Google Pixel XL Review: Three Months Later

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Both Pixel phones in the black finish. Photo by Google

The Pixel XL is Google’s new flagship smartphone and their shot at winning over longtime iPhone users. I’ve been lugging my Pixel XL around since December after I switched from an iPhone. So how does the phone hold up after three months? Quick answer, amazingly.

Google already has created a substantial fan base with their series of Nexus phones over the years, but they decided that it wasn’t enough to simply help design a phone and let another company build it for them. With the new Pixel, Google has full control in designing and building the phone for the first time ever. This level of control is why this is without a doubt Google’s best phone to date, and even one of the best smartphones available on the U.S. market today.

Design

Google made some interesting choices for the Pixel’s exterior, the most noticeable being its odd two-toned glass and metal backside.

The lower two thirds of the phone is polished aluminum — similar to what you would find on the back of an iPhone — which adds to the phone’s premium build quality. But then the glass that covers the upper third of the phone interrupts the slickness of the metal body. Considering this is where the phone’s fingerprint scanner resides, you’re going to almost always have your hand touching it, unless you get a case.

The feeling definitely takes time to get used to it, but it’s worth it in the long run. Google uses the glass to help the inner antenna get a stronger signal than it would if it had to go through a fully metal body. They also used Gorilla Glass for this part of the body, so it’s not going to shatter as easily as you might think. Just don’t go throwing it off a building, please.

Another somewhat strange, but not totally unexpected (for Nexus users), decision by Google was to keep these large bezels on the front of the phone above and even more so below the screen. Above the screen is understandable since the top of the phone houses the cameras, a speaker, the antenna, and most importantly the headphone jack (eat that, Apple).

The bottom of the phone, however, is where the bezel starts to make less sense. The problem is that there isn’t much housed in the Pixel’s lower area; there’s no home button, a very small charging port thanks to the new USB-C port, and there’s only one speaker. It’s worth noting that the bezels aren’t much larger than any given iPhone model’s. They also aren’t as noticeable with the black version of the Pixel, but it might deter some people from buying the white or blue variants.

Another problem for some users will be the phone’s waterproofing—or, better yet, the lack of it. Modern smartphones are finally waterproof, or at least water-resistant, but the Pixel might be one of the worst phones around in this area with a certified IP53 rating. Ratings are given by International Protection (“IP”) and the numbers show how resistant the phone is to dust and water.

The Pixel got a dust protection rating of a 5 out of 6, so you’re probably going to be fine when you get stuck in that sandstorm trying to find your way home. However, the Pixel received a 3 for its water resistance, which is pathetic by modern standards. You’ll be okay out in some light showers, but keep this phone tucked away during any real rainfall.

Performance

Sadly, the Pixel doesn’t have stereo speakers like pretty much every other premium phone on the market. Even worse, the one speaker isn’t a very good one. In my experience the phone was always either too quiet to hear or so loud the sound was distorted. Luckily, Google kept the headphone jack, so you can feel safe knowing your headphones will keep you safe from this sad little speaker.

The Pixel’s saving grace is that what this phone lacks in sound, it makes up for in nearly every other way.

This phone has an absolutely beautiful screen. Google used an AMOLED screen, which means the screen is bright and the colors (including blacks) are vibrant. This feature does come at a cost for any power-users who like to keep their brightness at 100 percent all day. On average, my screen’s brightness eats up anywhere between 17 and 22 percent of my Pixel’s battery every day. But with the battery Google packed into this thing, that’s actually less of a problem than you think.

Google crammed a 3,450 milliamp hour battery into this phone, thanks to its larger body. This battery is a behemoth compared to most smartphones. In my experience as someone who is (unhealthily) glued to my phone all day, my Pixel lasts me roughly 17 hours between charges.

The phone can last longer than that depending on your use, I got 17 hours after heavy use of GPS, playing Pokemon Go, streaming music throughout the day, and constantly checking my various social media. Compared to my iPhone where I was running for a charger before 3 p.m. rolled around, this is a godsend.

Speaking of charging, the Pixel uses a USB-C port as a charging port. Similar to Apple’s Lightening Port, you never have to worry about how to plug in the port like a traditional micro-USB phone charger. Also, thanks to the power of USB-C ports, you can fully charge your Pixel in under two hours. If that doesn’t impress you, let’s put it in perspective. According to Google, if you charge the Pixel for 15 minutes, you’ll get around 7 hours worth of use out of it…and that’s completely true.

Lastly, let’s talk about the camera on this phone. Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen a better camera on a smartphone in my life. The Pixel scored a whopping 89 on DxOmark’s image test, which is higher than any other smartphone on the market. Featuring a 12-megapixel camera, you can take some beautiful images that give phones like the iPhone 7 Plus more than a run for its money, while avoiding its annoying camera hump. In the iPhone’s defense, though, the zoom is much better on the iPhone 7 Plus. Here are just a few images to give you an idea of what you can do with the Pixel’s stock camera app (keep in mind that these images have been heavily compressed for the web):

The Pixel is also great for videos, although this doesn’t stand out as much as its photography skills. The main camera shoots in 4K resolutions and the front camera shoots at 1080p. Both do well, just not as well as some other phones like the iPhone. The camera uses digital image stabilization, which compared to actual stabilization, looks a little odd. But for everyday use, it’s more than enough.

Software

Since Google had full creative control over the Pixel, they didn’t have to add in any extra applications or “bloat-ware” that so many people know cheaper Android phones for. The Pixel runs the cleanest version of Android OS that you can find on a phone right now, and it’s amazing. What apps that do come preinstalled on the phone can be deleted, if you want. But take note Apple fans, I mean you can actually delete the app off of your phone, not just hide it away and pretend that it isn’t eating up your precious storage space.

Speaking of storage, the Pixel comes in a 32 and a 128-gigabyte option. Whichever you choose, Google gives you even more storage by offering all Pixel users free unlimited picture and video storage via Google Photos. This means you can store all the images and videos that you want without worrying about running out of space or having to compress your precious files.

The Pixel also boasts what I think is the best personal assistant in any phone (sorry, Siri). Don’t let its bland name deceive you; Google Assistant is a fantastic step for smartphones. Unlike Siri, Google Assistant can hold a conversation with users while they’re searching for something. If I ask Google what the weather is like in Shepherdstown, it’ll give me an answer just like Siri would. But then, if I follow up with a simple “what about tomorrow” question, Google knows that I’m still asking about a weather forecast, unlike Siri.

Google also highlights the Pixel’s virtual reality capabilities with their Daydream VR app. But because I’m a broke college student, I don’t have a VR headset to test for this review.

Verdict

Still with me? Great. So will the Pixel be the iPhone’s downfall, like Google hopes? Probably not, but it will definitely win some iPhone users over like it did me. I’d give the Pixel XL a 4.5 out of 5.

The Pixel is free from the software issues that plagued many Android devices in the past and offers users an experience that’s just as clean as Apple’s iOS software, but still retains the freedom that Android OS brings to the table.

The Pixel is my favorite phone on the market right now, it has my favorite smartphone camera ever, and one of my favorite screens on any phone right now. Do you own a Pixel? Let us know what you think of it in the comment section below.

One last piece of advice for any Pixel users, skip out on Google’s variety of Pixel cases. The cases are nice looking, but the silicon gets sticky, offers very little protection, and my case started to tear up after a day.