Google has finally got serious with its new handsets. Our in-depth testing reveals just how good they really are.
The new Google Pixel phone and its supersized cousin, the Google Pixel XL, represent a paradigm shift in the smartphone world. Although this isn't the first time the search giant has sold smartphones under its own name, it's the first time it has marketed them under the Pixel brand.
That's important. Why? Because this is Google, finally, going out on a limb and stamping its own mark on a smartphone, and it's going directly after Apple.
The clue is in the pricing, which may be a big disappointment to fans of the now-defunct Nexus brand. The Nexus name always stood for reasonable prices, good specifications and a chance to keep up with the freshest, most up-to-date version of Android. The Pixel brand retains only two of those key strengths, ditching low prices in favour of iPhone-matching, wallet-shrinking starting prices of $1,079 and $1,269 (for the 32GB versions).
The key question has to be, then, are they as good as the prices suggest?
Well, on specs, the handsets look promising and, in fact, apart from the size and battery, both are almost identical.
But do the new Google phones deliver? Following our early hands-on with the two new phones, we’ve spent more time with and tested the Pixel XL to find out.
First up, the Pixel phones both look great. From a design perspective, we prefer them to Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. We were sent the Pixel XL two to evaluate and were immediately struck by how much difference a little reduction in weight and height makes. The Google Pixel XL simply feels more comfortable to hold and slip into the pocket than the iPhone 7 Plus, and we like the way it looks too.
Essentially, it's a progression of the design seen on last year's Nexus 6P, just a little more polished. It could even be described as a touch outlandish, with its inset glass camera surround spanning the top third of the rear panel, encompassing the camera and circular, centre-mounted fingerprint reader.
We like it; you may not, but at least you couldn't call the design bland.
What we’re not so keen on, and more than a little disappointed by, is the relative ease with which that glass rear seemed to scratch and scuff. Not three days after first easing the Pixel XL from its box, and being very careful about how and where I put it down in the interim, we found several short, light scratches marring the surface. If it’s like this now, what would it look like in a year?
Something else we don't like is the phone's lack of dust and water resistance. Here it seems Google has missed a trick, especially as this is the year Apple has chosen to add the feature to its iPhones in order to compete with Samsung and Sony.
So, there's some good news and some bad news. Everything else about the Pixel is firmly middle of the road, right down to the good old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and the white/silver and black/charcoal colours it's available in.
Hardware and performance
Although the price may have risen, one thing that hasn't changed is that 2016's Google Pixel and Pixel XL are right at the cutting edge when it comes to the core performance components.
Both phones are identical in most of the important areas. Each has a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM. The phones come in two variants, one with 32GB storage, the other 128GB, and there's no microSD storage expansion.
This is the first time we've seen the Snapdragon 821 in a smartphone, but there isn't much new here. It seems that the key difference between it and the 820 is its higher maximum clock speed of 2.4GHz, but that’s not something Google is exploiting here. Both the Google Pixel and the Google Pixel XL run at 2.15GHz, which is the same speed as the Snapdragon 820 found in other phones such as the Sony Xperia XZ and OnePlus 3.
This is reflected in our testing, with the Pixel XL’s results in our processor benchmark, Geekbench 4, comparable to the OnePlus 3, better than the Nexus 6P (with an older Snapdragon 810 processor), but lagging both the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (with its eight-core Exynos 8890 Octa chip) and iPhone 7 Plus (with Apple’s outstanding A10 Fusion chip). The relative results were similar for our GFXBench GL gaming benchmarks.
The Pixel XL’s result in our video-rundown battery-life test tells a similar story. It’s slightly better than average for an Android smartphone, lasting 15 hours 55 minutes before running flat. That’s better than the Sony Xperia XZ (14 hours 32 minutes) as well as the iPhone 7 (13 hours 2 minutes), but a long way behind the superlative Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which kept going for a staggering 18 hours 42 minutes.
The screen is where the Pixel XL becomes a standout. While the Google Pixel has a 5in display, the Pixel XL has a larger 5.5in AMOLED panel and it's a very good one at that.
Colours are well balanced; there's full coverage of the sRGB colour gamut; and it has perfect contrast, as with all AMOLED screens. The resolution is a super-sharp 1,440 x 2,560 pixels.
There’s more good news with Pixel XL’s rear camera. It's a 12.3-megapixel unit, paired with a bright f/2-aperture lens, the same as last year's Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X phones. This time, though, there are a couple of key improvements. First, optical image stabilisation, which should sharpen up your low-light shots; second, phase-detection autofocus, in addition to the 6P's laser autofocus, which should speed up focusing in all light conditions.
Before the original launch of the phone, Google sent a Pixel to the sensor and lens testing experts at DxOMark, who awarded it a rating of 89, one mark better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and three better than the iPhone 7. We have to agree with that conclusion: the Pixel XL's camera produces the best image quality I've come across in any smartphone.
It captures more detail in low light and good, its new auto HDR mode works effectively to eradicate blown-out highlights and boost contrast, and its colour capture is a notch above any phone I've seen.
But don't just take our word for it; have a look for yourself. In the photographs immediately below, the tiles on the roofs of the buildings are captured crisply and cleanly in the Pixel XL image (left), but look far softer in the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge shot on the right.
In our indoor, low-light test below, the Google Pixel XL’s extraordinary ability to capture detail is clear once again, with near-perfect white balance, while the S7 Edge’s image to the right is slightly softer and a little pink-tinged.
Image quality is superlative, then, and video quality almost as good. Side by side with the iPhone 7 Plus, 4K footage from the Google Pixel XL looks sharper, more richly coloured and more smoothly stabilised.
The only slight criticism is that, rather than apply heavy noise reduction in low light, Google has chosen to retain as much detail as possible. The result is that, in some circumstances, the footage looks a little grainy.
It's also good to see Google continue to make improvements to its camera software, which not only feels more responsive and snappier in use, but also has a few neat new features. It's possible to now launch the camera app directly with a double-click of the power button, for example, and you can switch between forward and rear cameras with a quick double-twist of the wrist.
Elsewhere, SmartBurst takes a stream of photographs and builds them into an animated GIF for you, at the same time picking out the sharpest full-resolution images automatically. And we love Google's new implementation of exposure compensation: tap anywhere on the screen and a slider appears to the right of the frame, allowing quick brightness adjustments with the swipe of a finger.
The other nice thing about owning one of the new Google Pixel phones is that Google will now back up all of your images and videos (even those captured in 4K) at original quality, with absolutely no limits, so there's no need any longer to make that decision over whether to eat into your Drive storage allocation or accept a little extra compression. Indeed, that option has disappeared entirely from the Photos app settings menu.
Then there's the Pixel's ‘Smart Storage’ feature. This, much vaunted at the Pixel phone launch, will automatically free up space for you by removing old videos and photos that have been backed up to the cloud.
In practice, Smart Storage is little more than a timeout switch. It will remove photos and videos older than 90 days, 60 days or 30 days, depending on your preference. It can be activated manually if you prefer, or switched off entirely, and it works for both photos and videos and files in your downloads folder. We’re not sure you could call it is “smart”, though.
Google Assistant and extra software features
As you’d expect, the Pixel and Pixel XL run Google’s latest mobile operating system, Android 7 Nougat, but with the Pixel phones it looks and handles very slightly differently to stock.
First off, the Pixels are the first phones to run Google Assistant, the search giant’s latest stab at a Siri rival. Activated with a long press of the onscreen home button, or by saying the “OK Google” key phrase, Assistant is a conversational, context-aware extension to Google Now – which by the way still exists, off to the left of the Nougat homepage.
Is it any good? Our opinions are mixed. We love the way you can now unlock the phone with your voice. However, we found recognition to be pretty patchy. It never unlocked with someone else's voice, fortunately, but like talking to an ageing relative, we found we had to speak loudly and slowly to get it to work reliably. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but it’s an inauspicious start.
We also like the conversational and contextual nature of Assistant's responses. Ask it about the weather today, and you can then tap the microphone icon and ask: “what about tomorrow?” and it will furnish you with the long-term forecast.
Brilliant, but it’s as yet a little prescriptive about exactly what it responds to. Ask “how about the rest of the week” instead, and Assistant will simply repeat the previous answer. There’s clearly some work to do.
Other nice new features include automatic software updates, circular icons for the core Google apps, a different way to access the app drawer (you pull up from the bottom of the screen instead of tapping an icon), and pop-up homescreen options for certain core apps.
And, of course, the phone is "VR ready". Simply drop the handset 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 Play Movies, plus games, a bunch of educational stuff and more. We’ll cover this in more detail when Google sends us one of its headsets.
Google's two Pixel phones mark a major move, not only for the company itself but also for the technology industry as a whole. The Pixel XL is a brilliant smartphone that justifies its place at the top of the market. It has a great screen, good battery life and the best camera around, and it’s also pretty darned quick.
On balance, though, is it as good as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge? Not quite. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge remains the best, money-no-object smartphone on the market, simply because it's better in more areas. It’s more attractive, has better battery life and a better display. It’s faster and it’s dust- and water-resistant.
The Pixels’ strengths lie in their superlative camera and clean Android install, which, as ever, is unfettered by third-party extras. Whether you choose one or the other, you'll be getting a brilliant smartphone.
Outright, the Pixel and Pixel XL are marginally cheaper than the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. That’s still pricey and no doubt disappointing for many Nexus fans, but while they’re no longer bargains, their specs, performance and quality do justify the price.
For us, the biggest disappointment is Google’s decision to make it a Telstra exclusive. That means less choice for those who want to buy on a plan, and monthly pricing starting at $84 for the Pixel and $92 for the Pixel XL for 1GB of data. While those prices are comparable to Telstra’s equivalent plans for the Galaxy S8 and S8+, you can get the Samsung phones cheaper elsewhere.