My Google Pixel XL arrived today, allowing me to get started with the obvious comparisons: The iPhone 7 Plus with which it competes and the Nexus 6P that it replaces.
The good news for Google fans is that the Pixel seems to capture the basic essence of the iPhone, both in physical form and in a more spiritual sense. And that’s both good and bad: Like the Nexus 6P before it, the Pixel delivers on a level of quality that helps justify its lofty price. But it also looks a little bit too much like the iPhone.
The one major exception is the rear of the device, which bears an unfortunate design. The top third of the Pixel’s rear is covered in glass for some unfathomable reason, presenting an unnecessarily smudgy area that looks and feels different than the rest of the device. Fortunately, this is solved nicely by the $35 Pixel cover I also purchased. And that case provides a nice tactic experience of its own.
The Pixel also differs from the iPhone with its rear-facing “Pixel Imprint” fingerprint reader, but then the Nexus 6P and 5X had identical designs. We could debate the “proper” placement of such a button, but suffice to say that both choices—under the screen, per the iPhone, or on the back—have pros and cons. The Pixel’s fingerprint reader appears to be as fast and accurate as its predecessors.
Google’s fixation with Apple extends to the packaging, which has more cubby holes than a big SUV, and they’re filled with all manner of cables and adapters. There’s a USB-C to USB-A cable, which is to be expected, but also a UBC-C to USB-C for those with more modern devices that have already dropped the standard USB port. There’s also a nice power adapter, which only works with USB-C, and then a USB-C to USB-A dongle. For some reason.
Turning on the device, you’re greeted to a fairly standard Android initial setup experience that has just a few interesting changes. There’s a Copy your data option right up front which will let you transfer information from an iPhone or other smartphones. That’s smart. (Though I have not tested that.) And of course setup for both the fingerprint reader and the new Google Assistant, which is a centerpiece of sorts for this device.
The stock Pixel home screen is Spartan and features the new round icons that I believe will be making their way to Android 7.1 on other devices as well.
And these icons aren’t just round: You can tap and hold on them to reveal context menus, as with Apple’s Touch 3D and right-clicking on PCs, which provide additional entry points into the underlying apps. But these menus take a step past previous implementations and let you drag them to the home screen as discrete icons. So, for example, if you like the Take a Selfie option you see from the Camera app’s menu, you can use that as an icon too.
Speaking of the camera, I’ve only taken a handful of shots, and outside on a clear and sunny day. But here, already, I can see how this camera could stack up against the Nexus 6P and iPhone 7 Plus, which I also quickly tested. With all three on just the default auto shooting mode, the iPhone’s were the most washed out, though things inmproved when I manually enabled HDR+. (Why this can’t remain enabled is unclear.) The Pixel XL’s shots were colorful and clear, and of high quality. And the Nexus 6P’s were the most colorful, almost artificially so, with a very pronounced HDR quality.
How you react to such a photo is a personal matter, I guess, but I found both the Nexus 6P and Pixel XL photos to be “better” than those of the iPhone. But things were roughly even when I enabled HDR+ on the iPhone. I will need to take a lot more photos before this issue is settled.
Transferring my Project Fi SIM from the Nexus 6P to the Pixel was easy enough, though I sign-in to the phone with a custom Google Apps domain, and not with the Gmail account I have to use with Project Fi. (This is a weirdism of the Google ecosystem.) But I was able to easily sign-in to Project Fi from within that app and was up and running in minutes.
Looking ahead, I have a few obvious avenues of exploration once all my apps are installed and configured. I’m very curious about camera quality of course, and that will be an ongoing thing over the next few weeks. I’m also very interested in performance, as Android has always lagged iPhone in this area, no matter what the platform. With its high-end processor and gobs of RAM, the Pixel will be an interesting test. And if Android can’t run well on this phone, then Android is simply broken. We’ll see.
I’m also curious what small advantages I’ll see thanks to Android 7.1. Some features are coming to older phones, such as my Nexus 6P, which is enrolled in the beta. But some will not. For example, Night Light remains tied to Pixel and other phones that ship natively with 7.1.
Ultimately, I’d like to come to some stock conclusions about how this phone compares to the iPhone, and whether it’s worth its heady asking price. My base Pixel XL with 32 GB of RAM cost over $800 after taxes and other costs, and “good enough” just isn’t good enough in this stratospheric pricing category.
So will the Google Pixel XL measure up? We shall see.