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Google Pixel and Pixel XL unboxing and first impressions: Big G takes charge, delivers phones with smarts

|October 5, 2016 |Android Phones, Android, Google, First impressions, Nexus

"The new Pixel duo is seriously loaded and comes with the power of Google Assistant baked right in"

Microsofting. Yahooing. Sound weird? Well, the latter is an actual word, matter of fact. How about Googling? Doesn’t sound as strange huh? Google isn’t the first brand that has been verbified, so to speak (there are others like Xerox, FedEx etc) but this just goes to show how omnipresent the search giant is. Pretty much all of us use some product / service or the other from the Mountain View major countless times every day without giving it a second thought. Take Android, the mobile platform developed by the company for example. It’s by far the most popular mobile OS globally, and each year, Android fans look forward to the launch of new Nexus phone(s) injected with the very latest version of the OS.

Things are different this year. The latest Android build, dubbed Nougat, is already out... and as far as the Nexus phones are concerned, there won't be any new ones, at least with that particular branding. You see, Google is rebranding the iconic Nexus range to the Pixel series, indicating a significant shift in strategy. The reasons behind this include better, tighter control over the hardware, plus an attempt at giving users premium smartphones that can offer the best possible experience in terms of regular usage as well as VR. Let’s just go right ahead and give you a gander at the new Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones, proudly bearing the hashtag #MadeByGoogle.

Related read: Google Nexus phones through the years

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For a quick unboxing first, here’s a look at the stuff included in a Pixel XL retail pack. The cardboard box is packed in an outer sleeve, which bears the branding, a phone image and other regulatory info. Sliding out the inner box reveals the phone resting atop a tray.

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A smaller compartment on the side contains a two-pin wall charger and a Type-C to Type-C cable. The charger itself has a Type-C port to work along with the cable. An envelope containing the documentation can be below the phone, with a large cavity containing a Type-C to USB cable… which is something you’d need when you have to transfer data to a computer or if you wish to use a third-party charger.

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A Type-C male to USB female Quick Switch adapter is also present inside the box, and this lets you hook up your old phone (even an iPhone) to your new Pixel / Pixel XL via cable to move your personal content over. The data that can be transferred using this includes contacts, photos, videos, music, SMSes etc.  We assume the contents of the Pixel retail box are the same.

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As is the case each year, Google has tied up with a phone manufacturer to build the new phones, but this time, you won’t find any branding on the phones to indicate the chosen one. The Pixel and Pixel XL have been made by HTC, but the only branding on the phones is a very noticeable ‘G’ logo at the rear. Design wise, there’s very little to distinguish the Pixel from its XL sibling apart from the size. The screen sizes and resolution are the key differences between the two, apart from battery capacity. The Pixel uses a 5-inch, full HD AMOLED display and draws juice from a 2,770mAh battery, while the Pixel XL bears a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED screen and comes with a 3,450mAh battery. The rest of the specs are identical, and just to make things clear at the outset – the sheet mentions Snapdragon 821 SoC, 4 gigs of RAM, and 32GB/128GB storage variants. For capturing memories, you get an 8MP sensor at front, plus a 12.3-meg shooter at the rear. Worth mentioning at this point that in our brief usage, both the Pixel and the XL seemed extremely snappy and smooth, while a couple of test shots we managed to click indicated very good image quality.

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Both phones come encased in metal, feature rounded corners, and a very interesting dual-tone finish at the rear. On the fascia, you’ll see the front camera, earpiece and sensors above the display, while the chin below is devoid of any hardware navigation keys.

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The sides feature a tapered, industrial design that reminds us of the HTC 10 (review), which isn’t surprising since these new phones come from the same manufacturer.

In terms of controls and port placement, you’ll find a volume rocker and a power button on the right spine, while a nano-SIM tray is present on the left. The top is home to a 3.5mm headset socket, while a USB Type-C port and speaker are located at the bottom.

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On the rear, you’ll see the primary camera, flash, fingerprint scanner and ‘G’ branding. An antenna line is visible closer to the bottom. While the majority of the rear is metal, a significant portion of the top half bears a glassy, glossy finish.

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The Pixel and Pixel XL come in black, silver and a very interesting shade of blue, though sadly, the latter won’t be coming to India anytime soon.

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On  the software side of things, you get Android Nougat (beta review) in its purest form as expected. The v7.1 build comes with all the Android N features, complete with performance improvements, a redesigned notifications panel, a split-screen mode and more. However, the smartphones use a new launcher, dubbed – you guessed it right – the Pixel launcher.  If you recall, this launcher was leaked as a downloadable APK a few days ago, and since it looked legit, we even went ahead and tried it ourselves (overview). The Pixel Launcher brings with it a few UI changes and new features, such as a Google shortcut on the top left of the home screen, a tiny arrow at the bottom that can be swiped up to access the app drawer, and a new wallpaper picker, among other things.

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The Pixel Launcher isn’t the only fresh thing though. Google has also baked in its Assistant machine-learning feature right into the platform. We got a first look at Assistant’s capabilities when we checked out Allo (review), the new messaging app from Google. Assistant basically attempts to be your know-all buddy that ‘eavesdrops’ into your conversations and interactions, and using the power vested in it by Google, guides and prompts you with suggestions and search results on the fly. On the Pixel duo, it can be accessed by long pressing the virtual home key, and doing so brings up the Assistant panel that you can interact with by typing text or just voice using the Ok Google hotword.

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The Pixel smartphones also bring another interesting features – support for motion gestures. Dubbed ‘Moves’ and found under device settings, the available options include swiping down on the fingerprint scanner to view the notification panel, double tapping the home key for launching the camera quickly, and double twisting you wrist to toggle between the front and rear sensors while in the camera app. Indicating that its serious about the phone business and taking complete responsibility of its new phones, Google has also integrated 24x7 customer support into the devices themselves, enabling you to use calls or chat to reach out to support executives when needed.

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There’s no doubt in our minds that the new #MadeByGoogle phones are pretty special, and promise to deliver a very smooth usage experience. That promise comes at a big cost though, and this is exactly what makes us a tad sceptical too. With a starting price of Rs 57,000 (for the Pixel 32GB), going all the way up to Rs 76,000 (for the Pixel XL 128GB), these phones venture into dangerous territory – tottering straight into the path of powerful competition that incudes the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and on the Android side, the venerable Samsung Galaxy S7 (review) and the S7 edge (review). The Nexus brand had managed to build up a loyal fan following over the years, but with a new brand, high asking price and the strong rivals, the Pixel and the Pixel XL face an uphill battle. That said, if you can ignore the sticker price, Google promises you an experience that cannot be be matched by any other smartphone. We’ll play referee and see if the Pixel pair can deliver on that – soon after we have the review units in hand.

 

Disclosure: this writer attended the Pixel launch in San Francisco on Google India’s invitation



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