Review: Google Pixel puts performance over presence
Underwhelming at first glance, it's tempting to review the Google Pixel by simply weighing it against its peers. Does it trounce its Nexus relatives, a brand it renders defunct? Does it compare in value to the identically-priced iPhone 7? Let's put these questions aside and take a close look at the humble Pixel. It embodies a singularly Google approach, injecting much-needed fresh air into the crowded smartphone market.
Build & display
When it comes to build, the Pixel is minimalist bordering on plain. The glass portion on the upper back of the phone reminds me of an iffy manicure: Glossy lacquer on the tip of an otherwise lackluster appendage.
This 5-inch model is a little on the thick side, a fact which feels exaggerated by the angled bevel of the aluminum frame. It doesn't fit in my hand as nicely as rounded edges do. From the front, the Pixel looks nearly identical to the iPhone, excepting the home button. The Pixel's home button is onscreen, leaving the large chin area conspicuously blank.
The speakers/audio are not standouts. The single speaker sounds fuller than some others I've heard, but is still just a single speaker. The dedicated headphone jack has two things going for it: 1) it exists and 2) it's at the top of the phone, which often means easier access than one next to the charging port.
Pixel shares most of these features with its big brother, Pixel XL. One place they differ is display: Pixel has a FHD AMOLED display at 441 ppi while the XL rocks QHD. While Will deemed the XL's display perfectly fine, the base model Pixel is lacking. The resolution is technically there, but the delivery is not. There's relatively low contrast; the auto-brightness feature keeps the screen on the dim side; photos seem to lose some detail. Once the Daydream headset becomes available, it will be interesting to see how well this display powers the VR experience.
The life of the 2,770mAh battery (battery size is another difference between the Pixel and Pixel XL) is fair to good. In our standard test, charge dropped 14-percent in an hour of HD video playback over Wi-Fi at a steady luminescence.
Pixel is generously packaged with several cables, so you can charge however you desire. Included in the box: USB-C wall adapter, double-ended USB-C cord, USB-A to USB-C cord, and a USB-A to USB-C adapter. Fast charging only works with the wall adapter.
Overall, the Pixel's build is high-end generic. It's not particularly imaginative, but it feels solid and doesn't look cheap. If I were to improve on it, I'd make it water resistant before giving it a facelift (let's be real, we put everything in a case anyway). And in Google's defense, my silver-and-white version is arguably the least enticing color variant. The black version looks a little more modern, and the blue is more adventurous.
The Pixel and Pixel XL have the same remarkable camera, so there is not too much to say that hasn't already been included in Will's review. The camera takes excellent captures, in all types of settings, quickly and with minimal blur. You'd never miss optical image stabilization, a missing bit of technology that seems glaring when looking at a spec sheet alone.
Since Pixel retails for the same amount as the iPhone 7 (US$649), we thought it would be a good experiment to include a few sample comparisons between the two cameras.
As you can see, Pixel's camera comes out on top in full sun, indoor and low-light conditions. The iPhone skews toward a warmer color temperature, which can make for a more visually inviting photo, but Pixel's colors are far more true to life.
An all-in-one communication tool is not enough: We also want smartphones that guess what makes us happy. Enter Google Assistant, the virtual assistant exclusive to Pixel. Is it smarter than the eponymous Siri? Does it work better than its predecessor, Google Now?
Upon first impression, Google Assistant seems to have superior voice recognition over iPhone 7's Siri. Here are some examples of words and phrases that Google understood but Siri butchered:
- I said "tarot cards." Siri heard "pterodactyl."
- I asked for directions to "Cullowhee, North Carolina." Siri gave me directions to "Chloe."
- I said "muscadine grapes." Google told me what they are. Siri gave me directions to a wine store 45 miles away. This phrase was not in its name.
Assistant also jives better with the conversational way we normally speak. Ask Siri, "Can you give me screen printing instructions?" and the response is low-key smartass: "Who, me?" Repeat the same question to Google Assistant, and it brings up top Google hits and reads an excerpt aloud.
Google Assistant also works lightning fast. Talking to Siri can feel like shouting into the void. You utter only the most pertinent words and hold your breath waiting for a response. Assistant is perky, responding to its summoning phrase "OK Google" and following up with answers practically instantly. Speak too slowly and it may cut you off before you're done.
When Assistant gives you an answer, it also provides links to anticipated follow-up questions. This contributes to the conversational feel, and it also provides a way to interact with Assistant beyond just voice commands.
The advantages that Google Assistant has over Google Now are less easy to spot. Again, Google Now isn't as conversational, but still offers many of the same voice-activated search features. At its launch event, Google said that Assistant gets smarter the more you use it, can recall previous conversations, and learn your preferences. However, I've yet to discover an inquiry to Assistant that prompts a dynamic response or asks me questions about myself. For the time being, the main advantage of Google Assistant over Google Now seems to be an eye on the future: Assistant is going to get better, and Now makes no such promise.
Flawless performance that's distinctly Google
Android Nougat gets a stunningly clean presentation in the Pixel, but it's not a sparkling, look-at-me type of clean. Its humble and efficient presentation echoes Google's other interfaces.
An average Android phone might be comparable to the Yahoo homepage, jumbled with bells and whistles and news tickers. Pixel's Android takes after the Google homepage: Stripped down, with a touch of whimsy to keep things human, but mostly it just works.
Pixel's only branding indulgence seems to be the occasional animation, such as the primary color dots that swirl around when you touch the home button. But that also has a purpose – it lets you know it's working. Not that you'll be waiting much; Pixel runs Nougat and all the apps we've tried extremely fast.
Pixel echoes the greater Google experience in the sense that it works so well, it nearly disappears. No matter what Google app you're using, chances are, you're not thinking about Google. You're just going about your business, briskly and contentedly.
The Pixel phone is the same way. It powers through apps, photography, internet use and video playback without ostentatious branding. That sets it apart from the rest of the Android herd, where phones tend to differentiate themselves through ambitious hardware choices but are often hobbled by an inefficient user experience. It's also unlike the iPhone, which puts a premium on looks and sacrifices a more open environment in favor of robust operation.
I appreciate the "nothingness" about the Pixel: Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had more access to hardly-branded, no-nonsense, high-performance products of all kinds? Yet I suspect that's the very characteristic that is leaving some consumers underwhelmed and balking at the iPhone-identical price point.
For iPhone prices, we want presence to match. But there's a catch-22 in pricing. If Google had set the price lower (which would flat-out thrill this reviewer) it could invite consumers to automatically assume "less than."
The Pixel is one of the most interesting entries into the smartphone market in recent memory. I hope that Google's fleet of hardware continues to grow along this path, putting performance over presence.
For more on the first Google phones, you can check out New Atlas' review of the companion Pixel XL phablet.
Product page: Google