Pixel XL Review: Living With Google’s Flagship Smartphone

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REVIEW: After several months using the Pixel XL, Roland Moore-Colyer gives his verdict on the 100 percent Google phone

Appreciating Android

Android on Pixel XLWe’ve covered the changes Nougat ushers in over its predecessor Android 6.0 Marshmallow which was a very capable version of Google’s mobile OS. Without a shadow of doubt I’d say the Pixel XL is the best way to experience Android Nougat.

While it is not strictly ‘stock’ Android given Google has added the Pixel Launcher user interface over it, its pretty close and presents a lovely user interface.

The home screen is minimalist and un-fussy, with a rather nice live wallpaper enabled as default which changes shade and appearance depending on data such as battery life. Default apps now have a nice rounded button-like design, which I find particularly pleasing.

The interface is also devoid of the gimmicks and irritating notifications that often hamstring Android, such as the likes of Samsung’s TouchWiz on my Galaxy S6.

With the Pixel Launcher, Google further does away with any extraneous features and gets rid of the normal app tray icon towards the bottom of the interface. Instead a simple swipe up on the display reveals a vertical scrolling panel that displays all the apps on the phone.

The clean design means I prefer to use this to navigate all but my most used apps rather than swipe through several carefully laid out panes of apps, and feel it makes accessing the depths on Android faster in everyday use.

Talking of speed, Nougat flies on the Pixel XL. Opening up multiple apps has not discernible affect on the smoothness of the its performance. This is in part thanks to the Qualcomm quad-core Snapdragon 821 chip at the heart of the Pixel, which is the first mainstream smartphone to feature the chip.

Performance of these the high-end mobile chips is a tad subjective with different mobile processors out performing each other in different tests.

The Snapdragon 821 may not comprehensibly be the fastest chip on the block, but Google’s optimisation of Nougat with the Pixel’s hardware means it is the fastest, slickest take on Android I have ever used; not that my Galaxy S6 with its eight-core chip was a slouch.

With the Pixel XL’s combination of performance and refinement of Android, the whole user experience gets close to iOS 10 levels of slickness.

Sure there are a couple of bugbears, notably the inclusion of a form of 3D touch whereby a long tap on certain apps brings up contextual options, such as rapidly opening up Gmail’s new message option. But unlike the iPhone 7 with its Taptic haptic engine, it can be difficult for Android to judge when you want to access one of these functions or move the app around.

It’s very much a minor issue, but still indicates that Android in some places still not quite as seamless as Apple’s latest iOS.

The Pixel Launcher also brings in the built in the artificial intelligence powered Google Assistant, a combination of Google Now’s contextual information tool and a Siri and Cortana bothering virtual assistant.

Swipe left on the home screen and the smarter Google Now pops up with a swathe of information based on your data. Some may find this intrusive, but having Google take care of my travel plans, calendar and serve up contextual directions is a boon for people who lack a regimental form of organisation.

The Google Assistant, part of the Pixel’s USP, can be activated by barking ‘OK Google’ at the smartphone or pressing and holding the virtual home button to fire up the smart software. Once it’s up and listening you can ask it all manner of questions, from ‘where am I?’ to ordering it to ‘add calendar appointments’ or find the next flight from London to San Francisco as well as the cost of said travel.

Google Assistant Pixel XLThere are limitations to the Assistant and it occasional slips up or gives more information than needed, but I found it to be much slicker, particularity with voice recognition, than Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Is it a feature to get the Pixel XL for? Well no, but it does show off the advancements Google has made with smart software and I’m sure the search giant can only improve things form here. At the moment the Assistant is a handy tool but certainly not essential.

The real appeal of the Pixel XL for me is how well it works as a productivity device. Sure Google Drive, Docs, and Gmail are all present and correct on other Android and iOS devices, but on the near unadulterated version of Nougat, they feel perfectly integrated and the compute horsepower on offer makes jumping between apps to get information to put use in a document then firing it off via email a doddle.

Android’s creepy ability to crawl your Gmail emails and push that information into automatic calendar entries, notifications and Google Maps directions certainly pinches privacy, but for me it makes dealing with daily work duties and getting to and fro in a major city a doddle.

In this aspect the Pixel XL makes my Galaxy S6 look like a hot mess of irritating notifications and duplicate calendar entries and fiddly productivity apps.

Go to page 3 to hear our final thoughts on the Pixel XL…

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