Google announced the Pixel to some praise and some criticism. It was a departure from the Nexus brand, offering a vessel for Google’s Android instead of pure Android that we were used to, but it was also the first time Google went all-in on designing the phone from top to bottom.
It’s bold for a company that isn’t really known for its hardware, and it stepped right in the middle of a very difficult battle among flagship phones. It’s not a quasi-budget phone like some other Nexus devices, but instead an expensive, premium phone that bumps shoulders with Samsung and Apple at the top of the heap.
It’s a new era for Google phones, but was it a good move for Google? Let’s find out.
Editor’s Note: The review unit provided by Google is the 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Since the Pixel and Pixel XL are so similar, we will refer to both as the “Pixel” and make it clear when referring to one or the other.
When the Pixel and Pixel XL were originally leaked, not many people were enthusiastic about the design of the phones. It looked like a scrapped design that was supposed to have hardware buttons, and pieces of definitely seem inspired by other OEMs. Even after release, it does still kinda look like all those things are true.
Despite those quirks, the Pixel has a certain charm to it, and it feels like one of the better-designed phones of 2016. It’s sturdy and uses premium materials, and the backside is cleverly textured to give you an easy-to-grip bottom half of the phone while maintaining the glossy back on the top half. There’s no real reason for the top half to keep a glossy plate like it does, but it makes the device stand out, which is important in a market where tons of phones are starting to look and feel identical.
My biggest complaint with the Pixel XL is the size of it and the placement of the fingerprint scanner. I’m a pretty outspoken proponent of front-facing fingerprint scanners, like what you see with Samsung, Lenovo, OnePlus, and even Apple, as opposed to the rear scanners that Google and LG go for. On a large phone like this, I have a really hard time reaching the scanner with how I naturally hold a phone. I constantly have to adjust my grip to unlock the device, and with the bigger screen on the Pixel XL, that’s kind of frustrating when I only have one hand to use.
If you’re used to rear fingerprint scanners, you likely won’t have a problem with the Pixel XL. Everything else about the phone feels great, and it’s very well-built. Google didn’t cut corners in any of these categories.
On the right side of the device you’ll find a textured power button and volume up/down buttons, with the opposite side housing the SIM card tray. The bottom of the phone features the USB Type-C port and the lone speaker, while the top retains the headphone jack. It’s odd to see a headphone jack at the top of a phone in 2016, but there’s no problem with it being there.
Overall, I don’t think Google knocked it out of the park with the design of the Pixel, but they did just enough to give it some character and make it stand out in the crowd. It’s not perfect, but you won’t find much of anything to complain about either. Unless, of course, gigantic bezels on the bottom of the phone bug you.
|Google Pixel||Google Pixel XL|
|Announced||October 4, 2016||October 4, 2016|
|Release||Fall 2016||Fall 2016|
|Display||5.0-inch (1920x1080) AMOLED||5.5-inch (2560x1440) AMOLED|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821|
|Storage||32GB / 128GB||32GB / 128GB|
|Rear Camera||12.3MP with dual-LED flash, phase detection, laser autofocus||12.3MP with dual-LED flash, phase detection, laser autofocus|
|Battery||2770mAh (non-removable)||3450mAh (non-removable)|
|Charging||USB Type-C with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0||USB Type-C with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0|
|Sound||Bottom-facing speaker||Bottom-facing speaker|
|Software||Android 7.1 Nougat with Pixel Launcher||Android 7.1 Nougat with Pixel Launcher|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac||Bluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac|
|Sensors||Ambient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint||Ambient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint|
|Measurements||143.8 x 69.5 x 8.5mm||157.4 x 75.7 x 8.5mm|
|Colors||Quite Black, Very Silver, Really Blue||Quite Black, Very Silver, Really Blue|
Nexus devices have been pretty hit or miss when it comes to performance, with some of them running extremely well and others have inexplicable problems for no reason that software updates only sometimes address. It’s really been a mixed bag from Google.
Good news: that’s not a problem with the Pixel. Google controls both hardware and software here, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park. Most Android phones this year have performed really well, barring a few exceptions, but the Pixel goes just a little bit farther.
There’s an extremely high resolution, top-notch display on the Pixel XL that’s perfect for reading, watching movies, and playing games. Text is crisp and the screen is plenty bright and colorful, although there’s a noticeably cool tone to everything. It’s not overwhelming, but if you put the phone side-by-side with a display that goes for a more accurate representation you’ll definitely notice more blue in the Pixel XL’s screen. Fortunately Google’s night shift mode helps to remove some of that blue tone late at night to rest your eyes.
Google also uses an active display to show notifications on the Pixel, similar to what we’ve seen from most other OEMs at this point. A text will display on your lock screen without actually turning the entire display on, which is great for briefly checking notifications without draining your battery.
I haven’t experienced any lag whatsoever, whether that’s jumping around between apps, playing games and listening to music, downloading files, or any other combination of tasks that you’d never actually do on a daily basic. It’s been impressive. It’s also one of the most responsive phones I’ve ever used, which is something that usually only Apple gets praised for. It’s great to see that on a flagship Android device.
My only caveat would be that Google seems to be pushing some more aggressive RAM management on the extreme end of things, similar to what OnePlus did with the OnePlus 3. It seems like apps would have to reload more often than with some other similarly-spec’d phones, including some lighter apps that really didn’t seem like they’d take up much RAM. With that being said, it wasn’t a common occurrence and it could be part of the reason why the Pixel performs as well as it does the rest of the time.
Google stuffed a 3500mAh battery into the Pixel XL, so the sheer size of it is enough to power through the day. It’s not all good news, though.
Google’s tightly integrated software here (including Doze 2.0) seems to really stretch out a charge for the Pixel, but actually using the phone trips that up. Battery life isn’t terrible, per se, but I needed a charger sooner than I would on some other big phones with big batteries.
With that being said, it’s easy to comfortably get through an entire day with the Pixel XL, especially in most situations where the phone is going to sit in your pocket for long periods of time. Idle battery drain has been one of Android’s longest problems, and the Pixel XL fixes that without breaking a sweat. If you have a slow day at work and you’re watching more YouTube videos that usual, you might need a charger faster than the Galaxy S7 Edge needed it, but for the most part it’s nothing worth complaining about.
The Pixel, like the Nexus line, runs Android directly from Google. Unlike the Nexus, however, Google has really put their stamp on their things instead of just shipping a barebones experience. We’ve started to see the Nexus line move in that direction recently, but the Pixel is where that road leads, for better or worse.
It’s still Android, and you won’t find a Google UI software overlay or anything here, but you can definitely see the focus on Google Assistant and Google Play Services. Swiping right on your home screen will launch you into the Google Now screen with all of your familiar cards for weather, stocks, news, etc., and there’s a permanent Google Search tab on the top left to indicate that you can swipe over to see your cards. That Search tab also quickly brings up a search box, really cementing that a Google search and other information is always immediately available.
The phone comes pre-loaded with all of the Play Services you could possibly want (except Hangouts) and they’re using the fancy new circular icons in your app drawer and on your home screen.
Here’s the bad news about those circular icons: not every app uses that design, which ruins the uniformity that Google was going for. It’s partly because that design isn’t mandated for apps on the Play Store, but Google didn’t exactly lead by example considering Google Allo has a tear drop shaped icon that’s not perfectly round. Come on, Google. One job.
Aside from the disconnect with the icons, everything else with the Pixel feels very coherent. Swiping down from the notification shade and pulling into quick settings is fun because of how the shortcut icons float around, and activating Google Assistant by long-pressing the home button is interesting because of Google’s colorful animation on the virtual button.
Even tiny details just feel good here, like with the notification sounds. Most OEMs (HTC excluded) have absolutely garbage notification tones and sounds that require you to pick one that sounds the least grating and then put your phone on vibrate all the time. Anyone that still remembers the Galaxy S III whistle can vouch for me here. But here, Google has a select few notification and ringtone sounds and I actually like most of them. They’re short, but pleasant, and never really annoying. It’s such a small detail, but paying attention to those small details is why the Pixel XL is enjoyable to use.
Google didn’t abandon power users in favor of a fun, simple experience though. The night light feature is present and you can adjust the display size that increases or decreases the DPI of everything on your device, so there are still definitely some customization features in here that Android enthusiasts will be happy to see. The only complaint I can imagine is that there’s no way to use a dark mode, so expect a ton of white if you’re sticking with Google’s default interface.
You’ve probably already heard great things about the Pixel’s camera, and they’re all absolutely true. There’s pretty much nowhere that the camera falls short here thanks to Google’s intelligent HDR mode.
Outdoor shots and well-lit shots aren’t really a problem for high-end phones anymore, but Google doesn’t disappoint.
Even outdoors in less than perfect lighting, the highly-touted HDR+ mode on the Pixel takes care of things.
The HDR+ mode is very clearly the glue to Google’s camera software. You really can just point and click at anything and the phone makes sure the lighting looks good, since the phone is constantly recording images whenever the camera is open. When you snap the photo, it takes those images and stitches them together to create the perfect shot, and it’s perfect just about every time.
Low light performance benefits here because the Pixel stitches all of those images together to take care of poor and awkward lighting conditions. It brightens up pretty much any photo, sometimes to the point of seeming too bright.
The camera, like the rest of the Pixel, is consistent. Google went for consistency here, and it did a fantastic job of achieving it.
Google’s first experiment at controlling the hardware in addition to the software of a phone came out really, really well. It’s not a perfect phone, and there are some subjective issues that might put users off, but if you’re looking for what you could actually consider Android’s iPhone, this is it.
Everything the Pixel does, it does well. It does, however, exacerbate one of Android’s underlying problems that’s completely independent from the Pixel: consistency. From Google’s perspective, they created a very coherent phone that checks all the boxes you could want, but the Android ecosystem lacks that coherence. I mentioned earlier that app icons don’t match up with the newer standard that Google is pushing out, and it’s jarring to use a phone that sticks to Google’s design guidelines so well and then pop into an app that hasn’t tweaked its design in years.
It’s not as much of a problem on, say, a Samsung phone, because you’re already dealing with clashing design philosophies between the OEM and Android. Google can’t fix that problem with the Pixel because it goes much deeper than the Pixel, but this phone is meant to sell the Android ecosystem. That means the weaknesses of the ecosystem reflect on the Pixel.
Platform complaints aside, from a phone perspective it’s going to be very hard to beat the Pixel and Pixel XL going forward. Google’s complete integration creates an experience that you just don’t get from other Android devices, and that alone makes it worthwhile over some of its more feature-rich competitors.