Google couldn’t have picked a better time to hit reset on its flagship phones. Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 is literally burning up in flames, and that’s created a gaping hole in the premium Android market.
The company’s new Pixel and Pixel XL replace the Nexus phones. The names are new and they’re positioned as premium phones, but, make no mistake, they still stick to the Nexus mission: to offer the very best and purest experience of Android and Google services that you can get.
Which isn’t to say the Nexus phones were flawless. The problem with Nexus wasn’t bad hardware (last year’s 5X and 6P were the best Nexus phones yet) or poor software (stock Android will always be superior to any custom skins), but that they never moved outside of the geek circle: Google barely marketed them, and they never really sold at scale. Most consumers still don’t know what a Nexus is.
To many people, Android equals Samsung. And for good reason: Samsung’s Galaxy phones (when they’re not exploding) are incredibly well-made. The company makes dozens of different models, and Samsung shipped more than 300 million phones worldwide last year.
That’s an empire, but without the Note7, Samsung has a empty spot at the top of the line. Android needs a new king can the Google Pixel fill the void left by the Note7?
With the Nexus, Google trapped itself into a corner with price. Consumers got used to expecting midrange prices for a premium phone. The Pixels, by contrast, are priced like iPhones.
The Pixel starts at $650 for a 32GB of storage and the Pixel XL starts at $770 for 32GB. Both are also available with monthly financing plans starting at $27 per month paid over 24 months.
In the U.S., the Pixels are available from the Google Store and at Verizon stores. Verizon’s Pixels come with three pre-loaded apps, which are fortunately removable, but otherwise, they’re carrier unlocked and identical to the ones sold from Google.
They come in three colors: “Quite Black,” “Very Silver” and a limited edition “Really Blue.” Obvious digs at the iPhone 7’s pretentious color names aside, I tested out the Quite Black Pixel XL and let me tell you, it is not quite black. The color is more gunmetal or dark gray. It still looks nice, but it’s nowhere near as sleek and stealthy as, say, a Jet Black or Matte Black iPhone 7 or a Black Onyx Galaxy Note7 (RIP).
Looks nice, but doesn’t inspire
Everyone who has seen the Pixel XL says it looks just like an iPhone. I don’t really see it.
Sure it’s got some similarities like the aluminum body, visible antenna bands and rounded corners, but all phones now look like that. Save for the extra large pane of glass covering two thirds of the backside, the Pixel XL hardware is as generic as a premium phone gets.
Like the past Nexus phones, the Pixel XL is made by another company. In this case, HTC’s manufacturing it and Google takes full credit for its design as evidenced by the “G” logo on the back and no HTC logo anywhere to be found.
Textured power button
There’s nothing wrong with the Pixel XL’s hardware; it’s a nice metal phone. But there’s also nothing that jumps out and surprises like the Jet Black iPhone 7 finish or the curved glass edges on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (and the now dead Note7). Those phones exude luxury and tempt you to caress them every single time. The Pixel XL just is.
When you’ve seen phones like the OnePlus 3 that cost hundreds less and also come with solid metal designs, the Pixels, despite their sturdy construction, just don’t inspire.
But looks are just one reason to buy a phone. Usability is another. The Pixel XL is pretty manageable for a phone with a 5.5-inch screen. It’s a smidge larger than the S7 Edge and way easier to hold and use with one hand than any Plus-sized iPhone. The Pixel has a smaller, more manangeable 5.2-inch 1080p screen.
Performance and power all day long
The Pixel XL’s not lacking in specs. It’s got a large and bright Quad HD screen (2,560 x 1,440) and a big 3,450 mAh battery that’ll last you up to two days. The Pixel XL is definitely a marathoner and not a sprinter. The Pixel’s got a smaller 2,770 mAh battery. Both phones also support quick charging to get up to 7 hours of battery life with a 15-minute boost.
It’s got the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor with 4GB of RAM and comes with either 32GB or 128GB of storage. I don’t recommend buying 32GB since there’s no memory card slot to add more storage later.
The Pixel XL is definitely a marathoner and not a sprinter.
On the other hand, the Pixels do come with unlimited full-resolution photo and video storage with Google Photos, so if you’re planning to stash everything in the cloud, maybe 32GB will be enough. But even with the premium Google Photos storage, I wouldn’t get 32GB since apps keep getting larger; if you’re buying a premium device, you can afford to pay extra for storage.
The rest of the Pixel XL is pretty similar to the Nexus 6P. There’s a fast-working fingerprint sensor on the back (doubles as a touchpad to bring the notifications shade down with a swipe), identical power and volume buttons on the right side and a reversible USB-C port on the bottom.
The mono speaker is a bit of a downgrade compared to the Nexus 6P now that they’re both downward-facing instead of front-facing stereo speakers. The Pixel XL’s speakers can get loud, but when even the iPhone 7 has at least one front-facing speaker and a stereo setup, it’s a little disappointing. But hey, at least there’s a headphone jack. That’s meaningful in 2016.
The phones ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, which comes with some new features like split-screen, better notifications, more emoji and customizable quick settings. Daily performance is as I expected: fast and smooth with no noticeable lag opening apps or multitasking. And you’ll have no issues playing playing 3D games like the usual graphic-intensive Asphalt 8 and N.O.V.A. 3 or Pokmon Go (if you’re still playing it).
Other neat little gems include the GIF keyboard and Night Light (works just like iOS’s Night Shift mode and adjusts the screen to a warmer color temperature for nighttime use).
The most notable aesthetic change is the home screen. Google’s app icons are now round, the search bar is tucked inside of an oblong “G” icon that floats in the upper left, and the app drawer icon is no longer an icon that hogs up a spot on your dock (it’s been replaced with a “^” that brings up all your apps with a swipe up). They’re all fairly minor tweaks, but they make for a more pleasant Android experience.
Alongside all your regular Google apps, the Pixels also come with Allo and Duo. Allo replaces Hangouts (which is disabled by default, but can be enabled from the Play store) and Duo is basically Google’s FaceTime.
A digital assistant that’s actually smart
More than the hardware, newest version of Android or great cameras, Google strongly believes AI is the next frontier after mobile.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said AI will tie all devices together and the company is uniquely positioned to dominate because of its heavy investment in machine learning. Google’s been building towards its Google Assistant with Google Now for years and now it’s here. As a built-in feature, it’s exclusive to the Pixel phones (and Google Home), and it stomps all over Siri.
As Pichai said on stage during the Pixel’s unveil event, Assistant is “your own personal Google.” It’s constantly learning things, and it can intelligently anticipate what you want to do next.
To activate the Assistant, you press and hold the home button. (This action was previously reserved for Google Now on Tap, which has now been absorbed by the Assistant.) And then you just start talking to it. Your requests show up in a chat-like interface, which I guess is supposed to make it feel more like you’re talking to someone on the other end. You can still say “OK, Google” if your screen’s unlocked, but that’s still lame, especially in public.
The Assistant is pretty quick to answer. It rarely misunderstood what I was saying and corrected itself on the fly even as I stuttered through some of the queries.
It understands all the general voice commands like “What’s the weather?” and “Give me directions to the Grand Hyatt,” but most importantly, it understands conversational English and understands it well.
For example, you can say “I’m hungry” and the Assistant will show some nearby restaurants. Or say, “Show me the Pen Pineapple Apple song,” and it’ll bring up the viral song and video from YouTube. It’s also hilarious to ask for photos, which it’ll either search for on the web or yank from your Google Photos (if it detects any relevant ones). Try “Photos of dogs with hats” to get a fun laugh.
It’s still weird to talk to the Assistant (just like it was weird to talk to the Amazon Echo’s Alexa in the beginning) instead of just going into an app and doing things yourself, but once you get used to this new way of oral computing and realize how much time you’re saving, I think there will be no going back. Years from now, we’ll all be laughing at how we spent time opening Chrome up to look someone up or Google Maps to get home.
Google’s Assistant is still a newborn, but it’s already fulfilling what Siri promised.
Stunning photos, except for one thing
Google says the Pixels have the best smartphone cameras, period; DxOMark, an industry-respected imaging benchmark, gave it a score of 89, the highest of any smartphone camera.
That said, a high score is what you aim for when you’re playing Pac-Man, but mostly nonsense when it comes to determining the best smartphone camera.
I mean, when the HTC 10 has the same score as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and the Sony Xperia Z5 one of the worst-tested smartphone cameras in Mashable’s 2015 ultimate smartphone camera shootout scores higher than the iPhone 7, I was highly skeptic.
Having tested every single flagship phone this year (crazy, right?), I can tell you unequivocally it’s harder than ever before to crown any one phone’s cameras the best there is. The best will be decided over the nerdy details and, honestly, nobody but nerds care that much.
If you want to really see how well the Pixel cameras compare to the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, check out our in-depth camera comparison here where you’ll find more sample photos and more close-up side-by-sides. It may surprise you just how good the Pixel cameras are, especially if you’re more forgiving on when it comes to color reproduction.
I couldn’t find many photos that looked like potatoes out of the hundreds of shots I took.
For a 2016 flagship phone, the Pixel XL’s cameras are exactly where they need to be. They’re wicked fast to focus, shoot and save (even with HDR+ processing turned on). Details are crisp and detailed from the 12.3-megapixel back and 8-megapixel front camera and the back camera excels in low-light situations with little to complain.
Reviewing the photos on the Pixel XL’s screen, I couldn’t find many photos that looked like potatoes out of the hundreds of shots I took. That’s really impressive and Google should give itself a huge pat on the back for really improving the cameras.
The back camera’s only real weakness is color accuracy. The camera still tends to oversaturate colors with warmer tones. So shots look way yellower, redder and greener than they really do in real life. Some people like this artificial color boost since they really pop off the phone’s AMOLED screen, which is made for more saturated colors, but I prefer the iPhone 7’s more life-like colors.
Way warmer tones
Though most photos are way warmer than on the iPhones, sometimes the rear camera goes cooler for some reason. There just isn’t much consistency for white balance:
Pixel XL has wider lens that fits more into a shot
I also like the camera app’s “pro” controls. Adjusting exposure is an easy swipe up and down on the screen after tapping on a focus point and there are various white balance settings. I wish it had more settings like ISO and shutter speed, but I’m in the minority when it comes to wanting manual controls.
Other clever and useful camera features include ways to quickly launch the camera. Double-tap the power button when the screen is off or from the lock screen, double-tap power button from home screen or while in an app to launch the default camera app or a preset third-party camera app like Snapchat, and double twist to switch between from and selfie camera in default camera app.
There’s also a really neat Google Photos-integrated feature called Smartburst that automatically creates a GIF from a burst of photos, saves all the individual shots and even picks out the best one for you.
As for selfies, I think the Pixel XL does a better job than the iPhone 7:
The Pixel XL performs quite good night shots. As expected, photos are a yellower than the iPhone 7:
The Galaxy S7 Edge preserves shaper details of the Empire State Building, but the image noise is greater, too:
While the camera attention is almost always focused on still photography, the Pixel XL boasts impressive video recording capabilities. Like most smartphones, it records at up to 4K resolution.
That’s nothing special. What is crazy is how well the camera stabilizes video. Phones like the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 rely on optical image stabilization (OIS) to compensate for shake in different directions, but the Pixels uses electronic image stabilization (EIS) to outstanding effect.
EIS is normally inferior to OIS, but not so on the Pixels. Through software even the shakiest footage appears smooth even smoother than the iPhone 7:
Maintaining the status quo
In the past, Google showed up to what were essentially gun fights with Samsung and Apple with a knife.
The Nexus phones, as highly coveted by geeks as they were, couldn’t really compete with any Galaxy phone or iPhone. Whether it was materials or cameras, the Nexuses always fell short somewhere. The Nexus 5X and 6P weren’t perfect, but they had enough polish and the pricing was so good.
If Google wants to really play in Apple’s playground, it’s going to have to try harder next year.
With the Pixels, Google has basically rebadged the Nexus, tossed in the new Assistant and jacked up the price to match the iPhone.
In my opinion, the Pixels aren’t compelling enough compared to more affordable premium phones like the OnePlus 3 outside of the Assistant. Is that enough to justify a premium? Not yet if you ask me.
Google could have fiercely charged through the door and laid smackdown on the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, but it didn’t. Instead, it just played things safe and maintained the status quo.
The Pixels don’t have groundbreaking designs that would make anyone line up outside a Verizon store just to be the first to have them. They’re fine phones and I’m positive the Assistant will only grow to become more useful, but they’re just not exciting enough or inspiring enough.
If Google wants to really play in Apple’s pricey playground, it’s going to have to try harder next year.
Pixel and Pixel XL
Fast cameras take sharp photos Incredible electronic image stabilization for video Terrific battery life Super smart, convenient Google Assistant Has a headphone jack
No water-resistance Bland generic design Costs as much as iPhone No memory card slot
The Bottom Line
Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL have everything you could want in a flagship phone but a first-class design that makes you lust.
BONUS: The best parts of Pixel
Read more: http://mashable.com/