Google’s relationship with smartphones is complicated.
The technology giant is behind the biggest and most widely used operating system on mobile – Android – yet on the hardware side of things it has always been a little more tepid in its approach.
For the last six years we’ve had the Nexus line, Google-own phones running Android but made in partnership with the likes of LG and HTC and usually carrying that firm’s branding.
The Pixel is the start of something new. Though manufactured by HTC it has been designed and built by Google and is being sold directly by it. Some are calling it the first phone Google has made – that’s not true – but this is a landmark moment for the company. There’s actually two of them: the five-inch Pixel and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL which we review here, but the message across both is clear.
This is the device Google wants to build a smartphone empire on.
From the front, the Pixel is a smart, sleek-looking phone. Google has followed the premium smartphone mantra that is to rely heavily on metal and glass. The curves, polished edges and placement of the antenna lines that bleed onto the side of the device are familiar – they’re reminiscent of an iPhone, as well as several other Android devices this year that know this formula is popular. There’s a reason for that, it’s pleasing on the eyes and the hands.
But once you flip the Pixel over things become a little more complicated.
The bottom two thirds of the rear are a brushed metal that looks and feels good, and something you’d expect from a premium smartphone. The simple Google logo is also a sure sign that it is very much Google’s phone. The top third of the device however is a different matter. Finished in glass instead of metal it creates a two-tone look to the handset that quite simply doesn’t work. It might create a signature look that means when you see someone walk past using it you’ll know they’re holding a Pixel, but aesthetically it’s not very pleasing to look at. Standing out is not always necessarily positive.
However, from a tactile point of view it makes a little more sense as the border between metal and glass almost serves as an ergonomic guide to the perfect way to hold it. There are said to be practical benefits too in that the glass can help boost radio signal reception, but the glass panel should probably have never made it past the drawing board.
Like several other flagship Android devices, including the last in the Nexus line, the fingerprint sensor is on the rear of the Pixel, which for the majority of the time is a comfortable place to have it. Unlocking the Pixel just involves a quick movement of a finger already sat on the back of the phone, though it’s slightly more cumbersome if the device is sat on a table. You don’t have the option of just resting your finger on a home button below the screen. The Pixel doesn’t have one, so you’ll need to pick it up.
It’s a USB-C connection for charging and data transfer, not that you’ll need to use it too much as we’ve found the battery life on the XL to be excellent. In one instance a single charge lasted three days – though this was with low usage. Nonetheless, many modern smartphones would still die much sooner just sat idle.
The Pixel supports fast charging too, which is great for busy moments. The seven hours of charge in 15 minutes claim stands up too, with our Pixel jumping from 12% battery life to over 70% in less than 30 minutes.
When Google announced the Pixel it focused on two key strengths – one of which was the rear camera. As Google was keen to point out, DxoMark Mobile – an industry standard for testing smartphone cameras – has never given a phone as high a mark as the Pixel. That’s a very good statement to be able to lead on.
The good thing for the Pixel is that is does live up to the billing. The 12.3 megapixel lens has a wide f/2.0 aperture to let in a lot of light, and the result is a very, very good performance in any light, but particularly in darker conditions. In our first encounter with the Pixel we were using it alongside an iPhone 7 and it comfortably outperformed it in a dark warehouse setting, focusing well and capturing much more detail.
It is powerful too, with focus and contrast adjusting quickly to taps on the screen as you change the location of the focus for example.
The detail it is able to capture within images is welcome too, with much less noise or distortion visible as you zoom in compared to some of its rivals.
There’s lots of settings and editing tweaks available too – including Lens Blur (shown above) which enables you to play with a shallow depth of field, focusing on a single subject and blurring the background.
Google was right to hang a lot of its hopes for the Pixel on the rear camera, because it delivers emphatically.
The other big area of importance for Google is artificial intelligence. The Pixel is the first smartphone to really push the idea of being truly artificially intelligent thanks to the Google Assistant – a voice-based assistant that can be used anywhere within the Pixel to help you get answers, manage tasks, find things and generally help and organise.
Siri, Cortana and Alexa do similar things, but Google Assistant is the most far-reaching within a single mobile device that we’ve seen.
However, Assistant has a huge blindspot for something so intelligent and present across your device. You can only use your voice with it. There is one exception, the Allo messaging app, where the Assistant can be called upon at any point to answer any queries and offer help. Here you can type out what you need on the keyboard, and it was by far the best experience we had with the Assistant. It felt responsive and powerful. Crucially, it also felt incredibly useful, and that’s the issue: why can’t we do that elsewhere with Assistant?
In general use you have to stick to voice, which isn’t always an option if you’re at work or in a busy or crowded space. The contextual screen grabs that were introduced with Now on Tap, which enables the Assistant to offer help based on what it sees in a screengrab is still here and is great, but can only do so much.
Criticising a voice-based assistant for being only voice-driven might seem an odd thing because that’s how Siri and Amazon’s Alexa work too. But Google has pushed Assistant as the next step in artificial intelligence, to help you get things done and a step beyond its rivals. It is undoubtedly powerful and useful, but it lacks the next level of intelligence we were hoping for and expecting given the premium billing Google Assistant has.
This is the biggest question surrounding the Pixel. The camera is fantastic, and Assistant is a nice touch if not a genius, but what else can the Pixel do?
The Google Photos tie-in is very useful for one. Unlimited cloud storage on photos and video captured on the Pixel is a move Google should be commended for, and one that should turn the head of any beleaguered iCloud user who has run out of storage.
The overall performance of the XL too is also refreshing. You can snap in and out of apps easily, and once again Google has proven the best version of Android is the stripped back native version it makes, minus the bloated layer of content other manufacturers tend to drop onto it.
The problem is that beyond that there isn’t a lot to say about the Pixel. It has mobile payment capabilities like most other 2016 Android flagship phones, and that’s what you notice. Few other things make this phone stand out.
This is a sticking point because of the price – the smaller Pixel starts at £599 and goes to £699, while the Pixel XL is either £719 for 32GB or £819 for 128GB. These are iPhone and Galaxy S7 prices, and that’s an intentional but bold move by Google.
The Pixel is a good smartphone, but if you had that money in your pocket ready to upgrade, you’d look at those two rivals first for the overall packages they can offer.
The Pixel XL then is a step forward for Google. It is the first time it has designed a phone from the ground up alongside the operating system. That shows in the user experience, which is markedly smoother than some other Android devices where hardware and software only come together at the last moment.
In the camera too Google has triumphed. Smartphones are the world’s most popular cameras and the Pixel is one of the best you can buy. That will bring sales alone.
But a lot of other aspects of the Pixel feel almost neglected. As though getting the headlines of a great camera, of being the first phone with Assistant built in, was enough for Google, the rest of the details were less important. The foundations of a great smartphone are there, just missing some crucial details. Broader interaction capabilities for Assistant and water resistance are but two of those details lacking.
Play with the Pixel and run through its features and it’s surprising how quickly you come back to that question of what else can it do, without getting much of an answer.