Mobile Technology

Google Pixel XL review: Killer camera, Apple approach

Google Pixel XL review: Killer...
New Atlas reviews the Google Pixel XL, which marks a more iPhone-like approach from Google
New Atlas reviews the Google Pixel XL, which marks a more iPhone-like approach from Google
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iPhone 7 Plus outdoor camera sample
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iPhone 7 Plus outdoor camera sample
iPhone 7 Plus low-lit camera sample
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iPhone 7 Plus low-lit camera sample
Pixel XL outdoor camera sample
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Pixel XL outdoor camera sample
Pixel XL low-lit camera sample
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Pixel XL low-lit camera sample
iPhone 7 Plus and Pixel XL medium-lit indoor samples
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iPhone 7 Plus and Pixel XL medium-lit indoor samples
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Back of the Google Pixel XL
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Back of the Google Pixel XL
The Pixel phones have the best cameras of any smartphones to date
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The Pixel phones have the best cameras of any smartphones to date
At 7.3 mm, the Pixel XL is the same thickness as the iPhone 7 Plus
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At 7.3 mm, the Pixel XL is the same thickness as the iPhone 7 Plus
The back-facing fingerprint sensor is fine if you have big hands, but if you have smaller hands (but still like a big phone) it could pose a minor problem
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The back-facing fingerprint sensor is fine if you have big hands, but if you have smaller hands (but still like a big phone) it could pose a minor problem
The Pixel XL starts at US$769 full retail
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The Pixel XL starts at US$769 full retail
The 5.5-inch QHD display looks terrific
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The 5.5-inch QHD display looks terrific
The Pixel and Pixel XL have next-level photography skills
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The Pixel and Pixel XL have next-level photography skills
The Pixel is a good-looking phone, but we think it falls a hair short of Apple's and Samsung's level of design
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The Pixel is a good-looking phone, but we think it falls a hair short of Apple's and Samsung's level of design
New Atlas reviews the Google Pixel XL, which marks a more iPhone-like approach from Google
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New Atlas reviews the Google Pixel XL, which marks a more iPhone-like approach from Google
Pros and cons of the Google Pixel XL
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Pros and cons of the Google Pixel XL
Google Assistant is the company's next-gen virtual AI assistant
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Google Assistant is the company's next-gen virtual AI assistant
Google Pixel XL, the larger of the two 2016 flagships, with a 5.5-inch screen
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Google Pixel XL, the larger of the two 2016 flagships, with a 5.5-inch screen

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:

iPhone 7 Plus outdoor camera sample
iPhone 7 Plus outdoor camera sample

Pixel XL outdoor camera sample
Pixel XL outdoor camera sample

iPhone 7 Plus and Pixel XL medium-lit indoor samples
iPhone 7 Plus and Pixel XL medium-lit indoor samples

iPhone 7 Plus low-lit camera sample
iPhone 7 Plus low-lit camera sample

Pixel XL low-lit camera sample
Pixel XL low-lit camera sample

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.

The 5.5-inch QHD display looks terrific
The 5.5-inch QHD display looks terrific

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.

Google Pixel XL, the larger of the two 2016 flagships, with a 5.5-inch screen
Google Pixel XL, the larger of the two 2016 flagships, with a 5.5-inch screen

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.

Google Assistant is the company's next-gen virtual AI assistant
Google Assistant is the company's next-gen virtual AI assistant

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 is a good-looking phone, but we think it falls a hair short of Apple's and Samsung's level of design
The Pixel is a good-looking phone, but we think it falls a hair short of Apple's and Samsung's level of design

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.

Pros and cons of the Google Pixel XL
Pros and cons of the Google Pixel XL

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

9 comments
Steve Jones
That low-light shot is impressive - and although I can't see anything special about the normally-lit shots, low-light performance is what's critical. But you haven't mentioned Daydream - I thought that the point of the Pixels was that they're the first Daydream certified phones.
Terry Pardy
I don't think your photos prove that the camera is better than the iPhone 7 plus. For instance, the Golden Retriever is more 'golden' in the iPhone photo and the first photo is more colourful and the mountain range is clearer.
DonPryor
Other than the low-light the Pixel do not measure up. That said I think you wrote this piece with your thumb on the scale. Is the pixel a good fone, sure, in fact I see greatness and unless Samsung who has fallen and I don't think can get up, Pixel is set to go head to head with Apple and IMO that is GOOD for us. I have an Apple 7Plus but I have only been vested in Apple since the 6Plus, before that I have owned them all always buying state of the art at the time. I got my first around '89 and have been sans a landline since the late 90's. I have watched them all come out and be the big dog then always falling from grace. If Pixel can out shine Apple I will buy it, but it has to really shine!
WeeLiam
Of the three direct comparisons, the iPhone is clearly the winner of the first two. In the low-light cup shot, Google wins, but by no more than a hair. If you can't see iPhone is definitely better on two of the three, I wonder why.
Don Williams
"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." 100% incorrect. Clearly, you are not a photographer. The only superior photo by the Pixel XL is the low-light image, which is impressive. The landscape example is not even close--the iPhone pic looks immeasurably better.
katgod
I have to agree with the other comments made regarding which phone is better. All of the shots on the iPhone look more saturated including the low light one which is probably the reason the image on the google phone looks brighter. I suspect most people will prefer the iPhone images except possibly the low light one even though it is more saturated.
DanielKaschel
For those saying the iPhone photos are better: remember that you can always add saturation later if you're so inclined. iPhones over-saturate so the pictures look prettier by default, but they sacrifice detail and fidelity to do so. Preserving detail is the important thing (IMO), and the Pixel does that better than the iPhone in all three photos.
usugo
I am not sure what customers are they targeting here. If I have to spend 600+ on an android phone, I would go for a galaxy. The amount of extra features largely counterbalance a little camera improvement. Are they trying to steal customers from Apple? The point of people buying an Apple is more than anything else in the brand they identify with. Living the illusion of being "special". I always laugh in my mind when I see someone with an Apple that has a cover, but of course it has a hole to show the logo. Otherwise, what's the point of having one if people around you don't know that?
AndrewWesterbeek
I'm going to buy the Pixel and I think Iphone wins the first two and loses the low light shot. I'm an artist and it's obvious that Pixel over saturates the blue in the first two pictures hence the overly blue sky and the chair having an overly blue tinge and in both cases ruins both shots. It's not that Iphone that over saturates their shots, it's that the landscape in the Pixel shot has more blue in it, greying out the whole shot and making it look more dull which in turn makes the colour in the Iphone shots look more vibrant. The same with the dog in the chair. The dog and the chair both look slightly washed out because of the blue. Iphone has always had the most accurate colours out of all phone cameras since the Iphone came out. That being said I've looked at about 100 comparison shots and Iphone in general only wins about 50% of the time to Pixel and it purely comes down to location and lighting as to who wins. Iphone also has the two times optical zoom which is amazing and very useful in everyday photography. Reason I'm still going to buy the Pixel is that it's purely a software flaw that Google can fix in an update and I really hate Itunes and can't go back to Apple unless they fix how Itunes works for PC users. Google already fixed the lens flare issue with an update. Both Iphone and Pixel cameras are amazing.