Early 2017 update
The Google Pixel remains our favorite phone, bar none — unless you’re looking for a bigger screen, in which case we’d recommend its big brother, the Pixel XL.
The Pixel strikes a terrific balance between speed and beauty, ergonomics and straight-up usability. It’s the purest vehicle for Android Nougat 7.0, Google’s mobile operating system. It’s a relatively quick-charger. And it offers the most seamless integration with Google’s Daydream View VR headset (though the list of compatible phones continues to grow).
Google Pixel: Quite, really and very good-looking
Of course, the Pixel isn’t perfect; the rear panel’s glass treatment may be an aesthetic misfire for some, and it’s vulnerable to cracking. It’s also not as water-resistant as others, and though its camera is superb, the iPhone 7 Plus delivers superior video quality in portrait mode (read more about how the two stack up). Still, these are mostly minor quibbles; if you’re looking for an alternative to the latest model iPhones, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL are worth a serious look.
Looking ahead, Google hasn’t officially stated anything yet about the future of the Pixel line, but there are rumors swirling about innovative AR and VR developments and, possibly, a foldable display. But with the next Pixel not expected before October 2017 (a year after the original debuted), Android fans may be tempted by the Samsung Galaxy S8, which is rumored to be hitting in March or April.
Editors’ note, February 16, 2017: The original Google Pixel review, first published in October 2016, follows.
With the Pixel, Google stepped up to bat, called its shot, and knocked it out of the park. If there was any lingering doubt about Google’s capacity to step out on its own, it’s gone. Sure, HTC may have put the phones together, but Google designed, engineered, and branded them. And the timing couldn’t be more fortunate with Samsung still emerging from the hangover of a very difficult 2016.
Starting at $649 in the US, £599 in the UK and AU$1,079 in Australia, the Pixel is fast, with an elevated, smooth design. Heavy investments in its camera resulted in a nimble shooter too. Though its special portrait mode is poor, it otherwise takes amazing shots that rival those of the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
It’s also the first phone to have the search giant’s new, thoroughly robust voice-and-search service, called Google Assistant, built in. It’s the most natural voice assistant I’ve experienced, and comes closest to giving me that Jarvis from “Iron Man” experience all these assistants appear to be chasing.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge may still be the most visually striking phone on the market. But, if you’re wary of Samsung phones, the Pixel — a strong contender for the best premium Android phone — makes a terrific alternative.
Why the Pixel is one of the best Android phones right now
So what’s so great about the Pixel? Aside from the premium hardware, like the camera and processor, it packs new software features that are handy to use day-to-day. Read on to find out more.
The camera is (mostly) awesome
As you can tell from its name, Google makes a big deal about the Pixel’s camera, and it is superb. It takes even better shots than the already stellar iPhone 7 Plus, which I consider to be the reigning champion of camera phones. If you want the full scoop on how these two compare, check out CNET’s feature, Google Pixel vs. iPhone 7 Plus: Which camera is better?
The camera is fast, images are in focus, and colors look vibrant. Close-up shots appear especially sharp and refined. Landscape scenes retain an impressive amount of detail and depth, even with objects that are far away.
Photos taken in dim lighting understandably weren’t as sharp and had more digital artifacts. But the camera did a good job at capturing available light and brightening up scenes. The flash made skin tones look natural as well, and if it hadn’t been for a few reflections in eyes, it would’ve been hard to tell in the photos that it was even used.
The front-facing camera is excellent, too. It has a wide enough lens to fit a lot of content (read: faces) in each frame, and it softened skin tones enough to look appealing without appearing too airbrushed. To see the images I captured, check out the slideshow below.
Just how good is the Google Pixel’s camera?
The camera can shoot 4K video, and though it doesn’t have optical image stabilization, it uses a combination of the gyroscope and software to steady your videos all the same. This feature works well, and it’s useful when you’re moving while recording footage. But it does give your videos a sort of surreal, almost drone-like quality.
Google Assistant helps organize your day
The Pixel is deeply integrated with Google’s search services, and it’s the first hardware device to have Google Assistant baked in. Assistant is an AI bot that uses machine learning and Google’s vast search database to answer all kinds of questions you throw its way. It can schedule reminders, look up facts and places to eat, set alarms, give directions, translate phrases and more. And the more you use it, the more it’s supposed to learn about you and become more personalized.
Unlike Google Now (the company’s previous iteration of a digital assistant), Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, Assistant is genuinely conversational. You can use your voice to speak to it in a natural, back-and-forth way, and it has a chat-like interface. After every interaction, there are suggested follow-up queries you can tap on to keep the conversation going.
Like with most voice assistants, you forget that they’re there. But when you do remember, Assistant can be useful. It doesn’t hear every question correctly every time, but when it does, it works relatively quickly. Compared to Siri, which sort of checks out after it finishes each task, Assistant builds upon my previous queries, so it made me interact with it longer.
Android Nougat packs some sweetness
- The device runs a pure version of Android 7.1 Nougat. It’s the first to have Google’s messaging service Allo and its video calling app Duo preloaded (you can uninstall them if you want).
- Launcher shortcuts, aka Google’s take on Apple’s 3D Touch, lets you long-press on some apps to call up additional menu options.
- You can send GIFs inside Google Keyboard, for all your GIF-fy delights.
- To reduce eye strain from viewing a bright, bluish display at night, there’s a Night Light setting that tints the screen yellow. (Other Android phones and the iPhone already do this.)
- On the back is a fingerprint reader for added user security and services such as Android Pay. It works quickly, and as a bonus you can use it to slide down notifications on the screen.
It looks and feels great
The Pixel and Pixel XL are nearly identical, but the latter has a bigger, sharper display and a bumped-up battery. Other than that, they’re pretty much the same. Both are polished and well crafted, and their sleek, one-piece aluminum design make them more elegant than previous Nexus devices.
Granted, the Pixel does sort of look like the iPhone, but it has chamfered edges and it’s wedge-shaped, which likely keeps the camera flush and avoids an unsightly bump. I also have to agree with what CNET’s Stephen Shankland wrote about the Pixel earlier: it hits a Goldilocks area of weight and heft. While the Nexus 6P was too heavy and the 5X felt too hollow, the Pixel feels just right.
As for that funky two-toned thing on the back, it struck me as odd the first time I saw it, too. Others may never like it (though I suppose you can slap a case over it), but it eventually grew on me. The juxtaposition between a matte-metal finish and a glossy panel is unique, and the glass is resilient to scratches and scuffs (unlike other glossy finishes we’ve tested). And while I couldn’t test Google’s claim that this shade is supposed to help with the antennas, it did make gripping the phone easier.
It’s just as fast as its Android rivals
With its Snapdragon 821 processor, the Pixel works fast and fluidly. I didn’t notice any lag with day-to-day tasks like launching the camera, quitting apps and calling up the keyboard. Graphics-intense games like Riptide GP 2 delivered sharp scenery and high frame rates.
On paper, the Pixel scored comparable benchmarks to its Android competitors. It fell right in between the expected 27,000-30,000 score mark for 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited test, and had the highest multi-core score for Geekbench 4. The iPhone 7, however, blew these benchmarks out of the water, exceeding all these devices by a notable margin.
But unless you’re a hardcore mobile gamer, these numbers shouldn’t mean much. Yes, the iPhone 7 is lightning quick, but so are all these other devices. And when it comes to regular people and how we use our phones every day, the differences in these benchmarks aren’t very discernable in real life. Any of these flagship phones should be fast enough to satisfy most of your mobile needs.
Why the Google Pixel isn’t perfect
As great as the Pixel is, it has weak points that keep it from being the ultimate phone.
The camera has a few drawbacks
The camera’s one big flaw is the optional Lens Blur mode that uses software to attempt the same artsy background blur as the iPhone 7 Plus does in Portrait mode. The Pixel bombs this, with inconsistent, patchy results. The iPhone 7 Plus’ dual cameras nail it.
The camera also defaults to HDR+Auto. You can toggle off this option, but it resets to Auto every time you launch the camera. This is annoying for those who prefer to shoot their images au naturel by default.
In addition, while low-light images looked great, video wasn’t so stellar. Objects looked smeary and muddy compared to the 7 Plus. For more info on video quality, check out our deep dive.
Lastly, photos are accessible through Google’s Photos app, and you get unlimited cloud storage for your pictures and videos at full resolution (yes, even 4K). You can turn off cloud syncing, but if you’re a stickler for privacy and don’t want your photos connected to Google servers in any way, you should go ahead and download a different gallery app.
It isn’t dunkable
Unlike the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Samsung’s 2016 Galaxy phones and several Sony handsets, the Pixel can’t take a dunking. It’s rated just IP53 for dust and water resistance, which means it will only survive a light spray of water. Ultimately, that’s disappointing for a phone you’ll be carrying in 2017.
Another design weakness was how dim the screen looked outdoors. Having a screen that’s comfortable to view in direct sunlight is a challenge for most handsets, but it was particularly difficult for the Pixel. I often had to shade it with my hand, which was a drag when trying to take photos.
The battery’s good, but not special
The Pixel survived a solid work day with medium to heavy usage, but needed a charge at the end of the day. In our lab tests, the Pixel clocked in an average of 13 hours and 12 minutes of continuous video playback on Airplane mode. That’s longer than the iPhone 7, LG G5, HTC 10 and Motorola Moto Z, but the Samsung Galaxy S7 outlasted all its competitors with a 16-hour run.
The Pixel’s battery employs fast charging technology. In 30 minutes, it was back up at 42 percent and was fully charged within 1 hour and 45 minutes. This isn’t superfast compared to, say, phones that use Qualcomm’s Quick Charging technology. For them, a full re-up after an hour and a half is the usual sweet spot.
Verizon’s the only carrier that’ll sell it
The Pixel is available unlocked on Google’s online site. You can also buy it from Verizon (and save $300 if you trade in your old device), which is the only network to sell it. This isn’t a huge deal, since the unlocked version will work on other carriers, but it’d be nice to walk into a brick-and-mortar AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint store and be able to purchase a Pixel. For such a hyped phone, it should be available through more channels. If you want more retail info, check out how to buy the Pixel here.
Premium machinery and some serendipity
The Pixel represents a new era for Google phones, and it’s off to a strong start. True, it has its flaws. It’s not truly water resistant like its main rivals, and its battery life isn’t impressive. In that regard, the Galaxy S7 is still the Android champ. It’s also expensive, which is off-putting when you know that phones like the OnePlus 3 perform just as well and don’t cost nearly as much.
But the Pixel is a beaut. It runs fast and comes at a time when the largest Android phone-maker, Samsung, is hitting some rough luck. Save for its Lens Blur feature, the Pixel’s camera exceeded my high expectations and gives the iPhone a run for its money. Google Assistant feels more natural than other voice search systems, and it’s handy for organizing your daily life (if you remember it’s there).
Now that many are justifiably cautious of Samsung phones, the Pixel is a great option for Android users wondering where to go next. Its brand cachet already rivals Samsung and Apple. Unlike the Nexus models of years past, you don’t have to be an Android enthusiast to appreciate it. The only thing you’ll have to be enthusiastic about is owning a phone that’s beautiful, takes awesome photos and has smooth performance. If you are, the Pixel’s for you.