Google Pixel XL review: The gloves are off if Google’s latest smartphones are anything to go by. The company has put together a recipe of powerful hardware and intelligent software in the hopes that it strikes fear into rivals like Apple and Samsung. So how does the larger of the two newcomers, the Pixel XL actually perform in the real world?
Google Pixel XL review: Design
The Pixel isn’t a particularly interesting phone to look at. It ticks all the right boxes, with its unibody design, textured metal hardware controls and chamfered edges, but the cumulative effect is just a bit too bulky and bland.
The half-glass back looks odd, even though it feels nice under finger, whilst the bezels around the display seem particularly sizeable for a 2016 flagship; with no front-facing speakers or physical home button to balance things out. It’s clear that Google was going for a clean design so that you focus more on the software and the user experience, but if it’s sitting on store shelves next to wafer-thin iPhones and shiny, curved Galaxy S7’s, it might have a tough time being picked up over its rivals.
All that said, this decidedly chunky 5.5-incher is camera bump-free, feels surprisingly light in the hand for its size and has clearly been put together with all the care, precision and detail of any other 2016 flagship.
There’s a Type-C USB port at its base, which you can use to directly transfer content from your old phone thanks to the handy Type-C to standard USB adapter that comes in the box.
Google Pixel XL review: Screen and media
If you’re torn between the two Pixel phones because of their screens, it pays to go for the larger XL. Not only does it enjoy the AMOLED technology of its smaller sibling, that brings with it excellent contrast and stunning colours, but it also offers pin-sharp Quad HD resolution, which is all the more important if you plan on taking Google’s new Daydream VR platform for a spin.
Despite sharing some DNA with its cousin, the HTC 10, it doesn’t boast the same BoomSound HiFi speaker arrangement that the rival flagship does. As such, audio, although crisp and loud, is relegated to a single speaker port on the phone’s underside, which is a bit of a shame for media buffs.
Google Pixel XL review: OS and features
We’ve had plenty of time to enjoy Android 7.0 Nougat on the Nexus 5X and 6P, but both Pixels come running version 7.1 and that means, amongst other things, a heavily revised launcher.
The Pixel’s interface still keeps familiar stock Android elements in the same place, but it feels tidier and more refined. The signature Google search bar that lives on your main home screen is now a Google tab, whilst the apps that live at your bottom of the screen now actually form part of your apps drawer, which itself is accessed by swiping up. There’s a new set of live wallpapers that update and change based on live Google data and then there’s the Google Assistant.
An evolution of Google Now, the Google Assistant can be summoned from anywhere with the familiar ‘OK, Google” voice command – even when the phone is locked. As before, it can answer questions, tell you the weather, cover sports scores and pull information from your calendar, but the added benefit comes with the conversational nature of your interaction with it.
Whilst a phone of this size really does need some form of one-handed mode, the split screen multitasking and added gesture support from the fingerprint sensor on the back do go a long way to help alleviate the issue, and should you run into any other problems, Google’s also offering dedicated customer support with screen sharing functionality built right into the new settings menu.
Google Pixel XL review: Performance
The stock Android experience paired to the hardware inside the Nexus smartphones of yesteryear always made for a winning combination when it came to general performance and the Pixel XL continues that trend with seamlessly fluid UI navigation, multitasking, gaming and the like.
One of the only phones to sport Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 821 processor at launch (backed up by 4GB of RAM), the Pixel XL flies in the face of whatever you throw at it. Oddly enough, the 3450mAh battery’s fast-charging chops, which give you up to seven hours use from just 15 minutes charge time, don’t come courtesy of Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 tech, but rather the USB-C compliant power delivery (PD) standard.
General battery performance tops out at a respectable day and a half of use, whilst storage is on hand in two skews, 32GB or 128GB. As there’s no expandability, as with the Nexus line, it seems odd that there’s such a notable disparity between the two options, but with the added bonus of unlimited full resolution photo and video storage for life, the smaller capacity should suffice for most users.
Google Pixel XL review: Cameras
Google claims that as a result of bagging the top spot on DxO Mark’s Mobile rankings, the Pixel and Pixel XL pack the best smartphone cameras ever. In practice the XL’s snapper is clearly up there with the best of them, boasting outstanding image quality, an incredibly fast shutter (especially with auto HDR switched off), lightning-fast autofocus for both stills and video, and great low light performance.
You can see full resolution photo samples from this article here.
Colours are accurate, fine detail appears crisp and noise is minimised in all but exceptionally dark environments. The LED flash also does a great job of properly exposing your subjects when in use and the wide-angle front facing 8-megapixel camera is an almost perfect selfie-taker.
There are a few small elements that the Pixel XL’s photographic experience does lack though. There’s no front-facing flash for starters and no native manual control, but although we expected the lack of OIS (optical image stabilisation) to prove detrimental to low light stills and general video quality, the phone’s DIS (digital image stabilisation) system actually proves wholly competent.
It’s also hard to argue with the aforementioned offer of unlimited free photo and video backup at full resolution, including 4K footage.
Google Pixel XL review: Verdict
Google has poured what it considers to be the best it can offer into the Pixel XL and the higher resolution display does lead us to believe that this is the real star over the standard Pixel phone. Provided the design isn’t a deal-breaker the only other thing standing in the way of this device being a perfect 10, is price, and the XL is an exceptionally expensive handset.
With the 32GB version selling for £719, the 128GB model for £819 and it being up for grabs for free on contract for no less than £50 a month on a 24-month plan; you’re going to need big pockets to enjoy the best that Google has to offer right now. That said there are far more affordable offerings that still give you a lot of what the Pixel phones hold dear in equally attractive packages – the likes of the OnePlus 3 for example.
Read next: Google Pixel Review: In Depth