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The Google Pixel XL Review: Best Android Phone Ever

Pixel is Google calling out Apple for the championship match.

28/10/2016 2:50 PM IST | Updated 28/10/2016 7:35 PM IST
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On a flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, I noticed at least 4 ad placements for Google Pixel. Two people at the airport asked me if it was the new Google Pixel that I was holding in my hands. They did not look like tech geeks. Google making a commercial push for a phone is new, and it is working. People know what a Pixel is; there is excitement in the air.

I have been using the Google Pixel XL for 10 days now, the Quite Black -- that's what Google calls it-- 32 GB version. And, it looks like a phone that users will develop a love-hate relationship with. Pixel is no Nexus -- Google's preceding smartphone series -- which was largely meant for geeks reporting bugs on online forums within weeks of buying it. Pixel is Google calling out Apple for the championship match.

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Google Pixel comes in a minimal box, with the Google logo in its minimal 'G' letter incarnation, and with half of the phone peeking out. The phone comes with plenty of goodies.

Holding the Pixel in your hands is a distinctive feeling. While its early pictures might have made you think that it will resemble an iPhone, that is not the case at all. The front is curvier at the edges with a Nexus 6P like design, but minus the dual speakers, and that is a disadvantage.

The back of the phone is where things get interesting. The casing is made from two materials, and with a dual colour combination. The top half is a bit heavy and is covered by glass which hosts the camera without any bump, the flash, and a couple of other sensors, along with the fingerprint reader which is called Pixel Imprint.The bottom half of the back comprises brushed silver-coloured metal casing that is easy to grip and lends a nice feel that grows on you. As is mostly the case, you'll be holding the phone from the bottom half, but if you do hold it from the top the glass will feel sticky.

Ivan Mehta

The edges are a bit sharp but not as sharp as, say, the new ultra slim Moto Z. They are comfortable enough to hold but, personally speaking, they make me miss holding the iPhone 7 Plus. One thing is for sure, Pixel's design might not be the best for a phone, but it is distinctive. The phone stands out in a crowd of zombie smartphone designs.

The Pixel box has tons of accessories. There is a USB A to USB C cable, there is a USB C to USB C cable which is meant to be used with the 18W adapter. Now, this adapter is critical because during the fast charging process it charges the phone at 3A per hour which is a good bit of output. There is a pair of in-ear headphones as well but its sound quality is nothing to boast about. And, for transferring data from an iPhone or a pen drive, there is a USB A female to USB C dongle. All in all, plenty of connectivity options.

When you switch the phone on, the 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display screen's brightness and vibrancy will amaze you. The screen's high quality means that it will work quite well with the Daydream VR. I was using an iPhone 7 Plus before this, so it took a little time to get adjusted to the slightly saturated colours. But once that little hurdle was overcome, it was all wonderful. There is, of course, the option to switch to sRGB mode for a warmer colours.

If someone were to ask me, "How is the Google Pixel performance wise?" I would imagine Flash running through the streets. My god, it is fast. Right from the setup to your daily usage, it hits every ball out of the park. Gaming, multitasking, camera, media consumption, you name it and Google Pixel gives you top-notch experience.

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NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 20: A new Google Pixel XL

Under the hood, it uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor with 4 GB of RAM. But since Google is in control of the hardware and software merger, the harmony is sweet. There were always one or two areas where Nexus phones showed hints of lagging behind, but that's not the case with Pixel.

Pixel phones ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, with extra goodies. Sure, there are features such as splitscreen, interactive notification and battery management built into it but what makes the phone special is that extra garnishing of the exclusive features. It comes with a package of unlimited high quality photo storage in Google Photos, which is combined with a smart storage feature that automatically removes larger sized videos and least used images from the device. Of course, they will be stored in the cloud. So, you can even store unlimited 4K videos. Now that's a first.

At the centre of Pixel's Android experience is the new Pixel Launcher. While many users got the gist of the launcher from the leaked APKs, here we have a fully baked implementation. What's new, you ask? Well, there's a lot of swiping going on. The Google search bar on the home screen is gone and, instead, you'll just see a G lettered logo on the left. Swipe right and you'll have your good old Google Now screen. Swipe left to change the screens.

There is no button for opening the apps, instead you swipe up from the bottom for the app drawer and then scroll down. On the top of the app drawer you have a search bar and most recently used apps. I am quite digging the new style because the transitional animations are good and swiping is a much more fluid action than tapping.

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There is a re-creation of Apple's 3D touch in a software incarnation, so, if you long-press on an app you'll see the menu options. For instance, a long press on YouTube will show Trending, Search and Subscription options. Expect to see this feature in other smartphones soon. The new Android 7.1 update will bring it to the Nexus phones first.

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Pixel's Android has gestures, called Move here, too. There is Motorola's famous shake to switch on the camera, Android's double tap on the power button to open the camera, and to which we can now add, Pixel's swipe down on fingerprint to pull down the notification tray.

I had qualms about Android Nougat not being smooth enough when I used it on my Nexus 6P. Meanwhile, it would appear that Google has integrated the system in a better way with Pixel phones. Sure, there is scope for improvement in some of the options such as the GIF keyboard and sRGB switch, which are buried deep somewhere. Also, there are all those messaging apps from the Google family -- Allo, Hangouts, SMS. That can feel a bit annoying. And, the Google team has had to keep some things open just so that the other Android device manufactures aren't put off.

Now, in case anyone is wondering why I have not mentioned a critical part of Pixel's Android, the Google Assistant, so far -- the reason I saved speaking about it after the software is that Artificial Intelligence is going to be a parallel system for Google that is present in multiple systems.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed interacting with the Assistant very much. I asked it silly questions such as, "Do you like Siri?" or "Whom would you vote for?" and got quirky answers.

Jokes apart, the Assistant does an admirable job given that this is the first instance of its system baked implementation. You just long-press your home button from anywhere and it is there. Set up meeting reminders, turn on WiFi, get directions for your meeting, get the latest scores, and an endless list of things you can do.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai

This year, Google has put a lot of emphasis on natural language processing and machine learning. Until a few years ago, all smartphones struggled to understand the Indian accent. Assistant also understands the context very well. You could ask, "How is this movie?" after searching for its show timings and you'd get satisfactory results. Now, 9 out of 10 times Google Assistant pulls that off in a jiffy. The photo search is amazing. "Show me photos from last week" or "Show me cat photos" will give you results from your own Google Photos account, and that is incredible.

And, things will only improve with more people using it. So, imagine hailing an Uber just by uttering one sentence.

Let's talk about the kid that got the highest ever score in the exam called DxOMark, the camera. Undoubtedly, the camera has been a weak point with the Nexus phones, with the exception of Nexus 6P. But Google has a done a remarkable job with this one. First, let me point out how fast the camera is. I practically felt I was shooting bullets in a first player shooter game. There is hardly any shutter lag, and you can have your very own manual burst mode just by clicking fast enough.

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The camera scores don't really matter, but the Pixel camera clearly deserves to be in the category of the best damn camera ever. It takes shots with great precision and focuses with an amazing 'eye' for the detail. Colours are captured well, but you might feel that sometimes it over-saturates photos. HDR in Android phones has that tendency to crank up the photos to give them a more pleasing look. But then what is pleasing is subjective. While Google's camera captures greater detail and provides better white balance, the iPhone 7 Plus camera gives you warmer colours with a better natural feel.

The 12 MP camera gives superb results in low light despite having an f/2.0 aperture. Even though this is the same Nexus 6P sensor, it has been presented with improvements such on-sensor HDR, which gives a better speed for post-processing of the pictures. The front 8 MP camera is great for clicking selfies.

Pixel has video recording capabilities similar to the iPhone 7 Plus, capturing 4K video at 30 frames per second (fps), and it gives very pleasing results in terms of video and audio quality. You can also shoot slow motion at 720p quality at 240 fps.

If there are three smartphone cameras competing for the title, namely, Apple iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel, for now, Pixel is ahead.

The lack of waterproofing on the phone is a serious disappointment. I used to take my Apple Watch or phone in the shower or near the kitchen sink without any fear. I can't do that with Pixel. On the other hand, fast-charging gives Pixel a serious edge over the iPhone 7. I particularly like Pixel XL for its bigger battery size. While its everyday battery performance is good but not great, fast charging always helps. Again, it doesn't compete with the fast charging marvel that is OnePlus 3, but it does deliver an above par charging time with the 3A charger.

I have been using Android phones for over four years now and surely Pixel is the best Android phone that has ever been made. It is not a looker like Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7, but the hardware -- software duet is beautiful to watch, while Google takes control of the orchestra. True, design needs a big overhaul and the hardware can be better overall to match the levels of iPhone fandom.

Many have asked me, why the premium pricing. But then, Google has invested a lot of research and software to give people a premium experience, so why not? Sure, this is not for everyone and, as I wrote earlier, there are plenty of options. But you can surely expect a lot more from Google's new approach towards the smartphone.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL Review: The Best of Android?

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