Google Pixel XL Review: Captain Spock’s Phone Is The Bomb
Continue reading
For years Google’s former search head Amit Singhal talked about ushering in an era of computing where Google would act like the computer on the iconic science fiction TV series Star Trek. But it always hoped that its flagship search engine would be the purveyor of an era of computing where you could just ask it a question and automatically it would answer the query. Earlier in the month when the company announced plans to launch a series of new hardware products, it talked in terms of creating vessels for this kind of science fictional future where its new ‘Assistant’ would take centre stage in an artificial intelligence infused future. Core to it is this new Pixel smartphone which works just like a gadget out of Star Trek universe.

After using it for a couple of days last week I got the sense if there was a phone in the market which would be used by Star Trek’s famed pointy eared Vulcan Spock, then this would have been it. And the more I’ve used it, the more that notion has been cemented. The Pixel XL is not just the best Android phone ever made, it could be the best phone period. But more than this, this is a phone which is all about getting shit done. It is not about glitz and glamour; the way Apple’s devices tend to be.

It is about the magic of software when it is implemented in a measured and tasteful way in marriage with class leading hardware. If there’s a counter to Apple iPhone’s ying, Google has most certainly delivered the perfect yang in the Pixel. More so than any Android phone maker, and this is laudable because this is the first-time Google has taken charge of software and hardware and married them from top to bottom just like the storied company from Cupertino has been doing for decades.

The Pixel is close to smartphone perfection as any smartphone has managed apart from the iPhone and this has happened despite it not having seemingly some things. Google has proven hardware is not the end-all, a philosophy adopted many an Android vendor, including Samsung. It hasn’t thrown in the kitchen’s sink here.

For starters, the design of Pixel may not delight you the way Samsung’s explosive Galaxy Note 7 did nor does Apple’s iPhone 7. Google has created a functional phone which is light and ergonomic and yet solidly built. It has some odd design idiosyncrasies like the glass patch on the back, but as it turns out it helps integrate an antenna. And boy, this antenna works because cellular and Wi-Fi reception of the Pixel is the best of any phone I’ve witnessed.

It is almost as this phone was designed to be something used in a space faring vehicle for scientific use. That’s where I return to Captain Spock, because it feels like a tool he would’ve used on the Enterprise. It may not be as gorgeous as the iPhone 7, but in use it delights in ways the iPhone can’t fathom. For instance, it feels alarmingly light and it is significantly smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus which is decidedly hulking.

It also lacks a camera bump and has a headphone jack. On the back, it has a very fast fingerprint scanner which can be swiped upon to bring up notifications. The scanner itself was pretty fast, but I found it to be a little unreliable compared to the iPhone 7.

The Google Assistant is hands down the best virtual assistant out there. It is significantly faster and smarter than Siri and doesn’t end up making an ass of itself the way Siri does at times. It is also woven across the Android Nougat interface and also can act like a chat bot. It can keep you entertained to by offering games. It is also integrated with a handful of apps and Google says that it will open it up eventually for any third-party developer. Google has also added a 3D touch like feature where you can press and hold on an app icon and get contextual menus for specific features of the app. At the time of writing this was restricted to Google’s apps but I suspect this be added by third party apps eventually. Even on the iPhone the uptake for this feature has been slow.

To me it seems like the LCARS computer system on the USS Enterprise, albeit at a very early stage of its inception. Coupled with products like the Chromecast and Google Home it has the potential to be omnipresent through my daily routine.

The screen on the Pixel is sharp and vivid. It is a 5.5-inch screen which showcases punchier colours than the iPhone 7. It is also frugal thanks to the use of AMOLED technology which helps its battery life in the long run. Overall, it is quite the treat. I loved watching shows like WestWorld on the phone and the new bottom firing speaker was quite loud and clear.

Like the previous line of Nexus smartphones, this new Pixel is a scorcher in terms of pure performance. Armed with the new Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB RAM it has the chops to hold its own with the best. It may not run circles around an iPhone, but it feels equally fast and felt like the fastest and most responsive Android phone I’ve ever used.

Android Nougat helps matters in tandem with the new Pixel launcher which is currently exclusive to the Pixel phones. It brings about a simplified user interfaces which will be appreciated more by the masses than geeks. This is where you get a sense that Google has focussed on designing something for the masses that will take on the iPhone head on and not something geeky.

As this is Android Nougat in its unadulterated state, it also means that it is bereft of any software garbage and just comes pre loaded with a bunch of Google apps including the new Allo and Duo apps. Google Now is still there and combined with the assistant it is also now smarter.

The one area the software has been given special attention is the camera app. Google rates the camera on the Pixel very highly and it believes that it has a winner. Combined with a faster camera app from what Google has offered before on Nexus phones, the 12.3-megapixel sensor on the Pixel is astoundingly good. Almost always in day light it took better photos than the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7 which is stunning. This happens without the help of an optically stabilised lens and a shallower aperture than its rival phones.

Google says that a lot computational photography magic comes into play and I believe them because based on the specs I wouldn’t have believed this to be true. In terms of tonality it sits right in the middle of Apple’s ultra-real colours and Samsung’s oversaturated palette. This provides the best balance, in my opinion which would please a wider audience than just pros who want real colours and people who want super bright images.

In night time, Google is again magically matching and sometimes beating the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 cameras. This is pertinent as there is no optical image stabilisation. The Pixel handles shadows and highlights brilliantly and always returned usable results. This happens because of the HDR+ mode which is on by default and is by far the fastest implementation of HDR I have seen on a phone.

As good as it is with stills, the Pixel excels at even video with a new generation of electronic stabilisation which works in tandem with the accelerometer and gyroscope much like Instagram’s Hyperlapse app. The results again are stupendous and in the same league with the iPhone 7. Audio quality was also good in loud environments.

This phone also becomes a great tool for people who like to take a lot of photos and videos because Google has thrown in unlimited free uploads to Google Photos at maximum resolution for both video and stills. This alone is a reason to buy this phone.

The battery life on this phone is also quite incredible. I found that it outlasted an iPhone 7 Plus by at least 3 hours on a regular basis and charged almost twice as fast which was something very useful.

The one thing that this phone doesn’t have is water resistance like the iPhone 7. While there is splash resistance for such an expensive phone IP67 water and dust resistance should’ve been there. As much I wanted to use the phone while floating in my jacuzzi I couldn’t.

The Pixel also lacks the cohesive ecosystem of hardware products that Apple has which may not to be the liking of many user. However, if you can get over these minor issues, I highly recommend this phone. In fact, on some level I like it more than the iPhone 7. Its whip smart software and utilitarian design have ensured that it has replaced my phone as my primary device which almost never happens.

Its usability creeps up on you, just like a tool which just gets the job done without any fuss. And that’s why I believe this would be the phone Captain Spock will revert to if he had to own one for the USS Enterprise. It is that good, and Google should take a bow. For Apple, if they though Samsung’s travails with the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco gave it a free hand, then it should think again because it is game on, like never before. Captain Spock’s phone is the freaking bomb!