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Google’s first branded device delivers one of the best devices in the Android ecosystem: the $770 Pixel XL. (For those who can’t wait, the Pixel XL sells for over $1,000 on Amazon.) The XL launched with similar specs as the $500 Nexus 6P, but is it worth $770?
What You Get With the Pixel XL
The Pixel XL comes with two USB-C cables (what’s USB-C?) and a single USB-A to USB-C OTG (what’s OTG?) adapter. It’s not elaborated on in the instruction manual, but the USB-C to USB-C cable charges the Pixel XL. The USB-A to USB-C cable connects the Pixel to a laptop or USB-A cable – in which case it should charge much more slowly using only 5v.
The USB-A to USB-C OTG adapter allows the transfer of media files to and from your smartphone.
Specifications and Design
The Pixel’s specs won’t impress most hardware nuts. It dispenses with many of the ground-breaking conventions associated with the Nexus line. In particular, there’s an absence of features, such as wireless charging. And the price has skyrocketed. It instead brings with it minimalistic design, sensible hardware choices, and deeper integration with Google’s artificial intelligence intellectual properties. And thanks to iFixit’s teardown, we now know most of the Pixel’s internal components.
There are a lot of great hardware features worth mentioning, but out of these, the most important are the antenna model, the processor (or system-on-a-chip), and the screen.
Qualcomm Antenna Model QFE2550
Arguably the most important element of a mobile phone is its antenna and wireless subsystem. Qualcomm’s latest RF360 “dynamic antenna tuning” dramatically improves on “tuning” the signal between the cellular tower and your smartphone. The overall impact increases data speeds, call quality and signal reliability. Battery life should rocket skyward in duration, as a more stable tower connection means less time searching for a signal (which requires lots of power). Qualcomm’s other components warrant attention as well.
On the downside, reports began filtering in over at Google’s support forums regarding LTE issues, particularly overseas. Apparently, some users cannot reach LTE speeds with the Pixel. The issue remains unverified.
Snapdragon 821 System-on-a-Chip
The Snapdragon 820 system-on-a-chip (what’s an SoC?) represents a substantial departure from previous SoC generations. Instead of focusing on lots of cores, the 820 returns to steady per-core performance increases, while reaping the efficiency improvements offered by the switch to a smaller nanometer production process. In short, the 820 represents the largest leap in SoC development since the Snapdragon S4 released in 2012.
On top of better production technology, the 820 combines all manner of improvements in antenna design and circuit architecture, while trading nothing in the process – unlike the Snapdragon 810, which traded performance for efficiency. Overall, the Snapdragon 821 includes just a few minor tweaks and refinements over the 820. Unfortunately, the minor performance buff comes with a minor decrease in battery efficiency. But that’s not a big deal, considering that the 820 series offers both fantastic performance along with amazing screen-on (actual usage) time. I can get around 8-9 hours of use out of a single charge, for reading RSS feeds (what’s RSS?).
The SoC also comes packaged with 4GB of LP-DDR4, the low-power version of desktop DDR4 memory. Along with the processor and RAM stacks, the mainboard also features a stack of Samsung memory, which comes in two sizes: 32GB or 128GB. It’s worth noting that Google chose to use the latest UFS 2.0 storage technology, which means speeds on par with Solid State Drives in an eMMC form factor. That’s an amazing engineering feat on Samsung’s part, although still not close to the NVMe storage technology used on the iPhone 7.
Altogether, the Pixel offers the state-of-the-art in hardware, with zero corner-cutting.
The 1440 x 2560 resolution AMOLED 5.5″ screen features a ridiculously high 534 pixels-per-inch. This represents about the same PPI as other flagship smartphones. Notably, it’s also slightly more pixel dense than the Nexus 6P‘s display. In practice, few will notice the difference between the 518 PPI of the Nexus 6P, though.
Camera and Video Recording
The Pixel XL includes a front-facing 1080p camera along with a rear-facing Sony IMX378 camera module, which lacks Optical Image Stabilization (OIS). Instead of using OIS, the camera employs a software-based alternative known as Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS). Don’t let the name fool you. EIS delivers everything Google advertised it to be. The Pixel’s images feel just as stabilized (if not more so) than video made using a hardware stabilizer.
Google’s version of EIS stabilizes images by using input from its CHRE V2 sensor hub. More or less, the sensor hub detects whether the user is moving and in what direction. EIS then algorithmically compensates for the movement, thus eliminating or reducing motion blur. The overall impact of the technique – in all honesty – will not differ much from hardware-based image stabilization. Both slow-motion, full-motion, and other videos all appear to work without issue, in most lighting conditions. However, because of the amount of post-processing done, many users who prefer manually editing images might be put off by the degree of color saturation and image distortion. That said, ninety percent of users will prefer Google’s technique over both Apple and Samsung. To borrow a phrase — it just works.
Why a Partial Glass Back?
The rear portion of the Pixel, just around the camera package, is surrounded by glass – a bizarre hardware choice. The glass isn’t embedded into the metal body, but rather is superimposed directly on top of it. A single drop would shatter this portion, although the only functional consequence might be to render the camera inoperable. Google reportedly designed and released the Pixel in less than a year and used an off-the-shelf HTC design. Because glass is an insulator, it reduces the amount of heat that users might feel if holding the back of the device.
For those curious about the technical details of the Sony IMX378 camera, XDA wrote an amazing piece on its underlying technologies — such as large pixel size and use of PDAF technology.
Many Android device users do not know about a hidden feature buried within their smartphones: Google Now. Most Android devices can access the assistant just by enabling and training it through the Google app.
While Google’s hardware may not hold up well when compared to the likes of Samsung or Apple, its software does. But that’s not saying much. Google Assistant offers a marginal improvement over its Google Now service. In particular, it throws in a contextual understanding of questions. For example, if the user asks who won the presidency in 2016, Assistant replies with “Donald Trump”.
If you ask a follow-up question: “Who is his wife”, Assistant contextually understands that “his” refers to Trump. While Siri also possesses context-aware capabilities, it’s not as advanced as Google’s product. The internet is in virtual agreement on this. For example, MKBHD compared Siri to Google Assistant below:
Even more thorough testing netted similar results. Business Insider, for example, found that Google Assistant exceeds the capabilities of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana by a wide margin. Even so, your personal needs might predispose you toward Siri or Cortana, if you are already locked in those ecosystems.
At present, artificial intelligence-driven contextual processing is in its infancy. In the near future, as machine learning evolves, expect to see terrifying improvements in human-machine interaction. Those owning a Pixel might just get a ringside seat.
Virtual Reality: Daydream View
Many Android users don’t know their smartphone conceals a secret: It’s can turn into a virtual reality (VR) device when combined with an inexpensive virtual reality (VR) headset. Google refers to its newest iteration of VR as Daydream View.
Daydream View (which replaces both the Google Cardboard app and the previous Android screensaver by the same name) includes operating system support for a virtual reality headset. Combined with a low-persistence, high PPI AMOLED screen, the virtual reality capabilities of the Pixel make it among the best smartphones for running virtual reality apps. At present, Daydream View requires a Daydream-ready smartphone and a Daydream headset. The previous generation of Cardboard headsets aren’t Daydream compatible. (There’s now a Daydream remote control required).
However, there are few distinctions between the previous generation of Android VR and Daydream. It’s the same formula: place the smartphone inside of the headset and start watching VR content. For the most part, you’re limited to video games and a few movies as part of Google’s YouTube VR application. But overall, the high PPI screen eliminates the “screen door” effect that older generations of AMOLED panels caused. All VR content appears more realistic and compelling than ever. Unfortunately, I was only able to test Cardboard applications using a slightly older VR headset.
But How Does the Pixel XL Feel?
The Pixel’s height and length make it somewhat small for a 5.5″ device, although its thickness gives it a substantially thicker girth compared to an iPhone 7, LG V20, or other flagship smartphones. It’s not wider than most smartphones – it’s longer. Compared to a Moto X, the Pixel just seems longer and heavier. Unlike the ginormous Nexus 6P or Motorola Nexus 6, the Pixel XL feels comfortable when wielded one-handed.
While comfortable to hold, the Pixel XL goes down in history as the most slippery phone ever made, next to the 6P. Google seemingly didn’t give any attention to anti-slip coatings. If you purchase a Pixel, make certain to also acquire a case and screen protector.
Warranty, Repairability, and Firmware Update Policy
The biggest concerns about smartphones are reliability and security. Security – in general – is best represented by how long the phone receives firmware updates and how rapidly. The Pixel’s hardware reliability is best represented by the terms of the warranty, and its ease of repair.
The Pixel’s one-year limited warranty fails to beat out the competition – even though it should. No major manufacturer offers a 2-year warranty on any smartphone, even on grotesquely overpriced status symbols. Overall, Google’s effort in this area falls squarely within the zone of mediocrity. While Google’s firmware update support period of two-years exceeds most manufacturers by 1-2 years, one might expect more from the maintainer of the Android operating system. Even so, Google permits root access without much fuss, similar to its Nexus series. That implies a host of custom ROMs (what’s a custom ROM?) might make their way into the Pixel ecosystem within a few months.
My overall impression of the Pixel XL’s build quality ranks it somewhere below an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. According to iFixit’s teardown, the two parts most prone to failure, the glass screen and lithium-ion battery, require a fair amount of effort to replace. The battery remains covered by a jungle of cables and adhesive tape. On the positive side, the glass screen easily separates from the AMOLED panel – most phones bond the two together which increases repair costs. Also, the battery includes a pull tab, which makes replacement easier.
Overall, iFixit rated the Pixel XL a 7/10, placing it on par with the iPhone 7 but substantially below that of the LG V20.
For those of you not wanting to read through a 2,000-word review, here’s a quick summary:
- Battery life is excellent.
- Reception quality is excellent.
- Google Assistant provides best in class personal assistant capabilities.
- Best in class (for most people) camera and video.
What’s Not So Good?
- Google doesn’t offer a dark theme to reduce burn-in and increase screen-on time for AMOLED screens.
- The $770 price tag feels a bit high.
- Google does little to differentiate its flagship smartphone from its competitors in terms of hardware features. You’re buying hardware that’s not much different from the Nexus 6P at a whopping $270 markup.
- Shameless iPhone 7 copy.
- It’s the most slippery phone I’ve ever handled. Prepare for the worst and get a case.
- Thicker than competing flagship smartphones.
- Average warranty policy.
- There’s absolutely nothing terrible about the Pixel XL. The regular 5-inch Pixel, however, charges at 15-watts instead of the advertised 18-watts. False advertising is terrible.
- There’s a possible (although not confirmed) rumor that the Pixel XL’s LTE modem isn’t working properly, particularly outside the United States.
Should You Buy the Pixel?
Those looking for an alternative to the Galaxy Note 7 or iPhone 7 Plus will find a suitable replacement in the Pixel. It doesn’t offer the same excellent hardware design as an iPhone 7 or Note 7, but it does offer a more advanced personal assistant in Google Assistant and a better all-round camera.
However, comparing the Pixel XL to Apple and Samsung’s products is ignoring the elephant in the room: the Huawei Nexus 6P. The real question is whether or not the $770 Pixel XL beats out the $500 Nexus 6P. The answer to that is – without question – in the negative. Aside from a better system-on-a-chip, camera, and improved antenna design, the Pixel XL biggest advantage is its improved personal assistant, which is for the time being exclusive to the Pixel (though you can try to hack it onto other devices running Android 7.0). Is that worth $270 more? Probably not.
The Pixel XL beats out all comers in the 5.5″ or larger smartphone category, but at a high price tag. Buy it if you want the best Android smartphone in creation. For those looking for a budget model, try the OnePlus 3 $170 Nextbit Robin.