Welcome to the new Google Nexus; it's called the Pixel. There are two new Pixel phones, the 5" Pixel and the 5.5" Pixel XL. They're nearly identical in terms of specs other than screen size and resolution, and battery size. Google first used the Pixel name for their very chic and expensive Chromebook Pixel, and then for the high end Pixel C Android tablet with optional keyboard. Those devices were designed by Google, both software (as per usual for Nexus phones too) and hardware. Gone was and is the co-branding with the company that manufactures the hardware, in this case HTC. Google's hardware designers are either conservative or lacking that special sauce that the best designers at HTC, Samsung and Huawei have because the Pixel phones aren't the most exciting looking, and the design is somewhat iPhone 6s derivative (one could argue that metal and glass slabs can only look so different, but look at the Nexus 6P, HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7 edge before you decide they need all look alike). That isn't to say that the Pixel phones don't look and feel like well made, quality smartphones--they do. And that's a good thing since the price tags match flagship phone pricing of $649 to $749 for the 5" Pixel and $769 to $869 for the Pixel XL.
The Pixels are available in three colors: silver, Quite Black (which is actually quite dark gray) and Very Blue. There's a responsive fingerprint scanner on the back, which means you'll have to raise the phone to unlock it (grrr). There's no ambient display or raise to wake feature, alas, but there is a notification LED that you can enable in settings. The power button has a textured crosshatch pattern to offer tactile differentiation from the volume rocker just below it. There's a glass panel on the back for a little visual flair and to add thickness so there's no camera bump. It looks a little odd, but also nice. There's no wireless charging here and official water resistance is IP53, which is well below the IP67 and IP68 water resistance to 3 feet that we get with the Samsung Galaxy S7, iPhone 7 and some Sony Xperia phones. Given the high Pixel price tags, I'd have liked to see Google go the extra mile and add features like IP68 and wireless charging (though wireless charging is impossible with metal-back phones).
A Wonderfully Coherent Experience
The real charm here is the pure Android experience, for those who hate manufacturer and carrier customizations that can add bloatware and confusing duplicate apps. The Pixel phones might not have all the coolest features of the Galaxy S7 and LG V20, but they feel very coherent, swift and easier to understand. In that way, Google is clearly going head to head with Apple--when you control the software and hardware experience you can do more. Google succeeds here, and despite my quibbles with less than groundbreaking hardware, the user experience is top notch for Android.
Inside we have specs befitting the price with the 2.15 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 CPU, which is the latest generation top dog quad core CPU from Qualcomm that offers a modest performance boost over the Snapdragon 820 in the US version of the Samsung Galaxy S7 family, HTC 10 and other high end Android phones. It has 4 gigs of RAM and your choice of 32 or 128 gigs of storage (128 gigs is a $100 upcharge). There's no microSD card slot so those of you who want to install lots of games, videos or captured photos will likely want to pony up for the more expensive model that increases storage to 128 gigs (nothing else changes). The Pixel and Pixel XL have AMOLED displays with rich colors and deep blacks, but there's no setting to change color gamuts as with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. Still, it's a very good looking display that's not unnaturally saturated and brightness is good enough to be viewable outdoors in sunlight, though it washes out a bit under our Texas sun.
The Latest Android Version and Google Assistant
Google makes Android, and as ever, that's a big selling point here, because Pixel phones, like the Nexus phones before them will get Android OS updates first. The phones run Android 7.1 Nougat with a few new features not found on the Nexus 6P upgraded to Nougat or the LG V20, both of which currently get Android 7.0. There's the new Google Assistant, a voice activated assistant that goes after Siri and Cortana. It has contextual or additive capabilities, and that means you can ask "how old is Tom Cruise", followed by "who is he married to", and the Google Assistant will assume you're still talking about Tom Cruise. It won't however be able to answer questions about when your birthday is or your mom's or wife's, because Google doesn't have a relationship field in contacts like the iPhone. So, the Google Assistant feels pretty smart if you ask a series of related questions, but feels less smart if you're asking about personal details that Google (perhaps thankfully) doesn't track. After all, doesn't Google already know too much about us from tracking our search and web browsing habits. You also can't use it to call an Uber, though that will probably come in the future. When we tested it with a variety of questions whose answers can be found on the web (web search being a strong point for the big G), the Pixel tended to give fuller and more informative answers--reading the brief Wiki entry out loud rather than presenting us with a boring text link like Siri.
Unlocked and Verizon Versions
The phone is available unlocked for use with most any carrier direct from Google, which has been the norm for Nexus phones in the past. It's also available from Verizon Wireless, but that's the only US carrier, and that hurts here in the US where only 10% of phones are sold outside of carriers. It has 4G LTE CAT 12 on a large selection of bands and it supports both WiFi calling and VoLTE (voice over LTE for better call quality). The phone has the usual Bluetooth, dual band WiFi 802.11ac, NFC and GPS. Call quality and reception were good on our test networks (Verizon and T-Mobile).
Deals and Shopping:
Google Pixel XL Video Review
Both Pixel models have an 8MP front camera that takes pleasing selfies and sharp looking video for chat on Google's new Duo app that's a competitor to Skype and FaceTime (it's cross platform and is available on iOS too). The 12.3MP rear camera has 1.55um pixel sites, fast HDR, an f/2.0 lens and a multi-tone LED flash. Google's bragged about how good this camera is, and despite a slightly slower lens than the direct competition, it takes great low light shots. Bright light isn't a problem either, and the image processing algorithm doesn't overexpose highlights. As an avid photographer, I really enjoyed this camera, and appreciated that the photos didn't look overcooked by the image processing software, so there was leeway for my Photoshop skills to take the photo where I wanted. My only complaint is lens flare--it's more pronounced here than usual.
The camera can shoot panoramas, 4K video and there's a Lens Blur feature that attempts to mimic bokeh on a dSLR. It equally blurs out pretty much everything except the subject using a wide radius Gaussian blur, so it looks artificial and takes a few seconds to work, but it's better than nothing for a portrait shot where you don't want the background to compete with the subject.
The phones have relatively high capacity batteries and they support quick charging (USB-C fast charger included in the box). There's no wireless charging, as mentioned, but as a consolation, you can top up the battery 40% in a half hour. The Pixel has a 2770 mAh battery and the Pixel XL has a 3450 mAh battery, both sealed inside. We tested the Pixel XL, and it was easily an all-day phone with moderate use (8am to 11pm). Of course, if you game or use the GPS for road trips, your runtimes will be lower. We test email, video streaming, social networking, web and calls for our battery tests. The Pixel XL managed 5 to 10 percent better battery life than the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (RIP), but that phone did have even more power hungry features like an active digitizer display for the S Pen and a brighter AMOLED display. So far, the Pixel XL has matched our iPhone 7 Plus, and that puts it among the longer running phones. Note that when I added a software utility from the Google Play store to add an always-on sleep screen, battery life tanked--keep in mind that third party software can have that effect, particularly those that keep (even small sections) of the display active at all times.
The Google Pixel and Pixel XL are outclassed in the feature race by other phones in the same price segment. That's not to say they're weak phones--Apple's managed to get away with less fancy features by offering a very fast and cohesive software experience and a huge ecosystem behind it. That said, when a phone has fewer features than even the competing iPhone (dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus, 24 bit audio out, stereo speakers, 3D Touch and IP68 water resistance on the 7 and 7 Plus), I do have to wonder if Google's most expensive phones yet have gone a little too minimalist for the Android market where specs and feature races are the norm (and I do believe that the Pixel competes more with its Android brethren than the iPhone). In part, that's really up to you: are you attracted by the smoothest Android experience you can get, or would you rather get all the bells and whistles for the big bucks? I think there's a solid argument in favor of the Pixels: they're available in two sizes, they have lovely screens and are made with top notch materials and the cameras are truly excellent. They'll be current on OS for the foreseeable future. But their displays aren't as bright as Samsung's, they don't have dual cameras like the LG V20 and iPhone 7 Plus, there's no removable battery or secondary front display (LG V20), no well done modular design as on the Moto Z family, and there's no spiffy curved glass here. At the very least, it's good to have choices and the Pixel XL has been one of the most enjoyable Android phones I've used recently--no annoyances, no odd crashes or slowdowns. Just pure phone goodness.
Price: Pixel is $649- $749, Pixel XL is $769 - $869
Display:5" full HD 1920 x 1080 display on Pixel (441 PPI) , 5.5" QHD 2560 x 1440 on Pixel XL (534 PPI). Both are AMOLED. Has ambient light sensor, accelerometer and proximity sensor.
Battery:Pixel: 2770 mAh Lithium
Ion Polymer rechargeable. Pixel XL: 3450 mAh. Battery is not user replaceable. Supports fast charging, fast charger included in the box.
Performance:2.15 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad core CPU with Adreno 530 graphics. 4 gigs LPDDR4 RAM. 32 or 128 gigs storage.
Size:Pixel: 5.6 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches, 5.04 ounces. Pixel XL: 6.0 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, 6.09 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone plus CDMA, 3G and 4G LTE. Qualcomm X12 CAT 12 LTE wireless modem. Supports WiFi calling and VoLTE.
Camera:8MP front camera and 12.3MP rear camera with f/2.0 lens and two tone LED flash, 1.55um pixel size. Software stabilization for video recording (no OIS). Can shoot 4K video and has a Lens Blur background blur software feature.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0.