Google Pixel XL Review: This is Not the Android Flagship You’re Looking For

Posted on November 9, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 56 Comments

Google Pixel XL Review: This is Not the Android Flagship You’re Looking For

Google, we have a problem.

Your new Pixel XL is a great Android phone, but that’s a low bar. And it doesn’t offer enough of a bump over iPhone or, worse, its Nexus predecessors to justify the upgrade.

My initial reaction to this disturbing truth was to not blame Google. After all, the smartphone market of late 2016 is mature, and we’re awash in incredible choices.

But the only meaningful way to evaluate the Pixel XL is to determine how it fares in two key areas: Is it a credible Android-based alternative to the deep hardware, software, and services integration that Apple offers with iPhone? And does it provides any real advantages over other Android flagships?

In both cases, the answer is a decisive no.

No Android handset really offers the cohesive, reliable experience that iPhone users come close, though the Pixel XL perhaps comes closest. And compared to the Google Nexus 6P I was previously using, the Pixel XL offers only a few advantages. But it also falls short in some areas too.

That is not a success story, sorry. And as a result, after much internal debate, I have decided to return this phone to Google. In doing so, I will save about $800. More important, my conscience will be clear.

That’s personally disappointing, but it’s not all bad. The Pixel XL is indeed a great smartphone, and in the Android space it does offer some advantages over the competition. It’s a true flagship, with high-end specs, a mostly-pleasant hardware form factor, a tremendous software ecosystem, and the best mobile OS that’s not made in Cupertino.

And it’s just not enough. Not at these prices. And not when you compare it head-to-head with iPhone, especially.

The form factor is derivative, and looks almost exactly like an iPhone unless you really know what to look for. But despite a pleasantly smaller body than the iPhone 7 Plus with which it completes, the Pixel XL is thicker than Apple’s offering. So there’s no camera bump, but that’s because the entire device is thick enough to hide it.

camera

The screen is gorgeous: It’s a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display, and just a hair smaller than the 5.7-inch unit on the 6P. Apple uses yesteryear LCD technology for its own displays, but the iPhone 7 Plus manages to measure up nicely somehow. That said, the Pixel XL, like the Nexus 6P, offers a dark, contrasty view which many will find quite pleasing.

Google Nexus 6P (left) and Google Pixel XL (right)

Google Nexus 6P (left) and Google Pixel XL (right)

One could debate the relative merits of having a fingerprint reader on the front of the device (Apple) or on the back (Pixel), but I like both, and Google’s entry usually works quickly and accurately. (Why its surrounded by glass is unclear.) It also does so with a “pop” sound in the speaker, which I find both annoying and worrying, especially when you consider the calm, silent performance of the iPhone.

Speaking of that popping sound, it emanates from the Pixel XL’s single mono speaker, an inexplicable lapse for a smartphone flagship in 2016. The iPhone 7 Plus and Nexus 6P both sport stereo speakers, and both offer better, if not quite room-filling sound too. I can’t quite explain this one, but the iPhone drives wired speakers at higher volumes than the Pixel and Nexus, too.

I’ve spent a ton of time comparing the cameras of these three devices, and had originally planned a very long write-up to explain what I’ve found. But this one is easy to step through: The Pixel XL camera is better than that of the iPhone 7 Plus when both phones are used with their default settings, which basically amounts to auto-everything, including auto-HDR. But when you manually enable HDR on the iPhone, which you must do every freaking time, a real annoyance, the difference minimizes, and the iPhone’s sometimes flat and dull pictures start to look a bit more vibrant.

Any modern smartphone can take great shots outside in bright sunlight. Including the Pixel XL.

Any modern smartphone can take great shots outside in bright sunlight. Including the Pixel XL.

But I’m more concerned with how the Pixel XL camera compares to the Nexus 6P camera. Consistently, and in almost all conditions, the Nexus 6P takes better photos than both the Pixel XL and the iPhone. Part of the reason is its aggressive use of HDR+, which adds a pop to photos that some might frankly find a bit too much. But I love the look of the 6P’s photos, and its night/low-light performance is unmatched by the other devices. Where the Nexus 6P falls apart, however, is camera performance, and this is the one key advantage we see for the Pixel XL: Its camera performance rivals that of iPhone, and that is indeed a big deal.

Notice in this low-light shot that the whites are not white.

Notice in this low-light shot that the whites are not white.

Long story short, it’s a wash: The Pixel XL and Nexus 6P cameras are “better” overall than that of the iPhone 7 Plus, which seems to have somehow taken a step back from the quality of previous iPhones. But all three are “very good” to “superior” depending on the lighting conditions and other variables, and any of these cameras should be considered a great choice overall.

The Pixel XL offers fast charging, which is great, and I’ve had no issues getting through a full day with the device. But there’s no wireless charging, I assume because of the metal body. There’s also no true waterproofing—missing, too, on the Nexus 6P—not that I’d ever go swimming with a phone. I suspect it would survive a drop in a toilet or sink with some drying out, but I did not test that.

Let’s talk software.

Google touts its “new” Google Assistant as perhaps the key new feature of the Pixel XL: This is the only phone family to offer this interface, which you can trigger by saying “OK, Google” (after enabling this option) or by long-pressing the Home(round) button in the navigation bar. But the Google Assistant is just a new name for Google Now, which is available on older Android devices, including the Nexus 6P. And it looks and works the same.

Which is to say, poorly. With the possible exception of setting reminders, which I did find to be useful. Most of my interactions involved such things as checking on the weather, looking at traffic, and the like. It’s a nicety, but not yet a necessity. Put another way, it’s the future, and not full realized today.

reminder

Android 7.1 Nougat is a mixed bag as well. The round system icons in the new Pixel launcher make it seem a bit newer—by which I really mean “a bit different”—than other Android devices. But they’re also inconsistent with the most of the other icons on the home screen, though some third party apps—like Twitter—already support the new style.

home

Google opened up a fifth spot on the dock, which I like, and you now just swipe up on the Home button to access your app shelf, which displays all available apps. That works just fine. I also like the new wallpaper types for the lock and home screens, which include some neat live options that change as the day progresses. But these are just minor niceties. Overall, the clean Android experience you get with the Pixel XL isn’t really much improved over the clean Android experience you get with the Nexus 6P. And you can enroll your 6P in the Android developer program to get most of those new 7.1 features now. Hint, hint.

dock

One of the big mysteries with the Pixel XL is whether it will overcome the “performance rot” issues that has always dogged Android handsets. That is, everything is fine when you buy the device, but it slows down, often in annoying ways, over time, much like Windows PCs used to do.

So far, that hasn’t been the case, and the Pixel XL has offered steady and reliable performance for the most part. Navigating the UI, launching and using apps, and navigating between apps has mostly been glitch-free, something I can’t say of Android generally. Compared head-to-head with the Nexus 6P, the Pixel XL is noticeably faster, though both devices perform well.

But we can’t just compare Pixel XL to a year-old Nexus. And Google’s handset simply doesn’t match the overall performance and reliability of the iPhone. Ironically, I can see this very clearly when launching Google’s own apps on both phones: Yes, the iPhone is faster overall. Depending on the app, it’s often much faster.

The Pixel has some more subtle advantages, including a full complement of USB-C adapters and cables that ship in the box. And, possibly, its compatibility with Google’s DayDream View VR solution, which I will now not be testing.

in-hand

But with no huge advantages in functionality, Google could have still made a great case for its Pixel handsets if it had just priced them as it did last year’s Nexus 5X and 6P. But no. Google has instead opted to price the Pixel in the same stratosphere as the iPhone.

Are you kidding me?

The Pixel XL that I purchased—in “quite black” with a relatively paltry 32 GB of storage—cost an astonishing $770 (or $830 after shipping and taxes). A comparable iPhone 7 Plus is the same price. And is the superior phone on so many levels. Performance, reliability, consistency, and battery life especially.

As you may know, my reviews are based solely on personal experience. I don’t typically fall back on benchmarks, which I feel don’t tell the whole story, or on the long-winded explanations that usually accompany such comparisons. And it is here, in this very subjective space, that I’ve always been troubled by the Pixel XL. From the moment I took it out of the box, it has just never wowed me. Not even once.

Again, to be clear, it’s not because the Pixel isn’t a great phone. It really is, in many ways. It’s just that the Pixel has never risen above its competition in ways that I find meaningful or notable. I’ve never once taken a photo with it and thought, wow, this would never have been possible with the Nexus 6P or iPhone. I’ve never once been amazed by its performance, or reliability, or its general look and feel. I’ve just never made that special connection that oftentimes binds a person with a device that, frankly, is supposed to be very personal. I just don’t find myself caring about this thing.

Last night was very typical. Sitting in front of the TV, watching the CNN idiots blather on and on about the US presidential election, I had the three phones—the Pixel XL, the Nexus 6P, and the iPhone 7 Plus—arrayed in front of me, as has often been the case over the past few weeks. And time and again, unconsciously, I found myself reaching for the iPhone. I really do prefer it. Because it just works.

Ultimately, I expected more from Google’s first phone, mostly because of my hugely positive experiences with last year’s Nexus 5X and 6P. That it hasn’t delivered is surprising and disappointing.

So my advice goes like this. If you’re a Nexus 6P owner, you’re good: There is no reason at all to even consider a Pixel XL. Ditto for iPhone 6 or newer users: You’re already using the superior mobile platform.

But those coming from an older Android device face some interesting choices here. Were the Pixel XL priced at $500 and up, like the Nexus 6P, rather than at $770 and up, this would be a no-brainer and we’d be having a different conversation. But the Pixel is priced where it is, has the miscues and general blandness I’ve described. And we’re having a different conversation. And I don’t feel good about this.

The thing is, I’m not sure what to point you at. I feel very strongly that the pure Android experience we see on the Nexus and Pixel devices is an advantage, but the supply of last year’s Nexus 6P phones will dry up eventually. And while Motorola does offer a sort-of clean Android experience, those devices are not updated regularly like Google’s. What’s left? OnePlus? Samsung? Ugh.

So the Pixel XL has left a hole rather than filled one. And I have to imagine that wasn’t Google’s goal with this device.

 

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