Google Pixel XL review


GOOGLE, MIGHTY OVERSEER of the internet, has made a smartphone. The Nexus-brand notwithstanding, this time around the firm has done the design, engineering and testing wholly in-house.

pixel xl front

In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that Google is trying to do an Apple. Peer inside the packaging and you can’t help but note the similarities in message and tone – ‘Every phone helps tells a story. We’d love to hear one of yours. #myphonebygoogle’ – and with it, Google’s developer-first approach is resigned to the history books.

Elsewhere, though, there are red flags that hint at something altogether more sinister. Why the sudden change in its mobile aspirations? Does the Pixel actually represent a further step in Google’s masterplan of full and total control?

A lot has been made of Google’s Assistant that’s baked into the Pixel’s very DNA, so with that in mind, it would be silly if we started our review anywhere else.

Software
Should we be fearful of a box of tricks that knows our browsing habits, our interests, what we’re going to buy next, all of our contacts, and the minutiae of our personal life? The answer is yes, because in the Google Pixel XL it’s packaged and delivered on a ‘G-shaped’ spoon. Open wide!

Google Assistant XL

Google Assistant brings the promise of increasingly accurate and personal responses. We’ve been accused in the past of simplifying things, likening Google’s Assistant to a super-powered Siri, and we’re going to stand by that.

Like Siri, Assistant is placed very much front and centre. The Home screen has been redesigned to accommodate the new Pixel Launcher interface, and with it multiple opportunities to initiate the Assistant. Google has always downplayed the links to Google Now, but you should note that Assistant can still be launched using the familiar ‘OK Google’.

Assistant can carry out standard tasks like launching apps, searching the web, telling us who’s playing at London’s Scala this week, starting a stopwatch and sounding an alarm after 15 minutes, adding calendar entries, and setting up reminders to buy a pint of milk. The latter was interesting as Assistant also asks for a time or location to trigger the reminder.

So far, so Siri. But, at the time of writing at least, that’s as far as Assistant is able to go. Interactions with third-party apps are off the table. If you hoped that this would finally be the day when Google can hail you a cab (using Uber) and pinpoint your location you’ll have to wait a little longer.

Such limitations are said to be changing in December when Google makes ‘Actions for Google’ available to developers, but until then it’s something of a stumbling block. It means that interaction with Spotify etc is off the table for the time being, but Google confirmed at the launch that Assistant will play nice with smart home devices such as Nest, Samsung SmartThings and Philips Hue.

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If Google wants us to have a meaningful conversation with Assistant these sorts of things need to be addressed. It’s all well and good that the software can recall our queries, as well as the context around our questions, but it’s not truly useful if we need to tail off and complete our business elsewhere.

Let’s use the Scala example above. We’ve got as far as expressing interest in a show on Thursday. Google’s told us the start time and given us address details, but we can’t buy tickets.

Likewise, it can recommend restaurants nearby, but it can’t make a booking. So near and yet so far. Similarly, Google is able to tell us roughly where ‘home’ is, but any attempt to further include ‘home’ in our questions leaves it cold. We all want to be able to trigger alerts using geofencing, but at this juncture, it seems like it’s not meant to be.

So it’s an Assistant in as much as sending messages, opening apps, making calls, setting timers, checking the calendar, getting the news, asking about the weather, or playing some music (as long as it’s through Play Music). But if you expected anything more you’ll be disappointed.

Back to the Pixel Launcher which, to all intents and purposes, looks like stock Android, although small changes are visible like the rounder app icons and a new search box. It also provides an alternative to the App Drawer which is accessed through a simple upward swipe.

pixel-xl-notifications

The Google Pixel XL runs the very latest Android Nougat update (7.1), which brings some updates of its own like Night Light (a blue light filter), a manual storage manager and, perhaps our favourite, the ability to swipe for notifications.

This affords you greater power over the notifications you see, and you can use the rear-mounted fingerprint reader to dip in and out of the Android Action Bar. It might not work as well as it does had the Pixel suffered from poorer fingerprint placement.

Nexus devices were always aimed at tech-savvy Android purists. They were handsets for power users who wanted the latest OS updates. Part of that still rings true and you’ll still be the first to receive OS updates, but you need to spend only five minutes with the handset to realise that Google is targeting the Pixel at an altogether different breed of user.

The promise of dedicated 24-hour, seven days a week support, and the bundled adapter that allows migration between the Pixel and your previous handset, is explicit in its subtlety.

To confuse matters even more, the Pixel XL (and Pixel) aren’t cheap and could price non-enthusiasts out.

Google says it will provide two years of Android OS updates. To put that into perspective, it’s half an long as Apple which you can typically rely on for a good four or five. Security updates are quoted as three years.

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