Review: Google Pixel & Google Pixel XL


The new Google Pixel phone and its supersized cousin, the Google Pixel XL, represent a paradigm shift in the smartphone world. Although this isn’t the first time the search giant has sold smartphones under its own name, it’s the first time it has marketed them under the Pixel brand. That’s important, because this is Google finally stamping its own mark on a phone – and it’s a signal that it’s going directly after Apple.

The clue is in the pricing, which is going to be a huge disappointment to fans of the now-defunct Nexus brand. The Nexus name always stood for reasonable prices, great specifications and a chance to keep up with the freshest, most up-to-date version of Android. The Pixel brand retains only two of those key strengths, ditching low prices in favour of iPhone-matching, wallet-shrinking starting prices of $1,079 and $1,269.

The key question has to be, then, do the new Google phones deliver? Are they as good as the prices suggest, or has Google slipped up? The answer is, as you may have ascertained from my tortuous rhetorical questions, a bit of both.

Pixel-perfect design

I should caveat that Google hasn’t yet delivered a 5in Pixel to properly test in everyday life – this review is based on the Pixel XL – but there’s little difference between the phones other than the size of the screen and battery. I spent some time with the Pixel at its launch, however, and can unequivocally say that both phones look great. From a design perspective, I prefer them to the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Using the Pixel XL day in, day out, I was immediately struck by how much impact a little reduction in weight and height makes: it feels more comfortable to hold and slip into the pocket than the iPhone 7 Plus. Essentially, it’s a progression of the design seen on last year’s Nexus 6P; just a little more polished. It could even be described as outlandish, with its inset glass camera surround spanning the top-third of the rear panel, encompassing the camera and circular, centre-mounted fingerprint reader. It certainly isn’t bland.

I don’t like is the phone’s lack of dust- and water-resistance. Here Google has missed a trick, especially since this is the year Apple chose to add the feature to its iPhones to match Samsung and Sony.

So, there’s some good news and some bad news. Everything else about the Pixel’s design is firmly middle of the road, right down to the good old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and the white/silver and black/charcoal colours in which it’s available (the blue you see in the picture is for the US only).

Hardcore specs

Although the price may have risen, one thing that hasn’t changed is that 2016’s Google Pixel and Pixel XL are right at the cutting-edge when it comes to the core performance components.

Both phones are identical in the important areas. Each has a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM. The phones come in two variants, with either 32GB or 128GB of storage – echoing the new iPhones – and there’s no microSD storage expansion.

This is the first time we’ve seen the Snapdragon 821 in a phone, but there isn’t much new here. The key difference between it and the 820 is its higher maximum clock speed of 2.4GHz, but that isn’t something Google is exploiting here. Both the Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL run at 2.15GHz, which is precisely the same speed as the Snapdragon 820 found in the OnePlus 3.

This is reflected in the benchmark results, with Geekbench 4 numbers that roughly match the OnePlus 3’s, and GFXBench GL off-screen results that sit at a similar level. The only result that doesn’t match that of the OnePlus is the native resolution, onscreen GFXBench frame rate, and that’s down to the Pixel XL’s higher-resolution screen.

The Pixel XL’s result in our video-rundown battery test tells a similar story. It’s slightly better than average for an Android smartphone, lasting 15hrs 55mins before running flat, but not as good as the OnePlus 3, which lasted 16hrs 56mins – and a long way behind the superlative Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which kept going for a staggering 18hrs 42mins.

Sharp shooter

The screen is where things start to come good. While the Google Pixel has a 5in display, the Pixel XL has a larger 5.5in AMOLED panel – and a very good one at that. Colours are well balanced, there’s full coverage of the sRGB colour gamut, and it has perfect contrast, as with all AMOLED screens.

The resolution is a super-sharp 1,440 x 2,560. That’s a phenomenal figure, but don’t expect to notice the difference between the Pixel XL and the 1,080 x 1,920 OnePlus 3, say, with the naked eye. The real advantage of so many pixels comes only when viewing images in a VR headset such as Google’s Daydream View.

Where you might well spot the difference between the Pixel and the OnePlus, however, is the rear camera: this is one area in which Google’s confidence is well-founded. It’s a 12.3-megapixel unit, paired with a bright f/2-aperture lens – the same as last year’s Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X phones. This time, however, there are a couple of key improvements. First, optical image stabilisation, which sharpens up low-light shots; second, phase-detection autofocus, in addition to the 6P’s laser autofocus, which speeds up focusing in all light conditions.

Before the original launch of the phone, Google sent a Pixel to the sensor- and lens-testing experts at DxOMark, who awarded it a rating of 89, one mark better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and three better than the iPhone 7. I have to agree with that conclusion: the Pixel XL’s camera produces the best image quality I’ve come across in any smartphone.

It captures more detail in low light and its new auto HDR mode works effectively to eradicate blown-out highlights and boost contrast, while its colour capture is a notch above any phone I’ve seen.

In our indoor, low-light test, the Google Pixel XL’s extraordinary ability to capture detail is clear once again, with near-perfect white balance; in contrast, the S7 Edge’s image is slightly softer and tinged with pink. Image quality is superlative, then, and video quality almost as good. Side by side with the iPhone 7 Plus, 4K footage from the Google Pixel XL looks sharper, more richly coloured and more smoothly stabilised. My only criticism is that, rather than apply heavy noise reduction in low light, Google has chosen to retain as much detail as possible. The result is that, in some circumstances, the footage looks a little grainy.

Google continues to make improvements to its camera software, which not only feels snappier in use, but also has a few neat new features. It’s possible to launch the camera app directly with a double-click of the power button, for example, and you can switch between forward and rear cameras with a quick double-twist of the wrist.

In our indoor, low-light test, the Google Pixel XL’s extraordinary ability to capture detail is clear once again, with near-perfect white balance…

Elsewhere, Smartburst takes a stream of photographs and builds them into an animated GIF for you, at the same time picking out the sharpest full-resolution images automatically. And I love Google’s new implementation of exposure compensation: tap anywhere on the screen and a slider appears to the right of the frame, allowing quick brightness adjustments with the swipe of a finger.

Another plus: Google will back up all of your images and videos at original quality, with no limits, so there’s no need to make that decision over whether to eat into your Drive storage allocation or accept a little extra compression.

Meet your Google Assistant 

The Pixels are the first phones to run Google Assistant, the search giant’s latest stab at a Siri rival. Activated with a long press of the onscreen home button, or by uttering the “OK Google” key phrase, Assistant is a conversational, context-aware extension to Google Now – which still exists, off to the left of the Nougat homepage.

Is it any good? My opinion is mixed. I love the way you can now unlock the phone with your voice. However, I found recognition to be patchy. It never unlocked with someone else’s voice, fortunately, but like talking to an ageing relative, I found I had to speak loudly and slowly to make it work reliably.

I do like the conversational and contextual nature of Assistant’s responses. Ask it about the weather today, and you can then tap the microphone icon and ask “what about tomorrow?” and it will furnish you with the long-term forecast.

Brilliant, but it’s as yet a little prescriptive about exactly what it responds to. Ask “how about the rest of the week” instead, and Assistant will simply repeat the previous answer. There’s clearly some work to do.

Other decent new features include automatic software updates, circular icons for the core Google apps, and a different way to access the app drawer (you pull up from the bottom of the screen instead of tapping an icon).

And, of course, the phone is “VR-ready”. Simply drop the handset into Google’s new Daydream View headset, strap it to your face and you have access to a variety of VR content, the whole of YouTube and Google Play Movies, plus games, a bunch of educational stuff and more. 

Verdict

Google’s two Pixel phones mark a major move, not only for the company but also for the technology industry. The Pixel XL is a brilliant phone that justifies its place at the top of the market. It has a great screen, good battery life and the best camera around, and it’s also darned quick.

On balance, though, is it as good as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge? The answer is no. The Galaxy S7 Edge remains the best, money-no-object smartphone on the market, simply because it’s better in a greater number of areas. It’s more attractive, has longer battery life and a superior display. It’s faster, it’s dust- and water-resistant, and you can currently buy one for $20 less than the Pixel XL.

The Pixels’ strengths lie in their superlative camera and clean Android install. Whether you choose one or the other, you’ll be getting a brilliant smartphone, but the Galaxy S7 Edge just noses in front. What’s disappointing is that it was well within Google’s power to do all of this and undercut the competition on price. Setting the 5in Pixel’s price at $979 instead of $1,079 would have sealed its place as the best dollar-for-dollar phone around. By choosing to match the price of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, Google deserts the middle-ground and leaves the OnePlus 3 out on its own to mop up the win. And so, while I like the Google Pixel XL, and the 5in Pixel, I can’t quite bring myself to love it. 

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