Pixel XL review: Google's new phone isn't a Nexus—it's better

Pixel XL review: Google's new phone isn't a Nexus—it's better

Google has been selling phones since the Nexus One landed almost seven years ago. In fact, there have been eight Nexus phones, one each year through 2014, and two last year. They have generally been good phones, especially in the last few years. But the Pixel is not a Nexus. It’s better.

With the Pixel, Google did more than partner with a phone maker to slap  Android on an already-designed handset. It created its own hardware and software innovations on top of stock Android. The result is a phone that may displease Android purists, but should delight everyone else. This is Google’s first real attempt to push a phone to the mass market, and the Pixel competes directly with the iPhone as well as pricey flagships from Samsung and LG.

For this review, we’re looking only at the Pixel XL. The Pixel is smaller, with a 5-inch 1080p display instead of the Pixel XL's 5.5-inch 1440p display. The smaller display—along with the Pixel's smaller battery—is the only difference between the two models. 

Not a Nexus

Nexus phones were built in partnerships with hardware partners like LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Google would take a mostly-developed phone, and work a deal to make it the next Nexus. Google would then ask for a few tweaks, slap on stock Android and Google apps, and then resell it. But with the two Pixel phones, Google says it has had its hand on the wheel from the beginning, with HTC acting as a mere contract manufacturer. This is a longer and riskier process, but gives Google the opportunity to more tightly integrate its services, as well as tune hardware and software together.

pixel xl stuff in box Jason Cross

The Pixel XL comes with fast USB-C charger, two cables, and a transfer dongle.

The result is a phone that isn't “pure Android,” and is frankly better for it. A devotee that only wants another Nexus—good hardware at an affordable price with stock Android—will surely cry foul. But if you can get past the idea that Google dared to produce a premium phone to showcase its own innovations in the same vein as Samsung or LG, you’ll probably love the Pixel. The market is awash with quality Android phones in the $300 to $400 range, so Google doesn’t need to push in that direction. Rather, it needs to push the premium market away from bloatware and delayed updates.

Think about it. You can’t get any other super-premium, $600-plus Android phone without suffering a litany of pre-installed apps from both the phone maker and carrier. Usually these apps can't be uninstalled, only “disabled.” It’s absurd!

With Pixel, Google direct-sells a phone that works on any carrier, and is free of all that cruft. You can also get it exclusively through Verizon in the U.S. (the Verizon version is sold at Best Buy too). This version only installs three Verizon apps from the Play store when you activate the SIM: Go90, Verizon Messenges, and My Verizon. All three can be fully uninstalled just like any other app. All Pixel phones, even Verizon’s, will get Android updates at the same time. The Verizon version is even sold carrier-unlocked out of the gate, so you can jump ship if you want.

Smart software improvements

The Pixel doesn't come with stock Android. If it did, it would ship with Android 7.0 instead of 7.1, because 7.1 isn’t quite ready for general release yet. So if you buy a Pixel, you get Android 7.1 ahead of the rest of the world. This point release includes a host of improvements like shortcuts when you long-press on app icons (similar to 3D Touch on iPhones), seamless system updates, and a Night Light mode to reduce blue light coming from the display late at night.

pixel xl android 71 features

Android 7.1 includes improvements like app shortcuts and Night Mode.

Some might argue that Google is playing games with the market, giving itself an artificial 7.1 head start to sell more phones. But I think Google's motivations are probably much more practical—that it’s just easier to squash bugs and optimize an Android release on a single phone instead of a litany of devices. This Nougat point release might simply be ready on the Pixel, and that's where it's landing first.

As all other Android phone makers do—and as Google avoided doing with the Nexus phones—the Pixel gets its own system tweaks. For starters, the Pixel launcher gets rid of the App Drawer button on the home row, and now a fifth app shortcut can appear instead. Just swipe up on the home row to see all your apps.

The Pixel launcher also ditches the big, full-width Google search bar. In its stead, you'll see a svelte Google button on the left, and a weather/temperature/date widget on the right. The launcher also makes use of the new circular icons being introduced in Android 7.1. It makes for nice visual consistency, but app developers will have to update their apps to make circular icons available. Right now you’ll find a mix of circles and squares.

pixel xl launcher

The Pixel doesn’t use the stock Android launcher, nor its sounds, ringtones, or wallpapers.

As you poke around, you’ll notice little tweaks and changes throughout the OS. The ringtones and notification sounds are new and unique to Pixel. There’s also a set of the coolest live wallpapers I’ve ever seen. Thoughtful details are everywhere, from the little cable management clips on the USB-C cables in the box, to the quick transfer adapter that makes it a snap to get everything off your old phone—messages, contacts, photos, music, and even some of your device settings and app data. It even works with iPhones!

pixel xl cord Jason Cross

Thoughtful little touches like these cable managment clips are what we expect from high-priced premium phones.

Every day, one of our top five most-viewed articles is “How to get everything off your old Android phone and onto your new one.” This process is a serious pain in the butt for phone buyers. That Google understands this, and has a simple, straightforward solution included with every Pixel phone, says a lot about its desire to make this phone a success. And it’s just one more example of how this isn’t just another Nexus.

Here’s something else no Nexus ever had: built-in support. Just swipe the Settings screen to the right to get 24/7 Pixel support, by phone or chat. You can even share your screen with the support rep during phone calls. No Genius Bar appointment necessary.

pixel xl transfer connector Jason Cross

Google recognizes that getting your stuff onto a new phone is a drag, so it includes this transfer dongle.

If there’s one annoyance I wish Google would immediately fix with a software update, it’s the Pixel’s limited wake-up options. The Ambient Display feature on the Nexus 6P will wake the display when you receive notifications and when you just pick up the phone. On the Pixel, it only wakes when you get notifications. There’s no “double tap to wake” function, either. You have to press the power button or unlock the phone with the fingerprint sensor to wake it, which is a chore when you only want to check the time.

Looks good on the outside, too

There are only so many ways to design a rectangular slab of glass and metal around a touch display. That said, the Pixel and Pixel XL are reasonably attractive, premium-feeling phones. The only truly distinctive design element is the glossy area on the top third of the phone’s back.

pixel xl buttons Jason Cross

Well-placed buttons with a good feel often go unappreciated.

The buttons are well-placed and easy to reach on the right side. You’ll find a headphone jack in the upper left—I’d prefer it on the bottom, but at least Google hasn’t yet jumped on the “no more headphone jacks” bandwagon. It’s probably inevitable, but it simply feels too soon.

Speaking of the bottom, there are two speaker holes, one on each side of the USB-C port. But you don’t get stereo sound. Sound appears to come only from the left hole, and the other looks like it’s just there to maintain symmetry. 

pixel xl bottom2 Jason Cross

There are two speaker holes, but sound only comes from one.

It’s a very well-built phone, with tight tolerances along seams and no flex or bend. The metal frame conducts heat and can get a little warm when you’re charging or making the processor sweat, but not more so than most metal phones.

The front face is covered by a single edge-to-edge sheet of Gorilla Glass 4, giving it a very smooth feel. And speaking of smooth, there’s no camera bump on the back—a rarity in today’s high-end phones. This is great for those who like to use their phone while its resting on a desk, but if you put a case on your phone, it’s sort of a moot point.

The quad HD Super AMOLED display on the Pixel XL is gorgeous. Google claims its wide color gamut covers 91 percent of the Adobe RGB color range, and you can really see the richness of colors. It’s bright and easy to see outdoors, though it doesn’t get quite as crazy-bright in direct sunlight as the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge.

pixel xl camera Jason Cross

There’s no camera bump, but that’s just a nice way of saying the phone is thick enough not to need one.

If I wanted to pick nits, I’d say that the “chin” (the area below the display) is larger than it really needs to be. Google seems to prefer on-screen buttons to capacitive touch buttons, but there’s plenty of room on that chin for your back/home/recents. Why not give us the option of on-screen or touch buttons? Either do that, or shorten the chin.

Still, big chin and all, the Pixel XL is smaller phone than the iPhone 7 Plus, which also has a 5.5-inch display, and of course smaller than the Nexus 6P with its 5.7-inch display. It’s slightly thicker than either one, but doesn’t feel particularly bulky in the hand.

pixel xl size comparison

The Pixel XL is a big phone, but not as big as the iPhone 7 Plus or Nexus 6P. Image courtesy of Phone Arena's comparison tool.

The only place where Google didn’t keep up with modern design trends is in failing to make the Pixel waterproof. I don’t need to go SCUBA diving with my phone, but I’d like it to survive a dunk in the sink. It’s not as if the Pixel is going to melt if you get caught in the rain, but with Samsung and Apple both shipping comparably-priced waterproof phones, Google needs to follow suit. It’s one of those rare checkbox features that really could save someone hundreds of dollars.

Google Assistant is here to help

Google has had an “assistant” for a long time in the form of Google Now voice commands. The scope of voice commands and queries has become quite impressive, and my personal experience is that Google is simply in a whole other league compared to Siri and Cortana.

The Google Assistant, first introduced with the Allo chat app a month ago, takes Google Now and makes it a bit more conversational. After making a query or giving a command, you’ll get a list of suggested follow-up questions. Google seems to think of it as a turning point in our AI-assisted future. I think of it as an upgrade to the already fantastic Google Now voice features.

pixel xl assistant

The Assistant does everythinng Google Now could do and more, including audio and trivia games and subscriptions. Say “good morning” and it reads you a customizable daily digest.

Still, it’s so much better than Cortana or Siri that it makes sense to put it front and center on the Pixel phones. No matter what you’re doing, simply hold down the home button or say “OK Google,” and the Assistant pops up, listening for your question or command. Ask it to send a text, set an alarm, or show you good sushi restaurants nearby. Then get directions, make reservations, or check the weather—basically all the many and varied things you could do with Google Now, including device control (“turn the volume up” or “turn on airplane mode”).

Google has added some fun games like trivia and vocabulary quizzes, but at its heart, Assistant is just a souped-up Google Now. That’s not to knock it, because Google Now has become remarkably useful. That’s just to say that if you’re familiar with all you could do with your voice in Google Now, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

pixel xl assistant voice

Notice anything missing? If you said “text input,” you win!

Unfortunately, the Assistant as baked into the Pixel is a voice-only affair. After first speaking to the Assistant, you can tap on suggested follow-up queries, but you can’t simply type a question as you can within the Allo app. And those emoji-based games in Allo's Assistant are out the window, too. This is a real oversight. I don’t want to talk at my phone at the gym or on the bus. The fix would be simple: Just let users swipe a microphone icon to either side to get a text entry box. You can always launch Allo and type to the Assistant there, but that sort of defeats the purpose of making Assistant a system-wide feature.

The best camera ever? Maybe.

Google makes a big deal of the fact that DxOMark has given the Pixel camera a rating of 89, its highest score ever for a phone (the iPhone 7 scored 86, but the iPhone 7 Plus has not been reviewed). Is it really the best camera ever?

That’s tricky to answer. The 12-megapixel rear camera uses a top-of-the-line Sony IMX378 sensor with big 1.55 micron pixels and has an f/2.0 aperture lens. The photos it takes, particularly with auto-HDR enabled, are easily among the best I’ve seen from any smartphone. They rival the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7—sometimes the Pixel shot is better, other times it’s one of the other guys, but it’s usually a close call. The Pixel excels in low light, with natural colors and good detail compared to most phones. In good outdoor light, color balance, detail, and exposure are spot on. No phone camera is going to compete with the dynamic range, focus, and adjustable aperture of a DSLR, but the Pixel beats most cheap compact point-and-shoots.

night kitchen comparison

In this challenging shot, the only light is from the grow lamp. Neither phone has the necessary dynamic range, but the Pixel XL has better detail and color.

But final photo quality isn’t all that matters. The photo-taking experience is defined by the design and function of the camera app, and the speed at which you can go from pocket-to-photo without missing a moment. Remember when I said that the Pixel gives Google the opportunity to more closely tie hardware and software together? The camera is a good example.

bright comparison

In bright environments, the Pixel XL edges out its competitors for detail, clarity, and dynamic range.

Google has gone beyond the “works on all phones” capabilities you find in the stock Android camera app, and now makes better use of the powerful ISP (image signal processor) in the Snapdragon 821 chip. As a result, it’s HDR-Auto mode is now very fast, with almost no shutter lag, and image tone and balance are greatly improved. The burst mode is crazy fast, too. You can shoot video up to 4K at 30fps, and the excellent slow-mo mode gives you either 1080p at 120fps or 720p at 240fps.

pixel xl cat

Obligatory black cat in low light comparison. No phone nails this test, but notice how the Nexus 6P has a pinkish hue, and the iPhone 7 blows out the light areas of the bedding.

While there’s no optical image stabilization (OIS), the Pixel has a very sensitive, very fast gyroscope and accelerometer (also useful for VR) that it samples 200 times a second to perform some next-level electronic image stabilization. Like a true camera nerd, I was ready to hate it and proclaim OIS the only “real” way to stabilize photos and videos, but after trying it out, I’m really quite impressed. I’d still like to see OIS in tandem with fancy electronic stabilization in the inevitable Pixel 2, but I don’t think most users are going to miss it here.

Just look at the following example. I walked forward a few steps, holding the phone in front of me. Google’s fancy new video stabilization isn’t perfect, but when it works well, it’s freaky.

The camera app still needs a little work. While it is simple and intuitive, it lacks features for power users. At the very least, we deserve a “Pro” mode that gives us manual control over white balance, focus, ISO, and shutter speed. Still, the app launches much more quickly than it ever did on a Nexus phone, shutter lag is almost completely eliminated, and shot-to-shot speed has been vastly improved. The entire photo-taking experience is now a delight, while Nexus phones always felt bogged down in molasses.

It’s hard for me to emphatically claim that the Pixel has the best camera of all time, but it is at the very least among the best—together with the iPhone 7, HTC 10, and Galaxy S7. And the Pixel phones have one feature none of those others can touch: free, full-resolution backup to Google Photos of every photo and video you take. No downsizing or recompression, even for 4K video. Combined with Google’s very impressive AI-assisted photo search, it’s a real game-changer.

Really fast, not just ‘benchmark fast’

As you would expect from phones this expensive, the Pixels have high-end hardware. They’re among the first to ship with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 (a very slightly faster version of the 820), they’ve got 4GB of RAM, and either 32 or 128 GB of storage. The smaller Pixel and Pixel XL differ in exactly two ways: the Pixel has a 5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display and 2770 mAh battery. The larger XL has a 5.5-inch 1440p display and 3450 mAh battery. That may have an impact on battery life, and we’ll test the smaller Pixel independently to see how much difference there is to longevity (if any). But they should otherwise perform identically.

Interestingly, Google states the clock speed of its CPU is 2.15GHz—lower than Qualcomm’s 2.4GHz official spec for the Snapdragon 821. Perhaps Google is backing off the throttle a touch to conserve battery life?

Regardless, the Pixel XL is fast. In benchmarks, the Pixel XL delivers results roughly equal to most other expensive flagship Android phones. It’s a good deal faster than the Nexus 6P, especially when it comes to 3D graphics.

pixel xl benchmarks antutu

Thanks in part to a much faster GPU, the Pixel XL crushes the Nexus 6P in some benchmarks.

But benchmarks aren’t what matters most. Android fans often complain about phones (especially Samsung’s) that lead benchmark charts, but still somehow seem to stutter, chop, and sputter when you use them. The Pixel XL does none of that. At every turn it is smooth, fast, and most of all, responsive. Google says it has greatly improved touch latency (the tiny sliver of time between when you touch or move your finger on the screen and the system responds). Indeed, this may be the smoothest and most responsive Android phone I’ve ever used.

pixel xl benchmarks pcmark

In general app benchmarks, the Pixel XL is roughly comparable to other top-tier Android phones.

The iPhone tends to “feel” faster than Android phones in part because touch latency is so low and screen update time is so consistent. You feel like you’re directly dragging, swiping, and pinching the items on the screen. The interface “sticks” to your finger, rather than lagging just a bit behind it. The Pixel XL is the first Android phone I’ve used that consistently gives me that same feeling.

Only time will tell if this performance holds up over time, or if, as with many other Android phones, it somehow feels a lot slower after six months of everyday use. Out of the box, the Pixel may not measure as the absolute fastest Android phone on the market, but it sure feels like it is. There’s that software/hardware synergy thing again.

pixel xl benchmarks battery

Battery benchmarks show the Pixel XL to last a long time, but it’s not the longest we’ve seen. Note that this new PCMark version is not comparable to the old one.

Battery life on the Pixel XL is good, but not industry-leading. Those smaller, mid-range phones with big batteries, less powerful processors, and lower-resolution displays like the Moto Z Play last a lot longer. But among high-end superphones, the Pixel XL avails itself well. In typical use, at mid brightness with auto-brightness enabled and all networking features turned on, I got about 5 and a half hours of screen-on time (and many more hours of standby) before ending the day with critically low battery. That’s doing a little bit of everything: catching Pokemon, browsing Twitter and Reddit, reading on the web, using the Google Assistant, and taking photos.

Leaving the phone unplugged on standby overnight, the battery lost about 12 percent of its charge. It’s not the slowest standby drain I’ve ever seen, but again, I had everything enabled: always listening for “OK Google,” all wireless radios, you name it. As with many expensive phones, you’ll get through the the day with average use, and heavy use (especially lots of gaming) will make you find a plug by mid-afternoon.

To that end, the charging speed with the included USB-C charger is fantastic. Google claims that a 15-minute charge will give you 7 hours of mixed use. I’m not sure what that means in real-world terms, but a 15-minute charge took me from 6 percent to 24 percent, and another 15 minutes got me up to 40 percent. Like all phones, charging speed slows down as the battery gets full, but a full charge will take about an hour and a half. That’s fast.

VR coming soon

A major selling point of the Pixel phones is sure to be Google’s Daydream VR platform. Unfortunately, Daydream View headsets aren't due for another month or so, so I wasn’t able to thoroughly test it out. 

But I recently spent some hands-on time with Daydream VR, and I can say that I came away impressed. It compares favorably to Samsung and Oculus’ Gear VR, which is by far the best phone-based VR experience you can get today. The variety of content will take some time to catch up, but overall visual quality is about on par with Gear VR. The Daydream View headset is more comfortable, and the Daydream’s motion-tracking wand is a superior way to interact with the virtual environment.

It’s a $79 item, and free as a preorder bonus “while supplies last.” I think it will probably be a worthwhile purchase for every Pixel owner, and definitely worth mentioning as a potential reason to own the phone. Other Daydream-ready phones will hit the market soon, after Android 7.1 sees general release.

The Pixel push deserves to succeed

Some see the Google Pixel as a simple re-branding of Nexus; a way to charge a premium price for something that should have been less expensive. I’m not so sure I agree. Pixel’s software isn’t drastically different from stock Android, but thoughtful improvements are apparent. More importantly, this feels like a better-optimized synergy between hardware and software than we’ve seen before.

There are good reasons to root for Google in its attempt to make Pixel a mainstream luxury phone brand. Not the least of which is that this is the only high-end, premium phone you can buy at retail that doesn’t come loaded with uninstallable bloatware, doesn't have carrier-disabled features, isn’t locked, and won’t wait for months to get Android OS updates. In fact, Pixel buyers are getting Android 7.1 before it’s officially released to the rest of the world.

Android needs this. It needs a big manufacturer to flex its muscle and say, “no more.” No more carriers delaying updates. No more forcing scores of unwanted apps on us that we can’t delete. No more heavily skinned interfaces that don’t look or act the way Android should. There’s still plenty of room to innovate, and plenty of money to be made without all that stuff.

pixel xl sim Jason Cross

There only room for a SIM card, no SD storage expansion. Though with free full-resolution photo and video backup, you may not need it.

Yes, the Pixel has its warts. I could have wished for stereo sound or waterproofing. It really needs a software update to add a “lift to wake” capability, and preferably double-tap to wake as well. It’s got no option to add storage via SD card and no wireless charging, although I would argue that free full-res photo and video backup and excellent fast charging make those less necessary. 

You can get a longer list of features in a phone like the Galaxy S7 Edge, or unique innovations like the snap-on mods of the Moto Z. But those other premium phones also carry compromises the Pixel phones do not, like cluttered custom interfaces, messy bloatware, delayed updates, or missing headphone jacks.

Google’s Pixel deserves to be a success story, and not just because we all have a vested interest in a “no more crap” phone setting a new standard for Android phones. It should succeed because it’s honestly a great phone, worthy of its place among other pricey premium handsets. It’s got a nice design and great build quality, good battery life, fantastic responsiveness, and thoughtful features like the easy transfer tool and built-in live support with screen sharing. 

The Pixel isn’t a slam dunk that suddenly makes all other premium Android phones obsolete. But if you want a high-end phone, it deserves to be on your short list. And if you’re sick of bloatware, heavily customized interfaces, and delayed OS updates, there’s really no other choice.

IDG Insider

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