Google built a phone. For real this time.
AU Editor’s Note: Since Google’s Daydream View VR headset won’t be available in Australia until November, we’ve kept any mention of it out of this review entirely. Stay tuned for a proper review of Google’s own VR headset in the days before you can actually buy it. Also, throughout this review, I’ll be talking about the Pixel and Pixel XL interchangeably since apart from their screen sizes and resolutions (5 inches, 1920×1080 pixels / 5.5 inches, 2560×1440 pixels) they’re otherwise identical. — Cam
What Is It?
The $1079-plus Google Pixel is a phone. Two phones, really. It’s the 5-inch Pixel and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL, two top-of-the-line smartphones built by HTC for Google — but without a single trace of that HTC DNA visible as branding. No, this is a Google phone through and through, in everything from the aggressively stock version of Google’s brand new Pixel Launcher skin on top of Android to the small, unobtrusive ‘G’ on the lower rear of the Pixel’s metal case. Above that G, you’ll find a non-tactile fingerprint reader mounted on the phone’s back, in a throwback to last year’s Nexus 5X and 6P.
- 5″ 1920×1080 & 5.5″ 2560×1440 AMOLED
- Dimensions: 143.8×69.5×8.5mm, 143g (Pixel)
154.7×75.7×8.5mm, 168g (Pixel XL)
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core
- 32GB/128GB Storage, 4GB RAM
- 12MP rear, 8MP front cameras
- Android 7.0 Nougat, Pixel Launcher
Above that lies the Pixel and Pixel XL’s deceptively small camera sensor and lens setup. With a dual-LED flash alongside, the Pixel’s camera is a 12-megapixel sensor with a f/2.0 lens, which sounds on paper less impressive than both the offerings on Apple’s new iPhone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy S7 from February. But. The Pixel’s camera is touted by Google as the best smartphone camera ever made, with a DXOMark rating to match (for all that matters), and I can tell you that in practice it’s easily the equal of the best phones that you can buy today. But more on that later.
Underneath the Google Pixel’s proverbial hood is a Snapdragon 821 processor by Qualcomm, one of the first phones with the new flagship system-on-chip mobile processor that is the most powerful of 2016 at least on paper and that presents a strong challenge to the technical feat achieved by Apple with the iPhone 7’s A10 Fusion. With two 2.15GHz and two 1.6GHz cores and 4GB of RAM in a big.LITTLE setup that distributes tasks to efficiency and power cores to maximise battery life, the Pixel is also capable of achieving up to 200MBps download speeds over 4G, one third faster than any other smartphone currently on sale in Australia.
You can buy the Pixel in both 32GB and 128GB storage capacities in both the 5-inch and 5.5-inch screen size, but there’s no microSD card slot or larger storage option, although you can plug in expandable storage over the phone’s USB Type-C connector. That’s because Google is saying the Pixel comes with unlimited storage, courtesy of the Mountain View tech giant’s massive cloud of Google Drive storage. Of course, that requires a hefty mobile plan or a decent (and decently persistent) Wi-Fi installation at your home or business. And in terms of the colours made available Down Under, we have a choice of the light Very Silver or the dark Quite Black, but no Really Blue. More on that later.
What’s It Good At?
The Pixel Launcher and Google Assistant that are the software heroes of Google’s Pixel phone are both so well put together. This is how an Android phone should look and should work, and this is how a voice recognition virtual assistant should hear you and should respond. It’s as simple as that. The Pixel Launcher is simple — it gets rid of the screen-spanning search bar, for example, to replace it with a tappable icon, and hides all your apps under the dock rather than behind a dedicated page. The stock Android notification and quick settings menu remains — hey, it works — but the settings screen is massively improved with suggestions and much, much more information.
And Google Assistant is going to be a huge part of the Pixel’s success. As long as you’re in a place where you can actually talk to your phone — and, yes, it still feels weird no matter how much ‘OK Google’ you try to give it — then Assistant, built into every inch of the Pixel Launcher from the home button to Google’s Allo group chat, has every bit of the power of Google’s search along with natural language processing that works. You can tell it to set a timer and you can tell it to launch an app or play music, or you can ask it what’s on at the movies or what time that cafe up on the Northern Beaches that you like closes on Sunday afternoons. It just works.
The 5-inch Full HD (1920x1080pixel) and 5.5-inch Quad HD (2560x1440pixel) AMOLED displays on the Pixel and Pixel XL are very vibrant, and have excellent contrast and maximum brightness levels. They’re the best screen that any Google-developed devices have had in a long, long time and stand toe to toe with Samsung’s nearly identically sized 5.2- and 5.5-inch panels on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge — which are some of the best screens on any phone, so that’s high praise. Apple’s new iPhone 7 display, for all its refinement and quality, doesn’t come close to the contrast that OLED can manage. Minimum brightness is impressively dim and maximum is impressively luminant; Google has done a Good Job with the most important user-facing part of the Pixel here.
And that camera. Oh, that camera. I remember being annoyed when those leaked renders showed a tiny camera module, but this phone’s camera can haul ass. Even in low light it processes an excellent amount of detail from the images that it captures, and overall it just has incredibly good handling of sharpness in images — especially on tiny repeating patterns like fabrics or water, where the amount of compression blocking is minimal at best. Snap a landscape photo in good light with the Pixel and you’ll come away stunned at how good it is. Under ideal conditions, it’s better than the best photos that the iPhone 7’s main wide-angle camera can capture. The 8-megapixel front camera is equally good.
Battery life, too, is a standout success considering the Pixel’s hardcore processing power — seriously, this phone runs like a dream — and that extremely bright and vibrant OLED display. The Pixel’s 2770mAh and the XL’s 3450mAh cells should give pretty comparable performance given the varying screen sizes, and I’ve consistently had two-day long runs of regular use from this phone. That’s charge it one morning, use it throughout the day, don’t charge it at night, use it the next day, then charge it at bedtime on the second day. Just as this is true for smartwatches, that two-day battery life is the Holy Grail for a smartphone and Google has knocked it far, far out of the park with the Pixel on this one.
What’s It Not Good At?
The Google Pixel, and especially its 5.5-inch Pixel XL big brother, suffer from a pretty hefty dose of Australia tax. Where the base Pixel starts at just $US649 in the States, you’ll be left paying $1079 for the entry-level 32GB 5-inch Pixel. More storage (128GB) will set you back another $150. The Pixel XL is $1269 for the 32GB and a whopping $1419 for the 128GB. That’s Samsung Galaxy Note7 and Apple iPhone 7 Plus territory, and while the Pixel and Pixel XL belong in that category both those competitors (although only one is sold any more) have a more unique selling proposition either with the Note’s stylus or Apple’s dual camera.
From a design standpoint, the Pixel — again, especially the XL, the phone that amplifies everything about its smaller sibling by about 10 per cent — is just a bit boring. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since safe is good and safe is easy to sell, but I do wish that the front fascia of the Pixel especially was a little bit more flamboyant. Where the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 have something to sit on the lower bezel — a physical home button — the Pixel is just… blank. It makes the phone look cheaper than it is, like something you’d find in the bargain bin at a Dick Smith fire sale. It’s good that the back of the phone is a little bit fancier.
Because the Pixel doesn’t have a microSD card slot, you’ll need to be happy with the phone uploading all your Google Photos images and other content straight to your Drive account whenever you’re on Wi-Fi. It’s a great idea in theory, but if you like expandable storage — maybe you load your phone up with movies when you travel — then the Pixel is not the phone for you. It’s also not waterproof or water-resistant at all, which is a knock when its two chief competitors are. These are things you’ll be well aware of when you’ve gotten to the point of actually considering whether to buy the Pixel in the first place, but they’re clear and obvious trade-offs.
I’m still yet to be convinced of the value of Google Allo. As a Hangouts tragic — I’ve used it for both SMS and over-the-top chats on my Android phones for years now — I’ve just struggled to get enough of my friends on to Allo to make it actually worthwhile. It’s great in theory — talk to the Assistant from within your chats and collaborate on an answer! — but there’s not enough of a reason in practice to pull users away from Hangouts and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and Signal and all the other OTT services that I already use. It’s the weakest part of the Pixel purely because at the moment, it’s a beautiful wasteland with no users.
Also, it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it’s a bit of a disappointment that we don’t have any access to the Really Blue colour variant in Australia. It would have been nice to have an electric blue Pixel as a bit of a fashion statement. Instead, we get Quite Black and Very Silver. I think the black actually happens to look beautiful, but we’re not nearly as big fans of the silver and white finish. It’s certainly very well constructed in the hand, but it just doesn’t look particularly sexy or premium like its competitors do. When you’re paying as much money as I complained about above, I think you’re entitled to something that’s more obviously fancy.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. If you’re looking for a phone that distils the absolute best of Google — world-beating search smarts, excellent language processing, beautiful photos, a huge suite of online services and all of that wrapped up in persistent online cloud storage, without unnecessary software bloat. Plenty of the apps — like Hangouts, god rest its beautiful soul — on the Pixel are disabled out of the box, and will wait for you to actually need them to boot up for the first time.
Price: from $1079
- Pixel Launcher is a godsend
- Excellent camera processing
- Beautiful display and battery performance
- Expensive, suffers Australia Tax
- No waterproofing or microSD storage
- No Really Blue available in Oz
The $1079-plus Google Pixel is far and away the best phone that Google has ever had a hand in creating. It’s better than any Nexus or any Google Play Edition handset — those were half-baked ideas with too much of the manufacturing partner’s DNA, where the Pixel is a Google phone from the ground up. It shows, in everything from the finesse and speed that the camera launches with and processes HDR+ images with, to the finally consistent and contiguous nature of the phone’s user interface in everything from the lock screen to the settings menu.
It’s not perfect. It’s not waterproof, there’s no expandable storage, it’s a little bit bland on the outside. But these are all compromises that I’m personally happy to make in my pursuit of the best Android phone for me. This’ll replace my Galaxy S7 and live alongside my iPhone 7 Plus. On that note, one thing I haven’t mentioned thus far, one thing that Apple prides itself on that Google can now lay claim to very fully with the launch of the Pixel and Pixel XL.
There’s a feeling of completeness in knowing you’re holding a phone that has been built by the same guys from start to finish, in everything from the hardware to the software that runs on it to the online hooks that that software talks to. Maybe it’s the same wholesome feeling that you get when you’re eating a responsibly sourced steak. Apple has had that for a while, and now, with the Pixel, Google has that too. The Pixel is the first true phone by Google.