Google Pixel and Pixel XL – How did we live without Google Assistant?

2016-11-02 Sorry, this is a long one, but there’s a lot to cover with a new phone and a new OS. Stay with us to the end, you’ll be rewarded.

Having tested the last two Nexus phones, with Verizon, T-Mobile, and the Nexus 6 hooked up to Project FI (which is awesome for what it does BTW), and the Pixel Tablet, we were excited to get our hands on the Pixel — and it didn’t disappoint. Pixel is the first phone completely made by Google. The Nexus line was Android from Google paired with a hardware manufacturer like Motorola or and got the new releases of Android OS as soon as they were released.  But only sold by Google and not carriers.  For the Pixel, Google brought the hardware in house as well, so now it’s 100% Google and currently a Verizon exclusive, although you can buy from Google and put it on your carrier of choice.  And let us just say, thanks to Big Red for only putting 3 bloat apps on it, making those able to be uninstalled, and getting out of Google’s way and releasing OS updates in live time with Google releases!  The Pixel is one of the first to run Android 7.1 Nougat, which is by far the snappiest Android version yet – you’ll be jealous if you test it but don’t have it on your phone, trust us — though Nougat will soon be coming to some of this year’s biggest releases from other manufacturers.

The hardware. Both the Pixel at 5.0″ and it’s bigger brother Pixel XL at 5.5″ sport aluminum frames with Gorilla Glass 4 screens. They feel fantastic in the hand, even if they are the prettiest of designs. Color options are Very Silver, Really Blue, and Quite Black, though the Really Blue only comes in 32 GB and not the bigger 128 GB size, which we were quite bummed about as we’ve grown tired of the standard black, silver, and gold phones – give us something new! We don’t particularly care for the glass panel on the upper 1/3 of the back panel because it gives it a two-tone coloring to the back – the Really Blue and Quite Black are matte on the lower and shiny blue/black on the upper while the Very Silver looks more white than silver with the glass. The look of the back would have been better as just a single piece of aluminum, but it probably has something to do with either the antennae signal or the camera operation. Then again, if you get it from us, it’s likely going to be in a case so you won’t even notice the back coloring. The overall size of the XL is smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus and slightly bigger than the Galaxy S7 Edge, both 5.5″ screens.  If you have small hands you’ll need to use them both most of the time to operate the XL version unless you just use the Google Assistant all the time (more on that later). The Pixel, on the other hand, is a great fit for one-handed use. Both are extremely light and slide easily in and out of pockets. The AMOLED screen has quad HD resolution and is fantastic to look at, especially with the built in live wallpapers by Google. The battery for the Pixel is advertised as up to 22 hours’ usage and 19 days standby and the XL up to 27 hours’ usage and 23 days standby. As we’ve been using the XL primarily, we will respectfully disagree with the usage time given our mix use of a lot of email, a little voice, some texting, and app usage with the brightness all the way up. On the plus side, we charged the Pixel 2 days ago, have the brightness at 50%, one email account that gets little traffic, and it’s only dropped 22% in 2 days while mainly sitting idle on the desk.  Unfortunately, the phone’s battery setting estimates we have 8 days remaining, far short of the 19 days advertised. However, we are probably always going to disagree with the “up to” of every phone because we know we and our client’s don’t use their phone in the same way they test them. It does boast rapid charging via the provided USB C to USB C head or other rapid charging heads, so even a brief 15 minutes on the charger gets us though until bed even on the heaviest days. USB C is apparently here to stay so get ready to replace a lot of cables in the future. A bummer for our backpacks and offices with micro USB in every nook and cranny. The Camera, at 12.3 MP rear and an 8 MP front, produces some stunning pictures and is especially good in low light. As has been the case for the last few phones, double tapping the home button opens the camera app for you; since the Pixel doesn’t have a home button, they moved this to the power button as well as adding a shortcut on the lock screen so you can get to the camera quicker to capture those fast moving moments. Admittedly, this is potentially dangerous when your child grabs your phone for some distraction as you’re waiting to be seated at your favorite restaurant. It opens in a blink on every method to launch the camera, plus has some neat features and tools built in, like slow motion and panorama. Lens blur is probably the coolest we’ve tested, blurring out the background so the image you focused on takes center stage. Add in the fact that Google is giving Pixel owners unlimited storage for photos and videos in the Google Photos app, you can maybe even exist on the 32 GB version. It is worth noting that, side by side with an iPhone 7 Plus, the same picture added some color making the blue stand out more where the iPhone took a truer to life photo, so they’ve built in some eye pleasing adjustments to your photos.

The software. Qualcomm’s top processor is built into this phone and it handles everything we’ve thrown at it with ease, giving us better pictures and quicker wireless speeds. We love the very responsive fingerprint reader on the back, and it makes unlocking it a breeze and, as opposed to other phones, makes us feel that finally fingerprint is your best bet for security. One annoying thing we’ve noticed is that the notification bar doesn’t clear the email count even if those emails were dealt with on your PC or tablet. It is kind of disconcerting to look down and see 20 new emails listed only to unlock the phone and open the app to find there aren’t any new. This is a first in our experience; normally, hooked to Exchange, once read on one screen, the phone will take the notification away once it realizes it’s no longer new, though you can easily swipe them away and they don’t come back up. This may be because we only use 3rd party email apps for Exchange so this might be different using Gmail or the stock email app. A huge improvement on Android 7.0 is the removal of the app drawer. Instead of 4 dedicated buttons on your home pages + an app to open the apps, you now get 5 on the bottom and you simply slide up from the bottom of the phone to open all apps. It is marked by a ^ in the center above the dedicated buttons, but after so many years of being conditioned to open via a app “button”, we still are looking for that app drawer first. It will take some time to adjust. Another great feature we discovered is that Google Wallpaper is built into the Settings and has a Daily Wallpaper setting that will download a new wallpaper every day from Google’s Pixel store and set it for you — variety is always nice. Fear not, this app is available for almost all Android users in the Play Store, just without the unique Live Wallpapers you get in the Pixel. Probably the best new feature is how Google Now has morphed into Google Assistant. It is still launched with the standard “OK Google” command, which made at least 4 devices perk up in our offices while testing, but the improvements are worth doting on here. It’s faster, more accurate, and easier to understand. Speed is always good. But the accuracy – wow! It is much better at translating speech to text, leading to more accurate search results and less correcting of your text and email dictation (admit it, you dictate when driving, so accuracy helps us all — we see you swerving on the highway!) Plus, it is consistently better about understanding what we’re saying without having to resort to that choppy stunted speech pattern on older phones and works better in noisy situations. It blows Siri away – by a long shot. The actual voice isn’t as robotic and it sounds more like an assistant talking to you over a speaker, plus it reads the results to us at a quicker clip. What all can it do? Add events to your calendar, set an alarm or reminder, dictate and send texts or emails, launch and play your playlists, get directions, get Yellow/White Page results, launch Maps, book reservations at hotels and restaurants, and so much more.

Overall we give it a 93/100. The only knocks, other than battery (and everyone gets a knock on the battery from us), are the design of the back, lack of a memory card (we’re fans and will always complain about this), and the lack of water resistance — although one You Tube testers submerged the phone for 30 minutes and it escaped unscathed and another 1 hour and only the speaker performance was affected, the paper durability rating would mean it has no protection so don’t chance it! There are better looking phones on the market, but we care more about what our phone does than what it looks like. So, with rapid charging, a fantastic camera, unlimited photo storage, the best processor yet, and the Google Assistant, we think this is just about the perfect phone.

What’s the verdict? This should be at the top of your wish list if you want a high-end phone. Starting at $660 for the Pixel and $780 for the XL, and jumping $100 for more storage, they are right in line with iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge pricing while giving you so much more. Have we mentioned Google Assistant?

Each comment or Tweet @twcg9 during November gets a free Tempered Glass screen protector when you order your Pixel from TWCG (we told you it was worth sticking to the end)! 

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