Before we jump into a discussion about the Pixel XL, we wanted to set out our review methodology. We’ve had the Pixel XL in our office since Friday last week, and this is going out at 12.01 am on Thursday morning. We’ve had barely a couple of days with the phone between other things, and we think that a phone of this importance deserves more than just a few days before publishing a review. So, this time around, we’ve adopted a different strategy.
First up — and in today’s post — we’re going to do a bit of a first look. I’m going to step you through some of the highlights of the phone and standout features. It will then be packed up and sent to another of our team to prepare a more fulsome review. Parallel to that, we’ll start the review process on the standard size Pixel as well. Google gave us a Pixel XL to review, on the assumption that the Pixel being mostly the same meant one review would be enough.
To an extent, it is; there’s far more the same than different between the two phones, but there’s enough that’s different to warrant a separate look. So, while Phil gets busy reviewing the Pixel XL, Jason or I will get started on a review of the Pixel. We’ll then compare notes, and see where we end up.
So, let’s get into a first look at the Pixel XL.
How did the Pixel come to be?
When the rumours of Google’s Pixel phones first circulated, I have to say I was sceptical at best. I thought that the Nexus brand still had strength in it, and talk of its demise was perhaps premature. However, as the rumours intensified, and as it became clear what Google had in mind for the new Pixel line of phones, I have to say my interest grew. It became clear that Google was no longer content to have others make phones for its premier operating system Android, and no longer content to have the showcasing of Android rely upon the design ideas of others.
With the Nexus line, Google ceded much (but not all) control to third party OEMs, who designed and built hardware to a specification. With Pixel, Google controlled the whole thing, though we understand they worked with HTC to design the phones, it was Google’s brand, Google’s input and thus a Google product.
With Pixel, Google wants to do something different. It wants to be known as a maker of hardware in its own right. It’s not as if Google hasn’t dabbled in this before: Google has already released two Pixel-branded Chromebooks, and a tablet last year in the Pixel C. The holy grail, though, is mobile. Google believes wholeheartedly that mobile is where it’s at these days, and it needs to be in that space.
This gave rise to two new phones from Google, announced a couple of weeks ago, and going on sale tomorrow. The two phones are virtually identical, save for screen size, screen resolution and battery configuration. Jason and I had the opportunity to play with the Pixel and Pixel XL at Google’s launch event in Sydney, and Duncan spent quite some time with the two in San Francisco.
I suppose it’s almost needless to say; Google have done a very good job here, and they’ve got everyone at Ausdroid interested in buying at least one … though there is some further thought to be had about the appropriateness of the pricing. So, without further ado, let’s take a brief look at the Pixel XL before it’s handed off for a more thorough investigation.
Google’s Pixel XL is a 5.5″ phone with a giant 1440×2560 resolution display. It’s a touch bigger than LG’s G5 (which I had on the bench at the same time), and probably about the same size as a Galaxy Note 7 or S7 Edge. It’s not a small phone, but equally it isn’t overly large. The comment from those with smaller paws is that it’s a bit hard to use single-handedly, but otherwise the in-hand feel is good.
On that, the build is absolutely premium, but it is unmistakenly similar to another phone on the market. In fact, from a distance, especially from the front, it could be an Apple iPhone, except for the lack of a physical home key. I suspect these design cues are deliberately taken; the best way to increase adoption of a device is to make it look like something the market is already happy and comfortable with.
Flipped over, though, the differences appear. The Pixel XL has a metal casing, with a plastic/glass top-half on the rear. It’s a distinctive look; nothing else really does this at the moment. It defines a Pixel as a Pixel.
The overall feel, then, is one that is absolutely top shelf. There’s no cheap plastics. There’s no uncomfortable glass back. There’s just a premium metal casing with a tactile screen that’s neither too slippery nor too grippy, and it feels great.
Like many phones, I feel the Pixel XL is screaming out for a quality case to protect it from life’s knocks, but being a bit early for those cases to be around just yet, we might have to wait.
How’s it go?
With the latest Snapdragon 821 processor running at 2.15/1.6 GHz (quad core), paired with 4GB RAM and the latest Android 7.1 Nougat, it’s safe to say the Pixel XL veritably screams along. Just about every phone I’ve reviewed for Ausdroid has had some appreciable lag somewhere in regular use, but with the Pixel XL, I just haven’t found it. Switching apps is fluid, boot time is quick, and getting everything done just makes me feel like the phone is somehow pre-empting what I want it to do; there’s no other explanation for how it could be so fast and so smooth.
Performance isn’t just speed, it’s ease of getting things done, and how well it does them. Multitasking is a breeze on the Pixel, but we’ve come to expect this in 2016’s flagship devices, but there’s little doubt the Pixel XL is one of the smoothest amongst them.
Camera performance too is simply amazing. Performing well in almost every situation, the Pixel XL camera is close to setting a new standard in mobile photography. Last year I commented that mobile photography was reaching its peak, where smartphone cameras were truly giving DSLR-type cameras a run for their money in daily situations. Yes, you might not catch a professional photographer using a mobile in lieu of a full-frame camera, but for everyone else, the quality is 95% of the way there with a device that slips effortlessly into your pocket.
With the Pixel XL, and noting it has the highest ever DXOMark rating for a mobile, photography truly becomes something you don’t even need to worry about. Just point and shoot, and the Pixel camera will figure it out. Yes, some might say, it lacks Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), but with a nice wide aperture and large light sensing elements, you just don’t feel like it’s missing anything.
For the kinds of photos I take — scenery, my kids playing in the park, beautiful places and buildings, and the odd selfie — I am not left wanting by the Pixel’s camera. In fact, the only realisation I’ve had is I wish I’d had this years ago. I no longer feel compelled to take any other camera with me, unless I’m doing something the Pixel simply isn’t designed to do (e.g. it’s no action camera…)
What about the software?
It’s very clear to me that the Pixel XL software is something different from what a Nexus phone released this year would’ve had. Just as Google took ownership of the hardware, so it has with software too — while Nexus was the best of Android, the Pixel line is the best of Google, and it really shows. Tight integration with Google’s voice recognition and artificial intelligence, useful apps and services… the Pixel truly is Google’s phone, and I for one love it.
From the most simple of things — looking up caller ID of callers in Google’s Dialer — to more complex interactions like seeking the advice of Assistant, and everything between (Allo, Duo, etc), the Pixel’s software experience is beyond polished. It feels crafted and yet minimal at the same time. The perfect mix of stock Android with just enough power and functionality from Google to make it something special.
Everything just works better. The lock-screen and interaction with notifications in Android 7.1 is sublime. The newly designed home-screen and launcher has me wondering whether I’d go back to a third party launcher ever again. The integration with Google’s Assistant trumps everything that’s come before, including Google Now on Tap (which kind of didn’t feel polished).
Assistant is just so easy to use; it’s accessible just with a longer press on the home button, and it starts listening to your voice immediately. You can ask it just about anything, like what the weather is, how long it’ll take you to get to work, does Donald Trump actually have small hands, and everything in between. Google’s Assistant is incredibly conversational, and you simply have to try it out.
It doesn’t just tell you stuff; you can ask it to do things for you too if your hands are tied. Need to set a reminder? Set an alarm to get up early tomorrow? Do some maths? Open an app by asking your phone? You can do all that.
Assistant works well in Allo, but it works a dozen times better still in the Pixel.
I usually experience moments of frustration with new phones as I learn their idiosyncrasies. Not so with the Pixel XL. If you know Android, you know this phone, and there’s nothing that’s tricky to work out; it just bloody works, and it does so incredibly well.
How’s it last?
This is one of the questions we’ll address more fully in our feature review, but for now I think I can say you’ll be pleasantly surprised; the Pixel XL has a large battery, and though it has a large display to power, it’s still very conservative. I haven’t had any issue getting a day’s use from the Pixel XL in early testing, and that’s with things like streaming music running most of the day, running the hotspot for hours on end, and playing with all the cool new features.
The other thing you’ll find is that the battery charges quickly, but without generating excessive heat. USB-C is fast becoming the standard for smartphones (that aren’t Apple ones), and your growing collection of USB-C cables will be well utilised here.
That said, you simply aren’t going to need the cables that often. A nightly charge is going to be in order for regular use, that’s my prediction, but if you’re frugal and want to extend that out to a couple of days, then you can use the battery saver mode to really stretch it out.
Still, with a battery that’s 3,450 mAh big, battery life will cease to become a constant worrying concern. The smaller Pixel, with its correspondingly smaller battery, might be a different story, but we’ll let you know as soon as we can.
What do I think?
This is just a first look. I haven’t had enough time with the Pixel XL to form a polished, firm opinion. On one hand, this phone just feels amazing. The software experience is simply sublime. I cannot think of a phone that I’ve used in recent time which is as consistently fluid and easy to use.
On the other hand, I have come to associate slightly bigger phones with slightly more features; I guess what I’m getting at is that at this size, it feels like the Pixel XL should kind of have a stylus … it just reminds me too much of the Note range in terms of stature.
Would I go out on Thursday and buy a Pixel XL? Yeah, if I wanted a 5.5″ phone, I absolutely would.
Would I go out and buy the 5.0″ Pixel instead? Yes, and I will.
So, with that, stay tuned to Ausdroid over the next week to ten days or so, when Phil will bring you a full review of the Pixel XL with the full Ausdroid treatment.
Google’s Pixel XL goes on sale on Thursday 20th October, starting at $1,269 for the 32GB model and $1,419 for the 128GB model. You can find them in Telstra stores around the country, at JB HiFi stores, and online at the Google Store.