Google Pixel XL Review: The ultimate Android experience

Alex Kidman 19 October 2016

PixelXL_2_450

Google’s Pixel XL offers premium performance, although it lacks a really premium look.

Nexus is dead as a brand, and it’s time to embrace the Pixel, according to Google. Naming conventions aside, however, it’s all too easy to see the Nexus heritage in the Pixel XL, which combines some cutting edge technologies and software along with a big heaping helping of Google’s own inhouse apps and cloud-centric thinking. For hardcore Android fans the Pixel XL has been highly anticipated, and the good news is that the wait was (mostly) worth it.

Google Pixel XL: Specifications

SpecsGoogle Pixel XL
Screen size5.5in
Storage32/128GB
Weight168g
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 821
Rear camera12MP
Front camera8MP
Battery3450mAh
Resolution1440x2560
Display density534ppi
RRP$1269 (32GB) / $1419 (128GB)

Upsides: Why you’d want the Pixel XL

  • Fast performance: There’s a distinct advantage to having full control over both the hardware and software when it comes to making a truly premium phone. Apple has this kind of advantage in iOS, and the Pixel XL shows that Google’s gone down this path as well. In pure benchmark terms, here’s how the Pixel XL compares with a range of flagships using Geekbench 4’s CPU test:
    HandsetGeekbench 4 CPU Single Core (higher is better)Geekbench 4 CPU Multi Core (higher is better)
    Apple iPhone 7 Plus33745649
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge13595333
    Samsung Galaxy S713784718
    Apple iPhone SE24494171
    Apple iPhone 6s24654052
    Google Pixel XL16294051
    Sony Xperia XZ16363604
    Google Nexus 6P12933594
    Motorola Moto X Force13523581
    Sony Xperia X11222626
    Motorola Moto G Play5221334

    Here’s how it compares using 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited test:

    Handset3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Result
    Apple iPhone 7 Plus37956
    LG G529597
    Apple iPhone SE29276
    Samsung Galaxy S728903
    Samsung Note728646
    Google Pixel XL28458
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge28402
    Apple iPhone 6s28171
    HTC 1027392
    Sony Xperia XZ26279
    Sony Xperia X Performance26125

    That might suggest mid-range performance out of the Pixel XL’s Snapdragon 821 processor, but the reality of using it is that it’s as fast, and often faster than comparable premium handsets. That’s possibly a quirk of testing Geekbench on Nougat, but the day to day reality of the Pixel XL is that it’s a nicely powerful handset with a clean UI, as Google’s own inhouse phones have tended to be. We've pushed it hard, and it's always come back quickly at us, as you might expect of a highly optimised handset.

  • Smart Camera: Google’s central pitch for the Pixel and Pixel XL are based on the quality of their cameras, claiming that they’re the "world’s best" smartphone cameras. We’re not certain we’d agree with that level of hype, but the Pixel XL can manage some very good looking photos. For example, here’s a quick tree photo taken with the generally very good iPhone 7 Plus:iPhone7Plus_Garden_450
    Here’s the same photo, taken with the Pixel XL, with colours that pop just a little brighter:PixelXL_Garden_450However, it’s not a total home run for the Pixel XL. Here’s a rather dull subject in dull light - the corner of my freezer in a darkened laundry. Here’s the Pixel XL’s take:PixelXL_Lowlight_450
    And here’s what the iPhone 7 Plus made of the same scene.iPhone7Plus_Lowlight_450Neither picture is brilliant with plenty of noise, but the Pixel XL's shot is slightly darker with a less balanced take on the white areas of the freezer. The Pixel XL's camera is very good, and nicely user-guided for those who just want decent photos with a minimum of fuss, although there are plenty of manual controls if that's more your style.
  • Android Nougat: The Pixel XL is the first phone available in Australia with Google’s Nougat pre-installed, although if you’re rocking last year’s Nexus 6P or Nexus 5X you’ve already had access to it for some time. Nougat adds features like split-screen app multitasking and a very clean interface, which means you can configure the Pixel XL to your precise needs without having to worry about pre-installed apps that you can’t uninstall. Our test unit came with Telstra's 24/7 app installed, but had no problems with us quickly uninstalling it.
  • Category 11 capable: The Pixel XL (and Pixel) are the first Category 11 phones on the Australian market, promising even faster 4G LTE download speeds on networks that support it. So far, that's a Telstra-only "4GX" proposition, and you won't hit top speed all the time, but in terms of futureproofing, it's a great feature to have.
  • Google Assistant: The pumped up version of Google Now is even smarter, with plenty of contextual smarts around conversations you have with it, and suggestions based on your location, search history and calendar as you use it. This extends to limited app control as well. Voice assistant technology is still something of a love or loathe proposition, but what Google’s done with Assistant is exceptionally smart. It's meant to learn as you go, becoming ever more useful for your daily needs, whether that's commuting information, setting calendar appointments or sending out quick messages.
  • Inbuilt support: We couldn’t test this during our review period, but Google’s promise for the Pixel phones is that you’ll have full support in Australia 24/7 if something goes wrong with your phone, direct from the device. That's a unique quirk that no other manufacturer offers.

Pixel_XL_3_450

Downsides: Why you might not want the Pixel XL

  • Plain design: For a premium phone, the Pixel XL ultimately looks ordinary. Placing it against direct competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or Sony Xperia XZ and it looks downright under-designed, and that’s leaving the obvious comparison against Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus out of the conversation. It’s by no means a bad looking phone, but it’s very plain for the asking price.
  • No expandable memory: Look, we get it Google. Really, we do. You’re all about the online services, so why would anyone need onboard storage? While you can opt for the more pricey 128GB Pixel XL if your budget can stretch to it, there aren’t that many sealed storage Android devices, and we did miss the easy ability to flick a microSD card’s worth of content into the Pixel XL. It’s all well and good to offer app, photo and document storage in the cloud if you run out of space, but that involves upstream mobile data, which is a potentially pricey proposition.
  • No water resistance: One of the key differentiators for 2016 flagships has been the inclusion of water resistance in some form. The Pixel XL is as sealed down as anything else, but it’s not specifically rated for water ingress, which is a disappointing miss.
  • The creepy side of Google Assistant: Google Assistant can be a great tool for finding out all sorts of information, but it’s very much a two-way trade. To make the most of it, you’re leaving an internet-connected microphone running 24/7, just waiting for you to say "OK Google" and kick it into gear. Google is still a company that trades in information, including yours, and the Pixel XL continues its goals of knowing everything possible about you for ad serving purposes. Some won’t be fussed in the least by this, but it’s at least worth knowing that this is happening at an accelerated rate with the Pixel XL

PixelXL_1_450

Who is it best suited for? What are my alternatives?

Google’s very much playing to its constituency with the Pixel XL. It’s a fine premium phone, but the focus on Google services and customisation means it’s best suited to the Android faithful who want a pure Google experience. There’s little of the app-driven hand holding you’d find on the likes of a Samsung phone here.

In terms of large screen competitors, the obvious available candidates would include the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Huawei Mate 8 and if you’re happy to switch operating system camps, Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus.

How can I get it?

Google will sell the Pixel XL from 20 October 2016 for $1,269 (32GB) or $1,419 (128GB) outright.

If you're not interested in an outright buy, it's also an exclusive to Telstra on contract over 24 months. Here's what you'll pay for a Pixel XL on a Telstra contract:

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