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Review: Google Pixel is the new king of Android

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A great camera and an AI assistant that really works puts it at the top of the heap.

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GOOGLE PIXEL XL
THE GOOD: Great camera, Google Assistant is actually useful.
THE BAD: Fingerprint scanner on the back.
RATING: A A A A

As it stands, most smartphones on the market are remarkably alike, with only a few individual, often gimmicky features setting them apart. Phone A might have a better camera while Phone B packs a nicer screen. Phone C might do something cool, like open your flashlight app with a twist of your wrist.

I’ve been waiting for that one device to put it all together into one package – not just a smartphone that’s stacked to the gills with features, but one that combines the things I actually want and can use. The Google Pixel, at long last, is that phone.

The replacement for the now apparently retired Nexus brand, the Pixel is Google’s first official in-house effort at a high-end smartphone. There were Nexus devices preceding this one, but they were essentially Google software showcases with third parties such as HTC and LG handling the hardware.

Google also produced a device of its own, sort of, via its ownership of Motorola for a few years, but that was something of an arms-length relationship between the two companies. The Pixel is the first real deal effort by Google’s new internal hardware division, and it’s a great one.

I’ve been a fan of Motorola phones since the company’s first release under Google in 2013. The Moto X touted pure Android without a lot of the crap software (crapware) that many other manufacturers add in.

It was also headlined by a few nifty and useful features, including an always-on display that flashed notification snippets and an always-listening assistant that could respond to commands without your having to even touch the phone.

Google, which raided some of Motorola’s talent as it sold the company to China’s Lenovo in 2014, has brought some of that along into the Pixel. The notification snippets aren’t there, unfortunately, but the always-listening function is. And it’s fantastic.

It’s one of those features that wows friends and families. What’s that? Mom wants to know how long it takes to get up north? Let’s ask the phone: “Okay Google, how far is it to Huntsville?” The phone instantly charts the map and traffic conditions and gives a verbal estimate. Mom: “Wow!”

The always-listening function goes a step forward with the Pixel, as it’s the first Android phone that also houses the new Google Assistant. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Siri that can take text message dictations or set up calendar appointments with acceptable accuracy.

It’s more akin to an advanced chat bot that can engage in actual conversations, as basic as they might be for now.

Case in point: I asked the Google Assistant how old Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion is. Not only did it correctly identify and spell his relatively complex name, it gave me the right answer (he’s 33). My follow-up question: where was he born? The assistant returned the right information:

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I kept going, just for fun. I asked what his current salary is, his stats for the year and where he’s going to play next year. On that last point, the assistant turned up a web search with rumours. Impressive stuff.

There are an infinite number of ways in which such a function might come in handy, and truth be told, I only scratched the surface in my few days with the Pixel. But it’s accurate and impressive, to the point where I’m already using it regularly. I can’t say the same for Siri.

This really is a big deal. Having conversations with your phone, or any computer for that matter, is something science-fiction has promised us for decades. It’s finally approaching reality and the Pixel feels like the first real step in that direction. That said, voice search and commands are still not something a lot of people want to do in public, so there’s life in them keyboards yet.

The five-inch Pixel and the 5.5-inch Pixel XL, which I’ve been reviewing, also boast the best smartphone camera in the business, according to Google. The devices score 89 on DxoMark Mobile, which is indeed the highest rating yet for a smartphone on the camera testing site.

I’m not so sure. I took a few side-by-side shots with the Galaxy S7, which a few reviewers and sites have pegged as having the best smartphone camera, and I have to concede the advantage to Samsung’s device.

The Galaxy S7 seems to perform better in most situations – it captures better colours (top photos), more contrast between light and shade (middle photos) and low-light images (bottom photo):

phones flowers

phones cats

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This is not to say the Pixel’s camera isn’t good or even great – it is, I’m just not ready to anoint it the best. What I can say is that it’s better than anything I’ve seen in a Motorola phone, including the latest Moto Z devices.

While I’ve really liked Moto phones, knowing that there were better cameras out there was always a stumbling point. A great camera is a must for me, which is why I like the Pixel so much – it’s got the guts of what made the Moto X devices great, but with better optics.

Put the voice functions and the camera together along with a pure Google operating system – the Pixel devices also run the new Nougat update – and you’ve got the best, most useful Android device on the market in my books. The rest is gravy.

And there’s quite a bit of gravy. There’s free unlimited online storage for photos and videos, which is good for staying under the device’s storage limits (ranging from 32 to 128 gigabytes, depending on model).

The screen resolution is a hefty 1440 by 2560 pixels, with a density of 534 ppi, which is sharper than the iPhone 7 but slightly short of the Galaxy S7. Either way, the display is sharp and brilliant.

The Pixel XL packs a 3,450 milliamp battery, which is bigger than both the S7 and iPhone 7 Plus. I managed to make it through three days without charging, a pleasant surprise to be sure.

Google is also touting turbo charging, where 15 minutes of plugging in delivers seven hours of battery life. I don’t know about the specific times, but I did take the Pixel up to 60 per cent from 15 per cent in 15 minutes, so it feels about right.

There’s also live device support, in case you’re having problems with your Pixel, accessible directly from the settings app. Pixel owners will even be able to share their screens with support agents to get help with their problems.

The function wasn’t live during my test period, so I wasn’t able to try it out. It’s a neat idea, though.

One other function I wasn’t able to get a full feel for was the Pixel’s interoperability with the Daydream View, Google’s virtual reality headset. I had a few minutes with the two devices at a demo a few weeks ago and liked what I saw. As someone who’s getting into 360 photos and video in a big way, I feel like Google is onto something with how these two devices will work together.

Things I don’t like, or that are missing: At the top of the list is the fingerprint scanner, which sits on the backside of the phone rather than at the bottom of the screen, as on most devices.

As with LG, which tried this with its power button in some of its G phones, I hate it. It’s inconveniently located, especially if you put your phone in a mount in your car. You have to reach around to its back to unlock it rather than just thumbing it. Blech.

The Pixel devices also aren’t specifically waterproof or dust-proof and don’t have wireless charging or micro-SD card slots for expandable storage. These are important features for many consumers, although I can’t say I need any of them. Still, any of those items could be a deal breaker.

Such is the world of high-end smartphones these days. You get some features with Brand X and a few others with Brand Y, but otherwise they do much of the same – and cost the same. The Pixel phones, available on Oct. 20 through most Canadian carriers, run about the same as comparable Apple and Samsung devices. The smaller phone starts at $899 and the Pixel XL at $1,029.

It’s a hefty price to pay, but in terms of usefulness and covering the bases that I personally look for, the Pixel is there more so than any other Android phone I’ve used this year. It’s my new favourite phone as a result, and the new king of the Android pile as far as I’m concerned.

Oh, and did I mention it has a proper headphone jack?

Google supplied a trial unit for the purposes of this review.

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