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Pixel vs. Galaxy vs. Rest of the World
Going into this review, I was concerned that Google's Pixel would not live up to its high price tag. At $769 for the Pixel XL (and $649 for the Pixel), any issues with the phones cannot be overlooked due to a budget price point, unlike with Google's cheaper Nexus products. The price tags for the Pixel line exactly match the iPhone 7, and buyers will expect iPhone-like quality.
Now that I've used the Pixel XL, it's clear that this is the best Android smartphone you can buy. In many areas the Pixel XL exceeded my expectations, and despite the high price tag, I would easily recommend it to those who enjoy Google's ecosystem.
The Pixel and Pixel XL retain the best feature of Google's now-retired Nexus line: the best Android software experience.
The Pixel and Pixel XL both retain the best feature of Google's now-retired Nexus line: the best Android software experience.
No bloatware, a clean interface, and fast software updates are all part of the Pixel experience. Add in compelling exclusive features like Google Assistant and a load of optimizations for the specific hardware in the Pixel phones, and the software you get here is simply better than any other Android device on the market.
Opt for an OEM like Samsung or LG, and you're faced with slow updates and a clunky skin. The Pixel and Pixel XL are for pure Android enthusiasts and everyday users that want a simple, hassle-free experience with cutting edge features.
The rear camera on the Pixel XL is the best I've used on a smartphone yet. Keep in mind I haven't had extensive time with the iPhone 7, but I can't see Apple's hardware trumping what Google has brought to the table here. Not only does the Pixel XL produce excellent photos, it also includes a range of awesome features I've never seen in a phone camera before.
Google's focus on improving the auto HDR+ mode has resulted in noticeably better images than the Nexus 6P. The image processing employed by Google on this phone is excellent, delivering high dynamic range, superb colors, and great detail without impacting on camera performance. Even with the HDR mode selected the vast majority of the time, the Pixel XL has no shutter lag, leaving you with no reason to disable it.
But zero shutter lag HDR isn't the only feature unique to the Pixel XL's camera. Along with focus performance second only to the Galaxy S7, the image stabilization while capturing 4K videos is unlike anything I've seen before. Videos are ridiculously smooth with few (if any) artefacts, and this is all without hardware optical image stabilization. Google has developed an astonishingly effective algorithm here, and it's a great use of their software engineering resources.
Image processing is everything, and Google has combined it with class-leading performance to dethrone the Galaxy S7.
The 1440p 5.5-inch display delivers the perfect combination of vibrance and accuracy. In its default mode, the display looks oversaturated yet fantastic thanks to a wide gamut and the infinite contrast of an AMOLED. Switching to the sRGB mode, the display becomes extremely accurate; in fact, it's the most accurate display I've tested. Brightness levels aren't fantastic, but the phone is still viewable outdoors.
I was impressed with the performance provided by the Pixel XL. The Snapdragon 821 doesn't really add anything we haven't seen before in Snapdragon 820 devices, but Google has cleverly optimized the device to provide a notably snappier experience. NAND performance still suffers from full-disk encryption, though app loading times are quicker than many of its high-end competitors. Lightweight software helps deliver a smooth experience as well.
Battery life is decent, outperforming most of its flagship competition. The Pixel XL doesn't push into the very top of our battery life charts, and the Galaxy S7 Edge beats in it most tests, although you'll still get at least a full day of usage from the Pixel XL in general.
There is one major downside to the Pixel XL: the design. I don't like the glass panel on the rear, and the massive bezels around the display make the phone much larger than necessary. I've heard the black version of the Pixel hides some of these shortcomings to an extent compared to the white/silver version I received, so maybe that's one way to go.
Ideally I'd like to see a microSD card and water resistance as well, as these features are commonly found on other high-end phones, especially the former if Google wants to attack Apple where it hurts the most.
The Pixel and especially the Pixel XL are pretty expensive. Don't get me wrong - there's a lot to like about these phones - but you can purchase a Galaxy S7 Edge for $150 less than the XL, or a OnePlus 3 for a full $390 less. There's enough great hardware and software in the Pixel XL to say this phone is the best Android device on the market, so you definitely get what you pay for, but it's easy to understand why fans of the Nexus line are frustrated at the inflated price tag.
I can see Pixel being highly successful for Google in the long run, and the Pixel competes very strongly with the iPhone 7, but I believe it will be hard to convince everyday customers to purchase a Pixel while the brand is new and unfamiliar. As an Android fan I'd comfortably pick it over the iPhone at the same price, but we'll let the market decide a few months from now how sales react to Google's offering.
For now, Google has shown the world what it can do when it has control over both the hardware and software. It's up to Android OEM partners to respond big time, because what Google has shown here has me really excited for the future of Android hardware.
Pros: The best smartphone camera available. The best Android software experience yet. Snappy performance. Fantastic high-resolution display. Decent battery life.
Cons: Lacks water resistance, wireless charging, and microSD card slot. Expensive. (Subjectively) ugly design.