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.
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.