Google has been selling phones since the Nexus One landed almost seven years ago. In fact, there have been eight Nexus phones, one each year through 2014, and two last year. They have generally been good phones, especially in the last few years. But the Pixel is not a Nexus. It’s better.
With the Pixel, Google did more than partner with a phone maker to slap Android on an already-designed handset. It created its own hardware and software innovations on top of stock Android. The result is a phone that may displease Android purists, but should delight everyone else. This is Google’s first real attempt to push a phone to the mass market, and the Pixel competes directly with the iPhone as well as pricey flagships from Samsung and LG.
For this review, we’re looking only at the Pixel XL. The Pixel is smaller, with a 5-inch 1080p display instead of the Pixel XL's 5.5-inch 1440p display. The smaller display—along with the Pixel's smaller battery—is the only difference between the two models.
Not a Nexus
Nexus phones were built in partnerships with hardware partners like LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Google would take a mostly-developed phone, and work a deal to make it the next Nexus. Google would then ask for a few tweaks, slap on stock Android and Google apps, and then resell it. But with the two Pixel phones, Google says it has had its hand on the wheel from the beginning, with HTC acting as a mere contract manufacturer. This is a longer and riskier process, but gives Google the opportunity to more tightly integrate its services, as well as tune hardware and software together.
The result is a phone that isn't “pure Android,” and is frankly better for it. A devotee that only wants another Nexus—good hardware at an affordable price with stock Android—will surely cry foul. But if you can get past the idea that Google dared to produce a premium phone to showcase its own innovations in the same vein as Samsung or LG, you’ll probably love the Pixel. The market is awash with quality Android phones in the $300 to $400 range, so Google doesn’t need to push in that direction. Rather, it needs to push the premium market away from bloatware and delayed updates.
Think about it. You can’t get any other super-premium, $600-plus Android phone without suffering a litany of pre-installed apps from both the phone maker and carrier. Usually these apps can't be uninstalled, only “disabled.” It’s absurd!
With Pixel, Google direct-sells a phone that works on any carrier, and is free of all that cruft. You can also get it exclusively through Verizon in the U.S. (the Verizon version is sold at Best Buy too). This version only installs three Verizon apps from the Play store when you activate the SIM: Go90, Verizon Messenges, and My Verizon. All three can be fully uninstalled just like any other app. All Pixel phones, even Verizon’s, will get Android updates at the same time. The Verizon version is even sold carrier-unlocked out of the gate, so you can jump ship if you want.
Smart software improvements
The Pixel doesn't come with stock Android. If it did, it would ship with Android 7.0 instead of 7.1, because 7.1 isn’t quite ready for general release yet. So if you buy a Pixel, you get Android 7.1 ahead of the rest of the world. This point release includes a host of improvements like shortcuts when you long-press on app icons (similar to 3D Touch on iPhones), seamless system updates, and a Night Light mode to reduce blue light coming from the display late at night.
Some might argue that Google is playing games with the market, giving itself an artificial 7.1 head start to sell more phones. But I think Google's motivations are probably much more practical—that it’s just easier to squash bugs and optimize an Android release on a single phone instead of a litany of devices. This Nougat point release might simply be ready on the Pixel, and that's where it's landing first.
As all other Android phone makers do—and as Google avoided doing with the Nexus phones—the Pixel gets its own system tweaks. For starters, the Pixel launcher gets rid of the App Drawer button on the home row, and now a fifth app shortcut can appear instead. Just swipe up on the home row to see all your apps.
The Pixel launcher also ditches the big, full-width Google search bar. In its stead, you'll see a svelte Google button on the left, and a weather/temperature/date widget on the right. The launcher also makes use of the new circular icons being introduced in Android 7.1. It makes for nice visual consistency, but app developers will have to update their apps to make circular icons available. Right now you’ll find a mix of circles and squares.
As you poke around, you’ll notice little tweaks and changes throughout the OS. The ringtones and notification sounds are new and unique to Pixel. There’s also a set of the coolest live wallpapers I’ve ever seen. Thoughtful details are everywhere, from the little cable management clips on the USB-C cables in the box, to the quick transfer adapter that makes it a snap to get everything off your old phone—messages, contacts, photos, music, and even some of your device settings and app data. It even works with iPhones!
Every day, one of our top five most-viewed articles is “How to get everything off your old Android phone and onto your new one.” This process is a serious pain in the butt for phone buyers. That Google understands this, and has a simple, straightforward solution included with every Pixel phone, says a lot about its desire to make this phone a success. And it’s just one more example of how this isn’t just another Nexus.
Here’s something else no Nexus ever had: built-in support. Just swipe the Settings screen to the right to get 24/7 Pixel support, by phone or chat. You can even share your screen with the support rep during phone calls. No Genius Bar appointment necessary.
If there’s one annoyance I wish Google would immediately fix with a software update, it’s the Pixel’s limited wake-up options. The Ambient Display feature on the Nexus 6P will wake the display when you receive notifications and when you just pick up the phone. On the Pixel, it only wakes when you get notifications. There’s no “double tap to wake” function, either. You have to press the power button or unlock the phone with the fingerprint sensor to wake it, which is a chore when you only want to check the time.
Looks good on the outside, too
There are only so many ways to design a rectangular slab of glass and metal around a touch display. That said, the Pixel and Pixel XL are reasonably attractive, premium-feeling phones. The only truly distinctive design element is the glossy area on the top third of the phone’s back.
The buttons are well-placed and easy to reach on the right side. You’ll find a headphone jack in the upper left—I’d prefer it on the bottom, but at least Google hasn’t yet jumped on the “no more headphone jacks” bandwagon. It’s probably inevitable, but it simply feels too soon.
Speaking of the bottom, there are two speaker holes, one on each side of the USB-C port. But you don’t get stereo sound. Sound appears to come only from the left hole, and the other looks like it’s just there to maintain symmetry.
It’s a very well-built phone, with tight tolerances along seams and no flex or bend. The metal frame conducts heat and can get a little warm when you’re charging or making the processor sweat, but not more so than most metal phones.
The front face is covered by a single edge-to-edge sheet of Gorilla Glass 4, giving it a very smooth feel. And speaking of smooth, there’s no camera bump on the back—a rarity in today’s high-end phones. This is great for those who like to use their phone while its resting on a desk, but if you put a case on your phone, it’s sort of a moot point.
The quad HD Super AMOLED display on the Pixel XL is gorgeous. Google claims its wide color gamut covers 91 percent of the Adobe RGB color range, and you can really see the richness of colors. It’s bright and easy to see outdoors, though it doesn’t get quite as crazy-bright in direct sunlight as the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge.
If I wanted to pick nits, I’d say that the “chin” (the area below the display) is larger than it really needs to be. Google seems to prefer on-screen buttons to capacitive touch buttons, but there’s plenty of room on that chin for your back/home/recents. Why not give us the option of on-screen or touch buttons? Either do that, or shorten the chin.
Still, big chin and all, the Pixel XL is smaller phone than the iPhone 7 Plus, which also has a 5.5-inch display, and of course smaller than the Nexus 6P with its 5.7-inch display. It’s slightly thicker than either one, but doesn’t feel particularly bulky in the hand.
The only place where Google didn’t keep up with modern design trends is in failing to make the Pixel waterproof. I don’t need to go SCUBA diving with my phone, but I’d like it to survive a dunk in the sink. It’s not as if the Pixel is going to melt if you get caught in the rain, but with Samsung and Apple both shipping comparably-priced waterproof phones, Google needs to follow suit. It’s one of those rare checkbox features that really could save someone hundreds of dollars.
Google Assistant is here to help
Google has had an “assistant” for a long time in the form of Google Now voice commands. The scope of voice commands and queries has become quite impressive, and my personal experience is that Google is simply in a whole other league compared to Siri and Cortana.
The Google Assistant, first introduced with the Allo chat app a month ago, takes Google Now and makes it a bit more conversational. After making a query or giving a command, you’ll get a list of suggested follow-up questions. Google seems to think of it as a turning point in our AI-assisted future. I think of it as an upgrade to the already fantastic Google Now voice features.
Still, it’s so much better than Cortana or Siri that it makes sense to put it front and center on the Pixel phones. No matter what you’re doing, simply hold down the home button or say “OK Google,” and the Assistant pops up, listening for your question or command. Ask it to send a text, set an alarm, or show you good sushi restaurants nearby. Then get directions, make reservations, or check the weather—basically all the many and varied things you could do with Google Now, including device control (“turn the volume up” or “turn on airplane mode”).
Google has added some fun games like trivia and vocabulary quizzes, but at its heart, Assistant is just a souped-up Google Now. That’s not to knock it, because Google Now has become remarkably useful. That’s just to say that if you’re familiar with all you could do with your voice in Google Now, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
Unfortunately, the Assistant as baked into the Pixel is a voice-only affair. After first speaking to the Assistant, you can tap on suggested follow-up queries, but you can’t simply type a question as you can within the Allo app. And those emoji-based games in Allo's Assistant are out the window, too. This is a real oversight. I don’t want to talk at my phone at the gym or on the bus. The fix would be simple: Just let users swipe a microphone icon to either side to get a text entry box. You can always launch Allo and type to the Assistant there, but that sort of defeats the purpose of making Assistant a system-wide feature.
The best camera ever? Maybe.
Google makes a big deal of the fact that DxOMark has given the Pixel camera a rating of 89, its highest score ever for a phone (the iPhone 7 scored 86, but the iPhone 7 Plus has not been reviewed). Is it really the best camera ever?
More than just another Nexus, the Pixel has what it takes to compete with other high-priced premium phones.
- Fantastic camera
- Super fast and responsive
- Unlimited online photo and video backup
- Not waterproof
- Very expensive
- No stereo speakers