Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Google Pixel review: Home run

from theverge

Android by Google

Every Android phone has always been a little compromised, and everybody knows it. There's been a veil of bullshit between you and what Google intended on all of them.

Sometimes that veil looks like ugly, bad, and usually unnecessary extra software. Sometimes it looks like a carrier failing to send out timely software updates. Other times it means getting something inexpensive, but fundamentally flawed in some way. Even the Nexus phones were behind the veil, little more than reference designs with hardware that was mostly determined by a third party before Google made tweaks here and there.

A pessimist would call this situation "fragmentation," an optimist would call it "diversity." Either way, it hasn't really been a huge problem for Google yet. Google wanted people to use its services, and the Android platform was flexible and ubiquitous enough to thrive and take over the planet, achieving dominant marketshare.Just because Android is everywhere doesn't mean that Google is everywhere on mobile. There has been a lot of talk about Google being more "opinionated" about what a phone should be, and Google's opinion has always been hidden behind that veil. That situation might be okay at the low end, but at the high end (where all the profit and mindshare is), Samsung and Apple have expressed the only opinions that really matter. With Note 7s off the market and Samsung hedging its bets against Google's services, that situation was going to become untenable someday.Someday is today: Google is making a phone for the first time. It's called the Pixel and it’s a Google phone inside and out, sold directly by the company to a mass audience for the first time. With Pixel, we finally get to see behind the veil and get an unmediated experience of Google's very best shot at a phone. All the excuses that existed before for Android phones not living up to their potential won’t work here.

No more bullshit.

There are actually two Pixels: the regular 5-inch screen version and a larger 5.5-inch version called the Pixel XL. They are identical in every respect except for the size of their batteries, the resolution of their screens, and, of course, their prices: the spectrum ranges from $649 for a 32GB Pixel and goes all the way up to $869 for a 128GB Pixel XL.
For people who have been following Google's phone efforts so far, the best comparison we have are the Nexus phones spanning the past six years. That comparison has led many to experience sticker shock about the price, because Nexus phones were usually inexpensive. But the Pixel is different: although it is manufactured by HTC, it's fully designed by Google. And Google designed it to compete at the top tier, so it's priced to match the iPhone and the Galaxy S7. It has a couple incredibly obvious objectives in mind with this phone: make it familiar and make it powerful.
Let's start with familiar and say the obvious thing: the Pixel kind of looks like an iPhone. Every high-end phone these days is designed with some combination of metal and glass, and so you could argue that there are only so many ways to make a rectangle. But even so, look at the bezels on the front, the curves at the corners, the antenna lines, and the placement of the speaker; the thing looks very familiar. After years of trying, Samsung managed to find its own, techier aesthetic. Maybe Google will do that eventually, but for this first try I think it wants the thing to look like what what people are used to. People are used to iPhones.



That said, there are lot of differences, and they add up to a phone that's utilitarian and approachable. The biggest design element is the glass shade that replaces the metal on the top third of the back of the phone. Functionally, it might help with radio reception, but mostly I think it's there to align the phone in your hand.
Neither Pixel is precisely flat, there's a subtle wedge shape to them to accommodate the camera at the top. That means there’s no camera bump but also that they still feel relatively thin where you actually hold them — on the bottom half. On the front, it's easy to kvetch about the large bezel on the bottom, but I don't mind it; it makes the phone feel balanced and it's more comfortable to hit the on-screen home button.
Google puts the fingerprint sensor on the back, and I really like having it there. It's a hassle when the phone is sitting on a table, but I usually pick up my phone to interact with it anyway. You can just rest your finger on it to turn on and unlock the phone, but it doesn't serve as a home button. You can also set it up so that when you slide your finger down on it, it pulls down the notification shade.
The Pixel is not waterproof, which is dumb and annoying. I should also note that a very short fall managed to crack the screen on the smaller Pixel during our review. A sample size of one is obviously too small to say that these devices are less durable than they ought to be, but it's not a great sign.
It fast charges via USB-C and there's only one speaker — at the bottom. Luckily, it's a pretty loud, decent speaker (a charitable person might say that’s why the bezel on the bottom is so large). There is, of course, a headphone jack on the top.

As for specs: they're great. Both Pixel variants have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and flat-out gorgeous OLED screens with deep blacks and vibrant, punchy colors. And that’s important: at some point next month, Daydream VR will finally get released and you'll want high-quality screens for that.
The Pixels are fast — noticeably faster than Samsung's Galaxy S7. On performance alone, these are easily the best Android phones you can buy. For a phone made by Google, that's absolutely the expectation — it's just good to note that at its first time at bat, Google hit a home run.
For the first time, Google is arguing strenuously that it can make a better phone because it controls both the hardware and software. So I wouldn't enjoy being another Android manufacturer right now. That's not my problem nor yours, though. For us, the really important question is simply this: did Google take advantage of that integration to push the Pixel beyond what has been possible on other Android phones.
I'd say that the answer is yes. Google tells me that once again it did more work optimizing touch response to make the phone feel snappier. In fact, the company claims that under a high-speed camera it's exactly as responsive as an iPhone. It doesn't quite feel that way to me, but perhaps the differences come down to how the different operating systems tune their inertia on scrolling.
I also think that Google was able to optimize battery life beyond what other Android phones can do. Over the week and a half I tested the phones, I got absolutely stupendous battery life, especially on the Pixel XL. Last Sunday I streamed two hours of the Vikings-Texans game, used the phone throughout the day, and obsessively scrolled Twitter during the presidential debate. At the end of the day I was still at 30 percent.
In my experience, the Pixels are lasting a couple of hours longer than comparably sized iPhones or Nexuses. That’s better than the "about a day" you get from most phones these days, and it’s so good that I’m a little worried that it won’t last or my results are an outlier. So I’ll note that two other reviewers I spoke with were less pleased with the battery life on the smaller Pixel. If you care about battery life, definitely get the XL. It feels much smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus, too.

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