Google Pixel XL review: Upsampled
Unboxing the Google Pixel XL
Google packaged the Pixel XL with a Quick Switch charger (USB-PowerDelivery, 18W), a USB C-to-USB-C cable (USB 2.0) to hook the phone to the charger, plus a separate USB-A-to-USB-C cable (faster USB 3.0) to connect the phone to computers. There is also a Quick Switch Adapter.
That last bit is a Type C to A adapter so that you can transfer your data out of your old iPhone (iOS 8 and up) or Android devices (5.0 and up) and onto your new Pixel. Read the instructions here.
Google Pixel XL 360° spin
The Google Pixel XL measures 154.7 x 75.7 x 8.5 mm and weighs 168g. That's shorter, narrower and lighter than the iPhone 7 Plus. Not that the iPhone was ever an icon for compact bezels. And Google can't point to front stereo speakers, front fingerprint reader or much of front anything to justify the top and bottom bezels.
Let's look at a few other phones with a 5.5" screen. The OnePlus 3 has a fingerprint reader on the front and is more compact. The ZTE Axon 7 has stereo speakers instead and is even smaller. The Galaxy S7 edge (front fingerprint reader) is smaller still.
The Pixel XL is the bigger of the two Google handsets. The smaller phone measures 143.8 x 69.5 x 8.5mm and weighs 143g - not that much smaller, given the 0.5" reduction in screen size. Putting both handsets side by side makes the small difference much more concrete - you're not getting a compact device if you go for the 5" Pixel.
The Google Pixel XL is beautifully put together and yet inconspicuous, its front is so plain that it borders on unrecognizable. The glass window on the back is odd enough to stand out, the same can be said for the centered proximity sensor below the earpiece on the front.
We believe a good design should be noticed for its wins and not for its oddities. HTC, the company that built the phone, worked fully under Google's direction, there's no external HTC branding. And yet the Pixels kind of look like a rehashed HTC One A9.
The premium build quality is undeniably there, even if it lacks hardware innovation. And to be fair, Google is targeting the mass market with this phone, not geeks like with the Nexus devices. But the new, almost unknown brand faces an uphill battle to attract buyer's attention and a plain face is a bad place to start.
HTC crafted a fine metal body out of aircraft-grade aluminum. Yes, even cheap phones boast metal bodies now, but there's a tangible difference between their bent sheets of metal and the carved aluminum ingot of the Pixel XL. It's much sturdier and has fewer seams.
"Fewer," not none. The phone features multiple, noticeable antenna lines. We would have thought that with a glass window of that size, all RF would go through it. The Huawei-built Nexus 6P had a smaller window and yet its antenna lines were less noticeable. And the Pixels lack wireless charging - sure, metal phones have issues with that, but there's more than enough room to fit a charging coil behind the window.
We're coming down hard on the glass window because we subjectively dislike how it looks (or at least that we don't get the functionality we could have). Objectively, the glass protrudes slightly from the metal back, making the transition between the two very noticeable. Also, if you look carefully, you'll notice the phone is wedge-shaped - the top is a few fractions of a millimeter thicker than the bottom.
HTC got famous for stereo speakers on its phones, but there's none of that here. And it's not just an HTC thing either, the Nexus 6 and 6P both had stereo speakers. So does the iPhone 7 Plus.
Okay, let's start over and try to keep a positive outlook on the Google Pixel XL.
It's a well-crafted phone that is more compact than the iPhone 7 Plus for the same screen size. It's thicker (8.5mm vs. 7.3mm) but lighter (168g vs. 188g) and has a bigger battery (3,450mAh vs. 2,900mAh). Also, the camera is flush with the back unlike the iPhone's dual-camera hump (however small it is).
The way the sides of the phone are curved and beveled is ergonomic and offers good grip (aluminum can be slippery, especially when coupled with glass).
We like the texture of the Power key, it makes it more distinctive. That's good since the way it is positioned - above the volume rocker - is unusual. Most people are used to the buttons being the other way around so for the first week you'll be pressing the Volume up key and wondering why the phone doesn't unlock.
If you manage to feel your way to the power button, a quick double click will quickly start the camera even if the phone is off.
On the other side of the phone is the nanoSIM card tray. Only one card fits here, Google offers no dual-SIM options and no storage expansion. About 7GB is taken up by the system and the 32GB model has an actual capacity of 29.7GB. 4K videos, music and even apps can quickly add up, so consider getting the 128GB model - there's no way to increase storage after the fact (well, other than swapping the whole phone).
For unlocking, you will probably be using the fingerprint reader on the back. It's slightly recessed, making it easy to find with your index finger. The reader is always on and can directly drop you into the homescreen. It's faster than the iPhone 7 reader, though not as fast as some other Androids. You'll be seeing a red "finger moved too fast" warning on occasion.
Also here lies the 12.3MP camera and its dual-LED flash. The three dots to their side are the Laser autofocus system and a microphone. The Pixel XL has three microphones, all three of which can be used for noise reduction.
The front of the phone houses the 5.5" AMOLED display. It is below a 2.5D pane of Gorilla Glass 4. The slight bevel makes it more comfortable for your fingers (though they still have to pass over the relatively sharp edge of the metal frame).
The only other components are above the display - an earpiece (with an unusual cloth "grille"), the proximity sensor below it and the 8MP selfie camera to the left, an ambient light sensor too. If anything, we think the camera should have held the central position (like it used to be on iPhones).
The phone has a notification light, but it is disabled by default. You have to search for the "Pulse notification light" setting to enable it. It's positioned on the left side of the earpiece (inside the recess, making it not very visible). Even with this setting, it doesn't work as a charging light so you have to wake the phone to see if it has finished charging. An odd decision by Google, one we hope they will change (easy via software update).
The Pixel XL relies more on the Ambient display feature (something inherited from the Motorola days). When a new notification arrives, the screen comes on to show it - great if you look at it immediately, less good if you don't notice it right away (it's on a short timeout).
Wired connectivity and audio share the top and bottom of the phone. A USB Type-C port (3.0) is in the middle, between two grilles. The one on the left hides the loudspeaker, the one on the right is for the mouthpiece.
There's a 3.5mm headphone jack topside. While USB Type-C supports audio - both analog and digital - Google stuck to the established port. It did use the new USB Power Delivery standard for fast charging, instead of Qualcomm's proprietary format, though.
To sum up our impressions of the Google Pixel XL, we're torn - the quality of the device is evident upon close inspection, but the design is too plain. Perhaps you find it attractive instead, but many won't and you'll have to be okay with that before you part with 800 or so of dollars or euro.
Yes, Google has some photographic cases to spruce up the Pixel phones, but that makes them even more anonymous - you don't notice the phone, you notice the case. Unless, of course, you go for the blue model, which is more flashy and certainly looks like something Mystique from X-Men would appreciate.
- 10 Jul 2021
Loyal and fanatic Pixel and iphone user here. I am currently going through the entire line of pixels. Typing this on a Pixel XL. I found one new in the box on ebay. Ok. It runs hot. Other than the speed and panel it can't hold a candle to the ip...
- 25 Feb 2021
- 20 Feb 2021
I'm a Tech Dummie but as Retiree with plenty of time to sample a number of Devices I have found the Google XL to be an excellent product. Of course it's not on par with the latest smartphones but compared to other older phones it is top-not...