Sunday, 06 November 2016 16:28

Google Pixel XL - good but it could be great (review)

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Google’s new 5” Pixel and the 5.5” XL are good smartphones, verging on great, but their strongest attraction - Pure Android - needs some work. Its user interface (UI) is nowhere near as polished, intuitive or useful as Samsung, LG, Moto, Sony et al.

Pure Android is just as it says – unvarnished, no bloatware, updateable by Google (at the mercy of Telco carriers) but there are a few foibles that don’t make it a pure delight to use - as I have found after nearly three, sometimes frustrating, weeks.

Don’t get me wrong - I want to give Google’s 5.5” Pixel XL (and by inference its smaller 5” Pixel) a great review, but Pixel is a bit of a “curate’s egg”. For the most part it is good to great, some parts are meh, and some parts many will choose not to live with. Read on for a “warts and all” review of this excellent hardware and potentially great operating system.

Should you buy it? It is worth considering if you want a flagship phone from the maker of Android. Rapid OS updates alone make it desirable.

But it is not the only “Pure Android” experience. The new Moto Z has Pure Android, a much more polished UI and innovative add-on Moto Mods (iTWire review and Pixel shootout here) - it outclasses Pixel in many ways.

And the Samsung S7 Edge and LG G5 are better from a user perspective. The loud message to Google is to invest more effort in the UI to take this phone to a better place. While many of those UI issues are due to Pure Android having to run on all late model devices, Google needs to develop a premium experience if it wants to charge premium prices and achieve significant market penetration.

Let’s get the meh parts out of the way first – most of these could be fixed with Pixel UI Amenity app!

  • It looks like a bland iPhone with large white bezels and an uninspiring 71.2% screen to body ratio. The bottom bezel has no function and could have housed a capacitive home, back and app draw buttons (like the Samsung GS7) instead of presenting these as soft keys taking up valuable screen space.
  • Contrary to initial reports there is a notification LED – something we take for granted on other phones. Delve into Notifications, Settings and enable Pulse Notification Light which shows in the corner of the earpiece speaker slot.
  • No always on display (AOD) that is so easy to implement with a power sipping AMOLED screen. With others, you can see a dim clock and notification icons.
  • It does have an Ambient Display feature that flashes up the notification for a Nano-second – if you see it.
  • Volume adjustable sounds include phone ring, media, and alarm. I cannot find a setting to adjust the notification sound alone which means every email has an annoying, quite loud, chime. (It appears that the notification volume is part of the phone ring – it needs to be uncoupled!)
  • The camera app is adequate but basic. Again, it is excellent hardware coupled with a one size fits all Pure Android app.
  • The Google Calendar app would not sync with Microsoft Office 365 Cloud calendar. I had to abandon that and download Microsoft’s free Outlook app (note that the caller ID only links to Google Contacts, so you need to populate that to get it to work). It is a common complaint on the user forum where enterprises often use Office 365 Exchange.
  • A lack of other bundled apps we have come to expect. Some may call them bloatware, but you come to expect weather (and a widget on the home screen), voice recorder, some form of pedometer, and other added value apps like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, PDF, and productivity tools. Sure, you can download these from Google Play, but it is then Russian Roulette with, for example, hundreds of weather apps alone!
  • Pure Android is raw, unfinished, and designed by programmers. For example, where Mobile Data (roaming on/off) is usually part of a notification screen, with Pixel you swipe down the sparsely populated notification screen, select the Setting icon, Wireless, Networks, More, Mobile Networks, and turn data off roaming. This is the tip of the iceberg – the Pixel shows a maximum of nine notification icons when fully expanded. While customisable to a small degree, most other flagships have 15 or more customisable icons. These shortcuts add to usability.
  • The recent apps draw button is fixed to the right soft key – many like to move it to the left and can do on most phones. Plus, when you select it and have a few apps open there is no “Clear All” prompt evident. It is there hidden under the open apps that you either close individually or swipe through to reveal it. Another case of a poor UI.
  • The camera EIS (electronic image stabilisation) is not as good as claimed and can be over aggressive giving a judder in video.

Now to potential deal breakers

  • No significant IP water and dust resistance rating. Google claim IP53 – splash and dust resistant – but on a flagship device we expect more.
  • No wireless charging – not a deal breaker but expected of flagships
  • The Snapdragon 821 is a powerhouse processor but the lower cost AB version used is no faster than its 820 predecessor.
  • No stereo speakers – sound is hollow and could be better. It is a capable hands free phone but poorly suited to audio or video entertainment. Still you can use Bluetooth headphones and it has a 3.5mm audio jack (and Apple iPhone 7 does not)
  • No microSD slot. Google compensate with unlimited Google Photo Storage, but that comes at a huge cost of paying for Telco carrier data. A microSD slot is becoming so important to move video content, and large files to the phone but OTG support compensates a little.
  • I hate the rear camera and shutter key placement – the camera is on the top left like Apple iPhone but if you use it in 16:9 mode and want to use the volume key as a shutter key the camera is really on the bottom right where your pinky finger needs to go.
  • And I am going to hark back to design – it is a big bland glass slab. I showed it to a Nexus 5X user (LG) who loves the Nexus distinctiveness, and his words were “Eeew – looks cheap.”

Out of the Box – Pixel XL 4/32GB Model G2PW2200

The Pixel is well packaged and is manufactured in Taiwan by HTC. It comes with:

  • A USB charger providing 5V/3A and 9V/2A – a total of about 18W. It is a new USB Power Delivery standard - not the Qualcomm Quick Charge standard that I would have expected with this Snapdragon 821 chip device.
  • A USB-A male 3.0 to USB-C cable
  • A USB-C to USB-C cable
  • A USB-C to USB-A female quick switch adaptor (for data transfer)
  • A set of buds with inline mic and four replacement foam tips
  • Start guide and SIM pin

Google Pixel black and white

SPECIFICATIONS

  Pixel (not reviewed) 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. 821 AB version has same speed as the 820. Top draw processor with lots of smarts that can be implemented by Nougat
RAM/Storage 4GB, 32/128GB same Missing microSD slot support but unlimited Google Photo cloud storage (carrier data charges apply)
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. Lacks optical image stabilisation (OIS)
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
Battery USB Power Delivery (Not Qualcomm Quick Charge) 3450mAh, USB-C, V3.0
- it is unusual not to use Qualcomm Quick Charge
Meets flagship specs.
Lacks Wireless charge
Sensors/other Wi-Fi AC, dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO; Bluetooth 4.2; GPS; NFC; Fingerprint reader; 3.5mm audio; dual ANC mic; mono bottom firing 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, aluminium uni-body 154.7 x 75.7 x 7.3-8.5 mm x 168g aluminium uni-body and rear half glass panel. Within specs but larger than GS7 or LG G5
LTE

Up to Cat 12 and VoIP over LTE depending on Carrier.

Single SIM

 Same – bands include
B1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/18/19/20/21/26/28/32/38/39/40/41.

Cat 9 to 12 will aggregate two or three bands for performance.

Cat 11 speeds can be achieved on Telstra 4GX network
Android 7.1 Nougat pure Android Same
Two years of upgrades from launch and three years of security updates
Latest OS for two years
Price

A$1079 (32GB)

A$1229 (128GB)

A$1269 (32GB)

A$1419 (128GB)

Within price range
 Links    

Display

The 5.5” AMOLED screen is excellent and designed to make the most of Daydream and VR – it even has a low motion blur setting for higher VR frame rates. iTWire will be reviewing that later.

While Blacks are black, whiteness is lower than the GS7 (AMOLED), LG G5 (IPS) or even the iPhone 7 Plus (IPS).

Colours are fixed – there are no vivid or other modes. Colour accuracy is average, but there is evidence of Google looking at offering things like colour correction and more customisation in its “Developer Mode.”

Phone

It uses Qualcomm’s modem and offers LTE Cat 12 (600/75Mbps) on supported networks. For the most part, it defaults back to Cat 9 (450/50) data speeds – all of which are very fast.

I tested it in and around Sydney on Telstra and typically got 200/20Mbps. Telstra claims it will get Cat 11 on its 4GX network. I did not see VoLTE (Voice over LTE) activated anywhere.

Handsfree was fine, calls clear and callers reported good sound quality.

What I found interesting is that it will search for caller ID for missed numbers by lookiing at emails or other sources to find the name of the caller.

User Interface – or lack of refinement thereof

Sorry to keep rubbing it in but Pure Android has no custom UI. By that, I mean that Samsung, LG, Huawei, Moto, OPPO and others have their own UI and custom apps overlaid on Android. Some add considerable value like the GS7 and Moto, and some are very customised for specific markets.

As far as this journalist is concerned Google needs to invest in a custom Pixel UI as an app and fix issues like notification screens, better camera app, and integration with non-Google apps, etc. I am sure that as its programmers live with it, we will see more customisation without ruining Pure Android.

Google Assistant – Siri, Alexa, and Cortana have a new frenemy

“OK Google” is deeply integrated into the Pixel and Google’s services (Gmail, Maps, Search, Play Music, etc.). Its main claims to fame are that a) it is conversational and b) it uses machine learning (that term will be the most overused term of 2017!) to provide context to answers.

It is quite fast in interpreting your voice and converting it to an on-screen text query followed by a voice reply or a Google search result – the latter is probably returned 90% of the time.

But the thing about learning is that it takes time to build a repository of information it can use. If you use Google’s Gmail and apps, it will interrogate these and gradually build a profile – where you work, who you regularly communicate with, travel, interests and some context about those.

For example, if you ask it to call “Fred”, his name needs to be in the contacts list. What if he is not or there are multiple Freds? Assistant will simply ask for more detail.

But what if you use non-Google apps like Microsoft Outlook for email, contacts and calendar (as I had to because for reasons unknown Google’s calendar refused to sync with Office 365 Exchange). Note that all voice assistants are tied to their respective Apple or Microsoft apps, so this is not intended as a criticism.

Google Allo is a scaled back version that will run as an app on later Android devices. I would describe it more as a smart chat messaging app like WhatsApp on steroids.

Google Assistant and Allo require Internet connectivity and access to Google’s apps and cloud to do their jobs.

It is fun to use, shows promise, but I suspect that the functionality currently advertised is still some time away.

Camera – it is supposed to be the best on any smartphone

It is very good and deserves the DxOMark’s highest ever rating of 89. But other brands and configurations are not far behind – GS7 at 88, Moto Z Force at 87, LG G5 at 86.

It is an amazing 12.3MP camera that is beaten in some circumstances by either higher MPs, better or faster lenses, or better camera apps. But set it to auto, and it is probably the best all-rounder.

A pet hate - the camera placement that ends up in 16:9 mode at the bottom right and too many shots were spoiled by my right pinky obscuring the lens when using the volume key as the shutter button.

A little trick – the camera defaults to 16:9 and 8.3MP and initially the tests were way behind other smartphones. Remember to set it to 4:3 and 12.3MP for best results.

All tests were set to Auto including HDR+, Flash, etc. Focus is via laser detection (LDAF) and phase detection (PDAF) and is very fast although it tends to focus on closer objects resulting in some depth of field issues.

A note on HDR+. Pixel takes nine shots and during post processing picks the best pixels. It is supposed to reduce noise by 3x and increase details.

Outdoor, natural light – the colours are vibrant without being over saturated. The higher MP ratings of the 23MP Sony X (or any other high MP camera) will produce better details if blown up.

Indoor, natural light – those big 1.55µm pixels, f/2.0 and auto HDR+ make indoor shooting in natural light as good as it gets.

Indoor, low light, flash – good but cameras with a faster lens (Moto Z with f/1.8 or GS7 with f/1.7) can take a better shot, but you may need to hold it still a little longer so HRD can do its work.

Indoor, low light, no flash – the Pixel extracts very last bit of light from a scene without inducing too much noise.

Video:

It will do 4K @ 30fps and 1080p at up to 120fps. However, EIS (electronic image stabilisation) versus OIS (optical) is not as good in quick panning producing jittery recordings. Otherwise the video and audio quality are very good.

Panorama

Acceptable at 2500 pixels tall (not 4K). Stitching is good. It is not quite as intuitive as other cameras as it requires you to aim for dots on the screen instead of a pan right.

Rear camera conclusion

Had I not had the other smartphones and a truckload of reference shots to compare I would have said it is the best under all circumstances – and it probably is. But the camera app needs more work to extract even more from the excellent hardware. And that is key – if it is good now on release V1.0 of the app imagine how much better it will get in future releases.

But it is not significantly ahead of the GS7, LG G5, Moto Z or Sony X. While Google can rightfully crow about the DxOMark, in reality, you will be happy with any current flagship smartphone!

Front Camera

Good detail, good HDR+, but no screen fill light or flash can be limiting. A firmware update could address that by adding screen fill.

Performance

Many reviews have mentioned the Snapdragon 821 appears throttled and on closer investigation, Pixel has used the AB version of the chip that uses the same clock speeds as the Snapdragon 820. All it offers is a slight power efficiency over the 820.

In independent tests, it did no better than any other 820 based device, and these include the Snapdragon version of GS7, LG G5, Moto Z, Sony X, etc. In fact, in the Basemark OS 2.0 test (standard use) it is about 17.9% behind the Moto Z. I suspect that Google needs to learn how to optimise the OS for the processor – as the other brands long have.

Storage

There is no microSD support so buy wisely. One fellow Journalist had filled his 32GB with movies and MP3s and now has to delete part of his collection to load more! But it does support OTG so you can plug in an external SSD or a HDD, so it is not too limiting.

Google offer unlimited online photo storage and has some smarts to de-duplicate. But 12.3MP shots are about 4MB each and I took about 100 shots. Transferring 400+MB to its free cloud uses almost half of Telstra’s popular A$92 per month “S” plan data allowance - oh well at least excess data is only $10 per GB.

Battery/charger

The XL has a 3450mAh battery that is good for a full day – 24 hours or more. Like all phones, it depends on the length of calls, if GPS is used, screen brightness, and phone app use.

GSMArena says it has a 78-hour theoretical endurance rating if you use the Battery Saver (Doze) mode of Nougat. I did not like that as it was a little too aggressive and put ugly orange bands top and bottom of a reasonably dim screen.

It uses USB Power Delivery, not Qualcomm’s Quick Charge – I find that unusual.

There is nothing wrong with USB Power Delivery and Google claim you can get 7 hours’ typical use from a 15-minute charge. Charge time from empty was just over one hour which is very good anyway.

Bluetooth connectivity – cars, speakers and smart devices

The user forums have many mentions of Bluetooth connectivity issues with US cars. My experience on a late model BMW was that connection was finally achieved after deleting all existing handsets but it was unreliable, often dropping out.

Similarly, when connecting a Samsung Gear Fit 2 connectivity was often lost, and a phone reboot was necessary to regain it.

There also appears to be some issues with Bluetooth speakers/headsets and audio streaming. I experienced that with the excellent Sennheiser Bluetooth headphones.

I suspect it is just an initial driver issue. Google’s forum response is, “The team is aware of this and is working on it.  Thanks for UR patience.”

Google Switch

If you have an iPhone or Android device, you can use the Quick Switch Adaptor (USB-C male to USB-A female). It uses a special app and the OTG feature of the USB connection. Transfer from iOS requires you to disable iMessages and Facetime before transfer, or you remain locked in the Apple ecosystem.

Service

Google has always been a “services” based organisation that usually does not require local end user support - hardware does.

iTWire columnist Sam Varghese says, “Pixel phone: customer service is Google’s Achilles heel.” He often expresses strong opinions, and Google has been invited to respond.

Meanwhile, in its advertising, Google says the phone is fully supported. It offers 24/7 support via instant chat to Google agents from the Settings page where you can share screens and get user support – if the phone is working. It has device insurance plans where you can extend the warranty.

Hardware-wise - we are not sure yet what to do if it breaks. I found the Pixel user forum most illuminating. It appears that you first contact a service agent who will assess whether it may be a warranty issue. Then your credit card is debited for the new price, and an equipment swap is arranged by mail/courier. When the old phone is returned, a credit is processed on the card. At least one user who experienced this will never buy from Google again.

But you can also buy the “unlocked” handset from Telstra who are very good at customer service and have stores around the country.

Conclusion

The Pixel was launched with great gusto – reminiscent of the iPhone hype! I fell into that hype trap – I wanted to tell the world how good it was - at least with the caveat that you needed to ask me again after a few weeks.

In the interim, I reviewed new Moto Z, and it is amazing Moto mods and had it, and the Pixel XL on the test bed to compare. My conclusion was, “Sorry Mr Google; I would buy the excellent Moto over your great Pixel XL.”

User forum member’s opinions range from amazing to crap! The more frequent comment is that it’s a BETA product and never buy version 1.0 of anything.

I think there is some truth there, but I also think that is a little unkind. The hardware is top draw, the firmware is immature (but fixable), and Pure Android lacks the polished user interface (UI) experiences that many other flagships have. That said enthusiasts who bought Nexus devices would say that any UI inconvenience is offset by fast Google updates.

I am going to rate it 7 out of 10. It is certainly good but not the greatest Android handset at present.

In a few months when the UI and firmware issues are fixed, I may upgrade that to an 8. But the fact remains that no microSD storage, no real IP rating, and the number of out of the box issues mean that there are better phones out there.

Let’s end on a positive note.

  • Good hardware and build quality
  • OK Google Assistant holds its own with Siri or Cortana – if you use it
  • The camera is probably the best across all conditions – but only just
  • Pure Android should mean faster updates
  • It could take out the crown if Google listens to and acts on user comments and requests

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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