Google’s “Pixel” line of products is designed to be the highest-end, top of the line hardware from Google. It is very different from the Nexus line of products, which is designed to provide excellent “quality for the price”. In a Pixel product, pricing is not a concern, and with prices going from $649 (Pixel 32GB) to $869 (Pixel XL 128GB), Google’s new phones don’t come for cheap, but they do provide excellent features and experiences. You can compare the Pixel and Pixel XL specs if you want.
Google Nexus vs. Google Pixel
With Pixel products, Google is supposed to be the sole company in charge (“designed by Google”), but it can use the services of an ODM (white-label phone maker) to build the final product. Keep in mind that Apple also uses manufacturing services.
This time, Google has used the services of HTC to build the Google Pixel, and HTC is not mentioned anywhere in the official Google materials (which is normal for this type of deal). How much each company contributed to the final design is somewhat of a mystery. Huawei said that it passed on the opportunity to work on the Pixel phone.
This is Google’s first Pixel phone. The first Pixel product was the Chromebook Pixel in 2013.
Design: quite good, but not exceptional
From the outside, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL phones look quite good, but I don’t expect most people to be blown away by the industrial design. The phone has a classic look which could be compared to the iPhone 7’s, with a metal body and large bezels at the top and bottom of the screen.
The front is very clean, without any visible branding (which is nice). For the respective screen sizes of 5” and 5.5”, the overall body size of the phone is relatively big, especially if you compare that to the Galaxy S7 Edge or the new Xiaomi Mi Mix.
If you look at the Google Pixel from the side, you will see that it has a wedge shape, with the bottom being a bit thinner than the top. It’s smart because it looks thinner than it really is. In fact, at 8.5mm thin, the Pixel phone won’t win any thinness competition, but its rounded edges feel good in the hand.
The back, the phone has a two-tone design with the 2/3 bottom made of metal, and the top part made of colored glass (black/white). The glass could have the advantage of letting the radio signal go through, although there are antenna gaps/bands in the metal body at the top and the bottom of the phone.
Google has a “Really Blue” variant of the phone that looks very different if the common silver/black options seem too mundane for your taste (Pixel 5” only).
Because of its metal body, the Google Pixel should fare OK with drops because the corners are well protected (50% of drop contacts are on the corners), but the front glass could still shatter when landing on a hard surface. To better understand how phone breaks when dropped, take a look at how the LG V20 was designed to survive drops.
While we are talking about survivability, keep in mind that the Google Pixel isn’t rated to be submerged in water (it has an IP53 rating. Apparently, Google didn’t have enough time to make it waterproof). That said, Empirical tests show that some Pixel units can survive immersed in water.
Given that nearly half of the smartphone fatalities are due to water damage, it would have been a “nice to have,” and in certain countries like Japan, it’s almost a must-have.
At the top, there’s the 3.5mm audio connector while the Power and Volume controls are on the right side. The left side is devoid of buttons, but that’s where the SIM tray is – and if you were going to ask: there is no microSD slot.
At the bottom, you will find the USB-C connector and two recessed speaker grills. The sound quality of my Pixel XL is quite good, but nothing to rave about for a phone of that price. Obviously, all phone designs have trade-offs, and while front-facing speakers tend to bring the best sound, they are also inconvenient for other reasons (size).
I found the Pixel sound to have a bit more echo than the S7 Edge when I tried both side-by-side. If there’s demand for it, I can compare with the iPhone too, although I expect all three do perform reasonably well.
Also, I tried to push the sound to maximum to see if there were any distortions like it was previously reported by some buyers (turned out to be a hardware issue). No problems detected.
AMOLED Display in FHD or QHD
The pixel and pixel XL have AMOLED screens with different display resolutions. The Pixel 5” screen comes with an 1080p/FHD/1920×1080 resolution (441 PPI), while the Google Pixel XL has a QHD/2560×1440 (534 PPI) resolution.
441 PPI is very sharp, but if your eyesight is excellent, you could conceivably see a difference in very specific cases, such as high-frequency HD photos. If you need the extra sharpness, the 534 PPI pixel density of the Pixel XL might be a better choice, if you are ok with the larger chassis.
I find the display image quality to be very good, with vivid colors, decent brightness (343 NITs) and good contrast. I also think there are better displays out there. The Samsung ones come to mind, the S7/S7 Edge (540 NITs) being excellent and the defunct Note 7 display was out of this world in terms of brightness (800+ NITs) and overall quality. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found this level of quality again in upcoming Galaxy phones.
The brightness is typically important when you use your phone outdoors in direct sunlight. The brighter the screen is (in NITs) and the more readable it will be. Also, starting from 600 or 700 NITs, it’s reasonable to start claiming some HDR compatibility.
As we said earlier, the bezels on either sides aren’t anything to be impressed by as they are significantly wider than the S7 Edge or the Xiaomi Mi Mix for example. The top and bottom also have several millimeters more space than the Galaxy phones. The Google Pixel is comparable in that respect with the iPhone 7.
The Google Pixel can be awoken by double-tapping the screen, and while some people have reported having double-tap issues, it worked perfectly for us.
Pixel Camera: excellent
The Google Pixel has a 12.3 Megapixel camera equipped with a powerful new image sensor that has larger pixels than even the Galaxy S7 Series. Unfortunately, there isn’t an optical image stabilization (OIS), but you will see that this doesn’t prevent the Pixel from performing at the very best level.
As you may know, the Google Pixel’s camera has received the highest score (89) from DXO, a benchmark for Camera sensors, but also for select mobile phones. While this score is important and a good indicator, keep in mind that it focuses on certain specific aspects and is not always right. For instance, the S7 Edge, XPERIA X Performance and HTC 10 all have a score of 88, but of the three, the S7 Edge is sharply better.
The Google Pixel camera leverages the power of the Snapdragon 821 computing units to perform heavy image processing. The camera ISP (Image Signal Processor), DSP (Digital Signal Processor), GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) and CPU (Central Processing Unit) are examples of computing units of the chip that can contribute to fine-tuning the final image.
"THE MOST STABLE VIDEO RECORDING EXPERIENCE"Google also uses the internal motion sensors of the phone to perform Digital Image Stabilization (DIS, sometimes called Electronic Image Stabilization or EIS) when shooting movies. The net result is the most stable video recording experience, even though it has the occasional “jerk motion” when the camera has to readjust the buffer zone it set aside for the video stabilization. It’s perfectly normal and can’t be helped.
Interestingly enough, the Snapdragon 821 chip comes with software that performs a similar video stabilization called EIS 3.0. My understanding is that Google uses the same hardware, but has its own implementation of video recording stabilization (Qualcomm’s software development kit does allow OEMs to do exactly that).
Learn more: What is Image Stabilization?
Burst photography to improve HDR and Low-Light Photos
At the heart of the Google Pixel camera prowess is the idea to use multiple shots and heavy image processing to extract more information and create a better final photo. Taking multiple images in rapid succession allows for two particularly useful things:
1/ In low-light situations, taking many shots allows the camera software to decrease the signal to noise ratio. This reduces the noises that you see in the form of random colored dots in the photo.
2/ In high-contrast scenes, Google’s engineers have decided to take multiple shots without using bracketed exposure (bracketed = taking images slightly under-exposed, then over-exposed), which is the standard way of doing HDR. Instead, successive images are shot at a constant aperture then combined.
The constant aperture helps the image alignment algorithm work better, and that is the foundation of everything. Without a strong alignment, you would lose sharpness quite rapidly. In some ways, this alignment algorithm is supposed to compensate for the lack of OIS, but it makes things more complex, and doesn’t seem to replace it at 100%.
Next, Google has done everything it can to maintain control over Image Processing. Google engineers have bypassed any unwanted hardware processing in the ISP units (image signal processor). Typically, ISPs apply demosaic algorithms (and possibly more) to the signal they get from the image sensor.
All this software goodness is seen by Google users as “Auto HDR+,” an option which existed before (in the Nexus 6P), but which was improved in the Google Pixel, and turned ON by default.
Perceived photo quality
The Google Pixel does deliver in image quality. It produces excellent pictures, and the camera does “the right thing” nearly all the time. The photos are rarely over-exposed (a specific trait of the Pixel phone), and colors tend to be well saturated and vivid (sometimes, unnaturally so). I found them to be beautiful in general.
On the other hand, HDR does produce photos that sometimes look somewhat unnatural, or “off,” when compared to the real thing. It often happens with HDR, and most of the time it’s not a bad thing, but good or not depends on your preferences.
The thing is: people who haven’t seen the scene wouldn’t have an idea as for whether or not things are a bit “off.” In general, I would say that this is not a big issue. That said, if you have complained in the past that photos from such and such vendor look unnaturally saturated, then take notice.
Finally, there are numerous reports about Lens flares in photos (see the light “ring” in the above photo). Looking back at my pictures, I found this good lens flare example, which is often related to how the optics were designed, built or put together. However, the “lens flare issue” appears often enough on the web that I felt I should mention it, even if it was not a real problem for me.
Google has promised to issue a fix that should alleviate the issue “in the next few weeks”. This was in mid-October and the fix was release before the end of October as part of the 7.1.1 update which included changes to the Camera App. (More examples in the Google Products Forums).
Overall camera experience: excellent
To rate the overall camera experience, I’ll go over the five pillars that I think define a great mobile camera experience:
- Image quality: Excellent
- Image stabilization: no OIS for photos, but video stabilization is excellent
- Low-light performance: very good
- Speed (AF Speed + Camera Speed): very good, although not as fast as Galaxy S7 in AF speed. Lots of software processing post-shooting, but done as a background task.
- Default settings (ease of use): Excellent, just point, and shoot.
As you can see, it’s fair to say that the Google Pixel competes ferociously with the best out there: the Galaxy S7 Series. In some ways, Pixel is superior (HDR, tone-mapping) and in other ways, the S7 remains ahead (AF speed, less/faster software processing).
The Pixel photos are often more contrasted and saturated than what the scene was, to the point that in some high-contrast photos, some dark details will be darkened out in favor of more contrasted photos. Some people will love it, others might prefer something more “natural”.
One thing is for certain; The Google Pixel is either #2 or #1 depending on your priorities/taste, with the S7 being the alternative. I would rank the LG V20 as #3 (unique wide angle) and the iPhone 7/7+ as #4.
I did not experience any Pixel Camera crash, as some users reported. By the way, the new Camera app is also available to Nexus customers.
Software: best Android experience
The Google phones always feature a “pure Android” experience, which means that it is the Android interface and features, exactly as Google intended. For those unfamiliar with the term, keep in mind that many other OEMs, especially big brands, will tend to create extra layers on top of Android, to make it their own.
I’ve seen some reviews say “this is the best Android phone”. It’s true for some people, but in general, “this is the best Android experience” is probably more accurate because the Android Experience does not define the whole “Phone Experience” which includes feel, design, specific ui and tools/services.
"THE GOOGLE PIXEL DELIVERS THAT ULTRA-SMOOTH EXPERIENCE"The Google Pixel isn’t the best Android phone in every aspect, but it is an excellent phone that truly shows the Android experience the way Google intended it to be. Many would say: the way it “should” be, but this is a matter of preference. Many people are happy with Samsung/LG/Huawei’s interface as well.
We can debate about whether Google’s UI is the best, but we can all agree that regardless of the UI choices, the OS should always have a unique “butter-smooth” experience, which means a very fluid user interface. The Google Pixel delivers that ultra-smooth experience when others don’t.
First, Google’s engineers have been fanatically working in avoiding all these problems in all of their apps: Cameras, Keyboard and more… this is an example of Key Performance Indicator done right. Google cares about smoothness because smoothness is a metric of user experience.
Pre-loaded Apps: Less is More
Secondly, Google has very few “bloatware” or pre-loaded apps that you don’t want and don’t care for. The reason is simple: Google has a great ecosystem, an amazingly big user base and therefore doesn’t need to “differentiate” its product by adding bullet-list features and form alliances to preload software. In short, Google “can afford” providing a great Android experience.
This is not a new problem: in fact, PC OEMs had the same issue for decades, and still do to a lesser extent. The big deal on a mobile device is that more pre-loaded apps could mean more power consumption. Battery life being the first concern for mobile users, Google inflicts a double-whammy to OEMs who overload their phones with a ton of apps and services (Samsung comes to mind).
Despite being the best student in the class, Google is not completely devoid of bloatware either. Many people don’t use all Google apps/services such as Allo, Android Pay, DayDream or Google Keep. The good news is that you can uninstall most of these apps if you want to, and those you cannot uninstall you can disable (which you can do on non-Google phones as well).
Optimize: How to Speed Up Android Phones
The Google Pixel is the most prominent device running with Android 7.x Nougat, and it was the first one to have the full implementation which includes DayDream, Google’s new VR user interface. We will review this in a separate article, but needless to say that the Google Pixel is of course the best phone for DayDream. Until it came out, the Nexus 6P was the closest thing to it.
DayDream VR is a much better VR interface than Google Cardboard is. Cardboard can be praised for bringing VR to the masses, and many people loved it, but the user interface was simply awkward and annoying at time since you had to remove the VR headset, or the phone from it, too often.
Google Assistant makes Google Now better, with a better understanding of the context of questions, opening the door to follow-up questions on the same topics. Google Assistant can even take screenshots now in addition to controlling the Nest Thermostat. There is still a lot of work to do since you will occasionally hear “I can’t do that yet” from the Google Assistant, but Google remains the technological leader in voice-based computing, by far.
I love the Google Android Keyboard because it has nearly no lag. However, support for certain languages like Japanese or Korean are supported by separate subversions of the Google keyboard, and that’s inconvenient. I had to turn to Swiftkey, which turned out to be more laggy, but also more convenient. That’s not a problem for most people, but just in case, you may want to take a closer look to this.
"PIXEL PHONES DO HAVE THE BEST ANDROID EXPERIENCE"Last but not least, the Google Pixel phones will probably have the latest updates before everyone else. There are many reasons for it, including the fact that Google can start the test cycle head of time, and they don’t have to wait for wireless carrier approval.
In conclusion, the Google Pixel phones do have the best Android experience in my opinion. Now, there are specific things present in other phones that you may really like. Samsung, LG and Huawei have made a lot of customization, some being really handy and convenient. Those features may not be available by an external app, so be mindful of that.
System Performance: Snapdragon 821
As of today, the Snapdragon 821 SoC chip that powers the Google Pixel is the fastest available on the Android platform. As you may have seen, Qualcomm has announced the Snapdragon 835 and some VR devices have been seen using it, but there isn’t a product you can buy, yet.
You can read our Snapdragon 821 overview, but it is a powerful chip that has excellent performance, especially when it comes to graphics performance. The Google Pixel comes with 4GB of RAM and has 32GB to 128GB of storage, depending on the version you select. By the way, there is no microSD card option.
It’s fair to say that the iPhone 7 processor does compete very well (despite having fewer CPU cores), and even beat this one in some benchmarks. In general, we recommend taking benchmarks with a grain of salt, but it is an important indicator that should be mentioned.
Basemark OS 2 is an overall system performance test which provides a decent pointer of general peformance.
GFXBench shows relative differences between different generation and types of smartphone hardware. As you can see, there are clear discontinuities,and the Pixel and Pixel XL are among the best performers.
From a performance/price standpoint, the Pixel phones occupy different segment of the market, cornering both Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7+, although both should really be compared with the Pixel XL.
Modem and LTE bands
The Google Pixel’s Snapdragon 821 processor has a built-in Qualcomm X12 LTE Modem which is in theory capable of being 3X faster than the previous X10 modem present in Snapdragon 810 and 808. Of course, things are not literally 3X faster in the real world because peak conditions and networks rarely or occasionally met. However, the difference is real because being able to transmit data faster not only save time but also saves battery life because the modem (one of the most power-hungry unit) is shut down faster.
There are essentially two Google Pixel variants when it comes to LTE communications: the “North America” and “rest of the World” variants. Each supports an impressive array of different LTE bands designed to accommodate the major networks. That’s thanks to technologies such as Qualcomm RF 360.
In America, Google is partnering with Verizon Wireless for retail channels, so it’s safe there. You may want to double-check before buying if you another carrier, but we haven’t heard anything horrible in the U.S when coverage is concerned.
A major difference between the Google Pixel (2770 mAh) and Pixel XL is the battery capacity (3450 mAh). There isn’t a battery benchmark that we would consider to be reliable, so take any such tests or scores with caution.
That’s because your usage pattern is unique, especially since network conditions and the exact app configuration and usage are unique. Therefore, the battery capacity remains the largest indicator of battery life within a given combination of platform and operating system.
As a high-end phone, the Pixel isn’t really a bargain for each mAh of battery capacity it brings. For that, Google’s own Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P phone would be the best pick, among the popular choices.
Now, we know that the Google Pixel does come with much less pre-loaded software, and we do know that Google has worked hard to improve the battery efficiency of its software. The combination of the two should bring some gains in battery life that others may have to compensate with larger battery capacity. The actual gains are hard to measure. In fact, pre-installed apps that are never invoked may not consume any perceptible power. Again, go back to “battery capacity” as your main guide.
We agree that the Google Pixel can last a (work) day. The Google Pixel XL does come with a bigger battery, and although it’s partly to compensate for the larger display, it should give you more usage time than the 5” Pixel. Good news, I didn’t have any issues with an early shut off software bug or Pixel freezing/hung without apparent reason.
The Google Pixel can charge at a speed of ~52mAh/mn, which makes it one of the fastest charging phone, alongside the LG G5, the Galaxy S7 or the Nexus 6P. At the moment, the Huawei Mate 9 remains the fastest-charging phone with a speed of 77 mAh/mn.
The Google Pixel truly cements Google’s place in the high-end phone market segment. Previous Google Nexus models did bring an excellent “value for the price” but had a tendency to lose out slightly on important features such as Camera Performance and Industrial Design.
"NO CAMERA PERFORMANCE TRADE OFF"With the Pixel, you can have the best Android OS experience, with no Camera performance trade off — the Industrial design could be better. To me, this is essentially the biggest “power-up” from the Pixel and Pixel XL, and this is a big deal. The Google Pixel phones also push the boundaries of camera performance in new direction, and I would like to tip my hat to that.
That said, and despite the “high-end” price, the Google Pixel isn’t the nicest looking phone out there. If compactness is important, the Galaxy S7 + S7 Edge remain excellent choices in general, the Huawei Mate 9 Porsche Edition or the Xiaomi Mi Mix are arguably much better looking.