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Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL phones are refined, not radical

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Hands-on with the Google Phone

Here they are, at long last, the Google Phones. Technically, they’re called Pixel and Pixel XL. I’ve spent slightly longer with both than we usually get at a typical tech event hands-on, and so I have a few impressions to share. But the most important one is this: these are perhaps the most refined Android phones I’ve ever laid hands on. Not every detail is going to amaze you, but very few of them are going to put you off. The Pixel is approachable; it doesn’t feel techy or angular like most Android phones.

Read next: the inside story of the Google phone!

It comes in two sizes: a 5-inch model with an HD display and a 5.5-inch model with a QHD display. Prices start at $649 for a 32GB model, which is more expensive than we’re used to from Nexus devices. But this isn’t a Nexus, it’s a Pixel, and so it’s priced at the high end.

You can see the result of that pricing in the speedy components inside the phone and also in the fit and finish of the outside. The Gorilla Glass on the front curves subtly into the sides and the OLED screen is bright and responsive. And yes, there is a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Updated with hands-on video.

No reasonable person can deny that it looks very much like an iPhone. There are plenty of differences, so let’s list them: there’s a big glass square on the back that helps with positioning the phone in your hand and gives the antennas more surface area to work with. The fingerprint sensor is on the back instead of on the front, and it doesn’t act as a home button. The 12-megapixel camera, mercifully, is fully encased in the phone instead of jutting out. Though the edges are curved on the front, they’re more sharply angled on the back — not unlike an HTC phone, who manufactured it.

HTC may have manufactured it, but it didn’t design it. Unlike Nexus phones, the Pixel was designed by Google from start to finish and isn’t based on a previous HTC device. That control shows when you turn the phone on and start interacting with it. The software seems faster and smoother than any Android phone I’ve used before — though of course I’ll need to spend more time with it to say that is definitively true. The powerful Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM certainly help, but we’ve seen powerful specs on phones before. This time around, Google tells me that it’s optimized all sorts of things to optimize touch response.

The 12-megapixel camera on the back is fast — the fastest I’ve seen on an Android device. The photos also look pretty good, at least on the Pixel’s screen. Obviously we’ll need to test it in something other than ideal conditions to say more, but Google is pushing this camera a lot: it got the highest DxOMark score ever given to a phone, and the company is not shy at all about reminding you of that. One caveat to that speed thing: if you manually turn on HDR+ mode instead of leaving HDR on auto, the camera slows down just a little to fully process each HDR shot. If you leave it on auto, HDR still happens quickly.

There’s no optical image stabilization, but Google has tied the gyroscope into the camera system. In a demo, I saw the Pixel get rapidly shaken up and down an inch or so while recording with no visual jitter or jelly at all.

There are nits to pick, if you’re interested in nitpicking. There’s only one speaker — at the bottom. Especially for a device that’s designed for Daydream VR, I expected stereo. It’s also inexplicable that there are antenna lines in the aluminum back, one on the bottom and another at the top. With such a large, glass "shade" on the back, it’s weird that they’re necessary at all.

Of the two sizes, I prefer the Pixel XL, but this time around there’s no penalty for choosing the smaller phone. They have exactly the same processor, storage, memory, and camera.

Back to the software: this is Google’s "opinionated" take on Android. While the Nexus was thought of as "Pure Android," this is very much Google’s take on it. That means that it has a custom launcher with a button for Google searches up top, next to the weather and time. You can long-press on the newly circular icons to get quick shortcut items, which themselves can be turned into discrete items directly available on your home screen. You slide up to get to the application drawer and slide down to get to the notification drawer. And now you can also slide down on the fingerprint sensor on the back to get to notifications quickly, too.

You slide right as usual to get to Google Now, but the main event is triggered by a long-press on the home button, which launches the Google Assistant. A pane shows up at the bottom of the phone and you can speak your questions — no typing, which is super annoying. Google is making a big thing of the fact that you can converse with the Assistant: ask follow-up questions, get rich results with lots of information, get told corny jokes. The Assistant has subsumed the old screen-reading "Now on tap" feature; when you bring it up, you can ask it questions about what’s already on your screen and it’ll answer them. Eventually, I think it’s going to subsume Google Now, too — but that’s probably a ways off.

The Pixel and Pixel XL are available for preorder today and will be shipping on October 20th. Google is going big with this one, unlike the Nexus it should be available in multiple retail channels. There are also customizable "Live cases" for both sizes, and the Daydream View VR headsets will be released in November — not to mention new Chromecasts and a Wi-Fi router and a Home speaker. If you want to surround yourself with gadgets made directly by Google, this holiday season is going to be a good time for you.

Photography by Vjeran Pavic and James Bareham.

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