Pixel XL Review Googles New Phone is Not a Nexus Its Better

BY GreenBot Staff

Published 18 Oct 2016

Since the Nexus One led almost seven years ago, Google has been selling phones. In fact, there have been eight Nexus phones, one each year through to 2014, with two last year. They have generally been good phones, especially in the previous few years. But the Pixel XL is not a Nexus. It’s better. With the Pixel XL, it did more. It partnered with a phone maker to slap Android on an already-designed handset. It created hardware and software innovations on top of the Android stock. The result is a phone that may displease Android purists but should delight everyone else. This is Google’s first genuine attempt to push a phone to the mass market. The Pixel competes directly with the iPhone and the pricey flagships from Samsung. For this review, we’re looking only at the Pixel XL. The Pixel is smaller, with a 5-inch 1080p display, instead of the Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch 1440p display. The model’s smaller display and the Pixel’s smaller battery are the only differences.

Not a Nexus

Nexus phones are built in partnership with hardware partners like HTC, Motorola, and Samsung. Google would take a mainly developed cell phone and work a deal to make it the next Nexus. It would then ask for a few tweaks, slap on a few stock Android apps, then resell it. But with the two Pixel phones. Google says it has had its hand on the wheel from the beginning. With HTC acting as a mere contract manufacturer. This is a longer riskier process but allows working more tightly to integrate its services. Also, tune hardware and software together.

The Pixel XL comes with fast USB-C charger, with two cables, and a transfer dongle.

No Bloatware

The result is a phone that isn’t pure Android and is frankly better for it. A devotee that only wants another Nexus, with suitable hardware at an affordable price with stock Android. They will surely cry foul. But if you can get past the idea that dared to produce a premium phone. And showcase its own innovations in the same vein as Samsung or Motorola. You’ll probably love the Pixel. The market is awash with quality Android phones in the $300 to $400 range. So it doesn’t need to push in that direction. Instead, it needs to move the premium market away from bloatware delayed updates.
Think about it. You can get another super-premium, $600-plus Android phone. To suffer a litany of pre-installed apps from both the phone maker and carrier. Usually, these apps can’t be uninstalled, only disabled. It’s absurd!

With Pixel XL, direct-sells a phone that works on any carrier and is free of all that cruft. You can also get it exclusively through Verizon in the U.S. The Verizon version is sold at Best Buy too. This version only installs three Verizon apps from the Play Store. When you activate the SIM: Go90, Verizon Messages, and My Verizon. All three can be fully uninstalled, just like any other app. All Pixel phones, even Verizon’s, will get Android updates simultaneously. The Verizon version is even sold carrier-unlocked out of the gate, so you can jump ship if you want.

Smart Software Improvements

The Pixel XL didn’t come with stock Android. If it did, it would have shipped with Android 7.0 instead of 7.1. Because 7.1 wasn’t ready for general release yet. So if you buy a Pixel XL, you get Android 7.1 ahead of the rest of the world. At this point, the release included a host of improvements. Like shortcuts when you long-press on app icons. Similar to 3D Touch on iPhones. With seamless system updates, and a Night Light mode to reduce blue light from the display late at night.

Android 7.1 included improvements like app shortcuts and Night Mode.

A First

Some might argue that Pixel is playing games with the market. Giving itself an artificial 7.1 head start to sell more phones. But Google’s motivations are probably much more practical. That it’s just more accessible to squash bugs. And optimize an Android release on a single phone instead of a litany of devices. This Nougat point release might be ready on the Pixel XL; that’s what it’s handling first.
As all other Android phone makers do, as Google avoided doing with the Nexus phones. The Pixel XL gets its own system tweaks. The Pixel launcher removes the App Drawer button on the home row. Now a fifth app shortcut can appear instead. Just swipe up on the home row to see all your apps.
The Pixel XL launcher also ditches the big, full-width search bar. Instead, you’ll see a svelte button on the left and a weather, temperature, and date widget on the right. The launcher also uses the new circular icons introduced in Android 7.1. It makes for a nice visual consistency, but app developers must update their apps to make circular icons available. Right now, you’ll find a mix of circles and squares.

The Pixel XL doesn’t use the stock Android launcher, nor its sounds, ringtones, or wallpapers.

The Little Bits will go Far

You’ll notice little tweak changes throughout the OS as you poke around. The ringtones notification sounds are new and unique to the Pixel XL. There’s also a set of the most amazing live wallpapers I’ve ever seen. Thoughtful detail is everywhere, from the little management clips on the USB cables in the box. The quick transfer adapter makes it easy to get everything off your old phone. From messages, contacts, photos, music, and even some of your device settings app data. It even works with iPhones!

Thoughtful little touches like these cable management clips are what we expect from high-priced premium phones.

Every day, one of our top five most viewed articles is How to get everything off your old Android phone onto your new one. This process is severe pain in the butt for phone buyers. That Google understands this and has a simple, straightforward solution included with every Pixel phone. This says a lot about its desire to make this phone a success. And it’s just one more example of how this isn’t just another Nexus.

Phone Support

Here’s something else no Nexus ever had, built-in support. Swipe the Settings screen to the right to get 24/7 Pixel support by phone or chat. You can even share your screen with the support rep during phone calls. No Genius Bar appointment is necessary.

Google recognizes that getting your stuff onto a new phone is a drag, so it includes this transfer dongle.

Suppose there’s one annoyance I wish Google would immediately fix with a software update. In that case, it’s the Pixel’s limited wake-up options. The Ambient Display feature on the Nexus 6 will wake the display. When you receive notifications or pick up the phone. On the Pixel, it only wakes when you get reports. There’s no double tap to wake function, either. You have to press the power button or unlock the phone with the fingerprint sensor to revive it. Which is a chore when you only want to check the time.

Looks Good on the Outside too

There are only a few ways to design a rectangular glass slab and metal around a touch display. The Pixel XL and Pixel X are reasonably attractive, premium-feeling phones. The only genuinely distinctive design element is the glossy area on the top third of the phone’s back.

Well placed buttons with a good feel, often go unappreciated.

Easy to Reach Buttons

The buttons are well-placed and easy to reach on the right side. You’ll find a headphone jack in the upper left, I’d prefer it on the bottom. But at least it hasn’t yet jumped on the no more headphone jacks bandwagon. It’s probably inevitable, but it simply feels too soon. When you look at the bottom of the phone, there are two speaker holes. One on each side of the USB-C port. But you don’t get stereo sound. Sound appears to come only from the left hole; the other looks just there to maintain symmetry.

There are two speaker holes, but sound only comes from one.

Build Quality

It’s a well-built phone with tight tolerances along seams with no flex or bend. The metal frame conducts heat and can get warm when you’re charging or making the processor sweat. But not more so than most metal phones. The front face is covered by a single edge-to-edge sheet of Gorilla Glass 4, giving it a very smooth feel. And speaking of smooth, there’s no camera bump on the back, a rarity in today’s high-end phones. The Pixel XL is great for those who use their phone while resting on a desk. But if you put a case on your phone, it’s a moot point.
The quad HD Super AMOLED display on the Pixel XL is gorgeous. Google claims its wide color gamut covers 91 percent of the Adobe RGB color range. You can really see the richness of colors. It’s bright and easy to see outdoors. Although it doesn’t get quite as crazy-bright in direct sunlight as the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge.

There’s no camera bump. But that’s just a nice way of saying the phone is thick enough not to need one.

Minor Picks

If I wanted to nitpick, I’d say that the chin. The area below the display, is more significant than it needs to be. Google prefers on-screen buttons to capacitive touch buttons. But there’s plenty of room on that chin for your back, home, and the recent button. Why not give us the option of on-screen or touch buttons? Either do that or shorten the chin.
Still, prominent chin all, the Pixel XL is a smaller phone than the iPhone 7 Plus. Which also has a 5.5-inch display, of course, smaller than the Nexus 6 with its 5.7-inch display. It’s slightly thicker than either one but doesn’t feel notably bulky in the palm of the hand.

The Pixel XL is a big phone. But not as big as the iPhone 7 Plus or Nexus 6 Image courtesy of one Arena’s comparison tool.

Design Trends

The only place it didn’t keep up with modern design trends is failing to make the Pixel XL waterproof. I don’t need to go SCUBA diving with my phone. But I’d like it to survive a dunk in the sink. It’s not as if the Pixel will melt if you get caught in the rain. But it needs to follow suit with Samsung and Apple shipping comparably-priced waterproof phones. It’s one of those rare checkbox features that really could save someone hundreds of dollars.

Assistant is Here to Help

Google has had an assistant for a long time in the form of Now voice commands. The scope of voice commands and queries has become quite impressive. My personal experience is that it is in another league compared to Siri Cortana.

The Google Assistant was introduced in the Allo chat app some time ago. Still, it takes Now and makes it more conversational. After making a query or giving a command, you’ll get a list of suggested follow-up questions. Google seems to consider it a turning point in our AI-assisted future. I think it is an upgrade to the already fantastic Now voice features.

The Assistant does everything in Now and can do more, including audio, and trivia games and subscriptions. Say good morning it reads you a customizable daily digest.

Get Answers

Still, it’s so much better than Cortana or Siri. Putting it front and center on the Pixel phones makes sense. No matter what you’re doing, hold the home button or say OK. The Assistant pops up, listening for your question or command. Ask it to send a text, set the alarm, or show you good sushi restaurants nearby. Then get directions, make reservations, or check the weather, all the many varied things you could do with Now. Including device control, turning the volume up, or turning on airplane mode.

Google has added some fun games like trivia and vocabulary quizzes. Still, Assistant is just a souped-up Now at its heart. That’s not to knock it, because Now has become advantageous. That’s to say that if you’re familiar with all you could do with your voice in Now. You’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Notice anything missing? If you said text input, you win!

Unfortunately, the Assistant was baked into the Pixel is a voice-only affair. After speaking to the Assistant, you can tap on suggested follow-up queries. Still, you can’t simply type a question as you did within the Allo app. And those emoji-based games in Allos Assistant are out the window, too. This is a real oversight. I don’t want to talk with my phone though I’m crazy, at the gym or on the bus. Let users swipe a microphone icon to either side to get a text entry box. You can always launch Allo and type to the Assistant, which defeats the purpose of making Assistant a system-wide feature.

The Best Camera Ever?

Google makes a big deal of the fact that DxO has given the Pixel camera a rating of 89, its highest score ever for a phone; the iPhone 7 scored 86. Still, the iPhone 7 Plus needs to be reviewed. Is it really the best camera ever? That’s tricky to answer. The 12-megapixel rear camera uses a top-of-the-line Sony IMX 378 sensor with big 1.55 micron pixels has an f/2.0 aperture lens. The photos it takes, particularly with auto-HDR enabled, are the best I’ve seen from any smartphone.

They rival the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7. Sometimes the Pixel shot is better, and other times it’s one of the other guys. But it’s usually a close call. The Pixel XL excels in low light, with natural colors and good detail compared to most phones. Good outdoor light, color balance, detail, and exposure are spot on. No phone camera will compete with the dynamic range, focus, and adjustable aperture of a DS. Still, the Pixel XL beats most cheap compact point-and-shoot cameras.

In this challenging shot, the only light is from the grow lamp. Neither phone has the necessary dynamic range, but the Pixel XL has better detail color.

But the final photo quality isn’t all that matters. The photo-taking experience is defined by the design and function of the camera app and the speed. At which you can go from pocket-to-photo without missing a moment. Remember when I said the Pixel XL allows tying hardware and software together? The camera is a good example.

In bright environments, the Pixel XL edges out its competitors for detail, clarity, and dynamic range.

Brighter Pictures Inside

Google has gone beyond the works on all the phone’s capabilities in the stock Android camera app. It now better uses the powerful ISP (image signal processor) in the Snapdragon 821 chip. As a result, its HDR-Auto is now high-speed. With almost no shutter lag, image tone and balance are greatly improved. The burst feature is crazy fast, too. You can shoot video up to 4K at 30fps. The excellent slow-motion mode gives you 1080p at 120fps or 720p at 240fps.

Obligatory black cat in low light comparison. No phone nails this test. But notice how the Nexus 6 has a pinkish hue. With the iPhone 7 blows out the light areas of the bedding.

While there’s no optical image stabilization (OIS). The Pixel XL has a very sensitive, fast gyroscope accelerometer. Which is also helpful for VR. It samples 200 times a second to perform next-level electronic image stabilization. Like a true camera nerd. I was ready to hate it and proclaim OIS the only natural way to stabilize photos and videos. But after trying it out, I’m really quite impressed. I’d still like to see OIS in tandem with fancy electronic stabilization in the inevitable Pixel 2. But I don’t think most users will miss it here.
Just look at the following example. I walked forward a few steps, holding the phone in front of me. Android’s fancy new video stabilization isn’t perfect, but when it works well, it’s freaky.

The camera app still needs a little work. While it is simple and intuitive, it lacks features for power users. At the very least, we deserve a Pro mode that gives us manual control. Over the white balance, focus, ISO, and shutter speed. Still, the app launches faster than it ever did on a Nexus phone. Shutter lag is almost completely eliminated, and shot-to-shot speed has improved vastly. The photo-taking experience is now a delight, while Nexus phones always felt bogged down in molasses.
It’s hard to claim that the Pixel XL has the best camera of all time. But it is, at the very least, among the best, together with the iPhone 7, HTC 10, and Galaxy S7. And the Pixel phones have one feature none of those others can touch. Free, full-resolution backup to photos of every photo and video you take. No downsizing or recompression, even for the 4K video. Combined with Google’s impressive AI-assisted photo search, it’s a real game-changer.

Really Fast and not Just Benchmark Fast

As you would expect from phones this expensive, the Pixels XL has high-end hardware. They’re among the first to ship with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, a slightly faster version of the 820. They’ve got 4GB of RAM and either 32 or 128 GB of storage. The Pixel and Pixel XL differ in two ways. The Pixel has a 5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display and a 2770 mAh battery. The XL with a 5.5-inch 1440p display and a 3450 mAh battery. That may impact battery life. We’ll test the smaller Pixel independently to see how much difference there is in longevity, if any. But they should otherwise perform identically.
Interestingly, Google states the clock speed of its Core is 2.15GHz. It’s lower than the Qualcomm 2.4GHz official spec for the Snapdragon 821. It may be backing off the throttle a touch to conserve battery life.
Regardless, the Pixel XL is fast. In benchmarks, the Pixel XL delivers results roughly equal to most other expensive flagship Android phones. It’s a good deal more rapidly than the Nexus 6, especially regarding 3D graphics.

Thanks in part to a much faster G, the Pixel XL crushes the Nexus 6 in some benchmarks.

But benchmarks aren’t what matters most. Android fans often complain about phones, especially Samsung’s. That leads to benchmark charts, but they still seem to stutter, chop, and sputter when you use them. The Pixel XL does none of that. At every turn, it is smooth, fast, and, most of all, responsive. Google says it has dramatically improved the touch latency. The tiny sliver of time between when you touch or move your finger on the screen, the system responds. Indeed, this may be the smoothest, most responsive Android phone I’ve ever used.

In general app benchmarks, the pixel XL is roughly comparable to other top-tier Android phones.

The iPhone feels faster than Android phones. Because touch latency is so low, the screen update time is so consistent. You feel like you’re directly dragging, swiping, and pinching the items on the screen. The interface sticks to your finger rather than lagging behind it. The Pixel XL is the first Android phone I’ve used that consistently gives me that feeling.
Only time will tell if this performance holds up over time or if, as with many other Android phones. Will it feel slower after six months of everyday use? The Pixel may not be the absolute fastest Android phone on the market. But it sure feels like it is. There’s that software and hardware synergy thing again.

Battery benchmarks show the Pixel XL to last a long time, but it’s not the longest we’ve seen. Note that this new version is not comparable to the old one.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Pixel XL is good but needs to be industry-leading. Those smaller, mid-range phones with big batteries, less powerful processors, and lower-resolution displays, like the Moto Z Play, last a lot longer. But among high-end superphones, the Pixel XL avails itself well. Typically, all networking features are turned on at mid-brightness with auto-brightness enabled. I got about 5 and a half hours of screen-on time. And many more hours of standby before ending the day with a critically low battery. That’s doing a little bit of everything; catching Pokemon, browsing Twitter and Reddit, reading on the web. Even using the Assistant, and taking photos.

With the phone unplugged on standby overnight, the battery lost about 12 percent of its charge. It’s not the slowest standby drain I’ve ever seen, but I had everything enabled. Always listening for OK, all wireless radios, you name it. As with many expensive phones, you’ll get through the day with average or heavy use. Especially since lots of gaming will make you find a plug by mid-afternoon.

To that end, the charging speed with the included USB-C charger is fantastic. Google claims a 15-minute charge will give you 7 hours of mixed-use. I’m not sure what that means in real-world terms. But a 15-minute charge took me from 6 percent to 24 percent. And another 15 minutes got me up to 40 percent. Like all phones, the charging speed slows as the battery gets full. But a full charge will take about an hour and a half. That’s fast.

VR Coming

A central selling point of the Pixel phones is sure to be Google’s Daydream VR platform. Unfortunately, Daydream View headsets weren’t due for another month after, so I wasn’t able to thoroughly test them out.

But I recently spent some hands-on time with Daydream VR and was impressed. It compares favorably to Samsung Oculus Gear VR. Which is by far the best phone-based VR experience you can get today. The variety of content will take some time to catch up. But the overall visual quality is about on par with Gear VR. The Daydream View headset is more comfortable. Daydream’s motion-tracking is an excellent way to interact with the virtual environment.

It’s a $79 item, free as a preorder bonus while supplies last. It will probably be a worthwhile purchase for every Pixel owner. Definitely worth mentioning as a reason to own the phone. Other Daydream-ready phones will hit the market soon after Android 7.1’s general release.

The Pixel Push Deserves to Succeed

Some see the Pixel as a simple re-bring of Nexus. A way to charge a premium price for something that should have been less expensive. I beg to differ. Pixel’s software isn’t drastically different from the stock Android, but thoughtful improvements are apparent. More importantly, this feels like a better-optimized synergy between hardware and software than before.
There are good reasons to root for in its attempt to make Pixel a mainstream luxury phone brand. Not the least of which is that this is the only high-end, premium phone you can buy at retail. It doesn’t come loaded with uninstallable bloatware, doesn’t have carrier-disabled features, and isn’t locked. And won’t wait for months to get Android OS updates. In fact, Pixel buyers are getting Android 7.1 before it’s officially released to the rest of the world.
Android needs this. It requires a prominent manufacturer to flex its muscle and say, no more. No more carriers delaying updates. And Don’t force scores of unwanted apps on us that we can’t delete. Get rid of the heavily skinned interfaces that don’t look or act the way Android should. There’s still plenty of room to innovate and money to be made without all that stuff.

There only room for a SIM card, no SD storage expansion. Though with free full-resolution photo and video backup, you may not need it.

Yes, the Pixel XL has its warts. I could have wished for stereo sound or waterproofing. It needs a software update to add a lift to wake capability, preferably double-tap to wake as well. There’s no option to add storage via an SD card and no wireless charging. Although I would argue that free full-res photo video backup and excellent fast charging make those less necessary.

You can get a longer list of features in a phone like the Galaxy S7 Edge. Or unique innovations like the snap-on mods of the Moto Z. Still, those other premium phones also carry compromises. The Pixel phones do not like cluttered custom interfaces, messy bloatware, delayed updates, or missing headphone jacks.

Google’s Pixel deserves to be a success story. And not just because we all have a vested interest. A no more crap phone is setting a new standard for Android phones. It should succeed because it’s a great phone, worthy of its place among other pricey premium handsets. It has an excellent design, outstanding build quality, good battery life, and fantastic responsiveness. The thoughtful features like the easy transfer tool and built-in live support with screen sharing.

The Pixel XL isn’t a slam dunk that suddenly makes all other premium Android phones obsolete. But if you want a high-end phone, it deserves to be on your shortlist. And if you’re sick of bloatware, heavily customized interfaces, and delayed OS updates, there’s no other choice.