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Google Pixel Review

Not everyone wants a phone with a big screen, but most small-screen phones compromise on performance and cameras. Not so with Google’s latest flagship Android phone: Here’s our Google Pixel review.

Joining the ranks of the Pixel C and Chromebook Pixel are Google’s new Pixel phones. We’re reviewing the smaller 5in Pixel here, but you can read our separate Pixel XL review if you’re after a bigger phone.

The new Pixel and Pixel XL take over from Google’s Nexus phone range and – like other Pixel devices – isn’t cheap. But at £599 from Google's online store it’s no more expensive than flagships from Apple and Samsung: just don’t expect the same kind of unbelievable value you got from the Nexus 4 and 5 (and the similarly unbelievably good-value OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 3T phones).
And unlike the lower specifications in the Nexus 5X compared to the Nexus 6P, Google hasn’t done that here: the Pixel is simply a shrunk down Pixel XL with essentially the same hardware inside: cameras, processor and connectivity are all identical.

Price
You may see the Pixel as a sort of successor to the Nexus 5X, which was released in October last year priced at £339 for the 16GB model. A year on and the Pixel costs £599/$649 for the base 32GB model, and you'll pay £100 more for the 128GB version. It's available exclusively from EE, Carphone Warhouse and the Google Store.

From 17 February 2017 the Really Blue Google Pixel is available to pre-order online through EE and in store at Carphone Warehouse, with the phone going on sale 24 February. This is a limited edition, so available only while stocks last.

The 32GB Really Blue Google Pixel will be free on a £45.99/month EE tariff with unlimited UK minutes and tests, plus 7GB of mobile data. You'll also get a free Daydream VR headset.

Design And Build
As you’d expect from a premium phone, the Pixel is made from metal and glass. What’s not obvious is that the case tapers from top to bottom: it’s thicker at the top. This does avoid a camera bump, though and until someone pointed it out, we hadn’t noticed.

The front is featureless aside from the front camera and earpiece, which also houses a stealthy notification LED. The top and bottom bezels are thick like an iPhone, but it’s a shame Google didn’t put a second speaker in the bottom bezel for front-firing stereo sound. In fact, there’s only a mono speaker in the bottom edge. (And note that there are no headphones in the box.)

Positioned in the centre is a USB-C port – that’s USB 3 rather than USB 2 as found on a lot of phones - and there’s a headphone jack off-centre in the top edge. Power and volume keys are on the right – as per usual – and a single nano-SIM tray hides in the left-hand edge. There’s no dual-SIM option and no microSD expansion.

On the back is the opinion-dividing glass panel which is a contrasting colour to the rest of the phone (no matter whether you choose Quite Black, Very Silver or - exclusive to the US - Really Blue). It surrounds the fingerprint scanner, camera, LED flash and microphone.

The finish is so smooth – including the metal – that the Pixel is a very slippery phone, sliding off tables and chairs and out of hands without any persuasion. So a case is a good investment: you can buy Google’s own clear or solid cases and several third-party ones too.

And a case can hide the glass panel, so don’t let the design put you off. Do note, though, that if you’re a ‘naked’ phone person the glass on the rear scratches easily.

Specs And Hardware
Screen
The 5in screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 4 and is an AMOLED panel. It’s half an inch smaller than the Pixel XL’s and has a resolution of 1920x1080, which gives a density of 441ppi. That’s fine for most people and it has great colours, contrast and viewing angles. It also looks perfectly sharp from normal viewing distances.

However, full HD isn’t so great when you look at it close up, such as when using a Google Daydream headset. The Pixel is one of just a handful of phones including the Moto Z which are Daydream ready, and it’s one reason to choose it over its Daydream-incompatible rivals. But the Pixel XL’s 534ppi display is a good reason to opt for the bigger phone if you’re planning to get a Daydream View, even though that phone costs £120 more.

Processor, Storage And Connectivity
Even for £600 you’d expect top-notch components and the Pixel doesn’t disappoint. There’s the Snapdragon 821 (a tweaked version of the 820 that’s around 10 percent quicker), 4GB of RAM, Cat 12 LTE (up to 600Mb/s downloads when networks eventually support it), 802.11ac with 2x2 MIMO, GPS, NFC and Bluetooth 4.2. Cameras (see below) are top notch, too.

Storage is either 32GB or 128GB, and it’s not expandable. The base £599 model has 32GB and – in line with Apple – you’ll pay £100 more for the 128GB version. It’s a shame there are no other storage options, such as 64GB.

But aside from the microSD slot there is one other missing feature: water-resistance. The Pixel has none, so it doesn’t tick a crucial box for many buyers. Samsung and Apple’s competing phones – the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 - will survive an accidental drop in the sink (or even the occasional underwater photo), but the Pixel will not. And that is a shame.

The Pixel Imprint - the circle above - is not just a fingerprint sensor, you can swipe on it to access notifications in a similar way to Huawei phones. Sadly you can't swipe upwards to access to the new app draw (see the software section below), but you can double tap to access the camera and use it to take photos.

Performance
With this hardware, the Pixel is quick. Really quick. It unlocks in a fraction of a second and Android 7.1 is highly responsive. Apps load speedily and there’s plenty of grunt for games.

If you want figures, it scored 4116 in Geekbench 4 (1565 in the single-core test) and in GFXBench, it managed a credible 20fps in the new Car Chase test. This increased to 33fps for Manhattan 3.1, 47fps in the original Manhattan, and 58fps in T-Rex. All are better than the Pixel XL, with the game tests benefiting from the lower screen resolution.

The JetStream browser benchmark returned 54.9, which is slightly behind the XL, but not noticeably.

If performance is your main concern, you can save a packet by going for the OnePlus 3T which uses the same processor and has 2GB more RAM.


Battery Life
The battery – of course – isn’t removable, but there’s quick charge support using the USB-C specification rather than Qualcomm’s technology. You get a quick-charge mains charger in the box as well as USB-C to USB-C, plus USB-C to USB-A cables. In practice, we found the Pixel would charge rapidly even when connected to our in-wall-socket USB port, which was nice.

You can expect it to last a full day of normal use, and a couple of days of really light use. But when used as our main phone, we found there wasn’t enough juice to leave it overnight and make it into work the next morning, so a nightly charge is likely.

Cameras
We loved the cameras on the Google Nexus 6P and 5X, and Google has improved them for the Pixel and Pixel XL, which share the same snappers.

On paper not much has changed: the rear camera has a 12.3Mp sensor with 1.55um pixels an f/2 lens. It focuses using a combination of laser and phase detection, and has a dual-LED flash. Once again with Google phones, though, there’s no optical stabilisation, only EIS.

In use, however, this is a fantastic and capable camera. It takes sharp, well-exposed photos with loads of detail.

Here's a photo shot in HDR+ mode, which does a good job of keeping things relatively sharp and increasing dynamic range (the whole point, of course).

Here's a much less contrasty shot, taken without HDR to show the camera's sharpness:

And this is a 100 percent crop of the original image - you can see individual bricks and a distinct lack of any compression artefacts.

In low light, you will end up with a proportion of blurry photos, especially if you're trying to photograph kids or animals. But in general, low light performance is very good with virtually no noise or artefacts.

Videos, too, are packed with detail. The stabilisation works well at 1080p, but less so at 4K and, because it’s not optical stabilisation, it can be jerk between positions if you pan around slowly rather than the more cinematic smoothness of the OIS on Samsung and Apple’s phones.

Here's a video shot in 4K (and subsequently processed by our system which reduces quality) to show how the stabilisation works in this mode:
And the good news is that you can select 30 or 60fps at 1080p, and either 120fps or 240fps in the slo-mo mode. This is the same as the iPhone 7 offers, and many people will appreciate being able to shoot slo-mo at 1080p.

Around the front is another capable camera, this time with an 8Mp sensor. It will take decent selfies and shoot 1080p video.

Don’t forget, too, that Google gives you unlimited free cloud storage for original, full-resolution photos and videos with the Pixel. That’s a massive bonus that you don’t get with other Android phones. It also mitigates the absence of a microSD slot, since you won’t have to worry about hitting the ‘free up storage’ button as it will only remove photos and videos which have already been backed up to Google Photos online.

Software
Android 7 is a triumph and even as iOS fans, we can appreciate all the nifty features and improvements the OS offers. Of course, since this is a Google phone, you’re getting the interface as Google intended it without the tweaks and overlays foisted upon you by other manufacturers. Plus, you get a guarantee of the next version and much sooner than other manufacturers’ roll-outs (plenty are still on Android 6, some even Android 5).

One is naturally the new Google Assistant. This will likely appear on Google’s older phones soon, but it’s currently exclusive to the Pixels. It’s remarkably good at handling natural language, and has no problem following the train of a conversation. Siri can also do this – to an extent – but it’s where others such as Amazon Alexa fall down badly.

You can say “Will it rain today”, listen to the answer and then say “What about at the weekend” or “What about in Manchester” and the Assistant will understand and give you the information. However, her capabilities are somewhat limited compared to Alexa.

Google Home is on the way, but the Pixel’s Assistant cannot yet control your Philips Hue lights or turn the heating up, simply returning web searches or saying “I can’t do that yet”.

She also refuses to book tables at restaurants, or arrange an Uber to work.

Those functions will surely arrive soon in the UK, but for now, the Assistant can only do Siri and Cortana-like tasks such as setting a timer or alarm, sending a message or email, launching apps, navigating to a destination, playing music and checking sports scores. And, of course, searching Google.

There are a few Americanisms which need to be removed from the UK Assistant, too, such as her warning that “Sidewalks may be slippery” when asked if it would rain later.

Another great Nougat feature is clearly nicked from iOS: the ability to long-press on an app’s icon to get shortcut menus. So long-pressing on Messages brings up recent contact, as it does for the Phone app. Long-press on YouTube and you get shortcuts to search, subscriptions and trending videos.
It’s a neat addition and doesn’t require a 3D Touch screen.

As you can see, the launcher has a new look, with new round icons. We like them, but as with the phone's glass rear, they are likely to divide opinions. There are new navigation buttons at the bottom, a new app dock and the Google search bar is now a tab on the left.

You now have to swipe up to access the app draw rather than tap an icon - it's a bit confusing at first. The Google tab at the top simply takes you to the Google Now section with a swipe to the right, a gesture most Android users are already familiar with.

There are all the features and settings you’d expect from a modern mobile OS, and some are more granular than in iOS. The ability to set different Do not disturb times for different days (or even events or just for the next hour) is handy, and the shortcuts for Total silence, Alarms only and Priority only again give you more control than you get in iOS, where ‘silent’ mode doesn’t prevent vibrations unless you turn them off separately in the settings.

However, while we applaud the Night Light option which reduces blue light, there’s no way to change the tint as you can in iOS: it’s either on or off.

In other respects the software is pretty much the same as Marshmallo in terms of the notification bar and recent apps menu. Of course, you'll get the usual selection of Google apps pre-installed, including the new Duo and Allo. Yet another nice new feature is that you can blur your wallpaper to different degrees, and the default wallpaper has a subtle animation when you unlock the phone.

Specs
  • 5in Full HD display 1080x1920
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • 12MP rear camera
  • 8MP front camera
  • 2770mAh battery
  • USB-C charging port
  • Fast Charging support
  • headphone jack
  • SIM card slot
  • Android 7.1 OS



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