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Tuesday
Oct182016

Review: Google Pixel XL

 

By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla 

Exploding Note7’s have left a crater-sized void in the market and users looking for options can definitely consider a Pixel XL. It’s large, has the killer camera and specs combo, and it’s a Pure Google device. That’s great for consumers with $899 burning a hole in their pocket, but what about the rest of us?

Ambitious, bold, and aiming for the big guns in the smartphone flagship market, Google’s Pixel XL and its smaller brother, the Google Pixel, aim to give consumers the Google phone that they have always wanted but which the earlier Nexus devices may have failed to deliver. 

Pixel represents a brand new chapter for Google as an end-to-end creator of consumer products. The Pixel extends the Made by Google ethos, which is to deliver high-quality devices that serve as the best containers for Google’s technology. This idea has been percolating with the expensive and premium Chromebook Pixel, the similarly costly and ambitious Pixel C 2-in-1, and now is encapsulated in the Pixel family of phones as well as in Google’s Home and Wi-Fi focused devices.

Google is evolving and so is the point of access


The adverts for the Pixel phones start off with a search bar which slowly morphs into the shape of a rectangle signifying a smartphone. Google understands that its services and technology are being accessed more and more via mobile devices and now it is taking full stewardship of this experience.

Aside from providing a premium smartphone with what they claim to be the best camera, top tier specs, unlimited video and photo storage capability as well as the an entirely new interface running on top of Android 7.1, Google hopes to showcase its lead in A.I., that’s Artificial Intelligence, or machine learning, if you prefer.

Next Level Personal Assistant

This is the next level of the personal assistant. One that’s not just  proactive and smart but which can also engage in conversations with you. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the idea was for everyone to have, “their own personal Google.”

Using voice as the key interface, you now have the best of Google at your disposal. Some of the cool things it can do are give you a daily briefing at the start of the day, including your schedule, the weather, and it can even play the news from sources like NPR or CNN to give you an overview of what faces you that day.

If you want some tunes, you simply say, “Hey Google, can you play The Cure on YouTube,” and it will fire up the YouTube app and play “Friday I’m in Love,” by the band The Cure. It is in understanding this context and nuance that Google Assistant transcends what we’ve seen so far with technologies like Siri, Cortana and Google’s own Google Now. Other useful examples are “Ok, Google go to Huffington Post.com,” to fire up Chrome and go to that website’s mobile page.

As someone who doesn’t particularly like talking to technology, I’ve only scratched the surface of what Google Assistant has to offer me, but from what I’ve seen, it is impressive and seems to be evolving, which will really help in pushing it to where it needs to go in people’s consciousness.

Pixel Phone by Google 

Google has always relied on HTC for making its landmark products. The very first Android smartphone was the HTC Dream (G1) and while clunky, it did provide the blueprint for all devices to come. The very first Nexus device, the Nexus One, was also an HTC/Google collaboration and set the pace for the developer-focused Nexus program which caught on big with many Android aficionados.

It comes as no surprise, then, that HTC is the manufacturer of the Pixel and Pixel XL.  While Google takes full credit for the design and development of the Pixel, it was created with HTC’s expertise and I think this was an excellent choice of manufacturer. HTC has been one of the strongest Android OEM’s in terms of build quality, design and materials and this shows with their latest flagship the HTC 10 as well as the Pixel XL.

It was rumoured that Chinese smartphone maker Huawei was going to make these devices, I'm glad HTC was chosen instead. Huawei's product's simply don't feel as premium or as polished as HTC's.

Design and Materials


Like many, I initially pooh-poohed the Pixel’s appearance as being a straight-out copy of Apple’s iPhone 6 design (which seems popular enough that Apple used it for three generations of flagships, including the iPhone 7).

After having used the device for some days, I realize things aren’t as black and silver as they seem. The placement of the Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor on the rear makes a lot more sense than where the iPhone has it at the bottom. The Pixel has chamfered edges that make it easier to grip. There’s enough Google DNA in this product that gives it its own character. Not bad a at all for a first product that had a shortened 9 month development time.

In terms of build quality, The Pixel XL is very well put together and has used some neat engineering tricks to avoid having a camera bump and including a headphone jack. Slightly thicker at the top, the Pixel tapers down slightly on the sides until one bevel almost completely disappears. Its a neat trick, one that keeps the device balanced while making it look seamless and monolithic. 

At first, I was bothered by the slate of glass on the rear where the Imprint fingerprint sensor lies, but I have gotten used to the look and feel of this and it does give the Pixel its own character and quality feel. 

So, while it may look boring and indistinctive at first glance, there’s a lot to appreciate with the Pixel XL’s build quality and tactile feel. I like it more than Huawei’s odd Nexus 6P Design which, while premium in feel, looked like a lazy design and was one of the least attractive Nexus devices in my opinion.

Functionality 

The Pixel XL, which has a 5.5-inch 2K display, fits nicely in the hand although it isn’t the easiest smartphone to navigate in one hand.

Taking it out of your pocket and bag makes resting a finger on the the Imprint sensor easy and quickly enables ‘waking’ the Pixel from sleep. Scrolling down from the Imprint sensor offers a neat way to peruse notifications, scrolling down persistently opens up the short-cut drawer and eventually the settings.

Android 7.1 Nougat brings a new Pixel launcher with rounded icons which is minimalist yet quite intuitive. Google gets its own button (plus can be triggered by pressing the middle navigation button or triggered by voice), so it is front and centre.

Aside from Google apps being pre-loaded, you also get Google Allo and Google Duo, the new text and video messaging apps from Google which takeover where Hangouts used to be. These apps are just okay, they are tied to your phone number and there's just not too many people using them yet, so they're not essential.

Performance and multi-tasking is top notch. Pure Android plus the Pixel’s top of the line specs with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor (2.15 GHz + 1.6 GHz, 64-Bit Quad-Core processor) and 4GB of RAM is a combo that’s tough to beat. This means slicing through apps and in between tasks is fast and friction free. Honestly, performance on the Pixel XL is unlike anything I've tried on any Android device.

The Pixel XL doesn’t have wireless charging, nor does it have stereo speakers and it also isn’t waterproof (it is rated at IP53). The Pixel XL comes in 32GB and 128 GB capacities but continues on the unfortunate trend set by Nexus devices in that it doesn’t offer microSD card expansion.

The Pixel phones do offer quick charging with a claim of 7 hours of battery life in just 15 minutes. Battery life is quite good and can last all day and night on a single charge, but given this is a large phone with a 3,450 mAh battery, that’s not surprising at all.

The Pixel’s Secret Weapon 

Google knows that a smartphone’s camera is easily it’s most used and valued feature. Their teams of photography gurus and image processing experts spent a year designing and optimizing the entire camera stack.

Google boldly claimed that the Pixel had the best camera on any smartphone. Ever.

This is a huge claim backed by DXOMark (which, has been referenced by HTC for the high camera score on the HTC 10), While DXOMark is highly regarded, I’m still skeptical of a for profit organization that sells its own photography products making proclamations based on their findings.

I decided to test the Pixel’s 12-megapixel camera myself and was, quite frankly, astonished at the high-quality and consistency of the photos and videos that the Pixel produces.

I was able to take great photos in a range of conditions, from a dark evening, indoors in a museum and outside on a cloudy day as well as a sunny day. The Pixel’s f/2.0 aperture and 1.55 μm large pixels for clear low-light pictures are one thing, the Pixel also comes  with Fast auto-focus in any light condition with Phase Detection Auto-Focus (PDAF) and Laser Detection Auto-Focus (LDAF). More importantly, Google engineers optimized the software to operate beyond what hardware alone can do.

After four weeks of using the Pixel XL as my main smartphone, I learned that it has one of the most remarkable cameras on any smartphone. This may not be the case in terms of hardware specs alone, but the computational muscle and staggering AI that ensures you get the best photos at any condition is simply stunning.

The HDR+ implementation, which Google suggests users leave on by default, ensures best photos in any condition. A Smartburst mode can be applied in various situations and the software will pick and choose the best photo of the bunch. As a bonus Google generously offers unlimited online storage of photos and videos shot on the Pixel phones which will be stored at full resolution and backed up from the devices.

The Pixel effectively reduces noise, minimizes blur, and gives the best result by taking multiple images and quickly recomposing them to fill in the gaps. HDR+ on the Pixel has zero shutter lag, no other smartphone can claim this when using HDR feature.

 

The most impressive feature of the Pixel XL is the digital image stabilization. With this feature employed, By using the gyroscope at 200 times a second to anticipate how the camera is moving, you can get blur free video in most conditions.

I put together series of sample videos including riding in a car, walking on a beach and others, which show how this image stabilization works. There’s also a comparison with optical image stabilization from a competing 12-megapixel smartphone.

Image stabilization is very good, it looks a bit unnatural, sort of like the effect some first-person shooters have when you duck and strafe. Still, there's no denying there's a breakthrough at play here since this smartphone is creating steady video which even on standalone video cameras would require some kind of gimbal or steady-cam type contraption to achieve.

Google’s Pixel really delivers impressive video and photo performance in almost any situation and is among the best camera on devices I have tested this year (led by the iPhone 7 Plus as well as the Samsung Galaxy 7). The offer of unlimited online storage on Google Photos (in full resolution, no less) means you should be able to buy the 32GB versions of the Pixel and have more than enough space for unlimited photos and videos.

I am a prolific photo-taker and I've already exhausted 14.5 GB of the Pixel XL's 32GB non-expandable storage. Using the 'free up space' feature, I was able to gain back 3.7 GB while my photos are still accessible on Google Photos.

Not for the price sensitive


The move up from Nexus to Pixel brings us a Googlier experience, better hardware integration and premium features and materials plus a bevy of capabilities that could remain Pixel exclusives long before they trickle down to other OEMs. Each Google Pixel also comes with a hotline, a 24/7 support feature that makes it possible to reach out to a Google expert via chat, voice and even share your screen to help troubleshoot issues.

The downside is that the pricing goes up, considerably. The Pixel and the Pixel XL are smack dab in iPhone 7 and premium Samsung territory. It’s easy to simply say that premium features and materials=higher quality and therefore a higher price. But iPhone and other flagship products are long established players. They have retail store support, a wide range of accessories and peripherals, they are a known quantity.

Sure, exploding Note7’s have created a crater-sized void in the market and users looking for options can definitely consider a Pixel XL, it’s large, has the killer camera and specs combo and it’s a Pure Google device. That’s great for consumers with $899 burning a hole in their pocket but what about the rest of us.

In the past, Nexus devices could be had off contract for under $600, and these had many of the perks that the Pixel line offers plus the air of exclusivity of being Google exclusive devices. There’s no longer a budget option for those who want to go with Google and that’s going to be an issue. 

The Pixel XL represents the Google Phone we’ve always wanted in terms of quality, features, innovation and ease of use. Google Assistant is impressive and has what it takes to bloom beyond being a fad feature, the new Pixel launcher is cleaner and more intuitive and the camera and video capability of the Pixel is truly top notch. But, this is still a generation 1 device playing in a hotly contested premium market and it brings a design aesthetic that isn’t entirely new. The Pixel is a good start, but it has a lot to prove that it is worth the price of admission.

Note that the fine print says the Pixel and the Pixel XL are good for two years of software updates and three years of security updates. That's all Google guarantees, consider that the Apple iPhone 4 from 2010 just got obsoleted this year (6 years after its release) and weigh that into your long term consideration. 

With the demise of Windows Phone and BlackBerry, which have faded into oblivion this year,  many phone buyers who don't subscribe to the Apple way, now have another viable option in the Pixel and the Pixel XL. I'm crossing my fingers that Google will ensure the best possible Android experience available.

Hits:

-Pixel represents an all new integrated premium Google Phone strategy

-Google Assistant is the real deal, the next generation of personal A.I.

-The Pixel’s camera achieves astonishing photo and video performance

-Best implementation and placement of a fingerprint scanner

-Top flight specs, great new launcher and access to exclusive software make the Pixel a compelling flagship

-USB Type-C with quick charge

-Unlimited free storage for photos and videos in full resolution

 

Misses:

-Pricing is high

-No wireless charging or water resistance

-No microSD expansion

-Design presents nothing new

-Review unit sporadically disconnected from data and voice network losing the ability to accept calls or access the Internet

-Onboard Google Support had no useful solution for the issue above other than 'contact your carrier'.

Verdict:


So long Nexus, the Pixel is the new crown jewel of Google’s mobile strategy, and this line of devices is shooting for the stars of the premium smartphone space in terms of materials, build and also pricing.

The Pixel XL starts strong with great performance, effortless ease of use, and a stunning camera that many will consider a generational leap from where Nexus cameras were a year ago in terms of speed, quality and performance.

Google engineering and innovation run in the Pixel’s DNA even if the hardware design may seem underwhelming and tired. Don’t be fooled, the Pixel XL is every bit the flagship killer that Google set out to make.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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