Google Pixel Review

A Whole New Class of Android Phone

I play with phones for a living, so when my friends are looking at new devices they usually come to me to ask what to get. Generally, I’ll ask a few questions to figure out which of the dozen options on the market are best for them. That all changes with the Pixel.

Google’s efforts in the smartphone market have always been a bit underwhelming, at least in one way or another. Nexus smartphones have been great, but missed the mark in one area or another. For example, the Nexus 6P was solid in terms of pricing hardware and specs, but the performance fell flat toward the end. The Nexus 5 was affordable and packed solid specs, but fell behind in terms of hardware and the camera. The formula followed with the rest of the Nexus family.

That all changed when Google decided to scrap the Nexus line for its new Pixel smartphones. Designed and sold by Google, these phones represent something new for Android, a device where the hardware and software are controlled by one company. Why is it so special? We’ll get into that…

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Specs

  • 5-inch 1080p (Pixel) 5.5-inch QHD (Pixel XL) AMOLED Display
  • Snapdragon 821 Processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32/128GB Storage
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 4
  • Battery: 2770 mAh (Pixel) 3450 mAh (Pixel XL)
  • 12.3MP Camera f/2.0 1.55µm pixels

Hardware & Design

On the Pixel, Google has absolutely nailed the feel of premium hardware. Every part of the phone feels premium, from the metal/glass rear to the tough aluminum chassis. The buttons are located perfectly on both the Pixel and Pixel XL and, as an added bonus, they are incredibly tactile.

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The heft of the Pixel is another thing that I enjoyed. The weight is incredibly well balanced and it makes the phone feel a bit more secure in my hand. That’s a good thing, too, since the Pixel is a slippery smartphone.

As for the design, I wish I could say the Pixel was great. It looks fine on the front and back, but it feels uninspired. Well, it does feel inspired, but it feels inspired by an iPhone. The parallels are extremely clear between Apple’s flagships and Google’s; so much that I’d almost wager that it was intentional.

Is that a bad thing? Not really. The Pixel looks fine and most people will slap a case on it anyway, but I just wish Google would have released something that was a little more unique. In the end, there’s nothing truly bad about the Pixel from a hardware or design standpoint. It just stinks that there’s no water resistance.

Software

Where the Pixel really shines is the software experience. This phone doesn’t run stock Android like the Nexus lineup did, but rather it runs Google’s idea of what Android on its own smartphone should be. In reality, that’s basically a slightly enhanced version of standard Android.

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What’s new? There are minor changes throughout the OS, but the big stuff can be broken down into just five things.

– Pixel Launcher

First, the pre-installed launcher. On the Pixel you’ll have the aptly named Pixel Launcher out of the box. This launcher draws from the Google Now Launcher, but has a new take on an Android home screen. The classic app drawer is replaced with an “app panel” which can be accessed via a swipe up on the dock. Folders also get a new look, as do many icons which now adopt a round shape. This launcher also has easy access to Google Now via a swipe to the left, and there is a constant clock/weather widget on the right side of the home screen. It’s simple, to the point, and I kind of love it.

– 24/7 Support

Another big selling point on the Pixel is built-in 24/7 support baked directly into the phone. Simply head into the settings, hop to the support tab, and you’re good to go. You can talk or text with a customer service representative for help with your device, and they can even see your screen to better assist you. For the average joe, this is a major selling point.

– Google Assistant

I’ll talk more about Google Assistant in a moment, but long story short, this is an enhanced version of the already powerful Google Now which — while still in its early days — has the potential to be the most powerful form of AI we’ve seen on a mobile device.

– Night Light

A small yet useful addition to the Pixel is Night Light. By filtering out blue light, this feature can help you fall asleep even if you’re using your phone in bed.

– “Moves”

The last addition is “moves.” While Nexus users can access some of these gestures, only the Pixel can use the special fingerprint gestures on the Pixel. Right now, that gesture is used to pull down the notification bar — something that is especially useful on the larger Pixel XL.

Performance

Software enhancements are always great, but the bigger story on the Pixel is speed. This phone is lightning fast. As good as Android phones have gotten in the past couple of years, they still fall a little flat when it comes to performance at times. It’s ridiculously easy to get some Android phones to drop frames or lag, but the Pixel is a different story.

Running on top of a custom version of the Snapdragon 821 chipset and 4GB of RAM, the Pixel is proof that even when using Android, when a company has total control over the hardware and software, the results can be amazing.

Everything the Pixel does is fast, and it’s difficult to get this phone to lag. The camera performance is especially awesome, but more on that shortly.

The Power Of Google

The Pixel is the first phone with Google Assistant installed, and it’s pretty spectacular. As I mentioned, Google Assistant is still in its early days, so it’s nowhere near perfect. It still lacks certain features which are puzzling exclusions (identify a song, come on Google), but if what we have now is just a glimpse of what is to come, we’re in for quite a ride.

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Just like Google Now, Siri, or Cortana, Google Assistant can answer your questions, perform certain tasks such as setting reminders, pulling up information, and more. It’s the little things that really set Assistant apart. For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of North Carolina?” Assistant will respond with the answer. If you then ask “What is its population?” Assistant will take the context of your previous question to show a relevant answer.

Why is that better than the competition? On paper it isn’t, but in use, Google Assistant is the best mobile assistant available because it works how you would expect it to. To get other mobile assistants to work right, you have to change how you say things to get the results you want, but with Assistant, saying something “wrong” won’t affect the answer.

Display

As for the display, the Pixel comes in two variants. The smaller 5-inch Pixel uses a 1080p AMOLED display, and it’s great. Despite the lower resolution, everything still looks great. Brightness is solid and colors are pleasing. The larger Pixel XL brings a 5.5-inch panel which is also solid in brightness levels and colors, but this panel comes in with a higher Quad HD resolution. If you’re trying to decide between the two, this shouldn’t be the deciding factor unless you’re planning to use the phone for VR a lot. In that case, the XL will have a sharper picture. Otherwise, both phones are great indoors and out and there’s nothing to complain about.

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Battery Life

Another perk on both Pixel phones is the battery life. Both models can easily last an entire day of usage, and fast charging is available with the included USB-C charger.

Typically, my day lasts about 15-18 hours away from a charger with about 2 hours of screen on time, and with the Pixel XL, that meant going to bed with about 30% or more left over. When using the 5-inch Pixel, results were comparable, even with heavier usage. Of course, your results may vary.

Audio

There are two big downsides on the Pixel. One is the lack of waterproofing, and the other is the audio experience. As with most devices, there’s nothing special about the headphone jack, but at least there is one. The real shame is the speakers. Where the Nexus 6P packed absolutely fantastic stereo front facing speakers, the Pixel packs a single bottom facing speaker. It’s decent, but it’s a shame that Google switched. Further, the Pixel’s giant chin (thought I wasn’t going to mention that, didn’t you?) is absolutely begging for something, so why not a single front facing speaker like we’ve seen on devices like the Moto X and Nexus 5X?

Camera

On the rear of the Pixel is a 12.3MP camera with an aperture of f/2.0 and larger 1.55µm pixels. On paper, that’s nothing too impressive. However, the Pixel’s camera, thanks in part to incredible software optimization, is one of the best cameras we’ve ever seen on a smartphone. It’s easy to use and takes a good shot just about every time. It’s also quite fast, to the point where I can take shots back to back to back to back without the phone skipping a beat. Instead of just explaining how good it is, there’s a gallery below.

Video, on the other hand, is an even more impressive story. Despite lacking OIS, the Pixel keeps up — if not improves on other phones — with its EIS (electronic image stabilization). Performed in real-time, this stabilization allows the Pixel to turn otherwise shaky video into beautiful, smooth video. Best of all, 4K video is also great.

Pricing & Where To Buy

These phones are great, but they’ll cost you a pretty penny. The base model, 5-inch 32GB Pixel will run you $649 unlocked. To get 128GB of storage, you’ll need to fork over an extra $100. To get the Pixel XL, pricing starts at $769 for the 32GB variant and, again, adds $100 for the 128GB option. Monthly financing starts at $27.04 per month.

Both devices are available in “Quite Black,” “Very Silver,” and “Really Blue.” If you’re buying unlocked, the phone is available directly from Google with Google’s own financing program. That unlocked model will work on any carrier too. However, if you want to buy from a carrier, two options are available — Verizon and Project Fi. Both options match Google’s pricing directly as well.

Why Should You Consider The Pixel?

Google’s Pixel isn’t just an impressive Android smartphone — it’s the first in a new class of smartphone. Between the clean, user-friendly software, the incredibly good performance, what is probably the best camera on a smartphone today, and hardware that’s solid, the Pixel is the best smartphone on the market today. It hits every important note it needs to, and it does it better than any other phone. We’ve never had a phone that hits nearly every point perfectly — but the Pixel changes that.

Alex Garcia, Andrew Romero, Patrick Campanale, and Keyan Riddick contributed to this review.