GOOGLE, the MIGHTY OVERSEER of the internet, has made a smartphone. The Nexus brand notwithstanding, this time around the firm has done the design, engineering, and testing wholly in-house.
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that Google is trying to do an Apple. Peer inside the packaging and you can’t help but note the similarities in message and tone – ‘Every phone helps tells a story. We’d love to hear one of yours. #myphonebygoogle’ – and with it, Google’s developer-first approach is resigned to the history books.
Elsewhere, though, there are red flags that hint at something altogether more sinister. Why the sudden change in its mobile aspirations? Does the Pixel actually represent a further step in Google’s master plan of full and total control?
A lot has been made of Google’s Assistant that’s baked into the Pixel’s very DNA, so with that in mind, it would be silly if we started our review anywhere else.
Should we be fearful of a box of tricks that knows our browsing habits, our interests, what we’re going to buy next, all of our contacts, and the minutiae of our personal life? The answer is yes because the Google Pixel XL it’s packaged and delivered on a ‘G-shaped’ spoon. Open wide!
Google Assistant brings the promise of increasingly accurate and personal responses. We’ve been accused in the past of simplifying things, likening Google’s Assistant to a super-powered Siri, and we’re going to stand by that.
Like Siri, Assistant is placed very much front and center. The Home screen has been redesigned to accommodate the new Pixel Launcher interface and with it multiple opportunities to initiate the Assistant. Google has always downplayed the links to Google Now, but you should note that Assistant can still be launched using the familiar ‘OK Google’.
Assistant can carry out standard tasks like launching apps, searching the web, telling us who’s playing at London’s Scala this week, starting a stopwatch and sounding an alarm after 15 minutes, adding calendar entries, and setting up reminders to buy a pint of milk. The latter was interesting as the Assistant also asks for a time or location to trigger the reminder.
So far, so Siri. But, at the time of writing at least, that’s as far as Assistant can go. Interactions with third-party apps are off the table. If you hoped that this would finally be the day when Google can hail you a cab (using Uber) and pinpoint your location you’ll have to wait a little longer.
Such limitations are said to be changing in December when Google makes ‘Actions for Google’ available to developers, but until then it’s something of a stumbling block. It means that interaction with Spotify etc is off the table for the time being, but Google confirmed at the launch that Assistant will play nice with smart home devices such as Nest, Samsung SmartThings, and Philips Hue.
If Google wants us to have a meaningful conversation with Assistant these sorts of things need to be addressed. It’s all well and good that the software can recall our queries, as well as the context around our questions, but it’s not truly useful if we need to tail off and complete our business elsewhere.
Let’s use the Scala example above. We’ve got as far as expressing interest in a show on Thursday. Google’s told us the start time and given us address details, but we can’t buy tickets.
Likewise, it can recommend restaurants nearby, but it can’t make a booking. So near and yet so far. Similarly, Google can tell us roughly where ‘home’ is, but any attempt to further include ‘home’ in our questions leaves it cold. We all want to be able to trigger alerts using geofencing, but at this juncture, it seems like it’s not meant to be.
So it’s an Assistant in as much as sending messages, opening apps, making calls, setting timers, checking the calendar, getting the news, asking about the weather, or playing some music (as long as it’s through Play Music). But if you expected anything more you’ll be disappointed.
Back to the Pixel Launcher which, to all intents and purposes, looks like stock Android, although small changes are visible like the rounder app icons and a new search box. It also provides an alternative to the App Drawer which is accessed through a simple upward swipe.
The Google Pixel XL runs the very latest Android Nougat update (7.1), which brings some updates of its own like Night Light (a blue light filter), a manual storage manager, and, perhaps our favorite, the ability to swipe for notifications.
This affords you greater power over the notifications you see, and you can use the rear-mounted fingerprint reader to dip in and out of the Android Action Bar. It might not work as well as it does have the Pixel suffered from poorer fingerprint placement.
Nexus devices were always aimed at tech-savvy Android purists. They were handsets for power users who wanted the latest OS updates. Part of that still rings true and you’ll still be the first to receive OS updates, but you need to spend only five minutes with the handset to realize that Google is targeting the Pixel at an altogether different breed of user.
The promise of dedicated 24-hour, seven days a week support, and the bundled adapter that allows migration between the Pixel and your previous handset is explicit in its subtlety.
To confuse matters even more, the Pixel XL (and Pixel) aren’t cheap and could price non-enthusiasts out.
Google says it will provide two years of Android OS updates. To put that into perspective, it’s half as long as Apple which you can typically rely on for a good four or five. Security updates are quoted as three years.
What if the HTC 10 and iPhone 6S Plus were sitting in a tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G? The Pixel XL is a product of a lovers’ tryst, save for the mirrored coating that houses the camera and fingerprint sensor. Heck, even the antenna lines meet in the same place. It’s all a little samey, and we still can’t fathom the glaring expanses of dead space. Bar the selfie camera and earpiece the bezels above and below the screen are wholly redundant.
Our review model glistened in shiny silver, but under some lighting, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was gold. A glass panel gives the Google Pixel that aforementioned mirrored effect, and it covers around a third of the phone’s rear while the rest is metal. It’s an interesting aesthetic and a bold style choice. We liken it to applying a sample paint patch to a wall.
Google has future-proofed the Pixel by including a USB-C connection located next to the dual speakers. There are a couple of things to note here. The speaker’s supply mono sound only and, crucially, are not front-facing. So while they are capable of putting out a fair racket, they lack in distinction and direction. A shame.
Google has also neglected to include any form of dust or water protection.
The Google Pixel XL uses Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 821 chipset, itself an incremental update to the 820 that featured in many of 2016’s handsets. Google quotes performance increases of up to 10 percent. The 821 includes two 2.15GHz and two 1.6GHz processors, plus there’s 4GB of RAM to keep it company. In terms of architecture, it uses the same 14 nm FinFET process as the Snapdragon 820.
The Pixel XL returned the following Geekbench 4 scores in our benchmarks: 1,543 single-core and 4,086 multi-core. For comparison’s sake, the OnePlus 3 scored 1,747 single-core and 4,239 multi-core, while the Galaxy S7 Edge scored 2,155 single-core and 6,505 multi-core.
Now, of course, any benchmarks need to be taken with a grain of salt, but compared like for like it seems that the Snapdragon 821 offers no discernible improvements over the 820. In fact, even when using the same core clocks, it comes in slower.
Like we said, that’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all. The chipset could benefit the device in other ways, extending the battery life is one example.
Unlike the Snapdragon 820, the newer chip supports the Snapdragon VR SDK to enable the use of Google’s Daydream VR platform.
It also plays a significant role in Pixel’s dual-camera technology. Dual-Phase Detection Auto Focus wouldn’t be possible without it, and it helps to extend the range of Laser Auto Focus.
During general use, the Google Pixel XL is snappy and delivers a thoroughly smooth and pleasing experience. Average memory use equates to 1.6GB over 12 hours (so about 44 percent used), leaving 2.1GB free.
Further benchmarking reveals that all-in-all the Pixel XL is a modest performer and not necessarily anything to write home about.
The Pixel XL scored 139,503 on Antutu, where the OnePlus managed slightly more at 143,469 and the Galaxy S7 Edge slightly less at 126,904.
The Pixel XL returned 4,480 on the PCMark (Work) test, while the OnePlus 3 scored a blistering 7,185 and the Galaxy S7 Edge 4,670.
The Pixel XL’s 5.5in panel offers QHD a resolution. The brightness level doesn’t need to be set particularly high to achieve a good result, so while the colors may not be as OTT as on a Samsung display, the tones are among some of the best we’ve seen this year.
The Pixel uses an AMOLED panel which ensures that text and graphics are gloriously crisp and sharp.
AMOLED panels are traditionally more energy efficient than their LCD counterparts and offer deeper blacks to boot. Viewing angles are exemplary, which can sometimes prove inconsistent on a display as large as this. In short, we can only applaud Google’s panel preference on this occasion, plus AMOLED is a pre-requisite for Google’s Daydream VR platform that launches later this year.
The display benefits from Gorilla Glass 4 protection.
The Pixel XL’s 12.3MP snapper is currently at the top of the DxOMark leaderboard. The ultimately disappointing Ultrapixel-toting HTC 10 came in with a score of 88, so we don’t know how much emphasis we should place on such a result.
The f/2.0 aperture is nothing special, but the 1.55µm pixel size is enough to give it an edge as the larger surface area allows the capturing of more light. As soon as we started using the thing all our fears seemed misplaced, and the Pixel was a joy to use with a lightning-quick focus that easily rivals the Galaxy S7 in operation. It sounds funny, but there’s something effortless and reassuring about the Pixel’s picture-taking prowess.
The sensor uses hardware acceleration to make the HDR+ mode possible. It can combat low light and high dynamic range and is handily enabled by default.
Smart burst is another camera-specific feature. It works by capturing a burst of shots and uses AI to select the most pleasing result.
On the front, you’ll find an 8MP selfie cam. We found our results impressively lit, full of vibrant color, and complete with some blurring of the foreground (silly face withstanding).
A Redditor commented that video recording at 1080p (60fps) in low light looks like a video game, which is not an altogether ringing endorsement. We ran the same test and saw similar results. Put simply the Pixel and Pixel XL lack optical image stabilization, but Google has included safeguards to combat shakiness while recording video.
The Pixel achieves this by tying the camera to the phone’s gyroscope. It’s electronic image stabilization (for want of a better term), that has the rather unfortunate effect of giving your output something of an artificial quality.
The Pixel and Pixel XL also take advantage of smart storage. When storage is full the system automatically (and intelligently) removes old backed-up photos/videos on the device to make extra room. What’s more, Google offers unlimited online storage for photos and videos (in the highest, original quality no less), which is better than nothing.
The Google Pixel XL lacks support for microSD expansion, but the top 128GB capacity is generous. On the downside, it will set you back £100 more than the 32GB offering. To sweeten the deal Google offers unlimited storage in the cloud for photos and videos. If you take a lot of pictures or shoot lots of videos, this might be the incentive you need.
Notably, the Pixel represents the first Google handset to use UFS 2.0 (as opposed to eMMC of old). In our benchmarks, AndroBench returned an unbelievable sequential read speed of 3,104.6MBps, while writes were 83.7MBps. We suspect that the numbers are wrong and we’ll endeavor to find out what’s going on.
Just for reference the Galaxy S7 uses UFS and scored 445.35MBps read and 118.58MBps write. Much closer to what we’d have expected of the XL. The HTC 10 uses eMMC and managed only 266.13MBps read and 66.2MBps write.
In A1 SD Bench the Pixel XL returned 227.74MBps read and 119.90MBps write. The HTC 10 managed a slightly nippier 244.88MBps, but at 66.20MBps the write speed is slower by half. Confusingly, the S7 managed 357.63MBps read and 141.78MBps write. Such discrepancies in two separate tests lead us to believe that something is afoot.
Along with the larger 5.5in the display, the Google Pixel XL has a fatter battery at 3,450mAh which towers over its diminutive sibling yet manages to retain the same 8.5mm thickness.
Google quotes 14 hours for WiFi/LTE data use on the XL (only one more than the Pixel), but happily, we found this erred on the conservative side, as on average we got in the region of 16 hours (roughly a working day and a half). It’s also worth noting that the Snapdragon 821 delivers a purported five percent increase in power efficiency.
Things are less rosy when it comes to the claimed fast battery charging. We’ve been led to believe that the XL can get seven hours of charge in as little as 15 minutes, but in reality (in our experience at least) the phone repeatedly struggled to claw back 30 percent in that time.
You can’t possibly expect seven hours out of that. We attempted this on several occasions, including once from a powered-off dead state and once when it flashed up the low battery warning. So you can’t say we didn’t give it a fair shot.
From a battery sitting at 20 percent, you can expect it to charge fully in around 100 minutes. Something like the Galaxy S7 Edge (with comparable capacity) comes in at just under two hours.
The Pixel XL is an eye-watering £719 for the 32GB model and £819 for the bigger 128GB. Google Assistant and fancy camera aside, the Pixel is too expensive by a country mile.
Can we really deem the Pixel XL a serious contender in an already crowded arena at such a hefty price?
On the one hand, the Pixel XL does a lot of things right. It’s won us over with the beautiful QHD display and whizz-bang camera, and the very premise of the Google Assistant is a clever one, but in its current guise we reckon it delivers more in fear than features.
Alarmists might liken the Pixel to a Trojan horse in that it’s a vehicle to further Google’s master plan. If you’re comfortable with this, and you know what you’re signing up for, the Pixel might just be the phone for you. If not, don’t invite it into your home.