Review: Google's new Pixel XL is a fine phone -- but is it really special?

Google’s new flagship phone offers fast performance and the latest hardware, but it may not meet expectations.

You'd be forgiven if you were a little suspicious of Google's resolve in the smartphone game. This is, after all, the company that's used a revolving door to partner with every major player/competitor except Apple for each generation of device. This is the company that bought Motorola, strip-mined it for patents and sold the husk to Lenovo.

That being said, it's impossible not to pay attention when Google presents its new smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, which are billed as "the first phone[s] made by Google."

The Pixels are indeed the first phones to carry only Google's name, with no credit to a development partner. But if you've tried out a lot of smartphones (and done a bit of online research) you'll realize that the Pixels are very much the work of HTC -- which is a good thing.

The smaller Pixel has a 5-in. display; it measures 5.7 x 2.75 in., about 0.1 in. longer than the Samsung Galaxy S7, and 0.3 in. longer and 0.1 in. wider than an iPhone 7. The XL, which has a 5.5-in. display, measures 6.1 x 3 in., about 0.1 in. bigger in both dimensions than an S7 Edge, and about 0.1 in. shorter and the same width as an iPhone 7 Plus. Both phones come in Quite Black, Very Silver and (in a limited edition) Really Blue. (I just write these, I don't make 'em up.)

The Pixel XL that Google made available for review is more than a little reminiscent of the HTC 10, a phone I reviewed in April and liked very much. The Pixels use the same solid aluminum case, with chamfers along the rounded edges that make it comfortable to hold. The back is flat, without any bulge for the fingerprint sensor or camera. The top third of the back, though, has a glossy plastic insert. The fit and finish are perfect, but it's unclear why Google didn't use metal for the whole back. One probable reason may be to enhance radio power, but it's a bit of an odd look.

There's a knurled power button and volume rocker on the right edge, a SIM drawer on the left, a single speaker with two ports and a USB-C socket on the bottom, and a headphone jack on the top. Google branding is subtle to the point of invisibility: a small phone-color logo on the bottom of the back.

The displays are AMOLED and covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 4. The Pixel's screen is full HD (1920 x 1080 at 441ppi) and the XL's is quad HD (2560 x 1440 at 534ppi). The display is okay; I've seen better, and there's no evident way to adjust the color accuracy.

There's very little bezel along the left and right edges. The Back, Home and Recent buttons are done in software on the screen, not as hard buttons on the phone's chin. The chin, interestingly, is featureless: no mic, no buttons, no obvious sensors (although it's a sure bet that there are proximity sensors underneath).

The internals are about what you'd expect from a high-end phone: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor, 4GM of RAM, either 32GB or 128GB of local storage (although no provision for an SD card). The Pixel's battery is 2770mAh, and the XL's is 3450mAh.

I ran the AnTuTu Benchmark suite on the XL review unit, which yielded a score of 140747, compared to 134599 for the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and 133781 for the iPhone 6S. (Scores for the iPhone 7 phones weren't available for comparison.) The higher benchmark is not surprising: Qualcomm says the Pixel's Snapdragon 821 runs about 10% faster than the S7 Edge's 820. Sure enough, the Pixel benchmarks are about 6% higher.

There's more to a benchmark than raw processor power, of course. And, in fact, the 821 chip also promises better battery life. The Pixel XL lasted about 4.5 hours in the AnTuTu battery drain test; in comparison, the S7 Edge got about 4 hours out of a 5% bigger battery.

Using Qualcomm's increasingly common Quick Charge 3.0, the Pixel XL charged from zero to 100% in about two hours. The drawback: Quick Charge 3.0 requires a fairly chunky wall plug. The other drawback: Charging through a standard USB 3.0 port is very slow, on the order of seven hours to go from 50% to 100%.

Subjectively, the Pixel XL ran quickly with no evident delay and no freezes or crashes during testing.

Because of recent events with Samsung's Note7, I've started to play closer attention to battery temperature. The Pixel XL's battery never reached higher than 110 degrees F, even during stressful rapid charge or high demands of benchmarks. In normal use, the battery never even felt warm.

Pixel phones do not support wireless charging. There is an NFC chip that supports Android Pay.

Unlike some current top-of-the-line phones, you won't want to bring the Pixel swimming. Google advises that the phones have a penetration rating of IP53. That means it won't get hurt by dust, and will survive getting sprayed and splashed a little. Don't use it as a waterski for your pet squirrel, though.

Network flexibility

Where you can buy the Pixel gives an important clue into how the phone fits into Google's plans. You can get it from Verizon (or one of its resellers, including Best Buy) or from Google itself, either directly or as part of its Project Fi smartphone service. Verizon's core phone network uses the CDMA standard, which no one else uses. Its data network, however, runs on 4G LTE, which uses the global GSM standard. The review unit came with a Verizon 4G LTE SIM card. A close look at the phone's settings reveals that Pixels are designed to use the LTE network for calls and data whenever possible.

Moreover, the phone -- even the Verizon version -- does not appear to be locked. I put a Project Fi SIM into the Pixel (which, because it was sent with a Verizon SIM, would reasonably be expected to be locked into Verizon), and it worked fine using Fi's mix of GSM and Wi-Fi.

Verizon, of course, offers a zillion Android smartphones to choose from. Google, however, has just two others: The Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X, both of which are a little long in the tooth. For Verizon, the Pixel is just another phone. For Google, the Pixel is the flagship it's going to have to live with for a while.

Nougat-y goodness

The Pixel is the first U.S.-available phone that runs Android Nougat (7.1). LG's V20 was the world's first Nougat phone, but despite widespread teases and previews to journalists, it is not yet sold in the United States. However, Nougat has begun to be sent to existing phones.

Most of the changes in Nougat are under the hood, but there are a couple of interface changes that I found especially interesting: Split-screen and Settings.

Phones running Nougat can now show two apps running side-by-side (as long as those two apps are enabled for the feature). With, for instance, Chrome open, hold down the Recent button and you'll be shown a list of your recently opened apps. Touch one of them, and your screen will split and you'll see -- and be able to work with -- both apps. It's really handy, and works in both portrait and landscape modes.

The changes to Settings seem designed to simplify what had threatened to become an endless set of possibilities and options. A first swipe from the top of the screen displays five customizable frequently used controls: By default, Wi-Fi, cell signal/data usage, battery use, Do Not Disturb and flashlight. Where a second swipe used to open the full Settings menu, it now shows a few more customizable settings. To see the full Settings menu, touch the Gear icon.

And when you do get to the Settings menu, you'll find it much simplified, with many fewer top-level categories. To find a feature that's been moved, there's an effective Search window. And rather than forcing you to work your way up and down a menu tree to get things done, there's now a menu icon on all sub-menu screens that lets you move to another setting quickly. It's a big improvement.

Phone as cloud device

It will not come as a surprise that the cloud is a key part of the Pixel experience. Why no SD card slot? Because The Cloud. Your photos and videos are automatically uploaded to your Google Photos account, as is other data when your phone gets too full. And Google has a point -- no SD card is necessary when you have infinite storage at the other end of your data pipe.

But because this is a Google phone, you're going to have pushed at you what Google wants to push at you. Hangouts is here, but so is the new Allo chat app, Google Assistant voice control and Duo video calling. (And because it's from Verizon, the phone came with My Verizon, Message+ and go90 apps, which at least is a lighter payload than usual.)

Pixel's pixels

Google brags that the Pixel's 12MP back camera (the front camera offers 8MP) earned the best-ever score of 89 from the DXOmark photo benchmarking team. It's true as far as that goes, but it's also true that the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and the HTC 10 got an 88 -- and that the Samsung's screen is better.

What struck me is that the Pixel's camera's functions were very limited in comparison to what some other high-end phones are offering. It has the expected photo and video functions, and also slow motion, panorama, photo sphere and lens blur function -- this last for close-ups where you want to blur out everything but the subject. But there's no hyperlapse or manual mode. There's a way to control white balance, but nothing that lets you play with things like exposure compensation or metering modes, and there's no way to capture RAW format images. In selfie mode, there's no voice or gesture control, or image recognition.

For a phone called the Pixel, one might have imagined more devotion to photography. There's more to a good camera than a great benchmark.

Bottom line

The Pixel phones are an important jump up in class for Google, especially for users of Project Fi. But if you're not a Fi user, it's hard to recommend the Pixel. Samsung's reputation has been badly dinged by the Note7 recall, but that doesn't change the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are great phones -- water resistant with fine cameras, excellent displays and wireless charging. Similarly, the HTC 10 is near the top of its class.

The Pixel sells for $649 with 32GB of storage and $749 with 128GB; the Pixel XL sells for $769 for 32GB and $869 for 128GB of storage. In comparison, Verizon sells the 32GB version of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge for $792, and the HTC 10 with 32GB for $648.

The prices are more or less equivalent, and in my opinion, the Pixels don't quite measure up  -- unless you feel that Nougat and the improved Google Assistant are deal-breakers.

So from here, it doesn't look like the Pixels quite make it to the top of the heap.

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