“Google’s first phone” was released 20th October 2016 (apparently the Nexus series doesn’t count) with overall positive reviews. I happily bought one on release day by walking into a store and buying it – no lineups or fanfare for those picturing an Apple iPhone launch.
There’s general reviews all over the place, so I’ll focus more on my opinion of the specs and features. I have the Pixel XL 128GB model, which will be the focus here.
I can’t start a review on this device without talking about the cost, a huge leap in price from the well regarded and mid range Nexus phones. By more than pure coincidence, the Australian pricing for the Google Pixel series is identical to the dollar of the Apple iPhone pricing:
Pixel 32GB – $1079AU
Pixel 128GB – $1229AU
Pixel XL 32GB – $1269AU
Pixel XL 128GB – $1419AU
It’s a hefty ask price wise, and the Australia tax has definitely been put on top when the top model in the US costs $869US – a bit over $1130AU after conversion at the time of writing. The price is by far the biggest drawback, but that doesn’t seem to stop people buying iPhones… so why should Google miss out on all that profit?
Price aside, the Google Pixel models have a bunch of extras that I hadn’t seen before, coming from a Samsung Galaxy S6 as well as playing with the Oppo R7s.
Let’s go through some of the specs:
Screen – 5.5 inches, QHD AMOLED at 534ppi
Coming from a 5.1″ screen there’s still a noticeable difference in size, and I think the 5.5″ is a better size for a smartphone these days. The quality of the screen was great, I can’t fault it.
Dimensions – 54.7 x 75.7 x 7.3 ~ 8.5 mm
Nothing amazing here, it’s an average thickness and bezel size for the screen size.
Battery – 3,450 mAh battery, Fast charging: Up to 7 hours of use from only 15 minutes of charging
Fast charge is the norm now on new phones. It’s a great feature, but you do need the right power adapter to make use of it.
Memory – 4 GB LPDDR4 RAM
At the higher end of what you’ll find in a phone now, which should give it a longer life overall.
Storage – 32 or 128GB
Another page out of Apple’s book here. To me, 64GB is the perfect size for a phone as 32GB fills up with apps, high resolution photos and videos. The lack of external SD Card support is disappointing too, which is why I chose the 128GB option.
Processor – Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 821 2.15Ghz + 1.6Ghz, 64Bit Quad-Core
Another new standard which provides more than enough grunt.
Main camera 12.3 MP and Front camera 8MP
Does anyone choose a phone based on the camera quality? It’s great that this has the best camera in a phone yet quality wise, but as long as it’s good people seem to be happy. Bonus that it’s better than good!
Pixel Imprint – Back-mounted fingerprint sensor for fast unlocking
I’ll talk about this more later, but it works REALLY well.
Ports and slots – USB Type-C™ and 3.5 mm headset jack
One thing Google didn’t copy from Apple was abandoning the 3.5mm headset jack which I think is a good move. Having to have an adapter or special lightning cabled earphones is a bit of a pain, and so is making sure wireless earphones are charged.
The USB Type-C is the way of the future too, so get ready to change over all your cables. Biggest benefit is that just like the lightning cable in iPhones, there’s no upside-down way of trying to put the cable in.
OS – Android 7.1 Nougat
It’s nice to have the latest OS from Google, and with this phone you’ll always get it first. As the specs say – Two years of OS upgrades from launch, Three years of security updates from launch. That’s better than no guarantee, and hopefully they’ll do more than the minimum.
Out of the box, the whole ‘migrating from another phone’ implementation was actually pretty good – all the cables required were in the box, it happened quickly and made the new Pixel phone setup a bit easier. It still took me hours to get it the way I wanted, because it doesn’t copy across apps; it just tells your new Pixel what apps you had before and downloads them again, along with syncing contacts and accounts you had saved. Maybe one day we’ll be able to migrate to a new phone and all the settings will be in the cloud?
After the basic setup, Google makes sure you know about it’s voice recognition abilities and recommends you do some training. I declined that as I didn’t want to talk to an inanimate object, but later I did try the weird ‘Lucky Trivia” game show which went on a bit, but was still an amusing novelty.
Setting up the device and navigating around was a bigger change than I expected coming from the Samsung Galaxy S6, and I dare say a Nexus user would have a similar experience. Google have put their own flavour on top of Android – which seems weird when they’re the ones who make Android, but there you go. The home screen is fairly blank when you first start using the phone; swipe left to get a modified Google Search page along with weather, news and calendar updates. Swiping right from the home screen shows an even blanker page for you to fill with your favorite shortcuts. Swiping up however, gives you a single long grid of all your apps that go down a single page with a search option – this seems to make more sense than the pages and pages of apps to swipe through.
I went through the settings and enabled some nifty features like ‘Night Light’ which can tint your screen red and take a lot of the blinding brightness out of the display, something you don’t need when all the lights are out. The best setting I found by far though, was enabling the fingerprint reader to swipe for notifications. Ah yes, the fingerprint reader… it seems weird to place it in the back middle of the phone, but I found that the index finger sits exactly there when holding the phone, and by touch only you can easily find the right spot to unlock the phone with. However, the fingerprint reader can also be used to bring up your notifications with a small swipe. A second small swipe will expand the notifications to an even bigger view. Apart from seeing who’s liked your Instagram photo, you can now respond to SMSes, Skype messages etc right in the context of the notification pane. This seems to be implemented really well and saves you opening a notification to go to the app to respond. Nexus owners already have a fingerprint reader on the back, but don’t and won’t have swipe on it.
Some features such as having a battery % on the top of the screen are really hidden away, requiring a 10 second press on the settings button to unlock several hidden options, including this. I couldn’t work out any way of re-organising the shortcuts in the notification bar (e.g. flashlight, wifi), and the inbuilt widgets I found were feature lacking compared to what my Samsung Galaxy S6 had (one for alarm clock and one for calendar). Also encryption seems to be finally at the hardware level and not optional, hooray for that one! Also with Google’s apparently new security model, expect to see a lot of allow/deny options for every app you run. It’s good to control what app can do what, but I can see people getting annoyed by it.
Here’s a screenshot of how my home screen ended up looking:
The camera app also has some cool inbuilt tricks – burst pictures and picks the best one out, automatically makes a collage for you or an animated gif… as well as
Is this a must have phone? Not really. Is it worth the price? Not really. But then again, I’d say that about upgrading from an iPhone 6S to a 7. They’re overpriced for what they are in my opinion. It’s still a high quality phone with a lot of cool functions (albeit not waterproof!) and the best way of making sure you’ll get Google’s updates to the Android platform. It also has the Google Assistant which I really can’t be bothered with – yes it works, but I have to verbally give my phone a command. I may as well start wearing a manbun and ride around on a hoverboard.
It’s hard to differentiate the features between Android 7.1 and Google specific – probably by design, to help with the launch. Despite this, it’s a very slick, clean and fast user experience with great battery life (getting close to 2 days for me) and a device that should give you a bit of future protection, due to Google having control over the hardware and software.
The Google Pixel XL is a very good quality phone with good software and good features, but I don’t believe it has anything to make it stand out against the competition. It’s a premium Android at a premium price point. I’m happy that I have it but I’m unconvinced it’s worth double or triple many of the other Android phones out there.