Google Pixel XL Review: Android Done Right

Apple’s decision to ditch the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 handsets has been met with widespread disapproval. Samsung is scrambling to put out the fires (figuratively and literally) as it garners bad press for exploding Note 7 devices. Google Pixel XL seems poised to become a viable alternative to these flagship rivals — at least, that’s what Google is hoping for. Here is the Lifehacker verdict.

Google has enlisted the help of HTC to manufacture a premium phone range that includes the 5-inch Pixel and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Both phones carry the same hardware and software; it’s just the form factor that’s different. Here are the specifications for both phones.

Google Pixel And Pixel XL Specs

Google Pixel Google Pixel XL
OS Android Nougat Android Nougat
Dimensions 143.8mm x 69.5mm x 8.6 mm 154.7mm x 75.7mm x 8.6 mm
Weight 138g 168g
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Quad Core 2x 2.15GHz/ 2x 1.6GHz Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Quad Core 2x 2.15GHz/ 2x 1.6GHz Processor
Memory/Storage 32GB/128GB, 4GB LPDDR4 RAM 32GB/128GB, 4GB LPDDR4 RAM
Display 5-inch Hi-Definition AMOLED display 5.5-inch Hi-Definition AMOLED display
Resolution 1080 x 1920 pixels (~441 ppi) 1440 x 2560 pixel (~534 ppi)
Camera 12.3MP with large 1.55um pixels and f/2.0 aperture (rear), 8MP f/2.0 (front) 12.3MP with large 1.55um pixels and f/2.0 aperture, 8MP f/2.0 (front)
Colours Quite Black, Very Silver and Really Blue (not available in Australia) Quite Black, Very Silver and Really Blue (not available in Australia)
Additional features 3.5mm headphone jack, Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor, Bluetooth 4.0 3.5mm headphone jack, Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor, Bluetooth 4.0

The Google Pixel range starts at $1079 for the 5-inch Pixel with 32GB internal storage and $1229 for the 128GB version. The 5.5-inch Google Pixel XL with 32GB will set you back $1269 and $1419 for the 128GB version. The colours available in Australia are Quite Black and Very Silver.

Google Pixel Design & Handling

As much as I’m an Android devotee, I must admit that I have always admired the Apple iPhone’s hardware and design. It is something that Apple fanboys once used to lord over Android users; with their plastic chassis, Android phones often felt cheap. Meanwhile, iPhones were built with premium quality materials with the price tag to match.

In recent times, Android phones have picked up the slack in this department; manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that in order to displace Apple, they need to make handsets that feel well-built. Subsequently we’ve seen a number of Apple clones that run Android OS coming to the market. But Google’s Pixel, perhaps, is the most faithful copycat yet.

Google has clearly taken design cues from Apple. The similarities between the Pixel XL, iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 7 Plus, as pictured below, are undeniable. The most distinct difference between the Pixel XL and the iPhones is the glass pane that occupies the top one-third of the backing with a finger print reader in the middle.

The glass functions as an RF window for the antennas but it also appears to be there for decorative purposes (perhaps perfunctorily added in so that it doesn’t look identical to the iPhone) and while the material is nominally good, I actually thought it was plastic at first.

The front of the Pixel XL does bear subtle differences compared to the iPhone. The Corning Gorilla Glass that protects the AMOLED captive touchscreen doesn’t stretch all the way to cover the front of the handset and isn’t smoothed down like the iPhone 6s Plus and 7 Plus for a uniformed look. Instead, the Pixel XL has a rigid edge, which I actually prefer as it gives me extra grip.

Another grip-related element is the knurling on the power button. It’s such a small thing but it adds to the premium feel of the phone. It’s these little details that make the phone more pleasurable to use.

Because let’s face it, other manufacturers like Huawei have already starting to make better quality handsets. I’ve been using the Huawei P9 for a few weeks now and it’s undeniably well-built. Yes, phone makers are trying to replicate the premium feel of the Apple iPhone but they can’t win by making carbon copies of it. Hardware nuances matter.

Even so, Google is more eager to impress with its software, rather than its hardware. After all, it’s HTC that actually make the phones and the company knows what it’s doing.

Google Pixel Features & Performance

As mentioned before, the guts of the Pixel and Pixel XL are identical: both use the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor. Paired with the stock Android OS, 7.1 Nougat to be exact, the Pixel XL is fast and responsive. It’s so refreshing to use a phone that’s not bogged down with oodles of bloatware that just end up annoying the user.

As soon as you are done setting up the phone, you’re greeted with a clean and simple homepage with a tab to launch the Google search bar and access to Cards.

But the Pixel is really built around Google Assistant. It’s the new and improved digital personal assistant software by Google and the company is keen to stress that Google Assistant is smart; really smart. The tech giant’s previous efforts in the digital assistant space was with Google Now, which competed with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. It was useful but it was much more static and basically just enabled voice commands.

Google Assistant can learn. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), it can profile the user to discern their preference. You can have a two-way conversation with Google Assistant through natural language processing and it will remember what you said.

When you first use Google Assistant, it may not be immediately noticeable as to how it differs from Google Now. The latter is able to do a lot of things that Google Assistant can do: it can bring up all the cat photos you’ve taken that are stored in Google Photos, it can tell you when you next flight will be based on reservations saved in Gmail and you can instruct it to send messages or save reminders by voice alone. But Google Assistant lets you ask follow-up questions and can make suggestions on what actions to take next.

Google Assistant is integrated with many of Google’s own apps along with some third-party ones like Twitter. That means Assistant can launch straight into different apps when it sees fit. You can see an example of this in the video below. (Skip to around the three-minute mark.)

You can also play trivia with Google Assistant, which isn’t exactly useful but it’s amusing.

While Google Assistant is useful in some contexts, the one drawback for users is that it isn’t currently integrated with Google’s productivity apps such as Docs and Sheets. It would have been good to see Assistant pull up a needed document in Docs but this currently isn’t doable. On the plus side, Google has confirmed to Lifehacker Australia that it is currently working on office suite integration.

Google spent a lot of time talking up Assistant at the launch of the Pixel phones, but it’s not necessarily a feature that will blow you away. Besides, it’s almost certainly going to be rolled out to other Android devices later down the track anyway. Luckily, the Google Pixel has other things going for it too.

You can’t overlook the rear camera on the Pixel XL. Sure, it’s only 12.3-megapixels and at first glance, the hardware seems unremarkable, but it actually packs quite a punch. It uses 1.55um pixels for more light capture with a f/2.0 lens, to let more light in. Even if you’re not a camera nut, you’ll probably still notice how nice the pictures turn out.

The images are crisp and the white and colour balance look good in auto mode. Looking at the photos, I can definitely see how the Pixel’s camera received a DxOMark Mobile score of 89.

This isn’t just because of the hardware. Google had talked up how the Pixel has the best smartphone camera thanks to smart processing that goes on behind the scenes. The Google Camera v4.2 has a few tricks up its sleeve with features like auto-focus lock, exposure control, grids and, more importantly, faster app launch and shutter speeds.

The camera app on the Pixel XL is very fast. I’ve had a frustrating time on different smartphones in the past, including the Huawei P9, where I would try opening the camera app to capture a moment and have to wait a few seconds before it launched. Moment, gone. The Google Camera app on the Pixel launches almost immediately — and it captures photos just as quickly.

It can also take 4k videos with image stabilisation. To seal the deal, Google is offering up free unlimited online storage for Pixel owners, which would be useful for the snap happy given that the handsets don’t have expandable memory. (If you’re a prolific downloader we advise buying the higher-capacity model for this reason.)

Another interesting feature that the Pixel XL carries is 24/7 tech support, which wasn’t available at the time we reviewed the phone but users will be able to access the service after October 20. Google Pixel XL is also compatible with the company’s upcoming Daydream View VR headset but Australians have been left out of the initial launch.

The Google Pixel’s battery life was quite good under normal usage. After a day of using it as my main phone, it still had a lot of juice left, which is refreshing. Provided you’re not a prolific video watcher, expect to get two days of battery between charges. It also quick to charge up with the included wall adapter — handy for when you forget to charge at the end of the workday and need some juice for the commute home.

Google Pixel Verdict

The Google Pixel XL is a great phone; the hardware is sound and the performance is good. Google Assistant is handy and the camera is absolutely top notch. The handset even piqued the interest of my partner, a tech enthusiast and iPhone user who has been critical of Android devices for years.

But one of its biggest drawbacks is the price tag. At $1269 for the base 32GB model, the pricing is on par with Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus. But at least you can get the iPhone 7 Plus on a 24-month contract with any major carrier of your choice. The Pixel range is exclusive to Telstra.

Pixel is also more expensive than newly released premium phones such as the Motorola Moto Z and the Sony Xperia ZX. Compared to Google’s Nexus line, these phones are far from affordable.

If you don’t mind forking out the dollars for an outright purchase or if you’re happy to sign a contract with Telstra, the Google Pixel XL will impress you. For those who can’t fathom paying over a grand for an Android phone or would rather die than sign up with Telstra, at least there are still plenty of other Android options out there on the market.

Google Pixel Telstra Plans

As mentioned, the Google Pixel is being carried exclusively through Telstra. If you’re a Telstra customer (or are willing to jump telcos just for the Google Pixel), you can find every available plan below. Click on the ‘More’ buttons to learn more about each plan and/or sign up.

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