Google’s back with a new phone. It’s called the Pixel – the Pixel XL, in this context – and it is utterly amazing
The Google Pixel has usurped the Nexus line as the new king of the Android space, and the lead models in Google's new stable are the Pixel and Pixel XL. The Nexus line-up is still being supported, officially, by Google's software division; it'll continue to get Android updates for a time, as well as security patches, but apart from this, Pixel is where it's at as far as official Google hardware is concerned.
So what's the story here? Well essentially it's business as usual; like the Nexus series, the Pixel and Pixel XL have been designed and put together by HTC but under the close and watchful eye of Google.
As before, it's intended as a showcase of the latest version of Android (Nougat) and its capabilities - raw, pure, and unadulterated as Google intended it, with no glossy overlays or anything of that sort. It's also supposed to be a perfect, optimised union of software and hardware running as efficiently as possible, sort of like Google's equivalent to Apple's iPhone; carefully controlled and precision engineered.
However, this is arguably where the Pixel starts to outpace the old Nexus line-up. Where the Nexus series was largely a favourite of smartphone afficionados and techy types who love to tinker, side-load, develop their own software, and generally futz around with their own little bespoke tech universe, the Pixel is intended, again like the iPhone, to have mass consumer appeal.
It's a bit tidier, a bit sexier, and a bit more polished. Part of this is in going furter with the bespoke features that ONLY Pixel handsets will feature, things like a very advanced implementation of the Google Assistant AI. Other phones may make use of Google Assistant, but none will be so closely merged into the Android experience as on the Pixel.
Google has confirmed that, like the Nexus series, the new Pixel phones will be officially supported with the latest Android software updates for two years after launch, with three years of support for security patches. On Google's "Check & update your Android version" page, the company details that Android support will last for the current gen of Pixel phones until October 2018.
"Pixel phones get Android version updates for at least 2 years from when the device became available on the Google Store. After 2 years, we can't guarantee additional updates."
So, does the Google Pixel XL do enough to earn its place at the head of the table?
Google Pixel XL Review: Design
A lot has been said about the design of the Pixel phones. Most of it not good. The visuals are pretty pedestrian. There’s nothing too eye-catching or impressive about either handset. The only real point of interest is the two-tone paneling work on the back of the device. Beyond this it just looks like a phone. Not a bad-looking phone, but nothing particularly exciting either.
But this isn’t what the Pixel XL is about. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. I think this phone about Android and nothing else. Everything on the front, save for the annoyingly large bezels, is designed to simply get out of the way and let you get stuck into Android’s guts and features. I’m not a huge fan of the design, basically, but then again I don’t like the way the PS4 looks but that hasn’t exactly stopped me from using it.
The Pixel XL is fairly large at 75.7 x 154.7 mm. It felt even larger to me as I came into this review from an iPhone SE. Still, I’m pretty used to using phablets as they have been my phone of choice for years, so it didn’t take long to re-adjust. I like that Google put the fingerprint scanner on the back again and I also like that it didn't get rid of the headphone jack. Beyond this the rest of the phone is pretty much as it looks in pictures: big, shiny and not all that interesting.
The two Pixel phones are more or less identical with respect to core specs as well. The smaller Pixel has a 1080p display, a smaller battery but same internal specs and hardware and, importantly, the same camera and imaging capabilities.
I like this aspect of Google’s Pixel campaign; Apple’s iPhones are too different these days and the reason for this is very simple: Apple wants you to buy the more expensive model, which, for all intents and purposes, is the vastly superior model as well.
Rather than take this approach, Google has opted to keep things simple: at its core the choice between the two Pixel phones depends on your preference on size. After this, other considerations include battery performance; the XL model’s battery performance is a lot better than the smaller model, for instance.
The only real downside to these phones, if you could call it a downside, is their all too pedestrian styling. They’re not eye-catching phones, nor do they look like expensive phones either.
They're smart enough, don’t get me wrong, it just doesn't have the majesty of Samsung's Galaxy S7 EDGE or the uniqueness of the Nexus 6P. It still functions perfectly in the hand and it still feels premium. It’s just not particularly eye-catching, though, for me, this isn’t exactly a deal breaker. I’m more concerned with the software, cameras, and performance.
Update: Android 8.0 "Oreo" Leaks
Of course it was a given that another build of Android would be coming this year, version 8.0, Android "O", which will apparently be another branding tie-in like Android Kit-Kat. This time it's Android "Oreo", named after the layered cookie, according to rumours. We can also pretty much guarantee that the 2016 Pixel and Pixel XL will get the update very early doors, indeed they will likely be the first devices to be updated straight from Google's servers when the new version arrives. That said, it's also likely Google will debut the software on a new 2017 range of Pixel phones as well.
At present there are no details about what Android O will feature, but there is at least a strong case for the Oreo name. Following existing rumours, Google's senior vice president of Android, Chrome OS and Google Play, Hiroshi Lockheimer, tweeted a gif of an Oreo-based cake. It's not a 100% confirmation, and he could just be messing with the hype train, but it's very tempting to believe it may just be true.
Google Pixel XL Review: What About The Google Pixel?
Is there any difference between Google’s new handsets, save for the size of the actual phone? No – none whatsoever. The Pixel is exactly the same handset with exactly the same internal spec, save for batteries – the Pixel XL’s is larger. The only REAL difference you will notice is the display size and resolution; the smaller Pixel handset has a 5in AMOLED panel with a 1080p resolution. Full HD might sound disappointing to some, but it’s worth remembering that equates to a pixel density of 441 ppi.
The Pixel XL has great battery life, but the smaller Pixel, thanks to its less-power-hungry display, is even better. Light users could potentially get two day’s worth of use from a single charge. Last time I checked, that was considered very impressive and it trumps just about everything else on market in this regard, proving once again that having full control over software and hardware, as Google does with these phones, yields very impressive performance results, indeed.
Like the Pixel XL, there is no MicroSD support on the smaller Pixel handset. Ditto OIS in the camera. For the price, Google should have included OIS and also made the handset water-proof. The latter aspect is by far one of the Pixel range’s biggest goofs. I mean even Apple’s iPhones are now water proof! The company has taken a lot of flack for this aspect too, though, speaking personally, I don’t actually view either as a deal-breaker. Sure, OIS in water-proofing would have been a nice inclusion on a handset this expensive, but the omission doesn’t really detract from the overall performance of these phones in a day to day setting.
Also: I think most of us are now conditioned, through years and years of phone use, not to drop out handsets in bodies of water. I know I am.
Google Pixel XL Review: Display
The Pixel XL packs in an AMOLED QHD display that is bright, punchy and vivid. Google has not scrimped on anything in this regard and using the Pixel XL, day in, day out, is an absolute pleasure. At 5.5in it is well inside phablet territory like Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, its nearest rival, and like Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus the handset itself is more than a handful.
Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus is still only 1080p, however, and this is where the Pixel XL steams ahead because not only is it using screen technology – AMOLED – that Apple will use next year, it has has a higher resolution and this makes looking at anything on it a vastly superior experience, regardless of Apple’s command of the colour gamut aboard its latest handsets.
I’m not too fussed about 1080p vs QHD, if I'm 100% honest. I’ve been using the iPhone SE for months now and pretty much enjoyed most of my time with it. QHD is great when you have it, but it is not a necessity – especially if it comes at the expense of battery performance. Normally this is the case. However, Google has managed to remedy this via some sort of black magic, ensuring market-leading battery performance from the Pixel XL.
For me, this is a game-changer. Not only do you have a supremely bright and detailed display, but you also have INSANE battery life, the likes of which must be experienced to be believed. Images, webpages, video and text all look amazing on the Pixel XL’s expansive 5.5in panel. Like the Galaxy S7 and LG G5’s display, it is a joy to behold, a joy to use and a marvel when compared to what you get on Apple’s smaller iPhones.
Google Pixel XL Review: Specs & Features
This is where the Pixel XL REALLY does come into its own. Not only does it run an exclusive, Google-designed version of Android Nougat but it is also the first smartphone on the planet to run Qualcomm’s latest, greatest and VR-enabling Snapdragon 821 CPU.
I expected things to be smooth and potent, but nothing prepared me for just how good the Pixel XL would be – it is unlike any Android phone I have ever used. Menus. Scrolling. Apps. Everything is lightning fast. Now, some of this is down to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 CPU and the copious amount of RAM included inside the Pixel XL. But a lot of it is to do with Google’s increased control over the software and hardware.
As Apple has proven for years, if you’re in control of everything you can eke out more performance from a handset, a process that is done by ensuring the hardware – CPU, RAM, etc – works seamlessly with the software, Android Nougat. Google knows Android better than anyone else and when you use the Pixel XL the command Google has over its OS becomes all the more clear.
Google Pixel and Pixel XL Specs
||5" FHD AMOLED (1920x1080, 441ppi)
Gorilla Glass 4
|5.5" QHD AMOLED (2560x1440, 534ppi)
Gorilla Glass 4
||2.15GHz Snapdragon 821 (quad-core, 64-bit)
Adreno 530 GPU
|2.15GHz Snapdragon 821 (quad-core, 64-bit)
Adreno 530 GPU
||Rear: 12.3MP (f/2.0, 1.55um), Sony IMX378
Front: 8MP (f/2.4, 1.4um), Sony IMX179
|Rear: 12.3MP (f/2.0, 1.55um), Sony IMX378
Front: 8MP (f/2.4, 1.4um), Sony IMX179
||32GB or 128GB
No microSD support
|32GB or 128GB
No microSD support
||Fingerprint scanner, NFC, 3.5mm headphone, USB Type-C (USB 3.1)
||Fingerprint scanner, NFC, 3.5mm headphone, USB Type-C (USB 3.1)
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO, dual-band (2.4 GHz, 5.0 GHz)
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO, dual-band (2.4 GHz, 5.0 GHz)
||143.8 x 69.5 x 8.6 mm
|154.7 x 75.7 x 8.6 mm
||Quite Black, Very Silver. Really Blue
||Quite Black, Very Silver. Really Blue
Pound for pound, the specs aren’t anything to get too excited about. Yes, the Pixel XL is one of the most powerful Android phones on the planet. But, so what? It’ll be usurped next week by someone else. That’s just how it works in the Android space. But what WILL separate the Pixel XL apart from the “other” Android phones is that its performance will ALWAYS be better.
Why? Simple: Google built this phone. It clearly knows what it’s doing, as this phone feels about 10X faster than nearly every other Android phone I’ve tested this year – including the Samsung Galaxy S7, Note 7 and HTC 10. And the only reason that I can think of for why this might be the case is the level of attention Google has put into developing this phone as a seamless piece of technology.
The traditional way Android phones are built is a bit different: a phone maker designs and builds a phone. They then install Android on it, usually after ruining it with a custom skin. After a bit of tinkering and testing, the phone gets shipped out to consumers. This is the way ALL Android handsets are made. And this is why they are often problematic – see Samsung’s recent Galaxy Note 7 episode.
The Pixel phones are different, though, because they feel as if they have been designed AROUND Android.
Android is the star of the show here. Not an EDGE display, nor an odd chassis, or a missing headphone jack. No. These phones are ALL about Android. Period.
I could go on about how good the Pixel XL is to use in a day-to-day setting, but by now you probably get the picture. This phone is stunning in the performance department and it is unlike anything else that came before it. I think this is why Google changed the name. It did it because Nexus was not good enough for this phone. It deserved something new and fresh and unique for the phone space because that’s what this phone is all about: a new direction for Google and Android.
Two Month Update: Problems With My Pixel XL
Google’s Pixel XL is one of the best Android phones you can buy right now. The Pixel XL isn’t the most exciting handset to look at but the specs, performance and software are great. Ditto imaging. So all is forgiven in the looks department.
The Pixel XL is Google’s iPhone, basically. It is Google taking a more nuanced and focussed approach to hardware inside the Android space. We had Nexus phones before, sure, but the Pixel phones are different; and not just in terms of how much they cost.
The Pixel phones are the truest embodiment of what Android should look and feel like on a phone. And for the most part, Google smashed the ball outta the park – both Pixel phones are exceptional performers in every regard.
But there is a problem with my Pixel XL. It likes to pass out sometimes. You can’t predict when it will happen, but like an heavy-drinker it is usually at night – after 10pm.
This crashing issue has been noted by other users, I've read reports about it in the past, but figured my handset must have not been affected.
I was wrong. My handset is affected, so whatever this bug is it can, presumably, hit a Pixel phone at any time, as mine was fine and then all of a sudden it wasn’t.
What happens is a two fold process: the screen freezes, then the phone restarts. It’s annoying as hell, as 1) it’s unpredictable and 2) it takes about 2 minutes for the phone to then reboot.
I’ve tried factory resetting the handset and this hasn't fixed the issue which makes me think it is either a full-on hardware defect or something that Google can fix with a software update.
Either way, I’m hoping it gets fixed soon as it is starting to get rather annoying.
Google Pixel XL Review: Camera
UPDATE: Google WILL Fix Halo-Flare Bug With Software Update
Google has confirmed there is an issue with the Pixel’s camera and will soon issue a software fix to remedy it. A lot of Pixel users have noticed a weird, halo-like effect that appears on some images. The bug apparently affects all Pixel handsets – whether you’ve experienced it or not – but it is now in the process of being eliminated by a software patch that will appear shortly.
“In a post from the Pixel User Community,” notes Phandroid, “a Googler flat out confirms that the Pixel “has a little too much of the ‘halo/arc’ flare” but they’re already working on a fix. No, there’s not going to be a global recall (heh). Instead, Google says a future software update — arriving in the next few weeks — will help alleviate the appearance of the halo/light arc in photos. Using new algorithms to identify the halo, Google believes they’ll be able to eliminate it from photos, almost like a quick PhotoShop job being done on the fly.”
As of December 1, although the above issue has been fixed, a new camera-related bug is apparently afflicting many Pixel and Pixel XL users. Specifically, this bug is related to the camera application itself. A post on the Google Pixel user community outlines the problem, apparently the application freezes with "pink/purple vertical lines very regularly although not all the time." The users have tried clearing the application cache and data, and to perform factory resets on the phone, but this has not fixed the issue - even running the phone in safe mode doesn't help.
The number of users experiencing this problem and posting in the thread has increased, and some have discovered the issue appears to be tied to poor signal reception areas; having aeroplane mode switched on also seems to keep the problem at bay, oddly. A post made in the thread by a Google official confirms that the company is investigating the issue.
Forget what Apple says, the best camera on the market RIGHT NOW is inside the Google Pixel XL. I’ve been snapping images with it for just over a week and I have to say, once again, it is unlike anything I have used before. It doesn’t matter where you’re shooting, or in what type of light, the Pixel XL will deliver solid, good-looking, detailed images. I suck at photography, big time, so if the Pixel XL can make my photographs look good then someone more capable should be churning out works of art with this thing.
So what makes the camera so good? Three core aspects, in my opinion: 1) a simple application, 2) the speed with which it loads up and snaps pictures and 3) insanely fast focus. Couple this with an excellent 12.3MP sensor, large 1.55μm pixels and an f/2.0 aperture and you have a camera setup that is currently unparalleled in the mobile space.
The Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 Plus have excellent cameras, but neither are as good as the shooter inside the Pixel XL. Alongside the software inside the Pixel XL, this is one of the phone’s biggest USPs. Interestingly, it’s one I wasn’t expecting. I know Google said the Pixel XL has the best camera ever at launch, but I figured that was just locker-room talk – not an actual statement of fact!
It’s much the same with video as well. You can shoot in 4K and the results look amazing when played back on a compatible device. And if all this wasn’t good enough, Google is giving ALL Pixel users unlimited storage for all their pictures and videos – even 4K ones – so you’ll never run out of space on your phone ever again.
The Google Pixel’s imaging prowess is well documented. The 12.3MP camera is very impressive. Even by Apple and Samsung standards, however, new details have surfaced about how this camera technology was developed.
The software for the lens actually comes from Google’s Alphabet Division and was born when Google was working on Google Glass. Known as Gcam, the technology was designed to improve mobile photography using techniques from computational photography.
The technology was originally created in 2011 when the team were attempting to create a sensor that could be implemented inside Glass but provide performance on par with mobile phone cameras.
“Design constraints of the wearable meant that the physical sensor would have to be relatively small with reduced low-light and dynamic range performance in addition to already limited compute and battery power,” notes 9to5Google.
In order to make it work, Google engineers developed a method called image fusion that “takes a rapid sequence of shots and then fuses them to create a single, higher quality image”.
This technology first appeared inside Glass, then the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 and then, once HDR+ had been added, inside Google’s Pixel phones.
Google Pixel XL Review: Android. Android. Android!
I’ve been saying this for years, but it still stands: if you LOVE Android, use a Nexus phone - and this applies just as much to the Pixel phones too. Why? Simple: Pixel phones run the purest form of Android, with zero bloatware, designed and functioning just as Google intended. If you value things like this, as I do, then there really is no competition in this regard.
You get Android updates first, while other, more costly Android phones have to wait months. There is no bloatware inside; just Google apps and the one’s you choose to install. You get immediate access to all the latest security patches and fixes and, generally speaking, everything runs a lot smoother as a result.
The Pixel Phones also feature a bunch of unique software attributes that you CANNOT get anywhere else. These are as follows:
- Google Assistant
- Unlimited Storage For Photos and Video (even 4K video)
- The Pixel Launcher
- Smart Storage
- 24/7 Support
- Pixel Camera
I have never understood why people who like Android get anything other than a Nexus phone. They get updates first, were always solid and most of the time were cheaper than handsets from HTC, LG and Samsung. This latter point no longer stands, as the Pixel phones are rather pricy, however, the former points still do – and they’re now even better as a lot of what makes the Pixel tick is exclusive to the Pixel.
The Pixel Launcher is Google’s new stock Android look. It’s smart, tidy and packed with useful features. Assistant is always accessible by voice or a long hold on the home button. You can also swipe right to access Assistant. The app tray is gone, sort of… now you simply swipe up from the bottom of the display to access your applications.
The wallpapers Google has included are STUNNING. They have this awesome slow-zoom effect when you unlock the phone, which is so subtle you might not notice it. Android has never looked better in my opinion. It has also never been smarter, thanks to Google Assistant which is now leagues ahead of Siri in every regard.
Update: Google Update Fixes Google Pixel XL Headaches
Google has reportedly fixed a major bug that has been plaguing the Google Pixel handsets and causing speaker distortion at higher volume levels. Google previously acknowledged the issue after multiple users reported it and said it was working on a fix, however, a report revealed comments from a support agent who claimed it was a hardware problem on a specific batch of handsets.
With the arrival of the February security patch, although the bugfix isn't mentioned in the release notes, it appears it may have in fact been a software issue which Google may have silently fixed. A Reddit thread for Pixel users has filled up with reports that users are no longer encountering the issue after the security update. However, some users are still encountering the problem. Potentially it could be a limited run soak test of the fix which Google will rollout to other devices in the future.
Update: Android 7.1 Preview Pushed OTA In Canada - Reveals New Feature
We're not sure whether someone pressed the wrong button, but some users in Canada are reporting having recevied an OTA update which pushes a Preview build of Android 7.1 to the Google Pixel phones. The new build, labelled “Security Update + Bug Fixes,” is a 261MB Android 7.1 file with the build number NPF26J. The "P" stands for Preview, and ordinarily such builds would not be published OTA in this manner. Regardless, users are reporting a new feature lands with the update which isn't mentioned in the changelogs; a couple of new gesture options are added to the "Move" menu which allow the user to activate some Always-On display-like features to check notifications by either tapping the display or lifting the phone up. 9To5Google reports that users claim the features work well, with no bugs or issues encountered so far.
On December 5 Google has now made Android 7.1.1 available to Google Pixel handsets, both as an over-the-air (OTA) download and as downloadable factory image files which you can load onto the device manually.
The files are available for; Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P (all carriers but Verizon), Nexus 5X, Nexus 9, Nexus 9 LTE, and the Nexus Player. The update brings some of the Pixel features to non-Pixel phones, though not all; some stuff is being kept as Pixel exclusive content. As well as this, the download includes the latest Android security patches.
As of December 12, Google has released a small, additional update patch for the Pixel and Pixel XL units designated NMF26Q, specifically for UK O2 network handsets. The update doesn't change the build number, but simply adds in some fixes that were left out of the main 7.1.1 update for reasons unknown at this time.
The changelog simply reads: "remove spaces in front of APN types so that telephony can find APNs that can handle a particular type properly". It's believed the fix relates to MMS media messages. It's also expected that this update may see a wider release soon, as similar connection issues have been noted outside of the UK as well.
Google Pixel XL Review: Battery
Battery performance isn’t the most glitzy subject to talk about, but it is something 100% of mobile users value. No one phone has yet taken battery performance to a level comparable to what we had back in the days of the Nokia 3310. The Pixel XL doesn’t remedy this situation either, but what it does it still very impressive by today’s standards.
Whatever you do with this phone it just flat out REFUSES to consume juice. During testing I pushed this phone as hard as I could. I went away on a trip for 24 hours, didn’t take a charger and used the phone normally, assuming it would die in the wee hours of the morning, but, lo and behold, the Pixel XL was still alive and kicking with 20% left in the tank when I returned home the following day.
I sometimes forget to charge it and it will EASILY last until about 2pm. Nothing hurts this phone. I have no idea how Google has done this but it is DAMN impressive. The only phone that is remotely comparable is the Huawei Mate 8… but even that phone pales in comparison to what the Pixel XL is capable of with respect to battery conservation.
If you don’t use the Pixel XL, it simply doesn’t use battery life, a first for Android phones in my experience. Push it hard – like, REALLY hard – and it will last a full day and a half. This is the only phone I have ever used that I can feel confident about taking it out after work, without a top-up, and not worry about it dying on me when I need it most, usually around 2am, after a skin-full and in dire need of an Uber.
The Pixel XL’s battery performance is utterly bonkers. There’s just no other word to describe it.
Google Pixel XL Review: Verdict
There are so many Android handsets to choose from with very little, in terms of specs and hardware, to actually separate them. A lot of people are loyal to brands – Apple and Samsung – while others prefer to go for value; value like the OnePlus 3 or BlackBerry DTEK50, for instance. The Pixel phones kind of sit outside of both these categories, as the brand and name itself, at least in the mobile space, is completely untested.
This is why Google is spending so much coin on promoting the Pixel phones, both here and in the US. It wants you to buy into the brand of Pixel; it wants you to view these handsets as its iPhone. And this is a tough sell. Apple didn’t become Apple overnight and Samsung has spent BILLIONS promoting its brand to consumers, meaning Google has quite a bit of catching-up to do.
But once you use this phone, it kind of sells itself. There is a lot of hatred for this brand of phone; people say it’s too expensive, that it’s dull looking. But for some Android purists – people like me – that doesn’t matter. I’ve been waiting for Google to do a phone like this since the Nexus One, a phone that gets updates first, a phone that has best-in-class specs, and a phone, importantly, with excellent battery life.
Obviously I’d prefer it if this handset was cheaper. I think Google could have taken a hit on the chin and lowered its margin for the phone, but it hasn’t and that’s just something you’ll have to deal with. No one’s forcing you to buy this phone, after all. Apple has never compromised on price. Ever. Even when it’s iPhones were out-specced and out-designed, the company still retailed them as high as it possibly could.
This is what Google’s doing and while you might not like it, the company clearly has an eye on what it wants to achieve with this handset; it wants to create an Android version of the iPhone. It wants to make the perfect Android phone and while this handset isn’t perfect – the design, the price, etc – it’s better than nearly every other Android phone I have tested in the past 18 months with respect to performance, imaging and battery life.
If you love Android, buy this phone. If you want market-leading battery performance and a brilliant camera, buy this phone. Nothing else compares. I used to be a Nexus purist. Not anymore. Now I am a Pixel purist.
Nexus is dead… Long live the KING!