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Google Pixel XL hands-on: If this is the future of Android, I'm very intrigued

Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributor
  • Editors' review
  • Specs

With the launch of the Google Pixel XL, the search giant has turned itself into a hardware company.

It's easy to scoff and dismiss that claim, given the company's track record with hardware products such as Google Glass have fallen flat. With its Chromebook Pixel line, the pricey laptops were priced so high mass exposure to Google's tinkering with hardware design and manufacturing was far from common knowledge.

With its Pixel phone lineup, that's about to change. Google is advertising the Pixel phone everywhere from commercials to billboards and newspapers.

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Just the other night I was eating dinner with some friends and a Pixel commercial came on the TV. Instantly, I was asked about Google's new phone -- despite the commercials never showing the phone. People are noticing the ads, and curiosity is beginning to grow.

I've only had the phone for a few days and want to spend some more time with it before doing a full review, but I wanted to share some thoughts surrounding what it's like to use Google's first major hardware foray into mainstream consumer tech.

Believe the hype, the camera is real


Photo taken with the Pixel XL on auto mode.

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

When Google announced the Pixel, the second thing it talked about was the camera. Google gave DxOMark access to the Pixel before it was announced, and the company ranked the Pixel's camera as the best smartphone camera ever. Beating Samsung, HTC, and Apple among others.

I can't make the same "best ever" claim, but I will say the Pixel camera is the best camera on a Google-branded smartphone I've ever used. It's crisp, clear, and truly does offer zero shutter lag. If anything, colors are a little too saturated (much in the same way Samsung's Galaxy line over saturates photos).

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I need to do some more testing here, directly comparing shots taken with the Pixel to the iPhone 7 Plus, but my hunch is they'll be close enough in quality that either camera will work for most people.

Pixel software

From the initial boot up animation to the new power menu, the Pixel's software feels different than the standard Android experience. Sure, it's based off of Android 7.1 Nougat, which has some features that aren't available outside of the Pixel line quite yet, but there's a more polished feel to the OS than on previous Google smartphones.

The Nexus line traditionally shipped with a bare-bones version of Android, offering little to no customization by Google to differentiate Nexus devices from the rest of the Android marketplace. And as more device manufacturers started shipping nearly stock-Android experiences, Google's approach lost its appeal.

With the Pixel, Google has stepped away from that approach. Google Assistant is front and center from the moment you open the box; the app icons are rounded now; the app drawer slides up from the bottom of the screen; there's a fun animation every time you press the home button, with different colored circles bouncing out of it.

It all feels very much Google: it's fun, but not childish. It's a refreshing take on the Android experience from start to finish.

Surprise! It's not ugly

(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

Looking at photos and videos of the Pixel after its announcement, I had come to the conclusion its half-glass, half-metal backing was, frankly, ugly. But, in person, for the Quite Black model at least, I rather like the look.

The glass back breaks up the overall look and feel of the device. Instead of having a slab of glass on the front and a slab of dark grey aluminum on the back just like nearly every other Android phone right now, the glass breaks up the design enough to make it unique.

I haven't seen the blue or white color variants in person, but I imagine both look just as sharp as the black model.

Google Assistant is so much better than Siri

In the past few days, I have used Google Assistant more than I've used Apple's Siri in the past few months. It may be part of a honeymoon phase, or it may be something that sticks. Time will tell.

You can activate Google Assistant at any time by saying "OK Google," or by long-pressing the home button. Voice commands are recognized almost instantly, even from across the room, which is something I continually struggle with when using Siri.

My "Aha!" moment with Google Assistant came during a text conversation with someone who was on vacation. As she recapped her day, she told me of a hike she and her husband took to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs, CO., and suggested I look it up.

(Screenshot: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

I long-pressed on the home button to bring up Google Assistant, fully expecting to use my voice to request information, but instead I noticed a bouncing information card at the bottom of the screen. I swiped up, and to my surprise, there was a photo of Hanging Lake, as a well as a link to it on Google Maps, YouTube, Facebook, Google Images, and a link to the lake's website.

Other than long-pressing on a button, I put zero effort into searching for the lake -- and yet, there I was, with everything I would want to know literally at my fingertips.

Try that on an iPhone... it just won't happen.

Stay tuned for an in-depth review in the coming days.