Two weeks ago, Google unveiled the first phones it “designed inside and out”: the Pixel and Pixel XL. We had the opportunity to play with the latter device, though you can read our hands-on to get a feel for the smaller Pixel, as well.

Keep in mind that these flagship phones, which start shipping on October 20, are aimed directly at Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices, which is also reflected in their pricing. Compared to last year’s Nexus devices, the Pixels are more powerful, smaller in size, and will hit your wallet harder. But our job is to compare them with this year’s phones and to gauge how they stand on their own.

Hardware

Both HTC-built Pixel and Pixel XL feel great in the hand. And, like all phones that have smaller and larger counterparts, chances are you’ll prefer one over the other simply based on the size of your hands and how you generally use a smartphone. Jordan prefers the Pixel, and Emil prefers the Pixel XL. The only tradeoff between the two is based on size: The screen, dimensions, and battery vary. Everything else is the same, from processor and memory to camera and headphone jack.

Although the XL is smaller than the Nexus 6P, Emil actually prefers it that way. It’s not that the Nexus 6P ever felt unwieldy, but the XL is closer to that “just right” size, for Emil. The Pixel XL feels fairly light for its size — but Jordan notes it’s heavy enough that when you’re using it with one hand, you may worry about dropping it as you reach to the other side of the display. The phone is also not completely flat — it gets progressively thicker from the bottom to the top. Jordan wishes it were as narrow throughout as it is on the bottom.

The Google Pixel XL from the side.

Above: The Google Pixel XL from the side.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

 

Jordan finds that the aluminum feels smooth, sturdy, and premium, which is important, given that this phone competes with the well-built iPhone 7. He thinks the glass plate on the back provides contrast and looks sufficiently distinct from other mobile devices. The vibration engine on the phone is not as strong as the one in the iPhone 7, but it still produces a noticeable buzz. The way he sees it, Google should be applauded for making a phone that impresses the second you lay your hand on it.

Emil finds that the Pixel feels a bit cheap compared to something like the Galaxy S7. While Samsung’s metal design is undeniably solid, Google’s design is flimsier. It’s definitely not a plastic phone, but it doesn’t feel like a completely metal one either. You notice this most when you put it down on a hard surface; the phone doesn’t quite feel like a single slab. Instead, you get the impression that the device has strong and weak points, whereas phones like the S7 definitely don’t. Emil also finds the back ugly. Even at the risk of it looking like many existing phones, he would rather have one color and material throughout.

On the flip side, the 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display on the Pixel XL is gorgeous and oh-so-bright. It does well under sunlight, and there’s really nothing to complain about here. At no time of day do you notice any pixels on the screen.

The Google Assistant on the Google Pixel XL.

Above: The Google Assistant on the Google Pixel XL.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

The phone’s single bottom speaker produces sound that’s warm enough, but it could be louder. Jordan noted that if you have to take a call while you’re on a noisy street, you’re going to want to use headphones. Emil found that the sound quality wasn’t top-notch — playing the same songs on YouTube would sound marginally better on the S7, for example.

As with the Nexus predecessors, when you receive a notification while the Pixel’s display is off, you’ll see it pop up against a black background, and the colors will only return to the usual lock screen array when you touch the display or raise the phone. It’s nice to see this feature hasn’t been yanked, because it’s not so distracting that you feel the need to stop what you’re doing and react to whatever is new.

Related to this, there is no LED notification light. As a die-hard BlackBerry user, Emil has always preferred Android phones that include this feature. This isn’t a deal-breaker for most, but you will certainly notice its absence if you’re moving from a phone like the S7 that lets you know at a glance what type of notifications are waiting for you.

Camera

The camera is one of the most important features on a phone nowadays, so it’s not surprising how much time Google spent talking up the one in its Pixel phones. But phone makers are slowly moving to dual cameras, and the Pixel still has only one.

The rear camera on the Google Pixel XL.

Above: The rear camera on the Google Pixel XL.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

In our experience, the 12.3-megapixel rear camera is not quite as capable as the dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus, for example. The Pixel’s photos aren’t as clear when zoomed in, for one thing — though they’re still very good. And the camera is versatile — it picks up tons of detail and gets colors right in natural light. And in low-light situations, with some help from the flash, it can produce good, interesting shots of specific subjects. That is, the camera isn’t useless in the dark, unlike Nexus cameras of yore.

The Google Camera app comes up very quickly (you can fire it up at any point by pressing twice on the power button), and you can take successive photos with minimal delay. This is an improvement over Nexus cameras.

The biggest advantage of buying a Pixel phone if you take lots of pictures is the option to have them backed up to Google Photos at full resolution. When you go to a desktop computer and bring up your photos, you’ll notice that they take up a few megabytes each, giving you plenty of room for zooming in and cropping.

These aren’t just photos that look good on your phone’s display. The ability to remotely store photos on Google Photos and move them off the phone as needed — without sacrificing quality — means that you can make the most of the 32GB model if you choose it over the 128GB version that costs $100 extra.

Performance

Performance is superb on the Pixel XL, which is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chip and 4GB of RAM. When you do something, it responds without delay. Swipe up from the bottom? Up the icons come. Swipe down? Down they go, just as fast as they appeared. Swipe down from the top? Here come the notifications. Down again? There are the quick settings. Up? Notifications. Up again? Back to the home screen. Apps open immediately.

In short, the user interface always responds instantly to your input. This is freeing. But the best part is that unlike some phones, the Pixel XL doesn’t slow down when you’re low on battery.

Some of this is to be expected. There is the clear advantage of having next to no bundled carrier apps, and there’s also the halo effect of using a new phone. But the latest version of Android really does shine on this device: Everything is very smooth, and in our time using it, we didn’t see it stutter once.

The Google Pixel XL's headphone jack.

Above: The Google Pixel XL’s headphone jack.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

The fingerprint sensor is as quick as any we’ve ever seen. To be fair, though, we’re already at the point where fingerprint sensors unlock phones instantaneously, and the variance between different versions isn’t visible to the naked eye. The only real differentiating factor is where the fingerprint sensor is located — like its predecessors, the Pixel phones have the sensor on the back. This is where the speed gains are obvious over Apple’s and Samsung’s phones: It’s simply faster and easier to open your phone using a sensor on the back than on the front, though it may take a little while to get used to it.

During certain types of workloads — like in Google Earth or if you’re simultaneously browsing and watching a long video through Multi-Window Mode — the phone can heat up, but it doesn’t get too hot to hold. The phone never appears to slow down; it just works harder when you throw a lot at it.

Battery life

In just a few days’ testing, battery life on the Pixel XL proved to be very good. During one day of average use, the phone’s battery lasted 17 hours and 30 minutes — a half hour more than the best that Jordan has seen on the iPhone 7. This is more than Google suggested — 14 hours of internet use over LTE or Wi-Fi. As promised, the phone charges quickly when you’re using the included charger.

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Emil’s findings with the battery were even more positive: 20 hours was completely achievable. But the real test for battery life will be how slowly or quickly it degrades over time. With very intense use, Emil has to charge his S7 once at night and once during the day. While that definitely isn’t the case with the Pixel XL, we’ll have to revisit it to see how things change in a few months’ time.

Software

When Nexus devices arrive on the market, they immediately have a huge advantage over all other Android options. They’re running the latest software from Google, and they continue to get updates directly from the company. They’re always on the latest version and are first to get it.

The Pixel phones continue this trend. Although LG technically released the first Android 7.0 Nougat phone, the Pixel phones are running Android 7.1 Nougat. They even sound new: There are plenty of new chimes and hums that remind you that you’re using a new device.

That means small changes to Android — like accessing all your apps by simply swiping from the bottom up, an intuitive gesture — are available to Pixel users first. Nougat also brings awesome features like seamless updates, though we naturally couldn’t try this one because there weren’t any updates available.

The dialer on the Google Pixel XL.

Above: The dialer on the Google Pixel XL.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Nougat on the Pixel also means useless features, like the fingerprint swipe option, which brings down the notifications and settings panel when you drag your finger over the fingerprint scanner on the back. While it sounds nifty, and it is a perfect feature to include in a quick demo, Jordan found it annoying (he would bring it down by accident), and Emil just doesn’t see the point of it at all. Thankfully it’s disabled by default, so most users won’t be thrown off by it.

(For what it’s worth, a Google executive did tell us that it will be possible to use the fingerprint sensor for more than just swiping down your notifications. In a future software update, you’ll be able to use it to scroll through webpages and documents, which, at least on paper, sounds useful.)

Another currently useless feature is Daydream support. If you’re bullish about VR, it makes sense to buy a new Android phone that supports Google’s upcoming mobile VR platform. But it’s not available just yet — we will be testing it next month when Google debuts its Daydream VR headset.

Yet another feature that’s currently exclusive to these phones is the Night Light, which tints your screen red and is comforting during later hours. Like Night Shift on iOS, it’s off by default. But once it’s been enabled, it comes on or turns off abruptly, unlike iOS’ gradual fade.

Nougat also brings circular icons to Android. They look nice, except for the fact that most of your icons are not circular. So they actually look ridiculous:

app_icons_ugly

This is the top row of Emil’s app icons on the Pixel XL (no, not staged for the review — these are actually the apps he places on the top).

Emil decided to swap his apps a little just so that he didn’t have to look at the Google Calendar icon at the very top:

app_icons_better

(It’s not just Google Calendar. Many of Google’s apps don’t have circular icons yet: Gmail, Google Photos, Google Drive, Google Play, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music, Google Camera, YouTube, Android Pay, and the main Google App all remain unchanged.)

Normally, choices like this don’t bother Emil — it’s design gurus like our colleague Harrison Weber who scoff at Android when they see differently sized icons. But in this case, even Emil is unimpressed.

Speaking of things that don’t impress Emil, let’s talk about the battery icon. We’re on Android version 7.1 now, and the percentage is still missing. You can thankfully enable this by using the secret System UI Tuner, but it boggles the mind why this isn’t simply turned on for everyone by default.

Another area where Google has updated app icons is app shortcuts. As you might expect, not many apps offer these shortcuts yet. Those that are available can be quite useful (quickly calling a contact you frequently talk on the phone with, or starting navigation to your work/home).

android_app_shortcuts_google_maps

The Pixels also have the ability to search within apps installed on the device, a feature that was first made available on the LG V20. To access it, simply bring up the Google search box, execute a search, and then swipe right to the In Apps header. This section brings up good results for some queries but comes up short for others. (For example, Jordan saved an article about Leonard Cohen in his Pocket app, but there were no search results from Pocket in the In Apps section when he searched for “leonard cohen.”)

Pixel and Pixel XL also offer access to Google’s support team via chat or phone, available 24/7. Emil requested a chat, asking for help transferring text messages to the Pixel XL. A support agent was available in less than a minute and was very helpful. Emil only experienced one annoyance: There’s an option to describe your issue when you’re requesting help, but filling it out is pointless, because the support agent apparently doesn’t see it and still asks what you want help with.

The Pixel launcher has two features that make it stand out from the Nexus launcher it replaces. It has a “G” logo that lets you jump straight into Google Search. We found the trending topics to be a nice touch and noted that it might end up being yet another way to quickly check the news, much like Facebook’s trending topics section.

pixel_launcher_google_bar

There’s also a weather section that constantly updates you on the current conditions (Emil, who lives in Canada, was awestruck that it was in Celsius without his having to change anything). Opening it gives you all the details you need. It’s quite handy and honestly makes us wonder if most people will want to use a separate weather app ever again.

pixel_launcher_weather_widget

But the big draw in the Pixel launcher is, of course, Google’s latest answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant is the single most important feature of the Pixel phones. It’s Google’s latest, most fleshed-out attempt to make a virtual assistant. While the responses are not always what you’re looking for, it tends to understand what you’re saying more frequently than Siri. (See Jordan’s in-depth post on the Assistant here.)

What makes Assistant particularly useful on the Pixel phones is that you can trigger it at any time. Just say “OK Google,” regardless of what you’re doing or what app you have open. In fact, you can use the phrase to unlock your phone and trigger the Assistant — thanks to the Trusted Voice feature, which ensures nobody else near your phone can gain access by simply saying “OK Google.” Emil asked friends and family to try to unlock his phone with the phrase, and while nobody could, when he tried it immediately afterward, he couldn’t either. Waiting a bit resolved the issue.

Assistant is actually voice-only. You can’t type questions into it when you’re trying to be quiet at night or are in public and don’t want to look dumb talking to your phone. If you want to type, you’ll have to communicate with the Assistant in Allo, a decision Google may want to change in the future.

When you ask something of Assistant, it quickly figures out what you said and then provides its best answer. The speech recognition alone is impressive. When Assistant is done, you can just ask another question. And then another. It’s fun and addictive.

The Google Assistant on the Google Pixel XL.

Above: The Google Assistant on the Google Pixel XL.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Emil wanted to know how late a barbecue place was open, but didn’t know its name. When simply told “barbecue restaurant” and the intersection, Google Assistant brought up two results. Emil followed up by asking how late the first result was open  — Assistant immediately gave the hours and said it would only be open for 35 more minutes. Tasks like this normally take a lot more time when you have to manually search around the web.

One of the most interesting things Jordan discovered about the Assistant is that it can take a picture at your command. Just for fun, while driving, he said, “Take a picture.” The Pixel was mounted in a holder that’s stuck to an air conditioner vent, but the rear camera was located just high enough that it could see what was in front of the car. It counted down “3, 2, 1,” and then took a shot. Even though it was dark, the picture didn’t look all that bad. But it was just thrilling that it worked without a hitch. Trying this on an iPhone resulted in Siri bringing up the Camera app and not going any further.

assistant_website_fail

But the feature still has a long way to go. For example, Assistant still can’t recognize music, so asking it what song is playing doesn’t do anything. It also opens websites in Android’s WebView instead of Chrome, which can be quite frustrating, as you can’t keep the page open and switch back to Assistant. If you tell it to “take me” to a website, it will launch Google Maps instead of Chrome (you have to say “open” instead) — it has trouble distinguishing between certain entities. Assistant also doesn’t always take your location into account when opening sites. So if a more popular restaurant across the world has a name that’s similar to your local place, you’ll end up on the wrong site — a common problem with Google Search that Assistant inevitably inherits.

All in all, even with its odd quirks, Assistant is simply faster to use for many of the things that you normally would ask Google for. If you need to quickly check something while you’re shopping, getting groceries, or trying to figure out if a restaurant is open — simply asking your phone verbally is much easier than navigating to Google Search and typing out a query.

Final thoughts

The Nexus phones were often the best Android phones you could get on a budget. There were exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, you were basically saving a few hundred dollars to get an unlocked Android phone that would get software updates first.

With the Pixels, it seems like the tradeoff is much better, but it will cost you accordingly. This is currently the best Android phone on the market. As is often the case with Android, that will likely change in half a year, when Samsung and its competitors start releasing their latest. But for now, if you have the money to get the latest and greatest, you can’t go wrong with the Pixel and Pixel XL.