Hands-on with Google Pixel: Better than a Nexus?

Google Pixel price: £599 – £699

Google Pixel release date: 20 October

Out of the two phones recently announced by Google, I'm far more taken with the Pixel. The PIxel XL looks great, but it's nice to see a no compromise Android handset with a smaller display.

Whereas last year saw the Nexus 5X taking a clear mid-range position, the 5-inch screen toting Pixel takes pretty much all the high-end components from the XL and simply offers them in a smaller body.

With most flagships now coming in at 5.2-5.5-inches, it’s refreshing to see Google and HTC take this approach. They could have switched out the internals for lower cost option and sold this as a cheaper alternative, but it’s taken the iPhone 7 route and that’s great.

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

Built in partnership with HTC, the Pixel certainly has a whiff of the One A9 about it. It’s rounded, with a flat back and it is built from a mixture of metal and glass accents.

It’s nice, but it’s not gorgeous. There’s no wow factor, it’s just a phone. It comes in three colours, each of which has a stupid name. There's Very Silver, Quite Black and Really Blue. There's a joke there somewhere, but to me it just sounds childish.

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The smaller size makes it comfortable to hold though, and it’s about the same size as an iPhone 7 even though it houses a bigger screen. If you want an Android _phone_ you can comfortably use in one hand, this could be it.

Like the Pixel XL, the Pixel packs Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 821 CPU along with 4GB RAM and either 32GB or 128GB internal storage. The 821 is a new beast and as such I’m not sure on it’s general performance, but in my short time with the phone it seemed fast and responsive.

Unlike the Pixel XL though, the Pixel only has a 1080p display rather than a quad-HD one. I say ‘only’, but in reality you won’t likely notice a difference. There are still plenty of pixels packed in here and everything looks sharp and colourful. You also notice the benefits of AMOLED straight away, with colours popping and drawing you in. it doesn’t look quite as natural as an iPhone, though. Where higher-res does make things better is with VR, so it seems weird Google is making huge deal out of it's new Daydream VR headset and not putting a quad-HD display on this.

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6P aside, Nexus phones have struggled when it comes to photography. So has the name change also signalled the start of a better era of cameras? One first impression yes, but I don’t think this is going to match the Samsung Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7 when it comes to picture quality.

Specs-wise you’re looking at an optically stabilised 12-megapixel rear-facing camera, with a secondary 8MP version on the front. I only spent a short time with the phone, but focusing was fast and image quality seemed fine. The f/2.0 aperture isn’t quite as wide as the competition, and that could hamper low-light performance. I’ll have to properly test it out to know for sure though. A new HDR+ mode oversamples photos to try and make them look better, while Google claims the shutter speed is the fastest on the market.

Google says the Pixel scored 89 on DXO Mark's camera test, meaning it's apparently the best smartphone camera yet. As with any benchmark, I'd say take these scores with an absolutely huge grain of salt. DXO Mark seems to think Sony phones have good cameras, and they really don't.

My only concern with the specs on offer here is the battery. At 2,770mAh it feels a bit on the small side. That is slightly up on the Nexus 5X from last year, so hopefully it will make it through the day. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom that supports fast charging too, with Google claiming you’ll get 7 hours of use with a 15-minute charge.

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The spirit of the Nexus series, and now in-turn the Pixel line, is the software approach. While other phones run thick skins overlaid on Android, the software here is as Google intended. But it does seem like the search engine giant has had a bit more fun this time around, adding in what it calls a ‘Pixel Launcher’.

This sits atop Android 7.1 and makes some wholesale changes to the tried and tested formula. Gone is the iconic search bar on your homescreen, replaced by a pill shaped widget, and getting at your apps now require a swipe up from the bottom of the display. Icons are now circular – which is fine for some, not so for others – and Google Now has been replaced with Google Assistant but it does pretty much the same thing.

Assistant was a big talking point at the event, and in some ways Google seems to be making a bigger deal out of it than the phone itself. Holding down the menu button lets you can search for pictures, places and things and it seems very accurate. It feels like a combination of Google Now of Siri, with the skills of the former and the interface of the latter. It integrates Now on Tap too, so you can get contextual information depending what's on your screen.

Google is also now offering unlimited free ‘full-resolution’ uploads of Google Photos for your snaps and videos, which makes the fantastic service even more of a no-brainer. There’s also Duo and Allo pre-installed, for all your video chat and messaging needs. As with any phone direct from Google, you’ll be first in line for software updates.

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The final piece of the puzzle is 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.

First impressions

Slightly dull design aside, there’s a lot to like about the Pixel phone. Especially if you’ve been after a powerful, no compromise Android phone that is manageable in one hand.

There’s still a lot I don’t know though, and with 2016 having a slew of fantastic phones it might be hard for the Pixel to make it’s mark. Will the battery last a day? Can the cameras compete? Those of both important questions that’ll need a full review to determine.

You also have to take into account the price. Now that these phones are priced the same as the iPhone, they'll have to do a lot to compete. Let's wait and see if Google can manage it.