The times are changing. Google, the founder of Android, has stepped into the hardware game with the Pixel smartphone. With the branding 'Made by Google', this Pixel range of smartphones is coming directly from Google (although the manufacturing is outsourced to HTC) with no scope for error. Here's the new Android flagship that you can consider.
Design: Google launched two variants - Pixel and Pixel XL - and we are reviewing the latter. The Pixel XL competes in the 5.5-inch display size phablet segment and comes with a 2k display that looks stunning. However, it doesn't feel too big. It is convenient to grip, with just the right placement of buttons. While some might think the power button is slightly difficult to reach, the fingerprint scanner at the rear addresses the issue of waking up the phone. Interestingly, the Pixel XL doesn't feel a part of the cluttered smartphone space. Google has used two different materials on the rear - on the top is glass with the bottom part made of metal. So we received mixed reactions - some people liked it and some hated this design. It's really a personal choice. Unlike the new trend of ditching the 3.5-mm jack, Google has gone ahead with one by placing it on the top. It supports Type C charging, with the port placed at the bottom between the speaker grills. The Pixel XL also has a non-removable rear panel and the single SIM tray is on the left edge with the volume controls and power key on the right. Most importantly, the Pixel is splash resistant (not water resistant) that can prevent it from accidental water splash. Google has launched the Pixel in three colours - white, black and blue. Unfortunately, the blue variant has not been launched in India. My review unit was in black, which looked pretty good.
User interface and software: I am always game for stock Android UI over the custom ROMs and that is one of the reasons I always liked the Nexus hardware and even the Motorola smartphones. Google's Pixel XL continues to have the stock Android UI yet it looks different as it runs on Android 7.1 (Nougat). The user interface has been refined and looks more utility driven and refreshing.
Let's start from the lock screen - notifications appear on the locked screen and one can respond from the same. There is a microphone icon on the left bottom of the lock screen for Google's voice assistant and camera shortcut on the left. The home screen looks neat. There is a 'G' icon on the top left for Google feed that can show the time it will take to reach home, fetch scores of your favourite team, show weather, news and more. This can also be customised as I was able to see or remove cards from apps and websites. While customising, it asks for various questions such as do you like cricket, how do you usually get around, change settings to receive 'Now cards' from apps and websites and more. The three navigation keys - back, home and multitasking are on the display. And long pressing the home key also launches Google's Voice Assistant. Widgets can be added by long pressing on an empty space on the home screen. Long-pressing an app icon on the homescreen shows quick actions; for instance the camera app shows two options - take a video or take a selfie. Five apps can be added to the bottom that stays static across multiple home screens. Even the app tray has been refreshed. An upward arrow appears above these apps, which opens the app tray by swiping the finger upward. On the top of the app tray is the search app icon followed by a row of most actively used apps and is followed by the rest of apps installed on the device are placed alphabetically. Settings have undergone a major overhaul as it is now divided into two - all and support. There is a top banner that appears in case the hotstpot or do not disturb mode has been turned on and offers to turn it off option too. Data usage, battery, storage, memory, etc.. show the status in the homepage of the settings itself.
Personal assistant: Google Now has been great personal assistant software and Google is betting big time on the Pixel XL as it is the first phone to come with built-in Google Assistant. And it works really well. It understands the Indian accent and is quick in answering queries. This includes - checking the weather, calculating the distance between two places or booking an Uber ride and more. The only place where Google Assistant had difficulty was in identifying certain names from the phonebook. Google has been informing me about my upcoming flights but on Pixel it even reminded me of the due dates of the mobile bills.
Camera: Google Pixel XL has a 12.3-MP camera with f2.0 aperture with wide angle lens. There are various modes for capturing images and videos including slow motion, panorama, photosphere and les blur other than the HDR mode. The lens blur is aimed at focusing on the subject while blurring the background, similar to the depth mode on the iPhone 7 Plus. And there is a particular style in which this mode can be used - focus on the subject and then slightly move the camera upwards. It worked well but wasn't as smooth and great as on the iPhone 7Plus, which utilizes dual camera. However, the camera is blazing fast. It locks the focus quickly and the results are impressive. The shots taken outdoors are rich and bight. But a close examination revealed that the Pixel was over processing the colours, making the images look unnatural at times. It managed to impress me with the low-light photography too - one parameter where most of the smartphones struggle.
Battery & Performance: Google's Pixel XL is a flagship contender and doesn't compromise on the specifications or performance. Be it launching apps, multitasking, browsing the web or playing heavy graphic games - there isn't anything I can complain about. Only when the camera is used for a long duration, the camera module starts heating a bit. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset paired with 4 GB of RAM. Our review unit had 32 GB of internal storage (with no expandable storage and unlimited cloud backup) of which 5.39 GB was consumed by the system itself. The battery backup of the Pixel XL was impressive as it lasted over a day with heavy usage. It has the Type C charging port and supports quick charging, too, which lives up to the claims of adding seven hours of juice in just 15 minutes. Google has been clever enough to add two separate cables in the box - one plugs into the adapter and the second one with USB is for connecting it to the PC.
Service: Coming directly from Google, the Pixel XL comes with a dedicated phone support across 56 walk-in service centres, in 30+ cities in India. Google has partnered with HTC India for after-sales support.
Bag it or Junk it: The best Android flagship money can buy. More than being a threat to the iPhone 7 Plus, Pixel XL emerges as a strong contender in the flagship Android smartphone space and as a formidable threat to Samsung's dominance.
Price: Rs 67,000 onwards
Plus: Design, Performance
Minus: Camera over-processing colours