Google has done something amazing: They’ve made a smartphone that’s almost perfect.
Granted, there are degrees of “almost,” and smartphone perfection is in the eye of the beholder. If you prefer one-handed screens and easy pocketability, you’re probably willing to compromise on battery life. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what a perfect smartphone is: something comfy, long-lasting, easy and even fun to use, and packing all the little modern extras that make the huge price tag a tad easier to swallow.
The Pixel XL is almost – almost – there.
Here is a smartphone that should rightfully be on the Christmas list of just about every gadget lover. It runs the best version of Android ever, with a slick, low-key interface that never overwhelms. It has a ridiculously good camera, a delightfully long-lasting battery, and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon processor. It’s fun. It’s attractive. It’s the best Android phone in the world.
It’s also incomplete. Google Assistant, for all the software gets right, isn’t quite where Google implied it stood during the Pixel’s announcement event. The phone is priced against the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S7, but it’s not waterproof. It has a headphone jack – thank the gadget gods – but it’s on the top rather than the bottom, so you might find yourself swatting the headphone cord out of the way of the screen or camera.
These are ridiculous, nitpicky concerns – tiny pebbles on an otherwise pristine beach of soft white sand. But it only takes one pebble in your shoe to stop you in your tracks. Can the love the Pixel XL engenders strip those pebbles away?
From the front, the Pixel XL looks very similar to the iPhone 6s Plus. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the bezels are a tad wider than they probably should be – on the top and bottom, as well as on either side of the screen. The phone’s rear cover is built from the same beautiful aluminum as Apple’s iPhones and even has those white plastic antenna lines cutting across the metal finish. Its edges are an obvious differentiator, as they’re beveled and have a few hard angles where the iPhone is all curves. I personally prefer the pristine grace of Apple’s take, but the Pixel XL is certainly attractive.
I thought I’d hate the glass panel on the Pixel’s rear cover; its addition seemed so very arbitrary, like Google threw it on the back face simply to stand out from other top smartphones. It’s nice to be wrong, though – the glass is just wonderful. As other reviewers have pointed out, the panel’s position on the upper third of the phone’s back cover helps you orient it in your hand, perfect when you’re pulling it from a pocket or purse while your eyes are on something else.
I wasn’t prepared for how great the glass feels on your fingertips. It’s wonderfully glossy – I’ve used the term “luscious” to describe this sort of coating in the past, and it still fits – and its grippiness helps secure the phone in your hand. It doesn’t seem to pick up fingerprints very much, either, which is always a concern when you’re dealing with glass construction.
Many of the design elements you’d expect from a modern Android phone are here, including a reversible USB Type-C charging port, a top-tier fingerprint scanner on the back cover, and yes, a 3.5mm headphone jack. The phone’s chassis is ever-so-slightly thicker on top than it is on the bottom, which helps pack in the camera without resorting to an asymmetrical bump.
We expect wonders from our smartphone cameras, perhaps more so than anything else in our phones. We take pictures with them every day – selfies, food photos, cat pictures, sharable moments – and we pass them constantly between friends and family. If there’s one thing a phone needs to get right to be a hit, it’s the camera. And Google nailed it.
We’ve been fans of DxOMark for quite some time, and were duly impressed when we heard their independent camera quality analysts had awarded the Pixel the company’s highest-ever rating: a score of 89. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7 got a score of 88, and Apple’s iPhone 7 earned an 86 – and those are the two undisputed kings of the phone camera world. Once we got the Pixel XL in our hands, we confirmed DxOMark’s findings ourselves. This shooter really is fantastic.
Granted, scores of 86, 88 and 89 are pretty close to one another, and it’s usually tough to pick a winner in side-by-side comparisons between the Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7 and the Pixel. All three capture rich, wide-gamut colors with thoroughly appealing accuracy levels. All three do a great job of nailing white balance, cutting through shadows to give you bits of detail without too much noise, and retaining sharpness without going overboard and introducing artifacts. All three take pictures quickly, offer rapid focus and fine exposure control, and let you record video up to 4K or in slow motion at up to 240 fps.
They’re all great phones; the Pixel is just a tad better. It lacks some built-in features like full manual control for expert users, but those are easily acquired through a Play Store download. What you get automatically is the best built-in digital video stabilization we’ve ever seen. Movies you take with the Pixel are absolutely stunning. Low-light photographs capture rich detail without falling into a morass of grain and distortion, since every photo is post-processed behind the scenes to integrate HDR (unless you explicitly turn it off). And we think the colors of basic, outdoor, brightly-lit photos are just more pleasing to the eye.
Between its Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM, I honestly expected the Pixel XL to best every other Android phone we’ve benchmarked. Google’s phone put in a good showing, but it fell behind other competition like the HTC 10, the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3. It didn’t come close to matching the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus benchmark results, but I didn’t really expect it to; Apple’s custom chips, lower screen resolutions, and top-to-bottom software and hardware integration make for stunning overall performance.
Not that the Pixel’s numbers aren’t impressive in their own right. With a 1440p display to run, its processor has a lot of work to do, so it’s not surprising the phone falls behind devices with lower resolutions. That said, a Geekbench 4 score of just 4,130 is a bit flagging when you compare it to the Galaxy S7’s 5,473.
I ran the Pixel XL through over 60 different synthetic and real-world tests, gathering almost 400 data points in the process. Our results score is given as a percentage of the current leader among our smartphone reviews – in this case, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which are close enough to one another to each earn 100 percent. The Pixel XL comes in at a meager-seeming 76 percent, but keep in mind that the Galaxy S7 sits at just 79 percent.
Here’s the takeaway: The Google Pixel XL is really fast and optimized beautifully. You won’t notice any slowdown and won’t really see a difference between it and its competitors unless you run side-by-side benchmarks like we do. Rest assured that you would be buying a phone with flagship-tier capabilities.
What good is an amazing smartphone without the longevity to use it anywhere? The Pixel XL’s battery is perhaps the best reason to go for Google’s bigger-model phone, rather than the 5-inch Pixel. It’s impressively long lived.
Technology has hit a roadblock in battery construction. For the moment, lithium-ion batteries – the sort you find in pretty much every modern phone – don’t last longer unless they’re bigger. Capacity correlates directly to size. Google can’t change this, so it’s packed the biggest battery it can into the Pixel XL: a whopping 3,450 mAh cell. By comparison, both the Galaxy S7 and the OnePlus 3 have 3,000 mAh batteries, while the iPhone 7 Plus has a 2,900 mAh cell inside.
Our web browsing battery test forces the smartphone to navigate through webpages over and over until the device shuts down. It’s light on processor usage (browsing the web is easy for a phone) but heavy on screen usage, so it reflects active, continuous use of a phone’s LTE connection. In our test, the Pixel XL managed a phenomenal 11 hours and 11 minutes. That’s 33 minutes longer than the iPhone 7 Plus and almost two and a half hours longer than the Samsung S7. It also doesn’t factor in systems like Doze or Battery Saver mode, which can greatly enhance your phone’s longevity.
The Google Assistant
During Google’s announcement presentation for the Pixel and Pixel XL, company CEO Sundar Pichai explained that AI was going to be the next great driving force of smartphone technology. He then spoke of Google Assistant, an AI guide in the vein of Siri and Cortana. Google Assistant had already been soft-launched with Allo, Google’s new texting app, and it’s capable of better speech recognition than any of its peers.
The Pixel is the first phone to have Google Assistant fully integrated on launch, and it’s arguably one of the Pixel XL’s biggest selling points. It handled my first request beautifully: “Okay Google,” I asked, “how long would it take to get to Salt Lake City from here?” It’s a relatively straightforward question, but it requires the assistant to delve into Google Maps, query the system, map out the answer, and then get me the response – all without just assuming I wanted to start driving right now.
Google Assistant hit the nail on the head, returning how long the drive would take without actively starting the route. Excited, I headed out to lunch, ready to ask it all sorts of questions on the journey. I thought I’d start with something easy: “Okay Google, play my EDM playlist.”
This should have been a simple request, since I use Google Play Music every day and listen to my playlist titled “EDM” often. The app knows it and keeps it within easy reach at all times, so somewhere in the plethora of metadata Google has accumulated on me, it knows I like this playlist.
As expected, Google Assistant cheerily responded, “Okay!” It opened Play Music and started a playlist. But there was one problem: The playlist wasn’t mine. The assistant completely ignored my library of songs, instead hopping into the ether to find a random EDM playlist someone else had put together. Figuring that issues were to be expected, I tossed it another softball and asked, “Okay Google, what song is this?”
“I’m sorry, Dan, I can’t do that yet.”
Playing around with Google Assistant is a near-endless procession of experiences like this. Sometimes you get magical functionality. You feel like you could ask the phone anything and it would know the answer. Then you ask it to do something simple, something you could manage yourself with two taps of the finger, and it fails. The illusion falls apart. For an AI that supposedly has access to a staggering wealth of knowledge about its users, it’s bizarrely incapable of tapping into that knowledge to make your life a little easier.
Will Google Assistant eventually be everything we want it to be? Most assuredly. Right now, you can make reservations at a local restaurant through OpenTable; someday, you’ll be able to snap a photo and have it post to your Facebook timeline, complete with a grammatically correct comment, without ever touching the screen. But until then, it’s really not all that much better than Siri or Cortana, whatever Sundar Pichai might hope.
The only real caveat that should keep you from buying a Pixel XL is the cost. Google has priced its first true flagship phone against Apple’s and Samsung’s latest and greatest devices, and for many of us, that expense can be all too difficult to swallow, even accounting for monthly payment programs.
Yet whether you’re a gadget lover, a camera aficionado or just someone who really likes Google, there’s simply too much here that’s great to not fall instantly in love. The Pixel XL takes everything that’s wonderful about smartphones in general, and Android in particular, and purifies it.
True, it’s not perfect yet. Google Assistant’s iffy responses and the lack of waterproofing are definitive knocks. But someone told Google they had to go big or go home, and Google swaggered its way up to the plate with determination in one hand and the world’s best Android smartphone in the other.