“Ok Google. What’s the best way to cut a watermelon?” “Ok Google, how do I boil an egg?” “Ok Google, what is the status of my flight.” “Ok Google, are there any bookstores around me?” “Ok Google, take a selfie.” These are just a handful of queries I made to Google’s new Assistant during the week of using the Pixel XL smartphone and it did not disappoint me, even though it now knows I am a noob when it comes to doing anything in the kitchen.
Google tried its hand with Nexus smartphones, which were initially aimed at developers but then extended to consumers, with the aim of providing the purest Android experience. This was relevant at a time when most smartphone vendors were using Android as an underlying platform with their own user interface and applications to differentiate from their rivals. Samsung, which ships the most Android smartphones worldwide, had its own S Voice app that competed with Google Now. Xiaomi built a multi-billion dollar empire on top of Android, but its MIUI interface looked closer to iOS than Android. OnePlus built its own “OS” and so did almost everyone else. In the race to differentiate their offerings, many Google innovations were lost.
With its Pixel smartphones, Google wants to change that for good. The Pixel and Pixel XL are Google’s “opinion” on what smartphones should be. No longer content just to partner with a hardware vendor that was open to launching a stock Android smartphone, Google is taking things in its own hands right from the device “ID” (industrial design) to optimizing the hardware and software to a new “Pixel launcher” that would be exclusive to the Pixel lineup. Say hello to the first “Made by Google” smartphones.
The thing about smartphones is that they have become commodities — most of them look the same and do the same things. The only thing that differentiates any two smartphones is that they would do some tasks better than the other or one might offer better value for money than the other or one might outperform the other on synthetic benchmark tests — keywords that most reviewers swear by. Much like Apple, Google wants to change the narrative. It does not want to talk about benchmarks or specifications or pricing (the Pixel smartphones cost almost as much as the new iPhones). Instead it wants to focus on the user experience. I have been using the larger Pixel XL for the past one week and it is only over time that I realized and started respecting what Google has done.
Yes, the Pixel and Pixel XL look like iPhones. The design is not exactly original and there have been multiple instances where people have come to my desk and mistook the Pixel XL for the iPhone 7 Plus. The only way to differentiate the two is the missing home button. On the back, Google has gone with a “weird” metal panel and a glass window of sorts on the top part. During my briefing with senior Google executives, no one would confirm if the glass panel serves any purpose. That hasn’t stopped people from wondering if it enhances the antenna performance or probably helps user to easily feel their way to find the right side up. For all we know, the glass panel exists just because it was the “Googley” thing to do.
What the Pixel smartphones lack in design they make up for it in their user interface. At the center of it is the Google Assistant, which is an evolution of Google Now and it beats Siri to the core. With my iPhone I use Siri for simple tasks like setting alarms, checking my calendar, or opening certain apps. While privacy advocates might cringe at the level of access Google Assistant requires (virtually every Google service you use as well as everything you do on your phone), the thing is it makes life easier.
Initially I used Google Assistant just like that but over a period of time, my usage kept increasing. From opening songs on YouTube — ok Google, play Ae dil hai mushkil made the Assistant open the song directly on YouTube — to finding a bookstore near me, the Assistant worked perfectly. It even knew my flight details (from the ticket in my Gmail inbox) and I could just say “ok Google, what’s the status of my flight” to get the latest status. (It was 35 minutes delayed, if you were curious.) We were waiting at a restaurant and the Assistant knew where I was and gave me more details about the restaurant including its menu.
It just felt that it was a real assistant that knew where I was, what I was planning to do or what I wanted to do. I could command it to click a selfie and it would open the camera in selfie mode with a three second timer. I could ask it for the latest score while a match was on and it would give me the result. What I liked the most is that it won’t just give me a list of links but the actual answer and it would also give say the answer out loud for you to hear.
But that isn’t to say that Google Assistant is perfect. Google says it is in beta currently and it shows. For instance, once when I said two, it heard it as tu. Other time I said 38 and it took it as “xxxviii” and as a result I could not get the result I sought. Google says the Assistant is still in beta and with machine learning it will only keep getting better with time. In other words, the more you use it, the better it will get over time.
Then there is the thing about always having to say “Ok Google” out loud, which can get embarrassing in public. Yes, there is the option to long press the on-screen home button to activate it but it is just awkward to lift the phone closer to your face and talk to the phone. Probably a pair of Pixel in-ear assistant (like the Sony Xperia Ear) would help.
The app drawer is now hidden since the home button is now the Google Assistant button. Instead there is a tiny arrow pointing up from the springboard as an indicator of the hidden app drawer. One thing I don’t like about the Pixel UI is how it handles folders. Since the icons are round, you get to see parts of the icons of any four apps that are inside the folder. The folders have no name and there is no prompt to let the user assign a name to it.
The search bar on top of the display has also received an overhaul. It is now just a ‘G’ icon, which unfurls on touching. The presence of Google Assistant does not mean Google Now is dead, and you can still access it by swiping from left to right on the homescreen. Initially I thought Google Now would be rendered useless after Google Assistant but that isn’t the case. Google Now is more about keeping a track of things you care about while the Assistant is about things you need.
While Google Assistant is certainly the high point of the Pixel smartphones, Google has ensured that the hardware is top notch too. One of the biggest underlying points behind killing the Nexus program was Google’s desire to control both the software and the underlying hardware. Apple has shown us how a device can be optimized if you control both the hardware and software and it shows in the Pixel XL with little things of how fluid the UI moves unlike a bit of stutter we see in most Android smartphones. Or the camera, which has almost zero lag and quickly focuses and shoots even with the HDR+ mode on. Things like these were not possible earlier where someone else was doing the hardware and Google was providing the latest iteration of Android.
The Pixel XL has a 12.3-megapixel rear camera which is one of the best we have seen on an Android smartphone. The camera performs exceptionally well in almost every lighting condition. I was impressed with the details it managed to capture in low light conditions.
But coming from an iPhone user, I found the images to be over saturated and much warmer than the actual scene, which was the same thing I experienced with the Galaxy S7. The photos certainly pop out and many might find the iPhone’s results to be washed out, but the iPhone continues to have colors closer to reality than the others. Nevertheless, that is not taking away anything from the Pixel XL’s camera. The Pixel smartphones lack OIS but Google is touting its advanced EIS, which I believe is a result of Qualcomm’s 821 SoC. The results have been pretty satisfying.
Both the Pixel smartphones share most of the specifications including the Snapdragon 821 SoC, 4GB RAM, 12.3-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front facing camera and come in 32GB and 128GB variants. What’s different is the display size and resolution (5-inch full HD and 5.5-inch 2K) and the battery size (2,270mAh and 3,450mAh). There is no microSD card slot and it comes with only one nano SIM card slot. Both phones come with a USB Type-C port and there is a USB TYpe-C (male to female) cable as well as a USB Type-C to USB cable. There is also a “switch” adapter, which essentially connects to the phone’s USB Type-C port and you can connect your existing smartphone via its USB cable to transfer content from your existing phone.
Google sent me the Pixel XL, which during my usage easily lasted me through a day and had about 15 percent battery left when I woke up the next morning. I easily got 8-9 hours of screen on time with about an hour of calls, an hour of web browsing, two hours of other usage like tweeting, emailing and using Slack. This is what happens when a manufacturer does both the hardware and software. Meanwhile, other manufacturers resort to cramming big batteries inside their phones.
The Pixel phones are Google’s expression of what “smart” in smartphones should be about. These are the iPhones that Android users always wanted. Yes, there are other Android smartphones that offer more bang for your buck if you are only interested in what the hardware in a phone can do for you. Earlier this year I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S7, which I called the perfect smartphone money could buy. But if you consider a smartphone as your daily companion and want to experience the true power of what artificial intelligence can do for you, it cannot get better than the Pixel phones. Welcome to the future.
The Google Pixel and Pixel XL go on sale in India today. The Pixel is priced at Rs 57,000 for the 32GB variant and Rs 66,000 for the 128GB variant. The Pixel XL starts at Rs 67,000 for the 32GB and goes up to Rs 76,000 for 128GB.