Google Pixel XL review: Killer camera, Apple approach

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New Atlas reviews the Google Pixel XL, which marks a more iPhone-like approach from Google(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Google killed its Nexus lineup of smartphones this year and replaced it with a "made by Google" pair of Pixel phones. In the Nexus days, Google worked with hardware-makers as collaborative creative partners, but in this case it sounds like silent partner HTC was more like a hired contractor that simply made the phone Google told it to. So what does a full-fledged Google-phone look like? Based on the larger of the two in this pair, it's a breakthrough in mobile photography that happens to be in very good shape everywhere else too. Read on for New Atlas' review of the outstanding Google Pixel XL.

At first glance, the Google Pixel XL doesn't especially stand out from other Android flagships. It has a polished and premium build, but falls a hair short of the silky-smooth, sexed-up design of the latest iPhones and Samsung's Galaxy line (though Google's phones shouldn't go up in flames). The Pixel XL's stock Android 7.1 Nougat software, along with the promise of immediate updates to future versions, will make Android geeks salivate, but is hardly a selling feature to the general public. My first few minutes with the Pixel XL could be summed up as "yep, another nice, high-end Android smartphone." Said with a yawn.

But then I took some pictures. And then I compared its shots side-by-side with those of the iPhone 7 Plus, which I'd previously thought had one of the best smartphone shooters of the year. Clearly there's something very special going on with this camera:

In every photography setting we tried, including these samples and many others – ranging from bright southwest sunlight to near-darkness, from close up to far, far away – the Pixel XL won every round. It takes the best low-lit shots we've seen on a phone: even better than the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 series. It captures fine detail that we aren't used to seeing in mobile photos. It fires up and snaps shots quickly. And it's better at capturing moving objects without blurring them up than any other smartphone camera we've used.

It appears this is all less about superior hardware optics alone and more about sensors combining with some very, very smart algorithms Google employs to splice multiple shots together – automatically and quickly – to create one picture-perfect photo that's better than what you'll find on any other smartphone.

Suddenly the rest of the phone, almost boringly-good up to this point, starts to get a lot more exciting. It's funny how one standout feature that's head-and-shoulders above the competition will do that.

Performance is also the most buttery-smooth we've seen on an Android phone. The Pixel XL is positively iPhone-esque in that way: From this, you could conclude that the same company making both hardware and software is the key to making this happen.

The Pixel XL's razor-sharp and color-rich QHD AMOLED display is at least as beautiful as anything Samsung or Apple have produced this year, which is to say it's as good as it gets. And battery life is more than solid: In our standard benchmark (streaming video with screen measured at a consistent luminance) it dropped 11 percent per hour, compared to 12 percent per hour for the iPhone 7 series.

Is there anything we don't like about the Pixel XL?

Well, its rear-facing fingerprint sensor could prove a minor problem for someone with smaller hands who likes big handsets. Neither phone has a microSD slot, so the internal storage tier you opt for is all you'll ever get. There's no official water resistance rating of any significance.

They also lose the budget-friendly pricing that most Nexus phones have had up to this point: The two Pixel models are now priced exactly like iPhones. Though if cheaper cost would have meant cutting corners, we can live with the Apple-aping pricing scheme.

Nougat and the Pixel phones also mark the launch of Google Assistant, the company's more evolved virtual AI to take on Siri.

Out of the gates it isn't yet striking me as a massively noticeable step forward from its predecessor, Google Now, but Emily did a deeper-dive with Assistant in her 5-inch Pixel phone review.

The Pixel phones are essentially Google's concession to Apple's longstanding approach to gadget-making. It's Google's if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Since early 2010, the Nexus line stood next to the iPhone as a lesson in dueling philosophies. In contrast to Apple's vertical, control-everything model, where the company ruled every detail of software and hardware with an iron fist, the Nexus phones strove to embody Google's ideals: including healthy dashes of the tech giant's collaboration/choice/be-together-not-the-same brand of thinking. It was meant to be a creative Kumbaya between Google and one OEM of choice, be it HTC, Huawei, Motorola, LG or Samsung. A sign that extended Android is one big happy family, firing on all cylinders.

Today? Well, things are looking a lot more vertical in Mountain View, with Google finding an iron fist of its own, controlling the whole widget just like Apple has since its inception.

No matter which camp you fall into, we think the results here speak for themselves. The Pixel phones are a win for Google, with a near-unanimous positive reception extending far beyond our impressions. But in the big picture, they may be an even greater victory for Apple's philosophy. Android is still more open than iOS – we aren't quite looking at Steve Jobs-esque walled-garden extremes here – but the Pixel pivot might prove that the same company controlling the whole product is indeed the winningest formula, as far as all-around quality and customer experience go.

The Pixels are the first Android phones to do so, and they also just happen to be our pick for the best Android phones ever made. Draw from that what you will.

The excellent Google Pixel XL, an instant Smartphone of the Year candidate, is available now, both unlocked straight from Google and from Verizon in the US (and note that the VZW version also ships unlocked). The XL starts at US$769 for the 32 GB model, just like the iPhone 7 Plus.

For more, you can hit up New Atlas' review the smaller 5-inch Pixel.

Product page: Google

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