Google Pixel XL Review: Two-Thirds Great

by Reads (6,806)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Service, Warranty & Support
      • 8
      • Ease of Use
      • 8
      • Design
      • 6
      • Performance
      • 9
      • Value
      • 7
      • Total Score:
      • 7.60
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Great software
    • Excellent performance
    • Camera produces stunning pics in many shooting situations
    • Ships with useful adapters
  • Cons

    • Not waterproof
    • No expandable storage
    • Camera’s low-light performance disappointing

Quick Take

The Google Pixel XL is an acceptable piece of hardware buoyed by superb software and excellent performance. It’s not the hands-down best Android smartphone, but it’s in the mix.


The Google Pixel XL is a first. It’s the first phone with Google’s Android Assistant AI feature. It’s the first with the Pixel Launcher home screen. It’s the first phone with Daydream, Google’s VR platform. And it’s the first phone “made by Google,” according to the search giant.

Google Pixel XL

Google Pixel XL

Well, technically, it’s physically made by HTC. But this smartphone is all Google where it counts. The Google Pixel XL has Google branding, and runs pure Android 7.1 (Nougat).

We took a Google Pixel XL review unit for a spin. Is this the best Android smartphone, Google’s long-awaited answer to the Apple iPhone? Read on to find out.

Google Pixel XL Build & Design

The Google Pixel XL looks a lot like the HTC A9, which looks a lot like the iPhone. Rumor has it Google quickly pulled the Pixel XL together in just 9 months with HTC. Google wanted to move away from the familiar Nexus-style co-branding for the new “made by Google” Pixel. Its original hardware partner for this endeavor, Huawei, balked at the idea of taking a backseat. So Google turned to a willing HTC with little time to spare.

It’s still not a bad-looking phone. It has an all-glass flat front, with rounded corners. The bottom edges are also rounded, with a split back panel that’s two-thirds aluminum from the bottom up, and one-third glass from the top down. It’s available in Quite Black, Very Silver, and Really Blue.

Google Pixel XL back panel

Google Pixel XL back panel

It’s buttonless, with thin bezels on the sides, and slightly thicker bezels on the top and bottom; with the top housing the 8-megapixel front facing camera, phone speaker, and a couple sensors. There’s an approximate 71% display-to-body ratio.

It measures 6.0 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches, and weighs .37 pounds, putting in range of most other smartphones with the same display size.

The fingerprint sensor, 12.3-megapixel rear camera, flash, pinhole mic, and other sensors sit flush on the back, in the glass portion, the bottom sports muted Google branding and an antenna stripe. USB Type-C input sits on the bottom, in between two speakers, while the 3.5mm audio jack and another antenna strip sit on the top.

The single-piece volume rocker and textured power button rest on the right side, while the SIM tray (pin release) sits on the left.

Google Pixel XL SIM tray

Google Pixel XL SIM tray

Google Pixel XL power button and volume rocker

Google Pixel XL power button and volume rocker

Everything is where it should be. The buttons are thumb height and easy to reach. The fingerprint sensor is also easy to access unseen and while holding the Pixel XL in one hand. The headphone jack is on the top.

The Google Pixel XL back panel is too easy to scratch.

The Google Pixel XL back panel is too easy to scratch.

So even if the design aesthetic resembles a mid-range HTC smartphone from last April, who cares? It’s practical, and you’ll probably stuff it into a case anyway.

Besides, we’re saving our complaints for what it lacks. The Google Pixel XL is not waterproof, and it does not have expandable storage. And while the Google Pixel XL has a Gorilla Glass 4 display, the back glass panel is not scratch resistant. In fact, our Google Pixel XL review unit easily scuffed and scratched after just a few trips in the backpack, as you can see in the pic.

Google Pixel XL Display & Speakers

The Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch AMOLED display with a 1440 x 2560 resolution, resulting in 534 pixels per inch. This is about the limit of most flagships, and would be overkill if not for the VR considerations. Side by side, and viewed from a normal distance, it’s near impossible to spot the difference between a phone with a 400 ppi count and one with a 500 ppi count. However, those differences are noticeable when the handset is a few inches from your face in a VR viewer.

It’s a bright display, and cuts through glare as well as any other flagship AMOLED. Contrast is superb, and the blacks are especially deep. The whites are bright as well, purer than most competing displays. And the colors are realistic, with just a touch of saturation.

AMOLED displays often display whites with a warm, almost magenta tint; and they have a tendency to oversaturate colors. The effect is still present here, but it’s muted, making this one of the most pleasant displays on the market.

Display settings are basic, with no color calibration option, or “night mode” that filters out blue tones. We typically think of these things as superfluous or gimmicky, so no complaints here.

The speakers are also decent, grading on the smartphone curve. They are loud enough for personal use, and emit relatively robust sound.

Google Pixel XL speakers and USB Type-C

Google Pixel XL speakers and USB Type-C

Google Pixel XL Performance

The Google Pixel XL has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor (quad-core, 2.15Ghz + 1.6Ghz), and 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM. That’s a powerful combo, and while some other smartphones have the more RAM, you’d be hard-pressed to notice a difference in performance.

Compared against the Snapdragon 820 found in most flagships from 2016, the 821 provides a slight performance boost, particularly on the GPU side, with a focus on quickly processing HDR pictures and potentially faster LTE connectivity.

For Pixel XL users, it results in a very polished experience. Virtually every other smartphone we’ve tested to date, including the flagships like the Galaxy S7 edge and iPhone 7 Plus, experienced some lag or stutter, particularly going from the lock screen to the start screen. The Pixel XL is very steady and smooth here.

The GPU is particularly impressive, especially with demanding 3D games. That’s a good thing, considering the VR focus. The fingerprint sensor is also noteworthy. It’s both fast and accurate, rivalling Huawei and Apple, and surpassing Samsung and the others.

Looking at the benchmarks, our Google Pixel XL review unit scored 1782 on the single-core Geekbench 4 test, and 4252 on the multi-core test. 

Google Pixel XL Geekbench 4 results

Google Pixel XL Geekbench 4 results (higher score is better)

Its Adreno 530 GPU (624MHz) scored 7014 on the compute benchmark.

Google Pixel XL Geekbench 4 Compute results (higher score is better)

Google Pixel XL Geekbench 4 Compute results (higher score is better)

The GPU score blows away other recent smartphones, but its Geekbench 4 score is well below the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S7. Here’s a case where the benchmark scores don’t translate to real-world performance. The Google Pixel XL runs about as well as the latest iPhone, and noticeably better than the S7.

Buy the Pixel XL direct from Google, and you’ll get no bloatware or duplicate apps. Buy it from Verizon, expect My Verizon, Message+ , and go90. Message+ is a duplicate texting app, and all three can be uninstalled.

Our 32GB Google Pixel XL review unit shipped with about 21GB capacity available with a fresh start. That’s less than some other Android smartphones, which ship with upwards of 23GB available.

Google Pixel XL Connectivity

The Google Pixel XL works on all major carriers in the US, including Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Verizon is the only carrier selling it directly, and it’s also available through the Google Store. It supports Cat 12 LTE (up to 600Mbps downloads and 15Mbps uploads).

It also features GPS, Glonass, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2×2 MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2, and NFC. There’s no FM radio support. That’s a shame because it likely has an FM receiver, but it’s not engineered with antenna support (phones with active FM receives use the headphone input as an antenna). Or it is and the receiver has simply been deactivated.  

Even though it’s low-tech, an FM receiver is an invaluable feature, especially during emergencies and power outages, as it requires very little power.

Google Pixel XL Software & Features

The Google Pixel XL ships with Android 7.1 (Nougat), with Google’s promise of OS updates for two years from launch (October 2016), and security updates for three.

Google Assistant is its key and exclusive launch feature. Think of it as Google Now 2.0, or Google’s answer to Siri and Cortana.

Google Assistant, "show me pictures of my dog."

Google Assistant, “show me pictures of my dog.”

It has a lot of neat tricks, including:

  • Calendar and reminder creation and management (“OK Google, when is my next meeting with Kimberly?”)
  • Access to Google’s Knowledge Graph, translation services, and quick math queries (“OK Google, how tall is the Eiffel Tower? How do you say ‘hello’ in French? What’s 20% of $17.98?”)
  • Photo finder (“OK Google, show me pictures of my dog.”)
  • Access to Google Maps info (“OK Google, show me the closest post office.”)
  • Personal flight flight management and finder (“OK Google, when is my next flight?”)
  • It also has personality, singing songs, telling jokes, and reciting poems on command.
  • In addition, it can open apps, send texts, make calls, and set alarms.
  • It also understands conversational queries. You can ask it, “how tall is the Eiffel tower?” And then follow up with, “Where is it?” Google Assistant will know the “it” refers to the Eiffel tower.

And that’s not everything. Because Google Assistant weaves through company’s vast offerings (messaging, Android, email, Music, Chromecast, search, etc.), and the same features also appear on the Google Home speaker, and the Allo messenger, it’s tough to layout a comprehensive list of all its capabilities.

Google Assistant, conversational queries

Google Assistant, conversational queries

Google Assistant, Google Maps data

Google Assistant, Google Maps data

So what value does it bring? Time savings, by pulling relevant info and bringing it front and center with a voice command. The problem is that every bit of that info is readily available in an app with a quick tap and a few swipes, though. The gains are minimum, and it’s not enough to encourage users to learn new workflows. That’s why Google Assistant is more impressive on a traditionally “dumb” device, like the Google Home speaker, than on a smartphone.

Google Pixel Launcher

Google Pixel Launcher

That’s not to suggest it has no utility. We used it occasionally to find takeout spots and calculate basic math problems. At the very least, it’s an impressive parlor trick, in a “look what my phone can do” sort of way.

Other Google Pixel XL features include a Quick Switch Adapter that makes moving contacts, calendar events, photos, videos, music, SMS messages, iMessages, and other personal info from an old smartphone to a Pixel simple and easy; and free unlimited photo storage.

Yes, Google Photos offers free unlimited photo storage, but that’s limited to compressed photos. Pixel owners have unlimited storage for full-resolution photos.

The Google Pixel XL is also the first smartphone with Google’s VR platform, Daydream. It only works with the Daydream View VR headset as of this writing. It also sports the aesthetically-pleasing Pixel Launcher homescreen, which offers no real benefit over the dozens of other Android homescreens.

Google Pixel XL Battery

The Google Pixel XL has a 3450mAh battery, which Google claims provides up to 14 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing. Streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness set to max, our Google Pixel XL review unit lasted 8 hours and 45 minutes.

Eight hours is the standard all flagships should hit on this test, which is about the bare minimum you can reasonably expect from when using the Pixel. Some push 12, while the best hit 20. Still, that’s not a bad result and it’s more than enough to get you through a day with regular use, or powered through a long flight.

It charges fast, too. Our Google Pixel XL review unit battery went from dead to 40% after just 15 minutes charging with the included adapter.

Google Pixel XL Camera

Google boasts its Pixel camera is “the highest rated smartphone camera. Ever.”

If that’s true, it’s a testament to the software powering image production, rather than the hardware. Because on paper, it’s lacking in two key areas.

The Pixel XL has a 12.3-megapixel camera, with 1.55μm pixels, and an f/2.0 aperture. It’s missing optical image stabilization, and its f/2.0 aperture is smaller than other flagships. The Samsung Galaxy S7 edge has a  f/1.7 aperture, for example.

This is important because a wider aperture (represented by a smaller number) means a larger lens hole, which allows more light into the image sensor. With smartphone cameras in particular, this helps produce better results in low-light shooting situations.

For its part, the Pixel XL camera has large, 1.55μm pixels. Larger pixels on the image sensor mean more surface space to absorb light, which also helps produce better results in low-light shooting situations.

The Pixel XL camera also lacks optical image stabilization (OIS), which also aids low-light photography by physically compensating for any minor physical movements. Low-light shooting situations require the shutter remain open longer so more light hits the image sensor; and any hand movement, no matter how minor and imperceptible, causes blurry images because the image “moves” on the sensor. Essentially, OIS countermoves the lens to compensate for handshake, keeping the image static on the image sensor.

The OIS mechanisms also take up space. OIS on a Pixel XL likely means a protruding camera lens, which throws off its clean design.

OIS also helps with video, but not as much as you’d think. Instead, software does the trick of smoothing out jittery video, typically through digital or electronic image stabilization (EIS).

The Pixel XL’s EIS does a great job stabilizing video, and it mostly avoids the common EIS pitfall of a wobbly footage, or a jelly effect.

Looking at picture quality, the software also does a phenomenal job at producing high-dynamic range (HDR) photos. Pics taken in the proper situation have very deep blacks, with realistic colors and excellent contrast. Some shots are simply stunning, and blow away output from rival devices.

Google Pixel XL review unit sample photoGoogle Pixel XL sample shot Google Pixel XL sample shot Google Pixel XL sample shot Google Pixel XL sample shot

The Pixel XL suffers in low-light shooting situations, especially when compared against the best. Details disappear in lieu of image noise, and blue tones dominate, edging out all color. This readily apparent when compared side-by-side with the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. Both pictures of the sleeping dog were taken at the same time, in the same low-light conditions. Samsung’s output is much clearer, with much more detail, and at least some color.Again, this is the software doing the heavy lifting, and it goes a long way to validating Google’s “highest-rated” claim. The software also excels producing panoramas and lens blur. The camera app is quick to launch (two quick taps of the power buttons serves as a quick launch), and focuses quickly and efficiently.

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Samsung Galaxy S7 edge low-light photo

Google Pixel XL low-light photo

Google Pixel XL low-light photo

It’s the same story with the selfie camera, which has a decent 8-megapixel sensor, with 1.4μm pixels, and an f2.4 aperture.

In the Box

The Google Pixel XL ships with a USB Type-C 18W adaptor for charging, USB A-C cable, USB C-C cable, SIM ejector pin, and a full-sized USB A-to-C Quick Switch adapter.

That’s a great haul. We’re suckers for added adapters and cables. The Quick Switch adapter can be used for accessories support as well, including USB keyboards, mice, external storage, and gamepads.

Google Pixel

The Google Pixel is the smaller of the two. It measures 5.6 x 2.7 x 0.2 inches, and weighs .31 pounds. It has a 5-inch display with lower resolution, resulting in 441 pixels per inch. It also has a smaller, 2770mAh battery, and a slightly lower advertised battery life.

Otherwise, it’s the same smartphone with a similar build, same camera, and the same features.

Google Pixel XL Review Conclusion

Google Pixel XL

The Google Pixel XL is an acceptable piece of hardware buoyed by superb software and excellent performance. It’s hard to call it the best overall Android smartphone when it lacks waterproofing, removable storage, and OIS, even though it definitely runs like the best Android smartphone, with a clean and accessible Android build.

Google Assistant is its standout feature, but it’s not that much better than Google Now or Siri to make the Pixel XL a must-have. Same is true for Daydream (review upcoming), with Samsung’s Gear VR currently leading the market.

These sentiments also apply to the camera. At its best, it produces unparalleled pictures. In low-light, others exceed it.

The Google Pixel XL starts at $769 for 32GB. The 128GB Pixel XL costs $869, while the smaller Pixel costs $649 for 32GB and $749 128GB.

That’s a lot of money, and it’s in line with other flagships. The Pixel XL needs better hardware or a lower price to be a must-have. As it stands, it’s just another good option.

Pros:

  • Great software
  • Excellent performance
  • Camera produces stunning pics in many shooting situations
  • Ships with useful adapters

Cons:

  • Not waterproof
  • No expandable storage
  • Camera’s low-light performance disappointing



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