For years, Google chose to partner with manufacturers to create handsets showing off the purest form of Android, with the latest innovations highlighted by the best hardware. This was what the Nexus range was all about. But this lead to at least a few compromises.
With the arrival of Daydream VR, and with so many hardware makers falling on financial hard times, Google couldn’t afford any compromises. The Pixel is the company’s first home-made smartphone. It offers the latest version of Android, with a few Pixel-specific features, and support for the as-yet-unreleased VR system.
Google Pixel Review: Design
The Pixel may not have been technically built by Google, but neither is the iPhone technically built by Apple. It’s commonplace to have another company building the actual hardware. For the Pixel, Google chose HTC, a company which has seen its own-brand devices slump in popularity over recent years. But here’s the good part: HTC knows how to build really good phones.
Think back to the Nexus One, undoubtedly one of the best-made Nexus phones released. It was built by HTC. More recently, the HTC One Series, ranging from the M7 to M9, all drew plaudits for their industrial design. In short: Google couldn’t have picked a better hardware manufacturer. And it shows in the device.
Everything about the exterior design and manufacturing feels deliberate, purposeful and precise. Whether you’re looking at the textured power button, the Type-C port and flanking cutouts for the mic and speaker, the 3.5mm jack or the weird glass panel on the back, it’s all exact.
Then there’s the soft bead-blasted metal finish on the back which rounds really nicely towards the perfectly flat edges and the large angle chamfers. All of it is so well finished and designed, it’s impossible to ignore.
We’re not particularly fond of the unusual-looking glass panel on the back, which hosts the camera, sensors, dual-tone LED flash and circular fingerprint sensor. But we get it. In an era where so many smartphones look the same, it’s nice to have something different, something that says “this is the Pixel phone”. With that, and the single “G” stamped on the back, it’s recognisable as a device all of its own.
One element that’s difficult to get used to is the position of the volume and power buttons. Most phones tend to have the power button lowest, whereas Google opted to put the power button above the volume switch. That means it’s easy to accidentally turn volume down, rather than send the phone to sleep.
All these perks and quirks are packed in to a phone which fits really nicely in the hand, feels durable, and has a heft of class without being too heavy.
Google Pixel Review: Display
With the Pixel being the smaller of the two new Google phones, the 5-inch screen features fewer pixels than its big brother, the Pixel XL. While the larger model has a Quad HD screen, the Pixel has a Full HD panel. Still, 1080 x 1920 pixels shoved into a display that’s only 5-inches diagonally makes for a very sharp screen. At 441 pixels per inch, everything is crisp.
It is AMOLED too, and comes with all the benefits and drawbacks of choosing that over LCD. Specifically, colours are vibrant, contrast is high and blacks are deep. That means it’s fantastic for watching movies, gaming, or viewing anything with lots of colour.
It does mean that whites aren’t quite as pure as they would be on a good LCD panel – they come across as ever so slightly warm, but you’re unlikely to notice unless you have it side-by-side with an iPhone or other device.
On the whole, the Pixel’s display is one of the nicest we’ve seen on a phone at this scale. The panel itself is so close to the glass surface that viewing angles are superb, and content almost appears as if it’s on the surface.
Google Pixel Review: Software
The Google Pixel comes with the brand new version of Android Nougat. But you can take what you know about 7.0 Nougat and throw it away, because the Pixel Launcher and software are considerably different to the software we’ve been using since the first Nexus developer preview went live a few months ago.
First up is Google Assistant, the voice controlled assistant. It is, essentially, Google Now packaged in to a more human, chat-like user interface. It has many of the same functions you’re used to – like telling you the weather, knowing your calendar events, setting reminders, sports scores and much more – but packaged in to an interface that’s more intuitive.
Part of the setup process – when first powering up the phone – is training it to recognise your voice, the same way Google Now does when you want the “Ok Google” command to wake it up when it’s dormant. You can also launch it by tapping and holding the virtual home button.
Now, instead of launching a Google Search interface, the command launches a chat thread, similar to Google Allo, the company’s messaging app, in the bottom half of the screen which then expands once a question has been posed.
The beauty of Google Assistant is that it keeps learning. As time goes by, and you use it more, its predictive reply suggestions are more tailored to the kinds of things you would ask or say. Like Google Allo, these appear as individual bubbles underneath the most recent response from Google.
Unlike every version of Android so far, there’s no app drawer button. The familiar dotted circle icon has been replaced by an app drawer that simply drags up from the bottom of the home screen. While the gesture feels more intuitive, the biggest benefit of this is that it allows you to have a fifth app icon pinned to the dock.
The app icons themselves have been given a new feature too. Similar to the iPhone, you can bring up app shortcuts for some of the default Android apps like Messenger, Calendar, Camera and Dialler. Because there’s no pressure sensitive screen, you bring these up by long-pressing the app.
Another new addition in the Pixel launcher is the wallpaper picker, which now has a vast collection of default wallpapers, including some breathtaking landscapes and cityscapes from professional photographers, as well as Google’s own live wallpapers. Some of these react and change colour to match the time and the weather, others are just Google Earth images that move slowly and react as you swipe through home screen spaces.
All the default app icons are now round, as are the folder windows, and you can quick-reply to notifications without leaving the app you’re in, or from the lock screen. But, apart from those design changes and features, there are some real benefits to having a Pixel phone over another Android smartphone.
Firstly, the Google Photos app allows you backup all of your photos in full size, original resolution, for free. Normally, on other Android phones or iPhone, you only get free unlimited backup space if you choose to reduce the quality. What’s more, there’s no time limit on the offer. As long as you have the Pixel phone, you get full resolution backups.
Secondly, the Settings app has a second tab giving you quick, easy access to a support team. You can call them or start a text-based chat with them as they help you through any issues you’re having.
Apart from those features, the software is otherwise Android 7.1 Nougat as we know it. That includes the split-screen multitasking mode, which seems a little wasted on a 5-inch screen. Although it is still useful for those odd moments when you need to reference a video, map position, or quote while typing an email or message.
Easy access to your battery performance from the drop-down menu – which, by the way, you can access now by swiping down on the Pixel Imprint sensor on the back – is a much welcome addition, as is the ability to add, remove and rearrange quick settings tiles.
Google Pixel Review: Performance
One of the benefits of creating its own phone, is that the Google software can be fine-tuned to run like a charm on the hardware. With its clean, stock Android experience, there’s no bloat or additional software to get in the way. That means everything is very snappy and smooth in operation. In fact, we’d go as far as saying it’s the most responsive Android phone we’ve ever used.
While a big part of that is the new lightweight software experience, it’s also down to the efficient and powerful Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor and 4GB RAM that’s on board.
Game animations are stutter-free and smooth, while load times are as quick as you’d hope for from a flagship phone. It may not get the highest benchmark scores we’ve seen during tests, but it still runs like a dream – and that, ultimately, is what matters most.
There’s the option for 32 or 128GB of storage and as anyone who owned a Nexus will tell you, there’s no provision for microSD card expansion here. That’s a downside compared to many flagship Android phones. Sure, Apple has never offered expandable storage and that works for iPhone; Android does and in this new competitive “phone by Google” world, customers will expect such features.
Google Pixel Review: Battery Life
On paper, the 2,770mAh battery may not seem like it would be capacious enough to offer great battery life, but that’s where numbers on paper can deceive. There are a couple of things worth taking in to consideration that ensure the Pixel’s battery lasts well beyond a full day of regular use.
First is thanks again to that software. Like Android Marshmallow before it, Android 7 Nougat has Google Doze. This essentially means that when the phone is put down on a surface and in standby, any excessive background processes are killed. This ensures there’s little battery usage when the phone isn’t in use, like when you’re asleep. Unlike Marshmallow, Nougat’s Doze mode is also active when the phone is in your pocket, or in your hand. It doesn’t have to be lying still on a flat surface. In short: if your phone isn’t being used, your battery isn’t either.
With light use, our Pixel got from 07:30 to 18:00 with 60 per cent of its capacity left. For light users, this Pixel phone could even be a two day phone.
Most days, we got to bed time with between 30-40 per cent charge remaining. That was after spending most of the evening testing the phone’s performance (AKA playing hours of Temple Run 2). For heavy users, we suspect the Pixel would still get you to the end of a work day comfortably.
Regardless of how long it lasts any specific user, the phone still charges really quickly, thanks to its Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 support. Google claims you can get seven hours worth of battery juice from plugging it in for just 15 minutes. Our experience says you should be able to fully charge it in little over an hour.
Google Pixel Review: Camera
Google claims its camera is among the best out there, pointing to the often-cited DxOMark mobile scores to prove to us all that it’s the best camera on a smartphone to date. In our experience, it is good, but it’s far from perfect.
One of its early flaws – which could presumably fixed with a software update – is its tendency to get the white balance wrong. In some photos, it applies a white balance as if lightning is incredibly cool, and overcompensates by making the scene more yellow. Almost as if an orange filter has been placed on the outside of the lens. We found this happened on both the front and rear facing camera.
With that said, it is capable of producing some really great shots. Even without manual controls – which we’ve come to expect from top Android phones – it can create photographs with great colour and detail.
Perhaps more impressive is that it captures them very quickly. There’s almost zero waiting time between hitting the shutter button and the shot being captured.
One element which surprised us was how well it coped in low-light situations. Even without manual exposure settings, and with the flash switched off, it can shoot sharp, blur-free images with great colour quality.
It sometimes has trouble focusing on objects close-up, so macro shots are hit and miss. With instances like this, and with the white balance issues, we can’t help but feel a manual or “pro” mode with customisable ISO, shutter speed, white balance and focus would be hugely beneficial. But that’s not the Pixel’s focus: it’s all about simplicity.
The Google Pixel is the best Android experience available right now. For the first time we get to see exactly what Google has in mind for hardware design and features. Google is completely in control, and you can tell. Everything is tight, refined and polished to a degree we’ve never seen in a Nexus phone.
Of course, this year, the Pixel arrives without the usual Nexus cheaper-than-flagship price. Indeed, the Pixel costs as much as an iPhone – and that could potentially come back to bite Google. On the other hand, with Samsung’s reputation needing some serious work given Note 7 issues, the more-expensive-than-usual Android phone couldn’t have come at a better time for Google.
If you’re after a 5-inch Android smartphone then there’s simply nothing else on the market that compares to the Pixel. And because it’s a Pixel, made by Google, you’ll get prompt software updates, regularly, promptly and for at least a few years. You’re not at the whim of a hardware manufacturer or a network operator.