As you’re surely aware, last month Google finally released the highly-anticipated Pixel phones, the Pixel and Pixel XL. I previously covered these new devices on launch day, so if you’ve read my coverage of Google’s Pixel launch event, you’re also aware of my initial thoughts on these devices. In short, I felt the Pixel phones were somewhat underwhelming with a disappointingly high price tag.
It’s been about three weeks since the Pixels made their way onto store shelves on October 20. I have a full review in the works, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about these highly divisive phones. In particular, I wanted to answer a question that a lot of you might be asking yourselves right now… Should you buy the Google Pixel or Pixel XL?
What’s so special about the Pixels?
Beneath the surface, the Pixels have a few lingering characteristics left over from the Nexus Era, including the unlockable bootloader — as long as your Pixel device doesn’t come from Verizon, that is — and the extremely sleek, bloat-free Android experience that was one of the biggest selling points of Nexus phones. However, the unlockable bootloader and lack of bloatware aren’t the main selling features of the Pixel phones.
Speaking of which, what are the Pixels’ main selling points, exactly?
With many devices, you’d get different answers from different people. If you ask users of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge to name the single most important feature and selling point of the device, some would say the camera while others might say the high-resolution display or the expandable storage or water-resistance. With the Pixel phones, there really aren’t that many bells and whistles to speak of. Most of what makes the Google Pixel special is primarily its software rather than its hardware.
This kind of makes the Pixel phones lackluster devices. When you consider its design (or lack thereof), the Google Pixel is a very bland, forgettable phone. To many people, it’s the kind of design you’d expect of a no-name, generic iPhone knockoff you might find for $40 from some Asian website.
As I said, the Pixels’ selling points are largely software-based and include most of what I mentioned when they were announced over a month ago. The Google Assistant is perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Pixel and Pixel XL, especially since the Assistant is officially a Pixel exclusive (although there are some hacks you can do to get the Assistant on other Android devices). The new launcher featured on the Pixel, while it’s decidedly less seductive than the Assistant, is also Pixel-exclusive unless you track down the leaked file that made the rounds earlier this summer or use a third-party launcher to achieve a similar look.
On the other hand, the Pixels do have other things that a person can appreciate. They have impressive displays, especially the 1440p AMOLED on the Pixel XL. You can get them with as much as 128GB of storage, which is plenty for all but the most storage-hungry of us. Aside from overall size and display resolution, both phones feature the same specs, which are considered the best internal components available today. Perhaps most notably, the Pixels’ camera has received the highest rating of any smartphone from DxOMark.
The problem is that these features aren’t things that you can’t get at the same or a comparable level from other phones, and many other smartphones have bells and whistles that the Pixels don’t have at either the same or a lower cost. Even the top-rated camera in the Pixels is just a single point (out of 100) better than the one in the HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, and three points better than the much-acclaimed camera of the iPhone 7. So when you step back to look at bang-for-buck and overall value, the Pixels become a much harder sell.
So who are the Pixel phones for?
This is an unexpectedly difficult question to answer, and I’ll tell you why: As you might have noticed by now, Pixel is not the “new Nexus”.
The Nexus line was tailored to something of a niche audience; they were relatively low-cost devices with top specs and a very plain, “vanilla” Android experience. Additionally, each Nexus phone came with an unlockable bootloader, which, to put it in the plainest of terms, meant that the phone’s Android OS could be replaced with a custom-made version of Android like CyanogenMod or one of many home-brewed Android ROMs. Nexus phones weren’t exactly meant to appeal to a mainstream market although last year’s Nexus 5X and 6P — which would retroactively be known as the final installments in the Nexus lineup — had the most mainstream appeal of any Nexus smartphones ever made.
However, Google has made a point of showing us that the Pixels and Nexus phones are two entirely different philosophies. If you’ve missed the signs, allow me to point out the big ones: Pixel phones cost the same amount (literally) as Apple’s high-priced iPhones, the Pixels feature a number of new Android features that are currently exclusive to the Pixel phones, and Verizon has struck a deal with Google that allows users to buy Pixel phones from the largest wireless carrier in the U.S.
When you step back and look at the entire picture, Google has put the Pixel phones into a very bizarre position. On the one hand, the Pixels have iPhone- and Samsung-like premium flagship pricing, but the problem is that the Pixels lack many of the bells and whistles that have almost become expected when you’re paying top dollar for a smartphone. In other words, you may not feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from a Pixel.
A Pixel XL with 128GB costs $869 before taxes and shipping costs, which is the same retail price as an iPhone 7 Plus with 128GB, only $20 more than the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Note7 from a couple months ago, and $70 more than the new LG V20; the Samsung and iPhone offer water resistance while the Samsung and LG have expandable storage and the LG has a removable battery. Meanwhile, phones like the OnePlus 3T and Axon 7 feature many of the same features of the Pixels for less than half the price ($399) of a fully-loaded Pixel XL.
Assuming you’re only looking to buy the smaller model, a 5-inch Pixel with 32GB of storage will set you back a cool $649. This may sound like a more reasonable amount than $869, but keep in mind that it’s the exact same price as the most expensive Nexus phone that Google ever made, the 128GB variant of last year’s Nexus 6P, which featured a much larger 5.8-inch 1440p QHD display, dual front-facing speakers, and four times the storage you’re getting with a base-model Pixel. Clearly, Google is positioning the Pixel in an entirely new category.
On the other hand, despite Google’s efforts to distance the Pixel from the retired Nexus line, it’s likely that Nexus enthusiasts feel that the Pixel shares many of the same sensibilities as Nexus phones with their very stripped-down version of Android, simple design, and development support; however, the Pixels are priced much too high to be Nexus phones, placing the Pixels in this limbo zone between people who pay top dollar for premium phones and people who expect Google’s developer-friendly hardware to be budget-friendly.
Should you buy a Pixel phone?
The answer to this question is: Maybe.
Although I’ve faulted Google for a number of the decisions they made while creating the Pixels, I have still really enjoyed using my Pixel XL. Obviously, I’m not happy about the Pixels being so overpriced, the design is totally disappointing, and these phones are really bland in a number of ways besides the design. However, using the Pixel XL has been the best Android experience I’ve ever had.
Without a doubt, the Pixels are great performers. Whether I’m gaming, watching videos, browsing the web, taking pictures, or multitasking, the Pixel is able to handle everything I throw at it without a stutter.
If you’re someone who uses an IR blaster on a smartphone, needs expandable storage, or needs a smartphone with an eye-catching design, the Pixel probably isn’t for you. If you don’t watch a lot of videos on your smartphone and don’t play a lot of games, the Pixel probably isn’t for you. If all you do on your smartphone is text, the Pixel probably isn’t for you. If you’re on a really tight budget, the Pixel probably isn’t for you. But if you’re someone who values strong performance, a great display, developer support, front-of-the-line software updates, the Daydream VR platform, a bloat-free Android experience, and solid build quality, chances are good that you’d be extremely happy with the Pixel.
Stay tuned for my upcoming official Pixel XL review, a review of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and a review of the Daydream View and Daydream VR platform.