Hands on: Google Pixel first impressions review
Like Apple before it, Google has seen the benefit of creating both hardware and software with the Pixel. But what's it like in the flesh?
Early this morning, Google officially announced its range of Pixel handsets, Google Pixel and Pixel XL (amongst other things). Google has always been a master of intuitive Android software, but has otherwise relied on third-party manufacturers to produce its Nexus handsets. Pixel is Google's first foray into building its own handsets from scratch. We attended Google's Sydney launch event and got some hands-on time with Google Pixel. Here's what we thought.
Google Pixel Design
First thing's first: colours. One of Google's many subtle jabs at Apple during the October 4 keynote was its explicit naming convention for its range of colours. Smartphone manufacturers have a habit of complicating the names of awfully simple colours (see Space Grey), in response to this the Google Pixel's tongue-in-cheek colours are named Quite Black, Very Silver and Really Blue.
While there were no Really Blue handsets on display in Sydney, we did get a close look at the Quite Black and Very Silver models. Both look the part of a premium phone. Their smooth aluminium frames take up a large portion of the handset's rear, while the top features a glass "window" which surrounds the Pixel's 12MP camera, flash and Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor. While the black goes for a more uniform, professional look, the Very Silver's pearl-white window looks quite fancy. That was, before it was covered in fingerprints, which took no time at all with a room full of journalists and Google demonstrators eager to get their mitts all over the shiny new handsets.
The Google Pixel's rear is also nearly completely flush, with no "unsightly" camera bump.
As Google pointed out in their presentation, the Pixel and Pixel XL are identical outside of size, weight and battery life (another sly jab at Apple's iPhone 7 and 7 Plus). While the Pixel XL's larger size is still a comfortable fit in your hand, I still found the smaller Pixel more manageable. This was mainly due to the handset's top-right power/lock button. It's horrendously misplaced on the XL, so operation just felt a little more natural with the Pixel. At 5 and 5.5 inches, the difference between the Pixel is and Pixel XL is smaller than the gap between the iPhone 7 (4.7 inch) and iPhone 7 Plus (5.5 inch) displays. For that reason, the two Pixel handsets are nearly indistinguishable at first glance.
Like many other handsets of its operating system ilk, the Google Pixel omits a physical home button. This isn't overly troublesome, given some people like a home button while others can do without, and the Pixel's lock/power button launches the camera with a double-click (much like the Galaxy S7's home button). My main issue is that without a home button, the Google Pixel lacks an identity. Its top-tier competitors are instantly recognisable by the unique shape of their home buttons. Without one, the Pixel looks more or less like any other Android without one from the front.
Google Pixel Specs
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821|
|RRP||$1079 (32GB)/$1229 (128GB)|
Upsides: Why you'd want a Google Pixel
- The preferred size: The XL is not a behemoth by a long shot. It's still a very manageable 5.5 inches, but I personally preferred the Pixel's standard size over the XL's 5.5 inch display. Its solid build and polished edges sit snug in the hand and its buttons are all within easy reach.
- USB C fast charging: Though we won't know whether Google's claim of 7 hours of use from 15 minutes of charge is reliable until we get a chance to review the handset, other USB C handsets like the Huawei P9 and HTC 10 have proven the new charging technology is what every new handset should strive for. Check back for our full review closer to release for a full battery and charging benchmark test.
- Google Assistant, the friend you didn't know you needed: At launch, Google Pixel will be the only handset with in-built Google Assistant. Google's answer to Siri and Cortana was absolutely the show-stealer at today's event. Our demonstration showed a truly seamless operating experience controlled entirely by some extremely accurate voice recognition technology. One example showed a live demonstration of a test conversation with a friend. Our demonstrator messaged "Emma" who Google knew as the most contacted "Emma" in the demonstrator's phonebook. From there, plans were made entirely with the user's voice. It started with a broad question "OK Google, where can I get breakfast around here?". Once a location was decided upon, the user asked to "make a reservation there for the morning". It both knew the context of "there" from the previous message and that "in the morning" meant the following morning, because that just makes sense. That was just one example of Google Assistant's seamless AI experience. The technology as a whole is actually quite amazing in the ways that it learns from the user and gathers context, meaning and information on the user through each conversation.
Downsides: Why you might not want the Google Pixel
- Not for rugged users: While Apple and Samsung have both realised the importance of durability, Google has omitted any mention of waterproofing or dust/scratch resistance from the Pixel launch. It's not the only premium handset that doesn't offer these features, the HTC 10 is just as fragile as ever also. But the Pixel isn't necessarily competing with the HTC 10. It's gunning for the Apple iPhone 7, so it seems like an odd thing to leave out if it wants to sit side-by-side with the most popular smartphones on the market.
- Unremarkable look and feel: Despite the Pixel being made from the precious parts of a premium phone, like aluminium and glass, it doesn't feel as premium in the hand. This could have something to with its smooth edges, its lightweight form, or even it's bland front design, we're not entirely sure yet.
- Shiny and new, but not for long: The glass window on the Pixel's rear is probably the Pixel's prettiest feature (especially on the Very Silver model) but it's also extremely vulnerable to fingerprints. The Quite Black fares worse than the Very Silver here, but it's still noticeable thanks to the Pixel's highly reflective rear. There's also the risk that you could shatter the rear glass plate easily enough. We don't know enough about the Pixel yet to know whether that would warrant a replacement handset or whether you'll be able to have it easily replaced. Either way, it's bound to be a painful experience should you be a bit of a butter fingers like myself.
Google Pixel Early Verdict
From what we've seen, the Google Pixel is a serious competitor for Apple and Samsung's undefeated range of premium smartphone. Its 12MP camera, sporting a huge 1.55-micron pixel size and f/2.0 lens takes some seriously impressive photos in low-light scenarios. Google set up a low-light booth at its Sydney event attendees to test out its magnificent camera. At first glance I wasn't completely convinced by the quality Google had just sold me on screen, but when compared against a shot from the Samsung Galaxy S7, the difference was staggering.
The Pixel's Google Assistant software also trumps every other voice-commanded AI I've ever used, in both function and voice recognition, and that's before we've really got to know each other.
As excited as I am for the Pixel's impending release, it's worth noting that these great features don't come cheap. The Pixel retails at $1,079 for 32GB and $1,299 for 128GB. That's exactly the same as the Apple iPhone 7's pricing in Australia. Whether either phone is worth over $1,000 is debatable, but if you're after a top-tier phone at a reasonable price, you could do worse than the Huawei P9 or the Galaxy S7.
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