Google Pixel XL review

Since launching in 2009, the Nexus line has been a loosely collected family of phones from Google. Whereas they may be designed as a series of devices, they have thus far been perceived as one-off models launched roughly once per year.

Initially, the Nexus One was introduced as somewhat of a benchmark device from Google. As the first year or so of Android was off to a slow start, Google was hoping for a quickened pace. In its eyes, phones needed to be at a higher level than where they were. At the rate things were moving it would take forever for Android to hit its stride. Processor speeds, memory, and storage were almost all identical across the smartphone landscape. Google expected more. Enter the HTC-built Nexus One.

nexus_oneThe Nexus One not only moved the needle in terms of hardware, it was also the first to launch with Android 2.1 Eclair. In short, this was the latest in greatest in software and included features such as live wallpapers and speech-to-text.

The Nexus One, for its part, was an interesting gamble for Google mostly because it was sold unlocked and direct to consumers. Sure, there would ultimately be other ways of getting the phone, but this was a bold move for Google. While everyone in the US was content to sign contracts for their phones, Google was going straight at buyers with a $530 price tag.

The years that followed saw Google releasing successors from other manufacturers including Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Motorola. Each would be branded with some form of Nexus classification, but it was not a simple case of adding a new number to each iteration.
Although fanboys and enthusiasts would be able to identify the various Nexus models and their respective specs, the casual buyer often couldn’t. Given that some models would be sold through carriers and others wouldn’t, it was hard to draw a line through them. It didn’t help that the method of selling would vary for every single Nexus device. Simply put, the Nexus line had a hard time gaining real-world attraction.

As service providers began to loosen their grip with contracts, consumers were soon to learn the true cost of phones. Five years ago it would not be uncommon for a flagship phone to be $200 with a two-year plan. Ask a typical consumer how much the phone costs without subsidy and you’d likely get met with blank stares.

With each successive model came different sizes and specifications, and that also meant different prices, too. Whereas launch prices were as low as $299 at one point, they have also been as high as $699.

One common thread among the Nexus phones is that it debuts with a new version of Android. It has so far been the benchmark experience device in Google’s opinion and is designed with the new software features in mind. Not only the freshest build of Android but one that would receive direct and timely updates from Google.

A New Era

If you want the premier Android experience as intended by Google, there’s no way around it; you have to buy a Nexus phone. All of that changed in 2016 when Google introduced a different model and branding convention. October 4, 2016 saw the debut of the Google Pixel and its larger counterpart, the Pixel XL.

google_pixel_xl_03The Pixel, like the Nexus, is the full Android-at-its-very-best smartphone that Google envisions for its customers. But, rather than working in tandem with a hardware partner, Google appears to have exercised more control over the experience. Further, it’s not just Android that consumers get in the Pixel; this is the first smartphone to employ the Google Assistant. A gateway to a much larger world of knowledge and information curation, it’s the same tech that powers its standalone Google Home, too.

Further, the Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones with certification for the Daydream View VR headset. Thanks to its advanced internal hardware, the handsets feature more accurate sensors, better displays, and stellar processor performance.

In terms of sheer hardware specs, the Pixel and Pixel XL share nearly every component. Save for their display size and battery, both are the same and offer up some of the best smartphone packages to date.

Key features:

  • Operating System: Android 7.1 Nougat
  • Display: 5.0″ or 5.5″ AMOLED
  • Cameras: Rear: 12.3 MP • Front: 8 MP
  • Processors: Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor
  • Memory & Storage: RAM: 4GB | Storage: 32GB & 128GB
  • Dimensions & Weight: Pixel: 5.66 x 2.74 in | Pixel XL: 6.09 x 2.98 in
  • Battery: Pixel: 2,770 mAh | Pixel XL: 3,450 mAh
  • Network: Worldwide network/carrier compatibility
  • Materials: Anodized aluminum | Corning Gorilla Glass 4

Design

Although it looks every bit a “Google” product, the Pixel phones were quietly manufactured with help from HTC. If you’ve paid close attention to what HTC’s recent phones look like, you’ll certainly see traces of the design language. In other words, the aluminum unibody, radius corners, chamfered edges, and premium heft is likely all HTC’s doing.

google_pixel_xl_08The phone itself feels solid in the hand. Really, that’s likely the best word I can use to describe the way it comes across. It’s comfortable to hold, but when using one hand it tends to feel a little top-heavy at points. It could be that my hand’s not as big as it should be; the Pixel feels more natural and easy to use with one hand.

Flip the phone over and there’s no mistaking the Pixel or Pixel XL for any other phone. Sure, it’s definitely more than a wee bit iPhone-ish on the front, but many models can be accused of the same. The rear, though, has roughly two-thirds of it covered in aluminum while the top third is glass backed with a plastic insert. The glass, for its part, allows for slightly more grip than the rest of the body. The trade-off by going this route, though, is that it picks up micro scuffs and fingerprints; it can be cracked much easier than aluminum.

The fingerprint sensor sits in the middle of the glass panel and in a spot that feels natural when you hold the phone. It’s the same area that the Nexus 6P has its scanner and right about where the LG G series puts its power and volume buttons. In the weeks I’ve used the phone I’ve become very comfortable with where it’s located. Moreover, I appreciate the subtle Pixel Imprint feature which allows for a quick swipe to check notifications.

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One of the pain points of having a rear fingerprint scanner is that it’s not all that easy to press to wake it up. You have to pick the phone up entirely to press it on the rear and look at the display. Just as I was putting this review together I learned that a software update will bring a couple of new “Moves” to the Pixel, one of which being tapping the display to wake the phone. Problem solved – if only in theory.

The rear camera on the Pixel and Pixel XL sits flush with the glass in the top left corner of the phones. You’ll find a circular dual-LED flash off to the left though it does have an ever slight raised chrome ring. On the right of the camera are the rangefinder for laser autofocus and microphone.

The SIM tray is located on the left edge of the phone while the right side houses the volume rocker and power button. The buttons provide excellent tactile feedback and a clear click when pressed. The power button has a textured design to it making it easily identifiable when blindly fumbling for it.

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The Pixel and Pixel XL come with a 3.5mm headphone jack which located on the top edge of the phones. Along the opposite edge, the USB Type-C port and down-facing speaker are found. The charging port, it should be noted, supports USB 3.0 protocols.

In broad terms, the Pixel XL is a rather boring looking phone, if not for the back. The Quite Black model we have might as well be called Slate Grey because that’s essentially the color. The Very Silver, for its part, is more of a white. There’s nothing that we specifically found wrong with the phone, but we’ve seen far sexier designs.

Display

The Pixel has a 5.0-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 while the larger Pixel XL packs a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display. At five inches and above we expect a flagship phone to have this resolution and we were glad to see Google deliver here. Going lower resolution, even on the Pixel, would bring the cost down, but it would also muddy the overall experience and confuse consumers. Is this a premium device or not? Why doesn’t the screen look as nice as other models? Sticking with the 2560 x 1440 stuff sends a more clear signal.

While brighter (about 400 nits) than what we saw in the Nexus 6P, its direct predecessor, the Pixel XL’s peak brightness comes in lower than some other counterparts. Some LG and Samsung screens, for instance, can get much brighter. And, because Google doesn’t have a boost mode that activates under automatic settings, it stays put. We would love to see something that kicks the brightness up to around 600 nits or higher, especially with its price tag.

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Because it’s an AMOLED display, you get excellent black levels and a seemingly endless set of color contrasts. It might not be all that recognizable on its own, but put the Pixel XL up to a phone with an LCD screen and the distinction is almost night and day, if not black and grey. Color accuracy is also great in this phone, though we would like some user-defined settings for warmth.

Camera

Much has been said in the press and by Google about the camera experience on the Pixel and Pixel XL. As it turns out, it’s deserved fanfare; the camera quality is better than all comers, though its app could use some help.

The Pixel phones employ a 1/2.3″ Sony IMX378 Exmor RS sensor which takes pictures at 12.3-megapixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio. And, because it offers a larger 1.55µm pixel, it leads to better dynamic range with more light in each pixel. Further, the IMX378 sensor is special in that it includes support for phase detect autofocus (PDAF). Toss in the laser and contrast autofocus and you’re looking at improved accuracy and speed in scenes with good lighting.

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The HDR+ processing is terrific in that it combines multiple fast exposures to create a single image. Other phones, by comparison, tend to combine two different exposure levels. This can often lead to slower speeds in taking higher quality pictures. This is not so with the Pixel line. Pictures are taken and compiled quickly; it’s on by default.

Google says these phones don’t have any shutter lag when using HDR+ and we found this to be mostly accurate. It’s not until you start to snap a successive group of photos that you see it slow to roughly one photo per second, perhaps a smidge faster. Generally speaking, the camera can blow through pictures in most light settings, capturing pictures as good, if not better, than other phones.

The Pixels inherit their front-facing cameras from the Nexus 6P, an 8-megapixel Sony IMX179 Exmor R sensor with 1.4µm pixels and an f/2.4 lens. The Pixels do not have a dedicated LED flash for selfies; and there’s no screen flashing feature with the default app either.

As for the actual camera app, I like it but don’t necessarily love it. There’s something to be said about the simplicity that comes with the default app, but we do occasionally want for more. With that said, the out of box app experience is easy to figure out and allows for quick hopping to and from the different modes.

The camera app doesn’t complicate itself with too many options or previews of different filters and effects. If that’s the sort of thing you are into, download a standalone app and use it. I was almost always pleased with the UI and settings presented in the app. Given we’re often quick to see something we want to capture, it’s nice to open it up and have it ready to roll on HDR.

A key benefit to owning a Pixel or Pixel is the lifetime cloud storage of your photos — at original resolution. If you’re like me, you could have dozens of pictures almost every other day. Sprinkle in some 1080p or 4k quality video and you could be using up a pretty sizable amount of storage. Google will house these for you at no cost and without downgrading the quality. This is a big plus for photo lovers.

Software

The Pixel and Pixel XL are powered by the latest version of Android in 7.1 Nougat. Moreover, it’s a “stock” version of Android meaning it doesn’t come with any preloaded carrier apps and services; there’s no customization done to the platform by the phone maker, either. In short, this is the best in Android coupled with the best in Google hardware.

As someone who is fond of the custom launcher in Nova Prime, I am often quick to replace the interface that comes with phones. This is not to suggest that there’s anything particularly wrong with the various models and software builds. Rather, it’s more of a me picking up exactly where I left off by exporting and importing settings. For what it’s worth, I always leave the defaults alone before forming an opinion or publishing a review.

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After spending some weeks with the Pixel XL, I am still using the stock release of Android 7.1. I find it to be very cohesive and much more clean and intuitive than previous builds. And, when you have the hardware that comes with this phone, it zips right along.

In addition to slight updates and tweaks to the standard feel and functions of Android, the Pixel comes with a couple of other modifications. First up is the Pixel Launcher, which is more or less an evolution of the Google Now launcher experience.

A simple swipe to the right of your screen brings up a list of Google Now cards based around the user’s preferences and account settings. This is one of those things that simply gets smarter the more you use it. Swipe to this screen and you’ll have a list of recommended news articles, sports updates, weather, and more.

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While it might feel natural to swipe from the G logo and bar on the top left, it’s not required. You can swipe from anywhere on the main panel. By tapping the G it opens up a search bar for doing your typical Google searches for both online and in-phone.

Accessing the app drawer is much easier in this version of Android as it’s not tied to a particular icon. Instead, things function more like a shade allowing you to swipe up from anywhere in the bottom row of icons. This took some getting used to as I’ve been programmed and conditioned by years of looking for a singular icon.

Upon opening the app drawer, users see all of the icons listed in an alphabetical order. The most popular apps used, however, get their own row at the very top. So, once you’ve had the phone for a few days and settled into routines, you can swipe up from the bottom and find your commonly used apps and games at the very top.

Long-pressing app icons on the home screen or in the app drawer is pretty now as it operates differently than in the past. As somewhat of a cross between a multifunction widget and an Apple 3D Touch, icons can now be used to access common shortcuts.

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Long press on the Gmail icon and it offers up a shortcut to directly compose an email. Doing so on Google Keep brings up “New audio note”, “New photo note”, “New list”, and “New note”.  Results will vary across the different Google apps and their actual usefulness can be debated. I liked having some of them, though, as it alleviates an extra press or two in getting to where I wanted in select apps.

Another key addition to the Android experience here is the inclusion of Google Assistant. This is not so much of a new technology but more of an evolution of things already started by Google Now. Tapping into the Google Knowledge Graph, it’s really smart stuff that only promises to get better. If you are the kind of person who likes to use Google with voice searches or commands, you’ll love Google Assistant.

Using Google on phones up until now has been more of a question and answer process. With Assistant, however, it becomes less mechanical. By that I mean you don’t have to necessary think of the best way(s) to ask a question. Simply talk to it or ask it in a way that feels natural to you. Sure, there are still limitations and tricks to getting certain things to work properly, but you’ll have no trouble figuring it out. Google Assistant is more conversational in nature and it’s a whole lot smarter than you might think.

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It’s worth noting that while Google Assistant is exclusive to the Pixel and Pixel XL, it’s only temporary. Looking down the road it ought to roll out to other phones, especially the Nexus line.

The Android 7.1 experience is smart, easy to use, and, I suspect, quite simple to master. Thanks to software migration and settings tools, it should be a breeze to switch from Apple or transfer from another device.

Is it perfect? No. There are still minor quibbles. Circular icons are great, Google, but you didn’t make it uniform all pre-installed apps; Allo and Duo, for example, have their own shape. Install a couple more titles from the Play Store and suddenly you look like you have a half-finished icon theme in place. If there’s one thing that might get me to jump back over to Nova Prime, it’s the inconsistent look in the app drawer. Minor stuff, yes, I know.

Performance

What else do you expect? The Pixel XL is able to handle anything you throw at it. The hardware makes sure you can keep up with multiple things at a time and jumping from task to task is never an issue.

You can check other sites and sources for benchmark reports, but they’ll likely just be technical ways of saying the Pixel XL is among the best in phones today. Whether it be managing emails and messages or playing a brand new game, the phone didn’t slow for me.

On paper, the Pixel XL does match up nicely with other flagships. But, it’s worth noting that it does have come with hardware that closely resembles devices that were launched some three to six months earlier, if not more. Does that matter to you?

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If you’re the type who wants the most cutting edge hardware available, this is just on the very end of things, if not a little on the inside. But, with CES and Mobile World Congress coming up in the next few months, we’re bound to see even more bleeding edge tech soon.

Performance is always going to get better with phones, but sometimes it’s only marginal; other times improvements are so minute that you may not detect them. Suffice it to say, I am somewhere between a casual user and a heavy, demanding user. And, if you’re reading this review, I suspect you use your phones for as much, if not less, than I do. You aren’t going to go wrong with the Pixel XL’s performance.

I’ve been more than impressed with the battery life of the Pixel XL. Moreover, the speed at which it charges is incredible. I really appreciate that if I have to plug into a wall charger, it’s not for long. The claims of getting seven hours of usage from a 15-minute charge? I wish I could say.

Because I am able to get to a charger most of the day, I don’t ever find myself with seven-hour gaps. Whether it’s ten minutes on the way home from work, or on the counter while eating dinner, I find my phone is always well above half full. I don’t even bat an eye if I forget to charge at night. I know that I’ll be just fine when I wake up and then a few minutes on a charger is going to keep me running all day.

Conclusion

With prices that start at $650, the Pixel is a few hundred dollars more than other models with similar hardware. Head-to-head, though, it’s not fair, particularly if you care about specification bullet points. Look deeper, though, and you’ll find that the software and extra features help bring the value up.

The unlimited Google Photos storage, for me, is peace of mind that I have trouble quantifying. The more I use the Pixel XL, I suspect, the more I will rely on it for my needs.

I am not the sort of person who needs tech support or often runs into trouble with setting up or using my phone. But, for those who do, the tech support that comes with the Pixel and Pixel is fantastic.

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I would love to have seen the inclusion of a microSD expansion card slot; a waterproof coating would be a bonus, too. There’s a pretty sizable jump in cost going from 32GB of space to 128GB. And, for good reason, we’re talking literally four times the storage.

Can you get away with 32GB? Easily. It’s not like we’re dealing with 16GB any longer. Music is cloud-based, files are generally small and hosted in the cloud, too. Photos and videos are where the real draw on storage comes. Even then, the phone can prompt you when you’re getting low on space, letting you free up locally stored stuff and pushing back on the cloud for access.

Where things might get iffy for some is in the area of playing large games with tons of graphics and hefty storage requirements. But, again, if you’re looking to me for the review, you haven’t made your mind up. Those who know exactly what they need have already figured out which phone is right for them and it likely includes a microSD slot.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are priced just below the top dollar phones yet still come in higher than what’s available with a little bit of homework. Sure, you can get away with a $400 phone that’s close in terms of hardware, but at what cost? What sort of warranty or tech support do you get? What about software updates? Has that brand you’ve barely heard of done enough in the way of patches and maintenance releases to convince you to take a risk?

Enthusiasts can complain all they want about how Google should be sticking with software updates for more than two years for its flagship phones. If Apple can do it for three and four years for its devices, Google could surely do the same, right? Eh, I wouldn’t be as quick to say that. I think that, generally, Google has done a great job of rolling out regular releases with bug fixes, and minor and major updates.

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Most people that I’ve run into hold onto their phones for about two years or so. That’s over the last eight years of keeping an eye on what my friends, colleagues, and other data tell me. Not only that, but I know very few casual users who know of new major Android releases and what they bring about.

With each major release of a flagship model, I am often asked what the difference is from the previous model and whether it matters to them. As time goes, it gets a little harder to convince people that they need the newest in Android. What they need are the bug fixes and security updates. The rest, by and large, is more of a want or unnecessary adjustment. In the Nexus, and now with the Pixel, line of phones, Google is terrific at supporting with the necessary bits.

Another key reason to consider the Pixel XL is that it works with any of the major carriers. This is flexibility and freedom that doesn’t come with many devices. So, if you’re considering switching to another provider down the road, this is a phone you can take with you. And, if you’ve purchased outright or already paid off the phone, you can hop from prepaid carrier to MVNO to tier-one service operator without concern. That doesn’t come from too many phones, particularly those with this level of hardware.

The Pixel XL isn’t the sexiest phone on the market, nor is it the most power-packed. What it is, however, is a perfect blend of excellent software, services, and hardware. It’s more of an every man phone than previous Nexus models. Given it’s being sold at Verizon and not solely in a direct manner, I feel like Google recognizes this, too. To that end, it’s a great choice for those of you who have become reliant on the Samsung and other OEM’s way of life.