Google has taken itself down a very promising road with its new Pixel phone line, offering a level of polish and power that makes it very competitive with the market’s top phones.
I admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the Pixel’s first appearance, which came at a Google launch event earlier this month. Google’s Nexus line of phones had always appealed well to the niche Android superfan audience, and on paper it did not seem that the $750 Pixel would really offer that much more.
Yet my mind changed after the company sent me a Pixel XL to review. Both this 5.5-inch phone and its smaller sibling run pure Android and feature Google's voice-controlled Assistant. The Pixel XL proved to be an elegant, capable and — best of all — useful phone.
For one, it’s a nice-feeling phone. The Pixel has the right heft to it while still keeping a slim profile. It sits well in the hand; its fingerprint reader is on the back of the phone, in keeping with a design decision made for the last Nexus phones. It’s in a more natural position, and the reader is so snappy that you’re rarely left to linger on the reader for long.
Although HTC built the phone, Google designed it. It does not have an ultra-slim, ultra-sleek design, but it feels like more of a high-end phone thanks to its high-quality materials and how they sit in the hand.
I have not had the phone quite long enough to make a good determination about its battery, apart from saying that it easily lasts me through a day of normal use and does not drain too quickly, even during testing. The phone also charges quickly, which is a serious point in its favor, especially for people who are traveling.
But the real point of the Pixel seems to be to show off the full extent of its system and its fancy new software. The phone will get the latest updates of Google’s software first, and it comes equipped with the company’s latest system, Android Nougat.
Google's Assistant shows a lot of promise, providing much of the same information and features as Apple's Siri in a smoother and more conversational style. It is not perfect, but it is impressive — especially for a first try at creating an artificial-intelligence assistant. There are many things I would like to ask Assistant that it cannot do yet, particularly regarding interacting with third-party services. But if Google’s aim was to replace its search bar with the voice-controlled Assistant, it’s well on its way to doing that given how well Assistant follows basic conversation.
If I had to pick some downsides, I would say that the camera is not always quite as crisp as its competitors, particularly when taking portraits — though, as I said, the camera is quite good overall.
Also, it would be nice if the phone were waterproof. Waterproofing is a phone feature that people probably do not realize they want until it’s too late. And if you’re putting down the cash for the Pixel, it is probably an investment you want to protect.
Sure, the Pixel may not be a flashy buy, and it lacks some of the high-end gloss of a top Android phone such as the Samsung S7 Edge. But it hits the basics well, and its performance and overall design show that Google may finally be serious about becoming a viable Android phone manufacturer on its own. If it is, the Pixel is an excellent first step.