Pixel/XL is Google’s first smartphone. But what about the Nexus I hear you ask? Nexus is/was a brand authorised by Google and made since 2011 variously by HTC, LG, Samsung, Motorola, and Huawei. It was designed to show what could be done with the current hardware technology and versions of Android. The current versions are the 5X from LG and the 6P from Huawei, and both are excellent handsets.
Pixel, Phone by Google, infers designed and made by Google — and they are pure Google — merely assembled by HTC. So yes, this is Google’s first smartphone. Like Microsoft’s Surface, it is a reference design to showcase what can be done with current hardware technology and the latest Google Android Nougat 7.
Does it succeed? Should other smartphone makers throw in the towel now? Well, like Surface and Windows 10 there is a huge market out there (about 85% use Android smartphones) and the 5” Pixel and its bigger brother the 5.5” Pixel XL fill specific niches. iTWire has an XL review unit and will be putting it through its paces over the coming weeks. This is a first looks article, and opinions may be modified after more use.
It is always good to get the boring stuff out of the way — specifications — because there is only so much you can do with a glass slab. The real innovation is in the way hardware and the operating system interacts; remember this is pure Android.
|Pixel||Pixel XL||Meet or exceeds flagship standards|
|Screen||5”, 1920 x 1080, AMOLED, 441ppi, 69% screen to body, Gorilla Glass 4||5.5”, 2560 x 1440, AMOLED, 534ppi, 71.2% screen to body, Gorilla Glass 4||Yes. Daydream ready and VR capable|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, quad-core 2 x 2.15GHz and 2 x 1.6GHz||same||Top draw processor with lots of smarts that can be implemented by Nougat|
|RAM/Storage||4GB, 32/128GB||same||Missing microSD slot support but generous unlimited Google Photo cloud storage|
|Camera Rear||12MP, f/2.0, 1.55µm pixel, 1/2.3” sensor, phase detection and laser autofocus, Electronic Image stabilisation, dual-LED flash, HDR, 2160p (4K) video record||Same||This should be a spectacular low light performer|
|Camera Front||8 MP, f/2.4, 1/3.2" sensor size, 1.4 µm pixel size, 1080p||same||Should be good in low light|
2770mAh, USB-C, V3.0
Fast charge 3.0
3450mAh, USB-C, V3.0
Fast charge 3.0
|Meets flagship specs|
|Sensors/other||Wi-Fi AC, dual band, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, Fingerprint reader, 3.5mm audio, dual AMC mic, single speaker||same||
Meets flagship specs.
Single speaker only.
Lacks IP rating
|Size||143.8 x 69.5 x 7.3 ~ 8.5 mm x 143g, metal uni-body||154.7 x 75.7 x 7.3 ~ 8.5 mm x 168g metal uni-body||Within specs|
|LTE||Cat 9 to 12, VoIP over LTE||Cat 11 speeds can be achieved on Telstra 4GX network|
|Android||7.1 Nougat pure Android||Same||Latest|
|Within price range|
Enter Google Hardware Division
Where Nexus had the personality of its maker all over it, Pixel is pure Google. And it shows. First looks at the OS and features show a far more unified approach, hardware and software working hand in glove. That is important and few makers achieve such solid symbiosis out of the box.
Google uses the smarts of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (and there are many) and Nougat to provide a new “intelligent” environment. That is everything from gesture control to contextual things like do not disturb.
Google Assistant – the next step for OK Google
Google Assistant shows early promise with automating tasks, translation, and being more intuitive and willing than Google Now. There seems to be a good integration between the Google Assist and most apps. My only gripe is that it does not allow text input.
I have barely tested its new Allo function and, to be fair, it learns as it goes, but conversational speech based on nested context (it remembers what you say/do) looks really good. I think in one fell swoop it has leapfrogged Siri and Cortana.
Another example of tight integration is the Chromecast feature and a lot of Chrome functionality, still to be fully tested.
I took some quick reference shots all on auto settings and they are very good. Google is crowing that it received an 89 DxOMark Mobile score – the highest of any smartphone yet and I won’t argue. To be fair the Samsung Galaxy S7, Sony Xperia X Performance (and we presume the XF) and HTC 10 received a score of 88 and Apple iPhone 7 and LG G5 got 86. There is not much between cameras.
What I can say is that in daylight and well-lit shots it's very similar to any comparable good flagship camera. However, there are flagships with far higher MP counts that, by the laws of physics, capture more information in each shot, so it comes down to whether 12MP is enough. It is for most uses.
It seems to have the edge in low or almost no light situations extracting every last lumen out of the shot – I was impressed, and it will likely be the new reference standard in smartphone photography.
Focus time and time to shoot are excellent, and the default HDR+ feature was unobtrusive – it did not seem to slow down focus times at all, probably a benefit of the Snapdragon 821 processor. Similarly, the electronic image stabilisation was excellent – it is not optical image stabilisation but uses sampling to select the best pixels.
And with unlimited Google Photo storage (yes, you pay for the data upload and download) Google can almost be forgiven for not having a microSD card slot. Let’s just say you should spring for the 128GB version and maybe set up a WD Wireless Pro or My Cloud storage at home as well.
It is quick, reliable and a downward swipe will reveal the notifications screen. Having used an LG G5 for the past month, I am now used to the location on the back of the phone – it actually makes sense.
It is too early to comment, but it seems to hold up well – at least a full day and perhaps more as the testing regimen evens out. The charger provides 9V/2A and 5V/3A – a standard Qualcomm quick charge 2.0, not the later V3.0 which is even faster.
Yes, this is the reason to buy any smartphone – calls were crisp and clear, hands-free was good, and while not thoroughly tested yet the Cat 11 LTE achieved up to 200Mbps download in Telstra 4GX areas. It automatically selects Voice over LTE where the network supports it and seemed to have good signal strength – it is a candidate for Telstra’s coveted Blue Tick for rural use (not tested yet).
Changing to Google Pixel
I have not tested this yet, but there is a Quick Switch Adaptor – USB-A (female) to USB-C in the box and it will transfer most items from an Android or iOS phone.
First impressions are good
I can’t help but see its “Applesque design cues", but that is what the public want. The Pixel XL is a big phone so the 5” may be more pocketable.
Pure Android is bliss – no bloatware, no laggy skins, no User Experience failures, great. Having said that, certain makers do add value to Android apps. For example, the camera app, while very functional, is basic and lacks some of the “pro features” of others. Or enhancements to phone, contacts, mail, and calendar on some brands are better than Google's. The apps are all functional and being pure Android means quicker rollout of updates.
If I have any minor negatives they are:
- The home, back, and apps draw “buttons” are soft and occupy the bottom few millimeters of the screen. Other makers have incorporated that into the bottom bezel, giving you a little more real estate.
- No microSD slot – not a deal breaker especially with Wi-Fi and Cloud.
- No LED notification light.
- No always-on display (easy to do with AMOLED) – it does have ambient display when you pick it up.
- The back of the “Very Silver” could be prone to scratches – get a case.
- No IP rating which should be standard on flagship phones.
- If you don’t like the Gmail client use Microsoft Outlook for Android.
- And my favourite pet hate is the camera lens is the top left (as is the iPhone) and it's too easy to put your fingers over it. When will all makers learn that the Samsung and LG placement in the middle is excellent?
So as not to end on a negative note:
- Brilliant camera;
- Best implementation of Android with direct updates (as it should be);
- Well made (HTC has kept up the quality);
- Fast and responsive;
- Interesting array of functionality like Google Assist, Allo, and using some of the Snapdragon 821 smarts will make this interesting; and
- I am interested in its Daydream VR capabilities
It will be my “day” use phone for the next few weeks so expect updates as I explore its features. But first impressions are that it is pretty special.
Would I buy one? Yes, absolutely, but ask me again in a couple of weeks.
It is so damned hard when you have so much good kit out there. LG has released the new V20 – very interesting (and the G5 is no slouch either). Sony has released the Xperia XF (perhaps an even better camera), Moto Z and Moto Mods (amazing expandability concept) and let’s not forget the excellent Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (which becomes an S8 in March), and Huawei’s interesting P9.
Like a dog with two bones, I have them all on the test bed now!