Google Pixel and Pixel XL have signified a break from the usual Nexus line-up to a more tightly integrated product, with a pleasing mix of hardware and software that work very well together. But is the final package worthy of claiming the Pixel the title of the finest android phone? Let's find out at a time when we are being greeted with regular advertisements offering discounts on the first ever Pixel phones.
Design and hardware
We tried the Pixel XL and found the form factor comfortable to use, with the quad-HD screen and the 5.5-inch screen making for a future-proof combo and for daydream/Virtual Reality as they become mainstream. However, the phone has quite big bezels, specifically at the bottom, which could easily get someone used to physical navigation buttons a little confused. The bottom end of the phone has the USB type-C charging/connection port, along with speaker grills. The placement of the speakers seems to have been designed for Google Cardboard/Daydream VR usage and is good for catching audio while the phone rests on the ground, but gets a little muffled when held laterally in the hands for gaming or video watching.
With all the space Google had on the front of the phone, we couldn't however help wish for a dual-front speaker like on the Nexus 6P. The top of the phone has the 3.5mm slot for earphones (thankfully, not new!)
The SIM card slot is on the left and Power/Volume keys are on the right. There is no option to expand memory through microSD cards. The power button has a nice grooved texture to locate it easily and good tactile feedback.
The back of the phone has the fingerprint sensor in the centre and the camera + dual-tone LED flash on one side.
Somewhat typical for a phone whose hardware has been put together by HTC, it has a very slightly curved rectangular design, and a premium metal feel. The only branding anywhere on the phone is a 'G' at the back. The phone also has a dual-tone finish at the back with glass covering the top end, an interesting departure to an otherwise bland design. Google has claimed that this glass covering will help ensure better network reception and also stronger Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals.
The 2.5D screen glass along with Gorilla Glass 4 makes it a very sturdy device, save for the glassy back which is prone to smudges and, we surmise, easy cracks. Google has done some admirably good engineering to ensure the camera does not jut out and the phone rests quite naturally flat. The Fingerprint sensor, called the Pixel imprint, very much like the earlier Nexus Imprint, is quick and accurate and supports gestures like swiping down to call up notifications.
The display on the Pixel XL is fabulous, thanks to the combination of the AMOLED display and quad-HD resolution at 534 ppi. The brightness and contrast levels are very good, and colours are vivid. We found the colours to be pleasing for pictures and video, but for those who would rather like a more neutral display, Google also offers the option of activating sRGB colour model in the developer options. You may see the menu screen immediately get a little greener on activating this, but the overall colour reproduction becomes more faithful. The automatic brightness is fast and works well, even in direct sunlight.
The latest Snapdragon 821 processor, a very good tuning of hardware and software, 4 GB of RAM along with a bloat-free pure android version ensure an extremely snappy and smooth experience with no lags at all while opening applications, or switching between them. Though the test scores that the device racks up may not be the highest, they are optimal for hands-on daily use. We noticed very slight heating up during intensive gaming, hotspot usage and video bingeing, but nothing to complain about. The VR experience is immersive and smooth, and the high-res display shows the details perfectly, however it appears to be quite resource intensive, with perceptible heating up and battery drain.
The battery on the Pixel XL is rated 3450 mAh and Google has tuned the phone and software to deliver some amazing standby time and battery life. The combination of doze mode and app standby seem to work very well here, specifically when the device is on standby. There is also the "Ambient Display" that gets activated when the phone is picked up or a notification arrives, and gives a sparse white on black view of time and notifications, very helpful for AMOLED screens. It was very pleasant to see only around 12%-15% battery drain after a two-hour video watching session, and the battery easily holds up for an entire day with moderate to heavy usage. It supports quick charging and a 9V/2A charger is bundled with the package. One interesting observation during charging was that while initially slow, the charging speed picked up rapidly and completed 13% to 100% in about a little more than an hour overall.
Software and interface
The phone runs the pure and latest Android N version with Google's collection of apps preloaded. Post the 7.1.1 update almost immediately, even VoLTE support has been provided. Using Jio, we found data and calls to work very smoothly. One small nag point was an irremovable "Device is HD capable" notification constantly on with VoLTE. The overall software was very stable and Google has guaranteed software updates at least until October 2018.
Google seems to have included some features on the 7.1 update specifically designed for the Pixel devices - the Pixel launcher, Google Assistant (for now, at least), night light, screen share facility are not included even on the Nexus devices with the 7.1 update, for instance.
Google offers a bunch of quick gestures which it calls "moves" including swiping down the fingerprint sensor for notifications, double tapping the power button to jump to camera regardless of where you are in the phone, double twist to toggle the front and back camera, double tapping to check notifications on screen and lifting the phone to see the ambient display. There is also a dedicated support tab for quick support from Google including the ability to share your screen with Google support personnel - however only North America and Australia have 24-hour support as of now. India gets a 9 AM to 6 PM service window and Google claims to have 56 service centres across 30 cities in India.
The Pixel launcher is minimalist and works well, notable additions include the ability to access "quick actions" for applications on long press and options to adjust icon and label sizes for better display. The settings menu is fluid and has suggested quick setting options based on usage which get shown at the beginning of the row.
The Google Assistant, the next point of evolution for Google Now and Allo, comes with excellent speech recognition and easy access on the Pixel XL. It can be invoked by activating the "OK Google" hotword detection, or by a long press on the home navigation button. The assistant displays interesting contextual understanding as well - to know what application you are currently on and utilising that information for help, and also for connecting context with past series of questions for common words like "it" and "they'. A variety of functions including opening applications, performing common actions on them, translating or helping in pronunciation of foreign words, and controlling phone functions is available along with content retrieval from the internet to support queries.
For better recognition of Indian places and names, we found it helps to use the English (India) language. The Assistant is also a colourful personality and can provide quirky and fun answers to casual questions and even tell jokes.
The Assistant uses your Google account and information for personalization and can also remember specific information about you that you choose to give or probe you for them. We discovered limited support in India for queries on purchases and reservations with the Assistant coming back with "I can't do that yet".
DXOMark calls it the best of any current smartphone. While the camera resolution is same as that of the Nexus 6P at 12.3 MP, the Pixel XL uses Sony's newer IMX378 sensor that adds support for PDAF (The Nexus 5X and 6P had the IMX377). Combining PDAF with laser autofocus and dual-LED dual-tone flash gives an impressive focus speed and accuracy. The camera layout is neat and designed to get someone to start capturing photos quickly.
The lens blur, pano and photosphere options are the same as those found on the "Google Camera" app on the Play store before Google pulled it out. The auto HDR+ mode, activated by default and recommended by Google, makes up for the lack of optical stabilisation and takes stunning photos. HDR processing is effective and fast, and combines multiple exposures to minimise noise. Long-pressing the capture button also lets you take quick bursts of photos which are stacked together in the gallery, and the phone suggests the best choice. The amount of detail captured and the lighting is impressive. It was a welcome surprise to note that the front camera also supports HDR+ and gave good results.
There are manual exposure adjustment options presented as a vertical bar after focusing, but missing was the ability to tweak ISO - the camera jacked up the ISO very high for a few low-light photographs despite moving the focus to a bright spot, which introduces avoidable noise. Another pain point was lens flaring, quite evident in brightly lit night photos.
For video, the phone supports 720p, 1080p, and 4K video, along with slow-motion video support. The Photos app also allows editing of the slow-motion videos to adjust the duration of slow motion and normal play. However, changes cannot be exported or saved to outside the phone directly. As mentioned earlier, there is no optical stabilisation and Google opts for electronic stabilisation instead, sampling the gyroscope 200 times a second to adjust for jerks and shakes. During shooting, the phone sometimes overcompensates, makes panning slow while it computes and tries to smooth, but does a terrific overall job.
Google has clearly tried to wrestle a hold in the premium flagship market and gone toe-to-toe with Apple and Samsung's finest - even pricing the phone accordingly! The way Google has worked on the design and integration of the hardware with their software is very promising and a worthy step forward. The Google Assistant is also a very good evolution and something to look forward to, with the power of Google's services, the knowledge graph, connected devices and their content. What is a little disappointing is the lack of water resistance (the phone is only rated IP53), microSD support, and a slew of customer complaints rising up on the internet from issues with the camera, sound and stability. We encountered the issues of both lens flare (easier solved through a software tweak) and the audio distortion at high volume (which Google has reportedly fixed with the latest patch in February).
That said, the Pixel and Pixel XL remains great phones - possibly the best android phones in the market. In price-conscious India, it is though hard to the justify the very steep asking rate of Rs 57000 for the Pixel and Rs 67000 for the Pixel XL, other than for the android purists and the camera enthusiasts! We may have to wait a bit to see how the ecosystem evolves in India.