Google Pixel Smartphone Review
Google's new phone is one it can proudly call its own
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Google is no stranger to the smartphone industry; in recent years, the company's Nexus division collaborated with hired guns at Huawei, LG, and Motorola to design no-frills, pure-Android smartphones like the Nexus 6P, the Nexus 5X, and the Nexus 6. All of these phones shared a simple idea: to offer a pure Android experience and competitive performance at prices that were often slightly and sometimes significantly below the flagship offerings from Apple and Samsung.
But the Google Pixel (MSRP $649.99 for 32GB, $749.99 for 128GB) is different. Instead of just folding stock Android into an outsourced phone design and bestowing the Nexus status upon it, Google's putting its brand front-and-center, hardwiring its very philosophies into the hardware and software of the phone itself.
Unlike most of its Nexus predecessors, the Pixel isn't a pure Android smartphone with nimble cost-cutting concessions; it's a premium smartphone that goes round-for-round with the iPhone 7 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S7. While the price hike might ruffle the feathers of Nexus devotees, strapping the Pixel with top-shelf hardware and retiring the Nexus name was the only way Google could compete with the glitzy, souped-up flagships that dominate the market.
And boy, does it compete. From the camera to the battery, the Pixel is one of the best Android phones we've ever tested. Even more promising is the integration of Google Assistant, whose hopeful future nevertheless outshines its somewhat flawed performance on opening night.
There are ins and outs you ought to consider before you decide to plunk down a pretty penny on a Pixel, but the future looks a little brighter now that another competitor has stepped into the premium smartphone ring. Google's first official smartphone is one it should be happy to call its own.
About the Google Pixel
The Pixel is available in both 32- and 128-gigabyte models, and while it doesn't offer expandable storage, users get unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos via Google Photos (yes, this also applies to 4K video). Our review unit happens to be "Very Silver," but the Pixel can be had in "Quite Black" and "Really Blue" versions, too. Here's what's under the hood:
• Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor
• 4GB RAM
• 32GB or 128GB internal storage, unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos via Google Photos
• 5-inch full-HD (1920x1080) AMOLED display
• 12.3MP, f/2.0 primary camera with EIS (electronic image stabilization), laser and phase detection autofocus, dual-LED flash, and 4K video support
• 8MP, f/2.4 front-facing camera
• Google Assistant integration
• 4G LTE, WiFi, AC/Bluetooth, and NFC support
• 2,770mAh lithium-ion battery with fast-charging support
• USB Type-C port
• Fingerprint scanner
Simply put, the Pixel is a premium smartphone through-and-through; with very few exceptions, its hardware rivals that of the industry-leading flagships it's priced to compete with.
What We Like
Incredible performance and intelligent software integration
The Pixel's Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor, the accompanying 4GB of RAM, and a streamlined, baggage-free Android experience combine for a smartphone that absolutely smokes the competition. Seriously—these are some of the highest performance benchmarks we've ever seen among Android phones.
And it's not just impressive to look at in a spreadsheet—the Pixel is about as silky-smooth a smartphone experience as I've ever come across. Apps load in a heartbeat, mobile games play brilliantly across the board, and simple tasks—like cycling through the task manager—unfold without so much as a hitch.
Being a Google phone allows the Pixel to ship without the added baggage of redundant software. In other words, your calendar, photo gallery, and contact list are all singularly Google —a breath of fresh air considering how messy Android ecosystems can get when several voices are shouting all at once.
But perhaps most Google-y of them all is Google Assistant—the beating heart of the Pixel and the glue that binds the Google namesake with the impressive hardware that powers it. Google Assistant is always on, always remembering, and always a long-press of the home key away. Much like Siri in iOS, the voice-enabled Google Assistant handles basic housekeeping—drafting emails, scheduling events, checking local movie listings—but unlike Siri, Assistant remembers details about your life and past interactions to strengthen its efficacy in the future.
Somewhat expectedly, it's not perfect. Sometimes it doesn't remember the task at hand quite as well as you'd like it to, and frankly, I didn't find myself using it as much as I hoped I would. To be fair, I've never found myself enamored with any voice-activated "personal assistants" like Siri and Amazon's Alexa, but Google Assistant's shortcomings have more to do with its limited functionality than my tendency to neglect such features. You can't, for instance, type your prompts directly to Google Assistant.
But much like its relationship with you, ostensible Pixel owner, Google Assistant is—and will most likely always be—a work in progress. For all of its shortcomings, Google Assistant is the heart and soul of what Google envisions your smartphone experience will be in the future, and that future is a tantalizing one.
A class-leading camera and unlimited photo/video storage
When Google announced the Pixel and the Pixel XL, it promised that their cameras would be the best we've ever seen in a smartphone, and although I'd disagree with that rather lofty claim, the Pixel's 12.3-megapixel primary camera is certainly among the best.
Let's start with its features: 4K video support with electronic image stabilization, laser and phase detection autofocus, and extra-large 1.55μm-sized pixels for robust low-light capabilities. From a purely spec-sheet-point-of-view, the Pixel checks off most of the crucial boxes, though it lacks optical image stabilization (OIS) found in contemporaries like the Galaxy S7, the HTC 10, and the iPhone 7 Plus.
In practice, the Pixel's camera is about as good as you can hope from a smartphone camera in 2016; it focuses and fires at a sensationally fast rate, performs wonderfully in low-light settings, and delivers smooth, sharp footage in ultra high definition. It stumbles a bit in its auto white balancing, but not to an egregious degree.
And when I say that it does well in low light, I mean it—the Pixel is rivaled only by the iPhone 7 Plus in low-light photography. The camera's laser and phase detection combined with the Pixel's noise-reduction software keeps subjects in focus without crushing them beneath heaps of grain. Whereas certain smartphone cameras capture flat-looking subjects in dimly-lit settings, the Pixel maintains a photos depth; subjects pop even when there's not a whole lot of light to go around.
But when it comes to photography, the Pixel's best feature isn't found in the camera's internals, but rather, the cloud. Every Pixel user is granted unlimited storage for photos and video via Google Photos—and yes, that includes 4K video. The benefits of this are deliriously unquantifiable; for one thing, you'll never wring your hands trying to choose which happy memories to dump to free up space.
Superb battery life
Overseeing the hardware and software of the Pixel isn't just a way for Google to anchor the phone to its namesake; more notably, the oversight also allowed Google to tailor the Pixel's performance to the internals that make it go. One of the benefits of such technological harmony can be measured in the hours users can squeeze out of the Pixel's relatively-svelte 2,770mAh li-on battery.
On paper, it might seem a bit light compared to the Galaxy S7's 3,000mAh-sized battery, but because Google's allowed itself the privelege to optimize Android to the phone's ecosystem, the Pixel is capable of wringing top-of-the-line benchmarks out of every charge without weighing the phone down with a seam-busting battery.
In our routine Geekbench 3 battery test, the Pixel found itself in the 99th percentile. In fact, only the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 Plus come close to matching the results we saw with the Pixel, and the Pixel beat the S7 by a respectable margin. When put to the test of casual, everyday use, the Pixel lasted well beyond a workday, sometimes going a full day-and-a-half before needing a charge.
What We Don't Like
Relatively ho-hum design
In designing the Pixel, Google worked closely alongside HTC, so it's just as much a product of the HTC school of design as it is a Google device. In some ways, it wears its HTC-ness on its sleeve; the nearly-uniform aluminum body and deep chamfered edges call to mind HTC's 2016 flagship, the HTC 10, for example.
I've always found HTC's premium offerings to favor utilitarianism over glamour, and the same thing can be said for the Google Pixel, which just sort of quietly gets the job done without calling attention to itself. In other words, you'll probably come to respect the Pixel's physical design, but it's not gonna turn any heads; it really is all about the software.
On the whole, most of the Pixel's handier design elements sneak by unnoticed while the not-so-great stuff sticks out like a sore thumb. When viewed from the side, for instance, you might notice that the Pixel features a slight taper—an elegant way to eliminate the need for an unsightly camera hump. But the glass slab that sits on the top half of the Pixel's backside is slight eyesore at best, and at worst, it's a sticky surface that often makes it hard to initiate a swipe gesture on the fingerprint sensor.
And sure, it is a nice touch to be able to control the notifications dock via gestures on the fingerprint reader, but I'm not the biggest fan of the scanners placement, which makes it impossible to unlock the Pixel when it's resting on a surface.
A surprising lack of expected features
If an iPhone can be water-resistant, any smartphone can pull it off. Once upon a time, water resistance was a neat design feature that set otherwise-underdog smartphones (like the Sony Xperia Z series) apart from the competition. These days? If you're not at least 1P67-rated, you're losing; respectively, the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7 are IP67- and IP68-rated, meaning you can spill beer and drop them into the toilet all the live long day. What a time to be alive.
The fact that the Pixel disappointingly failed to meet this bar is a testament to how quickly this bar even came to be in the first place. But, for better or worse, water resistance is here to stay—Google must have missed the memo.
Also missing is wireless charging. While it's not nearly as quick of an endeavor as using a USB Type-C cable with fast-charge, wireless charging sure is convenient. A dedicated microSD slot for expanded storage also would've been nice, though its absence is mitigated by the unlimited storage for photos and video.
Should You Buy It?
This is usually the point where I editorialize my recommendation based on the readers' preference of operating system; I usually point people in a certain direction of depending on whether or not they prefer Apple or Android.
But the Pixel is a unique kind of smartphone in its approachability. The Android experience that comes with it—simple, streamlined, and uncluttered—is an Android experience I can honestly see iOS fans warming up to easily.
The Pixel's top-shelf hardware is a huge selling point, too. Buying a "pure Android" phone used to mean missing out on the dazzling hardware that came with an HTC or Samsung flagship. The Pixel is changing that narrative.
If you still can't bring yourself to part with iOS and the Apple ecosystem, the iPhone 7 should treat you well. If you're looking to jump ship or to upgrade your current Android device, the Pixel is probably your best bet. For my money, the "Best Android" title comes down between the Pixel and the Samsung Galaxy S7, and the Pixel's Google-centric experience makes up for it not sporting the same expandable storage and water resistance found in the Galaxy S7.
The Pixel is one of the best smartphones of the year, and one of the best smartphones I've ever used, period. It's fast, reliable, and fun to use. The camera is superb. The battery goes a marathon's distance. Most importantly, though, is what it reveals about the future Google sees for how you interface with your smartphone. And that future is a promising one.