Fifteen minutes with Google’s new Pixel phone can’t tell me much. It’s can’t tell me anything about real-world battery life. It can’t tell me about still-photo image quality. Indeed, 15 minutes is only enough time to develop the inchoate wisps of first impressions. But I still left the Tuesday Pixel phone demo feeling like I found the replacement for my Nexus 6P daily driver.
It comes down to this, people: If you want pure Google in a smartphone—the all-powerful Googley experience as Google intends it—then you need a pure Android phone. For most of 2016, that’s meant a Nexus 5X or Nexus 6P. But come October 20, the story shifts to two Pixel phones, one with a 5-inch display, and the other clocking in at 5.5 inches.
Are these two phones earth-shattering upgrades? Maybe not. But with better build quality, a better camera experience, and Google Assistant baked directly into their home buttons, the Pixels might be too alluring for Android enthusiasts to pass up. Shoot, maybe even mainstream buyers will give the Pixels serious consideration—especially when they see what Google’s new machine-learning assistant can do.
I spent almost all my demo time with the 5.5-inch Pixel XL. Like its smaller sibling, it comes with a Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 12.3-megapixel rear-facing camera. The only main differences are battery size (3,460mAh for the XL; 2,770mAh for the Pixel) and AMOLED display resolution (2560×1440 for the XL; 1920×1080 for the Pixel). The Pixel XL has a slightly smaller display than the 5.7-inch Nexus 6P, but the newer phone feels noticeably lighter—and perhaps a wee insubstantial—in the hand.
Google killed the oblong “bump” that surrounds the camera on the Nexus 6P, and now in the Pixels you get a broad, rectangular expanse of glass on the upper-third of the rear chassis. I never minded the 6P’s bump, so I can’t say the new design is a vast improvement. But if you like your phones as streamlined as possible, you’ll probably prefer the Pixel’s design.
The aluminum case has a rich, satiny finish reminiscent of past Pixel-branded products, and the specimen I played with—cast in a limited edition “really blue” color scheme—looked spectacular. It’s too bad I cocoon all my phones in cases, because it really is a nice paint job. If you’re extremely persnickety, you may notice a tactile shift when your fingers glide from metal to glass on the back of chassis. But let’s call it a design feature instead of a flaw. In all, the Pixel XL feels sturdy and premium—more so than LG’s upcoming V20, and on par with Samsung’s GS7 and Note7.
Google Assistant sans Allo
All the phones at Google’s Pixel launch event were running Android 7.1. It’s not a major upgrade past 7.0, but I immediately noticed that all the home screen icons were rendered as circles, not the hodgepodge of squares and other shapes per current Android convention.
But that’s just a cosmetic decision. Much more significant is the loss of the app drawer button. In Android 7.1, if you want to see your app drawer, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. It’s easy, and it works, and I like where Google is going with design decisions like this.
Beyond that, the Pixel’s headline feature—no, make that the headline feature of Google’s entire new world order—is Google Assistant, which you summon with a long-press of the home button. It’s the same AI-driven, machine-learning whiz kid that’s baked into Google’s Allo messaging app, but having it front and center on the home screen is utterly more convenient. Indeed, I’ll probably never use Allo, but I can see myself using Google Assistant all the time as my main search app. And my main texting app. And my main navigation app. And maybe my new main everything app.
You can use Google Assistant to start text conversations (“OK Google, text Debbie”). You can use it to find specific images in your Photos library (“OK Google, show me pictures from last April”). You can use it to start playing songs (“OK Google, play Talking Heads”). You can use it to find directions, theater times, store hours, what’s on your calendar, and more. And all the information is delivered in graphically rich snippets. It’s also contextually aware. So if you first ask for Steph Curry’s jersey number, you can follow that up with, “OK Google how tall is he,” without ever needing to repeat his name.
To be sure, Google Assistant feels a lot like a better, smarter, more graphically snazzy version of Google Now. But the interface feels easier to use, and somehow more… inviting. If my Tuesday hands-on showed me anything, it’s that I need to spend more time with Google Assistant to learn what it can (and cannot) do.
A faster camera experience
Jumping into the Pixel’s camera app, I was bummed to see that Google hasn’t added any manual control settings—you can’t manually adjust focus, shutter speed, ISO or any of the other settings that are exposed in phones from Samsung and LG. In fact, at first glance, the camera app looks identical to the stock Android app available in the last Nexus phones.
But Google did make serious strides in its camera app performance. The app itself loads extremely quickly—quicker than the Nexus 6P. It also appears to focus more quickly, as well as fire off shots more quickly, both in regular mode and burst mode. I find it mystifying that Google won’t provide manual camera controls, but at least it’s improved basic usability for the 99 percent of all smartphone owners who just want to snap a great image as quickly as possible.
I couldn’t test actual image quality, but Google is promising the two Pixels have the best smartphone camera in the world, trotting out a chart-topping score of 89 from DxOMark Mobile. The rear camera may “only” be 12.3 megapixels, and its aperture may “only” be F2.0, but Google says its particularly large 1.55-micron sensor pixels, combined with advanced software algorithms, deliver competition-beating low-light performance and superb image quality in general.
So add another feature that needs to be fully vetted when we get our review units.
Both Pixel models are available for pre-order now, and should begin shipping by Oct. 20 per Verizon. You can also get unlocked versions from the Google Store. I still have plenty of unanswered questions, and hopefully those will be resolved once we begin testing review units. But as a happy Nexus 6P owner, I like what I see so far.