Pixel XL first impressions: A few days with Google’s new phone

Android / Mobile / Tech
Pixel XL

The Pixel and Pixel XL are not the first smartphones to boast excellent build quality. They are, however, very solidly put together — seemingly seamless.

My intention in this Pixel XL first impressions article is to be unbiased and deliver information regardless of whether it is positive or negative. There is no absolute perfect device because what may be great for you might not do it for the person right next to you. That said, it’s only been a few days and I already love Google’s Pixel XL for so many reasons. I’m going to lay it all out and give all the reasons I believe it is so great. Before I’m done I will also mention the negatives and why those issues might keep some from going out and purchasing the Pixel XL.

Build Quality

The Pixel and Pixel XL are not the first smartphones to boast excellent build quality. They are, however, very solidly put together — seemingly seamless. Not too many other smartphones can make this claim, save for iPhone 6/7 and one of my old favorites, the HTC One M8 and a handful of others that aren’t available to the masses in North America.

Holding the Pixel XL in my hand feels very much like holding an iPhone, and that’s not a bad thing — at least I don’t think so. I’m not a fan of iOS but the hardware is a tactile pleasure to handle and looks good. I can definitely see a resemblance but it is also not any kind of iDevice clone at all. I’d say it’s more like an extra large iPod touch. I jest, of course! The finish doesn’t have any kind of grip but it also doesn’t feel as if it will slide out of your hand too easily either. This is probably due to the chamfered edges that my fingers tend to almost cling to. I find it very comfortable to hold and the size of the phone is not so big that reaching for the other side is impossible, especially if, like me, you don’t have large hands.

The glass on the upper third of the back has a polished look that makes it stand out but in a good way. Internet pictures do not do this phone any justice, much like the Nexus 6P last year. The front glass is rounded at the edge so it appears to roll in towards the sides, top, and bottom, giving it an elegant look.

I have had one minor drop already with no issues, scratches, or dings showing up on the Pixel XL. So far so good. It’s a very solidly built device.

pixel-xl-5

Audio

The single speaker at the bottom of the phone is much louder than I expected. While it’s not as good as decent front facing stereo speakers, it does have a very rich sound that is not at all tinny. It’s easy to hear the alarms, notifications and ringtones even in relatively noisy environments.

When paired with my Sony SRS-X55 Bluetooth Wireless Speaker, the sound was clear and had good dynamic range — about as good as can be on that system. Once I paired it to my car system, that’s when my jaw dropped. I have a full aftermarket sound system in my car that includes a fully customizable double din deck, Hertz component speaker system, and extremely powerful subwoofers and amps. Any improvement from the source audio is quite literally amplified. Once the Pixel XL was paired via Bluetooth, the difference from the old Nexus 6P was like night and day! The highs were cleaner and the lows lacked any muddiness whatsoever. The mids were a bit more audible as well. It also a bit louder than it was paired with the 6P. Keep in mind, I was not displeased with the Nexus 6P at all. Connecting wired headphones didn’t seem any different to me and the sound through a pair of headphones is very good but not great. That might be because I don’t have a dynamically good set of headphones though. I don’t have Bluetooth headphones so I can’t say anything in that respect.

Overall the audio on the Pixel XL is much better than I have experienced in any of my former devices.

Camera

Wow! Enough said!

In many ways I do believe the camera is at least among the top three best smartphone cameras available right now. It does pull in more low light than most others in most situations. Well lit scenes are where it shines brightest though. The detail that the lens catches is kept through processing that does not appear to be over done most of the time. It does this by having default on HDR+ Auto which is High Dynamic Range. There are two modes of HDR on the Pixel and Pixel XL — HDR+ and HDR+ Auto. HDR+ takes pictures like any other smartphone with the feature. It takes two or more shots quickly at different exposure levels and combines them giving you the best possible picture. The default HDR+ Auto mode takes the picture instantly and yet seems to achieve the same effect.

Unfortunately I can’t verify the following information yet as it is based on my knowledge of how HDR can work in different formats. I believe that the default HDR mode works by taking one shot with a very wide dynamic range and post editing it by processing two different exposure levels and combining them. The processing work would be done in the background.

The camera is lightning fast to open and takes shots with zero lag. You can also use the “OK Google” command to tell it to “Take a picture.” You can even do this with the screen off. If you are the type to want selfies, a double twist of the wrist switches back to front cameras and vice versa. You can set the power button to open the camera with a double tap and you can also set the volume button to be used as the shutter button. Long tapping on the screen will lock exposure and allow you to manually control the brightness level.

For me it’s the most fun I’ve had using a smartphone camera yet.

Video

Oh my! 4K video at 30fps with EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization). The Pixels have two great things going for them in regards to EIS. The first is that the warping effect that other phones have had that used EIS is non-existent. This is due to the use of the accelerometer to stabilize the warping. The second thing is about the sensor. It is far bigger than it needs to be for 4K video. Usually EIS systems zoom in to cover a larger area so if the camera shakes to the left, the image is moved to the right, as an example.

In the Pixel phones, the EIS system works by using the whole image sensor. The portion of the sensor used for video is much smaller so it just needs to move the image around to counter the shake so it remains centered. In effect, the Pixel phones actually shoot higher than 4K video when EIS is turned on so when it renders it will be a full 4K resolution video with no loss. The videos below show one with my Pixel on a handheld grip to offer better stabilization which I had previously bought for my GoPro. The other is just handheld and is shockingly stable. You need to be able to view on a 4K monitor or TV but I assure you, even after uploading to YouTube, the quality is superb.

Battery life

The battery life on the Pixel XL will keep you going all day and then some. I honestly could ramble on here but I’ll just leave you with these screen shots. Keep in mind that if I had needed to use the phone more that day, I would have been able to get another 2-3 hours of screen on time in about 17-18 total hours, which is definitely enough battery life for going from the time I wake up until going to sleep at night.

pixel-xl-battery

Cons

As I mentioned previously, there are some negatives which are completely subjective but valid nonetheless. These cons are not something that I personally worry about at all, but many people do.

The main cons about the Pixel XL include:

  • Non removable battery
  • No SD Card
  • Boring design
  • Looks like an iPhone
  • Not waterproof
  • Too expensive
  • Too expensive only given its shortcoming

The lack of removable battery to me is a non issue for a device that can literally go two days with moderate use and charge full in barely over an hour. That said, some people are extremely heavy users and can’t imagine going without a spare at least some of the time. If you are one of those people you will be better off looking at another phone.

The lack of SD card is a bigger issue in my opinion. While I get by fine without it, many, many people like the freedom to have as much as they want on their device as well as the option to switch the storage medium for another in seconds. I’ve seen a tear-down video and personally, I don’t understand why they didn’t add this option.

Despite the fact that I like the simplistic design of the Pixel phones, I can fully understand that all people are different. My simplistic design is someone else’s idea of a yawner. I think most people are OK with it based on the demand but there are still plenty who think it’s not at all inspiring. It does somewhat resemble an iPhone and for some people, that’s just not a good thing.

It is not waterproof but is in fact, water resistant!

For some people this is a deal breaker, especially given the enormous price. It’s more money than most other phones. If any one of the cons have you on the fence, this issue should keep you away. Don’t break the bank on something that doesn’t excite you. The last con only refers to if you feel the price would be inline if at least some of the cons were not there. Anyone who is in this camp will almost assuredly not be buying a Pixel.

Final thoughts

This part is my fully biased opinion.

This is one of the best built smartphones I have ever used. The screen is brilliantly vibrant and sharp. It’s smooth and super fast, right up there with iPhones for lack of jank. As mentioned, the audio when paired with a good quality Bluetooth device is superb. That alone for me is worth the money. The camera is the delicious icing on the cake — especially the 4K quality. Now I realize I didn’t mention anything about Google Assistant. Honestly while I think it’s great, I agree with many other reviewers who said it seems under baked. It’s not bad at all and is more intuitive than Google Now but still for me, it’s not what made me pull the trigger on this one.

Should you buy it? If you’re dead set against getting anything that lacks anything in the con list, probably not, or at least think on it. If you’re on the fence, go into a local store and play with one for a few minutes. I believe it’s worth every penny and I have zero regrets, but of course you’ll have to make up your own mind.

*Pixel XL device photos courtesy Alm2nd Google+
*In camera photos by Shaun Aston
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