The Pixel XL features top-of-the-line specs to introduce Android 7.1 Nougat to the world. This VR-capable phone has a fast processor, smart AI software and a superb camera, all sandwiched into a funky design.
- One of the best phone cameras around
- Streamlined Android software
- Google Assistant is promising
- More expensive than a Nexus phone
- Peculiar design and no always-on screen
- No stereo speakers or waterproofing
Update: Google Pixel XL is in stock for some configurations, including Really Blue, and our review now includes Google Daydream View headset impressions.
The Google Pixel XL, along with the Google Pixel, is the first phone ‘made [almost entirely] by Google’, and it’s the best way to experience the latest and greatest that Android software has to offer.
It puts the immense power of Google search behind everything you do with the all-new Google Assistant, a context-understanding AI that’s often smarter than Siri and Cortana. Sorry, Apple and Microsoft fans.
The Pixel XL also launches with the Android 7.1 Nougat update, which gives the phone virtual reality powers when paired with the newly released Google Daydream View headset.
Even if you’re not into VR, this means it has top-of-the-line specs good enough for power-hungry gamers, and that’s fantastic news for anyone who wants a fast phone years down the road.
The phone debuts the Snapdragon 821 processor, with 4GB of RAM inside of a glass-and-metal body. The camera is touted as ‘best in class’, and the 5.5-inch Quad HD screen looks superb.
Google is ditching the affordable, developer-focused Nexus brand in favor of the Pixel XL and its smaller 5-inch Google Pixel counterpart. This makes these new handsets more expensive, but they also showcase greater ambition on Google’s part.
The Google Pixel XL is sized and priced to compete with the elegantly designed Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (that’s the one that doesn’t explode) and iPhone 7 Plus – and Google has picked the perfect time to launch a brand new entry on our best phones list.
Right now, with Apple’s headphone jack-less iPhone 7 irritating longtime fans and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 cancellation disappointing users, loyal customers of those brands may be looking elsewhere for the first time in years. So let’s zoom into this Pixel XL, to see if it’s as good as all of the hype claims.
What’s in the box? Find out in our Google Pixel XL unboxing video
Price and release date
- More expensive than any Nexus handset
- But in line with Apple, Samsung and LG phones
- On contract from Verizon in US and EE in UK
The Google Pixel XL launched on October 20, and it’s Google’s smartphone all grown up. That means it’s more expensive than the now discontinued Nexus 6P. These are adult prices, folks.
Higher prices haven’t mattered to Android users. Google Pixel XL is sold out for the next several weeks through the Google Store and Verizon. Google’s official site has you join a nondescript waitlist, while Verizon promises the 32GB phone by the end of December and the 128GB phone by January 2017. Ouch.
Your best bet to finding a Google Pixel XL in stock in the US is to check out Best Buy. The American retailer ships it as soon as this week. If you find it at a nearby store, you can reserve it online now and pick it up today. Word of advice: Don’t go to the store without buying and reserving it online first.
It costs $769 (£719, AU$1,269) for the 32GB version, and $869 (£819, AU$1,419) for the 128GB model. There’s no 64GB in-between edition, and no microSD slot for expandable storage.
You’ll notice that these are the exact same prices as for the iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and new LG V20 in the US, so Google is simply following an unfortunate trend there.
Not willing to pay full price and willing to wait? In the US, the Pixel is a Verizon exclusive on-contract, costs $32.08 a month over 24 months and comes with day one updates, according to the American carrier.
But we still suggest skipping the contract and paying everything up front for the SIM-free Pixel XL. It’s not filled with Verizon apps, and it works just as well on AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint thanks to having both GSM and CDMA antennas.
In the UK, you can get the Pixel on contract from EE, paying £9.99 upfront and then £55.99 per month for 10GB of data and unlimited calls and texts.
- Premium – but peculiar glass-and-metal – design
- No camera bump on the back whatsoever
- Not waterproof, and no stereo speakers
Google called the Pixel XL design “bold” during its initial announcement, noting that the back of the phone’s glass-and-metal makeup gives it “personality and character.”
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s kind of deserved. It’s almost as if Google heard that people like metal phones, but also like glass phones, so it decided to throw in both.
It’s an odd, two-toned mix on the back side, making the Google Pixel XL feel like we’re one step away from unwrapping the Neapolitan ice cream of smartphones.
The good news is that, as funky as it looks, the materials are solid: strengthened Gorilla Glass 4 for the top third around the rear fingerprint sensor and camera, and polished anodized aluminum on the bottom two-thirds where your hand wraps around the phone.
Clutching this phablet shouldn’t be a problem if you could get the taller Nexus 6P in your hands. It measures 153 x 76 x 8.58mm, and tapers off to a depth of 7.31mm around the back.
It’s slightly thicker and boxier than most phones, including the iPhone 7 Plus at 7.3mm, but not quite as tall or, more importantly, wide. Normal-sized hands will do okay here.
Google has thrown a lot into the Pixel XL design, but there’s one thing you won’t find: an annoying camera bump. The rear camera is completely flush with the glass plate on the back, a design feat that Apple and Samsung have yet to achieve.
Unfortunately, the Google Pixel XL doesn’t live up to those manufacturers’ waterproofing standards. Its IP53 rating means you can’t get this one wet, never mind accidentally dunk it in the sink, pool or toilet. That’s a deal breaker for the clumsy among us.
On the front, surrounding the 5.5-inch display is a rather big ‘chin’ for a phone that contains no physical home button. All of the face buttons are on-screen, while the riveted sleep/wake button and smooth volume rocker are on the right side.
It does, however, use that extra room at the top to include a headphone jack. There’s a speaker on the bottom, but while there are two speaker grilles, there’s just one firing out sound. If you accidentally cover it up with your finger (which happens a lot when playing games and watching movies), it kills the volume. It’s extremely easy to do holding the phone in landscape mode.
Showing that it does, in fact, have ‘personality’, the Google Pixel XL colors include Very Silver, Quite Black and Really Blue, a poke at ridiculous phone-color naming conventions.
Really Blue, a limited-edition and, so far, US-only Google Pixel color, sold out within hours of the pre-order launch. Thankfully, Google promised to restock it and it did on December 1. It’s not that limited. You may have to join a wait list, depending on your phone configuration of choice.
You’re probably going to get a Live Case to cover up the peculiar glass-and-metal design anyway, so if you can do without a water-resistant phone and stereo speakers, you’ll be fine.
- Bright and colorful 5.5-inch AMOLED display
- Better for VR than the 5-inch Google Pixel
- No rise-to-wake or always-on screen
The Google Pixel XL further proves why AMOLED displays look the best for smartphones, thanks to its colorful and bright screen that outclasses LCD panels every time.
It’s vivid and ready for virtual reality on a budget, the latter being one key reason we’d suggest you upgrade from the normal-sized, 1080p Google Pixel. If you’re into VR, big phones and more battery life, this one’s for you. If not, save your money.
The screen looks better than an iPhone 7 Plus, but it’s missing one key feature we like about Apple’s display and newer Samsung and LG handsets: a rise-to-wake or always-on screen.
Having to reach for the tiny, side-mounted sleep/wake button on this phone just to light up the lock screen made us miss this informative display feature.
The rear fingerprint sensor pad (not a button) lights up and unlocks the phone with authentication, too, but that’s only useful when it’s in your hand, not sitting on a desk. At least give up a double-tap-wake feature to light up the lockscreen.
An Ambient Display modes does lights the screen up in a black-and-white color palette when notifications come in, but it’s just not the same.
Google has finally upgraded its new phone to include a Night Light mode that matches the iOS 9.3 feature. It lacks the adjustable orange-to-blue levels Apple has had from the beginning, and turns from blue to orange rather abruptly at sunset, but it’s a start.
The Google Pixel XL ushers in a lot of firsts: Android 7.1 Nougat, Google Assistant and the new Snapdragon 821 processor (a chip that hasn’t launched outside of Asia before today).
That’s why you’re paying a lot more for a Pixel vs a Nexus phone: usually we’re getting some new software and six-month-old internal specs. But Qualcomm is debuting its latest chip here.
The idea is that you’re going to have a long-lasting phone and a better experience in the time that you do have it. That’s almost how we feel about the entire package.
- Smarter than Siri, Cortana and Google Now
- Contextually understands words ‘it’ and ‘here’
- Can’t ‘name that tune’and gets mixed up by apostrophes
Google Assistant is your personal AI buddy that’s one graduating class ahead of classmates Siri, Cortana and Google Now for voice commands. It holds a two-way conversation, and actually understands context.
Asking “Okay Google. When is the next Presidential Debate?” brings back a correct response in the US. Asking “what channel is it on” gives you an answer, too, despite the use of the word “it.”
Three years ago, Google foresaw that for voice searches to become truly effective, the AI would need to understand what “it” means, and we’re finally seeing that play out in our phones with simple questions and answers.
“Okay Google. How long does it take to get to Downtown LA?” comes up with a response (always too long) and a link to Google Maps. “What if I biked there?” returns a new time estimate and map with the harrowing bike route. Amazing.
“Okay Google. What’s a zebra?” followed by “What color is it?” followed by “Show me photos” all bring back relevant results, and it’s all baked into an overlay window in the operating system. We know a lot about Zebras now.
Just for fun, we asked, “What do you think of Apple?” which resulted in “They have good products. I’m a fan.” “What do you think of Siri?” returned “She seems clever.” Maybe another backhanded compliment?
This is the same Google Assistant that’s coming to the Google Home speaker, to take on Amazon Echo and the e-tailer’s Alexa AI. It’s already an amazing rival, but not perfect.
Going back to ask “When’s the next Presidential Debate?” with an apostrophe confuses the AI, which returns only partially helpful web results that you have to tap on and read. No thanks. Reading is for chumps (except for you, of course).
It’s also only able to toggle some of the Android system commands (You can’t turn Night Light on and off with your voice, for example), and it can’t “Name that Tune yet.” Siri and even Google Now can do this. That’s basic bot!
The good (and scary) news is that Google controls so much of our search data that it’s likely to anticipate everything we want to know. It’s only going to get smarter, and this is a intriguing start.
Interface and apps
- Unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos
- Ready for Google Daydream View with Android 7.1
- Battery life information and Google Allo are too hidden
The Google Pixel XL shows that it’s ready for the future with Android 7.1 Nougat, along with the promise of operating system updates for the next two years and security updates for three years.
Its minimalist approach to the home screen and the notifications shade is an unassuming contrast to the depth (and real focus) of Google Assistant.
People love that about stock Android vs an interface like Samsung’s TouchWiz. You’re not going to be bombarded with too many unnecessary apps – what’s here, you’ll actually use.
Google Photos is a great example. It provides an easy backup solution for all of your media, and photos and videos shot with your Pixel XL get backed up at full resolution with unlimited cloud storage.
That’s a huge relief if you only go for the 32GB Google Pixel XL and aren’t into taking photos with a DSLR and transferring them to your phone – that still counts against your cloud quota.
But this phone is more than a fast pass to early Google updates and a clean, straightforward Android interface. This year it actually debuts a second (literal) front-facing feature: VR.
We tested out the Google Daydream View headset with the Pixel XL, and it worked as it should: giving us an immersive 360-degree virtual reality experience via an inexpensive headset.
It’s akin to the Samsung Gear VR, but Google’s software library is just getting underway. That should change as more Android phones begin to work with the fabric-coated headset.
Google Pixel XL may also be your first chance to test out Google Allo (messaging) and Google Duo (video chat). They come pre-installed with the phone, and work okay as iMessage and FaceTime rivals.
Allo uses your phone number (a huge deal in the US, where people still give out their number for SMS and don’t use WhatsApp), instead of your personal Gmail address, which Hangouts requires. “Hi, I just met you, what’s your Gmail address? Where are you going? I need an iPhone again.”
Allo fixes that. However, both Allo and Duo need cross-platform support (on computers and tablets especially), and it should fully replace Messenger in the dock if it’s going to work the same way. People need to be onboard for it to full universally useful.
Another thing that needs work is the battery life indicator. We still have to dive into the hidden, developer-intended System UI Tuner menu to reveal battery life information in the top system tray.
We’ve never said: “You know what I don’t want to know? How much battery life I have left.” That’s always been an annoyance with Nexus phones, and nothing has changed on the Pixel XL.
The same thing happens when you’re charging a Pixel. Pixel and Nexus are the only phones we’ve tested in recent years that refuse to display the battery life when the phone is off and charging.
How has noone at Google found these two bizarre battery life issues annoying year after year? Everything else about its Android software is streamlined for the better.
Movies, music and games
- Vivid 5.5-inch display to enjoy watching videos and playing games
- No stereo speakers, but there is a headphone jack
We’re increasingly being entertained by our phones, even with big-screen TVs and tablets close by. For Android games and Facebook videos in short bursts our phone is the go-to device.
The Google Pixel XL gets the job done visually. It has that excellent AMOLED display that rocks deep blacks and saturated colors. They make movies and games seem impressive at 5.5 inches.
However, we did run into a problem when holding the phone in landscape mode and trying to enjoy just about any two-handed game experience, like futuristic racer Breakneck.
Covering up that one speaker soured our enjoyment just a little bit. Luckily, Google didn’t follow Apple and Motorola’s trend by killing off the headphone jack, so our quickest solution was a pair of earbuds.
What’s really a shame is that the Nexus 6P (which was cheaper and had a bigger 5.7-inch display) included stereo speakers – one at the top and one at the bottom. The omission of dual speakers here seems like a step backward.
Specs and performance
- Debuts the Snapdragon 821 processor
- Same specs as the 5-inch Google Pixel
- Still not as fast as Samsung’s non-US phones
Both the Pixel and Pixel XL see Google introducing new internal specs instead of sticking with a six-month-old chipset, and that’s part of the reason you’re paying a premium this year.
The XL delivers the faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor, which is a step ahead of the 820 System-on-a-Chip found inside the US Samsung Galaxy S7, the HTC 10 and the LG G5, for example.
This 64-bit quad-core chip runs at 2.15Ghz with 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU – that’s one step ahead of its current Qualcomm-based competition.
It cracked a 4,000 multi-core score in our Geekbench tests, giving us an average of 4,077 after three rounds with the CPU benchmarking app. That’s impressive.
What’s interesting is that the 5-inch Pixel has the same specs (outside of the bigger battery and display on the XL), giving us basically the same results after another series of tests: 4,029.
That’s a big deal. If you want that curved screen from Samsung, you have to ditch the 5.1-inch phone for 5.5 inches. If you want Apple’s dual-camera setup, you have to forgo a 4.7-inch handset for a huge 5.5-inch phone. With Google, the choice is a little easier to live with.
We would have loved Google to push its phablet a bit further, but we also appreciate the company including all of the bigger phone features for often-deprived smaller hands. At the same time, it feels easier to recommend the regular-sized Google Pixel if you’re not into VR and big phones.
Google’s phone performance has come a long way in smaller packages, with solid call quality on both Verizon and AT&T in the US, and 47-second boot times. That really contrasts with the Nexus 6 from two years ago, which had us suffering through minute-and-a-half boot times. Like we said, a long, long way.
- Pixel XL lasts a day and a quarter
- Longer battery life than the Pixel
- Charging with USB-C adapter can be a pain
Google has packed a big 3,450mAh battery into the Pixel XL – and that was a good decision, because the bright and pixel-dense 2K resolution can really drain the phone if you’re not careful.
We found that we were averaging a day and a quarter of battery life during our week with the phone, using it as we normally do: checking social media every hour, playing games while waiting in line and making that rare phone call.
Screen-on time is what drains the battery the quickest. Watching a 90-minute looped HD video as part of our lab testing wore it down to a pathetic 68% from its 100% starting point.
That’s technically worse than every other 2016 Android phone, which means two things: 1) The screen brightness is enough to burn a hole in the ozone layer and 2) Google’s software, with Doze 2.0 battery-saving background features, is really efficient when we’re not using the phone outside of the lab.
If you’re a power user, you’re better off with the Pixel XL than the standard Pixel, which, despite its Full HD screen, only gave us a day before we ran back to the charger. Its smaller 2,770mAh power pack is just that much less.
Of course, you’re way better off with either Pixel phone than with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which now has the battery life rating of: explosion.
Watch below to see how the Pixel XL compares to the Google Pixel when streaming video, web browsing and gaming.
Google, like many phone makers these days, includes a fast charger, and there’s good news and bad news here. Its 18W adapter charges the phone in a speedy one hour and 50 minutes – that’s the good news.
The bad news is that the adapter uses a USB-C port to achieve those speeds, meaning you have to lug around the USB-C-to-USB-C cable everywhere. Sounds okay, right?
But wait – if you want to plug your phone into a normal, non-USB-C computer, you’ll also have to carry around the (also included) USB-C-to-USB-A cable. Yes, the MacBook Pro 2016 adds USB-C ports, but it’s far from mainstream.
Carrying around the USB-C-to-USB-A cable and a Samsung (or another similar USB-A accepting charger) is an option, but we found that charging the Pixel XL with this cable to be about 25 minutes slower. Yet the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, with a slightly bigger battery and the same exact cable and adapter, could charge in about a similar one hour and 53 minutes.
Displaying the battery life levels in the system tray (and when the power is off) and improving the charging interface are two areas in which the Pixel falls behind, even if its battery life is a solid day and a quarter.
- Another new Android with a great 12MP sensor
- Lack of optical image stablization isn’t a big deal
- Camera app is limited vs the competition
Every year we’re promised a “the best Nexus camera ever” by Google, and with the Pixel, we got teased with something slightly different and even more promising: the best camera in any smartphone.
Google arrived at this conclusion not just through marketing hype, but thanks to analysis by DxOMark testers, racking up the highest score yet for a phone at 89, higher than the 88 for the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.
Sure enough, our own side-by-side camera tests showed that the Pixel XL’s 12.3MP shooter is outstanding, capturing some of the most highly detailed and color-accurate photos we’ve seen on a phone.
Is it really better than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge camera? Yes and no. Samsung amps up its photos with more saturated tones in almost every shot, and really cranks up the brightness and deep hues.
That’s awesome for blue skies and green grass, where everything really comes alive against white clouds. The day (and everyone in your photo) looks unnaturally perfect.
The Pixel XL has vivid colors, and low-light performance is almost as good, but where it wins out is when things become too bright for Samsung’s otherwise leading camera.
Catch something that’s already too bright in your photo on the S7 Edge, like beach sand on a sunny day, and the sand can become overblown and it really distorts the scenic beach photo.
The Pixel XL captures more natural tones, and shots may come off as a bit duller in side-by-side match-ups, but it works well enough in almost every scenario. To put it simply: Samsung ups the brightness and contrast, Google stays more consistent.
What worried us at first was the lack of optical image stabilization. Google’s camera bump-less design forgoes OIS in favor of software-optimized electronic image stabilization (EIS). But we didn’t notice a lack of sharpness in photos shot without a tripod, or issues with video smoothness when playing back footage. The lack of OIS is overblown.
We did run into a sun flare anomaly when taking photos outdoors. It happened twice, as you can see in our gallery, giving the photos the J.J. Abrams lens flare look when we really didn’t want it.
Where Google could usefully put in some work is in the default camera app. LG and Samsung fill their cameras with more features than you can explore in a week. It’s the full mobile suite.
Google’s app doesn’t have quite as many modes – it feels as though it’s just getting by with Slow motion, Panorama, Photosphere and Lens Blur, with options like timer, HDR+, temperature controls and burst photos.
Where’s the handy gesture shot mechanic to trigger the timer with a wave or even something as basic as time lapse? And you can forget about manual controls. The default camera app feels empty and will send you scrambling to the Google Play Store within the first 24 hours of owning this phone.
The front-facing camera is a different story, however. We shot some of the best-looking 8MP selfies we’ve seen on the Pixel XL, which thankfully includes HDR+ on the front, too. There’s much less barrel distortion than on the S7 Edge, even if the picture isn’t taken at as wide an angle.
The Google Pixel XL recasts the developer-focused Nexus smartphones with ambitious new software features and cutting-edge specs in an effort to reach mainstream consumers.
Its timing couldn’t be more perfect. You won’t find a headphone jack on the new iPhone, and you may be doubting Samsung’s reliability after two Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recalls.
And along comes the Google Pixel XL, with the helpful (but still-work-in-progress) Google Assistant, powerful Snapdragon 821 processor and an awesome, top-ranking camera.
It has almost everything you need outside of a waterproof design and stereo speakers, although Google’s attempt at an iconic design throws a little too much into the pot with a metal-and-glass look. But if it’s ugly on the outside, it’s far from it on the inside.
What’s more important to us is that the Android interface remains minimalist and easier to use than ever, and that’s really the compelling reason to own a Pixel phone, even if it costs a lot more than a Nexus.
Who’s it for?
Google is attempting to broaden its Nexus fanbase with the Pixel XL, adding the latest chipset, nifty AI, and an excellent camera.
That means you’re getting a phone that’s more powerful than any inexpensive Nexus handset, and it’s combined with the most streamlined user experience of any Android phone in 2016.
It also means you have to be someone who’s willing to fork over a lot more money. It’s a hardware and software combination that’s also a one-two punch to the wallet.
Should I buy it?
The Google Pixel XL is one of the most sure-fire bets you can make if you’re looking to try a brand new Android phone in 2016. It’s the rookie of the year, thanks to Google designing it from top to bottom.
If upgrading to Android 7.1 Nougat and taking advantage of its budding VR capabilities are important to you, this is your smartphone. If not, you can find a just-as-good camera on a Samsung, LG or the iPhone at the same price.
iPhone 7 Plus
Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus is the iOS 10 counterbalance to Google’s first Android 7.1 Nougat smartphone. You’ll either find this phablet’s aluminum design way more refined or completely stale compared to the Google PIxel XL. But with a similar 5.5-inch display, it gives you a big phone, too, only one with water-resistance and stereo speakers. We also find iMessages more seamless than any Google messaging platform, even if we miss widgets and other customizable features that Apple shies away from.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
Samsung hasn’t had the best of luck recently, with the Galaxy Note 7 recall, but don’t be distracted because the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is still one of the best phones ever made. It has a top-of-the-line camera, water-resistant design and a microSD card slot, and of course those sleek, curved edges that really make its 2K resolution ‘world’s best’ smartphone display stand out. And its TouchWiz Android software overlay isn’t that bad anymore, honestly. But you’re going to pay serious money for this phone, even more than the already-expensive Google Pixel XL.
Moto Z and Moto Z Force
Who would have guessed that Motorola would have figured out how to make a proper modular phone before LG and Google. The LG G5 mods didn’t do much with its accessories and Google’s Project Ara initiative is no more. Moto Z takes what’s currently the world’s thinnest smartphone and adds accessories to the back with magnets: stylish battery packs, powerful speaker, a pico projector and 10x camera add-on. It doesn’t have the best camera on its own compared to the Google Pixel, but it is slightly cheaper.
The Moto Z Force takes that same modular idea and adds a bit of thickness – just enough room for extended battery life and a shatterproof screen. It’s a little more expensive, too, and a Verizon exclusive in the US, whereas the Moto Z is now available unlocked at a cheaper price.