[Review] Google Pixel XL – Extraordinarily ordinary

I’ve spent the last 7 days with the Pixel XL from Google, and used it as my daily driver for the last 3 of those.  And I can honestly say its the best Android phone I’ve ever used (and I’ve used a LOT) – but the strange thing is – the Pixel does it by not standing out.  The phone gets out of the way of the end user to such a degree that it feels like there is nothing standing between you and what you are trying to accomplish with the device.  Where other devices try to impress with quality screens, amazing cameras, or cutting edge specs (and the Pixel has all of these) the Pixel goes beyond gimmicks and hardware features to a place where Android is showcased in the best possible way – a polished and smooth user experience that’s simply a joy to use.  Fellow tech seekers, let’s talk about the Pixel XL.

What I like:
*Overall Specs

For it’s flagship device, Google didn’t skimp.  They put the latest CPU (Snapdragon 821) and paired it with 4GB of RAM, and either 32 or 128GB of speedy UFS 2.0 internal storage.  It’s the end of 2016, and Google tasked HTC with getting the best of what was available, and they did it.  This also includes the display, which in the standard Pixel is an AMOLED display with a 1080p resolution, and in this Pixel XL jumps to a QHD AMOLED panel with 1440p resolution.  Colors pop, blacks are jet black, and details are sharp.  The included wallpaper picker app puts how good this display is front and center.  It’s plenty bright indoors, but this falters a little outdoors in direct sunlight.  I’m not an engineer, and I could post stats about how many nits of brightness the display gets, but instead I’ll say this – its a great looking display.  If you prefer a display to have a more “true to life” look to it, you’ll want an LCD similar to the one found in the current generation iPhone.  If you prefer the punchy vivid colors of an AMOLED display, the Pixel has got you covered.

What I don’t like:
*Price point
*Lack of water resistance
*Overall design
The fact that the Pixel starts at $649 for the 32GB model is a problem for some people.  When you factor in that the extra storage is $100 more, the problem grows.  These are iPhone/Galaxy phone prices, and Google hasn’t really shown that it can do that kind of phone just yet.  But I think that the fact that Google is willing to finance the phone themselves and allow you to pick it up through Verizon or Best Buy in a similar fashion is a step in the right direction.  If you are concerned about the price, try thinking of it in terms of basically $30/month instead, and its a bit more reasonable.
Reports of the reasons behind why the Pixel and Pixel XL aren’t water resistant are surfacing, and rather than detract from the devices, to me, it adds more to them.  If this is what Google did with HTC in only 9 months, its pretty damn impressive.  And while it doesn’t necessarily excuse the lack of what is quickly becoming a “standard” feature, it makes it more understandable.  This is probably also the reason behind why (beyond the window on the back) the design of the Pixel is fairly bland and very generic.  Well, to be fair – its not generic in the way it looks very much like an iPhone from the front, but generic in the way that it doesn’t immediately distinguish itself as NOT being an iPhone.  The Pixel is Google’s brand – it should and deserves to stand out in a way that nothing else does.
What I love:
*Size/form factor
*Fluidity of use
*Battery life
I make fun of Sean P. for being a Samsung and Note fanboi (and he freely admits this is true) and so conversely, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Google fanboi.  This phone is in a lot of ways what I’ve been waiting for, for a while.  The size of the XL is just right – not too big, not too small, and feels well built and solid but also light enough to comfortably hold for long periods of time.  The Nexus 6P is a great phone, and also represents the best that Android had to offer for its time, and the Pixel XL is just better.  Its a little smaller, but still has a size that makes it a great choice for a portable multimedia device.

Left: Pixel XL, Right: Nexus 6P
Left: Pixel XL, Right: Nexus 6P
Android 7.1 is showcased to full effect on the Pixel XL hardware.  Touches are registered quickly, scrolling is smooth and snappy, and you get to everything quickly.  Folders open quickly, apps launch quickly, and the app shortcuts built into the newest version of Android ensure that you’ll get the most productive use out of your new Pixel phone.  Plus you’re guaranteed to get at least 2 years worth of software updates direct from Google and another year of security patches after that.  Battery life has been quite good on the Pixel XL.  Most folks use “screen on time” as a measure of how efficiently a phone is using its battery, as well as the total amount that a device can be off a charger in mixed use.  

With my Nexus 6P I was typically getting a full day of use (around 16-18 hours off the charger) and getting about 2-2.5 hours of screen on time (SOT) from it.  While that’s pretty good, the Pixel XL absolutely smashes it, without breaking a sweat.  I’m consistently hitting the 2.5 hours SOT mark after a day…with about 40-50% of the battery life left.  Extrapolating that, you should be able to use the XL for a full day and achieve somewhere between 4-5 hours of SOT.  For my money, that’s excellent.  My day typically consists of about 2 hours of streamed podcasts, about 45 minutes to an hour of streamed video, and the usual texts/email/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook reviews throughout the day.  I’m comfortable in saying that the Pixel XL should get you through a full day easily if you have similar use and are on a mix of LTE and WiFi at some point.
The camera – what else can be said that hasn’t already?  Like highest rated rated smartphone camera ever reviewed by notable site DXOMark?  Check.  It can match or beat the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 cameras in most areas?  Also check.  Its a well thought out and executed camera experience?  Yup.  If you are looking for something that will start fast, focus fast and take great pictures fast, this is the mobile camera in a smartphone for you.  For those with families (especially those with small children, like me) having a camera that takes great quality photos quickly is a huge plus.  Side note: being a Pixel owner means you’ll have all your photos backed up to Google Photos for free, in an unlimited quantity and in the original resolution.  This is a HUGE selling point, and one that can’t be overlooked when considering whether or not to purchase one of these devices.   See the below for a few sample shots, and check out our Instagram feed (@silicontheory) for some more pictures taken with the Pixel XL’s camera.  You’re gonna like them.

Other thoughts:
I’ve said a lot of things that I like or love about the Pixel XL device.  It’s not a perfect phone…it doesn’t have front facing (or stereo) speakers, and the bottom firing speaker while adequate in volume  does come off a little tinny.  Audio output from the headphone jack seems to be good though, and for those of you with wired headsets, you should enjoy that.  I don’t have the smaller Pixel phone to test in terms of battery life or display, but the review of the device over at Droid-Life here should satisfy some of those curious about it.

So what does all of this boil down to?  If you are an Android person, the Pixel or Pixel XL is probably a device you would really, really like.  If you are an iPhone person, and are thinking of making the switch – the Pixel is probably the phone you should choose.  Its the most “iPhone-like” Android device out there – it even looks like an iPhone from the front.  Google is taking the Pixel phone seriously, from the hardware and software, to the marketing, to its vertical integration with all the other forthcoming hardware products (like Google Home, WiFi, and Daydream View)  Will next years device be better?  Almost certainly yes, but next year’s version of everything is always better.  So…there’s that.  It’s pricey, but if you’re in the Google ecosystem, the Pixel and XL are probably worth it.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; I for one welcome our new Google overlords.  Hopefully they are here to stay.  If you’ve got any questions I didn’t answer in the review, hit us up at silicontheory@gmail.com or on Twitter @silicontheory


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