The Nexus is dead.
The Pixel XL has become a fairly polarizing device in our comments. There’s a lot of the Google DNA which Nexus fans enjoyed, but it’s packaged up in a softer aesthetic, and it arrives with a more premium price tag.
Hardware & Design
Google’s design here gets a lot right. Looking at some of the things folks are apt to complain about on other phones, Pixel features a subtle wedge shape, thicker at the top than at the bottom, which helps provide enough room to sink the camera flush with the rear plate while keeping a thinner feel in the hand.
Using it for a couple weeks, we never could shake the vibe from our first impressions video. This glass panel on the rear still feels incongruous with the rest of the phone’s rear. Our “Really Blue” phone has a definable edge where glass meets metal. It’s clear this was built to deliver a unique look, but for how nice the satin finish is on the rest of the phone, the glass just feels out of place in the hand.
We are happy to see a company playing with a bold color option though. Pixel joins the Huawei Honor 8 as the only other phone people have asked me about while using it out in public. Blue is really eye catching, and Google made the right choice here with a third color option which stands out from various flavors of black, gray, and silver.
The most derided part of this look though has to be these front white borders. White edges certainly call more attention to the use of space. The phone still features a respectable screen to bezel ratio, but with no hardware on the front, we can understand why some feel this is wasted space. The height of the Pixel XL is close to that of the Huawei Mate 9, a phone which features a significantly larger display, yet we don’t benefit from any additional features like stereo speakers or hardware navigation controls.
Speaking of that screen, this is a very good AMOLED display, but overall it feels a bit basic. There doesn’t seem to be the high brightness or high contrast burst mode found on some competitors. In what we can measure for brightness, Pixel fell behind the Galaxy S7, and just edged out the iPhone 7 Plus, but ultimately it’s up in the tier of “easy to read” screens when out in daylight.
As this is a consumer focused phone, accuracy seems to have taken a back seat to popping the color for a more dramatic look. There aren’t any color profile adjustments to be found in the normal settings, but the developer settings houses an sRGB mode which adjusts color temperature and saturation for a more accurate display. It doesn’t reach the accuracy of the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7, but it helps take the edge off the aggressive saturation.
Moving the sensor to the rear of the phone provides some ergonomic benefits, especially for using a larger device one handed. A person with average or smaller hands won’t need to shift the phone at all to turn on the display and unlock. The scanning process is quick and accurate. It rarely misread our fingerprint.
Google also provides a finger swipe gesture to drop the notification shade. It’s a trick we’ve seen before, but is again appreciated for preventing any additional grip readjustment when on the go.
The big draw for prospective Pixel purchasers is of course this software. Android 7.1 with Google’s customization running on top. We’ve covered the Nougat basics in numerous other videos, and we’re really enjoying the multitasking and notification shade improvements.
Google adds a new gesture for pulling up the app drawer which is keen. It cleans up the look of your bottom dock, eliminating the need for a drawer shortcut, and giving you one extra spot to drop a shortcut.
The biggest update though is the new Google Assistant. I’m not one to often rely on voice search, but Google Assistant is another important step towards more organic and conversational voice search. We’re hoping this forms the backbone of Google’s future connected device strategy, like Android Auto and Google home. Over our weeks using the phone however, once the novelty has worn off, if users weren’t fans of voice search before, Assistant does little to really change a consumer’s perspective on talking to a phone. It’s certainly an improvement, and we’re always happy for progress, but we’re still far from that magical science fiction style voice interaction.
The software discussion wouldn’t mean much though were it not for this insane UI performance. We’ve never used an Android which felt this consistently snappy and responsive. Pixel benchmarks well enough for it’s slightly under-clocked CPU, but there’s obviously been a focus on optimization. Google’s approach to Android 7.1 brings us our first taste of an Android phone which truly competes against the UI feel and fluidity found on Apple products. This alone is a significant enough improvement to the user experience for us to recommend the Pixel XL as a daily driver.
With some complaints regarding RAM management from more aggressive use, our more anecdotal testing has shown consistent performance for daily tasks, social media, and light to moderate gaming. We’ve seen several app tests and benchmarks pushing the Pixel to its limits, and sure, playing four games at a time will cause apps to be ejected from memory, but that just isn’t something we’re apt to do often.
The Pixel XL represents a terrific platform for mobile gaming. More demanding titles like Oblivion run impressively smooth. Marvel’s Future Fight is poorly optimized for Android and Qualcomm chipsets, yet we’re treated to reasonable performance with only minor stutters and lags at high quality. If you play older titles or casual games like Candy Crush, Pixel will have no issues driving those games.
We should also briefly discuss Daydream, Google’s next generation step to improve virtual reality powered by our phones. The Pixel does a wonderful job driving 360 degree videos and VR games, but this phone will run scary hot after a short time in the headset. It’s physically uncomfortable to hold after about ten minutes of VR gaming. The experience never seems to suffer, and the phone maintains fluid frame rates, but we wouldn’t blame those who might be apprehensive about running a phone this hot while it’s cradled so close to your eyeballs.
WiFi & Cellular
We’re happy to see some terrific radios on board. Wi-Fi performance was neck and neck with the Galaxy S7, just edging out the LG V20 in maintaining a connection with my router at the edges of my home.
We should also take a moment here to talk about carriers. Sure, TV commercials will tell you that this is ONLY ON VERIZON, but we picked up this phone with Project Fi in mind, especially for some recent international traveling. The Pixel XL was our main travel companion on a recent trip to Munich, where it performed like a champ.
With the exception of one drop out in Germany which required a reboot, the Pixel XL proved to be a better travel companion than the Nexus 5X used for IFA earlier this year. Back in the United States, juggling between T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks, I was happy to find stronger signal in my neighborhood than on Verizon. Maybe Big Red’s network really is facing a challenge in competing against both Sprint and T-Mobile?
Now, moving to the camera, we have the most complete examination of pixel photo and video performance in our separate real camera review, but to recap, Google delivers one of the best HDR modes we’ve ever seen. We’re treated to stellar slow motion video, and genuinely excellent stabilization in most shooting scenarios.
Unfortunately, our unit was subject to some terrible flaring, sometimes visible during daylight conditions. The software stabilization can get twitchy during panning, and in shaded daylight conditions we start to see a lot of ghosting from longer shutter speeds. That ghosting only exacerbated when you shoot video at night.
We’re also disappointed to only see (or hear rather) mono audio recording while shooting video. This wouldn’t be our top pick for folks who like to record live music, or want to do any photojournalism work from their phone.
This is ultimately a very good camera, especially for those folks who only shoot full auto, but it completely ignores people who would prefer more control over their composition. Google’s various HDR modes are formidable, but always-auto software processing means you’re never quite sure exactly what the camera might do. If you shoot a landscape photo, you don’t know if that HDR effect will kick in and crush the exposure on clouds, making white fluffy clouds look more like storm clouds.
The same happens from the selfie camera. A slight change in angle and we see different auto processing in color and white balance.
The software stabilization will aggressively crop your video after you shoot. You can’t ever really trust that you’re framing your shot properly without some part of your subject getting cut off. In the below photo, the phone screen showed the tops of the two taller trees. The video output resulted in this crop.
In addition to those software concerns, the lens flare defects knock it out of Google’s assertion that this is the best camera ever.
In chatting about the camera, many have pointed to the perk that you get unlimited full quality Google Photo storage from the phone. This is nice, but for photos, Google already allows unlimited storage for up to 16MP images and 1080p video. I use it to back up all of my iPhone photos as iCloud is unnecessarily expensive. The main perk might be for folks who shoot a lot of UHD video, which I do, but this isn’t a feature we would necessarily point to as a purchasing motivator.
The audio situation is something of a disappointment.
The bottom firing speaker is about par for the course when compared to other bottom firing solutions, but the headphone playback falls far behind most of the competition. The amp is on the quiet side, and quality numbers for noise level and dynamic range fall behind numerous competitors.
We also have a more in depth look at audio performance in our Real Audio Review, but it would seem Google opted not to incorporate more HTC DNA here, which is a shame.
Lastly, looking at battery life, the Pixel is a solid all day performer. Under moderate use we were consistently able to make to dinner time with some room to spare. Looking at our media test, streaming 30 minutes of HD video over WiFi at 190 Lux, the phone drained approximately 5% of its battery, which is right in line with similarly specced Android flagship phones.
Recharge times are upper mid-pack, 30 minutes on the include charger resulted in topping off the battery 37%.
So let’s wrap this up, where does this leave us with Google’s Pixel XL?
There’s a lot to like here. Google is making a second attempt at a first impression. For folks most concerned about software performance, we think they’ll be very pleased with what they get. Seriously. The Pixel XL is a screamer when paging around the UI.
Does that performance warrant the new premium price however? That’s a tougher question to answer. Similarly expensive phones are arriving with better lifestyle features like enhanced durability, better audio, or larger batteries with faster charging. Other competitors this year can often match or best many of the Pixel’s benefits for a lot less cash. This was a great year for phones around the $400 price point. In many markets, Google faces incredible competition from devices at almost half the price.
We’re very excited by the idea of a platform where Google controls the hardware and the software. We certainly see the benefits of proper optimization, but at this price we were hoping to see more risks. Anything which might help Google differentiate from the competition or justify a premium label, as the Nexus is now properly retired. We’ve also pointed to the rushed production schedule on this device, and how that seems to have affected camera quality, while forcing Google to omit features like water resistance.
Whether the performance and the promise of timely updates are worth it is a question only you and your wallet can answer…
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