Google Pixel and Pixel XL Smartphone Review

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Watch out Apple, here comes the Google Pixel!

by David Phelan Oct 24, 2016 at 3:08 PM

  • SRP: £599.00

    What are the Pixel and Pixel XL by Google?

    These are the newest Android phones to be released, and are the first where both software and hardware are entirely designed by Google. So while earlier Nexus phones had the purest available version of Android’s operating system, but some input from the hardware partner who built the kit, this time it’s Google throughout, like a stick of rock. Both are aiming at the higher end of the market, occupied mostly by Samsung’s phones and, of course, the iPhone. The phones are very similar, with the Pixel sporting a 5-inch display, the Pixel XL a 5.5-inch screen. There are a couple of feature differences but in nearly all cases what happens on the smaller phone applies on the larger.

    Design

    Take a quick glance at either and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re looking at an iPhone. This is the phenomenon that occurred when HTC launched its A9 handset, too. No surprise, then, that HTC has made the Pixel phones for Google. The glass screen has a the gentlest of curves at its edges, like the iPhone. Antenna band lines snake round from the edge of the display and across the back of the handset, like the iPhone 6s. And the camera on the rear sits in the top corner, though unlike the iPhone, Google has put the flash in the very corner and the camera lens a touch more centrally.

    All very well, but what are we saying here? Most mobile phones now have a design similar to this, even if Apple got there first with some elements, so this doesn’t seem to be direct plagiarism. And that iPhone design has been widely praised, so presumably this phone looks good, right? Well, pretty much. In fact, the least successful part of the design, I’d say, is where Google strays from the formula by dividing the back of the phone into two unequally sized parts.
    Google Pixel Design
    Google Pixel Design

    The bottom two thirds are anodised aluminium but there’s a glass panel across the top of the back. It’s the least stylish part of the design, though whether it’s attractive or unattractive is down to personal taste. Where the design really succeeds is in something you might not even notice: the phone is wedge-shaped, a little thicker at the top end than the bottom. This means it feels slim because you hold it by the bottom half but gives a bit more space in the half you rarely hold. Brilliantly, this means there’s room enough for a camera that doesn’t jut out.

    The front of the phone is pretty plain – there’s no home button as there is on Samsung and Apple phones. That’s because the fingerprint sensor which is used to unlock the handset is placed in the middle of the phone’s back. Pick up the phone and your index finger falls into the circular sensor perfectly pretty much every time. So much so that you probably only need to enrol your two index fingers. The sensor is fast and efficient. As with other phones you need to set up a PIN or password in case the fingerprint isn’t recognised.

    Google Pixel
    The downside, for me, is I often want to check the time or unlock the phone while it’s lying on the table. This is easy on phones with a home button on the front but here to open the phone you have to pick it up, or enter your PIN. Some Android phones offer double-tap to wake so you can at least see the time more easily. That’s not here yet, though it’s rumoured to arrive soon. Hurrah.

    Google made much of the fact that there’s a conventional headphone socket on the phone, which is good. Though please note there are no earbuds in the box. The phone’s design works well, overall, in the Quite Black colour but even better in Very Silver. Really Blue is the third colour option, though that’s not available in the UK. At least Google have a sense of humour about what to call the different hues.
    Google Pixel
    The displays, as you know, are different sizes and different resolutions, too. The 5in Pixel has Full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080, making it 441ppi. The larger Pixel XL with its 5.5in display is much higher resolution 2560 x 1440 pixels, which is 534ppi. Both look sharp and colourful. Apple’s phones, for instance, have lower resolutions than these but one of the reasons for the extra pixels here is so you can slip the phone into a VR headset for up-close action. The headset, called Daydream View, isn’t available yet but will be soon.

    The display also introduces Night Light which adjusts the screen’s colour away from the blue levels that may keep us awake after using the phone before bedtime. One other thing about the design: the haptic feedback, when you’re typing on the keyboard, say, feels tinny and unpleasant. Other haptics are fine but this one is very disappointing.

    Android and Google Assistant

    Google’s own operating system is appealing to phone manufacturers not least because it’s free. It’s one of the reasons Android is the world dominator that it’s become. But set against that is the way the market is fragmented, with every phone company wanting to stamp its identity on the system. So Sony has demure, classy app icons while LG’s are flatter and more elemental.

    One of the benefits of a phone where hardware and software are completely controlled by Google is that that fragmentation can be overcome with an authoritative take on the software, surely? Not quite. This phone has the latest, cleanest version of the OS, Nougat 7.1, but it introduces a software feature that’s baked into the OS but isn’t available on other manufacturers’ handsets.
    Google Pixel Android and Google Assistant
    Google Pixel Android and Google Assistant

    That’s Google Assistant, and it’s one of the key innovations of the Pixel phones. A version of it was available on earlier Android phones, where it was called Google Now (a mostly meaningless name) and operated through a series of cards which gave you answers, ideally before you asked them, such as what the traffic on your commute home was going to be like.

    Here, and only on the Pixel, is the voice-activated version. Say “Hello Google” and up she pops, though you can also press and hold the onscreen home button to invoke her. She’s plenty smart. Like Siri on the iPhone, she can understand supplementary questions and has a keen sense of context. So if you ask about a restaurant nearby you can then say “Give me directions to get there” and Google Assistant will oblige. Even so, she’s still quite limited at the moment and sometimes passes you off to web pages. But comprehending what you’ve asked is first-rate, and you can bet Google Assistant will get smarter, and quickly, the more you use it.

    Camera

    The 12MP camera is the same on both sizes of Pixel, unlike Apple’s bigger-iPhone-means-better-camera approach. There’s no optical image stabilisation on the Pixel cameras, though the software-achieved version used instead seems pretty good. Low light results are acceptable though as with most cameras, brighter light yields stronger results. The interface isn’t as comprehensive as some Android phones – HTC’s camera menus and manual options are excellent, for instance – but will offer enough versatility for most users. There’s practically no shutter lag and the default high dynamic range settings work very well.
    Google Pixel Camera
    Google Pixel Camera


    The front facing camera is also good: if selfies are your thing then the 8MP sensor does a decent job, though the absence of a flash, or software that flashes the display brightly as Apple uses, means low-light selfies look poor. Launching the camera is refreshingly fast, too. A double-press on the power button works whatever you’re currently doing with the phone and brings the camera screen up instantly.
    Google Pixel
    Google Pixel

    It’s worth mentioning here that Pixel phones come with what Google describes as unlimited free storage using Google Photo, including for 4K video, which can suck up storage space. This is a clever extra which over time is likely to prove useful compared to offers such as 5GB free storage on iCloud from Apple.

    Performance

    The Pixel is a nippy phone at every level, managing to handle whatever task you set it without drawing breath. Apps open instantly, the camera focuses and shoots quickly, the fingerprint sensor reacts fast – you get the idea. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 is a real performer and the fact that the handset has 4GB of RAM doesn’t hurt either.

    There’s no memory card slot on the phones. This has never been a problem for Apple so we shouldn’t be hard on Google for this omission, except almost every flagship smartphone using Android now has this expandable memory and it can be useful. Google really has Apple in its sights, by the way. The phones are priced very similarly to iPhone 7 handsets, unlike previous Nexus phones which were always outstanding value. These phones are premium-priced.

    And there’s something else in the box, even if there are no headphones. That’s a USB to USB-C adaptor. Just perfect to connect an iPhone via its Lightning cable to the Pixel. Which will prove handy for transferring images, contacts, calendars, music and so on over from the Apple phone to the Google one. Note, of course, that you can't transfer apps this way. And to move from iMessage to another messaging app requires quite a bit of work, so if you are moving away from Apple, it may not be painless. The Pixel phones come in 32GB and 128GB sizes, so you can decide up front whether you’re a heavy storage user or not… you just can’t change your mind after you’ve bought it.

    Battery life on the Pixel phones is good. The smaller phone lasts a day, the larger one a day and a bit. Realistically, unless a handset is going to guarantee you’ll get through a full two days you’ll still need nightly recharges to reduce battery anxiety. Remember that this is a USB-C phone so you might need to carry the appropriate cables with you if you do need to charge, as all your old chargers and so on are likely to be less effective or incompatible. The battery has fast charge capabilities, though these are less beneficial than a battery that lasts longer. For now, though, we’ll have to make do.

    The Pixel phones are not waterproof, by the way, which is a surprise these days when the latest Samsung models, the iPhone 7 and of course Sony’s Xperia XZ all offer protection from the wet. Audio is also better on some rivals – there’s only one speaker on the phone. Still headphones always sound better and at least you can use your own cans.

    Conclusion

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    The Good

    • Eye-catching design
    • Fast camera – and no camera bump!
    • Clever Google Assistant

    The Bad

    • Not waterproof
    • Average battery life
    • Not the bargain Nexus was
    You own this Total 4
    You want this Total 2
    You had this Total 1

    Google Pixel and Pixel XL Smartphone Review

    Google’s first phones are pretty cool. They may lack the water resistance which is increasingly common in rival handsets and the battery isn’t the leap forward we’re all waiting for, but they have a lot going for them. Performance is very strong: fast and responsive.

    The interface is gently improved from other Android versions, from the swipe-up gesture to reveal the apps drawer to the brand-new Google Assistant. The Assistant is very smart and as its versatility grows we can expect to control our phones with our voices much more (which may not be what everyone is looking forward to in public places).

    Personally, I prefer a fingerprint sensor on the front or side of the phone, but if you must have it on the back, this one is placed well to fall under your finger effortlessly. The camera, though not as versatile as some, takes great pictures and the facility to save even 4K video to Google’s servers for free is a clever move.

    Google is going after Apple with this phone, a strategy that is likely to do well. By some accounts, demand for the iPhone 7 is heavy, often outstripping supply. So if you wander into an EE shop or Carphone Warehouse looking to upgrade your iPhone and find Apple’s latest is out of stock, Google is exceptionally well placed to win over customers wanting something new right now. And Google’s pure version of Android isn’t that different from iOS – certainly it’s no bigger a step change than from, say, iOS 9 to iOS 10.

    The Google Pixel is a handsomely designed phone with strong capabilities and an impressive camera. It’s going to do well.

    MORE: Google Pixel Specifications and Google Pixel Contract Deals


    MORE: Google Pixel XL Specifications and Google Pixel XL Contract Deals


    MORE: Google Pixel and Pixel XL discussion



    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £599.00

    The Rundown

    Design

    8

    Display

    9

    Call and Signal Quality

    8

    Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts

    7

    Operating System

    9

    Media support

    8

    Camera

    9

    App support and functionality

    9

    Build Quality

    9

    Value for Money

    7

    Verdict

    8

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