Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Google Pixel XL Review


So I've already reviewed the Note 3--my previous phone before I purchased a Google Pixel XL. Now I've totally switched over and here are my thoughts on the Google's elusive and pricey flagship phone (which will probably be replaced by the rumored Pixel 2 in October 2017 and is currently being overshadowed by the hot new Samsung Galaxy S8).
  • Latest Android Version (Nougat) without extraneous crap - After using a Samsung phone, with its bastardization of Android (okay maybe bastardization is too strong a word) it's refreshing to use vanilla Android Nougat for the first time. Android in its purest form... Heisenberg would be proud. There's nothing really revolutionary about it though compared to iOS or Android Lollipop (I skipped Marshmallow because there was no official update for the Note 3), but I like the speed and responsiveness of the interface on the Pixel XL. "Now on Tap" and the "Google Assistant" seem like useful features but they haven't really been life-changing or vast improvements over the version of Google Now I'm familiar with from Android 5....yet.
  • Better Battery Life / Faster Charging - The Pixel XL definitely lasts much longer than the Note 3. I don't know how much of that is due to the better battery management in the latest version of Android (the "doze" feature, which prevents apps from waking the phone excessively) or if  it's because of other mysterious unknown factors. The Pixel XL can easily last for the entire day without having to be too stingy on phone usage or without fiddling with the settings too much (though I'm accustomed to tinkering with settings excessively in order to squeeze the best possible battery life out of my phone, which is a hard habit to break). Even if the Pixel is low on battery, there's fast charging from the included/supported AC adapters/cables which allow you to quickly add more power in a pinch (the google website says you can add up to 7 hours in just 15 minutes of rapid charging). After reading about the Moto Z Play's amazing battery life, though, I'm still left with a little phone envy. I still have to charge my phone more often than I'd like (remember when Nokias would last for days without recharging?) and I still need to turn off the Pixel's features to save battery. The Moto Z Play appears to be a modern phone that raises the bar for battery life standards. The Pixel XL is better than my old phone, but still not where I'd like it to be in terms of smartphone battery life.
  • Migrating Data From my old phone - Transferring data from my Note 3 to the Pixel was pretty simple. You use the charging cable and connect the other end to the Pixel with the included micro usb-to-usb-c adapter. It transferred my contacts, custom ringtones, etc, but it had problems transferring over my existing wifi settings and I had to re-download all of my apps (possibly an unavoidable inconvenience since you probably want the latest versions of the app and not sure if the apps downloaded for Android 5 will work on Android 7?).
  • Speaking of slick... the Pixel XL is kinda slippery - I'd be very careful with it and recommend getting a case that will allow you to get a better grip on the phone. I got this one.
  • No waterproofing - The phone isn't waterproof/resistant like a lot of the newer phones, but I've never had problems dropping my phones into the toilet or accidentally jumping into a body of water with my phone in my pocket or getting a cooler of Gatorade dumped on my head (knock on wood). If you're careful and you get a case like I mentioned above so the phone won't easily slip out of your hands (or spend more and get a waterproof case or pouch), it shouldn't matter unless you really like showering/swimming with your phone.
  • The camera, backed by some impressive Google software, lives up to the hype - Check out this comparison of shots from different phones, taken within a few seconds of each other in the same lighting conditions.
Galaxy Note 3: SCREW YOU THERE'S NOT ENOUGH LIGHT HERE TO TAKE A PICTURE

iPhone 6S: Alright I'll take a picture in these dim conditions but I'm not really gonna like it

Google Pixel XL: LIGHT IS OVERRATED
The Pixel's camera can take some pretty amazing photos in low-light conditions, but you've got to trust HDR+. It's not always a miracle worker though and can't save every dimly-lit picture you're going to take. While the Pixel is not going to replace my DSLR completely, this camera is awesome for everyday use and capturing those special moments in your life, like when the sun is setting behind your dog taking a dump at Fort Funston. There still is much debate about which phone camera is the best. There have been instances when iPhone 6S pics came out better than the Pixel's despite being a year older (see the picture comparison in the linked article to my Note 3 review). The iPhone 7, with its image stabilization and larger aperture, would give a more interesting comparison. I'm not very familiar with iPhone 7's camera and pics but the general consensus seems to be that both cameras are really good, and each camera excels under certain conditions, but it may come down to personal preference more than anything, as I've seen articles where the iPhone 7's phone comes out on top and others where they say the Pixel's camera has the edge. I also hear that the Samsung S7, S7 Edge, and S8 are also strong contenders for the coveted "best phone camera" award.

Here are some night shots with the Google Pixel XL taken in and around the Presidio of San Francisco. They don't always come out great (like the last one of the Palace of Fine Arts) and if you zoom in it's not always that sharp, but overall I think these are pretty good for handheld tripodless shots with a phone camera (these shots are straight from the Pixel camera with no editing).
Ok this one was from Polk street, not near the Presidio














Here's a video taken from the Pixel XL at night, of my dog being freaked out by a statue:



Here's some slow-mo video:

  • The Awkwardly-Placed Fingerprint Sensor - I found it weird having the fingerprint sensor on the back after using my wife's iPhone 6S, but I got used to it (hmmm, that wounds kinda weird... might want to go back and re-edit that sentence later or just leave it in for comedic purposes). If you're serious about keeping your phone secure though, it might be better to leave the fingerprint sensor off and use a long pin/password or a complicated pattern instead.
  • Live Wallpaper - Not sure about these new wallpapers. First, I'm concerned about battery usage and if it's worth it to get a slightly more dynamic wallpaper. Will need to test first. Second, I'm not sure what's so great about the Live Earth Wallpapers. For example, why get a 3D rendering from Google Earth of say, Shinjuku, when you can get a better, real image of Shinjuku as your wallpaper. Sure, it may not be animated, but at least it won't look like you made your wallpaper out of a screenshot from Sim City.
  • Blank, unused space at the bottom of the phone (the part of every Pixel review where the reviewer loudly complains about bezels) -  Take a look at this picture of the Pixel XL:

If you look at the bottom, it feels like there's a bunch of wasted space there (the dreaded bezel which many new phones have shunned and banished). There aren't any physical/capacitive buttons down there, and the unused part of phone feels weird to me after having used phones where not even a single square millimeter of the phone is wasted. I'm sure it was probably made like this to balance the top part of the phone where the speaker and the front camera are located or due to how the innards of the Pixel are laid out, but I think it would've been cool if they could've either added buttons, moved the fingerprint sensor there, extended the screen, or if they could have made the phone smaller/lighter by removing that part. I'm sure there's some good engineering/design reason that the Pixel is the way it is.. but the waste of space is a small nitpick from me. I should also mention that you get free unlimited storage of all your photos and videos at full resolution on Google Photos with the Pixel, which is a great perk to have and helps you free up lots of space on your Pixel.

  • Google Assistant - I used Google Now since it came out a few android versions ago and now it's just called "Assistant" although for all intents and purposes it's almost the same thing. It is useful in that you see notifications about flights or appointments from your email/calendar, gives you traffic updates on your regular commute, can bring up search results based on whatever's on your screen (Google Now on Tap), but you need to give Google access and permission to keep track of almost everything you do on your phone, like your web & app history, location history, etc. There's not really much granularity about what you can give Google access to. It's almost all or nothing, because when you decline to give Google complete access, it limits what you can do with Assistant (basically makes it a glorified web portal page). It also constantly has annoying notifications and reminders begging you to give Google access. Even if you ask Google something that has nothing to do with your web/app/location history, like "Call X" it won't work without giving up your web activity.

Conclusion


Pros:
  • Camera - awesome camera, which uses Google magic and HDR+ to make your photos even better.
  • Pure Unadulterated Android Nougat with the latest updates directly from Google.
  • Google Assistant is pretty useful but... (see negative comment below)

Cons:

  • Hard to find - The Pixel is available to buy unlocked from Google's online store, but it's constantly out of stock. You could also buy the Verizon version as well but not sure if you can use it on other networks.
  • Expensive - $834 bucks (after tax) for the unlocked base XL model (however with Google financing you can spread out the payments over 24 months, interest-free). T-Mobile has a promotion where you can get back $325 in credit on your T-Mobile bill over 24 months if you bring a Pixel to use on their network. Check if the offer is still valid and applies to your plan first, but that could make the price more bearable. The Pixel's still pricey--compare that to the Moto Z Play which has a much better battery (though it has a crappier camera) for only $450. If the Moto Z Play had the Pixel's software to back its camera, I'd totally be trading my Pixel XL. Also, with the Pixel 2 coming in late 2017, this iteration of the Pixel will probably come down in price.
  • HUGE BEZELS are a waste of space on the front of the phone. The phone has been called "ugly" but I don't think I'd go that far. A phone is a phone. How ugly can a small rectangular object be?
  • Google Assistant requires you to give up a lot of privacy. For example, you can't even say "Call X" without giving up permission to all of your web and app activity to Google.

Verdict: The Google Pixel XL is a solid (but expensive) phone with an awesome camera, but it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend it right now, since it will probably be replaced by the Pixel 2 in less than a year. If you absolutely must buy a phone now, the Moto Z Play with it's multi-day battery life and cheaper price would be a better deal overall for most people. You can also probably still find the Nexus 6P around if you're looking for a bargain as well. If you really want a Pixel phone, though, I recommend waiting for the Pixel 2 to come out, which will give you more options to choose from. If you're impatient like me and want Nougat and the famed Pixel camera RIGHT NOW, by all means, go for it. I'm having a blast with it.

PS--You should also have a good hard look at your privacy settings and what you're willing and unwilling to share with Google. Assistant, one of the most touted features of Android Nougat, becomes almost useless unless you're giving Google access to everything you're doing on your phone.


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