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Google Pixel/Pixel XL REVIEW: The best of Android with uninspired hardware

by Todd Haselton | October 18, 2016October 18, 2016 6:00 am PDT

The Google Pixel and Pixel XL represent the company’s shift to create and sell smartphones that cater directly to consumers. In many ways, they’re the company’s version of the iPhone.

Two sizes are available, catering to consumers who prefer large and small screens, and Google sells the devices directly or through carrier stores. It will also update all of its Pixel devices at the same time, similar to the iPhone, which means Pixel buyers should theoretically get the latest versions of Android first.

I spent the last four days using the regular Pixel, simply a smaller version of the Pixel XL that Jon Rettinger tested in our Irvine office. I’m here to report on my findings, and while I did like the smartphone, I walked away a bit unimpressed.

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Google Pixel hardware

Let’s get this out of the way: The Pixel is a boring smartphone. Unlike other devices, such as the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, it lacks any sort of external bells and whistles. There’s no stylus, no iris scanner, nothing that’ll drop your jaw. Built by HTC, the Pixel is a simple slab with a bright 1080p AMOLED display sitting between two massive bezel chins.

I found the display on the smaller unit to be just fine, 1080p is usually sufficient at this display size, though I haven’t been able to test it with the Google Daydream View VR headset. That’s where the Quad HD display on the Pixel XL might take the cake.

The device measures in at a palm-friendly 5.6-inches x 2.7 inches x 0.3-inches at its thickest. Like an iPhone, it’s easy to use with one hand, with the volume buttons and power key in easy reach. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack up top and a USB-C port on the bottom next to a single bottom firing speaker, which was loud but hollow when I played back music.

The Google Pixel is mostly aluminum save for a glass panel on the top back of the device. This was included to improve RF performance, but also makes the phone look like it’s wearing a weird smock. On the white unit, it has a yellowish hue when held under light that’s kind of gross. There’s no camera bump, which is a plus for some, but that comes at a pretty thick and beefy device.

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There’s a fingerprint reader on the back of the Google Pixel, which would have been fine if it had meant Google was able to ditch the huge chin on the front of the phone. I’m not sure why the chin needs to exist at all. I prefer fingerprint readers on the front of my devices, though Nexus fans will be right at home. The fingerprint reader is quick and easy to reach without looking.

The Pixel packs all of the latest hardware trimmings under the hood. My review unit came with 32GB of storage (128GB is an option if you pay more), a Snapdragon 821 processor, a 12.3-megapixel camera (we’ll discuss that later), an 8-megapixel front-facing camera and all sorts of wireless bands for LTE operation around the world.

The hardware may be boring, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it all works well together. Let’s dive into the software. After all, that’s the real focus of the Google Pixel.

Google Pixel software

The Google Pixel runs Android 7.1 with the new Pixel launcher and the new Google Assistant. The Google Assistant is exclusive to the Pixel right now, though you can get it running on other devices with a bit of elbow grease.

Android 7.1 is a relatively minor update to Android 7.0 Nougat with circular app icons and folders, app shortcuts and enhanced live wallpapers. The “app shortcuts” are valuable additions that add a bit of Apple’s 3D touch functionality to Android. Long press an app, such as the phone, and you’ll see options that the developer has included behind the scenes. Chrome lets you open new tabs, maps lets you quickly navigate to work or home, messages lets you open recent conversations. Think of it as easy shortcuts.

Android 7.1 also has a new app drawer that pulls up from the bottom of the screen, which means the app drawer icon is gone. I like this approach and think it gives Android a much cleaner look. A swipe right from the home screen reveals the Google Now page, with all of your Google information at your fingertips. There’s also a new pill-shaped search box at the top of the screen.

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Google includes dozens of wallpapers on the Pixel, including compelling live wallpapers. The new enhanced live wallpapers feature inside Android 7.1 Nougat allows you to view data about each picture, what it represents and so forth, which is convenient. My favorite live wallpaper shows the earth moving ever so slowly with the rising and setting of the sun. It’s subtle but makes the homescreen feel alive.

There are other bonus features packed inside the software. Google offers 24/7 support for Pixel owners, for example, though when I tried calling it said I had a 30 minute wait. Perhaps that will improve after the Pixel ships. You also get free unlimited full-size photos and 4K (or lower) video uploads, which is excellent, in addition to support for Project Fi, Google’s wireless network service.

Android 7.1 is quick and smooth, no doubt thanks to the Snapdragon 821 chip and plenty of RAM under the hood. It generally felt reliable, too, except for a few crashes I had here and there. When I first booted the phone, for example, my command “Ok Google” kept bringing up a menu asking me to voice train the assistant over and over. A hard reset fixed that and some other bugs that haven’t popped up since.

Google Assistant

Speaking of Google Assistant, that’s the company’s new smart AI system that will continue to compete with the likes of Siri and Cortana. She’s smart, but still has a long way to go. For one, I found that the phone wasn’t very good at hearing me say “Ok Google” or execute commands. To test my theory, I had the Google Pixel and an unlocked Moto Z side-by-side in the room. The Moto Z was able to hear and understand my commands far better than the Pixel, which sometimes just got half of my query.

I ran into some trouble in the car, too. While driving, GPS locked up once for about 10 minutes, something I don’t normally run into in my area. Google Assistant allows you to dig deep, too, so you can ask her for a restaurant and then, if you have a third party app like OpenTable installed, book a table. Siri’s capable of this sort of command, too, and neither work that well. It’s almost always faster to just open the OpenTable application, as neat as it seems to do something by voice.

Google Assistant is also supposed to work with Philips Hue bulbs, though I couldn’t get it to work in my experience, even after pairing it with my Hue Hub. A query to “turn on the attic lights” played a song called “attic lights” on Google Music. Maybe this functionality is coming later?

Google Assistant is good for other things, though. You can ask “how tall is the Empire state building,” for example. She’ll return the results. Then you can continue the query with something like “where is it located?” without naming the actual building, and Google will provide you the address. This is where Google Assistant shines over competitors, in contextual awareness.

She’s not perfect, but this is where artificial intelligence is heading, and I have a feeling Google will learn a lot once Assistant is in the hands of Pixel owners.

Google Pixel battery life and performance

I prefer real-world performance to benchmarks, but I ran a few tests for our readers who prefer the raw data. Aside from a few of the software bugs I ran into, the Google Pixel offered top-notch zippy performance. And since it doesn’t have a bunch of manufacturer layers on top, I don’t see it slowing down over time either.

The Pixel notched up a single-core score of 1538 in Geekbench 4, falling behind the Exynos-powered Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 Edge and even devices like the OnePlus 3 and Xiaomi Mi 5. The multicore score came in at 4,122, ahead of the OnePlus 3 but still behind Samsung’s Exynos 8890 smartphones. In AnTuTu, the Pixel score 138,461 (57,060 in 3D; 32,854 in UX; 32,307 in CPU; 6,240 in RAM.) That score ranked the Pixel in 8th place behind the iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 7, LeEco LEX720, Xiaomi Mi5s Plus, Xiaomi Mi 5, OnePlus 3 and the vivo Xplay 5.

I was able to make it through a full day of use during my Google Pixel testing period. I admit that I didn’t spend hours playing video games or playing movies on an airplane, which will no doubt suck the battery life down pretty rapidly. But for checking email, browsing Twitter, snapping photos and sending text messages, navigating with GPS for about an hour and more, the Google Pixel held up without issue.

Google Pixel camera performance

If there’s one feature of the Google Pixel I’d say stood out the most, it’s the camera. I found it to be on a par with the Galaxy S7 and sometimes better than the iPhone 7. It’s definitely up there with the best mobile camera on the market.

My shots out in a park with my puppy Mabel came out amazing and looked like I’d snapped them with one of my mirrorless cameras. There’s an option to add a bokeh effect if you want, but I found it to be inaccurate, slow and somewhat cheesy. You can get great bokeh with the Pixel by just staying close to your subject.

I noticed some issues in low-light conditions indoors, where a red cloud of noise would appear in the outer parts of the image. Otherwise, performance was pretty amazing, particularly outdoors. The camera is fast, usually quick to auto-focus, and delivers excellent shots almost every time. I don’t own a 4K TV or display to test that video, but it’s an option if you want. I found the 1080p video to be solid, though.

Images are stored locally but, as you run out of space, you can have them set to store only in the cloud. If you have the 32GB model, this might be annoying once you have plenty of apps installed, since your phone will need a connection to display photos if they aren’t stored locally

Pixel camera samples

Rating: Wait

“I have too many questions about the focus of the Google Pixel and not enough confidence in its future.”

Google Pixel

The Pixel performs decently well and offers some of the best hardware available. But it’s boring. It’s not water resistant. It doesn’t offer wireless charging. It doesn’t have expandable storage. It doesn’t offer a hardware feature we haven’t seen, like an iris scanner. The software is the highlight here.

Yet, I’m not sure that’s even something that’s all-too exciting or justifies the premium price tag. You’ll pay $650 for the very base model of the Google Pixel, and it’s hard to recommend you spend $250 more than the OnePlus 3. You might think this phone is purely squared at Android purists, but it’s not. This is Google’s attempt to cater to the mass market the way Apple has with the iPhone, but there are cheaper alternatives for people who don’t really care about pure Google.

Worse, the folks who do care, Nexus users, are the ones who Google just left in the cold. While Google promises 2 years of software updates and 3 years of security patches, why should Nexus fans trust Google this time around? Will the Pixel live on another year if sales aren’t great? Or will Google launch another product with exclusive features like Google Assistant?

I have too many questions about the focus of the Google Pixel and not enough confidence in its future. It’s a fine phone, sure, but there are plenty of devices that offer similar performance and, in some cases, more features, for the same price or less.

You want an Android phone? Buy a Galaxy S7 Edge. You want an Android phone that doesn’t break the bank? Buy a OnePlus 3. You want an Android Phone with Google Assistant? Buy a Nexus 6P and hack it on. Want something unique? Buy a Moto Z. You want an expensive Android phone with 24/7 support, unlimited Google Photo backup and the chance at getting the latest software first? Then get the Pixel. I suggest waiting to see what Google’s grander plan for the Pixel is before diving in, however. With the glaring hole left by the Galaxy Note 7 in my arsenal, I’ll personally be switching over to the Moto Z.

PROS:

  • Decent battery life
  • Great camera
  • First dibs on Android software

CONS:

  • Uninspiring design
  • Expensive
  • Not water resistant
  • No wireless charging
  • No expandable storage

Disclaimer: Google provided us with a Pixel XL review unit, which was used for the video portion of this review. A partner also provided us with a Google Pixel review unit, which was used for the written portion. Todd used the smartphone for four days before writing the review, and Jon used the Google Pixel for 5 days.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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