At the Made by Google event which took place in October, Google announced two new phones. Unlike their regular Nexus phones, these were two phones made completely by Google - the Pixel and Pixel XL. While HTC is the OEM for the Pixel devices, the hardware and software control lies with the Mountain View company.
Pixel signifies a new chapter in Google’s phone history. So far, Google had the Nexus line which was made in collaboration with partners such as HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung, Huawei. Google had limited or no control over the hardware and had to optimise its Android OS to suit the hardware in order to provide the best stock Android experience. But something always seemed amiss.
Pixel’s birth also meant the end of the road for the Nexus line. Also with Pixel, Google has departed from the mid-range segment and entered the premium segment. A rarefied atmosphere where the likes of Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxies rule. Or do they? Let us find out with the Pixel XL.
Build and Design: 7.5 / 10
First things first. Yes, the Pixel XL does resemble an iPhone on first glance. This was reiterated by every other person who first set eyes on the sleeping Pixel XL. But considering it is made by HTC, some resemblance with the HTC 10, when you see the edges, is also noticeable. It comes in three colour colour variants which have interesting names: Quite Black, Very Silver and Really Blue. I am testing the Very Silver variant.
iPhone resemblance aside, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Pixel XL is a good looking phone which feels sturdy. The phone’s metal frame is flat, but the corners have a rounded edge. The ribbed power standby button and the plain volume rocker buttons are on the right and the nano SIM card tray is on the left. There isn’t any sort of sharp edge on the phone as such, apart from the very minor drop off from where the display meets the frame. Google has gone with a glass and metal design on the rear side, instead of having a unibody design, as is the norm in the premium segment. The only reason I can think of is that the glass top gives a better grip than the slippery metal back. Online forums speculate that it is meant for better signal reception and also assist with NFC. Visually, I don’t find it that appealing. Your opinion may differ.
The pearly white glass section on the rear side is slightly raised from the plane of the metal. It ensures that there is no camera bump, as the 12MP camera on the top left hand corner is flush with the surface. There is a circular finger print scanner in the lower half of the glass area. The antenna line is visible on the lower metallic half as well as three in the top half.
From the front, there is nothing extraordinary about the design. The rear does make the Pixel XL recognisable. Maybe that was Google’s idea. The design is functional. It measures around 7.3mm thick around the base and 8.6mm at the top and weighs around 168 gm, making it lighter than the iPhone 7 Plus. It is IP53 certified. That means there is dust protection but it’s not waterproof.
Features: 8 / 10
Google has kept the internals of both the Pixel and Pixel XL intact. The phones run on Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 821 chipset - which is also the chipset required to ensure the phone is Daydream VR ready. The Snapdragon 821 chipset houses a quad-core processor with two custom Kryo cores clocked at 2.15GHz and two Kryo cores clocked at 1.6GHz. These are paired with Adreno 530 graphics solution. There is 4GB of fast LPDDR4 RAM onboard. In terms of storage you get two variants - 32GB and 128GB. We got the 32GB variant for testing out of which the available storage space was 29.7GB.
It runs stock Android 7.1 Nougat OS which we will discuss in detail in the software section. There is a 5.5-inch display with QuadHD resolution which gives a respectable pixel density on the phone. In terms of connectivity, you get a single nano SIM card tray. There is support for 4G VoLTE, Wi-fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS with A-GPS and GLONASS, NFC. It lacks FM Radio. As for sensors, you have the proximity sensor which is conspicuous by its presence under the earpiece speaker on the Very Silver’s white front portion.
The Google Pixel XL sports a 12.3MP rear camera with f/2.0 aperture and a front-facing shooter with f/2.2 aperture. The PixelXL comes with a 3450mAh Li-ion non-removable battery. It is accompanied with a 5V/3A or 9V/2A adapter which has a USB Type C input.
Display: 8 / 10
The Pixel XL sports a 5.5-inch QuadHD display with a native resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. This gives it a pixel density of 534PPI which makes it quite sharp. The AMOLED display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4 coating. The glass covering does rise a millimeter over the metallic frame. The bezels on the top and bottom are quite thick. The display is bright and offers good viewing angles. Thanks to the AMOLED display the black levels are quite good. There was no issue with sunlight legibility. But the auto-brightness mode transition happens in noticeable steps, something that can get a tad bit annoying indoors or when you are walking in the park with overhead trees in the afternoon.
Consuming videos on the display is a pleasure, thanks to the great contrast offered by the Pixel. Gaming gives a similarly good experience. Text appears sharp. There is fairly little to complain in this department. It is not as vibrant as the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge though, but then again, a lot of people do not like the over saturation seen on Samsung devices.
Software: 8.5 / 10
Being a Google Phone, the Pixel XL comes with the latest Android 7.1 Nougat OS. The OS looks different from the Android 6.0 Marshmallow. In fact, a lot of people I showed it to thought that it was some skin atop Android. For someone who hasn’t seen the Pixel, one can forgive that error.
The Android 7.1 Nougat eschews a lot of the traditional stock Android design elements. The app drawer is replaced by a swipe up mechanism which shows you all the current apps you have on your device. From the top left hand side of the display, you have a prominent G of Google Search sliding out, tapping which you get a Google Search bar with five your last search terms. Swiping to the left most screen brings up the familiar Google Now interface with the Now cards. Even the traditional Home, Back and Recents button have a slight modification. While the Back button and Recents are seen as solid triangle and square, the Home button is a solid circle with an outer ring. Long pressing this button, brings up the voice-activated Google Assistant.
Google Assistant. This is actually the major feature of the Pixel, something which differentiates it from other Android smartphones on the market. No I don’t mean just the Assistant itself, but the fact that Assistant is baked right into the 7.1 Nougat on Pixel XL. Just long tap the home button, and you can start asking Assistant queries for which you need the answers. Since Assistant is a self learning tool, it will get better with time. Just like Google Now cards. You can only access Assistant inside the Allo app on other Android devices.
If you followed the Made By Google event, you will know that Assistant isn’t just another added feature on an Android smartphone, but a feature that Google plans to bake into a lot more of its hardware products. Assistant plans to be device agnostic. Google Home is one such product which works exclusively on Assistant.
Another interesting change from Android 6.0 Marshmallow has got to do with notifications. You get an additional downward pointing arrow beside the notification, tapping on which gives a more detailed view of it. With some notifications such as from WhatsApp or Gmail, you can take action from the notification shade itself.
Since it’s a Google phone, it will be the first to receive Android updates. This promise of timely updates has also made a lot of other manufacturers pull up their socks as well. So, it’s great for the Android user community in general, where fragmentation in OS versions is a big pain point.
There are six quick menus which are accessible on first swipe from the top. Tapping on the battery icon shows a usage graph which is quite insightful over just the percentage indicator. You get an approximation of the battery life left. You can also activate the battery saver mode from this screen itself. Second swipe shows the 3x3 grid of quick menus.
Quick Actions is an interesting feature, which is activated by long pressing on certain apps. For instance, long pressing on the Clock app brings up actions such as Start screen saver, Start Stopwatch, Create new timer, Create new alarm. Each of these Quick actions can be pinned to your home screens. Different apps give different quick actions. Think of it as the 3D touch peek feature, without 3D Touch.
The settings menu has undergone some cosmetic changes as well. You get an additional Support tab, which connects you to a Google support team which is available from 9AM to 6PM everyday, to resolve your phone issues. I tried this feature, but wasn't very satisfied with the answers, and had to eventually Google my query. There’s a Nearby feature which gives you push-notifications from services and devices close to you (within a 30m radius). Another interesting feature is the live wallpapers culled from Google Earth, which show a parallax effect everytime you swipe between home screens.
The user interface will require a mild learning curve. But there are some quirks. For instance, there are three ways in which you access search - Assistant, Google Search app, Google bar. It would have been much better to see some sort of integration there. Also lack of a Gallery app is annoying as you have to download a separate app to see all the image and video media separated in folder view.
Performance: 8.5 / 10
With a top end chipset such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 paired with 4GB of RAM, there are barely any areas where the Google Pixel XL does not deliver. The phone is fast. The integration of the hardware and software is top notch. I did not notice any sort of lag or random shutdown of apps. Google has clearly delivered in the performance segment.
Call quality is good, but I noticed that at times I had to press hard onto the earpiece speaker to hear the person on the other end properly. The loudspeaker on board the Pixel XL isn’t great at all. The sound output is muffled and there is definite audio clipping at higher volume levels. I would much rather prefer using the bundled earphone, which is relatively better, but certainly nothing great.
The fingerprint scanner works well and it doesn’t matter which orientation your registered finger is in. I liked the gesture on the finger print scanner that helps you slide down the notification shade, but just swiping your finger from top to bottom on the scanner. Scrolling through web pages, photo galleries is really speedy. The OS is quite responsive. Assistant gets Indian accents quite well and the contextual responses were impressive. Since it is a self learning system, I did face some issues with some follow up queries. The Assistant still does not get the Indian names correctly four out of five times. The more you use it, the better it will get. Think of the early days of Google Now, that’s at what state Assistant is at. There is a lot of scope for improvement.
The Pixel XL runs pretty much everything you throw at it without breaking into a sweat. High end games were handled well without any frame drops. The load temperatures after 20 minutes of intense gaming session was hovering around the 40 degrees C mark, which is quite decent heat management.
Camera: 9 / 10
The camera is one of the main features of the Pixel XL. Also Google has gone on a limb and called it not just the best camera on an Android phone, but also the best camera ever. It comes with a Sony IMX378 12.3MP rear camera with an f/2.0 aperture. It supports phase-detect autofocus as well as laser assisted auto focus. There’s a 1 / 2.3-inch sensor with a pixel size of 1.55 microns. On the front you get an 8MP 1 / 3.2-inch sensor which has an aperture of f/2.4 and pixel size of 1.4 micron. While the rear camera is capable of shooting 4K UHD videos, the front camera can shoot up to 1080p video. The Google Pixel XL lacks optical image stabilisation, but it makes use of the gyroscope to provide electrical image stabilisation while shooting videos.
Image quality of the photos coming out of the Google Pixel is excellent. Daylight images are packed with details and it has a great dynamic range. The HDR+ mode is on by default, and thankfully it does not make you wait while the image is being processed. The processing happens in the background, letting you shoot bursts without bothering. The software manages all the processing work in the background. I liked the gesture of pressing the power button twice to get to the camera even if the phone was in sleep mode. When shooting street, this aspect really helps capture instant photographs. There were instances during daytime where the HDR+ mode gave some unnatural halo around objects surrounded by the sky. Another issue, which has been acknowledged by Google as well, is that of lens flare when you point the camera at a strong light source. The example below shows how the Pixel XL and iPhone 7 Plus shot the same composition with the cameras being pointed at the sun.
In the low light photography testing, the Pixel XL was clearly better than the iPhone 7 Plus. Here is the complete comparison. The focussing speed takes a slight hit in lowly lit situations. But the image processing algorithms manage to keep the noise under control. Noise when present is luminance noise, rather than chroma noise.
Video quality during daylight was quite good. The EIS is on point. With a 60fps FullHD video, you get stutter-free, rolling shutter-free footage. I could easily imagine using this as a primary camera on family outings for shooting casual videos. The low light video footage isn’t very impressive and the outcome can get quite patchy at times.
All things said and done, Google’s claim that it is the best smartphone camera, does hold true to some extent. Images coming out of the Pixel XL are more punchy as compared to those from the iPhone 7 Plus, which gives a much more flat output. While the iPhone 7 Plus has a great camera in itself, the Pixel XL definitely edges ahead in a lot of areas, barring lens flare control. Google says it has released a patch, for what seems to be a hardware issue. But then, Google’s image processing algorithm has really come of age, maybe lens flare wouldn’t be as prominent in future updates.
Battery: 8.5 / 10
Google Pixel XL offers a 3450mAh Li-ion non removable battery. This is a respectable configuration. I could easily get through a day of regular usage out of the Pixel XL. It gave me an average screen on time (SOT) of around 4 hours 20 mins on most days. The bundled charger supports quick charging using the USB PD charging technique via the Type C port. It takes around 90 mins to charge the Pixel XL from 0 to 100 percent. PC Mark for Android gave a fabulous battery life score of 12 hours 14 mins, which is the highest I've seen on an Android smartphone.
Verdict and Price in India
Google has certainly delivered with its first inhouse smartphone - the Pixel XL. To give a football analogy, just like Atletico Madrid broke the duopoly of clubs like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga, Google has a product which goes head to head with the Apple iPhone 7 Plus as well as Samsung Galaxy S7 edge - thereby breaking the duopoly in the smartphone industry. And it offers a polished product, both on the hardware and software front, to be spoken of in the same breath as Apple and Samsung. If Google continues delivering this grade of smartphones in coming generations, then Samsung and Apple have reasons to be bothered. But in the future, not just yet.
So is the Google Pixel XL (32GB) worth the investment of Rs 67,000?
In a word, No. Allow me to explain.
Barring the fact that it comes with stock Android 7.1 Nougat OS which is expected to get timely Android updates before anyone else, there is really no reason that makes the Pixel XL stand apart, to justify that price tag. Assistant may be baked into the Pixel XL, but is still available on other Android phones inside the Allo app. Daydream VR platform is yet to go live, and moreover with time and with more devices getting VR ready, that USP is also gone. And honestly speaking, Daydream VR experience is not really top priority for a lot of consumers.
In the Android ecosystem, the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge priced at Rs 51,000 still offers a lot more value proposition. Plus you get the option to expand storage. Pixel XL’s unlimited storage for photos and videos is great, but that storage facility is not applicable for documents. If you are a photography enthusiast, yes the Pixel XL offers a great camera. But so does the S7 edge.
On the Apple side of things, the iPhone 7 Plus 32GB is priced at Rs 72,000. The price is Rs 5,000 more, but keep in mind that Apple has a robust after sales service ecosystem in India. Google Pixel XL is offering support from within the device, and its offline services are handled by HTC. A quick search on their respective after sales service pages, you will notice that Apple offers far more centres than HTC. When you are spending around Rs 70,000 on a phone, you want to make sure that an after sales centre is easily accessible. It is a well known fact that Apple iPhones have a much higher resale value than any Android device priced in the same bracket. Moreover, if you work on macOS and have an iPad, the choice is a no-brainer, and it just makes sense to spend Rs 5,000 higher and go for the iPhone 7 Plus.
Google Pixel XL offers an excellent camera, great raw performance, good battery life. There’s nothing to not like about the device. Only downer is its price point. If you have that kind of money, there is every reason to go for it, IF you are willing to pay the price for pure Android experience and priority updates. There is a market for that kind of audience, but it’s a niche market. For those that don’t have that kind of budget, the S7 edge in the premium segment and OnePlus 3 in the mid-range segment are the Android phones to look out for.