UI.
As an example of this, modern Pixel phones have a feature called Call Screen. It uses the smarts of Google Assistant to answer your spam calls and make sure it’s not a robocall or telemarketer. Within Android Settings, you’ll find a controller for this feature. Obviously, since this is something only Pixel phones get, you won’t find that toggle within stock Android. There are dozens of Pixel features such as these.
Pixel UI is well-received by both critics and consumers. Most agree that its simplicity is an asset that keeps it fast and stable. However, criticism sometimes comes down when one compares it to other feature-rich Android skins, such as Samsung’s One UI. Pixel software can seem anemic by comparison — although that competition is what gives us plenty of choices when it comes to phone software.
Since Google Pixel phones represent the “stock” Android smartphone experience, Google does not mess with the overall look and feel of stock Android, though. Even though there are many extra features added, Pixel UI is purposefully lean and simple as to not distract from the design of Android itself.
Most people likely think Google Pixel smartphones come with stock Android. This is only half true, though. In reality, Pixel phones come with an Android skin known colloquially as Pixel UI. It looks a lot like stock Android but has different designs and features added in.
As mentioned earlier, Pixel UI shares a lot of similarities with stock Android. If you used both systems side-by-side, you’d probably think they were the same. However, depending on the Pixel device in question, there are many more features built into Pixel UI than what you’ll find with stock Android.
Pixel smartphones are almost always the very first phones to get new Android versions. This makes sense since Google owns Android and also owns the Pixel line, so it can optimize the new Android versions of Pixels easily.
The most recent stable version of Pixel UI is Android 11.
Since Google’s Pixel UI is closely aligned with Android releases, the latest version of the UI matches that of Android. In other words, when Android 12 comes out, the latest version of Pixel software will be Android 12. Until that happens, though, Android 11 is the current version.
How to check your version and for updates using Pixel UI
Left to right: Google Pixel 5, Pixel 5a, Pixel 4a 5G
If you don’t know which version of Pixel UI is on your Google device, you can easily check. Here are the steps: In the About Phone section, you’ll see your Version Number, which is both your Android and Pixel UI version.
If you’re running an older version of Pixel UI, there’s a chance an update could be waiting for you. You can check for software updates using the following steps:
Scroll to the bottom of the list and find the System section.
Within System, find and tap on Advanced to expand the list. Then, tap System Update at the bottom of the list.
Pixel UI will let you know if you’re running the latest version. If not, it will give you instructions on how to download and install an update. If your software is up-to-date but you don’t have the latest version of Pixel UI, that means your phone hasn’t received the update yet. It’s also possible your phone is too old to get new updates. In 2010, Google and HTC partnered to create the Google Nexus One, the first smartphone with the Nexus branding. The phone launched with stock Android. Thus began a string of other Nexus-branded phones, all co-created by Google with other OEMs and all landing with stock Android.
In 2016, after the launch of eight Nexus phones, Google launched the first Pixel smartphone. Although Google didn’t admit it at the time, the Pixel line usurped the Nexus line to become the new Google smartphone brand. Unlike the Nexus line, though, Google not only designed the phones but also made them. That first Pixel phone came with Pixel UI on board, making it the first phone with the Android skin. However, at that point, the skin was so minimal that it might as well just have been stock. Over the years, though, Google’s added more and more to Pixel software while still keeping that stock look and feel.