CIO

​Google Pixel XL full, in-depth smartphone review: Phones just got smarter

Daydream VR now makes this a must-have phone
  • Nick Ross (PC World)
  • 11 November, 2016 12:32

[Update 2: Before you choose a phone, check out the amazing Samsung Galaxy S8 review.]

[Update 1: Now that Google's Daydream View VR headset has launched - and it only works with the Pixel at present... and it's revolutionary and brilliant - the value proposition of this phone has been elevated. It can now add 'VR powerhouse' to its feature set and this is enough to justify, not only the high price but also switching over from Apple whose iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus suddenly look a little bit dated]

Google’s early Nexus phones showed us what could be achieved at a low price. There were some limitations but generally you ended up with a great-value, great-handling phone. Then the 6P appeared and offered some top-end technology in a large phone but still at a reasonable price. Now the new Pixel brand replaces the Nexus line and things have become as premium as you can get.

This is because Google is using the Pixel as a showcase for its latest software and services – including the Artificial Intelligence-enhanced Google Assistant – which makes the most of the new Android operating system and its integration with Google’s Search and Cloud services.

It also comes with the latest smartphone chipset, Qualcomm’s SnapDragon 821 and a bunch of other latest features mixed in with some of the best features we’ve already seen on the market. Not surprisingly, this all now comes with a massive price.

There are four different variants:
5-inch, 32GB
5-inch 128GB
5.5-inch 32GB
5.5-inch 128GB – Reviewed

Beyond screen size (the straight Pixel also has a 1080p resolution) the only other difference is battery with the 5-inch model using a 2,770mAh battery and the 5.5-inch model using a 3,450mAh battery.

But are they any good and are they worth buying?

Key specs of the Google Pixel XL

5.5in, 2560 x 1440, 534ppi AMOLED display; 32/128GB,4GB RAM; Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor plus Adreno 530 GPU, 12MP/8MP cameras; Fingerprint reader; NFC; Android 7.1; 3,450mAh battery; NanoSIM; USB-C; 154 x 76 x 9mm, 168g. Full specs here.

Design

The aluminium chassis feels very rigid and is comfortable to grip but we can’t help but be disappointed with the styling. ‘Phoned in’ would be a complement: It’s basically a box with rounded corners and a shiny bit on the back. Forget about the luxurious qualities of Samsung’s finest or the new jet black iPhone. At this price, they could have done better.

[Related: HTC U Ultra phone: full, in-depth review]

Worse, despite showing off some funky colours at the US unveiling, Aussies are being lumbered with silver or black (Blue is a limited edition but only in the US). We haven’t seen the silver version up close but it’s physically impossible to look much duller than the black version. At least it’s better than Sony’s recent, boxy flagship, the Xperia XZ.

Handling and performance

The Qualcomm SnapDragon 820 chipset was the stalwart chipset of many top phones including Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and explosive Note 7. Finally we have its successor, the SnapDragon 821.

In general use, it feels like there's a very-slight boost in responsiveness compared to other flagship phones, like the S7 and iPhone 7, but it’s not by much and could partly be attributed to using the latest Android Operating System. Whatever the case, it feels a bit faster than the competition, especially when launching the camera app.

We tried putting a number on the performance with the Geekbench benchmarking software (it only scored 1,551) but it used the slower half of the quad-core processor (1.6GHz) instead of the faster 2.15GHz cores. It seems the phone is so new that the benchmarks aren’t optimised for it just yet. The same happened in PCMark where we achieved a score of just 4,627 – well down on the S7’s 5,774. We also tried the 3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.1 benchmark and scored 2515 – which is slightly-lower than the S7’s 2,554. We take these with a pinch of salt. The results will increase as the tests get updated.

Frankly, we’re more inclined to take chip-manufacturer, Qualcomm’s own word for the performance gains which quote a ten per cent gain for processor performance and a five per cent gain in graphics processing. That’s in line with our observations. In short, it’s a notch a head in terms of performance from what’s come before it.

One of our favourite handling features is the rear-mounted fingerprint reader - it’s the most comfortable and quickest area to access. It also works with a gesture-based shortcut where you slide your finger down the sensor and the notifications screen appears. It’s a nice *cough* touch but not earth shattering.

The screen itself is very good. The high-resolution (2560 x 1440) is similar to the Samsung S7 Edge (but without the annoying curved edges and the AMOLED technology ensures that colours are vibrant – although they don’t seem to pop quite as much as with the recent Samsung Galaxy Note 7. It’s still one of the very best on the market though. The high resolution and pixel density minimises the "screen-door effect" when using it with a Virtual Reality headset - we've suffered badly with that elsewhere. Note though that it can get incredibly hot when using it for VR.

One area that has disappointed some people is the speaker. While this is fine for phone conversations (both private and 'loud') there's only one and it points down - which is arguably a retrograde step over the Nexus 6P predecessor's two, forward-facing, stereo speakers (here's a quick speaker comparison with the iPhone 7). While this is no deal breaker for many, it is a bit disappointing that this design decision (and reduced requirement for open, speaker grilles in the chassis) didn't come with full, IP67 waterproofing as we've seen on other flagship phones - the Pixels are barely splash proof (see below).

Software: Android 7.1

The Pixel is the first phone to run a full version of Android 7.1 (code name: Nougat) Again, there’s not a massive leap from the previous version (code name: Marshmallow) but there are some nice tweaks.

If you hold your fingers onto the main app icons, rather than get the option to move or uninstall the app (as with most launchers), submenus appear which offer a few more options. For example, if you hold down the Maps icon you’ll get the option to navigate directly to Home or to Work. With Mail, you can jump straight to compose. Google expects third-party app makers to add their own shortcuts here. We didn’t use it much but we expect this feature to grow in popularity over time.

Android 7 gives you quick-access to sub menus with some apps.
Android 7 gives you quick-access to sub menus with some apps.

It’s worth reminding people that Pixel buyers (as with Nexus buyers before them) get Android software and feature updates first (they can otherwise take a long time to get approved by other vendors and carriers). Google guarantees two years of updates plus three years of support for the Pixel.

Google Assistant

The real highlight is Google Assistant. Many people will have used Siri and OK Google (and even Cortana) to varying degrees before now. This reviewer never stuck with any of them for long. But my head has finally been turned. The difference with existing OK Google feature is minimal in terms of appearance but the added A.I. smarts nudge it that bit closer into, “Actually this is really useful” territory. Existing voice-operating power users may roll their eyes, but now when you ask it to do things like take a picture or navigate somewhere, it doesn’t just open the resulting app, it follows through and executes the command.

OK Google (left) would show you the best fit when asking a question. Google Assistant (right) shows it to you before quickly executing the command.
OK Google (left) would show you the best fit when asking a question. Google Assistant (right) shows it to you before quickly executing the command.

It’s dramatically more accurate and useful than Apple’s Siri and the context-related smarts mean you suddenly find yourself conversing with your phone rather than slowly speaking in a language of keywords. It’s early days, but for the first time this is feeling properly useful.

You do start to talk to your phone like a person with Google Assistant.
You do start to talk to your phone like a person with Google Assistant.

We asked Google if Google Assistant was unique to Pixel or would appear as standard in Android 7 and were told the following, “There will be certain features - such as the Google Assistant - that will be unique to Pixel before we make a decision to offer it up to the rest of the ecosystem. With some of these features currently unique to Pixel, we’re carefully experimenting with these changes to assess user reaction and feedback. For now, we’re trying new things on our products with the hopes of refining them. Our goal is to bring as much of this experience as possible to our Android partner devices over time.”

We’ll discuss that more in the conclusion below but for now, don’t expect to see it anywhere else anytime soon.

The A.I. smarts mean you can have a conversation with Google Assistant without repeating the same keywords. It understands context.
The A.I. smarts mean you can have a conversation with Google Assistant without repeating the same keywords. It understands context.

But it's not infallible.

But it's not infallible.
But it's not infallible.

Nonetheless, we've seen some impressive and funny conversations from Google Assistant since launch. If you want to try out Google Assistant (albeit without the voice recognition), you can do so using Google's Allo chat app right now on Android and iPhone app stores.

Next: The Pixel XL camera

Page Break

The Pixel XL camera review

We’ve taken many pictures with many different phones in recent months and we’re confident that this is one of the very best if not the best. Before the Pixel, it was Samsung that had the best camera in terms of detail, low-light ability and handling. It was followed closely by the new iPhone. Quality might be on a par but the responsiveness and accuracy of the Pixel nudge it to the front of the pack.

This portrait illustrates the detail, accurate exposure and High Dynamic Range (detail in light and shadows) of the main, 12-megapixel camera. It was also taken while she was moving on a swing illustrating the speed and accuracy on offer.
This portrait illustrates the detail, accurate exposure and High Dynamic Range (detail in light and shadows) of the main, 12-megapixel camera. It was also taken while she was moving on a swing illustrating the speed and accuracy on offer.

We’ve already mentioned that Google Assistant will take a picture just by talking to it, but opening the phone with a double tap of the power button goes from sleep to ready-to-shoot (accurately) in roughly a second. Samsung and other phones aren’t too different in terms of speed if you’re holding them right (and can quickly perform two gestures), but this is still heading-the-field stuff.

Despite "only" offering 12-megapixels, landscape shots are very sharp and detailed.
Despite "only" offering 12-megapixels, landscape shots are very sharp and detailed.
Low-light performance is exceptional. The insert shows how dark the room is. It's similar to (if note better than) Samsung's top cameraphones.
Low-light performance is exceptional. The insert shows how dark the room is. It's similar to (if note better than) Samsung's top cameraphones.

Unlike the recent, disappointing Sony Xperia XZ, the laser focus has a higher accuracy rate. It’s rarely wrong unless motion was significant. Again, Samsung, Huawei and Apple’s flagships are comparable here but this is either equal with them or a nose ahead. In terms of low-light performance, it joins with Samsung in stepping ahead of the iPhones and again, might be a nose ahead, although not by much.

There's only one lens but Google can create a 'Bokeh' effect (blurred background) by moving the camera (VERY) slowly up as you take the shot. It can be a bit fake-looking though. Huawei's P9 and the iPhone 7 Plus (with their dual-lens systems) are better.
There's only one lens but Google can create a 'Bokeh' effect (blurred background) by moving the camera (VERY) slowly up as you take the shot. It can be a bit fake-looking though. Huawei's P9 and the iPhone 7 Plus (with their dual-lens systems) are better.
The Pixel uses native-Android's line-up-the-dots-to-stitch-photos-together Panorama method. It also does this for 360-degree photo spheres and other large-format effects. But it doesn't always come out right.
The Pixel uses native-Android's line-up-the-dots-to-stitch-photos-together Panorama method. It also does this for 360-degree photo spheres and other large-format effects. But it doesn't always come out right.

Video resolution goes up to 4K. Again, performance is up there with the best. The Sony XZ’s five-axis image stabilisation is a bit smoother but the dynamic range of the Pixel meant that you could see out of bright office windows while seeing what was within the office at the same time.

On a bright day, it's rare that a cameraphone camera will capture detail outside of the windows while also capturing detail in the much-darker interior. This illustrates a good dynamic range with video recording.
On a bright day, it's rare that a cameraphone camera will capture detail outside of the windows while also capturing detail in the much-darker interior. This illustrates a good dynamic range with video recording.

It’s also very quick to focus and audio sounds natural (not robotic as with some cheaper phones). It did capture flickering with Fluorescent tubes more than competitors but this won’t affect many people in day-to-day usage. It can still blow out in bright highlights but it also does well at dealing with darker areas (albeit at the expense of graininess).

The eight-megapixel Selfie camera performed very well.

We've no complaints with the eight-megapixel Selfie camera.
We've no complaints with the eight-megapixel Selfie camera.

Ultimately, this is at the front of the pack in terms of performance and maybe even slightly ahead (despite some foibles).

Next: Pixel XL Battery life, Other features and Conclusion

Page Break

Pixel XL Battery Life

We tested the Pixel XL with its 5.5-inch screen and 3,450mAh battery (the smaller, 5-inch Pixel will require less power for the screen but comes with a smaller 2,770mAh battery so we can’t tell how comparable this is). To be frank, this was the only disappointing element of the phone. We’ve been using it for almost a week and it struggles to last a full day. We suspected that the always-on Google Assistant might be to blame for this and got a bit further into the evening when we turned it off (an action which undermines the whole purpose of the phone).

We’ve been pretty brutal with what we’ve been doing with the phone – the camera makes us want to take more pictures and we’ve been using some SatNav and 3D games like Asphalt 8 each day. We’ve also done some VR. But we’ve done that with other phones too.

Related: Apple iPhone 7 Plus review: including Portrait Mode

This is a workhorse phone so it’s not fair to just use it less to stretch the battery out. At least the battery offers fast charging – and if you use the attached cable and charger the blurb says you get, ‘Seven hours charge for 15 minutes of charging.’ We’re not convinced by the seven hours figure but it does charge quickly.

Frankly, it’s the same with our Samsung Galaxy S7 and, to a lesser extent the iPhone – the better the phone is, the more you use it, the more power-intensive tasks you use it for and the more the battery suffers. But we can’t escape the fact that you’ll struggle at the end of the day without plugging it in.

Other features

If you buy a Pixel then you’ll get unlimited cloud storage for photos. Other companies give you large amounts of cloud storage for some time but this is really very generous and useful – especially with the cloud integration of the constantly-improving Google Photos app which is now very mature. iCloud can be great for sharing pictures, but it starts charging after 5GB. As such this is a significant value-add for the Pixel.

The Pixel comes with a two-ended USB-C cable for use with the included fast charger plus a regular USB-to-USB-C cable with a USB-C adaptor. These can be used to transfer data (including SMS messages) from an old phone to a new phone faster than other methods. It’s handy if you want to move photos across but otherwise using NFC transfer can work just as well.

While not as waterproof (or dust proof) as other phones (including Samsung’s Galaxy S7s), both the Pixel and Pixel XL are IP53 certified which means they are dust and splash proof but only in limited situations. It’s better than nothing.

There is no micro-SD card slot.

Conclusion

So should you buy it? We’d put it ahead of every other Android phone on the market in terms of traditional, all-round performance and phone features… just.

As for being better than an iPhone? That depends entirely on your relationship with the Apple ecosystem. Google Assistant arguably nudges it ahead in terms of phone-only features but Apple’s services and design are likely to keep people from jumping ship from iOS to Android.

The Pixel’s key features are Google Assistant and its increasingly-seamless, smart integration with the Cloud. Talking to your phone like it’s a person is now more likely to become a very popular sooner rather than later. This new technology comes with quite the price hike but we’re inclined to say that the innovation is worth it – having this level of A.I. in a smartphone elevates the whole market – the smartphone just got smarter and that’s a big deal. Hopefully we’ll see it in other Android phones sooner rather than later but as mentioned above – don’t hold your breath. This is the unique selling point of the Pixel and part-justifies the inclusion of the top-end, expensive insides. Ordinarily we’d expect such technology to be offered as a tech demo to show off to other Android manufacturers as something to aspire to, but here we have an actual retail model. We’re impressed.

In terms of which model to choose, if you’ve got unlimited cloud storage do you really need to spend hundreds of dollars more on the 128GB variants ($1,229 and $1,419)? We don’t think so and thus the value sweet spot appears in the 32GB models at $1,079 and $1,269 (XL). Of course, if your internet connection is poor or expensive then 32GB may feel limiting quickly and you’ll also lament the lack of a microSD card slot. Unfortunately, it’s also worth noting that Google is stinging Australians with a 13-15 per cent Nice Beaches Tax which counters the value of all the free cloud storage a bit.

The alternatives are the mature Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge which is now available at around $849. It represents a significant cost saving for not very much difference at all – there’s no Google Assistant but everything else is comparable and you’ve nifty extra features like the three-tap Emergency call and My Knox security partition for private files, messages and apps. The S7 can be had for around $749 and is the same but smaller. These have been the kings of Android (in terms of all-round performance and features - not value) until the Pixel appeared.

Elsewhere there’s also the excellent Huawei Mate 8 (around $629) and P9 (around $700 - with its superb camera) which are still both great choices. If Google Assistant became available on all of these phones then there’d be very little difference between them and the Pixel beyond the vast price difference but again, that’s not likely to happen soon.

If the Pixel looked better and/or offered better battery life and didn’t come with a tax for Australians we’d be happier recommending it as the best phone on the market outright. However, while technically it is the best all-round phone on the market, many people will be happier saving hundreds of dollars going for the better-value, nearly-as-good, older alternatives. Nonetheless, the Pixel is now the Android flagship and the first appearance of what the market will be next. If you can afford it, that’s the cachet you’re paying for.

Related: Tech 21 Evo Check protective phone case for Google Pixel XL review: First Pixel case we've seen