Google Pixel XL hands-on: Is a bigger _phone_ always a better phone?

Google Pixel XL price: From £719

Google Pixel XL release: 20 October

There are two phones every year that are guaranteed to get me excited – the iPhone and the new Nexus devices from Google. After the disappointing iPhone 7 launch, a lot relies on Google churning out something to stop the second half of 2016 feeling like a complete failure for phones.

And you know what, it might just have done that. But the real interesting things here aren’t to do with the phones, but rather Google’s new approach.

The Nexus line looks to be dead, as Google’s flagship 2016 phones come under the Pixel brand. This moniker has until now been reserved for a duo of high-end Chromebooks and last year’s Pixel C tablet, but it’s finally hitting the big time with its _phone_ debut.

Watch: Google's Pixel phone event in just 3 minutes

The Pixel XL has leaked numerous times over the past months, and it almost felt like an anticlimax when I picked up the handset. It’s well built, no doubt, with glass and metal and a sturdy feel. But it lacks something to help it stand out. The two tone back isn’t quite as eye-catching as the Nexus 6P, but it does come in a snazzy blue hue. The other colours included Quite Black (Whar?!) and Very Silver (WHAT?).

There's also a rather large bezel on the front, though not quite in the same league as the iPhone. I’d have hoped HTC, which built this phone, had taken more cues from its gorgeous HTC 10, but it seems to bare a striking resemblance to the One A9. It’s not ugly, but it doesn’t match the Samsung Galaxy series for style.

The hardware might not be revolutionary, but there’s a lot more to get excited about when you look past it.

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The 5.5-inch, quad-HD AMOLED display is the perfect size and it’s much more manageable than the slightly cumbersome 5.7-inch version on the Nexus 6P. It looks good too thanks to deep blacks and rich colours. As it’s AMOLED, it’s far more comparable with a Samsung Galaxy S7 than an iPhone, so expect less natural looking images but ones that pop and can sometimes look a tad overcooked.

While the display is nothing new for a Google phone, the CPU powering the new phone is. Instead of using the now overly predictable Snapdragon 820, Google has opted for the new Snapdragon 821. This was announced earlier in the year, but has yet to make its major debut so I am a little in the dark about how it actually performs.

Having only used the Pixel XL for a short amount of time, I’m far from ready to give my full opinion on it, but it seems as fast as it should be be. There’s 4GB RAM too, and either 32GB or 128GB storage choices.

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Another aspect that’ll have to wait for the full review before I can make a judgement on it is the battery life. The 3,450 mAh battery is the same size as the one in the Nexus 6P, and that had decent stamina so I am optimistic here. There's USB-C fast charging too, which is a must.

Smartphone cameras have had a fantastic year, with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 standing out. While my first play the sensor on the back of the Pixel XL is mostly positive, I don’t think it quite has the chops to be the best.

There’s a 12-megapixel camera on the back, with OIS and a fairly wide f/2.0 aperture, while the 8MP front-facing version seemed to capture decent selfies. Google made huge claims about the camera, including the fact it apparently scored the highest DXO Mark score. Of course, that's a mere benchmark and I'm not a fan of DXO Mark to be honest as it's given high ratings to average cameras in the past.

Focusing does seem super fast though, and there's no lag when you're shooting in HDR. I shot a few photos in the demo area and they seemed perfectly fine, but they didn’t instantly make me say ‘wow’ like the Galaxy S7 did. The Google camera app is a bit limited too, with a lack of any manual controls.

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In previous years, the Nexus line of phones were released running a pretty much completely stock version of Android. This year it’s slightly different, because the Pixels run something called Pixel Launcher. This is an overlay on top of Android 7.1 that alters quite a few elements. I’m not completely sure about it yet, but felt this way about elements of Android before and have always been won over in the end.

The first thing you’ll notice is there’s no longer an app drawer icon, you have to swipe up from the bottom to see all your apps. The iconic Google search box has also waved goodbye, replaced with a pill shaped widget that works in much the same way. There’s also a static time/date widget that would serve a better purpose as a link to the actual calendar app when tapped.

Icons have seen a change too, and they’re all now encased in circles. This works for some, like Chrome, but less so for others. Google Play Music, for example, looks like a Dorito on a plate.

Google Now has also been replaced with Google Assistant, the all-knowing bot that lives everywhere on the phone and in apps like Allo. It also powers Google Home, which serves as a competitor the Amazon’s fantastic Echo. Assistant is clearly going to be a big play for Google, so expect to see it grow fast and learn more over the coming months and years.

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Lastly, there's VR. Google's Daydream View headset ships later this year and it's built for Pixel phones. It lets you play games, watch YouTube and a whole lot more in virtual reality.

P.S. yes, there is a headphone jack. No dongle required with the Pixel XL.

Google Pixel XL: First impressions

The release of the Pixel phones is exciting, but not in the way you might expect. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before – Snapdragon 821 aside – and design is probably not going to set the world alight.

But, the software seems slick and it's exciting that Google's finally making phones with its logo on them. That said, it's and hitting iPhone 7 pricing makes this completely different from any Nexus before. I'll have to wait and see if it's worth it.