the google pixel 5a display with app icons on the pixel launcher home screen

Pixel 5a
Credit: Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

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.

See also: All Google Pixel phones released so far

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.

In the article below, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about Pixel UI!

Editor’s note: This article is updated as of September 2021. We will add/remove content as Google reveals more information about Pixel UI.

Pixel UI at a glance

a close up of the google pixel 5a home screen at a glance widget on the display

Credit: Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

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.

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.

See also: What is Android?

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.

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.

The latest version of Pixel UI

Android 11 stock photo with Google colors 2

Credit: Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

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.

We have steps on how to check your version number in the next section.

How to check your version and for updates using Pixel UI

the google pixel 5a on a bench compared to the pixel 5 and pixel 4a 5g

Left to right: Google Pixel 5, Pixel 5a, Pixel 4a 5G
Credit: Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

If you don’t know which version of Pixel UI is on your Google device, you can easily check. Here are the steps:

  1. Head to Android Settings by finding the shortcut in your app drawer or notification shade.
  2. Scroll to the bottom of the list and tap on the About Phone section.
  3. 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:

  1. Head to Android Settings by finding the shortcut in your app drawer or notification shade.
  2. Scroll to the bottom of the list and find the System section.
  3. Within System, find and tap on Advanced to expand the list. Then, tap System Update at the bottom of the list.
  4. 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.

A brief history of Pixel UI

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.

See also: How Google Pixel prices for phones changed over the years

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.

The version of Android that launched with the first Pixel was Android 7 Nougat. As such, there won’t be any earlier versions of Pixel UI than that.

What Pixel UI looks like

Here is a gallery of screenshots that should give you an idea of what to expect from Oxygen OS.

The best unique features of Pixel UI

Google Pixel 5 front

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Every Android skin out there puts its own stamp on the software. Here are four things Pixel UI can do that most other skins can’t.

Call Screen

We mentioned this feature earlier briefly. Using Google Assistant, the Call Screen feature answers your calls for you, acting as a personal secretary. The caller will communicate with Google Assistant just as if they were talking with a real person. As this happens, you’ll get a transcript so you can determine if it’s a real person with a real reason for calling you. If you think so, Assistant will patch through the call. If not, it will push it to voicemail and save you the trouble of needing to do the work yourself.

App Suggestions

At the bottom of a Pixel home screen, there are five app icons. Normally, you would manually choose these five icons. However, the icons that you pick today might not be the ones you’d prefer to be there next week. App Suggestions solves this problem by constantly changing the five icons to match what Pixel UI thinks you’ll want at that exact moment. As an example of how this would be incredibly useful, let’s assume you use Google Maps to navigate home every day after work. The software will get to know this trend, and automatically put Maps on the home screen for you right around the time you leave work. Neat!

Night Sight and Astrophotography

Technically, these are aspects of the Google Camera app and not Pixel UI. However, since they are only available on Pixels, we’re including them here. Night Sight is Google’s computational photography feature that can make photos taken at night or even in relative darkness look like they were taken under ideal lighting conditions. Many manufacturers have similar features, but Google’s is one of the best — if not the best. Likewise, the astrophotography features on Pixels remains unmatched.

Now Playing

When your Pixel is not being used, it can have information presented through its always-on display. You can elect for some of this information to be the track and artist of whatever music is playing around you. This is great if you’re at a bar and someone plays a cool song on the stereo. Instead of needing to use a third-party app, you can just glance down at your phone, which will have the information right there for you.

Other information you might be interested in

That’s everything you need to know about Google’s Pixel UI! Be sure to bookmark this page as we will update it as Google changes the Android skin.