Google Pixel XL XDA Review: A Foundational Release for Google & Post-Nexus Android

Google Pixel XL XDA Review: A Foundational Release for Google & Post-Nexus Android

Google’s newest incursion into the smartphone market is upon us, and the Pixel and Pixel XL aim to offer top-notch hardware and the perfect realization of Google’s new vision for Android. Most importantly, perhaps, it is key part of a bigger push for a redefined Google ecosystem.

With so many great Android phones around, how clearly can the Pixels stand out?

In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Pixel XL. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specification sheet out of the way:

Device Name: Pixel XL Release Date/Price Available Now, Starts at U$D 769
Android Version  7.1 Nougat Display 5.5 inch AMOLED – 1440 x 2560 – 534 PPI
Chipset Qualcomm MSM8996 Snapdragon 821 “Pro-AB”  | Quad-core CPU (2×2.15 GHz Kryo & 2×1.6 GHz Kryo) | Adreno 530 GPU Battery 3,450 mAh
RAM 4GB LPDDR4 Sensors Fingerprint, accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer
Storage 32GB | 128GB Connectivity USB 3.0 Type C, 3.5mm audio jack
Dimensions 154.7 x 75.7 x 8.5 mm (~71.2% screen-to-body) Rear Camera f/2.0, EIS, laser autofocus, video: 4K Video, 240FPS Maximum
Weight 168g Front Camera 8MP, f/2.4

Index

 DesignSoftware – UISoftware – UXPerformanceReal World UXCameraDisplayBattery LifeAudioDevelopment & Future ProofingFinal Thoughts

Hardware Design & Build Quality

The design of the Pixel XL is one of the factors that will likely get disputed the most among enthusiasts, owners and potential-buyers: in many ways, it is a deviation from the design language of the Nexus line as seen on the Nexus 6P and 5X, but the new shell gives credence to the idea of a discrete Google product. The HTC-manufactured body follows a mix between tradition and oddity, ultimately achieving a look that’s unique even if unconventional. While Google likely tried to make something different with its first new phone, given some of the recent revelations it’s unclear whether they really had much time at all to nail the body of the Pixel and Pixel XL, and some think that it might not even be a truly Google-designed device. None of that changes the merits and downfalls of the actual device that is already produced, though, so we’ll leave those arguments for the editorials where they belong. Let’s take a detailed look at each part of the Pixel XL.

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The front of the Pixel XL is what I referred to as “conventional” when describing the makeup of the phone’s design. The “quite black” color option actually tones down the “black slab” motif of previous Nexus given its more of a deep grey, something worth pointing out due to the AMOLED screen the device packs. Nexus 6P owners will candidly recall the way in which the bezels merged with the screen on black background and images — not perfectly so, but well-enough to give the illusion in most lighting conditions. Unless you are in a dark environment, you will find a clear distinction between screen and bezel in the Pixel XL no matter which variant you pick. Something that I believe has been largely ignored, though, is that the Pixel XL has one of the absolute-thinnest black border around its actual display, which makes the white and blue variants of the device look more pleasing than they otherwise would, and than other white phones

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The fact that you will notice the bezel is relevant given the phone’s below-average screen-to-body ratio, with average side bezels and sizeable top and bottom bezels as well. While the device is quite tall, its surface dimensions are largely the same in proportion to the Nexus 6P’s, as the screen-to-body ratio is 71.4% versus 71.2%. Due to the Pixel Xl’s slightly-smaller screen, it ultimately makes it a more-compact device with slightly-bigger bezels than an average 5.5-inch phone. An issue many will take with the frontal design, however, is the asymmetrical distribution of top and bottom bezel. We found the larger bottom bezel to be slightly more noticeable on the white front Pixel variants, too, as the pitch-black navigation bar makes a clear contrast with the bezel. It is a little disappointed to see that space unused given that last year’s Nexus phones had bottom-firing speakers, and that HTC (who ultimately manufactured this phone) has been renowned for its speakers too. However, I have found the ergonomics and nav-bar-reachability to be excellent on the Pixel XL precisely because of the bottom-heavy bezel, which ends up pushing the navigation bar higher and making it easier for the thumb to reach it. At the top you’ll find the usual camera, sensor and speaker.

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A similarly-neat positioning is found on the sides of the phone: the 8.5mm-thick frame hosts both the volume rocker and the power-button on the right side, in such a way that they are easy to reach with either hand. Right-handed usage results in the thumb perfectly landing on the power button and only slightly above the volume rocker, while left-handed usage has the index finger reach the power button, and the middle finger land on the volume keys. I adapted to the new setup instantly, and the textured power button feels great and aids in giving tactile contrast between the two control pieces. It also shines differently at various angles when hit by light due to its geometry, and it ultimately feels extremely sturdy and clicky. The volume rocker, on the other hand, has been wobblier on all the units we’ve tested, and we’ve also seen numerous reports of other users finding their volume keys wobblier than the power button (and they can sound differently, too). That being said, they remain extremely clicky as well, and we’ve had no issues with asymmetric feedback when pressing either key either.

Other than that, the sides are pretty barren except for the SIM card slot on the other side of the device, which sits flush with the rest of the frame. The bottom of the phone contains the USB Type-C port as well as two grills, only one of which is a speaker as the right grill is a microphone instead. At the top of the phone, you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack. Around the edges you’ll find both the glass front and the back of phone fused with different curvatures: the 2.5D glass transition of the screen is extremely subtle, whereas the curvature merging the frame with the back is very pronounced and sudden, and the antennae bands follow around it.

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Getting to the back of the phone is where we find some of the more interesting-aspects of the device’s design. The Pixel XL has a two-tone back with the aluminum chassis featuring a glass overlay at the top, which reportedly helps with signal as well (I haven’t found signal to be particularly better than on other devices, though, and I know friends abroad have had signal issues). It gives the design an unconventional look that makes it stand out from the crowd and it’s ultimately a more-prominent “Google phone” marker than the Google logo at the mid-bottom. The two-tone back is certainly a curious addition that brings unconventional side-effects, such as uneven heat distribution, different scratch and shatter properties for uneven durability, and an interesting difference in light reflection. The glass panel is glossy and due to the background under it, it ends up looking not-quite-transparent, meaning it can look like slick black glass or like a more matte grey texture depending on the lighting and the angle. I personally think it’s an interesting choice and I’ve grown to like it, but there are some nitpicks worth mentioning as well:

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scratchesFirst of all, the glass is slightly raised above the metal, making the glass window prone to scratches when laid on certain surfaces. Our units have all been scratched as a result, with the edges in particular showing many microscratches. Second, we found a positioning mistake in multiple units where the window’s microphone hole is actually not aligned with the microphone under the glass. We’ve also heard reports of slightly uneven fusing of the glass and the metal across its four edges, but our units have been fine. Ultimately, cases and skins can help mitigate some of the potential durability side-effects.

The new redesign certainly borrows some structural similarities from other manufacturers, but the execution is very solid in itself. The phone feels very sturdy (in part due to the thickness), the materials feel premium and the ergonomics are very good for a large and thick device, with good button placement and reachability. A final nitpick would be that the device doesn’t feel properly balanced in terms of weight, although the center of gravity lays only slightly past the middle. I personally think the design is unassuming and unspectacular, but I also feel like it’s the kind of design one won’t get sick of after a year, or rather, the kind of functional smartphone design one can enjoy for more than a single year.

Software Design & User Interface

With the Pixel phones being Google-branded, we are actually seeing Google customize the system UI of their devices with an “exclusive” theme, but given that the Pixel is also running Android 7.1 we also see some UI changes that will eventually arrive to all Android devices. Google’s changes to the system UI are ultimately tame and lighter than the changes in OEM skins, but they are worth documenting because they either represent the foundation for what we can expect out of future Pixel phones, or the future of Android as the changes trickle down to all devices. And, perhaps most importantly, these modifications give the Pixel some extra character and uniqueness, not unlike what other OEMs intend with their modifications to stock Android.

Starting with the one change you’ll see on nearly every screen, we find that the navigation bar has now filled its icons and deviated from the standard imposed by Android 5.0 Lollipop now two years ago. The new buttons behave identically to the standard AOSP navigation bar for the most part, with the exception of the home button which has a short animation upon pressing it and long-pressing it. The Google colors make for a nice visual cue that signals the presence of Google Assistant as well, and the way in which they react to touch serve as visual aid to make long-pressing for the shortcut more intuitive.

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Moving on to the Pixel Launcher, which you can download for your device, we see two important changes to the Pixel’s UI design language. First, we find the circular icons that are now a system-wide standard and not relegated to the launcher only, and that are enabled by Google but also can be enabled by any OEM who wishes to adopt the standard for their future Nougat releases. It’s an odd deviation for sure, but we’ll leave the subjective interpretation to you. The second big change is the use of transparencies across the launcher, perhaps most notably in the homescreen dock found at the bottom which presents a white, transparent rectangle that also merges with the navigation bar. There is a purpose to this rectangle, as swiping up transforms it into the application drawer. Another transparency is found in the message one finds when clearing all recent apps, as illustrated.

That transparency seemingly mimics the transitions by other OEMs into an UI with more transparencies and “glass-like” behavior, something which is also apparent in Google’s choice of default wallpaper, as the dynamic “Aurora Time lapse” background has the kind of blurred aesthetic we’d expect from other OEMs. The launcher also presents a weather widget that expands into an app with playful colors and transitions, and the “Google” pill which expands into a Google search bar when pressed. Swiping to the left expectedly reveals the Google Now feed, and that about rounds up the Pixel’s launcher. One of the nicest aspects of the Pixel homescreen experience is behind the launcher, though, as the built-in wallpaper picker offers beautiful photography and much of it is dynamic, reacting not just to your swipes and actions but also the time and weather.

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What about the rest of the UI? There are no radical changes to the recents menu, but the notification panel sees an extra slot in the quick toggles after the first swipe. Here you will also find a hint of blue in the brightness slider, now replacing the stock Android green, and this color is the new accent color Google chose for the Pixel. Indeed, this accent color is found in various places across the UI including the camera, downloads and settings icons, the settings menus themselves (toggles and trims) and the new dialer also includes a vibrant and attractive blue theme.

Moving onto the settings, the blue theme is present on the material iconography; however, there is a prominent new tab to accompany the traditional settings, which takes the user into customer support. Under this tab, one can initiate phone or chat customer support as well as quickly access help resources, tips & tricks, and an option to send feedback. I don’t personally believe that such a feature deserves an entire tab in the settings menu instead of a submenu or an app you can hide, and I don’t see people using the feature frequently enough to warrant such an important shortcut. But at the very least it’s impossible to miss, which isn’t a bad thing for this kind of feature.

There aren’t other changes worth noting as far as aesthetics go, and I haven’t found any issues with the stock experience. The features under the System UI tuner, however, haven’t been properly updated: the “Do Not Disturb” toggle for the volume menu doesn’t scale with DPI which makes it look oddly big and unaligned, and the slide gesture for multi-window doesn’t work.  These are small nitpicks in what’s otherwise a stellar Android user experience that offers a close to Stock UI with just enough character to differentiate it from the Nexus experience. The move towards rounded features, transparencies and blur might not develop prominently like what we see on other OEMs’ modifications, and I believe they are done rather tastefully. The new launcher and wallpapers steal the show, with the latter being excellently accessible to the mainstream consumer given they are part of the default homescreen experience. Overall, the UI of the Pixel phones has been delightful, though I wish that there were more ways to customize it — early reports suggested accent theming, and a dark theme has not made it here either, but hopefully future releases will keep making the experience better as currently, theme engines and available themes don’t see very good compatibility with the system UI.

Software Features & User Experience

The Google Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones to come with Android 7.1 out of the box, which means that they bring the latest in terms of Android features. At the same time, however, the changes that Google made to the Pixel’s software (the aesthetic ones being documented above) also mean exclusive features and changes beyond mere cosmetic accents. Some of these “exclusive” features didn’t remain Pixel-only for very long thanks to the talents of the developer community. But nevertheless, it’s clear that Google tried to bring extra oomph to the Pixel’s software past what a regular Stock Android device running Nougat would offer. And it’s important to look at the Pixel’s resulting software UX because it signals the underlying intentions and direction that Google has planned for Android. So what’s new in Android 7.1 Nougat, and in the Google Pixel and Pixel XL?

manage-storageGoogle has leveraged its services to entice Pixel owners into using cloud storage, as Pixel owners get unlimited photo and video backup to Google Photos, and unlike the regular “unlimited” service, this one keeps the quality of the content pristine as Google otherwise compresses your pictures if they are above a specific threshold. This feature is complemented by Smart Storage which automatically removes already-backed pictures and videos from your device if they are old enough and if you are running out of space. Considering there is no storage option in between the Pixel and Pixel XL, this option might prove useful for those that opt for the 32GB variant.

Another quick feature related to photos and video transfer is the quick switch adapter which lets you restore your files from another Android or iPhone device.

movesThe Pixels also bring “Moves”, which has its own menu within the settings. Under that menu you will find a few shortcuts that you can toggle, including “Jump to Camera” by double tapping the power button from any screen (like the Nexus 6P and 5X) and then “Flip Camera”, which allows you to switch in and out of selfie mode with a quick double-twist of the phone, similar to the Moto X’s lines’ camera jump shortcut. The fingerprint sensor of the Pixel XL also supports gestures, which the phone implements as a “Swipe for Notifications” shortcut, very much like what we’ve found on Honor devices like the 5X at the start of this year. This is a very welcome feature, and it works very well, but we would have hoped some extra functionality and/or customization; other devices with this feature include more options already, and Google could have pushed the envelope even further by allowing list scrolling or other nifty features.

There is no Dark Mode/Theme, and System UI tuner is almost as limited as always. There are power notification controls for setting an app’s notification importance (managing peek, sound, vibration, interruptions, etc), the Do Not Disturb shortcut for the settings menu, and then Status Bar controls. There is also a Multi-Window slide-up-recents gesture toggle, but it currently doesn’t work. Night mode is present and it’s as pleasant as ever, although not very smart and it can cause blinding flashes after it changes on you with no gradual adjustments (especially if it’s done automatically without you expecting it).

Multi-window itself, however, is a great addition to Android and something I’ve personally waited for a long time. Given that the feature is debuting on Nougat, and that the Pixel is one of the few devices running official Nougat out of the box, I’ll give a brief description and thoughts. You can enter multi-window by long-pressing the recents menu, or by dragging a recents menu card to the top of the screen. The top of the screen will be reserved for that app and there is no way to quickly switch it to the bottom panel like on Samsung devices, but the screen persists while browsing through recents and, while it disappears when on a Launcher, it pops backup atop whatever app you then launch. If you launch an app through an app shortcut (such as Settings from the notification panel), it will go to the bottom irrespective of which screen you are focused on. The dividing bar has a hinge separating the two windows, but it can only be dragged to select heights, and the 3 levels conveniently allow you to display a full video on top while browsing an app on the bottom. Dragging the hinge all the way up or down will exit multi-window and focus on the app thatremains

The fact that the Pixel has a status bar and navigation keys that are not hidden means that a chunk of the usable screen space is unavailable to the user on multi-window — while this is something we are all used to most of the time, that extra space becomes more valuable when multi-tasking this way. Samsung’s implementation (which will dramatically change under Android Nougat, according to the Android compatibility document) hid the status bar, and capacitive keys helped maximize usable space. The combination of a thick divider bar, status bar and navigation bar means the space is not maximized on the Pixel, and in reality all that used space is taken from one app’s interface. Luckily, the built-in DPI tuner of Android Nougat makes this less of an issue by shrinking the ratio of status/navigation bar to usable content, as well as increasing the content density within each application. The stock implementation is ultimately very fluid and useful and while features such as quick-swap between the top and bottom aren’t there, there is a lot I appreciate such as the ability to open two instances of certain apps like Chrome or the Settings menu.

googleassistantSo, what about Google’s flagship Pixel feature, Assistant? I’ve used Assistant throughout my review period, in great part because I actually use Search (and even Google Now) a lot for my day-to-day usage. Google Assistant is, quite clearly, in its early stages and we’ve noted as much in an editorial where we documented many of the oddities and inconsistencies we found when testing the service. There is clear feature disparity with not just Google’s current Search service, but also other Assistant versions such as what’s found on Google Home. That being said, Assistant comes to specifically tackle a problem that likely caused Google many headaches, and that’s the difficulty in marketing its services when they are disparately distributed in various parts of the UI.

Assistant ultimately tries to marry three core services – Google Now, Google Search and Now on Tap – which are currently (outside the Pixel) found on three different areas of the user interface (the leftmost homescreen, the search bars across the phone, and the home button long press). By making Assistant accessible through the home button, and capable of all of what Google services can do, the simplification of Google’s useful services would come about in theory.

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The reality is that, in its current form, Assistant’s lack of feature parity make it a less-suitable alternative to actual search bars – or even Google Now, which you can get back with a simple build.prop edit –  and other Google services. For example, the Pixel can’t currently recognize Songs, and its information display is separate than that of Search. An example that I found in my usage is that asking Assistant for or about math-related formulas or concepts doesn’t return the relevant formula or description to rekindle my memory, but instead initiates a search. We also found inconsistencies when making shopping lists across Assistant, home, and Allo’s neutered Assistant. Above you can find an example, and it seems that the same happens with Google Home. Then there are the issues with inconsistent command recognition and other problems we’ve been used to for a while.

Due to the feature disparity between Assistant and Search, the experience was ultimately not polished to the point where I could use Assistant exclusively

That being said, when it works, it works very well. Google Assistant is only a glimpse of what’s to come, I believe, and just like Google Now on Tap got better over time, so will this ambitious feature. The better aspects manage to shine through and suggest a really interesting future for voice assistants. For example, the ability to have Assistant recognize the subject of the next query tacitly rather than explicitly helps in making the service feel more conversational. Further expansions to context-awareness could push this even further, and currently it remains useful for fetching information, searching for images of more-specific objects (and of specific colors), or even launching music even if you don’t remember the specific song title. There is definitely a lot of impressive technology in Assistant, but I also know many of my colleagues have disabled the feature entirely given they didn’t see the additional benefit (also, you can go back to Google Now on Tap as well by removing the Pixel identifier from your build.prop). I have personally used it a great deal given I have been used to these types of services anyway, but Assistant was not solid enough to the point where I could use it exclusively. Part of that is due to the feature disparity, but the inability to input text for example hurts the more-technical search queries. Pro-tip: Assistant is great for finding items in game wikis, though.

screenshot_20161107-224435There is also a live-support feature, which put us on the phone with a real-flesh assistant on the other side of the screen, but we only used this feature once. One last feature that you will only require about 12 times a year is the background updates system. Android 7.1 Nougat on the Pixel mirrors every partition of the device to form an A/B system similar to what’s found on Chromebooks. What this means is that updates can be downloaded and installed in the background, allowing you to then simply reboot into your updated state. This makes updates faster and safer (less prone to issues when updating), and you can actually see the activity that’s installing the update while you are using your phone (note that it will get slightly toasty). I’ve only experienced the system once through the November patch, but it was a quite short and satisfactory experience. 

Performance

Qualcomm SnapdragonThe Google Pixel XL has Google flexing its performance muscle once more: while the Nexus 6P packed the still-flawed Snapdragon 810, it’s worth remembering the Nexus 5’s excellent Snapdragon 800 experience, and the subsequent Nexus 6 with the unsung masterpiece that was the Snapdragon 805. Qualcomm’s misstep with the 810 stood in contrast with the jewels of its past, but with the 820 the company has managed to put out a really compelling chipset that some manufacturers have implemented extremely well, such as OnePlus with the OnePlus 3.

Others, however, have had less success with the processor as we’ve seen in our tests and reviews, but given this is Google’s chance at better control over both hardware and software, we’d expect this Snapdragon 821 to be very well-implemented.

Before we dig into the details, we must remind our readers that Google’s Snapdragon 821 is a variant clocked at 2.15GHz on the performance cluster, and 1.6GHz on the efficiency cluster — in essence, that means the Pixel XL can be expected to perform like a device running a regular Snapdragon 820 in most benchmarks. The same goes for the GPU, and we can confirm that our results show the Pixel XL very similarly to other devices in 2016 as far as theoretical performance goes. However, there are some difference when it comes to thermals and throttling which we’ll detail, although not as extensively as we did in our separate Pixel XL throttling and thermals analysis (so head there if you want the specifics). We’ll also compare the Snapdragon 821 with the recently-released Kirin 960 in the Huawei Mate 9, so that people get an idea of the processor’s relative standing at the very end of 2016. As a final note, the Snapdragon 821 in the Pixel XL might perform at the same level as the 820 in other devices released earlier this year, but Qualcomm told us there is a smaller advantage in battery savings at the same clockspeeds of around 5%, so ultimately the inclusion of this processor is not unjustified.

CPU & System

In most aspects, the Pixel XL behaves just like the Snapdragon 820 devices we are used to. Luckily, this isn’t a bad thing, as the Snapdragon 820 is the most powerful chipset that is also widely-available, and those SoCs that are more powerful in specific aspects are also exclusive to Samsung and Huawei which offer user experiences particularly antithetic to stock Android. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Pixel XL not only scores higher than your average Snapdragon 820 device (if only slightly), but it also shows low score variance and very good thermal consistency when stressing the CPU.

While we’ve seen some Snapdragon 820 devices like the HTC 10 begin throttling within 10 Geekbench 3 consecutive tests, the Pixel XL joins the ranks of the OnePlus 3 and other thermally-consistent devices by not having a visible downward trend in its scores over those first 10 tests. With the A73 cores being implemented in newer chipsets and with Qualcomm’s 10nm future, we’ll likely be either extending the runtime of our CPU stress test or redesigning it altogether; it was good enough at revealing throttling in the 810 era and in early 2016, but the commendable performance of recent chipsets means we need to find more stressful CPU endurance tests more akin to our GPU endurance suite.

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As you can see, one year makes a tremendous difference for sustained performance.

The Pixel XL ultimately does a great job in both the synthetic benchmarks with more-abstract tests as well as those that try to mimic real-world performance using system resources. PCMark and Basemark OS II scores are very respectable, and the phone manages to hold its own in various sub-tests even against the latest A73-based Kirin 960 found in the Huawei Mate 9. It’s worth noting that the Pixel XL suffers the most in the memory tests, which bring down the overall score, but are not a CPU-centric burden.

While Qualcomm’s CPU does perform worse on these tests than A72 and A73-based processors like the Kirin 950 to Kirin 960 as well as Samsung’s Exynos 8890 with M1 cores, the Kryo has ultimately shown it can achieve respectable performance while keeping a good thermal profile and minimize throttling. Sadly, the OEM’s application does seem to have a big impact on the results, but Google did a good job with the Pixel XL.

GPU & Gaming

The Snapdragon 821 brings the famous Adreno 530 GPU, which offers excellent performance in the one realm Qualcomm still has not been beaten in. The Pixel XL is also a shining example of what the Adreno 530 can do, and with very good reason too — this is a phone that Google needs to both powerful and efficient for their Daydream VR platform, which will stress the GPU the most, but it’ll also make good use of the Snapdragon 820’s peripherals like the Hexagon DSP. This makes the Snapdragon 821 the best choice for graphics performance, and consequently gaming and VR as well. Our usual set of graphics-intensive benchmarks emphasize this like we’d expect.

The Pixel XL manages to slightly edge out Snapdragon 820 devices on GFXBench off-screen tests and 3DMark’s Slingshot ES3.1, which renders at 1440p and then scales the image to the device’s resolution (effectively making it resolution-independent). When factoring in resolution, 1080p Snapdragon 820 devices like the OnePlus 3 do perform better in terms of peak scores and also performance-over-time in on-screen tests other than 3DMark, but off-screen results are very similar and in-line with what we’d expect out of an efficient 821 device.

The Pixel XL is also very good at sustained performance when testing both 3DMark and GFXBench (30 iterations), showing lower differentials and less throttling than other Snapdragon 820 devices as we’ve analyzed in previous features, as well as less throttling than what we’ve found on the Exynos Note 7. While the Pixel XL throttled significantly less than Galaxy devices on 3DMark, its final temperature was around the same, ranging from 43.1°C | 109.6°F  to 43.6°C | 110.5°F. This isn’t unconventionally hot for these kinds of tests, but we must stress the fact that this is the temperature on the fingerprint scanner, and the rest of the body feels cooler to the touch. The sustained score is not as big of an improvement over last year’s Nexus 6P’s 3DMark performance over time, which actually did surprisingly well despite the Snapdragon 810 inside it. That being said, not all Snapdragon 810 devices were created equal, and the OnePlus 2 saw a drop in score of ~21%.

When running GFXBench at 1440p, I did not find a consistent throttling pattern however; those who read our Snapdragon 820 vs Exynos 8890 Note 7 comparison might recall that the throttling pattern for those devices was extremely replicable throughout various tests, but even when controlling the starting conditions, the Pixel XL shows wildly-different results — I made sure to run this 30-minute test many, many times. Even if I couldn’t get a clear and satisfying pattern down, all of my results were above the average. Indeed, the Pixel XL actually beats the Snapdragon 820 Note 7 and the HTC 10, the former shedding up to half its score and the latter losing close to a third. The Pixel XL, by comparison, saw drops between 5% and 20%, with most results sitting around a 10% drop in performance at most. Temperatures never rose past 44°C | 111.2°F very much like in 3DMark. While some subtests in gaming-mimicking benchmarks weigh down the score compared to other chipsets with faster CPUs, graphics and rendering-related scores ultimately put the Pixel ahead.

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Moving on to gaming, this phone is simply one of the best options currently available. Framerates in games like Asphalt Extreme can come close to sustaining the 30FPS mark with slight variations in certain scenes (and the obligatory drop when reloading a level, which should be ignored). Dead Trigger 2 and GTA San Andreas also show excellent performance that can be sustained for 15 to 20 minutes with no significant throttling, and thermals remain tame at a maximum of 43°C | 109.4°F located in the fingerprint scanner. (Special thanks to Gamebench for providing us with a solution to Gamebench not being able to run on the Pixel XL, thus enabling us to test!)

Overall, the Pixel XL offers excellent gaming performance, and even if the device does go over 40°C | 104°F (the point at which I consider the heat noticeable), having the hottest point on the fingerprint scanner means you are unlikely to touch the hottest point. However, the phone does suffer from uneven heat distribution that is top-heavy, so very long gaming sessions could turn uncomfortable.

Real-World Performance

The Nexus devices held a tradition of being some if not the fastest devices implementing their respective chipsets, and even the Nexus 6P was able to deliver outstanding performance despite its Snapdragon 810 processor (and all the issues that implied). With the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, you’d think that the company that created Android being in control of the hardware would be able to deliver an outstanding experience, one worthy of “vertical integration” levels of praise that Apple has been showered with for years. I’m happy to report that, for the most part, that is the case indeed: the Pixel XL is a fast and smooth device in its operation, but surprisingly enough, it falls a bit short in a few areas that ultimately prevent it from claiming the performance crown in my eyes.

Beginning with app opening speeds, the Pixel XL is an extremely snappy phone. While changes to Android Nougat and 7.1 squashed our chances of looking at objective measurements through Discomark, we methodically tested app opening speeds in comparison to other high-end flagships and found the Pixel XL was as good as other 820 devices. We’ve confirmed it to be slightly faster than our LG V20 and as fast as the OnePlus 3 running Oxygen 3.2.6, and the overall app-opening speed is fast enough that its boost is noticeable to the naked eye, although devices like the Exynos Note 7 are likely still faster (but take this with a grain of salt as we are inferring it from our Discomark data and experience) at opening apps. Another great part about the Pixel XL’s performance is hot app opening speeds, as the phone is able to swiftly fetch apps from memory with great responsiveness. Operating the navigation keys of back and home, too, show no delays and it can make for some impressively-fluid juggling of apps and home screens. Keep in mind the clips above bear the burden of the screen recorder software as well.

5105297429563299789-account_id2Now, while the resulting experience described above is very good, there are two caveats that influence what we’ve observed. First, the RAM management of the Pixel XL is below what we’d consider to be the average for a 4GB RAM device. The device can hold over 14 small applications, like we’d expect, but throwing games into the mix quickly kicks old apps out of memory (for example, in the clip above, it could hold 3 out of the 5 games at once). One of the most frustrating consequences that stems from it is the occasional launcher redraw, which we wouldn’t expect out of such hardware in hands of Google. As for the app opening speeds, it’s worth noting that the effective responsiveness is magnified by Android 7.1 due to its improvements to input latency. The way Google achieved this (as described to us by Chet Haase at the BABBQ 2016) is by changing the order and priority of registering and rendering inputs and frames, which results in up to 40% reduced latency (although, this varies depending on the rendering cycle and the time it takes to render a particular frame before being queued for display). This improvement is tangible, and it affects everything from opening apps to starting in-app activities and scrolling through lists. We were not able to measure the precise input latency nor the roundabout lag as our WALT would not get consistent results, but needless to say the improvements are there, and they are tangible.

When it comes to fluidity and framerate, the Pixel XL is stunningly smooth barring some discrete exceptions. While we noticed dropped frames in the Pixel Launcher that we managed to install onto non-Pixel devices ahead of release, we really didn’t expect those dropped frames to show up in the final product. Alas, they did, and swiping to the left-most screen visibly stutters rather frequently — not as bad TouchWiz’s flipboard integration, but it is not as smooth as we’d expect and even not as smooth as the Google Now launcher. Other than that, scrolling through the interface and lists is very smooth, and jumps in activities rarely feature choppy transitions, even in resource-heavy applications. This isn’t to say that in-app performance is entirely consistent: we did notice some odd slowdowns on YouTube, Hangouts, and Chrome, but those faults could be attributed to these particular Google app themselves.

Throughout one of our three review weeks, we saw particularly unstable performance on YouTube, and we’d often meet app force closes. This is hardly what we’d expect out of a Google phone, but in the Pixel’s defense, the fault lies in with the apps — Google apps, nonetheless.

Ultimately, though, the Pixel XL is an excellent phone when it comes to performance and I’d say that in terms of responsiveness, it is not only Android’s best performer, but also as close a competitor to the iPhone as we’ll get this year. While responsiveness is a combination of touch latency (which was thoroughly improved with the Pixel’s software) and actual speed, the latter is also excellent on the Pixel XL, with better app opening times than most Snapdragon 820 devices. That said, the aspects that bring down the experience a couple of notches are bad enough to be both noticeable in real-world use, and replicable without much trouble: the occasional framedrops in select areas of the UI are bad enough, but having a consistent stutter on the leftmost panel is particularly puzzling. Likewise, having occasional launcher redraws on a 4GB device with software and hardware in Google’s control is a tad disconcerting. I strongly believe that the benefits outshine the negatives here, though, and it’s also worth noting that the Pixel XL is pushing a 1440p display, meaning that regular Pixel owners will see a small performance improvement in actions related to graphics rendering. Overall, this device is a joy to operate.

Camera

Written by Daniel Marchena

Prior Google phones have been lackluster in the camera department, in particular up until the Nexus 6P, and usually behind the curve that other flagships set. However, when factoring the lower cost of a Google Nexus phone in comparison to the competition, many of those issues could be written off. With Google targeting a considerably higher price bracket than last year and going toe-to-toe with some of the best hardware in the industry they needed to step their game up considerably.

So when Google announced the new Pixel phones as being the highest-rated smartphone cameras ever from DXOMark it was both a point of excitement and a cause for caution. So did Google finally put out a phone that has a class leading camera, or is it relegated to the “it’s a great phone, but if the camera is important then look elsewhere” stereotype of old? In short, it is almost everything Google said it was plus some, but it is not without drawbacks. Do consider that the Pixel packs an impressive Sony IMX378 sensor which we’ve detailed in a previous in-depth article, and although it does not have OIS, its EIS for video is a work of wonder which we’ll look at below. The first step for any camera, however, is the experience.

Carrying the “double tap power” feature from Nexus phones and AOSP, the Pixel camera is one of the easiest to access, although the delay is a little short and you may find yourself turning on and off the screen instead of accessing the camera. Moving on to the actual application experience, Google has adjusted the camera app a few times in recent years but some core elements remain the same. It is a sparse interface that serves as an advantage and disadvantage. On top of the screen lays a series of toggles for various camera options. The traditional timer and flash options are present but there are a few more toggles power users will love. One of my personal favorites is the adjustable 3 way grid system that includes 3×3, 4×4 and the Golden ratio, ensuring you can frame your shot however you want.

Also present is a white balance selector that sadly leaves out the ability to set it manually. There is also the HDR toggle which we will discuss later. The Pixel ships with its camera in a 4:3 ratio for the maximum of 12.3MP which leaves blank space on the right for your shutter control, camera switcher and the ability to view prior photos. A swipe off the left screen brings in the options for Slow Motion, Panorama, Photo Sphere, Lens Blur and your settings menu. Finally, swiping to side puts you into video mode. While it would be nice to have the record button on the main screen, it is difficult to do with a native 4:3 sensor since hitting record crops the image to 16×9 and may cause you to lose your original framing. I have found that swiping the screen with little to no indication that is an option can leave users confused, including my wife.

6616886623971428355-account_id2Inside the settings menu are the basics such as adjusting the front and rear camera resolutions for both video and photos, burst settings panorama controls and video stabilization. Here is where I have a bone to pick with Google. Things like FPS controls that should be in this menu as well as the OSD but are not, as should be further controls for things like high frame rate options and so on. It is understood that Google was going for a more simple approach, but most stand alone camera have settings found through options menu and those options available for quick toggling through the OSD. It is a small thing to pick on, but it can affect day to day usage. Generally you will find yourself toggling through menus more often than you should trying to find where a specific option might be located at.

A second issue that the Google Camera has is the lacking of full manual controls for things like ISO, shutter speed and focus and RAW image capture. It has been a few years since the Camera API2, which allowed many of these things natively, hit the scene so to see Google still fail to implement them is annoying. It is clear that Google set out to target the the iPhone instead of a more powerful application like the one that Samsung provides which clearly is ahead of both in terms of form and function.

The lack of settings and adjustments is clear indication that Google wants you to go full auto with your photography and leave the settings to the phone. The shocking part is how well this actually works. The simple fact is that the Pixel consistently out performed my expectations. It does not get any easier than pointing and shooting with the Pixel. Due to the HDR+ Auto enhancements you can even point the camera directly into the sun and still capture the colors and details in grass and foliage, and what you see in the viewfinder is ultimately misleading due to how well it handles capturing detail from differently-lighted scenes.

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The exposure difference between the viewfinder and an HDR+ photo.

In bright lighting, low lighting and anywhere in between the Pixel delivers above average photo quality despite its disadvantages on paper such as the lack of OIS and its F2.0 aperture, but Google has made tremendous leaps forward; they have made good use of the Snapdragon 821 and the Hexagon DSP in particular and unlike with the Nexus 6P, you can queue many pictures for processing with no delay in the actual UX. This is, in part, because the Pixel is constantly recording the data and the pressing the capture button pulls the last few frames the phone had already recorded for the sampling — do keep in mind that when processing an image, it cannot be shared or otherwise manipulated, and the image processing itself takes a fair few seconds so taking pictures and sharing them right away is slower than on other phones.

Video is also surprisingly excellent, although it does not appear to benefit from the sort of HDR video support like we have seen on this years Galaxy phones, and this is despite the sensor’s enhanced capabilities for 4k 60 Hz HDR video (but there are bottlenecks to be considered outside the ideal world). This can cause some of the highlights to be washed out during video and keeps it more or less in line with the competition. Personally a sticking point for me this year has been the forgoing of optical image stabilization for electronic image stabilization. While Google’s accomplishments in this area are impressive to say the least, even the best electronic stabilization is no match for optically stabilized video. Google’s algorithm delivers a floating “reactive” approach to stabilized video instead of the “active” stabilization that OIS brings. At its extremes you can get a “jerking” motion while panning the camera that can be unpleasant.. Google does provide the option to turn this setting off, but then you are left with no sort of stabilization which is simply unacceptable on a phone that carries this sort of price tag.

The benefit though is that the Pixel is one of the only phones out this year without a camera bump, if the omission of OIS is the cause of this we don’t know, but it is a case of “pick your poison”. Personally, I will deal with the bump in every case if that meant my photos and videos would benefit from it. All of that being said though, the electronic stabilization is very impressive and most users will not notice any of the side effects it bringsand generally very happy with its performance. It’s impressive enough to fool most people into believing there is some strong hardware influence at play, and the gyro-based solution is ultimately very serviceable even if a bit unnatural.

As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for a camera experience where you can literally point and shoot and get the shot, the Pixel is likely the best phone on the market today. But that does not mean that the camera itself is above the competition, or even toe-to-toe with camera leaders in specific areas. The camera sensor that the Pixel uses is a very close relative to the 6P sensor boasting only PDAF over its older sibling (on paper). While Phase Detect Autofocus is far better than laser or contrast, it is not the dual pixel technology Samsung was using this year, or like that of the Sony IMX398 sensor the OPPO R9 uses which also has that advantage. Further, the Pixel is one of the only flagships this year to ship without optical image stabilization. Between the enhanced EIS and improved HDR+ Auto, Google argues that OIS is not needed… and I’d argue that for the money it should be there to further improve an already-stellar experience. In short and leaving price aside, Google’s camera is now one of the best for people who just want to capture a great moment in time and without fidgeting, and their improvements over the past two years in this department are more than commendable.

Display

The Pixel XL brings a 5.5-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 1440p, currently the perfect pixel density for both VR and a large phone screen. Given that Google has had full control over the Pixel XL’s design, we see their choice of display technology as a bit of an endorsement, and it makes sense given the tremendous strides AMOLED has made in the past few years as well as its screen properties (like low persistence, excellent contrast) which also make VR more enjoyable. The screen is flanked by an extremely subtle curvature along the edges, as well as thick bezels. One last physical characteristic worth mentioning is the absolutely minimal black border around the actual display, which makes the white and blue variants more attractive to the eye. Now that we’ve gone over the superficial aspects, how does it actually perform?

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Starting with brightness, the Pixel XL caps at around 400 Nits, and ultimately performs very similarly to the OnePlus 3 and other AMOLED devices in regular usage. The Pixel XL is not above average in this regard, and I’ve found that its brightness output is actually very underwhelming under direct sunlight. This problem is further amplified by the fact that the Pixel XL does not come with a sunlight-boosting mode or feature built into its adaptive brightness, like other AMOLED devices do. Not having that extra boost to maximum brightness (which came at the cost of some color distortion) makes it difficult to look at media or images on sunny days, and I especially missed the brightness boost while taking pictures out and about; that being said, AMOLED’s excellent contrast makes it so that reading isn’t too much of a problem should the text clearly stand out anyway. 

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It’s worth mentioning that not all AMOLED devices share the same features, but the similarly-bright OnePlus 3 has a dual-polarizing layer that ultimately makes sunlight legibility slightly better. Luckily, if you are into rooting your device, custom Kernels, Xposed modules and even root apps will most certainly let you get some extra lumens out of your Pixel XL. As for adaptive brightness, I found it to be very serviceable, and the display can actually reach further minimums when the setting is toggled — this allows the Pixel XL to actually get dimmer than the OnePlus 3, for example, but otherwise it doesn’t.

displayblack

The whitepoint of the Pixel XL is on the colder side on the regular display mode, and slightly greenish when toggling sRGB. When it comes to greyscale, the Pixel XL actually doesn’t look to be as accurate as other AMOLED devices like Google’s own Nexus 6P, and this is only made worse when switching to the sRGB color profile. I haven’t found those issues to negatively affect my media consumption experience, though, and I only noticed the difference when comparing special templates side by side against more accurate devices. There is also no odd banding or other unexpected issues, either. The AMOLED display’s perfect blacks also make for a much more enjoyable media experience in my opinion, and even with an inaccurate greyscale AMOLED has come a long way from the days of impossible horror-movie watching and purple ghosting (an issue still noticeable on some AMOLED displays, like the OnePlus 3’s). Also (and as expected), the Pixel XL also displays excellent viewing angles with no color distortion.

Moving on to color, the Pixel XL targets the NTSC color space which is a poor choice for an Android device. As we’ve explained in an in-depth article, Android has no system-level color management, which means that the information is sentto the display without accounting for the color space of the source and the color space chosen by the OEM. Most of the content you’ll consume is sRGB, and NTSC is a larger color gamut, so the system sends relatively untagged color data to the display, ultimately conforming them to its standard and displaying them inaccurately. Luckily and not unlike the Nexus 6P before it, the Pixel XL offers an sRGB mode to more-accurately represent your content and media like it was intended. Finally, keep in mind that Google targeted NTSC by design and they did not aim for color accuracy with the Pixel XL in its default state anyway; while Google knows how to offer a color-accurate device like the Nexus 5, it most certainly knows that people don’t necessarily like the admittedly-tamer sRGB mode and accurate calibration.

displaycolors

With that in mind, we can look at color: reds are bright and punchy, green is extremely vibrant (and the most inaccurate color), and blues are deep. The screen ultimately stands out quite a lot, but it is also very color-inaccurate (again, by design). I did enjoy the multimedia experience on the default screen mode, though, and I presume most users will find it to be very good as well. For those that want accurate color rendering, the sRGB mode does a pretty good job at that. That being said, whites become oddly greener and the greyscale accuracy becomes slightly less accurate.

That covers most of my findings, but I want to reiterate a few points as well: the color accuracy debacle does not mean you will be unable to enjoy this display; quite the opposite, I am sure Google’s research indicates that this was a more pleasant configuration for the mainstream public, and we regularly see popular smartphones with leading screen technology ship with inaccurate calibrations and odd color space targets as the default (like LG and DCI-P3). The fact that this screen does not skimp on pixel density is good for Google’s Daydream VR push but also for media consumption, as the chroma resolution of a Pentile AMOLED display is lower due to its uneven number of subpixels, and can be effectively halved under certain conditions. As a final note, I’d like to say that the experience has been quite nice and the only shortcoming I was made conscious off multiple times throughout my usage is sunlight legibility, as I wish Google would have either implemented an brightness-boost feature or made the screen less reflective some other way.

Battery Life & Charging

The Pixel XL made no sacrifices to endurance in exchange for thinness, as the 8.5mm-thick device packs a substantial 3,450mAh battery. Given the phone has a 1440p screen, it makes sense that such capacity (15% more than the “standard” of 3,000mAh) was their choice — the same target they hit with the Nexus 6P, which had a more power-hungry processor as well. So with a respectable battery size, a Snapdragon 821 and a revamped Doze courtesy of Nougat, one would expect the device to fare quite well in both synthetic tests and in the real-world. Luckily, reality meets expectation with the Pixel XL, but it doesn’t shatter them. The Pixel XL makes good use of its battery capacity and leverages its circumventing hardware to ultimately output rather efficient longevity. Our first sign of this can be observed with PCMark:

pcmark-graph

Pixe XL PCMark 2.0 Work Battery Life
Min. Brightness 9 h 54 m
Med. Brightness 7 h 12 m
Max Brightness 5 h 37 m

PCMark on the Pixel XL shows an above-average level of efficiency, with over 7 hour runs at medium brightness, putting it relatively close to the Mate 9 in terms of minutes per mAh considering the latter packs a bleeding-edge CPU and a larger battery. Performance is consistent throughout, which is expected out of a relatively light benchmark meant to emulate real-world usage, and internal temperature doesn’t peak past 30°C | 86°F. The rate of drain also looks healthy and linear, and the deltas between brightness are are near identical at around 2 hours and 30 minutes, with the test at maximum brightness being a bit short of halving the runtime of the minimum brightness run. While PCMark is a nice representation of real-world performance, do keep in mind that it doesn’t drain battery like real-world usage actually would given the digitizer and radios are not doing their share of drain the same way. As such, real-world results are typically lower than what we observe on these cyclical benchmarks, and the same is true for the Pixel XL.

Real-world usage across our team has brought us results ranging from slightly above-average to excellent. I personally see an average of 4.5 to 5 hours of screen-on time with my mixed usage of a lot of Hangouts and Gmail, plenty of Chrome for work and play, Google Docs and Sheets, an hour or two of YouTube (some with screen off), a few minutes of GPS and calls and about an hour of screen-off podcasts. This is above the average for the phones I personally test, but at the same time it is a bit disappointing considering the battery capacity on it opposed to that of devices on which I’ve gotten close results (OnePlus 3) or substantially better (Exynos Note 7). Other team members have gotten much better battery life than I have, though, with Daniel Marchena getting above-average endurance and Eric Hulse getting what he calls “the best battery life he has ever gotten [on Android phones]”. Above you can find some examples of my experience.

When it comes to idle drain, the Pixel XL has been very good to all of us with below 1 percent drain per hour while idling during the day on WiFi, and even less than that – below half a percent per hour – while dozing overnight. LTE drain doubles up to 2% idle drain and even more when moving out and about and receiving notifications. Finally, dozing on WiFi with no SIM provided an neat lack of drain over more than 6 hours of idling despite notifications coming in. It must be noted that we all use Hangouts and the full suite of Google Services on our devices, so seeing this kind of idle drain is not very surprising. Knowing that you can forego charging your device overnight with a respectable amount of battery left, and wake up a couple of percentages under, is a satisfying feeling that few phones have nailed like the Pixel and Pixel XL did for us.

Charging on the Pixel and Pixel XL does not use a proprietary solution nor Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, despite the device having the necessary components. Google opted for the USB Type C spec-compliant USB Power Delivery, with the Pixel XL charger itself listing 5V/3A and 9V/2A (for 18W, although the regular Pixel only supports 16W while both pack the same charger). We tested the actual charge times as well as the dynamic current and battery temperature, and actually found the USB-PD solution in the Pixel XL to fall flat in every way (we’ll have an extensive comparison on this very shortly) — the device got warmer and it ultimately charged slower than Quick Charge 3.0, Huawei’s SuperCharge and OnePlus’ Dash Charge. Charging the device while running a loop of PCMark, a light benchmark we used to mimic real-world usage to some extent, made the differentials even more catastrophic, with the average current being only 2.1A as opposed to Dash Charge’s 2.9A, and the Pixel also displayed some slight thermal throttled and heated up to 40°C | 104°F on average throughout the charge, compared to 35°C | 95°F for the OnePlus 3.

Luckily, the Pixel XL’s battery life was good enough to make the slow charging not be much of a problem, but we do wish that Google offered better power-saving options or power profiles, something which has gotten very popular and even effective on OEM skins nowadays. Stock Android’s battery saver feature is serviceable, though we still don’t understand why Google insists on turning the navigation and status bar orange when toggled — if anything, it should force them to stay black due to AMOLED battery savings. That’s a miniscule nitpick, though. In the end, the Pixel XL offers strong battery life with clear capacity for greatness, both due to its battery size but also its high-end hardware. It’s not a remarkably power-efficient phone even if Doze has been very good to us, but I am sure that with updates and customization through the power of root access, most dedicated customers will be getting a decent day and half of usage (or more) of strong usage out of the Pixel XL.

Audio

Audio is admittedly a weak point for the Pixel XL: there is a single speaker left of the USB Type C, a clear step back from the stereo speaker setup of the Nexus 6P. The Pixel XL’s monospeaker is also positioned in a spot that makes it extremely easy to cover when holding the device in landscape mode, unlike some devices that are harder to muffle even when accidentally covering them in part. The speaker sound itself is actually pretty loud for a monospeaker, and the clarity is sustained even at higher levels. While it a speaker that you can easily drive for the occasional YouTube video, it’s very hard to get excited about it especially when recalling that the Nexus 6P offered one of the best speaker setups, and when considering the price of this device. If anything, I’d say it’s one of the worst speakers of any device in the $700+ range.

Headphone audio on the Pixel XL is not quite as mediocre as it supports Qualcomm’s Aqstic audio codec. For 32-bit quality, headphone output sounds fine on regular earbuds and cheaper headphones. If you are an audio enthusiast and own high-quality headphones, though, the Pixel XL will likely disappoint you — it doesn’t seem to be in the league of the HTC 10 or the LG V20, the former also making use of the Aqstic audio codec and the latter featuring a quad-DAC for those ultra-premium headphones. The Pixel XL also doesn’t have any sound profiles that you can choose from or customize, making it harder to adjust or compensate headphone biases for better control over your listening experience (but to be fair, neither does the audiophile-targeting LG V20). While it’s not a device suitable for those looking for rich headphone audio, those consumers that care more about a decent experience with their humble earbuds will find no issues with the Pixel XL.

As for the device’s microphones, I’ve had no issues with calls over the phone, VOIP or while videochatting. Interlocutors had no trouble hearing me nor did I have trouble hearing them through the top earpiece, which can get plenty loud (though not loud or clear enough for the inevitable stereo sound mod, if you ask me). I’ve had experiences with slight feedback on Nexus devices (namely the 6, and to a much lesser extent, the 6P), but there is no such issue on the Pixel XL — it’s a very clear and satisfying phone for audio and video (Duo?) calls.

Future Proofing and Development

For the longest time, we believed the Pixel phones were actually going to be Nexus devices — from the fish codenames to the early rumors of HTC’s involvement, all the information we had pointed towards an HTC Nexus device. When the Pixel was revealed to be a phone “Made by Google” and designed to showcase Google’s ecosystem and services, some people still held to the idea of the Pixel as a developer-friendly phone. We reported soon before release that the Pixel would have difficulties with root due to changes to Android 7.1 that Google would opt to enable, and we were correct. Chainfire managed to claim victory anyway, but root on the Pixel phones comes with new constraints, and it’s worth noting it wasn’t until this very week that we received both TWRP to kickstart development and the proliferation of custom ROMs, as well as a TWRP-compatible root method for the Pixel and Pixel XL.

One thing we can assess at this moment in time is that the Pixel and Pixel XL are not picking up the mantle of the Nexus line, as they don’t look to be as developer-friendly as the Nexus phones were. With SafetyNet increasingly cracking down on modifications by now locking open-bootloader devices out of many key services, we can infer Google is not to keen on their services coexisting on our customized platforms. And with the Pixel phones being Google’s maximum exponent of what their services can offer, we’d expect that philosophy to carry over to this device.

While the development of these devices is uncertain, there already many clever mods to enhance the user experience by enabling old features, disabling unwanted annoyances, or simply improving day-to-day operation and longevity through custom kernels. We see a modest amount of activity on the Pixel and Pixel XL forums, but it might be wise not to expect the level of openness and customization, nor the level of mod and ROM variety, that the Nexus devices did. We also reached out to a few prominent figures in our community to hear their thoughts on the Pixel and Pixel XL, which we’ll quote below:

Pulser G2: It’s worth keeping in mind what Google is trying to do with the Pixel range. This is Google’s attempt at being the “iPhone” of Android phones. That means the good points of a tightly engineered product, including custom hardware and software design and integration, as well as the bad – which for many will be Google’s attempts at a more controlled experience. It is worth keeping in mind that Google wants to make a phone that will tempt the average smartphone user to switch – the goal of the Pixel isn’t necessarily to be developer friendly, or even at a price-point that will interest developers. That was the goal of the Nexus range. The Pixel is first and foremost about showcasing the full Google experience. If that’s not for you, then the Pixel is probably not the phone for you. If you live and breath everything Google, then the Pixel will probably be worth considering. Remember that until recently, many people have said iOS was the best platform for using Google Services. If Google wants to change that, this is the first step on a long road towards bringing their platform and Android apps up to speed

Bumblebee: If the price were lower, they would sell more to developers. Depending on the type of developer asked you will likely see 2 main assessments:

1) APP Devs : Google in the passed used the “Nexus” line of phones to get the latest version of android to the app devs on some standard HW , this was the main test bed when app devs would move forward in API versions. The pixel (being priced where it is) puts it out of reach of some the indie devs (unlike the N5X where most devs own them), that coupled with 7.1 being time exclusive to the pixel (you cant assume the dev previews on the 5X / 6P are good development targets) will be alienating some the indie devs

2) Hacker / ROM Devs : Instead of releasing an “PURE GOOGLE” Nexus phone the pixel has been made with some pixel exclusive features, this is another step in the long line of google removing features from AOSP (started with abandoning apps like music / browser and moving these to google apps). From a rom developer point of view pixel is just another (expensive) OEM phone and 7.1 can be built for other devices (see Sony Xperia AOSP) . One other sticking point for the pixel devices is the new updater process that remove the separate boot / recovery image (instead having 1 image to chainload from /system) this will cause some teething pains for the rom building / rooting community ranging from systemless root and recovery projects.

Nicolas Chum: Development happens based on the rate of accessibility. How do you cater to “developers” attracts real developers much differently. For example, “developers”, or self-claimed “developers” without much proven work would like the Pixel because it looks good, but real developers who truly develop would question HOW it would benefit their development – would what they develop ON the Pixel differ from developing FROM another device running it’s exclusive software?

To add on to that, the price is not accessible to the common user, so why would we develop Pixel exclusive features on a device that not many people have?

As for future-proofing, the device itself packs extremely-capable hardware and will be getting the same – or even better – treatment when it comes to software updates straight from Google. If anything, the Pixel phones have priority over the Nexus line as indicated by the fact that they shipped with 7.1 while Nexus devices merely received a preview at the time of writing. You can expect at least two years of Android updates for the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and also an extra year of security patches. The hardware itself nicely compliments the future-proofing of this device given many of the transitions we’ve seen in the past two years (64-bit, USB Type C) have already been established, and the Pixel and Pixel XL already ship with the ability to make use of Google Assistant and Daydream VR, both of which we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of in the next few years.

Conclusion

Google’s Pixel XL represents the brink of a new era for Android smartphones — we are less than a year away from Google’s ambitious “Andromeda” project, and we are also over a year past the last Nexus release. I couldn’t help but compare the Pixel XL with the Nexus 6P throughout this review, in part because of the indirect inheritance, and in part because the Nexus 6P was one of my favorite phones of all time. Finally, while this phone is proudly advertised as “made by Google”, there are good reasons to believe this might be undue hyperbole on Google’s part. This doesn’t really make much of a difference to the end consumer, but it also ties in with the possibility that the Pixel XL was made in about nine months. I believe that last bit should be taken into account when analyzing the Pixel as a product, and the Pixel brand as a flagship smartphone series. Lastly, there’s one last thing that I have attempted to reduce mentions of throughout the review, and that’s the price.

Starting at $770 for the 32GB Pixel XL, this device sits at the very high-end of the premium market. Choosing a storage upgrade further adds to the price, for a total of $870… after taxes, you are looking at over $900 dollars, and I personally ended up paying more than what I paid for the Galaxy Note 7, a device that was thoroughly-criticized and picked apart by the media due to its price. While the Pixel brand does start at $650 for the regular size Pixel with 32GB of storage, Google is not offering an “in-between” storage option for the Pixels; I happen to believe, for example, that 32GB is too little storage, but I’ve also never used close to 128GB. Not having the increasingly-common 64GB configuration means users are stuck choosing between two extremes, and I am doubtful either gives the average consumer the most effectiveness for their buck.

The Pixel phones are not fighting against cheaper phones, however. I don’t believe that affordable flagships compete for customers with the Pixel outside enthusiast circles, and Google’s commitment to advertising and forging partnerships (beginning with Verizon) will likely make the Pixel brand more successful than a large portion of Android smartphones. The question is whether that success and recognition is actually deserved, and whether the Pixel phones can offer enough not only to satisfy consumers, but also lay the foundations for future Google phones. This and Google’s push for Assistant – essentially a unification and simplification of disparate Google services, all handled through one intuitive interface – across an ecosystem of Google products will define the first generation Pixel’s future and the trajectory of Google’s upcoming hardware. How does the Pixel XL fare in this regard, and what has it managed to achieve?

After over three weeks with the Pixel XL, and after using a variety of tools to measure and quantify many results of Google’s efforts, I can safely say the Pixel XL is an excellent smartphone that I’d have no qualms recommending to any friend or relative in need of a new phone. The experience is ultimately polished bar a few minor inconsistencies, and while I expected more minute attention to detail from Google’s personal incursion into the smartphone market, I think that as a whole the Pixel XL is an excellent product able to capture the mainstream. But as much as I see the Pixel XL as a great smartphone with no real compromises, I also don’t see it as a phone that’s more than the sum of its parts. In my opinion, the design is uninspiring, the exclusive feature set is not particularly strong at the moment, and the hardware ultimately feels extremely safe. If anything, it feels like the Pixel it’s too expensive for its own good. Despite its few unique traits, I never felt like I was using “a Pixel” phone, but rather just a more-polished Android smartphone, which I’d welcome any day.

The Pixel XL is excellent at core smartphone functions, and for that I commend it: it’s one of the most responsive devices I’ve tested, and it feels snappy in almost every situation. Fluidity is consistent enough in most scenarios, although the occasional stutter stands out due to the device’s otherwise-stellar fluidity. The camera of this phone is also one of the most satisfying ones I’ve ever used, even if and when it doesn’t offer the best results. That video stabilization, for example, completely redefined my expectations of what EIS is capable of, and I must also commend Google for their thoughtful and ultimately pleasant modifications to Stock Android on the device. None of this shatters smartphone paradigms, but the Pixel XL is a smartphone for the day-to-day, and it is perfect for the person that cares more about Android apps than they do about Android itself — the people who want to use the phone without thinking about customization or worrying about troubleshooting. It’s a no-bullsh*t smartphone, for people that want a no-frills experience.

And this leads us to the Pixel’s future on XDA and our community; from the start we knew that the Pixel would have issues with root and possibly custom recoveries; we now have those tools. As of yet, the future for the Pixel’s future looks to be rather uncertain, and that alone is a worrying matter for those expecting a continuation of the Nexus line. The truth is that the Pixel is no Nexus, and I believe that people will have that very clear by the next release cycle. Developers we’ve reached out to cite the price and, in part, Google’s new approach to Android as reasons why the Pixel is not as appealing as preceding fish-codename devices. I will be keeping an eye on the Pixel’s development future and whatever mods and ROMs become available, and I’ll be reporting back every now and then to let our readers know our thoughts.

To summarize, the Pixel XL is an excellent phone that I’ve enjoyed using throughout my review period; it’s also a phone that I’ll enjoy keeping tabs on in order to see where development takes its potential user experience. I don’t believe it’s more than the sum of its parts, but it doesn’t need to be — with a great camera, a nice screen, smooth performance and above-average battery life, it’s a phone I can recommend to anyone looking for a new phone that won’t make them want to pull their hair out. In that regard, I think Google’s Pixels are some of the most mainstream-friendly smartphones out there as well. But there are many decisions that make me question Google’s efforts on this first, foundational release… The glass accent is a smudge and scratch magnet, the construction of our devices hasn’t been as precise as we’d expect, and the exclusive offerings are neither truly exclusive nor have they hit their true potential.

I see the Pixel XL as a perfect investment into a new Google ecosystem, though, and thus also a device that’s exciting for tech enthusiasts. It might not be the best phone for customization and optimization, but knowing that Google will have its back for a few years in terms of updates is comforting. I hope that Google does things differently for the second release, and they’ve reportedly already started work on the upcoming Pixels — this is great, because it’d mean they’d have the experience of the first device and more production time this Pixel had, if reports are to be believed. The Pixel XL is a great consumer smartphone, but not the Google flagship I expected. Nevertheless, it sets the foundations for something bigger, and as Google ecosystem matures, the Pixel and its Assistant will get wiser with it.


If you’ve made it this far, we thank you! Special thanks to Mishaal, Aamir, Daniel, Eric and many developers for contributing to this article!

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