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Google Pixel XL review

UPDATE: Live Cases put to the test - Google's first phone is a lot more important than it looks...

Let’s cut to the chase. The Pixel XL isn’t just important – it’s one of the most meaningful things Google has ever done when it comes to smartphones.

And yes, I know I’m talking about the company behind the world’s most popular mobile OS.

This top-spec handset isn’t just meant to put every other Android phone to shame – it’s supposed to convince iPhone owners to make the switch too.

I’m sad to say goodbye to the great value Nexus range, but I can see Google’s thinking behind the name change. Nexus phones were for geeks, right? All the cool kids bought Samsung Galaxies. Before they started exploding.

The Pixel XL is going to change that. This is the first Google phone, built to keep Android die-hards happy and beat Apple at its own game.

Google Pixel XL design: Glass half full

For a flagship phone, the Pixel XL doesn’t exactly have killer looks. There’s no Galaxy-baiting curved screen, or iPhone-esque gold or pink colours here. Sorry, rose gold.

Instead, you get an all-metal frame, glass front, and chunky bezels at the top and bottom. Seriously, why does it need massive bezels when Android has on-screen buttons?

It’s not ugly by any means, just a little… meh, in both the black/gunmetal grey and silver/white colour choices. Because of course the UK doesn’t get the eye-catching Blue version.

Those rounded edges feel comfortable enough in your palm, and 168g hardly makes it a heavyweight, but it’s a little thick at 8.5mm.

There’s a bit more personality going on around back, with a split design that’s two thirds matte metal and one third shiny glass. You won’t find any HTC branding here, even though the Taiwanese company actually builds the Pixel XL – just a subtle Google logo.

It’s also where you’ll find the fingerprint scanner, conveniently placed exactly where you index finger naturally rests. Sure, you can’t unlock the phone when it’s lying flat on a desk, but honestly, do you do that a lot? Thought not. This divided opinions in the Stuff office, but personally speaking, I think Google made the right call moving it to the back instead of the front.

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Google Pixel XL features: HEAD IN THE CLOUD

That fingerprint sensor does double duty as a quick way to bring down the notification drawer, without having to reach up to the top of the screen. It’s a godsend here, as the large 5.5in screen and thick bezels stretch your thumbs to their limits.

Throw in Nougat’s new Split Screen mode and it finally feels like a bigger screen phone running stock Android makes sense. I didn’t have two apps open side-by-side very often, but it was handy to have the option just a tap or two away.

Google’s added plenty of other neat little touches, like the USB C port on the bottom for hassle-free charging (no more having to flip-reverse your cable every time you go to plug it in) and a headphone jack on top – that rarest of extras in a 2016 smartphone.

There are a few omissions that might raise an eyebrow, like the lack of waterproofing. Now I’ve never once dropped my phone into a pint glass or a pub toilet, but it’s still one box that Samsung, Sony and even Apple have ticked with their top-end phones.

The one thing I really miss, though? a microSD card slot.

With the 128GB model commanding a £100 premium over the basic 32GB version, you’re either going to have to splash out upfront or be careful with your installed apps and downloaded music – even with Google automatically flushing your photos into the cloud when you run low on space.


Google Pixel XL camera: PICTURE PERFECT

That’s right – every Pixel and Pixel XL get completely unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos. You can snap away all day and never run out of room for full resolution stills or 4K videos.

Good job, too. Google reckons the Pixel XL has the best camera ever fitted to a phone.

The 12.3MP sensor has large 1.55μm pixels and is paired with an f/2.0 aperture lens – the same combination that served the Nexus 6P so well last year. The underlying hardware is different for 2016, though, and there’s plenty of software magic on-board to help your photos look their best.

Oh, and it doesn’t bulge out the back of the phone. Take that, Apple.

Video gets a big boost too, with electronic image stabilisation doing a great job of smoothing out handheld videos. It’s not quite as good as having a stabilised gimbal, but it’s the best I’ve seen from a phone. Walk slowly and softly, and the results look seriously cinematic.

It’s just a shame there’s so much rolling shutter whenever you point the lens at artificial lights. It’s not so noticeable in stills or even recorded video, but the live viewfinder picks it up instantly. It’s irritating, and hopefully something Google can fix with a software update.

The results speak for themselves: with the HDR+ mode set to auto, the Pixel XL takes some impressively detailed photos. Outdoors, exposure was consistently excellent and colours had real punch, without straying too far from reality. Bright skies stayed brilliant blue, but without losing any foreground colour or contrast.

Inside, it does a great job with faces, preserving features while exposing the background correctly. You can even get some great depth of field effects when shooting close-ups, without jumping into Google’s Lens Blur software setting.

It might not have optical image stabilisation, but the combination of phase detect & laser autofocus meant barely any of my shots were out of focus. The lack of shutter lag really helps here too.

Hold down the shutter button and it’ll snap a continuous burst of photos at 10fps, automatically turning the result into an animation and picking out the sharpest snaps for you to browse through. It’s brilliant for catching fast-moving action.

The front-facing camera is good for 8MP selfies, although the f/2.4 lens lets in less light and the 1.4µm pixels are smaller to boot. It’ll get the job done in daylight, but you’re better off with the rear camera when the lights go down.

It’s on the back where you’ll find the dual-tone flash. It adds some much-needed illumination to dark scenes, but two tiny LEDs are only good enough for portraits and close-ups.

Is it the best smartphone camera around, as DXOMark claims? Tough one. It’ll still blow out an extremely bright sky when trying to expose your subject if it’s in the shade, but with the right light, it really does look every bit as good as the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 Plus – if not better, when HDR+ exposes a scene just right.

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Google Pixel XL software: CAN I ASSIST YOU?

Google spent more time talking up the Pixel’s software than hardware specs at its launch event – and with good reason. It’s the first phone to arrive with a pure, untouched, vanilla version of Android 7.1 Nougat.

Or rather, mostly untouched. The XL is also rocking Google’s Pixel launcher, which comes with the Google Assistant built in.

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s another AI helper like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa – one that can listen out for questions and use the web to find you the answers. Either tap and hold the home button, or say “OK Google” and it’ll spring into action.

It’s great at handling the basics: setting alarms and reminders, checking the weather forecast, converting units of measurement, and looking up simple facts.

There’s a bit of Google-specific cleverness, too, finding holiday snaps from Google Photos based on date or location, crawling through your emails for flight details, and plotting driving routes on Google Maps.

Try to be too clever, though, and you’ll usually be given a web link instead of a spoken answer. You can’t identify songs yet, and until apps start supporting Assistant, you’re tied to Google’s own apps – so no Citymapper route guidance, no jumping straight into a particular show on Netflix, and no looking up Facebook profiles with your voice.

Is Assistant a killer feature you’d actually buy a Pixel just to have? Right now, no. But Google’s got big plans for the future, with app integrations and advanced AI promising a lot more to come. Siri is a big part of iOS now, but it took a few years to get there – expect Assistant to be something similar.

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Google Pixel XL Android: Pure and simple

The other benefits of getting a home-grown Googlephone are of course instant updates and patches, which will land on the Pixel XL before any other handset. If you’re a hardcore Android fan, this’ll be a major selling point.

You’ll probably love the new look launcher, too. A swipe up shows the app drawer now, and a long press on any Google app brings up several contextual shortcuts for jumping right into where you want to be – just like the iPhone’s Force Touch, only without the extra hardware.

This would be great if every app used it, but a lot of third party ones don’t. Long press on an incompatible app and you’ll pick it up instead, ready to move it around the home screen. Annoying.

There were a few bugs and glitches in my pre-release review unit, like Bluetooth headphones dropping their connection with alarming regularity. I can’t say I had as many issues on the XL as we saw on the vanilla Pixel, though – so hopefully these are things that’ll get fixed quickly with software updates.

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Google Pixel XL Screen: OLED THE WAY

Google Pixel XL Screen: OLED THE WAY

An extra half-inch of screen space and a few extra pixels are all that separates the Pixel XL from its smaller brother.

Well ok, more than a few pixels. The 5in phone makes do with a 1080p display, but the 5.5in Pixel XL has a 2560×1440 resolution panel.

This might make it more of a handling nightmare for small-handed gadgeteers, but it really does help squeeze more onscreen at once – especially once you’ve tweaked the font size in the Settings menu.

It looks super sharp in the flesh, with punchy colours and excellent viewing angles. The AMOLED panel pumps out the kind of deep blacks and rich contrast I’m used to seeing on Samsung’s phones, without the over-saturation that usually comes with it.

Sure, whites aren’t quite as brilliantly bright as on an LCD screen, but it’s easily up there with the best 2016 has had to offer.

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Google Pixel XL performance: POWER UP

Google Pixel XL performance: POWER UP

It’s a similar story when it comes to internals. After all, what self-respecting 2016 flagship phone doesn’t have a Snapdragon processor and 4GB of RAM?

The Pixel XL is rocking a Snapdragon 821, Qualcomm’s latest and greatest quad-core chip. That’s more than enough to make Android Nougat feel as zippy and responsive as any other phone I’ve used this year, if not more so. If you’re just flipping between WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube, it’s practically overkill.

If you’re bothered about benchmarks, the XL scores 4138 in Geekbench 4’s multicore test – edging ahead of the OnePlus 3 and last year’s Snapdragon 820, but lagging behind the iPhone 7 Plus. Apple’s phone scored an impressive 5452, thanks in part to the A10 Fusion chip working hand-in-hand with iOS, rather than relying on an off-the-shelf chip.

All that power comes in handy when you’re blitzing through Asphalt 8’s hectic race circuits, though. Frame rates are silky smooth, even on the XL’s 2K resolution screen. There’s nothing on the Google Play store right now that this can’t handle. It’ll also come into its own in November when Google’s Daydream View VR headset arrives.

The phone does start to heat up if you attempt a marathon play session, but you’ll rarely work it that hard over the course of an average day.

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Google Pixel XL battery life: FULL CHARGE

It might have room inside for a bigger battery, but the Pixel XL needs it to keep that higher resolution screen running. That means it doesn’t exactly have much stamina.

Stick to the basics, like FaceBook, Twitter and WhatsApp, and you’ll easily get an entire day of use out of a single charge, but battery-sapping games and video streaming will drain you down to the danger zone in about twelve hours.

Basically, if you’re going to be hitting Clash Royale hard, make sure you’ve got a plug socket handy.

There’s no wireless charging either, but as long as you’ve got the bundled fast charging adapter to hand, you’ll be able to zap in an extra seven hours of battery in just 15 minutes. It’s handy when you’re in a pinch, but only when you’ve got the right plug with you.


OK, custom cases are nothing new, but they’re a little trickier to find if you’ve just slapped down a lot of cash on a brand new phone. Especially if that phone isn’t a Samsung or Apple.

The good news for potential Pixel owners is that Google’s got you covered. It’s created some bespoke Live cases of its own, which are just begging for you to upload your snaps and create a completely unique look.

Google’s website lets you drag, rotate and zoom your pics into place, then add some kitsch colour effects to really make it stand out from the crowd. I went for a double-dipped colour gradient, making my nighttime London Landscape look like the sun was bleeding from orange to purple. Neat.

Not feeling creative? You can pick from a small selection of Google-curated art and photography, or layer on one of your favourite places from Google Maps instead.

The matte finish is fantastic, and has withstood scratches and scrapes that would have left other cases looking battered. Naturally it’s a perfect fit for the Pixel XL (or vanilla Pixel, if you like), without adding a whole lot of extra bulk to an already sizeable phone.

There’s even an NFC button on the back, which can open the camera, toggle Wi-Fi on and off, launch a particular app, or flip through different home screen wallpapers. It takes quite a bit of force to trigger it, but still – it’s a handy inclusion.

£35 isn’t cheap for a case, even one you’ve designed yourself, but when the finished result lands on your doormat a few weeks later you’ll be impressed.

Google Pixel XL verdict

The Pixel XL is a bit of a puzzle. A £719 puzzle that I’m not sure I’ve managed to solve after a week of using one.

Right now, though, the OnePlus 3 is still the best value Android phone – it’s half the price of the XL, but matches it for build quality and a near-stock version of Android. If specs, design and features like waterproofing are more important, the Galaxy S7 Edge still has the… well, edge.

There’s no drop-dead gorgeous design here. No mind-blowing battery life. No water resistance. It makes it tough to justify such a high price – and going purely on hardware specs, I’m not sure I can.

But then that never stopped Apple, did it?

The Pixel XL wants to be more than the sum of its parts. It’s not perfect, but it is still a genuine alternative to the iPhone – if you’re after simplicity above all else. A brilliant camera, powerful internals and an undiluted Android OS that bleeds Google right down to the core help too, but it’s the purity of the Google experience that you’re really paying for here.

While other manufacturers were duking it out in the mid-range, the Pixel XL showed us how potent a combination Google’s own hardware and software could be. With a few more software updates and tweaks, it’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

Buy the Google Pixel XL here from Currys

Tech specs

SCREEN 5.5in, 2560×1440 AMOLED
CPU Quad-core Snapdragon 821
CAMERA 12.3MP rear w/ phase detect & laser autofocus, dual-LED flash, 8MP front
STORAGE 32GB on-board
OPERATING SYSTEM Android 7.1 Nougat
DIMENSIONS 155x76x8.5mm, 168g

Stuff Says…

Score: 4/5

Understated looks and a focus on software over top-spec hardware hide what an important phone this is – even if hardware geeks won’t be blown away

Good Stuff

Fast camera that takes quality snaps

As slick and streamlined as Android gets

Bad Stuff

Only average battery life

Marmite school of design

No standout features