Review: Google Pixel

For a long time, Google’s Nexus program has been the warrior of “pure Google”. Enthusiasts and power users alike have gravitated towards Google’s often low key, but powerful devices designed and built in cooperation with hardware manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, Huawei and more. For 2016 however, Google has done something many didn’t see coming, and something that many aren’t fond of – they killed the Nexus program. More accurately, Google has replaced the low margin, low volume “pure” experience with something that is higher revenue (for them), has the possibility to be much higher volume relatively speaking, and still maintains the pure experience Google desperately needs and the one Google fans appreciate. Though, as many people continue to quote, it’s not necessarily Google’s “first”. That said, whatever attempt it is, is the Pixel more than just a typical Google rebrand of a seemingly failed product?

Hardware

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Google’s manufacturing partners have long danced to the beating drum of specs. The paper lists of internal specs is what makes or breaks an Android device in the globally saturated and overcrowded market. In contrast, Apple has long ignored such endeavors and instead focused on real-world examples of using the devices and features of said devices in their marketing. With the Pixel, Google is now perhaps more than ever trying to emulate this (Apple’s) approach. The specs may or design may not be overly “top” end nor flashy. But at the end of the day what really matters is how the device works for the end user and enhances their life. It is in this regard where the Pixel is perhaps the best Android device to ever hit the market, and one that 3rd party manufacturers seemingly won’t be able to touch.

All that said, there will always be those who make decisions based on a truncated set of bullet points if you will (which isn’t bad). For them… Inside you’ll find what you’d expect on any high end flagship – the latest Snapdragon processor (821) coupled to the latest Adreno GPU (530, now standard RAM (4 GB), and a gorgeous display (either a 5-inch 1080p or 5.5-inch 1440p AMOLED). The camera is a bit of a conundrum though. While it’s on par with other class leading cameras at ~12 megapixels, it is a higher f/2.0 aperture (iPhone 7 for example is 1.8) and lacks any form of optical image stabilization.

In my time with the Pixel, I’ll admit that I’ve come around. At first I thought it was quite ugly with the double material on the back – glass on top and aluminum on the bottom. To be fair, I still do. But overall, the hardware is a winner in my book. It feels nice. It works well. And, it’s fast. The lack of anything bad to say, really, is something to make note of. That said, there is one shortfall of the Pixel hardware – the lack of water resistance. For me, it’s a huge omission and one that is big enough, if it were my money, I’d wait for gen 2. It’s that important to me. For most people though, if water resistance isn’t a make or break feature, the Pixel is a great device.

Why exactly would Google forgo water resistance, though? There have been several theories going around about why Google chose to omit such a seemingly critical feature in late 2016 when just about every flagship device now has it. What seems to make the most sense though is that Google simply ran out of time and did in fact re-use some aspects of HTC’s design, since it is HTC that manufacturers the pixel after all. In fact, the Pixel has well documented software rife with HTC specific code all the way down to the kernel and signing. Google’s “first” it isn’t really, and entirely Google it also is not. But I digress – this is not a tit-for-tat thing.

Software

Android 7.0 Nougat powers the Google Pixel and Pixel XL. It’s feature set has been well documented at that point. Typically with a 3rd party device we’d then drill down into the software differences that make that particular device stand out. With stock Android however, the real meat of the story is that it seemingly “just works”. Yes. There are still weird scrolling things here and there (not as much or as bad as before, but they’re still there). Yes. Certain apps on Android just aren’t as nice and refined as their iOS counterparts. But the Pixel and Android 7.0 is the most complete product Google has released to date. And for that, it brings to the table a sense of fluidity, stability, and cohesiveness that even the most critic Android users have to start to acknowledge.

Quite simply, it’s Android. It works. Things it still does better than Apple: Notifications and freedom. Cons: messaging is a cluster of epic proportions – more than ever, really. By default, Google has three messengers: Messenger, Allo, and Hangouts. None of them are great. Messenger is a simple SMS app. (If you’re a Sprint user it now supports their proprietary RCS messaging standard as well, which makes SMS appear more like modern data-based chat apps such as Allo, WhatsApp and others.) Allo is an entrant into a crowded market years late with crippling limitations such as single-device requirements, lack of web or desktop access, and questionable security choices. And finally there is Hangouts… for starters it’s dead. Google maintains that they’re keeping it around and it suits a separate purpose such as business meetings. I laugh at such statements. It’s a dead product that the vast, vast majority of businesses will not use because outside of the one unique feature (multi-person video chat) is marred by universal garbage apps on all platforms.

If messaging is an integral part of your workflow, it may or may not be a deal breaker, here. You may be perfectly fine dealing with and living Google’s scatter brained approach in key aspects of Android like messaging. Others may not. All that said though, Android 7.0 isn’t terrible. As I said earlier it’s actually pretty damn great. But it’s not perfect.

Camera

On paper the camera is pretty mediocre, maybe slightly above average. But in the real world it’s actually very, very good. DxO Mark, a site that rates all kinds of camera and photography equipment and devices gave the Pixel the highest score yet for a mobile device: 89. Now, there has been some doubt regarding the accuracy of their results seeing as how they are never adjusted as time goes on in regards to old devices and the relative bar they set. Nonetheless, the real world results I’ve been seeing from the Pixel’s lens is not to be ignored.

The best and most underrated feature of the Pixel is Google’s HDR+. It’s a software feature that debuted a few years ago and is basically your normal HDR type trick that takes multiple images at different exposures and blends them together after the fact without the user having to do anything. Google’s implementation is simply the best on the market. It is crazy how quick the multiple exposures feel to the end user. Part of their secret is that even before you press the shutter, the Google’s HDR+ is already taking images at varying exposures so that when you finally do press the shutter, it actually stops and then does the processing work, which is equally quick, taking less than a second.

In normal lighting conditions, the Pixel will take pictures as good as any iPhone, all day, any day. Some key differences between Google’s software algorithm and Apple’s include contrast, , saturation, color temperature, and detail. In contrast, Apple typically skews towards a more middle of the road contrast and “real” saturation where as Google has taken a more Samsung-like approach with higher contrast and slightly boosted to sometimes too overly boosted colors/saturation. Color temperature on the iPhone generally skews warm compared to the Pixel’s cooler tendencies. Finally, Google’s Pixel seems to catch more details with higher sharpness in pictures compared to Apple’s software approach. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other, instead coming down to a personal preference when all is said and done.

In low to no light, I have been pleasantly surprised by how well the Pixel keeps up with the iPhone despite only an f/2.0 aperture compared to the latest iPhone 7’s f/1.8. Normally such a thing would result in noticeably quality degradation in picture to picture comparisons, with the f/2.0 lens exhibiting a higher amount of noise, poorer white balance, skewed colors and more. But time and time again the Pixel manages to generally keep noise low. There are times, sure, when the Pixel gets too noisy or the image is simply too dark. As I said above, the Pixel isn’t perfect. It has it’s limitations.

Overall, if you had some reservations about the Pixel’s camera given the previous Nexus line’s generally terrible camera chops, throw all those concerns away. The Pixel stands on its own.

Battery Life & Performance

Similar to terrible camera chops, Nexus devices have also universally sucked when it comes to battery life. The Pixel mostly bucks this trend as well. While it’s no marathon runner, to be sure, it is safe to say that it is “good”. I routinely would go from ~6am until 8pm at night without having to plug in. Some days I was at 5% while others I would be at 20-30%. That’s acceptable. Re-charge times were also quick, clocking in at less than 2 hours. Fast charging is supported so that full 0-100 charge time is a tad misleading. The bulk of the charging happens in the first 2/3 of the charging cycle and tapers off the closer you get to 100%. I will say, battery life is generally noticeably better then Nexus devices of years past.

Performance wise there’s not much to say — it’s fast. But that’s a good thing, though typical of previous Nexus devices. They generally were fast because there wasn’t all the software bloat from a manufacturer to weigh it down.

Final Thoughts

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The Pixel is the best feeling and performing Google(ish) made phone to date. It’s also better than (subjectively) just about every other Android phone on the market on multiple fronts. The only big con to be said is that it lacks a water resistance rating. The other sticking point could be price. Starting at $649 for the cheapest 32 GB model and climbing to $869 if you choose the larger 128 GB XL, the Pixel certainly abandons the Nexus program’s affordability roots. Nonetheless, you ultimately get what you pay for (generally). And in this case, you’re getting a great piece of hardware and software that is about as cohesive as Google can currently get.

More worrisome though, is that getting a hold of a Pixel is inherently difficult. For starters, one can only pick up a Pixel directly from Google or from Verizon – the only partnering U.S. carrier. If you get it from Google you can buy it outright or apply for Google Store financing to make it more approachable price wise. For window shoppers, Verizon will of course sell you a device. The problems are numerous. If you’re trying to build market share for a new endeavor, this is a terrible approach. You need every carrier to partner. Not to mention, the partner Google choose has a bad track record with “Google” devices, more-so revolving around software updates. If you’re not familiar with the Galaxy Nexus, spend 10 minutes on a Google powered trek down memory lane to familiarize yourself. It was a shit show. Claims have been made for the Pixel that such things would not happen again. I will confidently say I will believe the claims when I see them actively playing out in real life. Until then, buyer beware.

If you can swing the price, don’t care about water resistance, and are agreeable to the ways in which to purchase a Pixel, I can confidently say you shouldn’t be disappointed. It is hands down the Android device to have, maybe even the only one worth owning at this very moment even a couple months after release. But as happens often in the Android world, the next flagship is just around the corner (hello Galaxy S8), bringing with it another opportunity to re-write the rulebook for Android.

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