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Google Pixel long-term review: Still the best smartphone I’ve ever used


I have been using the Google Pixel XL for six months now. Not continuously, mind you – I have taken breaks here and there. But after using the Galaxy S8+, the LG G6, and the OnePlus 3T, there is only one phone I’ve instinctively found myself returning to, and it’s this one. Google’s Pixel isn’t without its flaws; in fact, it has a great many I can cite with ease.

The Bluetooth connectivity sucks. The back of the phone has very obvious wear rub. The glass window scratches easily. It’s not waterproof. ‘OK Google’ hotword detection breaks for no apparent reason, necessitating a reboot. The fingerprint scanner is slower than what you’d find on a number of competitor devices. The value proposition is mediocre at best. The screen to body ratio pales in comparison to phones like the G6 or Galaxy S8. And you can’t even buy the damn thing.

Why do I keep picking up the Pixel time and time again, then? Am I just a brainwashed Google fanboy (don’t answer that question)?

The answer is consistency.

In the nearly seven years I’ve been doing this, I have never used an Android phone that has held up so well to the tortures of time. The Pixel XL feels nearly as smooth as the day I began using it six months ago. Android glides along with best-in-class touch latency and a responsiveness that feels immediate (if not manic) and satisfying. It’s not just performance, either. My battery life remains largely predictable, too, and largely very good. The camera continues to impress with its swift launches and ease of use, and it produces the most consistently excellent results of any smartphone camera I have ever used. HDR+ is easily, for me, the best smartphone camera feature out there. Oh, and even if the fingerprint scanner is a bit slow compared to some, at least the damn thing is easy to reach and reads consistently.

Is the XL worth $770 to pick up today? I don’t really think so, let alone $870 for the 128GB version we all actually want. And honestly, I have a hard time seeing the point of the smaller 5″ model at $650 right now, that just feels like lunacy. The XL offers better battery life and is far from “big phone” status in terms of actual usability – it’s really the only one of the two that warrants consideration, in my opinion. With that, let’s dive in to the details.

The hardware

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Put the Google Pixel XL next to a Galaxy S8+ and you’ll have a pretty hard time finding much to love about Google’s phone. 2017 is ushering in a new era of smartphone design language and packaging, and the Pixel XL clearly hails from the period prior to that shift. To be fair, it did come out six months ago. But there’s no doubt that from an industrial design point of view, the Pixel is aging fairly rapidly.

The 5.5″ Pixel XL is nearly as tall as a Galaxy S8+, but the latter has a 6.2″ display. Line up the bottom of the S8’s screen with the Pixel XL’s, and it becomes apparent just how much more panel Samsung has managed to shove into a frame that is only a few millimeters taller. Granted, this does have ergonomic consequences (the S8+ is unabashedly more difficult to use one-handed than the XL because of the screen’s height), but I think it’s safe to say most of want more screen where we can get it.

I still think the Pixel XL is perfectly nice to hold and like the texture of the aluminum opposed to Samsung and LG’s new glass-heavy designs. I also still believe the fingerprint scanner is in the ideal location, unlike the Galaxy S8, which has the most frustrating one in existence. The position of the camera makes accidental smudging less likely, too, and I really like the perfectly flush look Google was able to achieve with the glass window.

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Visible wear lines on the casing

In terms of wear and tear, my XL has… not fared well. The finish on the Quite black model I have here has begun to very noticeably rub off in areas where the aluminum chassis is slightly more raised than others. You could remedy this with a skin, but I personally like this phone totally unadorned. Otherwise, though, it’s held up well – the buttons are still fine and I don’t notice any real physical problems with the phone aside from the aforementioned finish wear. Just don’t drop it in the toilet.

Battery life

As I said in the introduction, it’s consistently good. I always have a pretty clear sense of how much time I’ve got left when I’m really starting to push my XL to the limits of its longevity. If I’m having a Wi-Fi heavy day with lots of using the phone for browsing the web and texting, 5 hours of screen-on time is doable. If I’m away from home and largely on LTE, I can pretty reliably get 4 hours of screen time assuming it’s not stretched over much longer than a 12-hour period. For a full 16-hour day away from wall outlets and going it on mobile data alone, 3 hours is what I generally end up managing.

This probably won’t impress many of you with Xiaomi, Huawei, or Exynos-powered Samsung devices, and I understand that. But the thing about the Pixel has been just how well I’ve been able to learn what I can expect in terms of battery performance based on the conditions I’m using it in. I know I can throw in a bit of tethering and Bluetooth streaming without completely obliterating the battery, for example, if I’m at 60% halfway through my day and won’t top up till later that evening. My range anxiety with the Pixel is exceptionally low, even if it doesn’t offer the very best battery life of any smartphone.

Would I like the next-generation Pixels to have larger batteries? Yes, please. Relying only on software to ensure a good power consumption experience is missing half the equation (and I’m not saying that’s what Google did). Stuffing even a few-hundred more milliamp hours of capacity in there can be the difference between a dead phone and one that gets you back to the charger at the end of the night. Always fit a bigger battery when you can.

Display, audio, and wireless

The Super AMOLED Quad HD display still looks bright and crisp, even if the new panel on the S8 is clearly a cut above the part Google is using on the Pixel. Even so, I think the screen is one area where the Pixel XL earns its $770 keep, as there really aren’t many phones out there you’re going to find which are considerably better in this regard unless they have “Galaxy” inscribed on the back.

On the audio front, I found the Pixel’s bottom-firing speaker mediocre at the time I reviewed it, and I find it mediocre today. Sadly, it’s not getting much in the way of competition, either – both the G6 and S8 have speakers that are at least as unimpressive, if not worse in certain respects, and I hope Google can at least give us that quasi-BoomSound using the earpiece speaker on the Pixel 2 this year. The headphone jack offers performance in line with most Snapdragon 820-series devices and thus isn’t the best candidate for pushing your high-impedance cans, but I find it perfectly serviceable in the gym even at high outputs. The quality is there, even if this generation of Qualcomm parts didn’t offer as much power as audiophiles probably would have liked.

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One of my biggest gripes about the XL is its Bluetooth performance. I have used three separate Pixel XLs, and all of them have absolutely terrible Bluetooth signal. Even think about touching the phone in the wrong spot, and the music stream to your headphones or car will cut out. It is absolutely obnoxious. It doesn’t matter what kind of headphones, speaker, or car A/V unit – it sucks with anything I’ve tried. Even walking around with the Pixel XL in my pocket connected to a pair of Bluetooth headphones results in cuts every single time I step up a stair or rest my hand against the pocket the phone is in. The 7.1.2 patch has done nothing to alleviate this issue. It’s borderline embarrassing: I have had the Pixel XL corrupt the Bluetooth profiles on my car three times. Each time, the only solution was to factory reset the infotainment unit. I had to factory reset my car. No other phone has ever done this to me, though since the 7.1.2 update this hasn’t happened – yet.

Wi-Fi performance, on the other hand, has been quite excellent for me, and LTE signal is at least as good as most other phones I tested in 2016. Now that I’m on Verizon, I’m even getting some HD voice calls, which is such a huge upgrade in terms of the call experience.

But seriously, Google: get the damn Bluetooth right next time.

Camera

I can’t stop taking pictures with the Pixel. I love this camera. No more words: just photos.

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Performance and software

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Aside from the aforementioned Bluetooth problems, you know what I find so wonderful about the Pixel? I rarely really get annoyed using it. Apps load up at consistently quick speeds, the OS always feels snappy and responsive, and the touch latency is positively iPhone-y. Like your finger is truly controlling the elements on the screen. The home button and back key respond lightning-quick, in a way that almost starts to make them feel like real buttons. I struggle to really convey how right Google got the basic “interacting with the phone” stuff here. What they managed to do with the Pixel will only make the Pixel 2 that much better a phone, and I will be clear: I do not feel this way about the Galaxy S8. The Pixel feels incredibly natural and pleasant to interact with. There are still hiccups, delays, and little areas where things just don’t feel as smooth and seamless as they should on the S8. Google nailed this. No other phone I’ve used has.

Is the Pixel as fast in a straight-line speed sense as a OnePlus 3T? No. But counting fractional differences between the number of seconds it takes to load an app or how long before it’s pushed out of memory are not methods that convey an experience. They tell you a couple of very specific things under a controlled circumstance. In practice, I simply find the Pixel the most consistent and smooth Android smartphone I’ve ever used.

But, it does have some usability issues. For one, my ‘OK Google’ hotword detection breaks basically once a week, necessitating a reboot. I use this when in the car, and so it’s very, very inconvenient when this happens. Rebooting the phone takes a good minute-plus, and then it has to reconnect to my Bluetooth (which is never guaranteed to work). This is probably something to do with the Google app, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Other than that? I struggle to find anything about the software that I really dislike. Most of my frustrations come down to third-party apps, not the Pixel. And those are annoying on any phone I use.

Value

When it debuted in October, the Google Pixel XL cost $770. The one you and I actually want, the 128GB model, cost $870. Six months later, the Pixel XL still costs $870. Is it worth it? Hah. No.

The successor devices to the current Pixel family will be unveiled in the next five or six months. There is absolutely no good reason to shell out what, with tax, amounts to nearly a thousand dollars for this smartphone. You will absolutely regret it the moment Google announces the Pixel 2 – I guarantee you.

Do not buy a Pixel right now. In fact, I’d say just don’t buy a Pixel period anymore, we’re just too close to the next iteration for that to be remotely sane advice.

Conclusion

So, that’s weird, right? I can’t even recommend that you buy what is easily my favorite Android smartphone currently on the market? What kind of long-term endorsement is that?

That’s because for all its problems and limited availability, the last six months I’ve used the Pixel have utterly proven to me that Google is capable of building a smartphone that, from a user experience standpoint, rises above the competition. Google’s unmatched ability to optimize the way Android and the underlying phone parts interact is very much a reason I love this phone so much. A smartphone should get out of its own way when you use it – it should be an effortless canvas upon which your fingers and eyes naturally engage and interact. That means it should be fast. It should be consistent. And it should just feel right to use. I know that some of these things don’t really translate well into concrete assessments, but there’s something about the Pixel that really just works for me so well. It’s as close to my ideal smartphone as I’ve ever been.

More than anything, though, I’m hoping that Google smoothes over some of the rough edges not just with the phone, but with the whole experience of buying and owning it. Why is is to hard to buy a Pixel? It’s positively ridiculous just how bad Google has been at keeping this phone in stock. I also think it’s hard to ignore that in 2017, the Pixel’s design language and overall look and feel are clearly behind the competition. This looks like yesterday’s smartphone, and even the day it was announced it was kind of hard to really fall in love with in an aesthetic sense. At best, it’s just kind of boring.

Post-purchase experiences should improve, too. Google’s online and live chat support are OK at best, and what I’ve heard of the RMA process hasn’t been super reassuring – full price credit card holds, iffy-quality refurbished replacements. Of course, that’s what happens when you’re in the online-only phone sales business. Still, Google should be working to streamline defect, warranty, and accidental damage claims in a way that makes it feel like the nearly-thousand dollars you spent on your phone is going into supporting a thousands-dollar-phone experience. They really also need to stop making crappy cases that are obscenely overpriced.

Google made a great phone when it built the Pixel. Now Google needs to be a great phone company. I’m curious to see if they can pull it off.

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This article and images was originally posted on [Android Police] May 2, 2017 at 11:30AM

By David Ruddock

 

 

 

 

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