Hands-on with Google's stunning new Pixel phones

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Hands-on with Google's stunning new Pixel phones

The Pixel and Pixel XL are seriously good. But can they really take on the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus?

Today is a big day in the world of technology. The launch of Google's first in-house manufactured smartphones – the Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL – marks the first time the search giant has stood toe-to-toe with Apple on both hardware and software after years of partnering with third-party manufacturers like LG and Huawei. It means Apple has another, huge, rival to deal with in the smartphone space, and a pair of new phones taking the fight directly to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

You may have already seen the leaked pictures of the two new Google phones. Well, in the metal, they're even more attractive. The glass and metal rear panel on each phone looks just different enough without appearing awkward or ugly.

Essentially, the look of the Pixel is all Nexus 6P but sleeker, more attractive, even a touch outlandish, with its inset glass camera surround spanning half the entire rear panel, encompassing the camera and circular, centre-mounted fingerprint.

The result is eye-catching – in a good way – and the rest of the physical design is just as good.

Both the Pixel and Pixel Xl are surrounded by a slender, slightly squared-off aluminium frame. The power and volume rocker are in sensible positions on the right edge, the SIM tray and microSD slot on the left edge, the speakers are in the bottom left and right corners facing down, and a USB Type-C data/charge port delivering “up to seven hours of battery life in just 15 minutes” sits in between them. It's probably worth pointing out, too, that there's a 3.5mm headphone jack here, on the top edge.

Overall, the design is neat, understated, solid and smart: everything you'd expect of a Pixel product in fact, and the fact it looks a little out of the ordinary is just a bonus. We like the colours the phones come in, as well: "Quite Black", "Very Silver" and "Really Blue".

Key specifications

  Google Pixel Google Pixel XL
Screen 5in, 1,080 x 1,920 pixels 5.5in, 1,440 x 2,560 pixels
Processor 2.1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
RAM 4GB
Storage 32GB or 128GB
microSD slot Yes (up to 256GB)
Size (WDH) 70 x 8.6 x 144 mm 76 x 8.6 x 155mm
Weight 143g 168g
Software Android 7.1 Nougat
Rear camera 12MP, OIS
Front camera 8MP
Battery capacity 2,770mAh 3,450mAh
Price $1,079 for 32GB version
(+$150 for 128GB)
$1,269 for 32GB version
(+$150 for 128GB)


Core hardware

Where Google's Nexus phones have succeeded in the past is by including a top-level specification at a price much lower than the equivalent. That's certainly true of the raw hardware specifications of the Pixel phones.

Both phones are identical in most of the important areas. Each has a 2.1GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM forming the core performance partnership. The phones come in 32GB and 128GB variants and, in a welcome reintroduction of storage expansion capabilities, there's also a microSD slot in each allowing users to add up to 256GB. Music geeks with enormous local MP3 file collections the world over will rejoice.

Cameras

The rear facing camera is a 12-megapixel unit, the same resolution as last year's Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X phones, but this time with optical image stabilisation to improve performance in low light. The front camera is an 8-megapixel snapper, outdoing Apple's iPhone.

And it looks as if it might be quite good as well. Pre-launch, Google sent a Pixel to imaging experts DXOMark, which awarded it a rating of 89 – that's one mark better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and three in front of the iPhone 7.

Google was also keen to push the speed of its camera app and the effectiveness of its "HDR+" processing algorithm, which is enabled by default. It smugly demonstrated the effectiveness of its optical image stabilisation for video capture, and announced that Pixel owners would get unlimited storage for photos and videos, at original resolution. Until now, unlimited storage has been available to all Google Photos users, but at reduced quality.

Another nice touch is support for physical gestures in the camera app, in particular the ability to switch between front and rear cameras with a quick double twist of the wrist. 

Battery capacity is the only place the two phones differ, apart from the size of course. The smaller Google Pixel has a 2,770mAh battery while the Pixel XL has a 3,450mAh power pack. Whether this translates into better battery life on the bigger phone depends largely on how efficient the display is. Our guess is that it will be better, but not by a huge margin. 

Google Assistant and extra software features

Both the Google Pixel and Pixel XL run Google's very latest operating system – that's Android Nougat – but there's one more thing it has waited until now to add. Google Assistant, which is effectively Google Now renamed and tweaked  – forms the fulcrum of the firm's artificial intelligence vision, and it's woven into the very fabric of everything you do with the Pixel.

Assistant works in a slightly different way to how Google Now used to. To activate it, you can touch and hold the phone's home button or use the long-standing "OK Google" keyword. There's also a new graphic on the homepage to access the feature: instead of a wide box that stretches across the width of the screen, you get a compact circular icon in the top left corner, leaving more room for your app shortcuts.

Effectively, it's an expanded, refined Google Now, and the new Pixel phones will be the first to get it. Other features include automatic software updates and a new tool for transferring across all the data and apps from your old phone.

And, of course, the phone is "VR ready": just drop the phone into Google's new Daydream View headset, strap it to your face and you have access to a variety of new VR content, the whole of YouTube and Google Movies, plus games, a bunch of educational stuff and more.

Hands-on impressions

With Google now going head to head with Apple, the big question is: has the search giant cracked it? First impressions are immensely positive. As you'd expect for a smartphone running the very latest Qualcomm hardware and clean Android OS, it feels super slick to use.

Most impressive, however, is the sheer quality and attention to detail in the design. Both phones are super slim at 8.6mm from glass to aluminium at the rear, and yet - unlike Apple's iPhones – eminently grippable. What do we mean by that? Simply that by introducing something as simple as slightly angled edges the phones feel less slippery in the hand, and less like you're going to drop them on the floor.

The fact that the larger Pixel XL is lighter than its iPhone 7 Plus counterpart helps a lot, too, although the smaller Pixel is actually a touch heavier than the standard iPhone 7. That's probably because the smaller Pixel is a 5in phone where the iPhone 7 has a 4.7in screen.

Early conclusions

Google's two Pixel phones mark a major move for not only the company itself, but also the technology industry in general. It's disappointing, though, that Google apparently hasn't made any effort to keep the price down to a more reasonable level, and that may affect its long-term popularity.

What we have here is a pair of smartphones that are precisely the same cost as the equivalent iPhones: $1,079 for the Pixel and $1,269 for the Pixel XL.

Will this approach work for Google in what is becoming an increasingly cutthroat business? We'll give our final verdict after we've spent more time with and benchmarked the new Pixel phones.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are available for pre-order from today, and will be launched on 20 October.

This article originally appeared at alphr.com.

Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing
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