Revisiting the Google Pixel XL at 6 Months

Posted on April 28, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 34 Comments

Revisiting the Google Pixel XL at 6 Months

Google released its Pixel and Pixel XL handsets in October 2016, escalating its battle with Apple and the iPhone. Six months later, it’s time for another check-in.

Granted, I’ve already written a lot about the Pixel.

And as you may know, my coverage of this handset—I bought a 32 GB Pixel XL as soon as it was possible—has been a bit more negative than is the case elsewhere. There are a number of reasons for that, but it’s important to put my opinions about this device in context: The Pixel and Pixel XL are expensive, premium devices that are meant to go head-to-head with the iPhones and Galaxies of the market. So they need to be judged accordingly.

I just flashed my Pixel XL back to its most current factory image, utilizing Android 7.1.2. It’s an arduous process involving command line tools, unlocking and re-locking the bootloader, and all kinds of other nonsense. I’ve done this many times with various Nexus devices, and probably four times or more with the Pixel XL alone (once to briefly test the first Android O Developer Preview). But I won’t be documenting the process here because it’s so daunting, and I really couldn’t help anyone if they screwed up their device.

That said, I feel an odd sense of accomplishment each time I complete this task, and of course there’s nothing quite like a newly-reset and reformatted Android device. For now, at least, the Pixel is running as well as it ever will.

Looking at this device with fresh eyes, and re-examining everything I’ve written about the Pixel XL in the past, I have identified the three key areas that concern me about this device. They are:

Price. The base price of the Pixel XL (with 32 GB of non-expandable storage, the version I purchased) is $770, the exact price of a comparable iPhone 7 Plus. (Samsung doesn’t offer a 32 GB Galaxy S8+, but the 64 GB version is $850.) That is a lot of money for a device with the following two issues.

Performance. One of the most surprising things about the OnePlus 3T I recently evaluated is that this device—which costs just $440 for a 64 GB version—outperformed the Pixel XL in day-to-day usage. To be clear, I’m referring here to Android and app performance, not the camera.

Design. The Pixel is a bland, me-too device that was clearly influenced by the iPhone. A number of people have suggested that Google could hardly do much here, given that there are only so many ways to design a phone. I would simply point to the Samsung Galaxy S8+ as obvious proof that innovation is still possible here. And that Google did not rise to the challenge.

But one of the things that gets lost when I criticize the Pixel is that it’s not a complete washout. In fact, there are things I like about this device quite a bit as well. The three most profound include:

Camera. The Pixel XL offers one of the very best smartphone cameras on the market today, and it handily outperforms the iPhone 7 Plus camera. I’m especially taken by the Pixel’s low-light prowess, and my night shots in Berlin and, more recently, in Stowe, Vermont, offer obvious evidence of this claim. It also does a stellar job with HDR, automatically, unlike the iPhone.

With the Pixel, low-light photos are often pretty amazing.

Clean Android image. While many phone makers alter Android to their own ends—and to be fair, both Samsung and OnePlus actually do offer some nice improvements—I still very much prefer to get my Android as God (or at least Google) intended. And the Pixel provides the most modern and up-to-date version of Android available anywhere, and it’s updated regularly.

Project Fi. As many readers must know, I am in love with Google’s Project Fi cellular service because of its reasonable and transparent pricing and its no-additional-cost international usage. But Project Fi only works with select, mostly-Google phones. Including Pixel. (Yes, other carriers may be catching up here. I’ve got my eye on T-Mobile, for example.)

Obviously, there are other pros and cons to the Pixel XL, but those are the big ones. As I scan over those items, I do a bit of internal calculating to determine whether this handset makes sense for me. And … it does. Which is part of the bigger calculation I recently did around the Samsung Galaxy S8+, which resulted in my decision to return that stellar device.

So how does it all add up? (For me, that is.)

First, the Pixel is paid for. There’s no monthly cost, no additional $850 to spend (as I would for the Samsung). It’s here now, and it works.

Second, the camera is in many ways the single most important part of a smartphone for me, especially when I’m traveling. I’ll continue using the iPhone 7 Plus day-to-day, most likely. But when it comes to capturing memories, here in the US or abroad, the Pixel (and its Project Fi coverage) is coming along for the ride.

And then there’s the performance. I know some people disagree with this. And I know that some believe my occasional use of Microsoft’s Arrow Launcher (or whatever) contributes to the problem. All I can say is that I’ve probably never owned an Android device that didn’t slow down over time, and while I’ve certainly done my share of software testing on the Pixel, I don’t feel that this device offers any unique performance benefit. In fact, I’ve been struck by the frequency of UI glitches and slowdowns over the past six months. But whatever, hope springs eternal, and I’ve reset it yet again and spent part of last night loading it back up with the apps and content I want on there. We’ll see how it goes.

If you’re considering buying a Pixel now, I would point you at what I’ve already written about this device and at my recent examinations of the Moto G5 Plus, OnePlus 3T, and Samsung Galaxy S8+, all of which are excellent entries in different pricing categories in the smartphone market. And to this Google support page, which notes that the Pixel will not receive any new Android version updates after October 2018. (This is in keeping with the firm’s support policy for previous Nexus devices.) You’ll want to plan accordingly.

Speaking of hope springing eternal, I will also remind you that Google is expected to rev the Pixel and Pixel XL—and possibly introduce an even bigger “Pixel XXL” model that I’m very interested in—later this year. If we consider the Pixel as Google’s beachhead moment (and in doing so, ignore that Nexus ever happened), it’s reasonable to assume that the second generation devices will address issues with the first. And whether you agree with me or not on those issues, it’s still reasonable to assume that the second-generation devices will at least be improved across the board.

And who knows? By that time, I may be willing to throw another $800 or so at Google again. In the meantime, I’m holding on to the Pixel XL I already own.

 

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Comments (34)

34 responses to “Revisiting the Google Pixel XL at 6 Months”

  1. mjw149

    The most recent build of Android on my 6P has been noticeably crashing apps at random times. Even first party apps like "news and weather" It's inexcusable that Google treats Android like this. And I'm still annoyed at Now On Tap, it isn't good for anything.

    • Nicholas Kathrein

      In reply to mjw149:

      From experience if your apps are crashing I fix that by doing a factory reset of the phone after every big upgrade or when this happens. Usually it's about once a year when the new version is released. No crashes and I also have a 6P 64 gb model.

      • MTrimmer

        In reply to Nicholas Kathrein:

        Agree with point about factory reset. That often does address issues in Android. On the other hand, I think it is valid to question why this is the case and is it acceptable on a top tier device in 2017.

        • Nicholas Kathrein

          In reply to MTrimmer:

          Nothing is perfect and if you pretended your Android phone was a Windows phone meaning you don't download any apps then sure you'll be fine by over time and many downloads then adding updates to the os it very possible to run into issues. iPhones get issues too. Nothing is perfect and phone OS s are really only about 7 to 10 years old. Let's give then a bit more time to get better.

  2. Waethorn

    Ask yourself this: Are there any Microsoft Signature PC's that are knock-your-socks-off, perfect, sexy machines?

    • SvenJ

      In reply to Waethorn: Yea, My Surface 3 and my Surface 3 Pro, for different reasons, even for me. Perfect is in the eye of the beholder, and what nocks my socks off may not even give you a stiffy. That's as true in a bar as it is in a carrier store.


  3. SvenJ

    Want to see my Galaxy S8+? It's the most stunningly beautiful phone ever made. Just let me take it out of the Otter Box. We have to sit down on this carpeted floor though, because it is designed to shatter no matter how it falls.

  4. Bossy573

    Went to a Pixel XL a few months ago. Absolutely love the speed, simplicity and quality of this phone. The fingerprint reader on the back is perfect for the way I handle a phone, the camera is superb, the screen is great, battery good, and it is getting into Apple territory in that it "just works."

    I have not seen any slowdowns or lag whatsoever - but some of this might be the difference coming over from a 2 year + old Note 4. But man this phone is smooth.

    My only beef is the audio quality does not seem as good as the Note 4, and the volume seems to be set low.

  5. ben55124

    Haven't noticed the android rot yet on my OP3 - 11 months, no resets. Is this associated with % of storage used?

  6. rameshthanikodi

    I don't know if it's just me, but I think stock Android is the most overrated thing ever. I'm not saying yes to bloatware, but clean value-add from OEMs on Android are perfectly acceptable in my books. The most notable "clean" Androids are from OnePlus, Moto, and HMD (Nokia). Even Samsung's latest skin on Nougat is pretty clean. As long as its been tested to be stable and speedy without mucking up the UI (either do a better job than Google or don't re-skin), i'm okay with it. The biggest example I can give is what Samsung has done with the Settings app in their flavor of Nougat. It is legitimately better than stock Settings from Google, and somehow remains more clean despite accommodating Samsung's myriad of features.

    • Narg

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      Well, in supporting those that use various phones, I can't agree with you. Some of the crap these folks have to put up with is insane. Stock always works. Period. That's more than enough for me to suggest folks go pure Google. Crapware is crapware no matter how to sugar coat it.

    • Ugur

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      I totally agree. As multi platform dev i have devices from most manufacturers, so for Android i also have both Vanilla and "Skin" Android version devices.

      Now Kindle Fire OS is a different topic since it deviates very heavily from the Android version with google apps and services, it is really a big fork of the open source android version.

      (and in my view a much worse version than vanilla and samsung versions)


      But the with google apps and services versions on other devices, especially the samsung version is meanwhile not just very good, but if one looks at it honestly, so without fanboy and other premeditated bias, then the Samsung version is actually far better on many important aspects meanwhile.


      Now that doesn't mean i dislike vanilla android, it has it's own set of advantages and disadvantages.

      One big advantage being that one gets OS updates faster.


      But yeah, in return one does not get many of the actual real improvement additions and improvements by Samsung.


      Regarding Android devices (no matter if vanilla or device manufacturer specific version) slowing down/getting sluggish over time more than iOS devices:

      As developer i know the main reason for this, which is that Android handles backgrounding and also multitasking and services differently than iOS.

      In a nutshell it gives the developers more freedom than iOS, which also leads to more freedom for the users on many ends regarding what features apps can have.

      But that more in freedom comes at a cost, in this case performance reduction when one is not careful with what one installs and what one has running.

      On Android one has to care more about what one installs, and close apps manually more often and also uninstall bad apps or the device will run worse and worse over time until one cleans it up or resets it.


      Example for why that happens:

      On iOS apps can't just run services freely forever, when pushed to the background an app is automatically paused within a very short timeframe (paused as in the state written to memory and no app code executed anymore) and only a handful of pre registered as such app types may run onwards in the bg (and even for those not forever nor after a reboot).

      For example audio, navigation, voip etc.

      And one has to declare that in the info.plist of the app and it has to be approved by Apple.


      On Android Apps can run services in the background and some apps run services in the background all the time.

      (For example many of the social network ones)

      Even if they are fully closed and many even restarting them when the system/device reboots.

      Meaning that when one has a bunch of such apps installed, of course that will have a negative impact on performance.


      Again, i don't state that as negative or positive, it allows more freedom and power, but with greater power, well, comes greater responsibility, and that also means more responsibility by the user to only install apps he trusts and close apps he doesn't use and even uninstall apps of which he/she notices they suck performance constantly despite being closed thanks to such services running.


      One can check on most Android devices which services are running and yeah, if your device runs sluggish you can very likely see there that you installed a bunch of stuff which now runs services all the time which suck away your performance.

      Then you'd have to uninstall those apps or if you want to go further you can do a full cleanup/restore every few months.



      I do that every 3-6 months on my Android devices and hence they then always run like new.



      Then there's the other aspect of getting OS updates or not and getting them later or not.

      Me personally i'm a big supporter of getting OSupdates timely, but only if they improve your usage of the device.

      On Android devices, on many, one does not get the OS updates timely, even good ones, so that's a bummer.

      But it's not all happy candy land in iOS world either, because there what Apple does is only optimise the OS updates in resource usage for the newer devices which then up to now for all generations of iOS devices meant that the last few OS updates they got actually made the device perform way worse to the degree of often not being well usable at all anymore. The newer OS version just sucked more resources than those weaker older devices could handle nicely, hence then always apps shutting down more often and more often having to be reloaded fresh from the start.

      For some devices the moaning got so loud when Apple did that that they then released another last dot update for them which improved things again slightly, but for several devices they didn't and those then stayed with that OS update as last option which made the device worse to use.

      And with iOS it is even more difficult to downgrade to an older OS version again than on Android.

      So meanwhile i have turned automatic updates off on iOS and only install them when being sure they work well in general and i'm especially careful regarding whether i install an iOS upgrade on the lowest device gens "still supported".


      So yeah, it is a double edged sword and none of them are perfect, all have own pros and cons =)


    • Nicholas Kathrein

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      I love stock Android that is on a Google Nexus or Google pixel.


      Reasons are below.

      1. It's the lightest and cleanest version. Any missing features that are built in to other skinned versions that I want are only an app download away. I do a Google search about every 6 months for "best Android app 2017" or 2016 and there are many quality publications that are paid to find the best apps and that is how I get my features and functionality that isn't part of stock android.

      In the end I get timely updates for security and major OS updates. Also over time my phone doesn't slow down as much as others. It always does a little bit and sometimes I'm running a beta version of the next Android which is a beta and does have issues. Sticking to stock does seem to work.

    • wolters

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      I can agree with that. Samsung does offer a ton of features that are quite nice to have even if it means TouchWiz.

  7. wolters

    Since leaving Windows Phone in 2015 and spending some good time with a Note 5 and after the Note 7 mess, I was kind of just disheartened with the whole smartphone market. I really wanted to stay on Windows Phone but couldn't' stay there. And I loved the Note 7 but alas.....


    I have a Pixel XL and a Moto Z Force Droid. Both are awesome phones and in general, I give the Moto Z Force Droid an edge because of it being more fully featured (some nice gestures, mods, excellent camera quality) and the charging is the fastest I've ever experienced on a smartphone...it is amazing. And the battery totally rocks. Alas, the camera is SLOW and the software often crashes and I lose what photo/video I was taking.


    So I've settled on the Pixel XL as my daily driver. It is overall the best performing phone I've ever had. While the camera has underwhelmed the hype at times, it is still the best camera on a phone and it is SO fast and reliable. Like Paul, the camera is quite important to me.


    I've been on the fence about the S8+ but even with some design changes, it isn't enticing enough to leave the Pixel. Now a Moto Z Force Droid 2 with improved camera speed...that would be tempting since the mods will work.

  8. dspeterson

    We moved from AT&T to T-Mobile just recently to take advantage of their international roaming. My mother in law just spent 6 weeks in Europe and had zero complaints about the coverage and service there, but to be fair, she's not a super technical person, just needed normal cell phone functions.


    Coverage here in the states has been good too, although I live in the Seattle area, and having T-Mobile headquartered locally may factor into that. Our bill is roughly 1/2 of what we were paying AT&T, although we got in with a number of promotions (free 3rd line, 20% off for life, etc).

  9. Darmok N Jalad

    Curious to hear of your interest in a phone bigger than the XL. I'm currently trying to decide between the iPhone 6S I've been using or the 6S Plus I just got yesterday. As much as I like the bigger screen, the heft of these bigger phones takes some adjusting, and it keeps leaving me to wonder what my best option is. And I owned a 1520 at one time. Eventually no pocket is big enough.

  10. Atoqir

    I don't agree with the The "update" argument many Pixel fans say.


    My Samsung galaxy S6 has got Nougat and a march security update. I bought the device the day it released 2 years ago. So I have gotten 2 years updates as well, just as the pixel promises. I think as platform holder Google should set the benchmark for other OEMs with at least 3 or 4 years.


    Yeah it's not Android 7.1 on my device (yet) but I have features that Android N implemented and a bunch Android O will implement for like 2 or 3 years already (icon masks, icon badges, multi window, fingerprint api, video PIP, browser extensions, theme store, ... etc, ... thanks to OEM implementations. And with the Grace Galaxy UX I got 2 months ago it feels like I have a new phone.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to Atoqir:

      So, you seem to be proving the argument. :) But it's not about others not getting updates. It's just a fact that Pixel devices get all updates: Feature updates and security updates, and do so immediately.

    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to Atoqir:

      Honestly, I'm starting to rethink the entire update process. Android has been a fragmented mess for its entire existence, and how many exploits have actually made it to the wild? I think there is more risk in a user downloading an app from the Play store that has too many permissions and mines his or her personal data. With the way Android is now designed, more functionality and security resides inside Google Play services and apps, which Google can update on any relatively modern Android device at any time. Apple does this differently, as their primary apps and services are updated at the OS level, but then again, it is also not a problem to get those updates on any modern iOS device. So is the person running a Galaxy S5 and Android 5.x with all apps and services up to date really at any more risk than a fully updated Pixel user? I haven't seen many articles that suggest or prove that this is the case.

    • Narg

      In reply to Atoqir:

      You should read deeper into this "march security update" It's not quite as recent as you think it is...

  11. Ugur

    I feel like Google would have a big winner with the Pixel (XL) if they made it 200-400 cheaper in same setup.

    As it is, for this high price, even if the camera is among the best, and even if it has Vanilla (or Vanilla+) Android, the device itself is in most regards (basically all besides camera) at best upper average by today's standards, not really deserving that high price point.

    Yes, the iPhone and Galaxy phones are even more expensive often, but they are also the best in their fields in most aspects when they are released.

    Especially the S8 basically sets a new design level standard this year, and so will likely the next iPhone (even if catching up to the S8 mostly, still, at least for their OS the new design standard).

    The Pixel would have been regarded as Killer device if it had this setup but was 200-400 cheaper.


    And yeah, other issues Google has to address, too are of course:

    -Get the availability going

    -Don't ever release a device with only 32 GB storage and no sd card slot ever again.


    I bet you most of the performance concerns come from people filling it up quickly and then wondering that the device then performs ass while of course it does, because any device performs ass when it runs at very low free storage and so the OS has to constantly shift things around to still run and unload stuff way more often and load it fresh again etc.


    What makes it even worse if of course, that yes, compared to the other flagships, it doesn't exactly have the best chip in first place either, so then, sure, it does not perform best from the getgo, then also fills up quicker and then performs even worse, so yeah, bummer.


    I'm just really sad about this because a few years ago Google would have released a device on this quality level (based on standards for the time) as nexus device at way lower price and all would have been (very) happy about it.



    Now, yeah, either Google has to lower the prices way more on these things again, or they really have to deliver a device which is so good all around compared to the other flagships, that it seems worthy of that high price in comparison.

    I like the appeal of Vanilla(+) Android and getting all OS updates first (or at all) etc, but yeah, not paying these sums for a device which is besides the camera at best average feeling to me in most aspects and with this tiny amount of storage and no sd card option

    (i don't even count the larger built in storage option as existing because it was never available so far when i looked for it)

  12. glenn8878

    Doesn't sound like a good phone or reasonable alternative to iPhones. Just boring and maybe boring is good.

  13. Nicholas Kathrein

    I have one thing to say and if Paul searches his soul he'll know it's true.

    He'd never judge any Microsoft device issues running a beta OS. If that is fast ring with windows or Windows mobile.

    In the last 3 to 5 months when he's been complaining about the pixel issues he's either been on Google's version of fast ring or worse the developer preview of Android O. Without having 2 phones with and without beta software you can't really know for sure your current complaints are valid on the stock OS which is really what the Pixel should be judge on. You're previous experience with other Android phones clouds your judgement that if this was on stock Android the whole time instead of betas that your phone would have slowed down anyway which the people complaining about your view on this have real life experience with the phone that it isn't the case.

    There is a reason people have been telling Paul how wrong he is on this because the are not running beta versions of the os.

    Paul please comment.

    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to Nicholas Kathrein:

      Sounds like he did address this in his article. He has similar complaints about the current official build from Google.

      • Nicholas Kathrein

        In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

        What he said was he doesn't believe it won't slow down again since none of the past have kept being as fast as when he got it. I know from reading this site and his previous site that he only has had 1 nexus and now 1 pixel phone. When you only have one phone and a compulsion to run "fast ring or beta builds" then you experience is what it's like to be on beta software. Paul has many windows phones and laptops so it's easier to see how the normal build works vs the beta when you're not just using 1 phone.

  14. James Wilson

    I quite like Apple's and Microsoft's methods of restoring phones.


    Microsoft's method for Windows phone is a bit more complicated that Apple's in that you have to download the Microsoft Device Recovery Tool first, plug your phone in to your PC, then tell it to reset to factory, and it overwrites the current software with the base default. You sit back and wait until its done.


    I didn't realise Android was so long winded.

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