Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL review: Google’s first smartphones are great performers

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Google Pixel Phones

Google’s acquisition of Android in 2005 paid off quite well, with the multi-purpose operating system gaining an astounding market share of 87.6% in the smartphone segment. Over the years, Google has tried to show off the best of Android through its Nexus program, wherein a third-party brand would design the hardware while the search giant would take care of the software part. However, Nexus smartphones could never attain the success (or sales figures, even) that iPhones or Galaxy smartphones achieved. The reason? A combination of ineffective marketing, unclear direction, and stock Android with far too few features for general consumers.

It was never clear as to who would spend the marketing dollars on Nexus devices: Google or the ODM (original device manufacturer) who made the phone. Nexus devices also lacked horde-attracting features that were present in the iPhones and the Galaxies of the world, and so they were compromised in some way or the other. This is why Google decided (at last) to ditch the Nexus program, and not to rely on ODMs to show Android in its best light. The internet services giant finally went all in to make a phone completely by itself. Enter the Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL.

The Pixel is a medium through which Google can show what Android is capable of without limiting itself to the software. Unlike Nexus phones which came pre-installed with pure, stock version of Android, Pixel phones have proprietary features that Google developed in its own backyard. There’s an entirely new setup process, a custom launcher, modified icons, customer support right from the Settings menu, fingerprint gestures, and unlimited Google Photos storage. However, all these things come with a steep price tag.

So, with the Pixels, has Google succeeded in crafting a perfect smartphone? Is it justifiable for Google to warrant such a high price tag (which starts at ₹60,000 for the 32GB Pixel and goes up to ₹76,000 for the 128GB Pixel XL) for its first smartphones? Let’s dive into our review of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL to see how they stack up against the best smartphones in the industry.

What’s even the point of a half-glass back?

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

Unlike the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X released last year, both the Pixels have a similar design. Their uni-bodies are made out of aluminium, and there’s a glass panel on the top halves of their backs. As on most smartphones these days, the full front facia of these devices is covered by a scratch-resistant glass panel (Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4). Since Google tends to recommend on-screen UI navigation buttons, there are no hardware navigation buttons on the Pixels. The fingerprint sensor is on the back.

The power/lock button has a ridged pattern, while the volume button doesn’t, so it’s easier to know which is which without looking at them. The power button has a bit of wobble, though. Also, the volume rocker works better when you press it on the ends. The Pixels look particularly dull when compared to most high-end smartphones, and even when compared to the new iPhones, for that matter. They look even worse in their silver avatar with a white front. Even though there’s no physical home button on the front, the Pixels have bezels wider than on many of their competitors. The bezels are not a problem on the 5-inch Pixel – you can use it with a single hand at all times – but Google could have worked harder on reducing the wasted space all the same.

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

As for the half-glass back, it neither looks attractive nor does it serve any real purpose. We found that it started getting scratches in just two weeks’ usage. So what’s even the point of a half-glass back? Also, Google should’ve implemented the Double-Tap-To-Wake feature which we find on other phones for waking up the phone, as the fingerprint sensor cannot be accessed when the phone is lying on a table and it is also quite hard to reach on the Pixel XL. Overall, even though the build quality is good, you’d expect better from a phone priced this high. The Pixels look very dull and boring for their asking prices.

AMOLED displays rank at the very top

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

The Pixel and Pixel XL feature 5-inch and 5.5-inch displays, with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels (Full HD) on the former and 2560×1440 pixels (Quad HD) on the latter. For their sizes, both phones offer a sharp viewing experience, and being AMOLED panels, these displays give you everything you would expect: vivid colors, deep blacks and wide viewing angles. Brightness levels are also high and legibility on a sunny day was never an issue.

Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge have the best displays in the smartphone industry, and the Google Pixel and Pixel XL can comfortably take the second spot. Some of the faults that we found in the Pixels’ screens are that the overall tone of the screens is a bit too blue and the brightness levels aren’t as high as on the Galaxy S7. If you aren’t a fan of the oversaturated look of AMOLED displays, then you will find the LCD display on the Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus to be the next best option, although that would mean giving up Android.

12MP camera with HDR+ is magic

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

Both the Pixels come equipped with a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. The primary camera uses a 1/2.3-inch Sony IMX378 sensor with phase-detection (PDAF) as well as laser autofocus, an individual pixel size of 1.55µm, 26mm-equivalent lens, and an aspect ration of 4:3. It has an aperture of F2.0 and SME-HDR mechanism for faster HDR+ processing. The phones can record 4K videos at 30fps, but there’s no OIS on either of them. However, Google claims that its EIS implementation is better than OIS on some smartphones. We were skeptical about Google’s claims, though.

The camera app is quite simple. There are two modes – stills and videos – which can be accessed using swipes. Additional modes include Slow Motion, Panorama, Photo Sphere, and Lens Blur. All these modes can be accessed via a hamburger menu on the left-hand side. The app is quite fast, but the whole UI rotates when turning the phone from the landscape to the portrait view and vice versa. This creates an essence of UI stutter, something which isn’t present on other high-end smartphones. The camera app can be launched quickly by double pressing the power button, which brings these phones on par with the recent Galaxy smartphones.

Google_Pixel_XL_Review_Camera_Sample08

Focussing is fast, thanks to PDAF and Laser Autofocus, and the camera app is quite fast as well. Add the Snapdragon 821 to the mix, and what you get is a camera that can launch, focus, shoot, and save images and videos instantaneously. The resulting image quality is top-notch too, thanks to larger 1.55µm pixels and HDR+. Dynamic range is one of the best we’ve come across till now, white balance was almost always spot on, and the images are full of details. Even without the OIS, the Pixels’ cameras were able to hold their own. More importantly, colours were preserved very well even in low-light conditions. Unlike the images shot using the Galaxy S7 edge, the images shot using the Pixels in low-light conditions didn’t exhibit pink or yellow tint.

HDR+ is active by default in the Pixel’s and the Pixel XL’s camera app. What HDR+ does is, it keeps nine frames in the buffer right from the moment when you launch the camera app. This improves the dynamic range by a lot. It even improves the image quality in low-light conditions. However, the details aren’t exactly as good as the images taken by the Galaxy S7 which comes with OIS. Thanks to the Snapdragon 821 and Google’s custom implementation of SME-HDR for HDR+ magic, it doesn’t take a lot of time to process images. It’s much faster now than it was on last year’s Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. However, image quality worsens when you disable HDR+, which only shows how important HDR+ is for the Pixels. Also, turning off HDR+ doesn’t stick – the camera app will turn the feature on every time you open it, which could put some users off.

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No product is perfect. Many images shot against a bright source left a noticeable lens flare. We think this is mostly due to the glass layer on top of the camera sensor. Even though Google promised that it would release a software update to fix the lens flare issue, we don’t think that it is entirely possible to fix with just a software update. Moving on to the videos, Google’s EIS implementation is one of the best in the industry, and it had to be since the Pixels lack OIS. In our testing, the EIS stabilised videos better than OIS on some cameras where we recorded videos while walking. However, jitters were introduced when sudden panning or movement was involved.

The 8-megapixel front-facing camera uses a 1/3.2-inch sensor with 1.4µm pixel size, F2.4 aperture, and 1080p video recording. There’s no front-facing LED flash or screen flash as seen on some recent phones, and the lens isn’t as wide-angle as on the Galaxy S7, either. However, it still shoots some of the best selfies, with enough detail in the images. There’s no beautify feature, though, so it is possible that you’ll end up hating some of the selfies that you capture. We are still confused as to why there’s no 1440p video recording in the Pixels as its competitor, the Galaxy S7, has that feature. Overall, both the cameras on the Pixels are fast, accurate, and reliable.

First phones with Android 7.1 Nougat also come with Google’s custom additions

Google Pixel XL UI

Since the Pixels are Google’s very own smartphones, you ought to expect the latest version of Android. The Pixel and the Pixel XL are the only smartphones in the Indian market right now to run Android 7.1 Nougat out-of-the-box. Google has even customised Android slightly to add a few new features including a completely new setup process, a custom launcher, custom fingerprint sensor actions, and a great selection of still as well as live wallpapers. Another important feature is the live customer support accessible right from the phone’s Settings menu.

The Pixel and the Pixel XL are the only phones that come pre-installed with the Pixel Launcher app. There’s no dedicated icon in this launcher that shows all the installed apps. Rather, you have to swipe up the app dock to reveal all the apps. Also, most Google apps have circular icons on the Pixels, which look nice. There’s also something called ‘App Shortcuts,’ which is similar to 3D Touch shortcuts found on the recent iPhones. They can be accessed by long-pressing the icon of a compatible app. App developers can implement circular app icons and app shortcuts for phones running Android 7.1 Nougat. However, it remains to be seen whether other phone makers will implement these features or not.

Long-pressing an empty area on the home screen reveals options to add widgets and change wallpapers. Selecting the Wallpapers option takes you to Google’s new Wallpaper app. You can find plenty of still and live wallpapers there. The ‘Live Earth’ folder has some amazing live wallpapers with parallax effect. There are 226 wallpapers in total, and you can set different wallpapers for the lock screen and the home screens. Google has done a commendable job with wallpapers in its first smartphones. You can access or close the notifications and quick settings area by swiping down or up on the fingerprint sensor. A similar feature is also found on the Honor 8 and the Lenovo ZUK Z2 Plus. This feature is very handy, especially on the Pixel XL which comes with a larger screen and accessing the notifications area is tougher using one hand.

The Google search shortcut on the home screen is now pill-shaped. Clicking on it will reveal the full-sized search bar, whereas pulling it towards the right reveals the Google Now section. The Google Search shortcut and the weather and date widget can’t be removed from the home screen. A single swipe down from the top of the screen reveals top six quick setting toggles, but more can be accessed by swiping down again. Quick Setting toggles can also be customised by hitting the pencil-shaped edit button.

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One of the best features of Android 7.1 (or Android 7.0 for that matter) is side-by-side multitasking. Most apps support side-by-side multitasking, a feature which was introduced this year with Android Nougat. All you have to do is long-press the multitasking button. The phone sometimes shows a message that a particular app doesn’t support side-by-side multitasking, but most apps can be used in that mode. Side-by-side multitasking can be accessed in the landscape as well as the portrait modes. Moreover, double pressing the multitasking button leaves you back to the last-used app. These new features are genuinely useful. Even though they were available on some LG and Samsung phones since the past couple of years, app support for these companies’ custom implementation was thin. Android’s native side-by-side multitasking feature should improve the situation rapidly.

Google Assistant was revealed during the launch of the Pixel and the Pixel XL, and it was nothing but a glorified Google Now with a conversation UI similar to that of Apple’s Siri. You can launch the Google Assistant using the “OK, Google” hotword. It works even when the phone is locked. It was fairly accurate and it understands the context better, but we we didn’t use it much. Moreover, it can’t do some things that Google Now can, for example, identify a music track. Overall, the software on the Pixels is bloat-free, clean, and fast. You also get a promise of fast software updates and security patches with the Pixel and the Pixel XL.

Smoothest Android phones we’ve ever used

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

Not just the smoothest, the Pixel and the Pixel XL are also the fastest Android phones we have got our hands on. Both devices are powered by the new Snapdragon 821 chipset, although Google has used a lower CPU clock speed, the same as the Snapdragon 820’s. But Google has made special optimizations to the OS that it says won’t be available for other devices, and we don’t remember a single moment when the Pixels lagged or stuttered, at least not in any noticeable manner.

In fact, the Pixels might be the first Android phones that can give the iPhone a run for its money when it comes to software performance. They sometimes feel even faster than the iPhones as Android doesn’t employ as many animations as iOS does, and there’s also a level of consistency to the Pixels’ performance that we haven’t seen on any Android device. Naturally, all the high-end gaming titles work well, and even little things like app installation happen quickly.

The fingerprint sensor on the Pixels is fast and accurate, although there seems to be a software glitch which would sometimes result in the phones not responding to our fingerprint when the screen was off. It was a rare occurrence, but we hope the bug is fixed with a software update. Google has also added the ability to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor to access the notification shade. This feature is easier to use on the Pixel, though, as the size of the Pixel XL makes it harder for one to reach the fingerprint sensor.

Like the design, the loudspeaker on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL is not as good as we would have liked it to be, since these are such costly devices. The phones have two speaker grilles at the bottom, but only the one on the left works as the speaker. The sound from the loudspeaker is clear as long as you don’t use it at maximum volume, but it’s very easy to cover the speaker with your palm when you’re using the devices in landscape mode. Thankfully, Google has provided capable earphones – they lack definition in the mid-range, but the low (bass) and high (treble) frequencies come out very well.

When it comes to connectivity, the Pixel and Pixel XL perform admirably. 4G coverage was never an issue on Airtel or Jio networks and signal reception was quite strong even in areas where other phones would falter. Wi-Fi performance is as expected, with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands being supported. Call quality was also very good. It’s nothing to write home about, but we heard no complaints from people at the other end.

Battery reliably lasts one full day on the Pixel XL

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With its 3450mAh battery, the Pixel XL is clearly the better choice between both of Google’s offerings, especially if you are only seeking better battery life. After three weeks of usage and battery life consistency settled, the Pixel XL usually lasted anywhere between 20-26 hours after a full charge. We could eke out around four to four and a half hours of screen-on time from the Pixel XL. The phone takes around two and a half hours to get fully charged using the supplied wall charger and the cable. The charging cables were too stiff for our taste, though. It was cumbersome to wind up and store these cables.

We did not connect either a smartwatch or any other Bluetooth-based accessory such as a fitness tracker to the smartphone while reviewing it. Even though the battery life isn’t as long as the Galaxy S7 edge or the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, it’s quite reliable. We didn’t notice any sudden or abrupt drops in battery level during these three weeks. There were days when the Pixel XL lasted around 30-32 hours with four hours of screen-on time, but that was when the device was connected only to a Wi-Fi network.

Google Pixel XL Battery Life
Google Pixel XL Battery Life

The 5-inch Pixel, like the iPhone 7, isn’t a great option when it comes to battery endurance. You will need to start charging it by evening on most days if you intend to continue using it without worry at night. Idle battery drain is impressively low on the smaller Pixel as well, but it cannot be depended on to get you through the entire day. Thankfully, the Pixel’s 2770mAh battery charges very quickly – you can expect it to reach 100 percent in a little over an hour and a half.

Interestingly, Google is using USB-PD (USB Power Delivery) standard for Pixels’ charging mechanism, so your Quick Charge-compatible wall charger won’t be fully compatible with the Pixels. The difference between USB-PD and Quick Charge is that the former doesn’t alter current, while the latter alters current as well as the voltage for rapidly charging a device’s battery. Google has also advised other Android device manufacturers to start using USB-PD instead of proprietary rapid charging technologies such as Adaptive Fast Charge, PumpExpress, Quick Charge, and others.

So, should you buy one of these Pixels?

Google Pixel Review: Google's first smartphones are great performers

Well, considering that the Pixel and the Pixel XL are two of the fastest smartphones in the market, they definitely deserve your consideration if you’re in the market for a high-end smartphone. They also have excellent cameras, good displays, the newest Android software, and reliable battery life. What’s more, they are also among the first phones to be compatible with the Google Daydream virtual reality platform and the company’s Daydream VR headset. However, there are some caveats too. They do not look like high-end phones at all. Chances are, no one would ask you about them, because they look so generic. Also, they also lack some extras features like water resistance and stereo speakers, which one expects with such high price tags. If you can live without these extra features and a flashy design, sure, go ahead and hit that Buy Now button right now.

Note: Abhijeet Mishra contributed to this review by testing the Google Pixel.

Google Pixel & Google Pixel XL

Starts at ₹60,000
Google Pixel & Google Pixel XL
8.1

Design

7/10

Display

8/10

Software

9/10

Camera

9/10

Performance

9/10

Battery Life

8/10

Value For Money

7/10

Pros

  • Stupid fast
  • Excellent cameras
  • Reliable battery life
  • Android 7.1 Nougat
  • Promise of fast updates
  • Google Daydream compatible

Cons

  • Dull design
  • Google Assistant needs improvement
  • Feeble loudspeaker
  • No water resistance
  • Quite expensive
  • The Really Blue variant not available in India
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