Jonathan Bray tests the new Google phones to see how they compare to the latest models from Apple, Samsung and OnePlus
When Google launched its range of Nexus devices in 2010, it brought the Android operating system to the masses. Nexus tablets and phones not only provided excellent screen quality and processing power, they were also competitively priced at the budget end of the market. Now, however, Google has scrapped the Nexus product range and replaced it with Pixel, which is a completely different proposition.
The first product in Google’s new range was the Chromebook Pixel – a slim, aluminium-clad computer designed to compete with high-end laptops like Apple’s MacBook Air.
It’s no great surprise, then, that the Google Pixel phones are a similar, top-end proposition. They’re not designed to bring Android to the people, but to rival flagship phones from Apple and Samsung, with high prices to match. There are two sizes of phone available: the standard Pixel, and the larger Pixel XL model.
First up, both the Pixel and the Pixel XL look great. We reviewed the larger model and prefer it to the iPhone 7 Plus, because it’s slightly smaller, lighter and more pocketable. There’s a novel design touch in the inset glass camera surround spanning the top third of the rear panel, encompassing the camera and the circular, center-mounted fingerprint reader.
The obvious thing that’s missing is any dust and water resistance. Google has missed a trick here, especially as this is the year Apple has chosen to add the feature to its iPhones to compete with Samsung and Sony.
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Everything else about the Pixel’s design is firmly middle of the road, right down to the good old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and the white/silver and black/charcoal colours it’s available in. It’s good to see at least one manufacturer rejecting the offer of a lurid rose-gold finish.
Hardware and performance
The key internal components are at the cutting edge of current phone hardware and are identical in both the Pixel and Pixel XL. Each has a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM. The phones come in two storage variants, one with 32GB and the other 128GB, but neither model has microSD storage expansion.
Pixel phones are not designed to bring Android to the people, but to rival flagship devices from Apple and Samsung
This is the first time we’ve seen the Snapdragon 821 in a phone, but it didn’t show any improvement over the 820, which is used in the OnePlus 3. We tested it using the Geekbench 4 (www.geekbench.com) and GFXBench GL (gfxbench.com) benchmarks, and the two phones performed very similarly.
The Pixel XL’s result in our battery-life test told a similar story. It’s slightly better than average for an Android phone, lasting just under 16 hours before running flat, but it’s not as good as the OnePlus 3, which lasted an hour longer. It’s also a long way behind the superlative Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which kept going for a staggering 18 hours and 42 minutes.
Display and camera quality
The screen is the highlight of the Pixel. While the regular Pixel has a 5in display, the Pixel XL we reviewed has a larger 5.5in panel that’s breathtaking. Colors are well balanced, producing full coverage of the sRGB color range; peak brightness is decent, if not eye-searing, at 411cd/m2; and it has perfect contrast. The resolution is a super-sharp 1,440 x 2,560 pixels, which is better than the 1080p OnePlus 3, though it’s tough to separate them with the naked eye.
A big difference between these two rivals, however, is the Pixel XL’s rear camera. It’s a 12.3-megapixel unit, paired with a brilliant, tried-and-tested lens developed for the Nexus devices. Together they produce the best picture quality we’ve come across in any phone. Video quality is almost as good and looks sharper, with richer colors and smoother stabilization than identical footage shot on the iPhone 7 Plus.
Google has also made improvements to its camera software, which feels more responsive and includes some new tools. You can now launch the camera by double-clicking the power button; and switch between forward and rear cameras with a twist of the wrist.
The key internal components are at the cutting edge of current phone hardware and are identical in both models.
There’s a new SmartBurst option, which turns a stream of photos into an animated GIF and picks out the sharpest pictures. Google has also dropped the picture-size limit on free Google Photos storage for Pixel owners, so you can use it to back up all your photos and videos at full resolution for free. The phone will even remove photos to free up storage when they’ve been backed-up online for a certain period of time.
The Pixels are the first phones to run Android Nougat 7.1 and Google’s revamped voice-recognition tool, now called Google Assistant, which is essentially a conversational, context-aware extension of Google Now. You can unlock the phone with your voice, although we found we had to speak loudly and slowly to get it to work reliably.
The contextual element is particularly good, though.
You can ask Google Assistant about the weather today, then tap the microphone icon and ask: “What about tomorrow?”, and it will furnish you with the long-range forecast. It also works with Google Maps, which is great for managing hands-free detours for fuel or food while driving.
Other Android changes include automatic software updates, circular icons for the core Google apps, a different way to access the app drawer (you pull up from the bottom of the screen instead of tapping an icon), and pop-up homescreen options for certain core apps.
■ 5in, 1,080 x 1,920 pixels resolution screen (Pixel); 5.5in, 1,440 x 2,560 pixels resolution screen (Pixel XL)
■ 2.1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor
■ 4GB of RAM
■ 12 megapixels rear camera
■ 8 megapixels front camera
■ Android 7.1 Nougat OS
■ 144 x 70 x 8.6mm (Pixel); 155 x 76 x 8.6mm (Pixel XL)
■ 143g (Pixel); 168g (Pixel XL)
Samsung Galaxy Edge 7
Google’s Pixel phones are brilliant, and come with great screens, good battery life and the best cameras around. They also run Android like a dream. Only the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge can rival them, because it’s more attractive, has an even better battery life and display, is faster and includes dust- and water-resistance. If Google had undercut its rivals on price, it might have been a different story. If you want to spend less money, the OnePlus 3 is a great-value alternative.
- Great screen
- Good battery life
- Brilliant camera
- Lacks rivals’dust and water resistance