I am probably not the intended audience for a Google Pixel XL, which one presumes is either someone from the iPhone or someone from a Samsung Galaxy Exploder.
For the iPhone user, this will be their first experience of Android — pure, proper Android the way Google intended. They’ll need hand-holding, and Google have done their best to do that.
For the Samsung Galaxy Exploder user, this will be, actually, a first experience of proper Android as well. The Samsung Android experience is so poorly done, I quite often rail against people who moan about Android while wielding their Samsung explodaphone. It isn’t an Android phone, it’s Samsung running their nasty software over the top of Android. The absence of fire, flames and the smell of melted plastic will also be a novelty.
I, however, come from a Nexus 5 — Google’s former flagship device which continued, until Android Nougat, to be supported and updated with the latest software. I’ve previously had a Samsung Galaxy Nexus (which didn’t catch fire), and prior to that, a Nexus One, which was a wonderful phone and beautifully built by HTC.
As a result, this review is mostly talking about the build quality and the things that set the Pixel XL apart from other Android phones. It isn’t a review of proper Android. I’ve been using that since 2010.
The Pixel XL, though you wouldn’t know it, is actually beautifully built by HTC. It’s a surprisingly Samsung-esque piece of hardware, with a subtly curved glass front and a “signature” half-glass, half-metal back. It feels decently built: while some reviews will tell you the buttons are slightly loose, my production version of the phone is properly well-built, with no obvious shortcomings.
The phone’s sides are part-curved, part-cornered, so you know you’re holding it and you are unlikely to drop it. There are strange plastic lines in the metal case, probably to help antennas.
In the box, to my relief, was one USB-C charger with a USB-C to USB-C cable; and one USB-C to full-size USB cable (and then an adaptor which is USB-USB-C). This is probably going to be the first USB-C device that most owners will use; and the two leads in the box certainly help. USB-C wins by being automatically reversible so you never put the cable in the wrong way; and it seems my normal USB chargers are also pretty good with it, too, including the Anker one which charges it at speed.
That said, the battery seems to last forever. I appreciate I’m in this at a disadvantage: the Nexus 5 used battery power in a crazily hungry fashion. Literally any phone does better. But after two days using this, I’ve yet to make the battery be less than 40% full.
Apart from the battery, what else?
The camera is really good — with the familiar Nexus camera app, but one that is quick and responsive and takes good images.
The speaker at the bottom (which is mono) is a considerable step up in quality. I’d certainly not use it for music if I had anything else, but it’s pretty good.
The power button has a textured feel to it, so you can easily know if you’re hitting the power or volume controls. There is still a 3.5" headphone jack (though I have yet to use it). There is still a SIM card slot on the left-hand side of the phone.
The GPS works markedly better than the Nexus 5, which appeared to only partially work in Australia. I think it was an issue with the relative lack of satellites down here and no support for the Chinese GPS system.
Probably the best hardware improvement is actually the simplest — 4GB of onboard memory instead of 2GB means that the OS has space to breathe. Multitasking apps aren’t immediately closed to save memory, and switching back causes them to reload and forget where they were. Pokémon Go, a beast of a program, is faster to load and is actually responsive all the time. Everything is smoother and faster as the system avoids frantically swapping running programs to disk. It’s said that the best upgrade you can do with any computer is to give it more memory: and the same goes for Android.
The differences between Android Marshmallow and Android Nougat aren’t that great. The Pixel XL comes with different tones and some nice live wallpapers. There’s a “night mode” for the display, like iOS. Notifications look different. The fingerprint reader is a novelty but works really well to unlock the phone.
I don’t much like the Pixel launcher — the homescreen for the phone — which puts some but not all icons into a horrid uniform round button. But I can install another one. I find it interesting what wasn’t preinstalled: no Google+, Hangouts or Google Sheets; what was preinstalled: Allo and Duo; and what miraculously made it onto my phone after putting the SIM card in: the Telstra 24/7 app.
Is it the best phone I’ve ever owned? Yes. Is it wildly better than the Nexus 5? No — camera and onboard memory excepted. Do those things make a massive difference? Yes.