Google’s Pixel smartphones represent a new beginning for the company in a lot of ways. While Google has been working with hardware partners to release Nexus phones since 2010, the 5 inch Google Pixel and 5.5 inch Google Pixel XL are the first phones that are Google all the way.

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They ship with the latest version of Android. They’re the first phones with the new Google Assistant software baked in. Customers who use the cameras on these phones get unlimited cloud backup for full-quality photos and videos thanks to Google Photos. And if you open the Settings app on the phone, you’ll find a tab for 24/7 support provided by Google.

Sure, the phones are actually manufactured by HTC. But Google representatives say the hardware design is as much Google’s doing as the software. And aside from a G on the back of the device, there’s no branding at all on the phones.

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Google is also making a big advertising push for the new phones, spending millions of dollars on internet, print, and TV ads. After years of pushing Nexus phones for enthusiasts and developers, it looks like Google finally has a phone it’d like to see compete with the latest iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and other flagship phones.

The Pixel phones also have flagship-level price tags: a 5 inch Google Pixel with a 1080p screen sells for $649 and up, while the 5.5 inch Pixel XL with a 2560 x 1440 pixel screen sells for $769 or more. You can pay in monthly installments if you don’t have that much money lying around right now.

So are the new phones worth the money? Google loaned me a Pixel XL so I could find out.

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The short answer? Yes… there are features that truly make this a great phone capable of competing with the latest flagships.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to spend $649 or more to get a great phone.

The Pixel X and Pixel XL are launching at a time when there are some stellar options in the sub-$400 smartphone space. You just might not get the same bleeding edge hardware or software if you opt for one of those cheaper options.

Overview

The Pixel XL is the larger of Google’s new Pixel phones, but it’s a bit smaller than last year’s flagship, the Nexus 6P, which had a 5.7 inch display. And if you’re looking for something even smaller, the 5 inch Pixel has nearly identical features, except for a lower-resolution screen and a smaller battery.

Google’s Pixel XL measures 6.1″ x 3″ x 0.34″ and weighs about 5.9 ounces. The case is made of anodized aluminum and Corning Gorilla Glass, and the phone feels very comfortable when held in one hand or two… but it’s a bit too large for me to reach my thumb all the way across. So while there are some things I can do while using the phone single-handed, I need to either poke the screen with a second hand or shift my grip in order to swipe down from the top of the screen, among other things.

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From the front, the phone looks… well, an awful lot like an iPhone. But if you look at the sides and back, it looks more like an HTC 10, thanks to the chamfered edge on the front (although the edge on the back of the phone is rounded).

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The power and volume buttons are both on the right side of the phone, and the power button has a textured finish that makes it easy to feel which key your finger is resting on without looking at the phone.

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Along the bottom edge there’s a USB 3.0 Type-C port in the middle and two openings on the sides, although only one actually houses a speaker.

That’s right, this is a $769 smartphone with just a mono speaker. It’s a reasonably loud speaker, but you’ll definitely want headphones or a Bluetooth speaker if you plan to jam out to music that doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a tin can.

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It’s also very easy to accidentally cover the speaker with your hand while holding the phone and playing games or watching videos. This can either result in muffled audio, or effectively mute the phone altogether, depending on how tightly the phone is pressed against your palm.

There’s a 3.5mm headset jack on top of the phone, and the Pixel XL also supports Bluetooth 4.2 for wireless headphones or speakers. Other wireless capabilities are pretty much what you’d expect, including support for 802.11ac WiFi, NFC, GPS, and 4G LTE with support for all major US wireless networks as well as many global networks.

On the left side of the phone is a nano SIM card tray.

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Above the screen there’s a headset speaker with an RGB LED notification light (that’s disabled by default, but which you can turn on in the phone’s settings) hidden underneath, and an 8MP camera. And on the back, there’ s 12.3MP camera with LED flash and the Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor.

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The phone has 3 microphones (two on the front and one on the back) with noise cancellation support. In other words, the phone has more microphones than speakers, but that makes sense when you consider that the mics aren’t just for making phone calls, but also for detecting your voice when you use “OK Google” commands to talk to the Google Assistant software.

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The model Googled loaned me to review features a 5.5 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. It’s white on the front, but has silver on the back and sides.

Google also offers black or blue color options, and an option for 128GB of storage (which adds $100 to the price).

This model has a 3,450 mAh battery.

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Google ships the phone in a box that also contains a USB Type-C 18W charging adapter, a USB Type-C to Type-C cable, a USB Type-C to Type-A cable, and an OTG dongle that you can use to connect USB A cable or other accessories to the phone.

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If you’re switching from another phone that has a USB-C port, you can also use the included C-to-C cable to connect the two phones while running the “Quick Switch” software during the initial setup of the phone. There’s also support for importing iCloud appointments, contacts, messages, music, photos, and videos if you’re moving from an iPhone to a Google Pixel.

During the initial setup, the phone will also ask you if you’d like to train Google Assistant to recognize your voice and set up the fingerprint sensor and lock screen pasmisword, pattern, or PIN and enable or disable various Google services. We’ll get to some of those services in the software section below.

Pixel vs Nexus phones of yesteryear

Google may be positioning the Pixel and Pixel XL as an entirely new line of smartphones, but it’s hard not to compare them to Nexus phones of the past. Want the latest Android software without any embellishments from third-party companies, software and security updates delivered directly by Google, and an unlockable bootloader? You get all of that with a Pixel phone, just as you did with Nexus phones before them.

The Pixel also has a few features that seem like they’re ripped straight from last year’s Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P smartphones, including the Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensor on the back of the phones (the sensor looks and acts pretty much exactly the same on the 2015 Nexus and 2016 Pixel phones) and some camera features.

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Left to right: Nexus 5, Nexus 5X, and Pixel XL

Last year’s phones had some pretty great cameras. This year’s has an even better camera. It’s still super-fast at focusing and snapping pictures and it still does a nice job in low-light environments. But the new phone also has support for hardware-accelerated HDR+ Auto mode, allowing it to capture and process high dynamic range pictures very quickly.

Like the Nexus 6P, the Pixel phones can also record slow-motion videos at 120 or 240 frames per second, and it includes support for Electronic Image Stabilization, which does a pretty impressive job of keeping your videos steady even if you’re shooting them with shaky hands or while walking. There’s also a SmartBurst mode for capturing multiple images at once to created animated GIFs (and highlight the best looking single-shots from those bursts of nearly 10 frames per second).

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Left to right: Pixel XL, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 5

We’ll get into camera performance below, but the point I wanted to make here is that the new phone has a faster processor, an updated design, and some camera improvements over last year’s Nexus phones. But in a lot of ways, the phones are still pretty similar to the last Nexus phones Google released.

Pixel phones have faster processors, ship with Android 7.1 at a time when older Nexus phones have Android 7.0, and have a few exclusive software features. But here’s a little secret: I ordered a Nexus 5X smartphone shortly before Google shipped me a Pixel XL review unit. They arrived on the same day, and I’ve been using them kind of interchangeably. For the most part, the two phones feel a lot alike.

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Left to right: Pixel XL, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 5

I kind of wish Google had shipped me the 5 inch Pixel, since I prefer a phone that can be used with one hand. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to note that the Pixel XL isn’t that much larger than a Nexus 5X.

Both phones are capable of handling any app or game I can throw at them, but the Pixel XL has a substantially faster processor and twice as much RAM, which means it generally feels more responsive and does a better job of keeping apps in memory while multitasking. And even though the Nexus 5X has a great camera, I’m impressed with how much more quickly the Pixel XL can process HDR+ photos and with how well video stabilization works.

I’m not quite regretting my decision to buy a Nexus 5X yet: It was on sale for $250, or less than 1/3rd the price of a Pixel XL. But there’s no denying that if you’re willing to pay more, you get a better phone.

A few of my favorite things

There are a lot of things that I could talk about when it comes to the Pixel XL, including some features that are exclusive to this phone for the moment, and some that may be exclusive forever.

For the purposes of this review, I’ll just focus on a few of my favorite things.

Pixel Camera

First up, the camera is stellar. I mean, that’s true of the camera on my Nexus 5X too (in fact, most of the pictures of the Pixel XL in this review were taken with the Nexus 5X camera). But the Pixel XL camera is better.

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In fact, the camera ratings experts at DxOMark give the Pixel and Pixel XL cameras the highest marks of any camera phones to date. I’m not a pro photographer, but I did try to take a bunch of pictures in a variety of environments to give you an idea of what this phone’s camera is capable of.

For starters, here are a few shots taken in bright sunlight. Keep in mind, even crappy cameras can often take good shots in good lighting, but the level of detail in these photos is particularly good, and the camera snapped and processed each picture very quickly.

Now let’s take a look at some night shots:

That last photo, by the way, was captured using the Pixel Camera’s Lens Blur feature, which allows you to add a bit of depth perspective to the shot by moving the camera slightly. More often than not, it just adds a bit of ugly distortion to a picture, but I really liked the way that particular image turned out.

Here are some indoor shots designed to show off the HDR+ and low-light features. The first was taken with the overhead room lights turned off and the LED flash turned off. The second was taken with the room light off and the flash on. The third was snapped with the room lights on, and the flash off.

While the best picture is clearly the image with the overhead lights turned on, the HDR+ Auto manages to do a pretty good job of softening the harsh studio lighting. The LED flash washes out the microphone a bit, which is one of the reasons I rarely use flash when shooting pictures. But while the lights off/flash off image isn’t necessarily the best picture of the bunch, it’s the one I’m most impressed with, because the mic, mixing board, and everything else in the frame are clearly visible even without much ambient light.

The Pixel camera doesn’t have optical zoom features like the new iPhone 7 Plus, but it does have digital zoom that doesn’t suck. Here are two pictures taken from the same distance from the subject:

And finally, some cat photos (because this is the internet, after all):

Note that the second picture of Puck (the black cat) was one in a series of shots I tried to snap while Puck was sitting with a window in the background. They all had the same halo/haze effect. Clearly, the camera can do a lot to make up for poor photography technique, but there’s no such thing as a foolproof camera. If you don’t frame the shots properly, you’re going to suffer the consequences.

Another nifty feature of the Pixel Camera is its Electronic Image Stabilization, which uses software to keep your videos steady, even if the camera is in motion. Here’s a video showing what a walk through Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square Park looks like with EIS enabled and with it turned off (in the second half of the video).

The Pixel and Pixel XL also have a new camera app which allows you to tap the screen to focus, and then use a slider on the right side of the screen to adjust brightness.

There are also options to adjust the color temperature/white balance and enable or disable HDR+ or Auto HDR+ modes.

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Of course, having a great camera is only useful if you have room to store all the photos and videos you plan to shoot.

Folks have been lamenting for years that Google Nexus phones don’t have microSD card slots for removable storage… and the Pixel and Pixel XL carry on the tradition. But the good news is that both phones are available with up to 128GB of storage. The less good news is that you’ll have to add $100 to the price of either phone to get that much storage. Entry-level models come with 32GB.

The even better news, though? Pixel owners get unlimited cloud backup of their photos and videos.

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Google actually lets anyone using Google Photos to backup all the photos and videos on their phone for free. But in order to quality for free storage, you have to agree to let Google use data compression on your files to save server space.

Pixel owners get unlimited, uncompressed, full-resolution photo and video uploads for free.

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There’s also a Smart Storage option that can automatically delete older photos or videos from your device when you’re running low on storage, after first confirming that they’ve already been backed up to the cloud with Google Photos. By default, only media that’s more than 90 days old will be cleared, but you can adjust this setting, or turn it off entirely.

Pixel Imprint

OK, so this feature is actually almost identical to the Nexus Imprint feature from last year’s phones. But I still find it incredibly useful.

Register your fingerprint with the phone and you can use a finger to quickly unlock the device at any time, without pressing the power button first. I’ve come to think of that sensor on the back of the phone as a power button, since it makes turning on the phone so fast and simple. There’s no swiping, PIN entering, or anything else required.

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Of course, it’s not really a power button: you still have to press the button on the side of the phone to actually turn off the screen. And the first time you go to unlock your phone after a reboot, you’ll still be asked to enter a PIN or pattern, even with Pixel Imprint enabled.

But the fingerprint sensor isn’t just for unlocking your device. It’s also useful for a handful of other activities. Use Android Pay? This is how you authenticate a purchase. Personally, my favorite features is the ability to add fingerprint protection to password manager LastPass.

LastPass allows me to manage hundreds of unique passwords for all the different services I interact with on a regular basis. But entering my LastPass password every time I want to login to a website or app on my phone is a pain in the behind. Using a fingerprint to login to LastPass makes things happen much more quickly, and then LastPass taps into Google’s accessibility service to auto-fill passwords in web pages or mobile apps.

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Sure, it’s not quite as secure as some other options, and if you’re concerned about government invasions of privacy, US law currently allows law enforcement to compel you to use a finger to unlock your phone, but officials cannot require you to provide a password against your will. But some security is better than no security… and the ease of use of LastPass + Nexus Imprint makes it that much less likely that I’d be tempted to reuse a password or just stay logged into LastPass for a set period of time.

Battery Life

I’m not going to say that the Pixel XL gets the best battery life of any modern flagship smartphones… because I don’t review a lot of smartphones and don’t have a lot of basis for making a comparison.

I will say that my 3-year-old Nexus 5 smartphone can barely make it through half a day without recharging, so it’s nice using a phone that can run all day or longer without needing to be plugged in.

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Overnight there is a bit of battery drain: When I put a fully charged Pixel XL on my night stand at before heading to bed, it tends to have around 91 or 92 percent of its power left when I wake up around 8 hours later. But my aging Nexus 5 would be on death’s door if I left it uncharged that long.

As with any phone, battery life will vary depending on what you do with the Pixel XL. Web surfing and video streaming don’t use up as much juice as playing graphics-heavy games, for instance. And the display can be adjusted to be very, very bright, or very, very dim. I’ll let you guess which option will drain your battery quickly and which will let you squeeze some extra run time out of the device (while you squint at the screen).

But if you do need to stop and charge the phone, you might not have to stop for that long. The phone comes with a rapid charger that Google says should give you around 7 hours of battery life from a 15 minute charge. It takes closer to an hour to go from nearly 0 to 100 percent full.

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It’ll take a lot longer than that if you don’t the included rapid charger or a compatible 5V/3A charger.

Moves

Want to launch the camera without first unlocking our phone? Just double-tap the power button.

Want to quickly switch from the rear camera to the selfie camera? Flick your wrist twice while holding the phone.

Don’t want to use either of those features? You can turn them off in a new section of the Android Settings menu, called Moves.

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The Pixel phones also have one brand new Move: the ability to view your notifications by swiping down on the fingerprint sensor instead of swiping from the top of the screen.

This can come in handy if you’re holding the phone in one hand, since it may be easier to reach the fingerprint sensor with your index finger than it is to reach the top of the phone with your thumb.

Notification swiping only works when the phone is unlocked, so you won’t be able to preview notifications without unlocking your phone (unless you allow the phone to display sensitive notification data on the lock screen, which I wouldn’t recommend… and which has nothing to do with Moves).

What about my least favorite things?

Alright, so those are a few of my favorite things about the Pixel XL.

If you’re wondering about my least favorite, it’s a pretty short list: the Pixel XL is a bit larger than I’d like (but fortunately, Google does offer a smaller model with a 5 inch screen) and the high price tag.

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I’m not saying the phone isn’t worth the high asking price. It’s just more expensive than the phones usually buy. But if you’re the sort of person that’s willing to spend $650 or more on an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy Phone, or other high-end phone every 2-3 years, then the Pixel XL is definitely worth considering.




Say hello to Google Assistant, the Pixel Launcher, and Android 7.1

The Pixel and Pixel XL are the first phones to ship with Android 7.1, but the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system will be available for other devices in the coming months.

Google is reserving some special features for the Pixel lineup though, at least for now. But a few features will be available to all phones, as long as they have the hardware to support the features.

Android 7.1 features for everybody!

Some new features include support for Daydream VR mode on phones that have fast processors and low-latency displays, among other things, and support for quicker operating system updates through a new “Seamless Update” process that automatically downloads and installs new versions of Android in the background.

Another new feature is called Night Light. It reduces blue light emanating from your screen at night time.

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The Night Light feature can be a bit jarring at first. It makes everything more… orange.

While colors don’t exactly look natural with the blue light removed, it is a lot less jarring to look at an electronic screen in pitch dark when everything has that orange tint instead of a full range of colors. Some folks swear that this sort of software color filter makes it easier to fall asleep, since you can stare at a smartphone screen without its colors disrupting your circadian rhythms.

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I didn’t test that claim extensively, but I do know that when I woke up in the middle of the night and grabbed the phone to check my email, the white screen seemed blindingly light. When I switched on Night Mode, my eyes adjusted quickly and found the screen a lot easier to look at.

You can enable or disable Night Light from the Display settings or set up a schedule so that it automatically switches on at sunset or another designated time. Or you can add a Night Light tile to your Quick Settings panel.

Pixel exclusive features

Pixel exclusives include the camera app with Electronic Image Stabilization, HDR+ support, and Smartburst, unlimited cloud backup for high-quality images and videos, and Smart Storage for freeing up space by deleting older photos and videos that have already been backed up.

The phones are some of the first to ship with Google’s Duo video chat app and Allo text-based chat app pre-installed… and Hangouts is installed, but disabled by default. You can re-enable it by opening the Hangouts page int he Play Store and tapping the Enable button.

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The Pixel phones will also be the only phones to ship with Google’s new digital assistant software backed in, the only phones to feature the new Pixel Launcher home screen and app launcher, and the only phones to come with 24/7 customer support via phone or chat (all you have to do is open the Settings app and select the Support tab to get started).

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There’s also a new wallpaper gallery with a series of high-quality landscapes, textures, and Live Wallpapers.

The default is a Live Wallpaper called Aurora that changes throughout the day.

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Pixel Launcher

While Google has offered a Google Now launcher for Nexus and other Android phones for a while, the Pixel and Pixel XL ship with a brand new home screen and app launcher called Pixel Launcher.

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It features a new home screen layout featuring a G icon in the top left corner instead of a search bar that stretches across the screen. On the right side there’s a weather widget that shows the current temperature and location.

Tap the G icon and a search box opens up, showing your recent search history below the text box.

Or tap the weather widget and you’ll get taken to Google’s weather forecast page.

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There are three other features that make the Pixel Launcher different from the Google Now launcher: round folders, app shortcuts, and a new way to access the app drawer.

Google has been rolling out round icons for many of its apps, and the new launcher has round folders to match. I’m not convinced that they look better than the icon stacking view used in the Google Now launcher. But you do get previews of four apps in each circle, whereas it was hard to see more than two apps using the old launcher.

App shortcuts are a nifty new feature that lets you long-press on some icons to see quick links to associated features. For instances long-pressing on Maps brings up “Home” and “Work” links. Doing the same thing with the Play Store icon brings up “My Apps.” And YouTube includes “Trending,” “Subscriptions,” and “Search” links.

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You can either press one of those links to jump to that section of the app, or long-press the shortcut and drag it to your home screen to create a new icon that will let you launch that app feature with a single-click in the future.

While many Google-branded apps already have shortcuts, Google has also provided developers with an API that will allow them to add up to 5 shortcut options to their apps, so expect to see more of these as developers adopt the platform in the future.

Want to see a full list of all your apps? Instead of pressing a button in the center of the dock at the bottom of the screen, you now just swipe up from the bottom to get a view with a search bar, quick links to frequently-used apps, and a scrollable index of all the apps installed on your phone, arranged alphabetically.

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This arrangement gives you space to add one more item to the dock.

Google Assistant

At first glance, Google Assistant looks a lot like the “OK Google” voice service that’s been available for years. If you opt in, you can say “OK Google” to ask your phone questions, set reminders, or search the web.

But Google Assistant is next-gen stuff. It’s smarter, more tightly integrated into Google services, and has a few new tricks. It’ll also be available on the upcoming Google Home connected speaker thing and a version of it is already baked into the Allo chat app available for Android and iOS.

You can launch Google Assistant on a Pixel phone either by saying “OK Google” (if the feature is enabled), or by long-pressing the home button.

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Once it’s open, you can talk to your phone by asking it all sorts of questions or telling it to do things.

Unlike some other virtual assistants, it’s able to handle follow-up questions. For example, I was able to get satisfactory answers to the following questions, one asked after the other:

  • What time is it in New Zealand?
  • What’s the temperature there?
  • What about this weekend’s forecast?
  • How about here?

Google assistant told me the time in Wellington, New Zealand, followed by the current temperature, the forecast for the upcoming weekend, and then the forecast for Philadelphia, where I’m currently typing these words.

A few other things I’ve asked Google Assistant to do are “show me nearby Sushi restaurants,” “remind me to feed the cats tonight at 6:00,” “what’s on my calendar,” and “show me my photos of music.”

That last one is pretty cool, because Google Assistant searched through my Google Photos library for pictures I’ve taken at concerts. None of those pictures were tagged. Google just figured it out through machine learning algorithms that help it understand what I was looking for when I asked for “my photos of music.”

It also threw in a few photos that weren’t at concerts, but I understand why it was confused in most situations (one photo was taken of friends at a poorly lit bar, for example, where the red lights looked a lot like those you might see on a stage).

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Here are some of the other things Google Assistant can do:

  • Play Music (such as music in a genre, or by an artist)
  • Set a reminder
  • Set an alarm
  • Get the news
  • Answer questions about sports scores, schedules, and news
  • Find flights, hotels, or other travel information
  • Translate words to another language
  • Make a call
  • Send a text message
  • Open an app
  • Navigate with Google Maps

There are also some quirky features. Ask it to tell you a joke, and Google Assistant will tell you a different joke each time (at least, I haven’t heard the same one twice yet). You’ll probably want to look away from the screen though, since the punchline tends to show up in text before Assistant delivers it by voice.

You can also ask Google Assistant to play a game. Some will open as apps, such as the Geography Quiz. Others are audio games, including a silly (and sometimes surprisingly challenging) Game Show that you can play either by single player or with friends.

Here’s Google Assistant in action.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of voice interface for day-to-day activities. I often find typing to be faster and more efficient… not to mention less disruptive to the folks around me. But I’m also a city dweller who doesn’t spent a lot of time in cars, where a hands-free way to get directions, set reminders, and perform other tasks would probably be a (maybe literal) life saver.

Having spent a little time playing with Google’s earlier voice recognition software and Microsoft’s Cortana software, I will say that Google Assistant does seem like one of the best implementations I’ve tried so far.

But I also have very limited experience with Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, so while I can see how Google’s software would be useful, I can’t necessarily say if it’s the best voice-based virtual assistant around or not.

Performance

The Pixel XL is one of the first smartphones to feature a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor. It has a reasonably large battery, plenty of RAM, and the latest Android software.

So it’s no surprise that it feels very fast, gets good battery life, and manages to run any app or game that I’ve tried, including Riptide GP2, Evoland, Rayman Jungle Run, and Smash Hit, all of which look great and play smoothly.

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The phone is certainly much faster than my Nexus 5X or Nexus 5, but given its much higher price tag, that’s not surprising.

What is a little surprising is that the Antutu benchmark reports that several phones with slightly slower Snapdragon 820 chips (including the Xiaomi Mi 5 and LeEco Max2) score higher in this CPU and GPU test.

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That’s not to say that the Pixel XL is slow… it’s just not necessarily the fastest phone around, according to this one test. There are a bunch of other benchmarks I could run, but I’d rather talk a bit more about what it feels like to use the phone when you’re not spending time comparing it to other top-tier devices.

The Pixel XL boots quickly, loads apps quickly, and generally feels like it responds quickly to most things I ask it to do. You probably don’t need a phone with a bleeding edge processor to run most Android apps: since most phones are slower than this, developers make sure their apps and games can run on less powerful hardware. But it’s nice to have one of the most responsive Android phones around, especially if you want something that won’t feel sluggish in a few years when models with even more powerful specs are available.

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The extra speed and processing power can be especially noticeable when taking advantage of a feature introduced in Android 7.0: split-screen multitasking. You can now run two Android apps in side-by-side Windows by dragging one to the side of the screen from the Recents view and then selecting a second app to view in the other window.

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Not all apps support this split screen, multi-window mode, so you probably won’t be able to play two games at once, for instance. But you can watch a video while surfing the web, chatting, or performing other activities, and the Pixel XL handles that kind of double-duty like a champ.

The back of the phone can get a little warm while charging, and a little hotter when running the Antutu benchmark, but I never really noticed any excessive heat while playing video games or watching videos… but keep in mind, I’ve only been testing the phone for a little under a week. Early reviews of the Galaxy Note 7 gave no indication that Samsung’s phone was going to catch fire.

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I almost finished writing this review before I remembered there’s one other performance area I should comment on: yes, the Pixel XL works nicely as a phone.

The thing I did least frequently with this phone was make calls, but when I did, the audio quality was crisp and clear while routed over Verizon’s network (Google provided me with a SIM card to use during this review).

I also had no problems sending or receiving SMS and MMS messages.

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Verizon, by the way, is the exclusive carrier partner for the Pixel phones in the United States. But that just means it’s the only carrier that will sell you the phone. If you buy the phone from the Google Store it will still support all major networks, including Verizon. And you can get financing through Google if you don’t want to pay for the phone all at once.

In fact, there’s pretty much no advantage to ordering from Verizon, and there is a potential down side: there are indications that models purchased from the carrier will not have unlockable bootloaders.

My only real performance-related complaint? It seems silly to launch a $769 smartphone that has just a mono, bottom-facing speaker that’s easy to block silence with your hand when holding the phone with a 2-handed grip in landscape mode and playing games or videos?

It’s largely a non-issue for me, since I’ve been using a Nexus 5 for three years. That (much cheaper) phone had an awful speaker, so I bought Bluetooth earbuds and a Bluetooth speaker for listening to music, podcasts, and internet radio at home and on the go.

Both of those accessories work just fine with the Pixel XL. But seriously, how hard would it have been to put a second speaker in there, or configured the headset speaker so it could be used to provide stereo sound?




Verdict

The Pixel XL is something we haven’t really seen from Google before: it’s a flagship phone with a flagship price that’s positioned to go up against the iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7, HTC 10, LG V5, and other premium smartphones.

In some ways it’s an extension of the Nexus program: the phone’s software is pure Google, with software and security updates provided straight from the maker of the operating system. It’s hackable, thanks to an unlockable bootloader. And it’s probably the best device for trying out new Google/Android features as soon as they’re available, without waiting for your phone maker to integrate them into TouchWiz, Sense, LG UX, EMUI, or some other skin.

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But the Pixel and Pixel XL also come with exclusive features that aren’t yet available for any other phone, including Google’s branded fingerprint sensor, special camera features, Google Assistant, and the Pixel Launcher.

Is this a phone that’s worth $769 (or $649 if you opt for the smaller model)? If you compare it to the other flagships from major phone makers, yes, I think it’s reasonably priced and offers a lot of bang for your buck — especially on the software front.

But we’re not living in a world where $650+ smartphones are the only options. The Pixel and Pixel XL also have to compete with sub-$400 phones like the OnePlus 3, ZTE Axon 7, and Honor 8, all of which have received strong reviews for balancing top-tier specs and mid-range prices.

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What you don’t get from any of those phones is a “Google Phone.” Personally, I’m a fan of stock Android software and I’m reluctant to consider any phone that has a custom skin… not only because they look different, but also because it probably means delays in getting new features and security updates.

I’ve been hanging onto a Nexus 5 since 2013. Google still delivers security updates to that phone, but it’s not going to get an official update to Android 7.0. I could install a custom ROM on it, but the aging phone’s battery life is so bad that I’ve resorted to carrying around a 6,000 mAh battery pack to recharge it whenever I know I’ll be away from a wall jack for more than a few hours. And the camera on that phone was never anything to write home about.

So I had been looking forward to this year’s Pixel phones, and I was really excited when I learned there’d be a 5 inch model.

Then we learned about the prices. Yes, I totally think the Pixel and Pixel XL can hold their own against similarly high-priced phones. But that’s more money than I was looking to spend.

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So I bought a $250 Google Nexus 5X from eBay. I got an unlocked international model, but Google’s Project Fi is also selling the US version of the phone for the same price if you sign up for the company’s wireless plans).

The Nexus 5X isn’t as fast as the Pixel XL. The camera isn’t quite as impressive and it lacks official support for image stabilization. And odds are that Google will stop supporting it a year before it gives up support on the first-gen Pixel phones.

The same goes for the Nexus 6P smartphone, which is often available for around $400 or less the days. It’s faster than the Nexus 5X, has a better display, and a few bonus features. And it’ll likely be supported for at least as long as its smaller sibling. I just didn’t want a 6 inch phone.

Anyway, my point is that for about 1/3rd the price of a Pixel XL, I got a phone that feels remarkably similar in terms of software and features (like the camera and fingerprint sensor), if not necessarily in terms of design, build quality, and performance. And while the Pixel and Pixel XL have a few exclusive features for now, hackers have already started porting some of them to run on older phones like the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X.

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The Pixel XL is a great phone. But you can get some pretty good phones for a lot less money, which is what I did.

Maybe by the time I’m ready for another new phone, the Pixel will be available for half price. I’d buy it then in a heartbeat.

Your calculation may be different.

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