Review: Google Pixel and Pixel XL

Highlight - A world class camera, 24/7 support and unlimited backup are just the start of what makes the Pixel amazing.

As the world watches an unprecedented recall and product scrapping from its biggest electronics and smartphone manufacturer, Google has been quietly readying a Trojan horse that might just be the answer to many people's questions of where to go next. For over six years now Google has run its Nexus program, selecting a different manufacturer mostly each year to build a phone that was meant to be sort of a reference device for manufacturers going forward. Now with the Nexus program officially gone, Google is looking toward an alternate future for itself, one that involves its own designs and manufacturing instead of outsourcing most of it to someone else. Do the Pixel and Pixel XL stand as a cut above the rest instead of a reference design as we've seen in Nexus phones of yore? Let's take a look!

Specs

Many Nexus phones have been generally sold well under regular flagship levels of pricing, but those sort of expectations should be left at the door when considering a Google Pixel. Falling right in line with most flagship devices out there, the Google Pixel's retail price begins at $649.99 for the model with 32GB internal storage and a 5-inch 1080p AMOLED screen. For $100 more ($749.99) you can bump that up to 128GB of internal storage as well. $769.99 will get you the Pixel XL, which features a 5.5-inch quad-HD AMOLED screen and 32GB of RAM. Just as with its smaller brother, $100 more ($869) will get you the Pixel XL with 128GB internal storage. The smaller Pixel features a 2,770mAh non-removable battery, while the larger Pixel XL contains a subsequently larger 3,450mAh non-removable battery.

Aside from the screen size and resolution, both Pixel models feature identical specs in every other respect. Sporting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 2.15GHz quad-core processor, an Adreno 530 GPU and 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, the Pixel team is made to shine in every area of performance. Each Pixel's screen is covered in Gorilla Glass 4, and an 8-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX179 sensor sits above the screen to take some ultra high quality selfies. On the back you'll find a 12.3-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX378 sensor with 1.55-micron sized pixels and Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) aboard. That Snapdragon 821 SoC also sports a brand new X12 LTE modem inside and comes unlocked straight from Google, meaning you'll have some of the widest support for worldwide LTE spectrum out of the box.

Both phones ship with Android 7.1 Nougat aboard as well as some custom software by the Pixel team, and you'll be able to get the device in one of three colors: Quite Black, Really Blue and Very Silver. As of this writing the Really Blue color had completely sold out in 24 hours of the pre-order opening, and with Google saying this was a limited edition color there's no telling how difficult it will be to net one of these in the future. The smaller Google Pixel measures in at 143.8mm high by 69.5mm wide by 8.6mm thick, and weighs a less than average 143 grams. The larger Pixel XL is a bit larger, clocking in at 154.7mm high by 75.7mm wide by 8.6mm thick, and weighs a slightly above average 168 grams.

In The Box

Google knows you need more than just a phone and a charger, and they’ve included a little bit more than usual in the Pixel box for its users. Underneath the phone you’ll find a pair of USB cables, one of which carries a USB Type-C to USB Type-C connection, while the other is a USB Type-C to USB Type-A connection.  A transfer dongle is here for easy data transfer from your previous phone, and there’s also a super fast 5v/3a 15W wall charger as well. A set of manuals will guide you through the steps needed to setup the phone and transfer your data, as well as a walk through Google Assistant and all the things it can do. Lastly you’ll also find a SIM tray eject tool for dropping that SIM card right into your new Pixel.

Display

No matter if you choose the larger Pixel XL or the smaller Pixel, you’re getting a super high quality Super AMOLED display that will easily rival the best of the best out there. At 440PPI the 1080p 5-inch display on the smaller Pixel is extremely sharp to say the least, but the 534PPI on the Pixel XL’s Quad-HD display is definitely superior, especially when taking VR into account. As an AMOLED display you should expect perfect black levels, as it can turn off individual pixels to deliver those true black colors, and as such the contrast efficiency on this display is incredibly high as well. Since individual pixels are closed off there's no light bleed between the pixels, and since individual pixels are lit there's no light bleed from a backlight as can be seen on IPS LCD displays.

Colors are gorgeous and vibrant out of the box, but sRGB mode can be enabled from developer settings if you prefer a more natural color palette. On default mode the white balance is a tad cool, leaving whites just a bit more blue than they naturally are, and when sRGB mode is enabled you'll find that balance shifts to a warmer color palette instead. Google has built a Night Light mode into Android 7.1 Nougat that will automatically adjust the hue of the screen and removes blue light from the display. This is done to help you sleep better if you're a person that usually stays on their phone until their last waking moment and has a number of studies to back up its efficacy.

Refresh rate of the display is phenomenal and appears to be quite a bit better than last year's Nexus 6P's AMOLED display, with no obvious ghosting of any kind when moving high contrast objects across the screen. Google appears to also have procured an AMOLED panel that doesn't have a slow rate of turning each pixel on or off, a problem that's showed up in many generations of AMOLED panels when moving from dark gray to black, resulting in a very slight purple color that's noticeable on some AMOLED displays during these scenarios. Lastly of course is brightness, and Google has absolutely nailed this portion of the display this year, unlike with the Nexus 6P's somewhat dim display. The Pixel is ultra easy to see in direct sunlight, and any other bright conditions for that matter, as well as getting super dim without that nasty pinkish color shift we've seen on other AMOLED panels on the market too. This one definitely ties with Samsung's displays on the Galaxy S7 in most regards, and that's something truly impressive.

Hardware and Build

Design of the Pixel is going to be one of the most controversial parts of the phone in many ways, maybe even the most controversial. There's no denying the iPhone influence of the design, and you'd likely be hard pressed to tell the difference between Apple and Google's latest devices from the front from an initial glance. Everything from the large chin at the bottom underneath the screen to the more rounded corners of the device screams iPhone, but thankfully that's where most of the similarities end.  It's this chin on the front that paints one of the most perplexing parts of the Pixel's design, and it feels like HTC simply recycled the HTC 10's front plate for the Pixel and called it a day.

Having such a large chin below the display is generally reserved for phones with something there to serve a purpose; a fingerprint reader, home button or a speaker as we saw on the previous two generations of flagship Nexus devices. Instead all you're left with is an ugly blank space that serves only as a bumper to grab the phone or a buffer to push the screen up into arguably more comfortable typing territory. Either way it feels like more of a waste of space than anything else, and is disappointing to say the least. Also disappointing is the complete lack of front-facing stereo speakers as Google has made a point to add to the two previous generations of Nexus devices, something we'll cover in the Sound section below.

On the bottom of the phone you'll find a single speaker on the left, USB Type-C port in the middle, and a faux speaker grille on the right. Above the screen is the front-facing camera, earpiece and sensors, while the top of the device only houses a 3.5mm audio jack. On the right you'll find a beautifully textured metal power button, with the volume rocker placed below and just above the center point of the phone, while the left side of the device holds only the single-SIM card tray. These sides meet flatly with the display on top and feel more like a disjointed unibody design rather than the seamless fused metal and glass bodies of the Samsung Galaxy phones, while they taper into the back with a slight curve along the metal frame.

It's this back that's easily the most unique looking part of the phone, and one that'll certainly get some attention as you hold it. Google has designed a phone with a metal unibody chassis, yet the top 30% of the back holds a glass plate. Inside this glass plate you'll find the rear-facing fingerprint scanner in the same general location we've come to expect from many Android phones on the market, while the top left holds the camera sensor and lens, dual-LED flash and an array of sensors and microphones. Google has also changed up the antenna design from the Nexus 6P and that antenna can now be found both in this glass plate, alongside the NFC chip, as well as the antenna lines near the top and bottom of the phone on the back.

Quality of the build itself is nothing short of phenomenal, and feels as high quality as they come in every way. Overall it feels a slight notch above the Nexus 6P in terms of build quality, and both phones are lighter as well, with the 5-inch Pixel being significantly lighter. Both phones are smaller than their respective 2015 Google devices, but mainly due to the screens physically being smaller rather than more efficient bezels or a curved screen. What’s not phenomenal of course, and is rather a disappointment considering the strides made towards water-resistant builds this year, is a lack of truly water-resistant build on either Pixel phone. Given that even Apple has now made the iPhone water-resistant, and the Pixel also features a sealed design with non-removable components, there’s little excuse to not have this done by now.  While it may not be something every user needs, it’s quickly becoming a necessity for many folks, and this with a lack of microSD card support will definitely kill the Pixel as a choice for many.

Performance and Memory

Every year we see an obvious increase in performance of mobile devices, but last year’s release of the Snapdragon 810 saw a step back in many ways because of a big architecture change. This year the Snapdragon 820 SoC brought back the performance crown for Qualcomm, and the Snapdragon 821 SoC inside the Google Pixel phones brings that up just a notch. Featuring some tweaked performance measures, a new LTE modem with wider band support and faster speeds, as well as a couple of other under-the-hood type changes, Google has also developed some custom silicon meant to speed up the everyday processing performance of its device, and it definitely shows in the Pixel. While last year’s Nexus devices can tend to chug a bit in the performance department, especially once thermal throttling kicks in, this year’s Pixel phones don’t seem to do any such thing, no matter how hard you push them.

What’s particularly impressive about these performance improvements are just how fast apps launch. This includes both initial app launch, which is definitely quicker than many other phones on the market, as well as navigating back to apps after they’ve been sent to the background. In fact if you press the Overview multi-tasking button next to the home button, you’ll find that you can scroll through the list of apps, click one at random and find the app immediately on the screen.  Even if the app was actually closed due to RAM management or some other reason, the app launches in a fraction of a second and easily beats out most phones on the market, Android or not. Google’s new memory management within Android 7.1 Nougat is the best we’ve ever seen on any Android-powered phone, and is able to store paused copies of apps in RAM for immediate access, all while utilizing that deep sleep Doze mode found within Nougat for battery saving.

VR Performance

One of the biggest changes being touted in both the Snapdragon 821 SoC and the Pixel phones themselves are the VR capabilities. These phones aren't the first certified VR phones in Google's new Daydream program, that honor goes to last year's Nexus 6P, but these new Pixel phones were designed to offer a significantly better VR experience than that, or seemingly any other phone on the market can. That includes not just key performance improvements that drastically needed to be done on the mobile side of the spectrum, but also via a new interface that allows users to interact with the phone in a VR world. Of course most of these improvements require the new Daydream View headset to take advantage of them, which means those segments of VR functionality will reside specifically in the review of the Daydream View headset itself rather than the Pixel.

Those utilizing any of the dozens of different VR headsets on the market will simply be relegated to the old Google Cardboard setup, which means a single universal barcode scan for the headset you’re using, and of course opening apps individually and dealing with a completely non-standard way of starting each app or game.  The new VR enhanced mode still seems to function OK even with an inferior VR viewer and interface though, meaning you’ll still be getting better performance out of the Pixel’s VR experience regardless of the viewer you’re using. One of the most positive points of the experience is the display, which features a brand new VR mode that lowers the latency of the pixels to deliver an incredibly crisp and clean image. In addition to this the phone enters VR performance mode to deliver more consistent results at the expense of battery life, something that you’re likely not too worried about anyway if you’re sitting somewhere comfortable and experiencing VR content, like your home. Overall this is a great improvement to mobile VR but one that requires the Daydream View headset to fully experience everything Google intended.

Benchmarks

What's most surprising about the Pixel are the benchmark results. What we see are general benchmarks coming in at just under the performance of Snapdragon 820-powered devices, but compute performance far exceeding these devices by effectively double. This shows some significant enhancements to the chipset on board, including elements that are important to a good VR experience. Check out all the benchmarks we ran below.

Wireless Connectivity

Much like last year’s Nexus phones, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL support an incredibly wide range of spectrum that should essentially cover every carrier you can think of worldwide. This even includes the notoriously difficult to work with US carriers, and dropping an AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon SIM card in the phone requires no special setup or anything of the sort in order to play nice with each carrier’s custom spectrum. T-Mobile and Verizon WiFi calling are also supported out of the box, giving you a hassle-free way of getting to that wireless network for calls and texts in places that you might have WiFi connectivity but no cell signal.

The new antenna design works incredibly well too, and on average I saw a 1-2 bar increase in signal strength in the same places as the Nexus 6P, especially in spots that I traditionally have difficulty with signal strength (like in the middle of a large building).  You’ll also find a bevy of support for other wireless protocols as well. Dual-band WiFi 802.11 2.4GHz and 5GHz up to ac speeds are available, and you’ll also find Bluetooth 4.2 support out of the box.  There’s of course an NFC chip located in the glass plate on the back of the phone.

Battery Life

One of the improvements that Google cited when including custom silicon on the SoC was better battery life. It seems like every new OS release and every new phone talks about better battery life, improvements to applications running in the background, and other things, but rarely do we see a phone meet or exceed expectations without dire consequences to user experience. Google seems to have improved battery life without these consequences on the Pixel, at least when compared to last year’s Nexus phones, but we seem to have had the same feelings last year when Google launched the Nexus 5X and 6P.  Time will certainly tell if these battery improvements last, but as it stands it was easy as can be to get a full day’s usage, and then some, out of the Pixel. Google’s Pixel XL ships with a larger battery than the smaller Pixel by 680mAh, a number that’s going to be felt in everyday use.

Seeing as how the screen on the Pixel XL is only 10% larger than the pixel, yet the battery is just over 20% larger, you’re definitely going to experience the best battery life of the pair on the Pixel XL. No matter what I did in an ordinary day I couldn’t kill the Pixel, and on average I ended my day with around 40% battery left, a feat that I haven’t seen on any phone this year. At this point in time essentially all flagship devices will get you through a full day of heavy use, but Google, like other OEMs, recognizes that there will be those crazy days that you’re stuck somewhere with no signal, or busy staring at your phone for hours while waiting in an airport, and will need a top-up. As such Google has included the same ultra fast charging from last year’s Nexus devices via a 15W USB Type-C charger, and will work with any 3v/5a USB Type-C to Type-C charger/cable combination out there. Choetech’s TC42C multi-device charger worked perfectly for this functionality just as the charger in the box does, and will charge your phone 50% in about half an hour, with a full charge taking just over an hour and 15 minutes.

Sound

Google has long provided some excellent, albeit basic, audio hardware in their smartphones for years now. Google’s Pixel has upped the ante quite a bit by now offering 24-bit 192KHz audio playback via the 3.5mm audio jack up top. The new DAC on the Pixel provides audio that’s just as balanced and high quality as the audio from the 2015 Nexus devices, of course now with higher bit rate support. What hasn’t changed though, unfortunately is the Bluetooth audio quality, since the Pixel only streams via Bluetooth 4.2 in regular Bluetooth quality. Folks who have gotten used to the considerably higher quality aptX Bluetooth codec via supported headphones and speakers will be nothing but disappointed here, not to mention those looking to upgrade to aptX-HD in the near future.

There should be front-facing speakers here

Many were shocked when Google announced a brand new phone without stereo front-facing speakers, a hallmark of the Nexus line of phones for the past two generations, as well as countless phones from the likes of Motorola, HTC and Sony to name a few. What's impressive is that the single bottom-firing speaker actually seems to output a quality of audio that is equal to last year's Nexus 6P, and maybe even a little bit better as it seems to be a better balanced speaker with a wider range of sound reproduction. It's also got some incredibly deep bass for such a small speaker, and while it won't be rattling glass any time soon it's definitely something that's going to replace a Bluetooth speaker for some folks.

It's really just a shame that Google didn't see fit to put this on the front of the phone, even if they only kept a single speaker. Placement means a lot, and having to cup the phone to get better sound isn't just annoying, it's wholly unnecessary given what we've seen on plenty of other devices, Google's included. Stereo speakers are also a must, especially when we've had it for multiple generations and have to go back to a single bottom-facing speaker. Moving from this device back to the Nexus 6P shows just how different of a league devices with front-facing speakers can be in, and folks moving from one of those devices to the Pixel will likely find themselves disappointed.

Sound design on the phone is really something special, with brand new notification sounds, ringtones and alarms that all feel very specifically designed for the phone. From the deep knocking sound of taps on the screen to the inventive and imaginative alarms that wake you up in the morning, you'll constantly find yourself cracking a smile while the speaker emits the love that Google clearly put into this device. This isn't something you necessarily think about when purchasing a new phone, and it's likely something many take for granted, but hearing these definitely makes the phone feel special, and it's a wonderful touch that helps make the Pixel feel like an ultra premium device.

Software

The Pixel and Pixel XL mark the first time Google itself is actually forking Android a bit. In the past, Nexus devices have served as a showpiece for AOSP, or the Android Open Source Project. They have featured completely unaltered versions of stock Android, and as such could be considered pretty bare at times, or if you’re looking at it from a more positive perspective, ripe for modifying and ROMing. Google is looking to change that mindset with the Pixel, and has not only launched the Pixel and Pixel XL with Android 7.1 Nougat before any other device receives the update, but has also added quite a few new features that add significant value to the Android experience.

Support and Google Assistant

One of the most meaningful additions, and exclusive features to the Pixel and Pixel XL, is the live support team dedicated to US-based Pixel owners. There's no official word of this moving worldwide just yet, but it would be very surprising for Google not to be considering this in the near future. Support is easily accessible by heading to system settings and then swiping over to the support tab. Phone and chat support is available 24/7 for Pixel customers, and Google support is able to help users with a wide variety of topics, including but not limited to things like help with every day tasks, finding options or apps, and even with device troubleshooting and warranty support. This type of immediate support is an obvious play at getting brand recognition up and into the realm of Apple's support lines, giving users instant access to any of their questions with a live human being when they need it. This is a massive plus for Google and something that most other OEMs just don't offer.

Second fiddle to a live human is of course a custom constructed AI that's designed to help you throughout the day no matter what you need. Google Assistant was announced at Google I/O back in May of this year, and debuted in a lite version within Google's new chat app, Allo. The full version of Google Assistant is making its debut with the Google Pixel, and it's something that's tied directly to a hardware feature found within the phone. For this reason it's not a simple update to Google Now, rather it's something that's likely going to be included on most, if not eventually all Android-powered phones in the future. Google Assistant is nothing short of genius, and it provides a way to interact with Google's ultra advanced Knowledge Graph and deep learning engines all in one neat little package.

Starting up Google Assistant is as easy as saying OK Google, or just by pressing and holding the home button for a second.  Just as before with Google Now, the OK Google command can be set to open up the Google Assistant no matter if the device is locked and the screen is off thanks to the trusted voice feature. Google Assistant starts absolutely instantly regardless of how it is invoked, and responds to commands absolutely instantly. This instantaneous response is a stark contrast to the often times delayed responses of Google Now, and especially Google Now on Tap as debuted with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. While those features were excellent for their time, Google Assistant is a step ahead in every way, shape and form, but it's not quite a finished product just yet. When asking Google Assistant questions it will often times address you by your own name, something that makes the experience considerably more personal than Google Now ever did.

Google Assistant is designed to bring a more personalized version of Google to your phone, but it's not quite ready to do things like read text messages or emails back to you. This is certainly a negative point given that other AI assistants have been able to do this for a while now, and doesn't quite go to the lengths to make the device as hands free as those do. Much like Google Now was designed, however, Google Assistant is more of a way to personally interact with Google and allow it to provide information relevant to your life and what you currently need to know. Everything you've come to expect from Google Now is here, just a whole lot faster and presented in a better way. Saying OK Google will always further the conversation along to your next question or response when Assistant pauses, and the extent to which it can do things is really only limited by your imagination.

For instance I told Google Assistant "I'm bored," which resulted in it asking me to play a game, participate in trivia or look up some interesting facts. These games all feel very natural and have you either select a response from a series of icons and tiles, or respond via voice. I was hard pressed to think of the Assistant as a machine and instead found myself marveling at just how perfect Google seems to have gotten the default female voice, dictating correctly and stringing together phrases and words as if I were talking to a real person. Folks who aren't looking to just poke around with an AI might be more interested in the Assistant's more personal assistant-like abilities, including one particularly interesting command: "What does my day look like?" This simple phrase results in the Assistant reading off your day's schedule, letting you know of the weather and what's going to happen on tomorrow's schedule, followed by a few minutes of news bits from various sources including Fox News, ABC, BBC and others. I was blown away with Assistant and can't wait to see what Google adds to this incredibly intelligent and useful AI in the future.

UX and Featureset

Google’s home screen launcher, which typically has been available to all Android-powered phones as the Google Now Launcher, is now a modified version exclusive to the Pixel. This new launcher, appropriately called Pixel Launcher, is more than a simple update to the Google Now Launcher as it includes some new core functionality that should intrigue you. Back in the early days of Android we used to commonly use the long press as a way to bring up more actions on items, sort of like right clicking on a computer with a mouse. This sort of experience went to the wayside as UIs simplified over the years, but now that Apple has introduced it to iOS via 3D Touch, Google seems to want to add it back in a new and more meaningful way.

In true Google fashion only some of the Google apps included with the phone support this new long-press function, but the ones that do support it provide new and interesting ways to interact with common tasks in apps.  For instance long pressing the camera icon will bring up two options: Take a Video or Take a Selfie. This will instantly launch the camera app in one of the two aforementioned modes, and you’ll find these shorts of modes on the dialer, which presents commonly dialed contacts, or Chrome which allows you to quickly open a new regular or incognito tab. Since this isn’t consistent across all apps it’s going to be difficult for some to get used to using it, but if it does get widely adopted this might be a neat way to add quick actions to apps instead of having to launch them first.

Google has also added a new wallpaper picker to the Pixel Launcher, and one that doesn’t simply add a new aesthetic factor to the experience. Live Earth provides some incredibly creative new wallpapers that move and provide more information for you throughout the day, such as the Horizon one where the sun sets depending on your battery level, or the Earth that rotates and displays live clouds and the sun’s position. Live data provides an abstract way to see the weather and time, while other categories display daily wallpapers based on different themes to give your phone a fresh look every single day of the year. These are significant new additions to the user experience and add great new, high quality ways to customize your phone.

While the Pixel doesn't feature microSD card support for expandable storage, it does come with unlimited photo backup via Google Photos in original quality. This means full 12-megapixel photos and full 4K videos will be backed up to Google Photos for free, for life, and it's all enabled by default too. This backup is actually a system function, not just a function of the Google Photos app, and can be found in system storage settings, hinting that more system-wide cloud backup might continue to come in the future. Google's WiFi Assistant makes a return here too, providing free VPN for those questionable open WiFi connections you might find while out in public.

Google has added to the list of quick gestures it started with last year's Nexus devices, and now has three useful gestures to make common tasks easier. Double tapping the power button launches the camera just as it did last year, but the jump to Android 7.0 Nougat removed the need to lock the device to launch the camera first. Once in the camera you can double twist the device to switch between front and rear facing cameras, which may or may not be more convenient for you depending on the situation at hand. A brand new function of the fingerprint scanner is something straight out of Huawei’s book: swipe up or down on it to expand or contract the notification shade. While it seems gimmicky at first, this new function is rather helpful for larger phones, as it prevents you from having to shift your thumb up to the top of the screen just to grab the shade.

Lastly Google is making it as easy as possible to get users to switch from any other phone or OS to Android via the new Pixel transfer switch. This small dongle attaches to the USB Type-C port at the bottom of the phone and has a plug for a regular USB Type-A cable so that you can connect any phone to the Pixel. The software functionality here will transfer everything from text messages and iMessages, emails, contacts, pictures and everything in-between. Phones that already have a USB Type-C port can connect straight with a USB Type-C cable without needing the dongle.

Camera Software

Last year Google made some major changes to its camera software that included a new interface and some brand new features. Just as last year’s software was, HDR+ is automatic and enabled by default, and swiping left or right moves between photo and video modes. The large white shutter button is flanked by a button to swap between front and rear cameras, as well as another button to view the gallery. Pulling out the menu on the left side reveals all the modes including Slow Motion, Panorama, Photo Sphere, Lens Blur and settings. Settings is a pretty light fare and basically has resolution options for photos and videos taken with both the front and rear-facing cameras, as well as options for video stabilization (which is enabled by default).

One massive new feature in both photo and video modes are the ability to manually set exposure levels. Pressing anywhere on the screen will gather the exposure from the specific spot, while pressing and holding will lock the exposure to that level no matter where you move or point the viewfinder.  After pressing to focus or change exposure you can slide up or down anywhere on the screen to change the exposure level from +2 to -2 of the automatic exposure level. There’s unfortunately no manual focus or manual shutter and ISO settings though, so folks looking for that sort of functionality will simply have to grab another camera app like Open Camera, which offers significant functionality enhancements in this way via the camera2 API.

Camera Performance and Results

Camera speed has always been something of a crux for Nexus devices. While Google solved the camera quality issue years ago with the advent of HDR+ on the Nexus 5, Google Camera was nothing but slow to launch, focus and eventually take the picture. To make matters worse last year’s devices were powered by chipsets that notoriously chugged after just a hint of a tough processing job, and would find the phone almost completely unusable after taking just a handful of HDR+ shots. The Google Pixel changes all that though, and it does so in style. Launching the camera takes 1 second flat on average, and maybe up to 2 seconds depending on what you were previously doing with the device.

Focusing is lightning fast, and although it isn’t quite as instantaneous as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 family, it’s much faster than every other phone we’ve tested this year, and is equally as accurate as the Galaxy S7 as well. What’s even more surprising are the massive strides made to HDR+ this year, and it’s this new auto HDR+ that’s actually the start of the show. You might remember Google bragging about how DXOMark, the industry standard in photo quality benchmarking, gave the Google Pixel the highest score of any phone ever made. DXOMark used this new auto HDR+ mode to run their tests, since that’s what’s enabled by default, and there’s a very good reason Google achieved such scores with this new mode.

As is expected nowadays, taking pictures in auto mode is absolutely instant. With a lightning fast focus speed there’s almost never a delay between pressing the shutter button and taking the picture, and that includes with this new HDR+ mode. If you’ve ever used a Nexus device with HDR+ mode on, you’ll know about the processing ring that appears after pressing the shutter that can take anywhere from a fraction of a second up to 2 full seconds to take the shot. During this time period multiple pictures are taken, and these are all stitched together via an incredibly intelligent algorithm Google developed long ago to electronically stabilize shots and bring the dynamic range considerably higher than the sensor could otherwise. Auto HDR+ mode is actually instantaneous this time around and takes no extra time at all to take the shot, with all the processing done in the background. Another positive is that this processing won’t slow the phone down a single iota, a far cry from what we saw on the Nexus 5X and 6P last year.

Auto HDR+ mode produces some truly stunning imagery, delivering well balanced shots with tons of dynamic range, incredibly vibrant yet true to life colors, and the best auto light balance ever. Zoom detail is as stunning as ever too, and you’d never know this was “only” a 12.3-megapixel sensor with the way you can zoom right into details far away and still make things out without issue. As a result of the incredibly intelligent HDR+ algorithm you’ll find that noise is eliminated in all but the darkest of situations, and even then it cleans up an unbelievable amount of noise without sacrificing actual detail in the scene. The only negative processing component here is the gamma, which still seems to be turned a notch or two down too far by the end of the shot. This can be adjusted in post without any negative effects, but it’s still something Google needs to fix.

Standard HDR+ mode will enhance the quality of shots even further too, especially in lower light environments, but that old processing ring returns with a slight processing delay while taking the shot in addition to extra processing in the background. The 8-megapixel front-facing camera is every bit as good as last year’s Nexus 6P, and should be considering it’s exactly the same sensor. It also supports the new auto HDR+ mode and you’ll be hard pressed to find any better selfie camera on the market because of the resolution and processing.

Video quality was something that people were seriously wondering about when Google announced the phone, especially considering the Pixel does not feature optical image stabilization (OIS). This industry standard method of placing the camera sensor on a set of gyro stabilizers physically keeps the sensor still while hand jitter and other movement is present. Google opted to keep this sort of mechanical solution out of the picture, and instead opt for a brand new electric image stabilization (EIS), and thus far in history it’s been shown that EIS simply isn’t as good as OIS. That is of course until now. Much like how HDR+ seems to work some incredible magic on picture quality, Google’s EIS algorithm does an absolutely bang up job on image stabilization during video taking, and you’d be hard pressed to think this isn’t optically stabilized video, even during the most energetic of filming sessions. Quality of the image is all there too; 4K60FPS video all the way to 720p240FPS video and everything in-between is possible. Excellent dynamic range, incredible colors, amazing white balance and everything else that makes photo mode on the Pixel great has made its way to video mode as well. But don’t just take our word for it, see all the samples we took during the review period at the gallery below!

The Good

Incredibly high quality build

Fast, fast, fast

Great battery life

Industry-leading AMOLED screen

Big step for mobile VR

Best of the best camera

Ultra high quality 24-bit audio output

3.5mm audio jack

Easy transfer utility

24/7 phone or chat support with Google

Unlimited full-sized photo and video cloud backup

Google Assistant is an amazing advancement from Google Now

Bands that should work anywhere in the world and with any carrier

The Bad

Styling might be too close to an iPhone for some

Single bottom-facing speaker

No microSD card support

Verizon carrier sale exclusivity in the US

Not water-resistant

Conclusion

At this point it’s much harder to argue against buying Google’s Pixel or Pixel XL than it is arguing against such a purchase. At this price it’s definitely going to drive some people away, there’s simply no denying it, and it’s a stark contrast from the Nexus phones of old, but the value Google has added to the package is undeniable. 24/7 support is likely enough of a factor for some people to make the jump, not to mention unlimited full-sized photo and video backup via Google Photos without ever having to think about it. Top-notch hardware build and design is all a factor here, along with a leading class AMOLED screen, amazing battery life, and a camera that literally beats everything on the market in the vast majority of situations. There are certainly negatives here, including a weird rollback on stereo front-facing speakers from previous Nexus generations, as well as no inclusion for microSD cards for expandable storage, but many of these details can be easily overlooked thanks to just how much the phone excels in other areas. Is this the best phone you can buy right now? In many ways, absolutely, and unless you need something a little more niche like water-resistance or microSD card support, or just a cheaper phone altogether, it’s going to be an uphill battle to look elsewhere.

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About the Author
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Nick Sutrich

Event / Reviews Editor
Nick has written for Androidheadlines since 2013, is Review Editor for the site, and has traveled to many tech events across the world. His background is as Systems Administrator and overall technology enthusiast. Nick loves to review all kind of different devices but specializes in Android smartphones, smartphone camera reviews, and all things VR, both here on the site and on our YouTube channel. He is very passionate about smartphones and the continued improvement they can bring into people’s lives and is an expert on many different types of technologies, including mobile devices, VR, and cameras. Contact him at [email protected]
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