For years, Google relied on its Nexus lineup of phones to market a vision of its Android operating system: stock, bloatware-free and updates directly (and frequently) from Google. The search giant collaborated with hardware manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Huawei to house the software meant to show the full power of Android to the tech community.
Despite the project’s ambition, most of these devices came with a catch. Whether it was a subpar camera or feeble battery life, Nexus phones garnered critical lenience because of its midrange pricing. Even the most premium version of them, the Nexus 6P, had fans concerned with its questionable durability.
In a bold attempt to quell these criticisms, Google unveiled the Pixel line. These devices represent Google’s aspirations to encroach upon the premium market dominated by Apple and Samsung, and the pricing reflects that. Despite HTC being the hardware partner again, there are no signs or branding anywhere, except Google’s G logo. All hardware and software specifications are Google’s own design, to better differentiate this particular Android phone.
The Pixel and its larger sibling, the Pixel XL, are identical in specs except for a few areas like screen size/resolution and battery capacity. As such, we will review the more palm-friendly 5-inch Pixel.
Glass, metal, and glass
The Pixel sports a 5-inch Full HD 1080p AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass 4 protection and a nearly all-metal aluminum body; nearly, because Google decided to cover the upper third of the back with another Gorilla Glass 4 panel. This particular design decision has been divisive, to say the least, and seems to serve no particular function other than to look different from the mass of rectangular slabs in the smartphone market.
The only buttons – power and volume keys – reside on the right side, two speaker grills and USB-C port on the bottom, and 3.5mm headphone jack up top. Regarding dimensions, the Pixel measures at 143.84 x 69.54 x 8.58mm. Thickness tapers to 7.31mm at the base to accommodate the camera lens without protruding. The back features the ‘G’ logo, antenna lines at the top and bottom, the 12.3 MP camera and ‘Pixel Imprint’ fingerprint sensor below it. The Pixel Imprint works fast and almost flawlessly, even besting the sensor equipped on the iPhone 7.
Nougat out of the box
The software side is where Google aggressively markets the Pixel as being the ultimate Android phone. Running Android 7.1 Nougat, it is the latest and greatest in terms of features, the most notable of which is the Google Assistant voice-command system.
Assistant springs to life with the “OK Google” keyword or a long-press of the software home button and carries out simple commands like composing text messages and setting reminders. Where Google leans hard on is Assistant’s ability to execute contextual search queries and commands.
In theory, you can pretty much have a conversation with Assistant without saying “OK Google” for follow-up questions. Sometimes it is incredible; sometimes it fails at simple tasks. Assistant has the potential to be a true, natural language UI, but needs more development.
In a somewhat-departure from the common stock Android UI, the Pixel is ‘skinned’ with the Pixel Launcher. This new interface offers quite a few aesthetic and functional changes: round icons, a swipe-up app drawer, the pill-shaped search widget, and a new, intuitive animation when long-pressing the home button. All of these work without a hitch, and do not detract too much from the core Android experience.
Brawn with the brains
The Pixel’s internals boast of the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset with a beefy 4GB of RAM. These flagship specs coupled with Android Nougat’s software optimizations ensure a super smooth and fast user experience. Opening apps and multitasking between them is effortless, and playing graphics-intensive games show no sign of stutter or slowdown.
Battery life is average for the most part, but it will depend on individual usage habits. The Pixel packs a 2,700-mAh battery and is adequate for daily tasks. Quick Charging is a welcome feature, as Google claims 7 hours of battery life on a 15-minute charge.
The 12.3 MP rear camera is the highest-rated sensor on DxO, brandishing a marketing advantage that’s sure to spur debates amongst mobile photography enthusiasts. Then again, we do not need benchmarks to tell that the Pixel camera captures excellent photos. Daylight shots are vibrant and detailed without overexposure, and low-light images are even more astounding. In fact, low-light photography might just be the edge the Pixel has over its more sophisticated rivals like the Samsung S7 Edge and the iPhone 7.
Google’s first foray into the premium smartphone market is a promising start. The hardware design needs some re-thinking, but all of its smart bits make it a powerful contender in this saturated mobile segment. It is no doubt the best Android phone money can buy if you do not mind the frankly ridiculous $649 starting price for the 32GB variant.