Tried & Tested

Technology review: Google Pixel XL

19 Oct 2016 by Tom Otley
Google FAMILY SHOT

The new phones from Google have come at a fortuitous timing for the technology giant. The two phones: Pixel and Pixel XL, are deliberately high-end additions to the crowded smartphone market, yet they have arrived just as Samsung has been forced to withdraw its Note 7 because of well-publicised problems.

As Note 7s caught fire and were banned from all flights, the Pixel phones were being shipped around the world, and so far, there have been no similar problems.

The Pixel XL costs £719 for 32GB (£819 for the 128GB) which seems an astonishing amount for a phone, even a very smart one, but since research shows we now are more likely to leave the house without our wallet than our phone, and we can (and perhaps do) run so much of our life from them, Google is right in believing there’s a market for phones this expensive.

Pixel family of devices

As a long-time Android phone user (as opposed to iPhones) the Pixel XL was easy to set up. A cable between my old phone and new one allowed all the relevant information to be brought over apart from my contacts, which for some reason initially failed (there were 5,000 of them, however, so I rang the Google helpline and found a fix for this).

The phone is quick – not surprisingly since it is using the Google Android system on a Google phone, and is large enough (5.5 inches) for even the most clumsy of fingers, though it was a lot larger than my previous phone, and until I get a case for it (none were available from my local high street stall) I am very careful about it slipping out of my hands. This was made more challenging because of the Pixel Imprint unlocking procedure where the phone can be unlocked by simply placing your finger on a sensor on the back of the phone. It works, but it isn’t a natural way of holding the phone and invariably required two hands to accomplish.

The finish of the phone is unexceptional, although Google says it is “an aerospace-grade aluminium unibody”, but the screen is very clear and of high resolution. It also has good speakers so you can listen to music without headphones (in the house, not on an aircraft). I have used Google Play, but since I already subscribe to Spotify, I have to say I prefer the interface for Spotify.

So is it worth the money? Well firstly, the camera is very good. I’m not sure it’s the best smartphone camera on the market, but it must be very close, and certainly the moment my children got their hands on it, the camera was what wowed them. In addition the hone comes with unlimited cloud storage for Google Photos.

The Pixel is also the first phone with Google Assistant built-in. This is the future, I imagine, since like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, it is an assistant that you can ask questions of and who answers you (silently or in a Google voice).

Google say that this Assistant will gradually become more useful the more you use it, since it will learn things about you. It will also (with permission) look through your emails and calendar, and know what you are looking for from Google searches. I have tried hard to use it, saying “OK Google” (which is the default way of alerting it that a question is coming) and then asking it questions, but in truth I still type most queries into the search bar. I found that the phone had to be unlocked for the voice activation to work, most of the time I had to repeat myself, and since it mostly brought up entries from wikipedia I didn’t find it useful.

If you want a taste of artificial intelligence done well, then download Google Trips – it is a useful addition in that it compiles information about your bookings (if in G Mail) and makes suggestions on future trip itineraries. You have to be fairly relaxed about the data you are sharing with Google, however.

More useful is video-calling with Google Duo, which is like Apple’s Facetime, except it works across all operating systems (including iOS, so you can video anyone, provided they have downloaded the app. This is useful, although since I already use Facetime, Skype and What’s App, along with occasional Snapchat it will have a lot of competition it is to become my default application.

The phone also a longer-lasting battery according to Google. My testing of the phone found it was nothing remarkable, however, and although when it was plugged in for charging it claimed to be “fast charging” it still took quite some time to fully charge. Much will depend on the use of the phone, I suppose.

VERDICT

The new Pixel and Pixel XL are part of a “family” of devices (pictured) including the Daydream VR (Virtual Reality) Headset. It’s undoubtedly a step-change for Google with the video-calling Google Duo app and the built-in assistant, but even though it’s a phone that does all that is asked of it well, it is strangely hard to get excited about it. Perhaps it will become more indispensable as more features are added to the Google Assistant.

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