Thursday, October 27, 2016

Google Pixel XL - Just A (Really Nice) Phone

Caveats:  I am not a professional reviewer.

So I bought a Google Pixel XL - pre-ordered through Verizon, got it a week ago.  In order to put this review in perspective consider the following:

  • I'm a techy sort of person
  • However I'm not young 
  • I am coming off a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 that I've been using 3 years
  • I like Google - I used Google apps/solutions when possible
  • I tend to have pretty realistic expectations of what technology can do
It probably also helps you to know what I expected from my new phone:
  • I expected it to be a lot faster
  • I expected the camera to take much nicer photos
Really - that's it in a nutshell.  I shelled out a LOT of money for "faster, with a better camera."  Let's see how it stacks up...

The Pixel XL is a reasonably attractive piece of tech.  I looks a lot like an iPhone, but since I promptly put it in a case, that's of little-or-no consequence.  It's about the same size as my old Note 3 - a tiny bit smaller in fact, though I don't miss the 0.2 inches - and a good deal lighter, which I really appreciate.  I bought the silver model with a white front.  It's attractive enough but not at all flashy.  Lots of reviewers have complained about the "chin", the large area below the screen which serves no apparent function - I'll just say it doesn't bother me. 

The phone is running Android 7.1, with the stock launcher.  This is a lot like what you've probably seen if you've used any Android phone, but with a few "special" items:
  • If you swipe to the leftmost screen, the phone shows you "Google Now" cards
  • If you are on the Home screen, you have a G icon in the upper left that when tapped opens a Google search bar
  • To the right of that, you have the weather and dat
  • Those last two items up top can't be moved or removed
  • Instead of an icon to pull up all your apps, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen
  • Some of the Google apps have "shortcuts" that can be accessed by long-pressing their icons
There's not a lot else there that's different.  

The phone is fast.  Screen taps and swipes are buttery smooth.  Nothing that I run takes any noticeable time to start up (except things that have to download content from the internet to display).  That includes the camera which I will touch on in more depth shortly.

Sound quality is decent through the built-in speaker, but obviously much better with headphones or external speaker.  Bluetooth audio sounds very good.  Phone calls sound good, clear, maybe not really "rich" audio but perfectly understandable.  I used the phone yesterday for a 6 hour conference call on speakerphone, and it was just fine. 

The display is super nice.  I probably don't have the eyesight to truly appreciate it but when I put on my reading glasses I can tell it's very sharp and very pretty.  Since I was stuck on the old Note 3 and could not upgrade to newer versions of Android, there are features I'm just getting that were maybe already there - like being able to pick a little bigger font for the screens, which is really handy.

The camera?  So far I'm loving it.  Images are sharper and colors are richer than anything I've been able to get from any previous phone.  There are obviously some things the phone doesn't do that a "real" camera could do, but for day to day snapshots it's amazing.  It's very fast - the camera starts up quick, focuses pretty much instantly, there's no discernible lag saving images.  It's just a BEAST.  Understand that I paid just as much money for a pocket sized camera not all that long ago...and although that camera has full manual controls and such, I'll use this phone MUCH more, and take a LOT more photos with it.

I should say that having done photography as a hobby for a long time, I am keenly aware that no camera will take great photos FOR you.  And it's also true that a great photographer can make magic with almost any kind of camera.  But what nobody wants is a camera that gets in the way - a camera that you have to wrestle into submission, a camera that starts up too slow or records images too slow to capture a moment, etc.  The Pixel camera stays out of your way - it starts fast, records fast, the autofocus is reliable and fast, the camera just does what you need it to do so you can concentrate on your subject.
The other big "feature" of this phone is the new Google Assistant.  Honestly it's too early to tell how much this will impact my usage or enjoyment of the phone.  I have been using Google search forever including the "OK Google" features, and have already been playing with the Assistant in Allo.  I'm just not sure I'm going to be talking to the phone all that much.  I don't really need it to find me new sushi restaurants or whatever.  Guess the jury is out on this - although I will say with the few tests I've performed the voice recognition is spot-on and the search is as good as Google ever is.

I should probably mention that I bought the Spigen Tough Armor case for the phone - it's really nice.  No need for a review of it, but it looks good and I "feel" protected.  I also bought the Yootech glass screen protector.  I'm going to hold off on saying anything about that as I'm in the middle of a bit of a saga with Yootech that should make for an interesting blog post.

In summary - two thumbs up from me.  My impression is that this is a phone that sort of disappears into the enables you to do the things you want to do with a modern smartphone without intruding.  

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