October 4th 2016. A day that will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the mobile tech world. Google unveiled the first generation of Pixel phones and seemingly killed the Nexus lineup. Google had been selling the Nexus phones for many years, so why was this such a big change? Surely it was just a name change. The differences run far deeper than that.
The Nexus phones were developer reference devices with public use as a secondary role. They were generally well made, priced and up to spec. But Google had very little control outside of the software. In a recent interview a Googler said that the device would be 90% finished by the time their chosen partner showed it to them.
Although the Pixels are put together by HTC they are done so under close supervision by Google. They chose the hardware, the design and the software. This new relationship between Google and HTC is much the same as Apple and Foxxcon. One designs and dictates while the other builds and follows instruction.
So what do we get under this new regime? On paper we have a device that has the best of everything bar one or two features. It has the best camera ever tested on a mobile device that offers superbly stabilised 4K video as well as great pictures. A beautiful AMOLED display available in two sizes and all the other things you would expect. It is water and dust resistant, although not to as high a standard as the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7. Honestly so long as you don’t shower with it you’ll be fine.
The reason all of this is making such a splash is fairly simple. Google are, for the first time, pushing their own device as an OEM with little regard for the competition. They are building exclusive software features and undertaking a massive marketing campaign for the Pixels. For the first time in a while the likes of Samsung and Apple have someone to worry about.
Now that I’ve had my Pixel Xl for roughly two weeks, I’ve decided it’s time to share my views on it. Let’s get some technical details out-of-the-way first:
- Snapdragon 821 processor, the latest from Qualcom
- 32 and 128GB storage configurations
- 5″ 1080p AMOLED display for the Pixel and a 5.5″ 1440p panel for the XL
- USB-C 3.0 with USB Power Delivery for Rapid Charging
- 12mp rear camera with a 1.55µm pixel size and HDR+
- 8mp front camera with HDR+
The camera was subject to a lot of hype at the launch event which is a risky move. It’s far too easy to over hype something that is, in reality quite average. Thankfully it’s justified with the Pixels. Using a combo of phase shift and laser detection it focuses fast and accurately. Colours are sharp without being over saturated and the white balance is great. Low light shots are mind-blowing. The increased pixel size let’s more light into the sensor at once. Combine that with a good range of shutter speeds and exposure times and often the Pixel can see better than you can. It also has a clever HDR+ which uses Google machine learning to enhance each photo you take.
The camera is much faster than that of the Nexus phones of yesterday. Double pressing the lock/power button opens the camera in a flash of speed and there is virtually no shutter lag whatsoever. I haven’t missed a shot yet while using this device. If you’d like to see some of the photos taken with Pixel then feel free to have a poke around this shared album. I’ll be updating it with the best shots I take.
On the subject of Google Photos backup, the Pixels have unlimited, original quality photo and video backup. 4k video takes up a lot of space both on the device and on the cloud, so having the advantage of unlimited backup is a significant advantage over the competition. It will even start deleting device copies if you start running out of space.
I can only talk about the XL out of experience and seeing that the regular Pixel has a lower resolution display, I won’t make any assumptions about it. From what I’ve heard from owners it offers a reasonably similar experience however.
The Pixels use Active-matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode displays. That’s AMOLED to you and me. It’s the primary technology used by Samsung and others, so it’s a well-tested and trusted technology. It has bright colours, the deepest blacks possible and great viewing angles. The glass covering it is Gorilla Glass 4, so it should be quite good at resisting scratches. It’s also 2.5D like the Nexus 4 of old, so the glass looks and feels like it has melted over the sides. It makes bezel swiping an enjoyable experience.
Again this is based on use of the XL which has a larger battery. The lower resolution of the regular sized Pixel should mean that they last about the same time.
In the last two weeks I’ve only had to charge the Pixel more than once in a day and that was when I’d been taking a lot of pictures and gaming. The standby time is insane, losing only 2% over a six or so hours. When I do use the device, it’s a mix of medium to heavy tasks ranging from playing games, to reading and browsing social media. On average I’ve been getting at least 5 hours screen time, mostly stretching it to 6 and sometimes 7. That isn’t just good, it’s fantastic.
It also features Rapid Charging. You can get 7 hours of usage from 15 minutes of charging. A full charge from around 15% only takes about an hour.
The Pixels are the first to launch with Android 7.1.1 Nougat. It’s the sweetest version of Android yet, with things like multiwindow, instant apps and doze on the go. The most impressive of the software features are the exclusives.
Night Light cuts out the blue light from the screen after sunset, allowing for a better nights sleep. Around the clock 24/7 customer support right from the settings app.
Google Assistant takes all of the great features from Google Now and transforms it into an AI powered helper right at your fingertips. It’s fast, knowledgable and helpful.
The in hand feel is superb. It’s light weight, a comfortable shape and easy to handle with one hand, even when using the larger XL model. The buttons are solid and the sides are chamfered. It feels a lot like a bigger Nexus 4. The Pixels are thicker at the top to allow a bigger battery and eliminate the dreaded camera hump. You don’t feel it when in hand, but it’s slightly visible if you look close enough.
It doesn’t feel fragile at all. I wouldn’t want to drop it, but it feels sturdy and well put together. No creaking or flexing like the 6P.
It’s fast. The touch response, app loading and multitasking is some of the best I’ve ever seen. The 821 is an incredibly fast and consistent performer, unlike the 810 that was used in the 6P last year. It stays cool even when gaming or rapid charging. I’m talking iPhone levels of consistency here.
A true Android flagship and worthy successor to the Nexus brand. It’s a lot pricier, the 128GB XL is £819, while the base 32GB Pixel is £599. Honestly though, it’s probably the best flagship phone you can currently buy, and contract prices will help bring that down. Google have nailed the formula on the first go, not something that happens all that often.