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Pixel XL Review: Android’s yardstick

It’s the end of an era. After seven generations, the Nexus brand is no more. This year, Google gives us Pixel and Pixel XL, the first phones developed by the company in-house, and sold without any kind of co-branding. With prices ranging between $649 and $869, these are expensive devices, and the company is betting big on AI with Google Assistant, which (for now) is only available on the Pixel handsets and the Google Home smart speaker. It’s a gamble for Google as it risks alienating its Android partners and the Nexus faithful alike. Can the company pull it off? Are the new Pixel phones worthy Nexus replacements? Is the premium price tag justified? Does Google Assistant live up to the hype? Google sent us a Pixel XL review unit, so let’s find out.

Design

There’s an elephant in the room here, so let’s get it out of the way. Like it or not, from the front, the Pixel XL looks like an iPhone without a home button. In fact, the area above the 5.5-inch AMOLED screen is particularly reminiscent of Apple’s handsets, with an 8-megapixel selfie cam, earpiece, and proximity sensor that follow a similar layout. Of course, there are no buttons below the screen since the Pixel XL uses software keys.

Pick it up, and the first thing you’ll notice is a satisfying and familiar heft. It’s on the heavy side (168g), but you’ll quickly forget about it because it feels so nice in hand, so well made. It’s not surprising, really: Google hired HTC to manufacture the Pixel XL, and the DNA is unmistakeable. HTC makes phenomenal hardware, so this is absolutely a good thing. At 154.7 x 75.7 x 8.5 mm (6.0 x 2.9 x 0.3 inches), the Pixel XL is slightly smaller and about the same thickness as the iPhone 7 Plus. This is a meticulously built unibody aluminum and glass device, but where Apple’s flagship features fully rounded sides, Google’s handset flattens those edges about half way.

While the Pixel XL’s outline is iPhone like, the back is unique and distinctive. The top third of the phone’s rear is made of glass and protects the 12MP main shooter, flash, laser AF sensor, secondary mic, and fingerprint reader. It’s not so much a camera pod as it is a camera surface, since it’s flush with the aluminum body, and hopefully the glass is hard enough to prevent accidental scratches to the lens. On our Pixel XL review unit, which is “quite silver” (the other two colors are “very black” and “really blue”), this glass surface is pearlescent white. You’ll find an antenna band across the bottom of the aluminum back, along with Google’s new signature “G” logo.

Looking at the sides, there’s a headphone jack on top along with a small antenna band that lines up with the rear camera. And speaking of antenna bands, there are two more small ones on the left and right edges, near the top of the device, very much like the iPhone 4. The right side is home to the metal power/lock key, etched with a lovely tactile pattern, and a one-piece volume rocker. A USB Type-C connector occupies the middle of the bottom edge, and is flanked by two rectangular holes hiding the mono speaker and the primary mic. There’s a nano SIM tray on the left side, but sadly no microSD slot. Interestingly, the Pixel XL is somewhat wedge shaped, being slightly thicker at the top than at the bottom.

Overall, the Pixel XL is beautifully crafted, but it’s a very safe design that won’t win any points for originality. It’s also not water resistant, something that’s getting more and more important in this category.

Display

The Pixel XL’s 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen (with a VR-ready 2560 x 1440 pixels) is absolutely gorgeous. Colors pop without being oversaturated, blacks are darker than Darth Vader’s soul, viewing angles are delicious, and it’s bright enough to read in direct sunlight. What else do you want from a flagship phone these days?

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Next: Camera…

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