On October fourth Google announced two new phones: Pixel and Pixel XL. Unlike the Nexus devices they’re replacing, Pixel is a no holds barred attempt to take the flagship crown.
Going up against the likes of Apple and Samsung is a brave move. Google have advertised and hyped the Pixel more than they have any other of their past hardware products which shows they are taking it seriously. The advertisements have been everywhere from full-page ads in papers, to TV placements, YouTube ads, ads in bus shelters and underground stations and even a link right on the Google homepage. There is no denying that they have pushed this one hard!
All this raises one important question: can any company, even a tech behemoth such as Google, really take on the market leaders on first attempt? Well, after a month of ownership I feel ready to give you an answer.
To begin let’s go over the first thing you’ll notice about any phone: the way it looks and feels in the hand. The Pixel doesn’t have the best looking or most adventurous mobile design. It isn’t ugly by any means, it’s actually a rather handsome device, but it hardly stands out.
The main body of the phones is made of aluminium with two panels of 2.5D glass – one over the whole front of the phone and another (more unusually) over the back top-half of the phone, under which the sensors and antennas lie for better signal strength.
This rear glass panel is probably the only design aspect that makes it look notably different from other devices. The front is almost completely clean with just the usual earpiece, camera and light/proximity sensors which sit atop the screen.
On the back the only branding to be found is a Google “G” at the bottom. There you will also find the primary camera, Pixel Imprint sensor, dual LED flash, mic and auto-focus sensors.
The left-hand side of the phone houses just a SIM tray while the right is home to a textured power key and volume rocker. The buttons have a great amount of travel and are nicely clicky and tactile. At the bottom there’s a USB-C port, single speaker and a mic. Up top there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack which, as Google said at the release is satisfyingly not new. I don’t know how much aloe vera Apple will need for that small burn, but I am very glad the jack is still there.
Although the materials are technically the same as those used in the Nexus 6P, the Pixel feels much nicer in the hand. It’s sturdy, there’s absolutely no flex in the chassis. The 6P would sometimes deform in the pocket, but that’s not the case this year.
The antenna lines sit perfectly flush with the rest of the phone with no ridges or bumps and the 2.5D glass is a welcome reintroduction. It featured on several of the past Nexus phones but was sadly absent from the 6P. Having those smoother edges makes swiping from the sides of the screen a pleasure.
Pixel is slightly thicker at the top than it is at the bottom. Google did this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it eliminates the dreaded camera bump completely and also it allows for a larger battery all without largely affecting the perceived thickness. It won’t be setting any records for thinness but the part of the phone you actually hold is still very thin.
The sides are nicely rounded, allowing even the larger XL to fit in the hand comfortably. The sides are somewhat reminiscent of the Nexus 4 in shape, which I still maintain is one of the nicest phones to hold.
Although the top and bottom bezels are a little large, the phone is still easy to type on with a single hand as it’s not too tall. Remember too that I’m using the larger of the two phones, so the regular Pixel should be even easier. I can reach most of the screen without any mobile gymnastics and there are a few software features to help with the areas you can’t. More on that in a while.
Getting Started with Pixel
With Quick Switch (Wired)
By including a fast wired transfer option (in addition to wireless migration methods) Google has made it easier than ever to get setup on your new shiny phone. This will get your from your old Android or iOS handset in record time.
To do this you simply plug your old Android or iPhone into the Pixel, choose what you want to move (like contacts, settings, calendar events, photos, videos, music, SMS, iMessages etc) and then sit back and let Pixel move everything over. It’s that simple!
As an added bonus you can reuse that adapter to hook up any supported USB device to your Pixel such as storage devices and USB peripherals like mice and keyboards etc.
With Nearby or Google Account (Wireless)
If you don’t fancy melding with cables then you can opt instead to restore over the internet from another device on your Google account. Alternatively, if you have the old device close by then Pixel will find it automatically with Nearby and offer to migrate it wirelessly.
Whichever you choose, Pixel has by far the easiest and most streamlined setup process we have seen. It is a massive improvement, especially over past Google/Nexus devices. You’ll be ready with all your stuff in no time and it’s an absolute doddle to do, A+!
Both the regular and XL Pixel variants have top-end AMOLED displays which are separated only by their size and resolution. The smaller of the two models has a 5″ 1080p display while the XL has a more expansive 5.5″ screen at a higher 1440p (QHD) resolution. I haven’t personally used the smaller variant much, but It should look mostly similar to the 5.5″ panel found on the larger model.
In my experience I have found the display on my XL to have decent contrast with rich, deep blacks and colours that pop nicely. The screen is also capable of ramping up plenty bright enough for easy outdoor viewing.
Compared to last years 5X and 6P it’s a noticeable step up from either. The displays are brighter, have wider viewing angles and more pleasant colours.
As is the case with most AMOLED displays, the colour saturation on these panels is rather high. There is a clear focus on making colours ‘pop’ rather than strict colour accuracy. If that isn’t how you like your displays, all is not lost. There is an sRGB mode in developer options which will change the display calibration for more realistic colour representation. Such an option may be especially helpful if you tend to edit photos on your phone screen.
Making great use of the strengths of AMOLED, Pixel comes with “Ambient Display”. This feature displays notifications when the phone is sleeping or has just been picked up. It was first introduced to stock Android with the Nexus 6 a few years ago, but it was extremely inconsistent compared to the Motorola implementation that inspired it. I don’t know if it’s down to the hardware or behavioural tweaks in Android 7.1, but it’s much nicer to use now. It doesn’t trigger randomly like before.
Pixel also comes with a new “Night Light” option in the display menu. This sets the display automatically in the evenings to a warmer colour temperature with a lower blue light output. Blue light makes the brain believe it is daytime, inhibiting the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Consequently, this feature helps minimise the effect the display has on your sleep quality and it can also aid in reducing eye strain.
You can turn it on manually with a quick settings tile, have it come on with the local sunset time or set your own start/finish times. I actually use it a lot at all times of day since I suffer with severe migraines, the kind that can leave tissue damage in the brain. Using Night Light significantly reduces the strain I feel on my eyes and so whether or not it significantly effects in my sleep quality, I have found it very useful for that reason alone.
Both Pixels have the same specs other than things constrained by the physical size of the phone. That means if you’ve previously settled for lower specs because you have smaller hands, your time has finally come. Now you can have your cake and eat it too.
You’ll find the latest Snapdragon 821 from Qualcomm paired with 4GB of DRR4 RAM. The storage is now Samsung’s UFS 2.0 and is available in 32GB and 128GB. The main bottleneck in performance on Google phones of the past always was the storage speed, so UFS is great to see. They’ve also decreased touch latency so the device reacts to touch input that much faster.
Top-end hardware paired with Google’s lightweight version of Android means that this device flies. Apps open in an instant, the camera launches fast enough that you won’t miss any shots and gaming is always smooth. No matter how hard you push the device, it never gets even slightly warm unless it’s being used for VR.
The best part is the consistency. The 6P was fast after a reboot or for general use, but eventually it could start to throttle and lag. Pixel is the most consistent performer I’ve ever seen. I’ve gone out of my way to trip it up and honestly, I can’t. I couldn’t be more impressed.
Even though Pixel doesn’t have the most RAM available on any smartphone, it’s more than enough to get the job done. It can keep at least nine or ten apps open in one go, even media heavy ones. That’s impressive, especially given the more aggressive power saving measures in play.
I can only truly comment on the battery life of the XL, although from what I’ve seen from users of the smaller model there isn’t a massive difference. We’re probably only talking about 30 mins difference in screen time.
The XL has a 3,450mAh battery, the same as that found in the 6P. However, it manages to squeeze a lot more out of it! On an average day of use I’m getting around 6 to 7 hours of screen time over a 15 hour period. If I use it less, it can easily go an entire day with several hours of screen time. That’s close to double what my 6P gave me. Across mixed use it lasts about 36% longer* on average – all on the same amount of juice!
When you do need to recharge the Pixel, it’s a nice and speedy affair. Pixel supports USB-C 3.0 PD (18w on XL, 15w on standard). That allows it to get 7 hours of use from just 15 minutes of charging. With use while charging, it’ll get from 10% to 100% in a little under an hour. That’s about 45 minutes faster than the 6P.
Sadly the speaker on the Pixel isn’t really anything to write home about. There is but a single down-firing speaker on this device. While it’s not exactly bad, compared to the dual speakers on the outgoing Nexus flagship, this is rather a letdown.
Thankfully it gets decently loud and it doesn’t distort when it does, but it is not true stereo and it’s easy to cover with your finger.
Thankfully the headphone performance is great. The on-board DAC in the 821 seems very good and the headphone AMP far superior to that found on 810-based devices. The 6P was very quiet when used with headphones but that isn’t the case here. Even with slightly higher impedance cans, output is loud and sounds great. I actually look forward to plugging in my Sennheisers into this device, something which was less true before.
The camera found on the back is a 12MP Sony sensor with f/2.0 aperture and a 1.55 micron pixel size. The wide aperture and large pixel size means it’s an excellent performer in low light situations. They’ve also used some digital witchcraft to make HDR+ literally instant. It doesn’t slow down the photo taking process at all. DxO Labs have given this camera the highest DxOMark score ever for a mobile device and it really shows when you use it.
You can capture 4K video at 30FPS with some superb electronic stabilization that works exceptionally well (unlike Google’s previous attempt on the 5X/6P!). If you record 1080p video then you can now do so at up to 60FPS. HD slow motion capture is available too.
All of the great video and photos you take can be automatically uploaded in full quality to Google Photos with into dent to your storage quota (even with RAW DNGs!).
This feature when paired with the option to clear space by automatically deleting device copies can really help if you fancy saving a few quid and opting for a model with less storage.
We shall be doing a separate camera review shortly with picture and video samples and so I won’t go any further. To conclude: Pixel provides the best camera experience available on any mobile device to date!
Pixel is the first device to launch with Android 7.1 Nougat. Although 7.1 is being be made available to Nexus users, Pixel does get some exclusive features that will not be present on the older devices.
These exclusives include the Night Light I mentioned earlier, baked-in Google assistant and Huawei-style fingerprint gestures. The latter is particularly useful on the larger XL. For example, if you can’t reach the top of your screen then you can swipe up and down over the fingerprint reader to hide/reveal the notification shade.
The big-hitter in this category though is Google Assistant. Holding down the home key or saying “OK Google” brings her straight onto the screen. You can drag the assistant up to get the old Now On Tap features, or you can ask it do your bidding by voice. It’s all the usefulness of Google Now / Voice search but with conversational skills to outshine the likes of Siri and go toe-toe with Amazon’s Alexa (which it also surpasses in several areas).
Google’s new offering is probably the best digital assistant I’ve ever used. It is fantastic to have it baked right into the OS in this way. It’s all integrated so it has access to everything. It is very good at contextual commands and conversational follow-up questions which make it feel much more human. You can even play a variety of games and riddles and it can tell
brilliant cheesy dad jokes.
Another perhaps smaller
exclusive* addition to stock Android is a support tab right in the settings app. This allows direct access to Google support via call or instant message. You’re also able to share whatever is on your screen with the representative you’re talking to. This is pretty handy – especially since you can minimise the support chat. It is like being able to text Google about any issues you may have.
*UPDATE: The stable release of 7.1.1 also brings this support tab to recent Nexus devices and the Pixel C. It is no longer an exclusive to Pixel phones.
There’s also a new update system for new Nougat devices like the Pixel called seamless updates. This uses two system partitions like Chrome OS. When an update is available, it downloads and installs to whichever partition you aren’t using in the background. Once it’s finished all you need to do is reboot your phone and when it’s back on you’ll be on the latest version. No more interruptions or long waits.
Aside from all the exclusive features there’s all the great things we’ve already seen in Nougat Beta such as Multiwindow, quick-switching and improved Doze with support for Dozing on the go. That’s the device to be Dozing on the move – not you. You need to be awake and paying attention to where you are headed!
Water & Dust Resistance
Pixel comes with an IP53 rating which indicates basic resistance to water and dust. That isn’t as high as the iPhone 7 or Galaxy phones and so you shouldn’t be setting up Pixel-powered cinemas for your goldfish. However, it does at least mean it should be more than sufficiently protected if you get caught out in the rain and for small accidental spills.
Honestly, water resistance has never been a big deal to me. I’m always cautious when using my phone and the only device I feel it is a must have feature is on my smartwatch. I understand that a lot of people feel differently, but that’s my personal opinion. If you do highly value water resistance then this phone is probably not for you.
Bumps, Knocks & Scratches
Luckily, I have not yet had to test drop resistance but Charlie has been less fortunate! Thanks to a rather inconsiderate driver who hit him on the pavement and sent his Pixel flying, we can confirm it’s a solid as it feels! Obviously as aluminium is quite a soft metal it means on rough surfaces like a pavement it will dent and scrape. However the glass held up to this incident without a single crack or scratch. Damage was minor and purely cosmetic. Impressive!
While this is definitely reassuring, if you’re worried about drops you should probably look at cases. Case options are often limited with newer phones, but there are already a fair few for Pixel.
There are a decent selection of basic and customisable “Live Cases” from Google directly which are quite cool. But if those are not to your liking there are third-party cases and sleeves from the usual brands such as Spigen and a decent number of cheaper, unbranded options.
There are also numerous skins available from dBrand, Toasted and Slickwraps and so you will not be too short for choice.
I shall be reviewing a few of these cases in the near future so stay tuned if you are unsure as to which to buy to keep your Pixel safe.
“If you want to buy the all-round best phone to date: this is it!”
Pixel represents the best of Google in a smooth, fast and well-built package. It has the best camera available and provides an overall experience that is intuitive, polished and most importantly: consistent.
Yes, it’s pricey. The 128GB XL carries a whopping £819 price tag here in the UK! That’s a certainly a shock to the system – for Nexus owners in particular! That said, Pixel easily surpasses the equally priced iPhone. For years many have been calling for Google to make a phone without cutting corners and they have now done, but that is reflected in the cost.
You still have the usual flexibility that we’ve come to expect from Android coupled with unparalleled performance and polish. I have no problem recommending the Pixel to anyone who wants a truly great smartphone. I look forward to the next twelve months I expect to spend with it as my personal daily driver.
So, it looks like Google really can offer a compelling alternative to the big OEMs on their first outing. I suppose if anyone could it would be the creator of the platform!
The Pixel also makes me very excited to see what comes next. Google put this phone together in under a year and it is fabulous. We know they already have a working prototype of the next Pixel phone and that it may even run on custom silicon. The future is looking bright for Pixel. Very bright indeed.
So those were our thoughts, how do you feel about Pixel? Do you have any questions about it? Be sure to voice your views and any questions you may have in the comments section below.
Connectivity & Storage Options9/10
- Best camera available
- Pure Google Android experience
- Always up-to-date
- DayDream VR Ready
- Very fast & buttery smooth
- No wireless charging
- No waterproofing