- 1 The Good
- 2 The Not So Good
- 3 Design and materials
- 4 Display
- 5 Battery
- 6 Storage, wireless, and reception
- 7 Audio and speakers
- 8 Camera
- 9 Performance
- 10 Software
- 11 Value
- 12 Conclusion
Google's new smartphones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, are a watershed moment for the company. They're Google's attempt to define itself as a hardware manufacturer worthy of comparison not just to Apple's iPhone, but the very products its Android operating system has allowed to flourish over the past eight years. Or, as the refrain goes: Google is finally going to compete with other smartphone manufacturers.
This narrative can get in the way of discussing the Pixel for what it is (a smartphone), so I'll try to avoid confusing what this phone means to Google as a company and what it means to you as a consumer.
I've been using the Pixel XL for five days. I specify this because as this review goes live, so will dozens of others. Almost all of these people have been using the phone for more or less the same amount of time, and the vast majority of impressions you read from blogs and news outlets today will be based upon five or fewer days with the phones. I am going to keep thoughts on certain items - battery life and general performance, for example - a bit more concise because of this. It's hard to know confidently just how good the battery life is for me yet. It's also hard to know how much the phone will slow down over time. So I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that this review is the end-all, be-all of our thoughts on the Pixel phones, nor to suggest that our impressions are definitive and supported by the week or two we typically afford to the review process. Thoughts are still evolving. That said, we did want to provide this review at the time Google allowed us to publish it, and I hope that this disclaimer gives you some transparency into that whole process.
With the pleasantries and meta-discussion out of the way, let's get to what you're actually here for: the phones. Are they good? Great? The greatest? Has Google whipped up a smartphone that transcends a mere list of specifications and a software version? Well, no phone really, truly does, and setting the bar quite so high is to prime yourself for disappointment.
But the Google Pixel is a great smartphone - I am convinced.
Does its battery last the longest? No. Is its screen the best? Not likely. Is it the fastest smartphone on the planet? Eh, no (sorry, Apple still wins that battle). Is the Google Assistant as life-changingly intelligent as Google seems so amped for us to believe? Hardly. In fact, it is almost obscenely easy to pick apart Google's phone - one might even say pixel by pixel - because it clearly doesn't afford itself of every bleeding-edge technology or feature it could have.
The Pixel lacks waterproofing. The rear camera doesn't use optical image stabilization. The batteries aren't unusually large. There's no microSD slot. The processor, while it is the best part Qualcomm has on offer, isn't really much better than the existing Snapdragon 820. Motorola builds phones that charge more quickly, Samsung makes phones with more features and better components, Xiaomi's phones offer far more value for money, and LG's phones probably do something better but I'm struggling on that one at the moment.
What does the Pixel offer that is so special? Well, some of you will want to see me hang for this line, but: it just works. Need to switch to a new carrier? That's not a problem - the Pixel supports all four US providers, plus Project Fi. Take a lot of photos? Google will store all of them in the cloud at full resolution, for free (and the Pixel will automatically delete old photos when on-device storage nears capacity). There's no bloatware. Live remote support is built into the phone. Say "OK Google" at any time, even with the display off, and Assistant stirs to life. Break your phone? Google offers - in the US - accidental damage protection. Can't decide precisely which moment you want to photograph? Burst shot makes the call for you. Tired of shaky-hand video? Google's electronic stabilization is the real deal.
Questions remain, though. Why is the Pixel commanding such an exceptional premium over last year's Nexus devices? Does the Pixel really do anything those phones don't, or will soon be able to? Can Google really claim to be a competitor on the level of Apple and Samsung? The answers here aren't so clean-cut.
(Note: This review will refer to the Pixel as a single phone in many places for the sake of brevity and my own sanity. While there are two versions, with the screen and battery being the only differences, they are essentially one phone in two sizes. Even Google's retail boxes for them are the same. Constantly having to refer to the Pixel and Pixel XL would become tiresome and pointless. When the two devices diverge in experience or aspect, I will be clear about which I am discussing.)
|Camera||This may be the best smartphone camera ever. It's not just the quality of the photos, but the experience - this camera is so fast.|
|Battery life||So far, I'd say the Pixel XL has offered battery life basically comparable to the Snapdragon version of Samsung's Galaxy S7 edge, which is very respectable indeed.|
|Google's Android and perks||Well, it's a good thing in my opinion. No bloatware, the latest version of Android, and some Pixel-exclusive (for now) features like Google Assistant, Smart Storage, unlimited full resolution Photos cloud storage, and more.|
|Speed||The Pixel is a very quick phone indeed. While it probably won't be running laps around an iPhone 7, it's consistently snappy and responsive in a way some phones this year have struggled to manage.|
|Four carriers||Google's new phone is SIM unlocked and works on all four major US carriers, and you won't get the runaround from Verizon, either - this is a true four-carrier device.|
|Price||There's no way around it, the price points are high. iPhone high. And you're going to be hard-pressed to convince the value-obsessed that there's nearly $800 of smartphone in a Pixel XL.|
|Speaker||While not without its merits, the single bottom-firing speaker is a definite downgrade from last year's Nexus 6P.|
|Non-expandable storage||Yeah, we know, Google - you don't like microSD cards on phones. The Pixel was a chance to make a clean break on this stance, but no such luck.|
|No ruggedizing||The iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 are IP67 and IP68 certified, respectively. The Pixel is IP53, which is basically to say it has no real water-resistance.|
|A bit dull||This one is personal, but I just can't get excited about the way the Pixel looks. In Very silver, it's a kitchen appliance. In Really blue, it's an aluminum blueberry. In Quite black it's at least inoffensive... to the point of boredom. This phone's design just feels too "playing it safe."|
Design and materials
Historically, Google's Nexus phones have always been a bit of a toss-up in regard to their actual look and feel. The Nexus 5 looked great, but its plastic frame was unashamedly cheap and things like the power and volume keys seemed to reflect that. The Nexus 6 was an awkwardly upsized Moto X - I don't think much more needs to be said about that. Even the Nexus 6P, often considered by fans to be unimpeachable, simply isn't all that cohesive and coherent. Its cyclopian glass cover for the camera and various antennas was divisive at best. And while it was the first all-metal Nexus, it did feature a plastic piece on the rear "chin" area of the phone that seemed to say "we did what we could with what we had." Not to mention that its smaller sibling, the 5X, looked completely different.
The Pixel and Pixel XL feel like solid bricks of aluminum (if lighter). The antenna bands are barely able to be felt. The glass window on the rear transitions smoothly into the metal frame. Does the Pixel have the almost bizarrely perfect tolerances of Samsung's Galaxy S7 edge? No. But the Pixel is clearly a cut above any Nexus in the highly unscientific "how expensive does that smartphone feel" test. Sitting on the right edge of the phone, the buttons for power and volume are responsive and exceptionally clicky (even better than Samsung's, in my informed button-feel opinion). The USB-C port is bottom-center, and the headphone jack is up at the top-left. The fingerprint scanner, the same model as last year's Nexuses, is on the back. The look of the Quite black finish is uniform, with a slightly smoother texture than the 6P. Everything just looks like it's supposed to fit together here. I find the silver and white version gels considerably less well. If you're going to put up with a white surround on the front of the phone, the slightly absurd but fun Really blue color is the way to go (sadly, Google did not provide a blue unit to us).
The 2.5D display glass surround gives the Pixel a gentle accent on an otherwise sparse front panel. Apart from the front-facing camera and the occasionally-visible sensor window below the earpiece speaker, there's not much that stands out. Go around back, and there's nothing too loud happening, either, at least on the dark finish. The "G" logo is the only branding on the exterior of the phone, and it's not even all that prominent. Lacking a camera hump on the rear, the Pixel really is a minimalist phone design. Frankly, for what praise I can give to Google on the look and feel of quality (seriously, screw camera humps), I can't award much for actual appearance.
At its best, in the black finish, the Pixel looks vaguely generic. I realize the Pixel team has been all about relatively stealthy, sleek designs, but nothing about the Pixel to me really makes it look or feel related to the Chromebook Pixel or Pixel C. At best, I'd say Google has made a phone that won't have the issue of creating design baggage for a successor device.
I suppose the Pixel is uninteresting to look at in the way a 1990s Lexus is uninteresting to look at. It's boring because it's supposed to seem grown up. But the more I look at it, the more I use it, the more I feel that Google was deliberately inoffensive with its industrial design here, and I'm really not sure that was a great decision in a market where making a product stand out has become increasingly difficult. The Pixel is a phone that seems to say "You're just going to put a case on me anyway, why should I dress up for the occasion?" And with Google's new flashy artist live cases, that could well be a point. I don't think it means the phone has to be quite so drab, though.
The Pixel XL's 5.5" Quad HD Super AMOLED display is excellent. It offers adequate brightness outdoors, the superb viewing angles we've come to expect of AMOLED displays, and vivid contrast. Google also hasn't tuned the display to rigid color accuracy, instead seeming to end up somewhere between the typical oversaturation of, say, Samsung, and the highly-calibrated iPhone. Comparing to a Galaxy S7 edge in the "basic" mode, which is exceptionally accurate, the Pixel XL clearly provides more saturation of colors to give them the "pop" factor that most other OEMs using AMOLED displays do.
On the one hand, the extra saturation provides the perception of more contrast, which can be important for things like video, gaming, and virtual reality. On the other, for a phone so focused on providing an excellent camera experience, I always feel like I should be seeing the photos I take as accurately as possible so that I can better judge how they'll look not on my screen, but on everyone else's (read: iPhones). But this is an admittedly fringe concern, and one that simply won't bother most people. As calibrated out of the box, it's not as though the Pixel XL looks like Samsung's almost comically bright setup. It's just adding a bit of drama. There's an sRGB mode in developer settings if you want to use that, and it offers a far truer white point and colors, though you'll probably find it a bit dull if you're used to typical AMOLED displays. But if you want to be serious about your smartphone photography, it's an excellent toggle to have.
Unfortunately, I sent our 5" Pixel off for a video review the moment I received it, so I couldn't compare the displays of the two. I would assume a similar calibration and character, though the fact that the smaller phone's screen has a lower resolution could mean there's more variance between the parts than normal.
On the whole, though, the Pixel XL offers an excellent display, if not one that's going to have Samsung looking over its shoulder. After all, they probably make it.
The section you may have jumped to immediately is, I am afraid, going to leave you feeling unsatisfied. I have only used the Pixel XL, and while I would say the battery life has been solid overall, it's also been a bit unpredictable at times. But after the first two days, which I am ignoring out of hand (I find Android needs a day or two to "settle in" on a fresh install), things have been pretty good.
You're looking for screen-on time figures, and we'll get there, but first: please remember that these apply to the way I use my phone. Not necessarily, or even probably, the way you use yours. I'm not trying to extract the very maximum screen-on figure, nor do I leave my phone's display on, idle, sitting next to me. Sometimes I'm on Wi-Fi (reducing power consumption), sometimes I'm not. I also have rather annoyingly poor AT&T reception in my apartment which can cause the mobile network to scan much more frequently if a phone is in my pocket.
On average, I'm seeing between four and five hours of screen on time with the Pixel XL. If I were to be on Wi-Fi in my office all day, I could probably manage six without much trouble, too. I would say this is comparable to what I typically get with the Galaxy S7 edge (SD820 version), a device that has been lauded for its battery life. As such, I'm actually pretty happy with the Pixel XL in this regard.
... That all considered, I'm going to say my thoughts here have plenty of evolving to do. I'm on day six here - barely (as I write this, day five). I just don't have the data points yet to really say confidently that the Pixel XL provides good battery life, just the initial impression that it does. We'll put a pin in this and return later. As for the battery life of the 5" Pixel, I haven't used it, and can't really offer you anything there.
Storage, wireless, and reception
The Pixel is the first smartphone from Google to utilize UFS 2.0 storage, meaning substantially faster speeds than the eMMC chips of years past. How fast is that storage? Well, our favored storage benchmark appears to be having some bugs with Android 7.1 and is yielding very strange results - some weirdly fast, some oddly slow - and for now I'm going to forego publishing figures. (Of note: this was an issue with 6.0 last year, too.) But this is a Samsung storage part and I would strongly assume that it is very fast, because the Pixel feels quite fast, and operations like app installs and photo capture feel exceptionally quick, as well.
As you know, the Pixel is available in either 32 or 128GB storage models, and I'm actually OK with that. Many people have bemoaned the lack of a 64GB model, but I think the real complaint is that the 128GB model costs $100 more than the 32GB, not that there is some missing storage "sweet spot" here. Out of the box, a little over 24GB of storage is available on the 32GB model. By the time I loaded up all of my apps and signed in to everything, that number was around 18GB. Needless to say, you know what your storage needs are better than I do - the 32GB Pixel is plenty for me, but it may be woefully inadequate for others. If you're the kind of person who rapidly fills up your device's storage with photos, though, that ceiling may not be a worry - Google's new Smart Storage feature will automatically delete local copies of photos and videos taken on your phone that are more than 90 days old when your local storage starts to run low. It will only delete photos and videos that have copies in the cloud on Google Photos, of course.
On the wireless front, the Pixel has the standard array of features you'd expect of a modern smartphone - Wi-Fi ac support, Bluetooth 4.2, a host of LTE bands (four-carrier compatible in the US), and NFC. The real question is whether or not any of them have posed any issues during my testing, at least for me. I will say that mobile data has been stellar, even in my AT&T-deficient apartment. The Pixel gets better reception than most phones I test on AT&T, actually. My AT&T-branded Nexus 6 will miss about half my calls if it's just sitting on my desk - the Pixel misses none, and only loses reception if I put it in my pocket. It seems Google and HTC did their homework here. Bluetooth, too, has worked very well for me. Pairing to my car was exceptionally quick, and I've not had any issues with it at all (unlike last year's Nexuses), though I will say the range doesn't seem fantastic, as streamed audio will cut out if I put my phone in my pocket instead of the cup holder.
Wi-Fi is where I've had hiccups. My router's signal is poor in many areas of my apartment, often causing devices to flip between the 2.4 and 5GHz networks. The Pixel has had significant trouble with this at times, forcing me to manually toggle the Wi-Fi on a number of occasions to get it to reacquire a reliable connection. There's also a visual bug that correlates with this issue - my quick settings interface will show I'm connected to one network, but when I go into settings, it says I'm connected to the other one. It's an annoyance, but if my Wi-Fi reception wasn't so crappy I doubt it'd be an issue in the first place. Speaking of Wi-Fi, like the Nexuses now have, the Pixel supports Google's Wi-Fi Assistant to automatically secure connections to networks that may pose privacy concerns. It's nice to have.
Call quality has been quite good - the Pixel's earpiece speaker is actually one of the best I've used, and even non-HD voice calls have surprisingly decent clarity. The earpiece speaker is loud without being shrill, so I think that helps, too.
Audio and speakers
The Pixel's headphone amplifier is reasonably powerful, though I did find it's not quite as potent as the one on Samsung's Galaxy S7. Testing with a number of pairs of headphones, I found the audio quality excellent and never saw a need to crank the volume beyond 65-70% or so. I'll be flying in the next couple of days, so I'll get some more experience with how the output of the headphone jack does in loud ambient conditions.
As to the single, bottom-firing speaker? Well, it's not going to magically sprout into a front-facing stereo array, nor is it going to convince anyone that there was a worthy tradeoff made here. The quality of the speaker is actually quite good, I'd say it sounds more natural and full than those on devices like the Galaxy S7 and Moto Z (sorry, I don't have a 6P to compare to). But its output is noticeably lower, and it's no substitute for two speakers that actually face... your face. Google did a good job given the design directive here, but beyond that, it's nothing to write home about. As to that second, speaker-grille-looking thing on the bottom? It's just an oversized inlet for the microphone so that the phone looks symmetrical. Nothing to see here.
Google did it. In my opinion, the Pixel is the best smartphone camera on the market. It's not just the quality of photos, it's everything that makes the camera so capable and simple. To start, it's incredibly fast - just as fast as Samsung's world-beating S7 camera to launch, but even faster when actually shooting. You can fire off five or six photos in a row without skipping a beat, something that will cause most other smartphones to choke and stutter on buffer. Granted, after those five or six, the phone does need a few seconds to collect itself - but it gets those shots every time. I've simply never used a smartphone camera that is this fast. That's not to even speak of Google's Smartburst mode, which automatically picks the best shots in a rapid-fire capture initiated by holding down the shutter button.
While not as reliable on focus as Samsung's crazy-fast dual pixel AF, or as able to draw out light in extremely dark conditions, the Pixel makes up for these technical shortcomings with a host of practical advantages and photo quality that, to me, feels the most natural and realistic of any smartphone this year. The level of detail the Pixel can capture in a macro shot is incredible - the kind of thing that I'd only previously associated with the iPhone. In well-lit conditions, photos are incredibly crisp and detailed, without the over-processed, punchy look that can render a photo worthless at anything beyond a full-width square crop.
This is so much more important than I think people tend to realize. Reframing a photo can completely change its character, and when your smartphone is doing all kinds of crazy edge contrast to make photos look "crisp" and colorful, things can look a lot messier when you really zoom in. The Pixel is an absolute cut above the competition in this regard, and as someone who does occasionally photograph things as an activity, I feel I can rely on it not just to capture a scene, but to allow me to manipulate it after the fact. Say what you will about manual controls, but this feels like a photographer's smartphone camera. You can capture candid moments with the exceptionally quick launch, use Smartburst to make sure you get the right shot, and let Google's brilliant HDR+ worry about the exposure and contrast. Google does offer an exposure value slider (handy) as well as white balance modes, too. You can even lock the focus by long-pressing on the viewfinder.
In the dark, the Pixel still performs well, though it doesn't quite have the magic trick level of light gathering that Samsung's phone does (I mention the S7 because it was my previous smartphone camera pick). Though, the S7 tends to seemingly create light where there is none at all, while the Pixel is just very good at making use of the light that is available.
So, the Pixel may not offer world-beating autofocus speeds (it's a bit wonky at times, actually - hopefully it will get better), have the widest aperture lens, or use two sensors in tandem, but I firmly believe it offers the best overall camera experience on any smartphone, full stop.
As for Google's touted video stabilization? It definitely works. I didn't have any extreme circumstances under which to test it, but for just holding your phone and walking around shooting video, it makes a huge difference. I mean, I doubt you'd think I was using a gimbal, but it's still very smooth.
And up to this point in the camera section, do you know what all of the samples share in common? They're all heavily cropped versions of much larger photos. Here are the originals of the four I've shown you.
And now, for the larger sample gallery (some images here have been cropped as well).
Finally, let's talk about the electronic image stabilization. It works! I have a video sample, shot in 4K, below, to demonstrate it. It does give video a slightly jarring panning effect if you're too subtle with your movement, but overall? For something shot with one hand over my head, this is incredibly smooth.
Is the Pixel fast? Yes. But it isn't going to change your definition of phone speed forever. I'd say the Pixel is roughly as fast as a Moto Z, which is a Very Fast Phone indeed - probably in the top three quickest Android phones currently out there. The Pixel feels very responsive, but I tend to think all of Google's "we can't talk about it, but we did things to make this phone fast, evil, terrible things" was a lot of huff and puff. It gets predictably decent scores in Octane. It gets predictably decent scores in pretty much any benchmark. But they're exactly what you'd expect of a Snapdragon 820 phone - they don't tell a story, they don't give you any actionable information. I can still make enough touch inputs that the animations start to lag behind my finger, and there's still a stutter when you open up the don't-call-it-Google-Now pane in the launcher, and the settings app sometimes takes a second to catch its breath and populate the menu list when you start it up.
Where the Pixel has shined for me so far is in the consistency of its performance. Yes, in a side by side app load test, you might see many phones basically keep up with the Pixel. But it's that one time you go to bring up Maps and it's out of memory on your Galaxy S7 and it takes like 10 seconds to load up but you really need to get directions somewhere because you're stopped at a light and you have to decide if you're going left or right ahead. When it's crunch time, the Pixel always seems to maintain its composure and get you where need to go. In short? It feels a bit more like an iPhone. That's not to say I think the Pixel is as fast as the new iPhone - it probably isn't, by virtue of silicon alone. Whether this performance manages to remain consistent over the coming weeks and months will be the much bigger question, and it's one I just can't answer now.
You know what Android 7.0 is all about - I'm not going to re-review it here, because that would be silly. But Android 7.1 and the various Pixel-exclusive features are definitely worth taking a look at, so let's break them down.
Do you use Google voice queries or commands? No? Then you're probably never going to use Assistant, either, unless you have a deep and unrequited love of chatbots. Google talks a big game on Assistant, but the reality is that we've already had everything Assistant can do embedded in the Google app for a long time now. Assistant just gives us a new conversational interface and some slightly more human dialogue on occasion.
That demo on stage where the presenter made a dinner reservation with only their voice? Well, it can do that... with a limited number of restaurants that basically cannot be discovered in any easy way. It might support more places in the future, perhaps even probably will, but who knows when? This is the problem any time Google unveils a major new software product: we're given the dog and pony show with all the grand possibilities and then... we wait.
I appreciate what Google is trying to do here. Really, I do. I think the potential of Assistant is amazing. But the experience right now is... not. It's just Google's intelligent search results with a more streamlined interface. Can you reserve a table for dinner with Assistant? Yes... if Google Maps knows it supports Open Table, and not all that many restaurants in Los Angeles presently do, meaning I would never book a table this way in the first place - I'd just go on the web. Can you buy movie tickets? No such luck - I can get showtimes with links to click to start the checkout process, but not actually automate the activity beyond that. What about something easy, like ordering a Lyft? Nope... even though that's literally functionality built into the Google Maps app.
And I'm not saying Assistant has to do all of this right out of the gate - it doesn't! It's just that the current Assistant experience simply isn't as intelligent or powerful as Google wanted us all to believe when it got on stage and talked about it like it was ready to change the world. Maybe it will be ready in a few years. Right now, we've got a skeletal version - a promising blueprint. But sorry, this isn't going to sell phones, not as it works now.
Is it better than Siri? Sure. But so were the standard Google voice queries and commands we've had for years. That's not new. It's always a bitter pill to see Google paint us this picture of an amazingly useful product and then give us... not that thing. But if we've learned anything over the years, this is just how Google works. Assistant will evolve, it will get better, and eventually, maybe we'll all be using it.
As is, Assistant is an easy way to do voice queries and commands, especially given it can be launched by long-pressing the home button. If you're tired of "OK Google"-ing every time you want to set a timer or an alarm, relief has arrived. That's a neat feature, but it says something that I think that's about the coolest thing Assistant does right now.
Launcher shortcuts are to Android as 3D touch shortcuts are to iOS. That's really the deal here, except launcher shortcuts are slightly more narrow in scope. To activate launcher shortcuts, just long-press on an icon on a homescreen or in the app drawer. If the app has shortcuts, they'll appear. A bunch of Google apps already have them, though their usefulness is of varying degrees (Photos has an "I'm feeling lucky" shortcut - talk about a potentially risky click).
So, you ask, how do you tell between the action to pull up launcher shortcuts versus move an icon? And the answer is you don't. It's the same thing. Yep, this is a a bit odd. Launcher shortcuts will immediately pop up when you long-press an icon, to move it, you then have to drag beyond a certain threshold, after which the shortcuts will hide away. It's really weird, because you end up getting two vibration feedbacks, which always makes me think for a moment that something has gone wrong. I can't say this implementation is exactly ideal, and it's almost certainly going to confuse a few people who will think they've done something other than try to move their icons by long-pressing them.
Anyway, here are a few examples of the shortcuts.
- YouTube: Trending, subscriptions, search
- Settings: Battery, Data usage, Wi-Fi
- Play Music: Recent activity, My library, I'm feeling lucky
- Calendar: New reminder, New event
- Play Store: My apps
- Photos: I'm feeling lucky, Free up space
I'm still not 100% sure how to feel about launcher shortcuts. On the one hand, I love that Google is looking into more power user style device tools, things that can speed up common activities and tasks. On the other? This feels slightly clumsy as implemented. Maybe a gesture would have made more sense here? I don't know. I am definitely curious to see how many apps implement this feature, though, as it's part of Android 7.1 and can be used by any launcher via an API.
This one actually has flown under the radar, and I'm not sure why. The Google Pixels automatically back up your apps, app data, contacts, SMS (!), Wi-Fi passwords, call history, and various settings in Google Drive. Now, Android has done some of this for years. Contacts in your Google account, for example, are old hat. But SMS is new, and automatic app data backup in Drive is still fairly low on adoption, so hopefully this "all in one" backup being advertised as a Pixel feature will get developers to utilize it more.
But the big idea here is that Google wants you to have an iPhone-like experience when you set up your next Pixel a year or two from now - everything should just come over. Whether it will work that well in practice, we'll have to see.
I did not test the new cabled restore system on the Pixel, but Google seems pretty psyched about it, especially since it works with iPhones. I'd be curious myself to see how that experience would be.
Android's settings app has a new menu, and it's called Moves. Moves currently is home to three features: double-tap power to launch the camera, double-twist while in the camera to switch between the front and rear facing sensors, and the ability to swipe down on the fingerprint scanner to access your notification shade. They all work! There's not much else to be said.
The swipe-down gesture on the fingerprint scanner can be initiated a second time to bring up the quick settings interface, and swiping down will hide the tray again. Honestly, it's not terribly responsive and can be difficult to get to work reliably sometimes. I never was a fan of this feature on Huawei devices for the same reason - it just feels a bit gimmicky. But it's there if you want it.
Night light is a simple feature you've probably seen on other phones already - it lowers the brightness of the screen's blue pixels to reduce eye strain in low light, supposedly reducing the chance the display will stop you from falling asleep when you should. You can turn it on at any time, as well as set a schedule or use Google's sunrise and sunset data to engage it automatically. I find the sunset timing less than ideal, since I don't go to sleep around sunset, so I use the custom schedule. There are no options to adjust the intensity of the effect.
Holy crap there are a ton of new wallpapers on the Pixels, including a bunch of new live wallpapers. Live earth wallpapers are 3D renderings of famous landmarks that shift perspective when you unlock your device or swipe between homescreens. I hope to see even more of these published as time goes on, because they're awesome. Live data wallpapers either correspond to your battery level, the time of day, or weather conditions - they're very stark and abstract. I love everything about this, it really gives you some interesting new ways to personalize your device. This is in addition to literally dozens of new static wallpapers that you can have change daily, with categories like landscapes, cityscapes, life, earth, and textures.
I love that Google is using things like 500px and its own social network, Google+, to source the images, too. That means the potential for a lifetime of beautifully curated wallpapers. Sure, there are great apps for this as well, but a lot of people never discover them. It's just one of those little things I appreciate.
OS look and feel, Pixel launcher, Nougat generally
Many of us have been using Nougat for months now, and we know what it entails. There are few things that the Pixel phones bring to the software equation that aren't available right now on a Nexus 6P, and those it does are covered in detail above (seriously, you are not missing out on Assistant - Pixel owners are Google's beta testers).
One thing that won't be coming that we haven't discussed, though, is the overall aesthetic of the Pixel's software. Google has updated the entire look and feel of the device setup, given many items in the system UI blue accents, and changed the navigation keys - they're solid, with a concentric circle around the home button. When you tap the home button, four little colored dots fly out briefly, with a long press causing them to fully extend and activate the Assistant.
There is also the Pixel launcher, leaked extensively in the last couple of months. The Pixel launcher is basically just the Google Now launcher with that weird pill-shaped "G" button to bring up the search box and a date and weather widget (it no longer displays time redundantly). Oh, and some round icons, but they're not mandatory (thankfully). Anyway, if you know the Google Now launcher, you know the Pixel launcher. There are no new settings to tweak, it really is just a light re-skin.
What we're seeing here, though, is much more important in a wider context: Google is making an Android skin. A skin that, presumably, it will not share with anyone else. I will watch with great interest as Google's Pixel skin evolves and changes over time, and what makes it into stock Android versus what remains exclusive to the Pixel devices.
And because I didn't know where else to put it: Google added a reboot button. Yay.
At this time, aside from the Wi-Fi issue I mentioned above, I have one bug to report: "OK Google" always-on listening sometimes stops working, and the only remedy is to reboot the device. The phone is stable and works as expected. Of course, given how long I've been using it, it's very possible issues may arise - things I just haven't noticed yet. For now, though, it's smooth sailing.
I've decided to add this category to our phone reviews, at least for the time being, because I think value is a discussion worth having in its own right, not merely as a fulcrum upon which to balance an entire review. It can make having conversations about a product's merits difficult, and make it too easy to dismiss some products on what really is a single facet alone.
So, how does the Pixel stack up on value? We're going to be judging this on the basis of prices in the United States, as we are a US-based blog with a largely American audience.
The Pixel line is priced exactly as the iPhone 7 is. You start at $649 for the smaller, 32GB variant, and the larger 128GB variant goes up to $869. Google lacks a 256GB SKU, so technically it's not an exact match, but for the models Google does sell, it really is a mirror image. Is a Google Pixel worth iPhone money? I think if you contend that an iPhone is worth $649, then yes: the Google Pixel is absolutely worth that. But many people vehemently disagree with that premise.
If you take the Google Pixel merely as the sum of its parts and put up the $769 Pixel XL against the $499 Nexus 6P, are you going to find nearly $300 of extra "value" there? I mean, no. You're not. That's like taking a $40,000 Mustang GT and comparing it to a $100,000 Porsche 911. Is there $60,000 more performance there? No. If all you care about are the raw numbers, the Pixel isn't an amazing value proposition, and Nexus fans understandably take issue with this. the Nexus 4, 5, 5X, and 6P all had MSRPs that were competitive, if not highly competitive, when they were released. The Google Pixels aren't really concerned with this, and I don't think Google is making an argument that they are. You're buying into Google's promise that these are the devices that will receive the highest level of support and exclusive features going forward.
If that proposition is appealing to you, let's consider a few other factors. First, Google does not and likely never will offer the in-store support experience Apple does. If you buy direct from Google, using your warranty, extended or otherwise, means phone or email support and physically mailing out a device that is broken. This is not ideal, and we'll have to see if Google's support staff offers an experience a cut above typical phone manufacturers (I heard that for last year's phones, they were generally pretty good about this stuff, but I'm sure there are horror stories).
Next, there's the ecosystem argument. If you buy an iPhone, it does stuff in concert with your other Apple products - be it a MacBook, an iMac, an iPad, or an Apple Watch. You can read your iMessages on your laptop, for example. Google has... Chromebooks. And Android Wear! But really, Google has built those device ecosystems around a much more open model, and I think we'll have to wait until next year to see what their grand vision for a tightly-integrated hardware ecosystem really is.
But given people pay basically as much for a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge, which similarly lack such ecosystems, I think that's a bit of a red herring.
So, are the Pixels good value for money? Sure, if you're of the opinion that an iPhone is good value for money. Are they great value for money? Probably not. In that sense, they're typical. What you're paying for here is more the promise of future support, advanced software features, and for an experience that is purely Google.
I feel that after the pricing was leaked, many people expected that Google would pull a rabbit out of its hat with the Pixel. There had to be something more. The truth is, it's just a very good phone, and one that Google is now making the focus of its efforts. It is the first phone with a Google software skin, and the first phone developed by Google independent of the actual Android team (well, as independent as any manufacturer). That's quite interesting: Google has made clear that the Pixel team and the Android team have a "firewall." But that doesn't stop the Pixel team from working with all the various other groups and products inside Google, and that's how we've ended up with the first, and for now only, phone with Google Assistant.
The Pixel offers an incredible camera, fast software, premium materials, and high-end components. But it doesn't revolutionize the market, and it doesn't take any big risks. The Pixel, frankly, probably isn't that exciting to most people with a relatively new high-end smartphone. And I don't think it's meant to be - Google's marketing makes clear that a mainstream audience is being targeted here.
The Pixel does almost everything well. In fact, it does most things very well. And it does a few things exceptionally, like taking photos. So if you've pre-ordered a Pixel, I have a feeling you won't be disappointed: it's a delight to use, and I'm already deeply attached to the Pixel XL I've been carrying for the past five days. Even the notification sounds are just right to my ears.
But if you were a skeptic looking for some hidden killer feature, some justification for a price you found unthinkable? It's not as though Google was hiding the ball when they announced it. They told us what it was, and that's what it is. Google will almost certainly lose some Nexus fans over the Pixels and their high prices, and that is probably something they're well-aware of. Google isn't going after the people buying smartphones on a cost-to-spec basis, that much is obvious.
Still, I very much like the Pixel, even with its slightly boring design and iPhone pricing. I like the idea of quarterly maintenance releases - releases I will get first - that install silently in the background while I continue to use my phone. I like my monthly security patches. I like having phone or chat support just a few taps away if I break my phone and need to replace it. I love the camera. The Pixel is a very hard phone not to like, and that really is a rare thing.
For more thoughts from me after using the Pixel for over two weeks, check out this "review update" post.