We didn’t expect it to come as soon as it did, but Google’s first solely self-branded smartphone, the Google Pixel, is finally here. In light of how mature the smartphone market has become in the last few years, it’s hard for a new phone to stand out as something that takes anything more than a few baby steps forward. This phone isn’t that much different. But what is different is that it isn’t just any Android phone made by one of Google’s partners. This one is Google’s, and that’s special.
It’s special because Google really has made an effort at building a good top-to-bottom user experience. It’s special because Google has made some clear — in some cases major — improvements to its software and how it works with the hardware. It’s special because it has a great camera. It’s special because it’s the first Android phone to ship with the Google Assistant. It’s special because it’s the first Daydream-ready smartphone. It’s special because it’s the best portal to Google’s services, full stop.
But most of all, I think the Pixel is special because it seems to me that Google’s newly-rebirthed smartphone line has a lot of potential. Yes, there are some things that this phone doesn’t have. But what phone doesn’t? Let’s talk about what the Pixel has going for it.
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SO WHAT IS THE PIXEL?
The Pixel is a new smartphone, and as the company says, it’s #madebyGoogle. It’s the spiritual successor to the Nexus line of old, but with at least one key external difference: there’s no co-branding from another manufacturer. We know that the device was actually manufactured by HTC, but Google is truly claiming this phone as their own. In its marketing, Google is positioning the phone as “Phone by Google” to make sure this is clear. This is Google’s baby.
The Pixel has a 5-inch FHD AMOLED display, and the Pixel XL has a slightly larger 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, but other than that they’re mostly the same. You’ll find a quad-core 64-bit Snapdragon 821 SoC, 4GB of RAM, 12.3MP and 8MP cameras, 32GB of storage, and the usual Bluetooth, NFC, and other connectivity interfaces. The Pixel has a 2,770 mAh battery, while the XL has a 3,450mAh battery. But battery life expectancy is not much different between them — the Pixel XL is a little better.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a review unit for the standard Pixel yet, so this review is solely of the Pixel XL. That shouldn’t matter much, though, because as I just mentioned, the only differences between the two phones are battery life and their display sizes/resolutions. The experience you actually receive with both phones should be nearly identical with the exception of size, because unlike the tricks Apple is pulling with the iPhone 7 Plus, Google isn’t packing any special features in XL to get you to upgrade. It is truly a matter of size preference with the Pixel, and little more.
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The Google Pixel doesn’t exactly have the most stunning a smartphone has ever had, but it’s definitely not bad. It’s going to draw comparisons to its competitors, though — that’s for sure. First, the phone will almost certainly be compared to the iPhone thanks to its antenna lines and large top-and-bottom front bezels. That bottom bezel, sans a home button like the iPhone, is probably the most unsightly part of the Pixel. It’s just a huge chin.
The other comparison that this phone will likely draw is to HTC phones, and for good reason. Forget the fact that the antenna line design that many will say the Pixel copies from the iPhone was actually first introduced by HTC. The phone bears some resemblance to the HTC 10, with its sharp edges and side bezels. While it’s definitely not a “copy” by any means, the Pixel does feel a lot like a mix between the iPhone 6S and the HTC 10. It doesn’t have a standout design like the Galaxy S7 edge.
But it does have one hardware design feature that’s completely unique. The back of the phone is actually one third glass, fused together with the rest of the aluminum unibody. While there’s little or no functional purpose to this (Google says it serves to even further improve cellular reception), it does do a good job of giving the Pixel its own outer appearance. If you see a phone with a glass-backed top third like this, it’s guaranteed to be a Pixel (at least for now). And that’s good for Google.
Sitting atop this glass back is the what was previously known as Nexus Imprint. “Pixel Imprint” is really just the fancy name for the Pixel’s fingerprint scanner. There’s nothing particularly interesting here, but I have to say I’m a huge fan of the smooth glass rear fingerprint sensors. They feel really nice and — at least in my experience — I tend to find them a bit faster and more accurate than others. But that’s not saying much in 2016, because pretty much all phones have lightning fast fingerprint sensors.
Size and feel in the hand
Like I said, I’ve only really had my hands on the Pixel Xl, so I can’t really comment on the smaller model. But in size, I think the Pixel XL hits a sweet spot for me. Phones like the iPhone 6S Plus or the Huawei Nexus 6P have always been a bit on the big side for me, and the size of the standard iPhone or the Nexus 5X is a bit small. The Pixel XL manages to pack a 5.5-inch display in a body that’s smaller than the iPhone 6S Plus, and that’s a plus for me. But it’s no Galaxy S7 edge, which manages to pack that display in an even smaller form factor.
The Pixel XL feels really good in the hand. It has nicely curved edges on the backside, so it feels a lot more like an iPhone and less like the sharper-edged Galaxy devices from Samsung or the HTC 10. I prefer that, but as I said, this phone is probably more vulnerable than any of the entire history of Nexus phones to be compared to the iPhone. I don’t mind that personally, but it’s just the reality of things.
There’s a headphone jack!
It’s kind of sad that I have to even mention this, but if this is a deciding factor for you, you’ll be glad to hear that the Pixel has a nice headphone jack located right at the top-left side. Personally this wasn’t a big deal to me, and I haven’t really had much problem using an adapter when necessary with the Moto Z, but I understand that this is a deal-breaker for some. I hope that changes soon, because in my humble opinion, it’s about time we move on from the 3.5mm jack. But it’s there if you need it!
While the Pixel doesn’t have the best screens on a smartphone, they’re adequate or better than adequate. And I think you may find this to be a theme throughout this review. In many aspects, the Pixel is “safe” in terms of hardware. Like many phones, it’s not the best in direct sunlight, but this phone gets brighter than the Moto Z for example. It’s more than enough to get the job done, though. I was happy with the colors and vibrance of the display when watching videos and playing games.
The Pixel has great fast charging. Google says that it can get up to 7 hours of use from only 15 minutes of charging on both the Pixel and Pixel XL, and can attest to this. In fact, I woke up at 7 AM one morning and the phone was completely dead from the night before. I had to be out the house at 8 AM. I plugged in the phone and gave it about a half hour of juice, and that charge got me through the whole day.
Speaker & microphones
The main earpiece speaker is nice and crisp on the Pixel XL, and I couldn’t ask for more in terms of call quality. But with phones like the iPhone 7 and other Android phones having had stereo speakers for years, it feels like a bit of a downgrade to go to a single bottom-firing mono speaker with the Google Pixel. This is something that’s kind of nitpicky to me (but might be important to you!), but it’s nonetheless unfortunate considering the phone’s price point.
But that one speaker sounds fine. I know that this review is full of Galaxy S7 edge comparisons (I apologize, I just think it’s a good benchmark since it’s one of the most popular and best Android phones of the year), but this is yet another case where I would put the two phones about on par with each other. If you have an S7 edge laying around (or you have a friend with one), just try playing music through its single speaker. That’s about what you’re getting with the Pixel.
This is just an exercise I like to do every time I review a phone, so bear with me. I’ve found a hobby in obsessing over the vibration motors of phones, and there are some clear winners and losers in the smartphone realm. The clear undefeated champion when it comes to vibration motors — and I say this unapologetically — is the iPhone 7, which barely beats the iPhone 6S.
Clear losers include the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, so I think I was justifiably nervous about how this phone would turn out. Thankfully, I’m glad to report that the Pixel has turned out just fine in this area. The motor is no Taptic Engine by any means, but it’s nice and precise and doesn’t produce any audible buzzing when you tap buttons. It’s still pretty weak, but it’s about average compared to other Android phones like the Galaxy S7 edge.
It’s not waterproof
One of the biggest downsides of this phone’s hardware is that it’s just not waterproof. That’s something that is becoming more and more expected lately at this price point, but you’re sadly not going to find it here. In fact, the Pixel is rated IP53 for dust and water resistance, so that means it’s pretty well dust resistant, but it’s only going to be able to take a splash or two of water before some amount of damage is done. In the coming days we’ll probably see lots of water dunk tests done on the phone, so stay tuned as we find out exactly how water resistant it is compared to other Android phones.
I’ve long been a fan of “stock” Android, so I’m more than ecstatic to be able to talk about the Google Pixel’s software. I almost always have to list “crappy customized OEM ROM” in the list of downsides when I review Android phones, but I’m glad to say that the Google Pixel is one of only a few exceptions of the year. Yes, 3rd party Android customizations have gotten better in recent years, but they still almost always find a way to get on my nerves. Not so with the Pixel. Its UI is fantastic.
The big software selling point for the Pixel — at least for now — is the inclusion of the Google Assistant as a baked in feature on the OS level. It’s still unknown when — if ever — older Nexus devices will have the same integration, so Pixel seems like it will be the only way to get this feature for a while. Replacing the hollow home, multitasking, and back navigation icons of previous versions, the Pixel goes with solid white and the middle one is even more special. Tap and hold it to get some dancing colored bubbles.
But tapping and holding it does more than just give you an undeniably-Googley animation. This gesture invokes the Google Assistant, which is basically the voice features we’re all familiar with from Google Now with a far more intelligent and personal helper built on top. Think Apple’s Siri, but Assistant — in my experience — has far better word recognition and accuracy. And of course Google Assistant is powered by Google, so it has access to all kinds of information that Siri might not be able to grab for you.
The big thing with Assistant in comparison to Google Now, though, is that is has much deeper control over your phone and it can help you in much more intelligent ways. Assistant can play your news (from your selected sources of course), you can get a summary of your upcoming day, it can learn things about you (try telling it your favorite color!), it can play games with you, and more.
You can also tell Google Assistant to do things that you’re familiar with from using Google Now. You can use it manage your shopping list in Google Keep, you can use it make a phone call you can use it to control Google Play Music (and soon other services), you can use it to control your phone’s flashlight, and of course you can get smart answers from Google. Also of note, is that the Google Now on Tap features are still present with Assistant. Simply tap and hold and then scroll down.
Allo and Duo
Unsurprisingly, Google is using the Pixel and Pixel XL to push its newly-launched duo of messaging apps, Allo and Duo. The phone also ships with both pre-installed, and disables Hangouts by default for most users. If you’re a Project Fi user, the phone will detect that you — obviously — need Hangouts when you first set up the phone and won’t disable it. Adding to the awesome software features of the Pixel, Google is throwing in unlimited full resolution storage of videos and photos in Google Photos.
One big thing to note here is the Pixel Launcher, which is landing officially for the first time on the Pixel and Pixel XL. It’s an evolution of the long-popular Google Now Launcher (which I’m a big fan of in the first place), and adds some useful features and tweaks. The most obvious is a permanent weather and time widget on the home screen, but the new launcher also has a new app drawer, an easy-to-use Google button in the top-left, and some visual tweaks to make the Pixel unique.
The most obvious visual tweak that comes hand in hand with the Pixel launcher, is that almost all of Google’s stock applications come with a set of stylized circular icons on the Pixel. It’s a common misconception that this is part of the Pixel Launcher itself (the rounded icons will stick around no matter which launcher you use), but of course using a third-party launcher will allow you to apply icon packs to make them look however you want.
Personally, I haven’t decided whether or not I like the new icons. When I first saw them in the leaked images of the Pixel home screen, I had a knee jerk negative reaction, but I have to say that they’ve grown on me in the last several days. Uniformity in size and design is a good thing, I think, but my biggest complaint is that despite Google’s best efforts there’s still inconsistencies.
A few of Google’s own apps still don’t have circular icons — Allo, Duo and Keep to name a few — and apps that you download from the Play Store aren’t just going to be automatically re-themed to look good alongside Google’s circular icon set. Another thing that bugs me is Google’s inconsistency with the circular icons. Some of them — like Maps and Calculator — fill the whole circle, while others look oddly empty surrounded with whiteness. Would be nice if Google would commit one way or the other.
Google Photos isn’t new of course, but the Pixel — as was long expected — ships with some extra Google Photos goodness beyond how great the app already is. Instead of taking up Google Drive space, photos and videos taken with the Pixel will be added to your Google Photos app in their full resolution for free. It’s unlimited full-resolution storage and backup for all of your photos and videos (even videos in 4K!). That’s unprecedented and alone is a pretty compelling selling point for the Pixel.
There’s a new section in the Settings app called “Moves,” which includes some quick gestures for accessing functions of your phone. Currently the section has three options, including “Jump to camera” for double tapping the power button to open the camera, and “Flip camera” for switching between front-facing and rear-facing camera with the flick of a wrist. The most notable option, though, is the “Swipe for notifications” option which lets you swipe down on the fingerprint sensor to pull down the notification shade. You might remember this feature from the Honor 8 and other Huawei phones.
Another huge software upside with the Pixel and Pixel XL is that they are the first Daydream-ready Android phones. This doesn’t mean much yet, because Google’s Daydream View headset hasn’t even shipped yet (we’ll be getting ours for review soon!), but it’s a big plus if you see that as something that you might be interested in later this year. I tried out Daydream at the Google event on October 4th, and I was impressed to say the least. It’s a nice middle ground between PSVR and Cardboard.
Another great software addition with the Pixel and Pixel XL is a new Support tab in the Settings app. If you ever run into any problems with your Pixel, Google has added the ability to quickly contact support via a phone call or a chat. While that might be a deciding feature for enthusiasts, I could see the average smartphone user being enticed by this. It’s definitely nice to have support on call if you ever need it.
Another addition that might go unnoticed by some is the wide selection of some great high-quality wallpapers on the Pixel and Pixel XL. Of course you can choose from your own photos, but there are also “Live Earth” wallpapers of different locations around the world that move as you interact with your phone, “Live data” wallpapers that change based on the time or weather conditions, and some galleries of other high-quality images that are built in. You can also turn on a “daily wallpaper” that changes every day. Overall, these are solid improvements, and keep your phone feeling fresh.
I’m not a huge fan of benchmarks, because I don’t think they very well capture how well a phone performs in real life. But I think it’s worth noting that the Google Pixel XL has landed — at least based on my tests — as one of the most powerful phones ever analyzed by Geekbench. In single core, it was only consistently beaten by the Galaxy S7 edge, the Galaxy S7, and the Xiaomi Mi 5. In multi-core, it was only consistently beaten by the Galaxy S7 edge, the Galaxy S7, and the Galaxy Note 7.
One of my biggest praises of the Pixel and Pixel XL is the camera app’s performance. The Nexus devices were long plagued with low-quality cameras and bad camera performance, and Google has basically fixed these problems completely with the Pixel. In fact, the camera might be my favorite part of the phone. It’s super fast, there’s no lag, and the viewfinder consistently pops up in 1 or 2 seconds flat. And that brings us to the cameras themselves, which are also impressive to say the least…
When Google announced the Pixel, the company claimed that it has the best camera on a smartphone, at least according to the latest DxOMark scores. As of the time of this review, the Google Pixel has beaten the HTC 10, the Galaxy S7 edge, the Sony Xperia X Performance, the Moto Z, and the iPhone 7 to name a few. It’s worth noting that the iPhone 7 Plus has yet to be reviewed by DxOMark, but the Pixel nonetheless should be a step up compared to all of the other Android flagships. Is it?
Check out the following photos, but please understand that I’m not a photographer by any means. I would take these as an example of what the average person would be taking with the Pixel on a daily basis, not as some of the best that the Pixel can take:
Well, we don’t have every single Android phone on hand to compare it to, but we do have a Galaxy S7 edge, one of the next -best Android phones according to DxO. Based on my initial impressions over the last few days, DxO’s benchmark holds up pretty well. The Pixel does indeed have one of the best cameras I’ve ever used on a smartphone — based purely on looking at the photos. But as someone who isn’t really picky about their photos in the first place, I’d be fine with the Galaxy S7.
EIS is the new OIS (almost)
One thing that I have to rave about is this phone’s EIS when recording video. The lack of OIS on this phone was one of the biggest “don’t knock it ’til you try” moments I’ve had in my many few years of reviewing phones. The lack of OIS was one of the biggest “really, Google?” moments for me at the October 4th announcement event, but I have been proven so wrong. The EIS that Google is packing on this phone is borderline magic in my opinion — I think it even beats hardware OIS in some cases.
Switching to Pixel
If you’re on the fence about making the switch because switching from the “other side” (read: an iPhone) sounds difficult, Google has you covered. The Pixel comes with an OTG dongle, which might sound unfamiliar, but it’s just a little adapter used for plugging in your other phone directly to the Pixel. If you’re coming from an iPhone, you can just plug it straight into your new phone and Google will walk you through moving over all your data when you first set up the phone.
Another interesting tidbit that is worth mentioning is that Google offers some really nice first-party cases to go with your Pixel or Pixel XL. They’ve been around since around the time of the launch of the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, and let you customize your phone and make it your own. You can create a Live Case with a Google Maps silhouette of your favorite place, you can create a case using a photo you upload, or you can pick from a pre-selected gallery of art. These cases aren’t cheap, but — on top of being customizable — they also add functionality to your phone with an extra button on the back.
This is a Google-made package from top to bottom, and yeah, it has its compromises, but it very well could be the start of something great. That’s what I think is so special about it. The idea of what Google might be able to accomplish going forward is exciting, and the Pixel is a glimpse at a future where Google’s own hardware competes with the Samsungs and Apples of the world — and maybe even wins.
Sadly, though, the package you get with the Pixel comes at a cost. The standard Pixel starts at $650, and the Pixel XL starts at $769. You can get financing through either Verizon or the Google Store, but these phones are unlocked and will work with most major carriers. At these prices, the phones aren’t a no brainer. But I also don’t think it’s an outrageous asking price either — especially if you manage to get one of those limited edition blue models and you get affordable cellular service through Project Fi.
The elephant(s) in the room, I think, are the Chinese-made budget offerings like the OnePlus 3. In terms of raw specifications, the OnePlus 3 is very comparable to the Pixel — and in some ways better. It’s also a whole 2 or 3 Benjamins cheaper. Honestly, it’s a difficult situation. The Pixel really is great. And in some ways it’s one of the best phones ever. Early — and perhaps exclusive — access to Google’s latest software features is hard to pass up for some. It has near-stock Android with valuable software additions on top and reliable performance. It has the Snapdragon 821. But is it worth the extra cash?
I can’t answer that question for you. I think for me, the answer is yes. I would pick this phone over most Android phones. But I’m also a big fan of Google software, and I prefer to use Android the way Google intends it. None of the other OEMs can offer this flavor of Android that has this degree of Google’s mark and influence. All things considered, these phones aren’t perfect. But no phones are, and if you’re one who loves Google’s software and services as much as I do, they might be the imperfect phones for you.