Google’s first homegrown smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, were announced last month, and were seen by many as the company’s initial attempt to directly take on the likes of Apple in the premium handset market.
Quartz spent the last few weeks with the Pixel XL, the larger of Google’s two smartphones, testing to see if it could really hold a candle to the current crop of (non-exploding) top-tier smartphones. Here’s what we found:
The camera. The Pixel’s camera was given the highest-ever rating of any smartphone by DxOMark, an industry-trusted camera testing site. And it’s easy to see why: the camera takes beautiful, sharp photos.
It works well in low light, picks up variations in color beautifully, and is apparently packing some intense computational photography abilities originally developed by Alphabet’s “moonshot” lab, X. The built-in algorithms reportedly enable the phone to enhance images in ways not possible with traditional photography hardware and software.
The camera also has all of the regular nifty Android camera features, such as panoramic photos, 360-degree photos (called “Photo Spheres”), and “lens blur” shots, which produce a similar effect to the iPhone 7 Plus’s new “portrait mode.”
While the iPhone 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7s may produce marginally different (and not necessarily better) shots in most situations—iPhone photos tend to come out warmer than Google’s phone, for example—the camera really is out of the standout reasons to buy a Pixel.
Video image stabilization. When I first shot a video on the Pixel, I thought the phone had frozen, as the image in front of me was so still. The Pixel does an amazing job of digitally stabilizing what you’re shooting, meaning even those with the unsteadiest hands should be able to produce some really smooth videos:
While the Pixel isn’t the only phone that has made it easy to shoot great video—the iPhone 7 is no slouch either—I found the Google phone’s ability to smooth out even the smallest jerks really excellent. However, it’s worth noting that if you are moving quickly through areas with changing light conditions, the Pixel struggles to maintain an even white balance.
Endless space. One of the phone’s biggest selling points is that every owner gets unlimited Google cloud storage, so they can keep all their photos and videos at full resolution. That means whatever you shoot on the Pixel can be immediately offloaded to the cloud, freeing up space on the phone.
Super-fast charging. Like many modern Android phones, the Pixel can charge a significant chunk of its battery in minutes. Google’s marketing material says that it can charge about 7 hours’ worth of battery life in about 15 minutes. (I didn’t find that it always charged quite that rapidly in testing, however.)
Get Android updates before anyone else. The Pixel is the only Android phone available right now running 7.1—older Nexus devices might be getting it soon—but Google has said that it plans to make the newest Android operating systems available to Pixel owners before pushing it to other manufacturers’ devices.
It has solitaire. Google Assistant may still leave something to be desired (more on that below), but its ability to call up some fun ways to distract yourself—like Solitaire and other games—is an emotional balm, especially after you just spent minutes trying to get the phone to understand what you were asking it for.
What’s not so good
The design. Overall, the design of the Pixel is fine. It’s not spectacular (it’s pretty hard to stand out when every phone is now the same basic rectangle of glass, plastic, and metal), but it looks about as nice as any HTC phone in recent years—which is unsurprising, given that HTC built the phone for Google. It feels improperly weighted when you’re holding it, and I’m not a massive fan of the chamfered edges, but these aren’t particularly big issues. There are parts of the design, however, that don’t make a lot of sense to me, including:
No home button. With the screen off, the Pixel looks a lot like an iPhone, because the bezels are about the same thickness on every edge on both devices. But on the iPhone, the bezel on the bottom is designed to support the home button on, near where your thumb naturally rests when you hold the phone in your hand; the Pixel, on the other hand, does not have a home button on the bottom edge, or anywhere on the front of the phone. Which gets to another problem:
No easy way to wake it up. On the newer iPhones, you just pick up the phone to wake up the screen; on newer Androids like the OnePlus 3 or the LG V20, you tap the screen twice; and on pretty much every phone, you can press the home button. On the Pixel, you need to press the power button on the side, which just feels little awkward, especially if you want to turn on the phone when it’s sitting on the table in front of you.
Weird fingerprint scanner placement. The scanner is on the back of the device, near the top. It’s a bit of a stretch for my (possibly stubby) fingers when I’m holding the device in one hand, and a rather awkward placement when trying to pay for something using Android Pay, given that you need to tap the phone against the NFC reader, but most of the phone is being covered by your hand as you try to authenticate your fingerprint.
Google Assistant. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Assistant—it works pretty much as you’d expect, answering questions dutifully, and it’s able to understand context, meaning you’re generally able to ask it follow-up questions without having to restate what you’re talking about (For example: “What’s the weather going to be like today?…How about tomorrow?”). But considering Google puts Assistant at the forefront of all its Pixel marketing, you’d expect it to be more than a marginal improvement on Apple’s Siri. But it’s really not. And really, in most normal situations, pulling out your phone to ask it basic questions is more awkward than just quietly Googling the answers yourself.
The camera app opens too easily. By default, there’s a setting turned on where if you quickly press the power button twice, the phone will open the camera app. This is great if you want to snap a photo as quickly as possible, but not so great when the phone is bouncing around in a pocket or a bag and the button is accidentally pushed, and you end up with a bunch of black photos of the inside of your jeans.
Headphone jack is on the top. Most manufactures put the headphone jack on the bottom of their phones, so that when you pull them out of your pocket, your phone is the right way up: With the Pixel, the phone will come out of your pocket upside-down. Then again, at least it has a headphone jack.
Not waterproof. Given that many are calling the Pixel the first Google phone that can stand up to the iPhone, perhaps it should have the same basic features as it—or Samsung’s top-tier phones.
The price. Google’s previous line of self-branded smartphones, Nexus, was relatively affordable. They tended to have just about as many features as flagship phones from other manufacturers, but generally cost about half as much. The Google Pixel, however, starts at $649, and the Pixel XL starts at $769, comparable to the newest iPhones and Samsung’s (non-exploding) Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. If the Pixel cost the same as its Nexus elders, this phone would be a no-brainer. But at the price, it’s hard to recommend it over the Galaxies or the new iPhones.
Should you get one?
If you want the newest features that Android has to offer before any other phone manufacturer is going to get them, this is the phone for you.
For everyone else, while many of the negatives I’ve laid out are minor issues, they add up to a lot of small inconveniences that make the Pixel relatively annoying to use. Google’s old Nexus line of smartphones were meant to be the hardware that best showed off what Android can do. But the Pixel doesn’t seem to accomplish that goal; Samsung’s newest phones (apart from the ones that spontaneously combust) feel like a better melding of hardware and Android software. Perhaps Google’s new Assistant will be utilized better in the new Home smart hub (review forthcoming),
Google is positioning the Pixel as a direct rival to the new iPhones, and while they both come with their own annoyances, it’s difficult to recommend to any loyal iPhone user that this is the phone worth jumping the Apple ship for. Everything is perfectly adequate, but the build quality doesn’t feel quite as sturdy as Apple’s, and the camera, responsiveness, and design of the Galaxy S7 make them a slightly stronger choice for Android users. Unless you really, really want to have a deep conversation with your smartphone, you might want to consider another option.