Google may have started its Android journey with the T-Mobile G1, but it wasn’t until the Nexus One that it started selling the phones itself. The Nexus One was a major departure from how Android phones were being sold until then. In the US, you would get your phone directly from the carrier, as you had been doing for many years, and elsewhere you’d buy it from the OEM making it, whether it was Samsung, HTC, or Motorola. But even though the phones were running Google’s operating system, they weren’t exactly Google phones.

This was what was so different about the Nexus One. Although the hardware was made by HTC (it was nothing more than a slightly retooled HTC Desire) this was the first phone directly sold by Google from its website. And that was the beginning of the Nexus brand, a series of phones from Google running a pure version of Android, with the promise of quick updates and support directly from Google.

The Nexus One was followed by the Nexus S, which was made by Samsung (again, just a redesigned Galaxy S), which was then followed by the Galaxy Nexus, then the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Nexus 6, and last year’s Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. Over the years the designs changed, the manufacturers changed, but the basic principle remained the same.

Unfortunately, 2015 will be the year that we got the last Nexus device as Google has since shuttered down the brand. In its place comes the Pixel.

Now, to be fair, Pixel has been around for some time. The first device was the Chromebook Pixel, which also got a second generation update. Then there was the Pixel C tablet from last year. Each of these devices maintained some of the principles of the Nexus series: devices sold by Google with the latest version of the software. The Pixel devices also went a couple of steps ahead, and aimed to be the best possible in their respective product category without worrying about the price, which was often a criteria for Nexus devices. Also, Pixel devices were actually being manufactured by Google itself.

This year we get the first two phones in the Pixel lineup, the simply named Pixel, and the larger Pixel XL. Like the other Pixel devices, these will be made and sold by Google itself, come with the promise of quick software updates, and will also be supported by Google. These are also flagship devices in their category, and are priced as such. If you came looking for yet another Nexus phone, then these are not the droids you are looking for. If you want the best possible Android smartphone out there, then you might be at the right place. 

(Going forward, I will use ‘Pixel’ to refer to both devices, unless stated otherwise. Also, this review is based upon my experience with the XL although some things apply to both devices.)

 

Design

Like the other Pixel devices, the Pixel phones inherit Google’s sombre design language that looks clean and efficient but at the same time not particularly exciting. I wouldn’t call it minimalist, as there are some attempts to jazz it up but there is still an overwhelming sense of dullness to it. I wouldn’t call it bad either but it’s not to my taste and although there is nothing offensive about it I don’t see anything to admire either.

The Pixel uses an aluminum unibody design, which puts all the phone’s internal components inside a monocoque shell that is also the frame of the device, and covers it with the display. It is a very common design among flagship smartphones, and is even trickling down to some of the more affordable smartphones these days.

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The front of the phone is dominated by a large piece of glass, which also happens to be Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4. The glass only has a slight hint of curve around the edges but not enough to qualify as a “2.5D” glass.

The one thing about the design of the Pixel phones that has people split is the presence of large bezels on the front. Like the iPhone, Google chose to have large bezels above and below the display, and the display sits perfectly in the center. While on the top you have the earpiece, front facing camera, and the various sensors, the bottom bezel is completely empty, devoid of any buttons, fingerprint sensors, speakers, or even any logos. The iPhone, at least, has the Home button on the bottom to justify its bezels. So it might seem like a waste of space then, and to some extent, I agree. However, while in portrait the bezels do seem wasteful, I always appreciate having large empty space on the top and bottom in landscape mode, as it provides a comfortable place for me to rest my thumbs and not have to use a precarious grip around the sides to avoid touching the display.

The back and the sides are made out of one piece of aluminum. Google calls this “aerospace-grade aluminum”, so I’m assuming it’s 7000 series, which is alloyed with zinc and is the hardest type of aluminum, hard enough to be used for aircrafts and automobiles while still retaining the lightness aluminum is known for. It’s the same metal Apple uses for the iPhone 7 and 6s but did not use on the 6, which is what caused all the bending issues. Suffice to say, the Pixel won’t be bending in your pockets easily.

Along the sides, the frame has been flattened for grip, with a small chamfer towards the top and a larger curve towards the bottom. The flattened sides with the edge does feel more secure in the hand compared to the soap-like curvature of the iPhone 7, even on the larger XL. However, you will still need large hands to grip it between the length of your fingers.

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On the right edge are the power and volume buttons. Here’s my pet peeve with Google; it likes to keep the power button above the volume buttons; we saw this on last year’s Nexus phones as well. The power button for me is a lot more useful, and something I use more often than the volume buttons. Other manufacturers seem to agree with me, as most of them tend to keep the power button below. Also, having the volume buttons above is convenient when you are holding the phone in landscape mode, as you can just use your left index finger, which is resting right over there, to adjust the volume.

The buttons on the Pixel are made out of metal, and the power button also has a knurled texture to it so you can identify it by touch, although admittedly it’s not very distinct and I still press the wrong button at times.

On the opposite side is a SIM tray, which accepts a single nano SIM. No dual SIM support here, and no microSD support either. The tray has a small detail on it, the address of Google’s headquarters, printed on the bottom.

On top of the phone is a 3.5mm headphone jack, which isn’t going anywhere as far as Google is concerned. On the bottom is a USB-C connector with the loudspeaker on the left and the microphone on the right. I’m not fond of the speaker on the left arrangement, as it makes me cover the speaker while I’m holding the phone in landscape mode. I even end up covering it with my pinky while supporting the phone in portrait mode. (I’m right handed.) Having the speaker on the right like the iPhone avoids both of these issues.

The back of the phone has the second controversial design aspect of the Pixel, the glass panel. Google has used a large glass panel that covers nearly a third of the back of the phone. It seems to be the same quality glass used on the front and sits nearly flush with the metal on the back. I say “nearly” because even though it is actually flush, the glass has a very slight curve around the edges that can be felt and it seems as if the glass is slightly raised, when it isn’t. The glass and the metal have an interesting play of light going on; depending upon how the light hits the phone, either the metal looks bright and the glass looks dark or vice-versa.

The same glass covers the back camera and the laser autofocus system. The dual LED flash does have a cutout for itself, which is probably to prevent the light from refracting within the glass and lighting it up. There is also a cutout for the rear microphone and the fingerprint sensor.

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The fingerprint sensor, or Pixel Imprint as it is called now (from Nexus Imprint of last year), sits in its own circle within the glass. Because it is recessed and a relatively large target, it is easy to locate it even though it is out of line of sight while using. My only gripe about it is that it has no oleophobic coating like the glass around it and attracts a lot of smudges that are hard to clean.

Coming back to the glass, I don’t have any strong feelings about it aesthetically. However, I am worried about its longevity. Having one glass panel on the phone is dicey enough, having two is just inviting trouble. Having seen pictures of the back panel shatter upon dropping the phone, I don’t think this was a wise design decision. Even if you don’t drop it, the glass does eventually get scratched. My review unit came with scratched corners, which can happen simply by placing and picking up the phone every day. There are also concerns with how this affects the camera, which I will discuss later. Overall, I think everyone would have been better served if the entire back was metal.

Coming to the usability of the phone, the XL model I have is undeniably large and, like I mentioned before, needs some large hands to be held comfortably within the lengths of your fingers. Still, it is not unreasonably large and apart from the mixed up button arrangement didn’t have any usability issues with it. It’s actually better than the iPhone 7 Plus; not only is it lighter but even with the weird button arrangement it’s still easier to use. Also, unlike the iPhone, which is uniformly thick and has a camera sticking out at the top, the Pixel has a wedge shape that is as thin as the iPhone near the bottom but gradually gets thicker towards the top. This allowed Google to have the camera flush with the body. I don’t mind this design at all as the phone is still quite thin where you actually hold it and you don’t even notice it is thicker at the top unless someone points it out, and even then it’s not a big deal.

One area where the Pixel loses big time to the iPhone, and also the Samsung and Sony phones, is in water-resistance, or rather the lack of it. While the iPhone 7 has IP67 certification and the S7 has an even more impressive IP68, the Pixel has just IP53. IP53 means the phone has only the slightest bit of dust and water resistance, which is to say, really not much at all. It’s not really worth talking about, which is probably why Google isn’t. Simply put, the Pixel isn’t dust and water-resistant, which is a major drawback compared to its rivals.

Other than that (and the brittle glass) the Pixel is really well built, with solid aluminum body and no chassis flex even when twisting and bending the phone in hand.

 

Display

The display on the phone is like your window to the world. Everything you do on the phone is done through the display and the importance of having a high quality display cannot be overstated, especially on premium phones.

The Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch QHD Super AMOLED display. The QHD resolution suggests the display has 2560 x 1440 physical pixels, however, this is a RGBG layout display, commonly known as PenTile. Unlike most other display pixels that have three individual sub-pixels per pixel, one each for red, green, blue or RGB colors, PenTile displays have only two sub-pixels. Each pixel has one green sub-pixel and either red or blue sub-pixel. The red and blue sub-pixels are placed alternatively so there are equal number of them throughout. Because of this arrangement, even though the actual physical resolution of the display is 2560 x 1440, or 3.6 megapixels, the effective resolution is much lower, since only the green color element is present in each of the physical pixels, and there are half as many red or blue sub-pixels compared to an RGB sub-pixel display. Due to this, PenTile displays have an inherent loss of sharpness compared to RGB displays, as well as some visual artifacting. The good news is, at high pixel densities these are hard to notice by the naked eye as the individual pixels are just too small. But it is noticeable when using VR headsets, as the pixels gets magnified by the lenses on the headset. None of this is exclusive to the Pixel phones, however, and is common to all phones with PenTile displays, such as all the Samsung phones with Super AMOLED displays and some of the other phones, like the OnePlus 3 and last year’s Nexus 6P.

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Now coming to the display on the Pixel XL, I have three issues with it that tainted my overall impressions of it. The first issue is with brightness, as the display on the Pixel XL doesn’t get particularly bright. Next to the iPhone 7 Plus, the Pixel XL looks duller, which might not be that big a deal indoors but is more noticeable while outdoors under the sun where the Pixel display can get hard to see. The iPhone 7 display can actually go beyond the brightness that you can manually set if use Auto brightness and are under bright light, something the Pixel cannot do, which only widens the gap between the two phones outdoors.

The second issue is with color calibration. By default Google targets the NTSC color space. I have talked about color spaces in my iPhone 7 review so I won’t repeat that here, but if you haven’t read that you can find it here. In that I briefly talk about how Android OEMs often target NTSC color space for their displays and how it doesn’t make sense. NTSC color space is not used in the industry anymore, neither for photo nor for video applications, and as such it makes no sense to calibrate your display for it because there is no native content available that uses it. I was further disappointed that Google decided to do this as, of all people, it should be aware that Android itself only supports sRGB natively. This causes the OS to saturate all the colors to reach the values of NTSC.

Obviously then when you look at the Pixel XL display out of the box it looks super saturated. Reds are painfully bright at higher display brightness levels; just open the YouTube app and you’ll see. But blue, and especially green, are not even close to the colors they should be. Every time I watched any content with a lot of green, the greenery just jumped out of the display with a near neon glow.

Now as I understand, some people actually prefer this effect but to me it’s nothing more than distortion. Using my window analogy from before, imagine if your actual window had tinted glass. The world outside might look better but it’s not the real thing anymore and is being distorted. Almost everything you see on your phone had a designer, artist or photographer sit down and choose a color for. What is happening here is your phone decides it knows better than those people and changes the color of everything to what it thinks things should look like and not how it was intended to be seen.

Fortunately, Google does provide an sRGB mode in Settings. This isn’t available by default, and you need to enable the ‘Developer options’ menu first by tapping the build number ten times in ‘About phone’. Once you enable the sRGB mode, that becomes the new target and all colors are immediately clamped down. The color accuracy in this mode is near perfect and all the primary colors look exactly as they should without any over saturation or clipping. If you switch to this for the first time your eyes take a while to adjust and things will look dull at first but you get used to it quickly and then when you switch it off you realize just how horribly gaudy the colors used to look previously. For me, this is the only way to use the phone, and I can’t imagine going back to the default NTSC setting.

Unfortunately, this mode isn’t perfect either. Enabling the sRGB mode gives the display a distinct yellow tint with a hint of green. Comparing the display side by side with the iPhone 7 Plus it was obvious that while the color accuracy was comparable with Apple’s superlative settings, the white balance point just wasn’t there and everything was much warmer and yellower than the iPhone.

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The third issue with the display is color banding. Like the first one, this isn’t something you will notice all the time but when you do it looks atrocious. Like most AMOLED displays, the Pixel XL display crushes the darker gray colors to black. This is usually done to make the blacks look inky black and improve the contrast ratio of the display. The side effect of this is that you lose details in darker content. Whenever you are looking at an image or video with dark imagery, the areas with dark gray detailing is turned pitch black, so you just see black instead of whatever was supposed to be there. Worst of all, because some of the color information is lost, the transition from lighter to dark colors is abrupt, and at a point the colors just fall off to pitch black, causing noticeable color banding as seen in the image above, where the device below being the Pixel XL, is exhibiting banding in the same scene where the iPhone 7 Plus above has no issues. Again, this isn’t something you will notice all the time but when you do it’s hard to unsee it.

Summing up the display, I would like to say by and large it’s not bad, even though I chose to focus primarily on the negatives here. Once you stick it into sRGB mode the display looks pretty good most of the times. The reason I was critical of it was right in the beginning of this section. For me, the display on a phone is one of the most important things about it, and when you are talking about a flagship device of a company there really shouldn’t be any room for negligence. What I see here is either negligence from Google or a deliberate disregard for the discerning customers. The company had previous achieved outstanding results on the Nexus 5 and Nexus 5X displays but the quality on offer with the Pixel XL is more in line with mid-range smartphones, that is to say not bad as such but nothing impressive or close to perfection as on Apple and Samsung devices.

 

Hardware

The Pixel XL runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, which is one of the fastest chipsets available on Android devices and definitely the fastest that Qualcomm makes. Having said that, this is not the same variant of the 821 that we have seen in some of the other phones, such as the LeEco Le Pro 3, Mi Note 2, or the OnePlus 3T. While the 821 in those devices clocks up to 2.34GHz on the high performance cores and 2.19GHz on the low power cores, the variant on the Pixel is clocked at 2.15GHz and 1.59GHz, respectively. That is a notable drop and almost drops down the performance of the 821 to the level of 820 (821 was supposed to be a modest jump over the 820, anyway). Similarly, the GPU clock speed is also lowered from 653MHz to 624MHz. It’s worth keeping this in mind as even though Google is boasting of having a Snapdragon 821 onboard, you are not getting the full fat Snapdragon 821 experience that you may have expected.

Moving on, the Pixel also has 4GB LPDDR4 memory and a choice of either 32GB or 128GB UFS 2.0 storage. I talked about the importance of having fast storage in the iPhone 7 review and although no one can beat Apple in terms of storage technology and speed on smartphones, UFS 2.0 on the Pixel is a reasonably fast storage solution. All of my testing was done on the 32GB model, so I am not sure if there are any performance difference between the two capacities.

It’s no surprise to see Google not include SD card support again on its phones. There hasn’t been a Google phone since the first Nexus One to include expandable storage so I don’t know why people expect Google to include support for it now. The company is in the business of selling cloud storage so it won’t be doing itself any favors by letting you upgrade your storage cheaply offline.

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In terms of connectivity, Google includes all the basics, such as 4G LTE, Wi-Fi 802.11ac with 2×2 MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2, A-GPS, and NFC. You also get a USB-C connector based on USB 3.1 Gen 1, which is a fancy new way of saying USB 3.0. The phone comes with two cables in the box, a USB-C to USB-C cable capable of USB 2.0 speeds and a USB-A to USB-C cable capable of USB 3.0 speeds. Both can be used for charging and data. There is also a USB-C male to USB-A female adapter to connect the phone to another Android or iOS phone to move your data but you can also use it to connect other USB accessories to the phone.

In terms of network connectivity, the Pixel does not support the Reliance Jio VoLTE network, which means although you can use the data on the device, you cannot use call or SMS functionality.

I would have liked to see Google include dual SIM functionality. All the other Android OEMs now have this, even on their flagship phones, and it’s not something that’s just limited to budget phones anymore.

 

Software

We can talk about hardware all day but ultimately the software has always been the most alluring aspect of Google phones. Even on the Pixel, the most standout aspect of the phone is the software that not just differentiates it from other Android manufacturers but from Google’s own Nexus phones.

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While still based on Android 7.1 Nougat, the Pixel phones come with a handful of special tricks that are exclusive to them. The biggest of them by far, and the one that Google advertises the most, is Google Assistant.

Google first showcased this feature back at Google I/O earlier this year. Back then it seemed as if this will be available for all Android phones (and in a way, it is, through Allo) but as far as system integration goes the Pixel phones are the only ones to get it built-in.

Assistant works pretty much the same way Siri works on iOS. You press and hold the home button and it pops up on the screen. Alternatively, you can set up an “OK Google” command and the Assistant will pop up even if the phone is asleep. Once invoked, you can just ask your query or make the phone perform a task.

Comparisons to Siri at this point are inevitable so let me just get this out of the way; it is better than Siri, in practically every possible way. The Assistant has Google’s incredible machine learning algorithm and a wealth of online information at its disposal. Siri has Bing. Assistant is also better able to understand your sentences and queries and was infinitely better at understanding my voice and accent than Siri. Just like Siri, it is also conversational, and can understand the context based on the last question. It has some flaws, such as not being able to recognize songs, something Siri or even Google Now can do, and it needs me to enable Google Now to do something as basic as saving a reminder. But apart from that it works quite well.

To tell the truth, I am not a big user of voice search. Having said that, Assistant is still a nice feature to have. It is also a big improvement over Google Now, which, by the way, is still available. While Google Now voice search felt like you were using a text to voice converter for a search engine, Assistant feels like a proper virtual UI along the likes of Siri and Cortana, and has the personality and conversational nature that you expect from it.

In case you are wondering what happened to Google Now on Tap, it is still present. When you press and hold to invoke Assistant, you have to swipe up on the Assistant to see the Now on tap results. Unfortunately, the ability to manually select words that it does not scan automatically is no longer present (as far as I can tell).

Moving on, there are several other things unique to the Pixel. The launcher is brand new with a new design. Gone is the app drawer button that had been around since Android 1.5. Now you just swipe up to reveal the app drawer, which takes a day or two to get used to if you’re coming from most other Android phones that have an app drawer. The launcher also features circular icons for all the built-in apps and developers can make their app icons show a different circular icon on the Pixel and its usual shape on other phones. The circular icons bring some uniformity to the icons but since it is mostly limited to the pre-installed Google apps it’s not entirely successful. Of all the apps I had installed on the phone, the Twitter app was the only one to have a custom circular icon on the Pixel during my testing.

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Another feature of the Pixel launcher is lifted straight from the iPhone. Like the iPhones with 3D Touch, the icons on the Pixel have shortcuts for specific functions. Since the Pixel does not have a pressure sensitive display, you invoke them by briefly pressing and holding instead of pressing down as on the iPhone. This pops up a list of shortcuts that the developer has chosen for that app. All the Google apps that come pre-installed have shortcut functions but third-party developers can also build in functionality. Again, Twitter was the only app that I had that had shortcut functionality built-in to the icon. The shortcuts can be invoked on the homescreen as well as in the app drawer. You can even drag out the specific shortcut and place it on the homescreen so you can directly launch it. Lastly, if you want to move the icon around, you can just press and hold and drag like before.

The Pixel also gets a blue theme across the user interface for user elements, such as sliders, buttons, etc, unlike the teal theme on the Nexus phones, which to me looks a lot better.

The Pixel phones also come with 24/7 support. You can either call their support helpline, which seems to be the only option available in India, or you can also chat with them. There is even a screen sharing feature, so the support staff can see what is happening on your screen so they can help you better.

Last, but not the least, Pixel also gets full-size unlimited backups for photos and videos. While Google Photos does provide unlimited backups at reduced quality for photos on other Android as well as iOS devices, the Pixel gets uncompressed image uploading, where Google won’t reduce the image quality to save space on its servers. You also get unlimited uncompressed video backups in 4K on the Pixel, something not available on other devices. You can setup the phone to automatically upload these in the background or when the storage fills up and it needs to clear some space.

Apart from the exclusive niceties, the Pixel comes with all the usual Android Nougat features, including the much improved notification system with quick reply and customizable Quick Settings, split-screen mode (which at times I found to be quite handy, such as when I wanted to run the maps application next to another app I wanted to use at the moment), improved Android Doze, Daydream VR functionality, JIT compiler that significantly reduces app install times, seamless background updates, Unicode 9.0 emoji set (which is still missing on iOS), and the inclusion of Vulkan API.

However, I feel like Google could do better in terms of features. While recent updates have borrowed some useful features from custom ROMs and other Android skins, Google still lags behind others when it comes to features, features that are actually useful and not just fluff. I would have really liked to see always-on display functionality included, especially since the Pixel phones have AMOLED displays. In fact, LG showed that you could implement it even with LCD and still not use a lot of power so Google really had no excuse. The Ambient display mode only briefly wakes up the display when you get a notification and you can’t lift the phone to wake the screen again like on the Motorola phones or the newer iPhones. There is a notification LED hidden in the earpiece but even that is disabled by default for some reason and has to enabled manually. There is also no double tap to wake up the display.

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Still, by and large I was very impressed with the software on the Pixel. There is an overwhelming sense of cleanliness and efficiency, almost to a clinical degree, that makes it a pleasure to use, especially for someone who has been using iOS for the past several weeks now. While iOS has caught up in terms of features, the performance seems to be lagging in some areas and it feels bloated and buggy. The software on the Pixel felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison, with less dramatic animations and more focus on usability. It was also remarkably stable during my use, with just a couple of non-serious issues that felt more like nitpicking and are bound to be fixed in the next update. All I remember from my time with the phone is that the core OS mostly just got out of the way and let you focus on the task at hand with minimal intrusions or annoyances, and everything worked as expected with few unexpected surprises. In short, it just works.

 

Performance

I wasn’t really expecting any surprises here and there weren’t any. The performance was exactly as I expected it to be, that is to say, mostly excellent. In daily use the Pixel feels smooth and fast. I had the 32GB model that was moderately loaded and it went about everyday activities just fine. Scrolling was smooth, apps opened and closed fast, multitasking was quick, it was all good. As I mentioned in the software section, the OS is very clean and minimal, which helps with the performance as there isn’t a lot bogging it down. How well it will perform two years down the line is not easy to say, but the phone does have a lot of horsepower and memory under the hood and based on previous Nexus device experiences, I would say it should be just fine.

The fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone was also quite fast. It’s not as crazy fast as the one on the newer iPhones or some of the other Android phones but its still reasonably quick. I especially like how quick and easy it is to setup the sensor, as the process is much quicker than the one on iOS or other Android phones and the sensor is no less accurate because of it. The fingerprint sensor can also optionally be used to bring down the notification shade but there wasn’t one situation where I found this useful or more convenient than using the touchscreen.

In terms of gaming, the Pixel XL once again did well. I tried a bunch of heavy games that could bog down slower phones but the Pixel XL flew through all of them with ease. I mention the Pixel XL because it has a higher resolution QHD display compared to the FullHD display on the smaller Pixel, but the Snapdragon 821 has enough grunt to run heavy games even at that resolution with ease.

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I did notice heating on the device that happened while playing certain games. The area under the glass in particular can get significantly hot at times if you keep playing visual heavy 3D games for a long time on the device. It does cool down rapidly once you stop but it does make the phone uncomfortable while you are playing. Fortunately, it does not happen regularly otherwise, and outside of gaming is mostly a non-issue. But if you plan on playing a lot of games on this phone it’s something to keep in mind.

The audio performance on the Pixel was nothing to write home about. It has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack with decent audio output and it does Bluetooth audio like every other phone, which pretty much par for the course. The loudspeaker performance was a bit of a disappointment. While the Nexus 6 and 6P had reasonably good stereo speakers, the Pixel falls back on a single speaker at the bottom. The audio quality from the single speaker is not bad but it does change significantly at the last two notches, going from decent sounding to a bit harsh and tinny at max volume. It does get pretty loud and even the single speaker can match the two on the iPhone 7 in terms of sheer volume but it can’t match the iPhone 7 in terms of audio quality, especially at max volume where it is rather unpleasant and makes you want to turn it down a bit. The upside is that ring tones are quite audible even outdoors. The downside of the single speaker is that your music, videos, and games suffer when playing back in landscape mode. And as mentioned before, it is also rather easy to cover with your hand when holding sideways.

 

Camera

Google made a rather big deal about the camera on the Pixel. Right off the bat they claimed it to be the best camera on any smartphone while quoting DxOMark figures. Now most people in the camera industry know already that DxOMark figures are hardly the be-all and end-all of quality but it’s still new in the smartphone industry so we will have to tolerate it for a few more years.

Leaving questionable quality figures aside, let’s talk about the camera and how it works. Fortunately, it’s not all marketing gibberish and there are some interesting things going on here that are worth talking about, starting first with HDR.

HDR or high dynamic range photography is a practice where images with different exposures are combined to produce an image with a wide dynamic range. The dynamic range of an image is the amount of detail it contains in the brightest as well as the darkest areas of the image. An image with wide or high dynamic range will have plenty of detail even in bright areas, such as the sky, while also having enough detail in the shadowy regions.

Our eyes do this quite well and unless we are talking about extremely bright or dark areas our eyes can look at a scene and see the detail in both regions reasonably well, and this despite the fact that humans don’t necessarily have the best vision. Unfortunately, our cameras are far, far worse when it comes to dynamic range. Most of them can either expose for the bright areas or the dark shadows. This is why when you point the camera to an image with predominantly bright area, such as a sky, it brings down the exposure of the entire frame so that the bright area isn’t overexposed. This has the downside of underexposing the dark areas because the camera does not have enough dynamic range to also keep those areas evenly exposed.

HDR photography was designed to get around this limitation. For it to work, you have to capture two or more images at different exposures, with the more images you have the better your results will be. The low exposure images will have more detail in the bright areas of the scene whereas the high exposure shots will have more detail in the shadows. Combine all these images in an image editor such as Photoshop and you get an HDR image that has detail in the highlights as well as the shadows.

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Previously this was a cumbersome process requiring the photographer to manually capture the multiple images and then combine them later. The resultant output was of great quality but the time consuming nature of the process and the need to have special software meant that it wasn’t commonly used. Like many things, smartphones revolutionized this as well. They started shooting images with multiple exposures in quick succession and combining them within the camera software to produce HDR images. Quality was sacrificed for speed and convenience but the end result was still good enough and had much better dynamic range than the standard images.

Fast forward to 2016 and we now have the Google Pixel. The Pixel uses something that Google calls HDR+, a technique that was actually introduced on the Nexus 5 back in 2013 but has evolved since then. It is part of the new Google Camera app, which is again exclusive to the Pixel phones. HDR+ on the Pixel has two modes, HDR+ Auto and HDR+ On, and then of course you can switch it off entirely. Interestingly, Auto is not only the default option but the camera will revert to it if you change it and relaunch the application.

So this is how the three modes work. With HDR off, the phone takes a single shot whenever you press the shutter button. The usual stuff.

In the HDR+ Auto mode, the camera is constantly taking pictures in the background when the Camera app is open. The ISP on the Snapdragon 821 is powerful enough for the phone to take full size 12 megapixel images all the time and write them to buffer without you even realizing. The moment you hit the shutter button, it marks that point in time and collects the last nine images before that point and combines them into a single image. When you open the gallery, you will see a circle denoting that the images are being processed into one and this process takes about a couple of seconds.

Now this sounds like the HDR process I mentioned previously but it’s not quite the same. While traditionally HDR has been used to improve the dynamic range, Google is using it more for the low noise levels, at least in the Auto mode. One of the advantages of stacking images, either for dynamic range or for long exposure shots, is that the noise is dramatically reduced in the final shot. The chrominance or color noise, which is the most common form of noise in CMOS sensors, are RGB colored speckles that you see often in low light areas, that are caused due to the sensor trying to compensate for the lack of available light (signal) with digital artifacts (noise). These speckles are random throughout the image, so when you stack multiple images you eventually reach a point where all the noisy pixels have been replaced with the “good” pixels in the image. This is why HDR images look cleaner as well.

The HDR+ Auto mode in the Pixel camera stacks nine shots of the same exposure. The exposure is set low so as to capture maximum detail in the bright areas. The shadows are then artificially boosted during processing to gain detail in those regions. The reason it uses low exposure and prioritizes the highlights is because it is easy to boost the shadows in post but practically impossible to gain the detail lost in blown highlights. Boosting shadows has its disadvantages as it results in more noise. This is where image stacking helps again. Using short exposure times also work to the Pixel’s benefit as there is no OIS to compensate for image shake resulting from long shutter speeds.

As for the HDR+ On mode, it prioritizes both, noise-reduction as well as dynamic range. Instead of capturing images ahead of time, it starts capturing them when you hit the shutter button and then you see a circle on screen as it processes them. This mode focuses more on quality than speed and the results can be dramatically different at times.

Now let’s talk about the image quality in all three modes. I find it very important to talk about the quality with HDR disabled. Every other review I have seen has glossed over this, which I find rather disingenuous. While the HDR performance of the camera is interesting, it is limited to the stock Camera app. If you shoot within Instagram, Snapchat, or any other app, you do not get the benefits of the HDR+ functionality. As such, to ignore it altogether seems rather foolish.

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The image quality without HDR+ is a bit underwhelming. The dynamic range isn’t that great and there is also a fair amount of noise in the image. In low light the image degrades further and is not on par with some of the other phones. Had this been the only way it was shipped, the Pixel camera would have been easily outclassed by the one on the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Unfortunately, it is the case if you use any other camera application other than default Camera app.

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The HDR+ Auto quality is where things get interesting. This is the default mode and the one people will be clicking most often in. By and large I think it works very well. The priority on speed seems like a good decision but there is also enough processing to make the effect worthwhile. The camera manages to capture highlights better than any other phone I’ve used, which is impressive considering it is an area phone cameras tend to struggle the most. In the image above you can see the sky and the area around it is better exposed. Unlike the HDR mode on some of the other phones, Google is not aggressive on bringing up the details in the shadows, so the images don’t look over processed most of the time. Still, there is the occasional haloing around high contrast subjects and sometimes the colors don’t look quite right. In low light, the image stacking helps tremendously, with the noise levels being among the lowest I’ve seen from a smartphone camera.

The HDR+ On is where the software wizardry is turned up to eleven. To be quite honest, it’s not the mode I would use most often. The shadows are still relatively natural looking but the highlights are toned down to a greater degree, giving the image an unnaturally flat look. A lot of the images taken in this mode don’t look completely natural, and that takes away from some of the impressive work that goes behind them. I think it’s good that this mode is optional. It’s worth experimenting with, of course, but for daily use the standard HDR+ Auto mode seems like the best of the bunch.

Click here to see full size, uncompressed images.

The flash is a bit interesting. The Pixel has none of the fancy flash system seen on other phones, most notably the quad LED True Tone flash on the iPhone 7. Both the LEDs in the flash emit white color. The reason it’s interesting is that while the flash fires normally in HDR+ Off mode, in HDR+ Auto and HDR+ On modes it keeps the flash on for a second, as the camera captures all the images it needs. This results in the images captured in these modes having a slow sync effect, where some of the ambient light is mixed in with the light of the flash, giving the image a more natural look.

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The Pixel camera has a lens blur mode. It’s not as sophisticated as the dedicated dual camera system on the iPhone 7 Plus or some of the other phones. You take a picture and then pan the camera up slightly so it can read the scene from a different perspective and once it has the depth information it tries to apply a blur effect to its best ability. If you thought the iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode was finicky, wait till you get a load of this. The Lens blur on the Pixel works best for stationary objects and even then it works best on small objects that aren’t too tall. On rare occasions where it does work the effect is surprisingly good, such as seen in the image above. But it rarely works at all and most of the time you will end up with poorly focused images with badly applied blur effect.

The camera speed was generally quite good, but not as amazing as it is touted to be. The camera launch times were reasonably quick but it’s not as fast as the camera app on the Samsung Galaxy S7, which runs in the background and launches instantly. The double press Home button gesture on Samsung phones to launch the camera is also way more convenient than the double press power button gesture on the Pixel, which is further made worse by the fact that the power button on the Pixel is a bit stiff and not conducive to quick double presses. Once started, the camera takes pictures quickly in the HDR+ Off and HDR+ Auto modes but the HDR+ On mode has a delay. Also, even if the HDR+ Auto mode takes photos instantly, when you go to the gallery there is a brief period of image processing. You can still view the image, but it doesn’t look as good as it can until it finishes processing, which takes a couple of seconds.

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The autofocusing is quick, however. The camera uses a combination of laser assisted autofocus and phase detection autofocus, along with the usual contrast detection autofocus. This, for me, is the best way of going about it. Phase detection is common these days on phones and although it’s brilliant and miles ahead of just contrast detection based systems, it is still not great under low light. This is where laser autofocus comes in handy, as it does not need light to focus since it uses its own infrared beam to bounce off objects and calculate the distance to focus. Laser autofocus can be fooled by clear glass, however, but that’s where phase detection helps. Together they work very well to give a very fast and responsive focusing system, where you don’t really have to think about it at all.

As for video, the phone records in multiple resolutions and framerate options. The list includes 4K 30fps, 1080p 60fps, 1080p 30fps, 720p 60fps, 720p 30fps, and for slow motion, 1080p 120fps and 720p 240fps.

The 4K video looks good. I did not notice any cropping outside of what the EIS does, which is good. The level of detail was impressive and the dynamic range is alright, if not great. There is, of course, no HDR+ here to help. The 1080p 30fps option looked decent too, but with 4K present I don’t see a lot of reasons to use 1080p these days, or worse, the 720p 30fps option. As for the 60fps modes, both 1080p and 720p looked worse than the 30fps version with noticeable jagged edges and pixellation. The autofocus, which otherwise works great, also goes crazy for some reason in 60fps mode and has a hard time maintaining focus, although this is just a bug waiting to be fixed and by the time you read this it might even be fixed. The slow motion videos also look a bit soft but are usable.

The Pixel lacks optical image stabilization and instead uses electronic image stabilization or EIS. EIS uses the information from the gyroscope to digitally stabilize the video by moving it around in the opposite direction of the camera movement. Because this would result in the video going out of the camera frame, the edges are cropped out so you don’t see weird black bars popping around the edges. EIS works best when the camera is not panning around as it has a difficult time differentiating between accidental camera shake and deliberate camera movement. This is why even on the Pixel, panning the camera around results in jerkiness, as the camera struggles to stabilize the panning movement before giving up and trying again, which results in the video jump slightly ahead while moving. However, when you are not moving the camera around much, the EIS does an exceptional job of stabilizing the video, almost to a degree where it looks like the camera is on a gimbal mount. Having OIS would have still been nice as then the EIS could have been less aggressive but overall it still is a remarkable system. If, however, you are going to manually stabilize the camera on a tripod and don’t need the EIS, you can switch it off, something you cannot do on the iPhone. This lets you reclaim some of that lost field of view and get the full sensor output.

Like Apple, Google also prefers to have mono audio recording on its phones for video. While neither give any official reasoning as to why this is the case, since everybody else has stereo recording now, my guess is that it prevents any microphone blocking issues. Usually phones use the bottom speaker for right channel in video mode, which is also almost always blocked by the person’s right hand while holding the phone, resulting in the right channel being quieter than the left. Having just one mic on the back for recording mono audio is a good way to get around this issue. The audio recorded in video on the Pixel isn’t bad but lacks the atmospheric feel of stereo audio.

Before moving away from the rear camera, I have one last thing I need to address, and that is the lens flare. It’s actually quite severe, regardless of what anyone might tell you and easily the worst that I’ve seen on any smartphone. The problem to me seems to be the giant piece of glass on the back, which also happens to be the lens cover. I mentioned in the design section how the flash has a cutout for it so that the light doesn’t refract within the glass. Unfortunately, Google didn’t think it was necessary to do the same for the camera lens. Now when you’re shooting, the light from your subjects refracts within the glass and is picked up by the camera lens. Now I don’t have data to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that is exactly what is happening. Either way, it is annoying and the camera just needs a light source anywhere in the frame to pick up the flare and the more towards the edge it is, the larger the flare is going to be. Sometimes you don’t even see the light source in the frame but you still see the flare, which is also why I assume the glass on the back is responsible as the light still hits the glass even if it doesn’t come within the lens’ field of view.

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Google has confirmed that it is working on a software fix and it remains to be seen how well that will work but it really is a hardware issue.

As for the front camera, in my brief use it seemed better than most I’ve seen and was actually quite decent. The HDR+ works here too, which is great because at times it works really well but then it will also make the skin tones look slightly unnatural at the same time, so it’s best used with caution.

 

Battery

One of the major points of distinction between the two Pixel phones is the battery size. While the smaller Pixel makes do with a 2770mAh battery, the larger Pixel XL has a 3450mAh battery.

In my usage I found the battery life on the Pixel XL to be generally quite good and right up there with the iPhone 7 Plus. On most days I would get at least five to six hours of screen-on time, with over 18 hours of standby, which was more than sufficient to get me through the day. I never really had to worry about running out of power on this phone, which is just as well as charging it is a bit tricky.

Unlike most Android phones these days, Google uses USB Power Delivery specification for fast charging, over the more commonly used Qualcomm Quick Charge. The advantage to this is that while Quick Charge is a proprietary technology that you have to license from Qualcomm, PD is part of the USB specifications and is an open standard that anyone can use.

Unfortunately, Google is in a difficult position right now where currently it and Apple are two of the few companies using USB PD on their products. This means while you will get fast charging with the supplied charger or if you happen to have one of Apple’s USB PD chargers that comes with its newer MacBooks, you won’t get fast charging on your phone if you use any of the other fast chargers that use proprietary technology. It’s also difficult to replace the USB PD fast charger that comes in the box so if you lose it or if it stops working, you end up in a position where you will have to settle for a slower charger for your phone.

As for charging speeds, the Pixel XL takes about two hours and ten minutes to go from flat to 100% with its supplied 18W charger. Not bad, but not terribly quick either. It does beat the iPhone 7 Plus that takes three hours with its supplied 5W charger and has a smaller battery. However, it still can’t compete with the Dash charging on the OnePlus 3T, which has a similar sized battery as the Pixel XL but not just charges quicker to 100% but also quicker to more usable percentages such as 50% because of its non-linear charging speed.

 

Pricing

One of the controversial things about the Pixel launch has been the price. While the Nexus phones were generally reasonably priced, Google surprised everyone with pricing for the Pixel, which is on par with the iPhone. This is problematic for few reasons.

First, the phone only costs as much as it does for marketing reasons. Google is using basic psychology against you, the thinking that if something is more expensive it is automatically good. Someone who does not understand much about a particular type of product but is in the market looking for one will generally use this thought process to make the buying process easier. We all tend to do this for things we don’t know much about. If you’re in the market for a high end phone and haven’t done much research, and are faced with two phones, you will likely go for the one that is more expensive, assuming it is better. But if they cost the same, you will be less likely to dismiss the cheaper one outright and Google seems to have figured this out. The Pixel does not cost as much as it does because it is worth it, it costs as much as it does so you think it is worth it.

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Secondly, going head to head with the iPhone is a poor strategy. The iPhone is a one of a kind product. If you want the iPhone, there is just one, sold by one company. Sure, there are cheaper models available, but they are last year’s devices and if you want the newest one, you are narrowed down to one phone. Android phones, on the other hand, are dime a dozen. There are phones available across price ranges. If you must have the best one, there are still multiple options available from brands such as Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony and these days you can even pick something like the OnePlus 3 for half the price. There is very little that Google brings to the table that is exclusive and something you cannot get on other Android phones. Android phones that also happen to be cheaper. Today, you can buy the current Samsung flagship for around 20k less than the Pixel, which is just crazy when you think about it. And let’s not forget the S7 is actually better than Pixel in some ways.

And here’s the thing with comparing against the iPhone 7: the iPhone 7 is a better phone. Even if you leave the software and the ecosystem aside for a moment, you simply cannot argue that Apple is giving you more hardware for your money. The iPhone 7 Plus, for example, has a waterproof design, stereo speakers, pressure sensitive display, dual rear cameras, faster processor, faster storage, and the sophisticated Taptic Engine. Despite being as expensive as it is, it still manages to make the Pixel phones look like a rip-off in comparison. The iPhone 7 Plus even manages to justify its price difference over the smaller iPhone 7 better than the Pixel XL does over the Pixel.

Lastly, the Pixel phones will not hold their value as well as the iPhones. This might not be a concern for everybody but it is worth noting. Used iPhones hold their value incredibly well, better than any other phone on the market, which almost makes their high price justifiable as you do get a decent amount of it back even after using the phone for two years, something you can’t say about other phones. And I’m sure you can’t say that about the Pixel phones either. No way will someone pay you a decent sum for one two years from now when you could get a brand new Xiaomi phone or other for the same price with better hardware. Remember about Android phones being dime a dozen? So good luck with that resale value.

 

Verdict

In the roughly two weeks I had with the phone, I enjoyed my time with the Pixel XL. Considering that Android has been the OS of choice for me for several years now, it was nice to see it in its best version yet. There is something very endearing about the simplicity of the Pixel, how it just tends to work with minimum fuss and drama. It’s a combination of a lot of good things coming together and working really well with each other to give this wonderful, cohesive experience with minimum friction. Is it the best Android phone ever made? If you value software experience over everything else, it definitely is. Unfortunately, there is more to a phone than that.img_3592

By pricing the Pixel as high as it did, Google invariably shot itself in the foot, doused it in acid, and then chopped it off entirely. A lot of the phone’s shortcomings would have been easy to ignore had it been more reasonably priced but that is not the case. It could have been water resistant, the display could have been better, it could have had stereo speakers, the camera could not have had such terrible lens flare issue, it could have been dual SIM or at least had VoLTE support for India. None of those seem like major issues in isolation or even when seen together. But then you take another look at the price and you feel every one of those is justified. It also makes the things that are actually good about the phone seem less impressive.

What annoys me most is the hubris that comes with the price, the thought that we can get away with it too if Apple can. You can hate Apple for a lot of things but you can’t deny it worked its way to that point, and it’s only after years of making solid products with great customer service has it been able to command that price. Google doesn’t get to come in late with a rushed product (that it borrowed from HTC at the last moment when Huawei pulled out) and a questionable customer service record and call equal dibs. That’s not how this works.

So in the end, the Pixel might be the best Android phone you can buy today but it’s far from being the best phone. The iPhone 7 already ran away with that title this year.


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