U.S. Markets open in 1 hr 40 mins

Google Pixel XL review: An excellent phone with one flaw

For years, Google has been keen to stay on the sidelines of the smartphone wars, leaving Samsung and other Android handset makers to do the dirty work of fighting Apple and its iPhone. But now the search giant is diving head-first into the fray with its new Pixel and Pixel XL.

Available today and starting at $650 and $770 for the Pixel and Pixel XL, respectively, Google’s smartphones are aimed squarely at taking on Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, not to mention every premium Android phone out there.

After spending a week with the Pixel XL, I’m sold on Google’s new handset. Mostly.

In fact, if Google had just made this bad boy as water-resistant as its competitors, I’d be on my way to buy one right now.

Phone by Google

Before a bunch of frothing Android lovers descend on me in the comments section for being ignorant, let’s get one thing straight. The Pixel and Pixel XL are not Google’s first smartphones. The company has been releasing its own phones under its Nexus brand for years. Those handsets, however, were built by other companies including Samsung, HTC, LG and Huawei and were emblazoned with their corporate logos.

Pixel XL rear fingerprint reader
The rear fingerprint reader of the Google Pixel XL.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are both built by HTC, but in reality, they’re all Google from top to bottom. That’s why the only logo on these handsets is the tech behemoth’s “G.”

With that out of the way, let’s get to business.

The Pixel and Pixel XL sport aluminum bodies with small areas of glass near the top of their rear panels, which house the phones’ fingerprint readers. As a side note: I feel like all phones should have their fingerprint readers on their back panels, as it makes them easier to reach with one hand.

Google Pixel XL
Google’s Pixel XL in the flesh … err, aluminum?

Overall, the Pixels are relatively attractive — inoffensive really — but not nearly as elegant as Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus or Samsung’s Galaxy S7. The phones’ brushed aluminum bodies make them a bit slippery, though the same can be said of both iPhones and the Galaxy S7. I did, however, find the glass panel on the Pixel to be quite the fingerprint magnet.

Google is offering the Pixel in three colors: Quite Black, Very Sliver and Really Blue. The Really Blue version is easily my favorite and also already sold out.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

I’ve be using the Pixel XL and while it’s certainly large, it never feels too big, unlike the iPhone 7 Plus. In fact, the Pixel XL is a bit smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus, despite both phones sporting 5.5-inch screens. The 5-inch Pixel, meanwhile, is slightly larger than the 4.7-inch iPhone and about the same size as Samsung’s 5.1-inch Galaxy S7.

I have just one big problem with the Pixel and Pixel XL’s designs: They don’t play well with water. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are all water-resistant and can survive taking a dip for up to 30 minutes. But Google’s handset isn’t much of a swimmer; so don’t expect it to keep on ticking if you accidentally take it for a dip.

Google on display

The Pixel and Pixel XL come with AMOLED panels that produce beautiful colors and sharp text. The Pixel XL has a sharper resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels compared to the Pixel’s 1920 x 1080 pixels, but to be honest, the only time you’ll care about that is if you use your phones with Google’s Daydream VR headset. More on that in a minute.

Between the Pixel phones, the Galaxy S7 and Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the iPhone has the slightly more attractive display. That’s because the handset tends to produce more natural looking colors, while hues appeared a bit oversaturated on the Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as the S7.

The Google Pixel XL display
Google’s Pixel XL has a beautiful AMOLED display.

Here’s the thing though: The differences are so difficult to discern that you need to line up all of the phones, load the same image on them and stare at them each for a good minute or two before you can see which phone’s panel is barely better than the next. In other words, all of these phones have such beautiful screens that you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them.

Android Nougat at its sweetest

Both the Pixel and Pixel XL come loaded with the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system: Android 7.0 Nougat. And like Google’s Nexus devices, the Pixel and Pixel XL are guaranteed to receive updates to the company’s OS as soon as they are made available.

Android Nougat home screen.
The Android Nougat home screen.

Annoyingly, other Android smartphone makers including Samsung, LG and Sony, delay Google’s software updates in order to ensure they work with the companies’ own versions of the operating system.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones to come preloaded with Android Nougat, and while the OS isn’t a huge improvement over Google’s previous version of Android, it still offers some welcome updates.

The new notification shade features customizable quick settings and lets you directly respond to texts and other messages without having to open their corresponding apps. The operating system also lets you view two apps on-screen at the same time and quickly switch between your most recent apps. Oh, and there are a boatload of new emojis.

Android reply notifications
You can now reply to messages from the notification shade.

I’d probably be a lot more impressed with these updates, though, if companies like Samsung and LG didn’t already implement such features in their own versions of Android years ago.

Still, Nougat does feel like the most streamlined and inviting version of Android to date. Menus are intuitive and easy to navigate, and I’ve never found myself scouring the OS for settings. In general Nougat is easier to use than Samsung’s take on Android, which feels bogged down by various settings, options and unnecessary system warnings. In fact, I found that Nougat offers a cleaner experience than Apple’s iOS 10, which is now encumbered by myriad quick menus and options.

My one problem with the Pixel’s software is that, if you get the Verizon version of the phone, it comes loaded with carrier bloatware. I’m talking about things like Verizon’s text messaging app, which is an unnecessary addition when you’ve already got Google’s own messaging app installed on the device.

Say, “Hello,” to Google Assistant

The star of the show, though, is the new Google Assistant. The digital assistant, as Google explains it, is essentially your own personal version of Google that knows you by pulling from information you’ve put into the company’s disparate apps including Gmail, Google Photos, Google Search, Google Voice and others.

Google Assistant
Google’s new Google Assistant.

So if you booked a flight and your itinerary is in your Gmail, you can ask Google Assistant when that flight leaves and it will grab the info from your email and provide you with verbal and visual answers. For example, when I asked Assistant how to get rid of squeaky shoes, it provided me with a verbal answer from wikiHow, as well as on-screen instructions. Siri, on the other hand, could only provide me with links to websites.

Google Assistant answer.
Google Assistant answers questions that Siri can’t.

It’s that kind of functionality that helps set Google Assistant apart from its competitors and makes it a genuinely useful tool. Of course, it’s not perfect, and you’re sure to run into a phrase or two that Google doesn’t understand. But for the most part Assistant works as advertised. I’m just not sure how often I’ll be talking to my phone in public.

Shooting for the moon

Google made quite a bit of noise about the Pixel and Pixel XL’s cameras when it debuted the phones, claiming they were the best smartphone cameras ever made. That’s a heck of an assertion, especially when you consider that Google is comparing the Pixel to the Samsung Galaxy S7 Apple’s iPhone 7’s excellent cameras.

Pictures of a pumpkin taken with the Pixel XL and iPhone 7 Plus
Photos of a pumpkin taken with the Pixel XL and the iPhone 7 Plus.

I took shots with the Pixel XL, the S7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, and found that all three phones captured beautiful images. We’re honestly approaching a point of near parity in terms of smartphone cameras. So to say that one phone’s camera is the best isn’t a condemnation of its competitors.

Overall, the iPhone 7 Plus tended to capture the most vibrant colors of all three phones’ cameras. Reds looked more enticing and blues more serene. But the iPhone’s brilliant colors ended up hurting fine details in some shots. The S7 played it safe between the three phones, falling somewhere in the middle.

In low-light conditions, the Pixel’s shots were a bit clearer and more detailed than the iPhone’s, but when I switched on the flash, the Pixel made my skin look bright red, while the iPhone made my skin look more even.

low-light photos comparing the Pixel and iPhone 7 Plus
Low-light photos taken with the Pixel and the iPhone 7 Plus.

What sets the iPhone 7 plus apart from the Pixel XL and S7, though, is that it includes an optical zoom, which allows you to zoom in on a subject up to 2x without seeing a significant degradation in image quality. So if you want to zoom in on subjects with your phone’s camera, your best bet is the iPhone 7 Plus.

Pixel Power

In terms of performance, the Pixel and Pixel XL are essentially the same phones. They both come with quad-core processors (Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 for our nerdier readers), 4GB of RAM and your choice of either 32GB or 128GB of storage.

Unfortunately, if you opt for the Really Blue model of the Pixel or Pixel XL you’ll only be able to get 32GB of storage, which is just silly. Overall, the phone feels incredibly snappy and I haven’t noticed a hint of lag. The fingerprint sensor is lightning fast and swiping between apps is as smooth as silk.

The Pixel and Pixel XL both use USB-C connectors, which is quickly becoming the norm across smartphone manufactures. And unlike the iPhone, both Pixel phones come with 3.5mm headphone jacks, something Google was quick to point out when it unveiled its the phones.

Google Pixel headphone jack
Google’s Pixel comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

As far as battery life goes, the Pixel XL regularly lasted a full day and well into a second on a single charge. And thanks to the phone’s quick charging technology you can get up to seven hours of use with a 15-minute charge.

Is the Pixel for you?

Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL are two excellent smartphones with beautiful displays, wonderful cameras, smooth performance and an intuitive operating system. The inclusion of Google’s Google Assistant is just icing on the cake.

But the Pixel and Pixel XL aren’t perfect. They aren’t water-resistant like the S7 or iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and the phones’ bloatware is annoying to say the least. It’s also obnoxious that the Pixel and Pixel XL are Verizon exclusives. That means if you want to get the phone for a carrier that isn’t Verizon, you’ll have to buy it through the Google Store and then bring it to your carrier of choice to get a SIM card.

Still, the Pixel phones are wonderful handsets. In fact, I might have just found one of my new favorite smartphones.

Disclosure: Verizon has a deal pending to acquire Yahoo Finance’s parent company, Yahoo.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.