Google’s Pixel is a new, exciting chapter for Android phones

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Looking for an Android phone on the smaller side? There aren’t a lot of options that pack high-end specifications — that’s often saved for the phones with bigger displays.

Google’s new Pixel smartphones are taking a cue from Apple and Samsung, offering two variants of a flagship smartphone. The differences between the Pixel and the Pixel XL are related to size, so you’re finally getting a high-performing 5-inch smartphone from Google that can compete with the reigning champions.

That’s a stark contrast to last year’s Nexus 5X and 6P. The Nexus 6P was the strong performer, while the 5X fell flat with weak battery life and mediocre performance.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones “made by Google,” meaning that although HTC manufactured the devices, Google chose the internal components and integrated them tightly with the Android operating system — that gives us an Android experience we’ve never seen before.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the front of the all-metal Pixel looks nearly identical to the iPhone barring the absence of Apple’s iconic home button. The front of the phone is entirely plain, and the bezels are larger than what you’ll see on phones like the Galaxy S7 Edge or Huawei P9.

The silver and blue models have white fronts and the black model has a black front. We prefer the black front to mask the large-than-usual bottom bezel and the sensor at the top, but the white front grows on you.

The back is a little more unique with a two-tone glass and metal finish. Antennas are on the bottom and along the edges, which are chamfered, and the fingerprint sensor is larger than ever.

The design isn’t stunning, and the metal on the back doesn’t feel as high-end as the metal on the iPhone 7, but the device feels like it’s worth the high price tag, and it has a nice weight to it. The two-tone finish on the rear feels fantastic. We kept sliding our fingers from glass to metal just to feel the textures change.

The phone feels compact and it’s not chunky, because the thickness slims down toward the bottom of the phone. It’s comfortable to hold one-handed, which is actually a unique feature for Android phones these days

The speaker placement is akin to the iPhone, though the latter wins here. Google’s Pixel only has a single speaker — it’s loud, but the sound shoots off from the bottom so you’re not getting the best experience. We’ve also had moments where we accidentally blocked the speaker just by holding the phone a certain way, and that’s bad design.

At least there’s a headphone jack (thank heavens), though we’d have preferred it to be on the bottom of the device.

The Pixel has an AMOLED screen with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. It’s crisp, and the colors are sharp, though perhaps a tad oversaturated. The display gets bright enough to easily see the screen in direct sunlight.

The 5-inch form factor certainly has a place in the high-end Android market, and the Pixel delivers. It’s the best pint-sized Android phone we’ve used all year.

We have yet to run into any hiccups, lag, or performance issues with the Pixel. Apps open quicker than ever; moving between home screens is smooth and fast; and content loads and scrolls without any stutters on apps like Twitter and Chrome. Everything just works.

That’s all thanks to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 and the 4GB of RAM. The Pixel comes with 32GB of internal storage, and there’s a 128GB variant as well — sadly, there is no MicroSD card slot for memory expansion. However, you do get unlimited full resolution photo storage for your pictures in the Google Photos app. It’s a Pixel exclusive that’s sure to make shutterbugs happy.

We threw quite a number of games at it, like Assassin’s Creed: Pirates, Pokémon Go, Real Racing 3, and Tiny Archers and we didn’t have any graphical problems. This phone can handle whatever you dish out. Do note that it does get quite warm, and not just when playing games, either. Of course, that’s typical when you’re using a new phone for the first time.

When it comes to raw performance, the Snapdragon 821 reportedly offers a 10 percent boost in performance over devices using the Snapdragon 820. The following are a few benchmark scores the Pixel earned with various benchmark-testing apps.

Compare the AnTuTu score with two Snapdragon 820 devices, and you can see just how powerful the pixel is for an Android phone:

Meanwhile, the iPhone 7 has an AnTuTu score of 178,397. The A10 Fusion chip from Apple is sure to perform better, but benchmarks aren’t the end-all and be-all of performance. You’ll be more than satisfied with what the Pixel offers.

Google rebuilt the camera experience for the Pixel, and it shows. The rear camera has 12.3 megapixels, but it also features larger 1.55 micron pixels, which are great for low-light photography. The front camera is packed with 8-megapixels.

The camera launches almost immediately, and we were impressed with how quickly photos are captured. There has always been some latency in past Nexus devices, but you’re in for a treat on the Pixel.

Like the Nexus devices before, the Pixel features HDR+, Google’s software that captures multiple photos at once, picks the best one as a base, and layers the rest over to produce an image with the least amount of noise.

HDR+ is set to automatic by default, and when it’s on, it takes a little under a second to capture a photo.

But the speed at which the Pixel can process these HDR+ photos is remarkable. The wait was long on the Nexus 6P, but it takes about 2 to 3 seconds on the Pixel.

With or without HDR+, the Pixel’s camera is a worthy competitor for the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge. In low-light scenarios, images are more colorful and brighter, but a little less sharp than the iPhone 7 Plus. Photos shot on the Pixel tend to look a little oversaturated, regardless of the scene’s lighting. We also found the iPhone 7 Plus’ photos to be a little more realistic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are better.

The iPhone 7 Plus does have two features that put its camera ahead of the Pixel’s on paper: 2x optical hardware zoom and the ability to more easily create the blurred background effect in Portrait mode. Both of these features are fun and easy to use on the iPhone 7 Plus. The Pixel doesn’t have the two camera lenses on the back, so its lens blur feature is a bit harder to master — you’ll need a very steady hand to capture the right shot.

Like with previous Nexus devices, you can make Photospheres, or use Lens Blur to create a shallower depth of field. The latter feature isn’t as accurate as the iPhone 7 Plus’ beta Portrait Mode (which has faults as well), but it’s certainly capable. You can even use it on the selfie camera, though you may find yourself needing to adjust the blur often.

Several features in the camera app are exclusive to the Pixel, such as a manual exposure slider, focus lock, tap-to-focus, and white balance — more options are always a good thing, but is it too much to ask for a timelapse setting like on the iPhone?

In daylight, you’ll hardly ever have an issue with the camera, and the manual exposure option is a godsend for those times when the lighting is tricky.

You can also use SmartBurst to capture multiple photos at once, or make a GIF.

To make sure you’re enjoying the high quality photos you take with the Pixel, Google is offering full resolution free storage in Google Photos. This is available in the app already, but it doesn’t eat away at your Google account storage if you’re a Pixel owner.

But while photos are the highlight, Google also is promoting the video-capture capabilities of the Pixel. It can take 4K videos at 30 frames-per-second, though the new feature is the gyro stabilization technique. It grabs gyro data about 200 times a second for so you end up with a smoother video.

Videos are indeed smooth and shake-free, but you have to watch out when you turn — they tend to look a little too mechanical, as though a robot was swiveling in place. If you make sure you turn slowly, it doesn’t look as robotic.

It’s impressive what Google has done with the camera on the Pixel, and we’ll be testing it more against the iPhone 7 Plus for an in-depth analysis.

The free storage is an important incentive — it takes the worry and hassle out of backing up your photos, and it may become a key feature for owners of the next-generation Pixel smartphones.

Turning on a Pixel phone is unique. You’ve never experienced Android this way before. That’s literally true, because Google has a new setup screen that matches with the overall user interface.

You’ll find distinct user interface changes specific to the Pixel throughout the interface. These subtle tweaks and features won’t be available to Nexus devices when Android 7.1 drops in December. Some examples include the new caller ID screen, the black notification drawer with a blue brightness slider, and the blue accents throughout the OS, like in the Settings menu.

The Pixel Launcher is also similar to the Google Now Launcher, except there’s no app drawer icon. Don’t worry, it’s not gone! Just swipe up to access the app drawer. There’s also an array of options via the redesigned wallpaper picker, including 3D options like Live Earth.

You can turn on fingerprint gestures on the device — a feature that has been available on phones from Huawei and more. For now, you can bring down the full notification drawer with two swipes. We don’t want to see this feature bloated with all sorts of gestures, but it would be killer if you could scroll down a webpage or app using the sensor on the back.

The groundwork for GIF support on keyboards is laid out in Android 7.1, and it looks like Google Keyboard is meant to add support from the get go on the Pixel, though we can’t seem to access it.

“In the keyboard’s GIF layout, browse through popular categories such as “Thumbs up,” “OMG.” and “Mic drop,” or type a query in the “Search GIFs” box,” Google writes in the media guide. “Results are powered through Google Image Search. Gmail, Docs, Allo, and Hangouts as well as several other third-party messaging apps will support GIF input via Play Store updates soon.”

We’ll have to wait and see when exactly the Pixel will get this feature, but it will be well-received for sure.

There are a few tweaks to the notification drawer, and these may come to Nexus devices via Android 7.1. Notably, you can access more tiles on the first swipe down, as well as the Settings icon. The latter is brilliant, as it’s an everyday feature that is easier to access.

Quick Actions, similar to 3D Touch on iOS are one of the most interesting additions. Press and hold an icon and you’ll get shortcuts like “New Incognito Tab” on Chrome. However, you’ll have to wait for developers to add shortcuts for their apps, as right now only a handful of Google apps utilize the API.

And at long last, Android now has a native night mode called Night Light. It removes blue hues from your screen to help you sleep.

Android 7.0 brought better functionality to the OS, and 7.1 refines on them further. Pixel offers the most fluid Android experience we’ve seen to date.

But one of the more important software incentives to grab a Pixel over another device is the exclusive Google Assistant, which only has been available in Google’s messaging app, Allo, as a preview edition.

If you haven’t noticed, the navigation buttons are now solid white on the Pixel. There’s also a ring around the home button, and that’s to let you know that Google Assistant is available.

Assistant is Google’s artificially intelligent bot that can help you with almost anything: search queries, checking your email, translating text into other languages, and more. It’s essentially a more personalized Google Now, and it learns from you the more you use it.

One of our favorite features is “My Day,” which you can trigger by saying “good morning,” once you’ve activated Assistant (say “OK Google” or long-press the home button). Assistant will then read out your daily schedule, the weather, and more. But the best part is that it will automatically launch a playlist of news podcasts — ours started with NPR’s morning briefing, and continued with Fox News and so on.

It’s one of those features you don’t know you need until you try it.

But at the same time, we sorely miss having a way to text to the Assistant, rather than talking to it with our voice. After all, you’re not always in a position to do so — and that’s why the Google search tab is integrated right into the home screen. Still, we’d have preferred a method to type, but we don’t expect one soon. A Google spokesperson tells Digital Trends the search giant is “starting with voice-only conversations with the Assistant on Pixel.”

Setting that aside, we’re still waiting for the Pixel’s Assistant to catch up with Allo’s. For example, you can’t set daily subscriptions to facts or the weather on the Pixel, but you can on Assistant in Allo. Google needs to unify what you can do with Assistant to all its platforms so people don’t get confused on what AI can or can’t do.

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You’ll be able to cast to Chromecast devices with Assistant, but it’s not available yet. You’ll be able to order an Uber with Assistant, but not yet — third-party integration is coming soon. You can’t even send Allo messages with Assistant, but you can send WhatsApp messages. You can’t ask it to show your emails, but you can with Allo. There’s inconsistency, a trademark feature of Google. This lack of features from the get go may lose the launch momentum Google has with its AI and Pixel.

A source familiar to the matter says there will be an update to add more features to Assistant on October 26. Hopefully it’s true and brings more capabilities, as many people will likely be demoing the AI for the first time via Pixel, not Google Home.

We’re not going to be able to pass final judgement on the Pixel’s battery life because we encountered a bug.

Google Photos, without even having launched the app, shot straight to the top of CPU usage and battery usage — it began draining the device’s battery quickly. We have alerted Google to the issue and the Android camera team is looking into it.

This issue began on the second day of our usage, but the first day was only just OK. The battery went down to 15 percent after 8 hours of medium to high use — about 3.5 hours of screen-on time.

Coming from a Nexus 5X, it’s impressive what Google has done with only a slightly larger 2,770mAh battery. The 5X’s battery life was atrocious, and while the Pixel’s is better, don’t expect it to last you a full day.

This applies to users differently, as it depends on your usage and the apps you have installed.

We don’t want to put the nail on the coffin for the battery yet, so we’ll come back and update this section after continued use, and after Google fixes the battery-drain issue.

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On the plus side, we can confirm Google’s fast-charging solution works. We plugged the device in at 30 percent and it went up to 100 percent in 15 minutes.

In contrast, the Pixel XL lasted a day to a day and a half in our testing, so if the smaller Pixel’s battery problems continue, you can always check out the XL.

Google offers a standard one-year warranty on the Pixel. You can sign up for device protection for $100, but you won’t have to worry about high repair costs after damaging your phone. You’ll also get a replacement device as quickly as one business day after your claim is approved.

To file a claim Google’s partner Assurant, just call or go to mydeviceprotect.com. Each claim is subject to a deductible — $80 for Pixel and $100 for Pixel XL — and you can file up to two claims of accidental damage coverage within the two-year term.

Quick repairs and replacements aren’t the only perks you get if you buy the Pixel. Google offers 24/7 support for your Pixel, in case you run into any issues. You can do this by visiting the Settings menu, and you can trigger a call or start a chat with a specialist. For when you’re having more serious problems, you can share your screen to help get any issues resolved faster.

The Pixel smartphones, like the Nexus line, also gets fast security and Android version updates from Google. This is a leg up over the competition, as carriers and manufacturers are typically slow in issuing updates.

Surprisingly, Verizon has come out and said it won’t “stand in the way” of updates — your device will get it straight from Google. This is a breakthrough for the search giant, as it gives the company universal control of software updates for its devices, no matter where it’s sold. Now Google just needs to bring the Pixel and the same update process to the other major carriers.

Google’s Pixel smartphones will arrive for people who have preordered them on October 20. You’ll also get a free Daydream View virtual reality headset from Google if you buy a Pixel, but the promotion is only available for a limited time.

The phone is also exclusively sold on Verizon, but you can buy it unlocked from Google and it will work on any carrier.

Do not, whatever you do, buy the Pixel from Verizon. Get it unlocked from Google. We don’t care what Verizon says. Don’t put your software updates in that carrier’s hands. If you get it unlocked, you’re guaranteed automatic software updates and you can switch carriers whenever you want. Google even has a nice installment payment plan where you pay the phone’s total $650 cost in $27.04 installments each month for 24 months.

One of the most important factors people will linger on when debating to buy a Pixel is its price. The base 32GB variant costs $650. The 128GB model costs $750. Those are pretty high prices, and are clearly meant to compete with the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

Google’s new hardware push is a unified effort under its relatively-new hardware chief Rick Osterloh, former president of Motorola.

Are there better alternatives?

By placing its new phones at the high-end market, Google is treating the Pixel like Microsoft treats the Surface. Other manufacturers can continue to build Android devices, but Google will lead the way.

At the same time, the company is alienating a lot of people who opt for more affordable devices. The market that’s booming right now isn’t the flagship — it’s the mid-range and budget devices. There are plenty of Android smartphones available that offer flagship specs at $250 less than the Pixel, like the OnePlus 3, ZTE Axon 7, and more.

Still, we recommend the Pixel over these flagship killers because timely software updates and security patches are very important. The Pixel’s strong customer service is also a big plus. Flagship killers like the Axon 7 and OnePlus 3 are great and all, but they can’t compete with the Pixel on those two very important fronts.

One fault people may bring up is the lack of waterproofing for the Pixel. At this price range, it should compete with devices in its category, and the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 are waterproof, while the Pixel is not.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with the Pixel or the iPhone 7, though we’d caution against the Galaxy S7, because the S8 is likely coming in the new year.

How long will it last?

Although many people may believe the Pixel will be a one off and the ever fickle Google will just abandon the project in a year or two, we get the feeling that Pixel is here to stay. The devices will only get better as the years pass, especially when Google begins building its own processors and gets its fingers deeper into chooser manufacturing.

You can tell Google is serious with the Pixel by the 24/7 support built into the OS. That alone makes us feel like this is a two-year device, if not possibly more. We’ll have to hope the company launches some sort of upgrade program, like what Apple does for iPhone owners.

The fact that Verizon is letting Google push updates to all its devices at the same time is also telling that the Pixel is something new and truly special. Google is finally using its power to show people what Android can do — The Pixel isn’t something just for developers and enthusiasts, like the Nexus program.

Should you buy it?

Yes. We’ve come to enjoy the design on the back of the smartphone, and more importantly, Android is better than ever on the Pixel. Assistant will also continue to get better and better, and you won’t find performance issues on this phone, either. If you’re looking for one of the better cameras in the high-end smartphone market, and want the latest and greatest in software, get the Pixel.

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