Pixel XL review: Google's new phone isn't a Nexus—it's better

Google's first in-house phone is a delightful holistic experience that might make you think twice about Apple or Samsung.

At a Glance
  • Pixel XL

    Greenbot Rating
    $769.00 MSRP $769.00
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    on Google
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That’s tricky to answer. The 12-megapixel rear camera uses a top-of-the-line Sony IMX378 sensor with big 1.55 micron pixels and has an f/2.0 aperture lens. The photos it takes, particularly with auto-HDR enabled, are easily among the best I’ve seen from any smartphone. They rival the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7—sometimes the Pixel shot is better, other times it’s one of the other guys, but it’s usually a close call. The Pixel excels in low light, with natural colors and good detail compared to most phones. In good outdoor light, color balance, detail, and exposure are spot on. No phone camera is going to compete with the dynamic range, focus, and adjustable aperture of a DSLR, but the Pixel beats most cheap compact point-and-shoots.

night kitchen comparison

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 and color.

But 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 that the Pixel gives Google the opportunity to more closely tie hardware and software together? The camera is a good example.

bright comparison

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

Google has gone beyond the “works on all phones” capabilities you find in the stock Android camera app, and now makes better use of the powerful ISP (image signal processor) in the Snapdragon 821 chip. As a result, it’s HDR-Auto mode is now very fast, with almost no shutter lag, and image tone and balance are greatly improved. The burst mode is crazy fast, too. You can shoot video up to 4K at 30fps, and the excellent slow-mo mode gives you either 1080p at 120fps or 720p at 240fps.

pixel xl cat

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

While there’s no optical image stabilization (OIS), the Pixel has a very sensitive, very fast gyroscope and accelerometer (also useful for VR) that it samples 200 times a second to perform some next-level electronic image stabilization. Like a true camera nerd, I was ready to hate it and proclaim OIS the only “real” 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 are going to miss it here.

Just look at the following example. I walked forward a few steps, holding the phone in front of me. Google’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 white balance, focus, ISO, and shutter speed. Still, the app launches much more quickly than it ever did on a Nexus phone, shutter lag is almost completely eliminated, and shot-to-shot speed has been vastly improved. The entire photo-taking experience is now a delight, while Nexus phones always felt bogged down in molasses.

It’s hard for me to emphatically claim that the Pixel 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 Google Photos of every photo and video you take. No downsizing or recompression, even for 4K video. Combined with Google’s very impressive AI-assisted photo search, it’s a real game-changer.

Really fast, not just ‘benchmark fast’

As you would expect from phones this expensive, the Pixels have high-end hardware. They’re among the first to ship with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 (a very slightly faster version of the 820), they’ve got 4GB of RAM, and either 32 or 128 GB of storage. The smaller Pixel and Pixel XL differ in exactly two ways: the Pixel has a 5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display and 2770 mAh battery. The larger XL has a 5.5-inch 1440p display and 3450 mAh battery. That may have an impact on battery life, and we’ll test the smaller Pixel independently to see how much difference there is to longevity (if any). But they should otherwise perform identically.

Interestingly, Google states the clock speed of its CPU is 2.15GHz—lower than Qualcomm’s 2.4GHz official spec for the Snapdragon 821. Perhaps Google is 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 faster than the Nexus 6P, especially when it comes to 3D graphics.

pixel xl benchmarks antutu

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

But benchmarks aren’t what matters most. Android fans often complain about phones (especially Samsung’s) that lead benchmark charts, but still somehow 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 greatly improved touch latency (the tiny sliver of time between when you touch or move your finger on the screen and the system responds). Indeed, this may be the smoothest and most responsive Android phone I’ve ever used.

pixel xl benchmarks pcmark

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

The iPhone tends to “feel” faster than Android phones in part because touch latency is so low and 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 just a bit behind it. The Pixel XL is the first Android phone I’ve used that consistently gives me that same feeling.

Only time will tell if this performance holds up over time, or if, as with many other Android phones, it somehow feels a lot slower after six months of everyday use. Out of the box, the Pixel may not measure as the absolute fastest Android phone on the market, but it sure feels like it is. There’s that software/hardware synergy thing again.

pixel xl benchmarks battery

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

Battery life on the Pixel XL is good, but not 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. In typical use, at mid brightness with auto-brightness enabled and all networking features turned on, I got about 5 and a half hours of screen-on time (and many more hours of standby) before ending the day with critically low battery. That’s doing a little bit of everything: catching Pokemon, browsing Twitter and Reddit, reading on the web, using the Google Assistant, and taking photos.

Leaving 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 again, I had everything enabled: always listening for “OK Google,” all wireless radios, you name it. As with many expensive phones, you’ll get through the the day with average use, and heavy use (especially 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 that 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, charging speed slows down as the battery gets full, but a full charge will take about an hour and a half. That’s fast.

VR coming soon

A major selling point of the Pixel phones is sure to be Google’s Daydream VR platform. Unfortunately, Daydream View headsets aren't due for another month or so, so I wasn’t able to thoroughly test it out. 

But I recently spent some hands-on time with Daydream VR, and I can say that I came away impressed. It compares favorably to Samsung and 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 overall visual quality is about on par with Gear VR. The Daydream View headset is more comfortable, and the Daydream’s motion-tracking wand is a superior way to interact with the virtual environment.

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

The Pixel push deserves to succeed

Some see the Google Pixel as a simple re-branding of Nexus; a way to charge a premium price for something that should have been less expensive. I’m not so sure I agree. Pixel’s software isn’t drastically different from stock Android, but thoughtful improvements are apparent. More importantly, this feels like a better-optimized synergy between hardware and software than we’ve seen before.

There are good reasons to root for Google 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 that doesn’t come loaded with uninstallable bloatware, doesn't have carrier-disabled features, 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 needs a big manufacturer to flex its muscle and say, “no more.” No more carriers delaying updates. No more forcing scores of unwanted apps on us that we can’t delete. No more heavily skinned interfaces that don’t look or act the way Android should. There’s still plenty of room to innovate, and plenty of money to be made without all that stuff.

pixel xl sim Jason Cross

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 has its warts. I could have wished for stereo sound or waterproofing. It really needs a software update to add a “lift to wake” capability, and preferably double-tap to wake as well. It’s got no option to add storage via SD card and no wireless charging, although I would argue that free full-res photo and 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. But 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 in a “no more crap” phone setting a new standard for Android phones. It should succeed because it’s honestly a great phone, worthy of its place among other pricey premium handsets. It’s got a nice design and great build quality, good battery life, fantastic responsiveness, and thoughtful features like the easy transfer tool and built-in live support with screen sharing. 

The Pixel 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 short list. And if you’re sick of bloatware, heavily customized interfaces, and delayed OS updates, there’s really no other choice.

This story, "Pixel XL review: Google's new phone isn't a Nexus—it's better" was originally published by Greenbot.

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At a Glance
  • Greenbot Rating
    $769.00 MSRP $769.00
    View
    on Google

    More than just another Nexus, the Pixel has what it takes to compete with other high-priced premium phones.

    Pros

    • Fantastic camera
    • Super fast and responsive
    • Unlimited online photo and video backup

    Cons

    • Not waterproof
    • Very expensive
    • No stereo speakers
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