Google is not a new name in the field of devices – it’s been a service provider to a majority of the smartphone world via it’s thriving Android platform, as well as a device provider of repute, albeit a foster-father of the Nexus line of devices.
Google saw decent success through the Nexus series where the philosophy was to provide good workhorses, with a Stock Android experience, priced at a mid-tier level. Nexus devices were neither too cheap nor too expensive.
Another aspect of the Nexus philosophy may have been to not get into direct competition with manufacturers as Google’s strategy seemed to be to partner with many different manufacturers via it’s varied Nexus models.
That has changed.
It may have been the realisation within Google that they were good enough at device design to do it on their own, or it may well have been a strategy to initiate the Google-Devices line in partnership with renowned manufacturers and capture the market while also gathering the know how of the manufacturing industry.
Whatever may have been the reason, the fact is, Google has been doing stuff on its own lately and with the latest release of the Google Pixel XL, Google’s showing the ambition to take on the likes of Samsung and Apple at the top of the field, on it’s own.
The Google Pixel XL is a high-end device that Google prides itself for having made from the ground-up with HTC being the manufacturing partner.
The Pixel XL offers good things but there certainly are noticeable things that the device also does not offer. Also, with the pricing and the overall segmentation of the device, it feels like Google has been rather ambitious with it’s pioneering duo.
Is that true? Let’s find out!
The Google Pixel XL comes with a 5.5 inch AMOLED Quad HD (2560×1440) resolution with a very respectable pixel density of 534 pixels per inch.
Clearly, the display is one of the high points of the device – for it as it may very well be one of the best we have seen so far.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean yes, this device is a little disappointing in terms of originality and innovation (we’ll cover that in the Review’s Form & Material and Hardware & Performance sections), but as far as quality goes, its all there.
The display of the device is simply wonderful!
Google claims that is covers the full NTSC colour gamut and we can say that the results are evident. The display displays colour extremely realistically and the deep colours are truly deep.
The lighter ones are very clear without the sort of tinge that we saw with the iPhone 7’s (and iPhone 7 Plus’) display. The saturation levels and contrast levels also seem to be perfectly balanced.
The screen is very bright and consequently works well even in bright sunlight – visibility should not be a problem with this device.
Also the 534 pixels per inch seem to be the same 534 all the way in every inch of the display which essentially means that the pixel distribution is very uniform (sometimes creative prose doesn’t makes statements complex!). Consequently, the photography experience is also a positive one, considering the Google’s really tried to mark-to-market in the camera hardware space.
There’s not much to write home about on the device’s design front. While the Pixel XL does have a good design overall, but there’s nothing that we haven’t already seen before. It seems to be a mashup of different manufacturers’ design philosophies, in an attempt to provide the best of all worlds.
The device does look good and feels premium as well, but considering the price segment that it sits in you really fell the lack of ingenuity. Google, could and should have invested time and effort in make the device look better.
The first thing that sells a supercar is it’s looks (one looks at the array under the bonnet only after there’s any desire to consider the model in the first place)!
The front panel is a Corning Gorilla Glass 4 covered unit with curved edges (similar to the current breed of iPhones). In the middle sits a 5.5 inch screen with rather broad bezels on top and below the screen. Clearly, they are relatively thick since that the navigation keys are below the screen. Again, the lack of design innovation – capacitive buttons are the design ethos of today, and dedicated below-the-screen buttons are quickly becoming passé!
The phablet’s back is a mix of glass and metal. The top one-third houses the camera with it’s flash and the fingerprint sensor, is a glass panel while the rest (lower two-thirds) of the back and the side panels are made of a single metal frame.
Antenna lines run on the side and at the bottom of the back panel as well. The glass panel does look different but it does not look good in every colour – in some colours it looks like a patchwork you may see on a car that’s being repainted. We aren’t being unduly harsh, you’ll agree once you see the phone in the real-world.
On the right is the power key, below which are the volume rockers. The layout is somewhat familiar but the placement is rather awkward. The volume rocker is somewhere in the middle of the right panel which does make it a little tricky to reach from either hand. On the left sits the nano-SIM slot which does not support the micro-SD card (so you do not have that option of expanding the memory). The bottom houses the USB Type-C port while the 3.5mm audio jack sits at the the top. And that is it.
Uniquely, the phone is a little top heavy, as it is noticeably thicker at the top and tapers down 1.2 mm towards the bottom end of the phone. Despite a marginal misbalance, I actually found myself liking the tapering treatment – for two reasons: it completely absorbed the rear camera assembly (making it flush with the back panel) and also because it (the taper) made the phone far more usable when lying at my desk – no rocking occurred while dashing off a quick text response, and lesser reflections from overhead lights.
I won’t be surprised if this ‘tapering’ form factor catches on in forthcoming devices from other brands too!
That said, the Pixel XL (like the smaller Pixel) feels a little bulky and thick overall. It’s surprising to see Google launching a device with such a large girth, in 2016! Especially when all other manufacturers are successfully launching lithe, light devices, the Pixel XL seems like it came out of 2012.
The device does look good, but in some colour combinations it does look a little odd. The design to me is in no way a winner. It is a make-do design for a device of its price and there is nothing too impressive or exciting about that.
Google might not have been creative with this device, but they haven’t held anything back in terms of hardware. That said, there’s nothing unique or stellar.
Under the hood the Google Pixel XL packs a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor with 4 GB of RAM and also an Adreno 530 graphics unit.
We’ve seen several flagship devices using the Snapdragon 820 this year – and it delivers incredible performance; and the 821 is the newer and better version of it. It is faster than the 820, but do not expect to dwarf the sibling. It is only slightly faster that does benchmark higher than the 820 and may eke ahead on performance, but then again there is a catch.
There are two versions of the 821- one variant of this processor provides a 20% advantage in benchmarks over the 820. The Google Pixel XL however, uses the ‘AB’ one which is clocked at the same frequencies as the 820 and is placed neck and neck with the 820 in benchmark tests.
So, do not get too excited about the newer processor, because what you are essentially getting here is the same 820 chipset that everyone has been using this year.
Performance wise, the phone is up to the usual 2016 flagship standard – It is snappy, runs smoothly and can handle all your everyday tasks with ease. You will be pushing the device a little with 1080p games but then again, it is nothing the phone cannot handle. Multi-tasking is a walk in the park as well. The device did not show any signs of heating which is always a relief.
The device comes with a fingerprint scanner at the back. The scanner works very well – it is fast and responsive. You can even allowed to touch it at all possible angles and it will still read your print accurately. It even has some added functionality to it – there are swipe gestures available now thanks to the OS.
The Google Pixel XL comes in two storage options. The smaller 32 GB option and the bigger 128 GB option. There’s no 64 GB option which is both a shock and shame.
While 32 GB should be enough for a casual user, but if you are buying this costly a device, then chances are that you are not a casual user. In that case the 29 GB of usable storage may prove to be short, especially if you record 4K videos.
Google does not leave with the option of going to the next level and leaves you to only upgrade to the 128 GB option.
Having said that, Google in a way justifies this by trying and facilitating unlimited cloud storage for your photos – which may indeed become the way of the future.
The battery is a non-removable Lithium-Ion unit at 3,450 mAh. Google claims a standby time of 553 hours and a talktime of 32 hours between charges.
In general the battery life seems pretty decent and in practical use the phone should last the full day with average usage.
The Google Pixel runs Android 7.1 Nougat which is a slightly tweaked and modified version of the Android we are used to. At the same time the attempt to not take it too far away from the familiarity if previous Android users is also prominent.
First off, the app drawer that was earlier behind a button that you could press and access all your apps has changed here. Now the apps are all stacked up in a tray that slides up from the bottom of the screen. It does take some getting used to but when you do get used to this it really feels convenient.
However I did feel longing for that extra window which indeed was the app drawer at times which may be precisely because it gave you the feeling of a deeper-rooted OS. It is like having a cupboard and you knowing that everything I need is in there but suddenly everything is now out on your bed and you no longer have that drawer.
The Google search bar that we are so used to has changed as well. There now is a widget icon on the screen that you can tap to open the Google search. Not a great change, to my estimation.
The other change here is the option of long pressing the app icons to pull up the shortcut options which let you resume or jump into the apps. This is much like Apple’s 3D Touch which is not surprising – what with iOS 10 hogging the limelight of late, and the blurring of lines between Android and iOS, more and more things are starting to look similar on both sides – which may or may not be a good thing.
Talking about which, here is something else that you may fancy. You get a split screen app support which enables you to work on two apps side by side while also allowing you to decide which of the two apps gets the lion’s share in the portrait mode (on landscape mode both get 50-50). Now, this may be a feature that may not be of regular use to everyone, but when you do need it, it certainly is very efficient and convenient.
While we’re at similarities with iOS, Android Nougat too, carries the Night Mode feature which provides the option of reducing the strain on your eyes by reducing the proportion of blue light in the display, so as to provide a warmer, more calming yellow tinge.
As a USP, the software now incorporates swipe gestures on the fingerprint sensor itself (a little bit like the keyboard in BlackBerry’s Passport). The gestures are similar to the gestures you’d make via the touchscreen itself (example: swiping down on the scanner to read your notifications).
The Pixel duo come with Google’s new Assistant which is an evolved version of the earlier voice supports offered by Google Now.
We found the Google assistant not being as impressive as Siri, but since it’s come a long way already (from Google Now), you’ll see it bloom in a few more iterations. Currently, you can have conversations back and forth with the assistant when the software s learning all the while. You can even ask what all can it do for you and it will tell you
However it works best when you are aware of its limitations because when you reach them you will be dumped into a plain web search (and that is no joy at all!).
The OS to me, has a new outlook to it and it suggest that things are changing and moving along. There are some changes here that are evidence of that and may suggest that while Android will change it will not be without considering its users. Changes will be incorporated step by step to ensure familiarity while creating a different ballgame along the way.
All in all, the OS on this device is really good. You cannot call this stock Android but it certainly has a refreshing perspective. The most important thing for me though, is the ever present familiarity and user friendliness that has always been the essence of Google Nexus devices.
The Google Pixel XL (like the Pixel) comes with a 12.3 megapixel primary camera with an aperture size of f/2.0 and also with a gyro-based EIS (i.e. Electronic Image Stabilisation which basically enhances images via electronic processing), phase detection & laser autofocus and the dual-LED flash.
Now upon a quick glance at the spec sheet you may find it to be all too similar to that of the Nexus 6P, but there are a few differentiating elements present here which we will talk about in a bit.
Let us talk about the picture quality in general and then track back to the reasons behind it.
The snaps taken from his camera look very good, in general. There is a lot of detailing available and the colours are very well balanced and seem very realistic as well. All that is impressive but the essence of these pictures lies in the noise reduction. In that respect the snaps really look different in a way that makes you notice the absence of noise from almost all the snaps.
The reason behind this is also a feature that separates this camera from the lot. The Snapdragon 821 supports the HDR+ mode. Now what this does essentially does is that it maintains a 9 frame buffer – the camera takes multiple shots automatically when you hit the shutter button and the software then select the least noisy snap.
Maintaining a 9-frame approach also means that you get the most detailed output with the best colour balance. All this does show in the snaps and I have to say that the picture quality in general has improved.
This also has an effect in night time photography as the issues that the HDR+ mode deals with are the ones that are most prominent with the night time shots. If you do wan to see the difference you can turn it off and you will have the usual noisy night time shots.
So be it night or daytime shots, the quality seems to have improved a lot thanks to the HDR+ mode. Be that as it may, it still is not the best camera out there. There are devices that can outperform this camera setup any day of the week.
There’s also an issue with the camera’s reaction when it encounters bright sources of light in or around the frame – sometimes a clear ring of light is visible in the ensuing photo. With a smaller-than-standard aperture, this should not have been a problem and it can only be explained by a flaw in the way the lens lets light in.
On the camera app front, it is almost identical to that of the Nexus 6P with a couple of additions such as the Blur mode.
The front camera is an 8 megapixel unit and is quite capable of clicking impressive selfies.
All in all, the camera on the Pixel can be looked upon as an improved version of that on the Nexus 6P. While that is a good thing but considering the price segment that the Google Pixel sits in, I am not sure if it is good enough. Also the device does not have optical image stabilization which is almost standard in today’s phones.
However, there is not a lot to complain about here and the camera performance will more than suffice from a general view point.
I can conclude saying that the camera is one of the best performers when it comes to night time photography and in general too, is very good.
Entertainment wise this device can be considered ‘average’.
It is sort of a balancing act – while the size and the quality of the display adds to the entertainment package and the battery does give you the courage to watch full-length movies, the absence of stereo speakers takes away from it.
The sound is average at best, and does start to crack up when the volume is cranked to maximum.
On the content availability front, you get Google Music which at this point is very similar to the Apple Music on iOS 10. Unfortunately, Google Music hasn’t arrived on Indian shores, yet.
Business apps and setup follows the usual Android way – you can set up your account with just your username and password.
Additionally, cloud storage is supported.
That said, since the new Google Assistant is logging all that you ask of it, and (estimably) all that you do by way of interactions and actions on the phone – security concerns may crop up to those of you who are concerned about Google knowing so much about you and your habits.
For security while logging in, you get the usual fingerprint scanner – it is fast and it has more than one function. It supports gestures such as swiping down to view your notifications among others. This asset will be further utilised by the OS in the coming months, I’m sure.
You also have the usual pin, password or pin option for locking your screen up in addition, in case we forgot to mention it.