The Pixel, which uses Android software and Assistant, an A.I. virtual assistant, is, relatively speaking, mediocre, but fans of Android won’t regret buying one.
Google’s Pixel, the first smartphone to carry the search giant’s brand name, arrives in stores on Thursday in a lucky stroke of timing. For Google, at least.
This holiday season, all Google’s new phone has to do to compete with those from Samsung, the world’s largest handset maker, is not burst into flames. That’s what recently happened to a bunch of Samsung Galaxy Note 7s, the higher-end smartphones that use Google’s Android software. The Note 7s have since been recalled and Samsung has shut down the product entirely.
The absence of a major competing Android device works out especially well for Google because the Pixel is, relatively speaking, mediocre. It is slower than Apple’s iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7, Samsung’s smaller flagship phone. Photos shot with Pixel’s camera don’t look as good as the iPhone’s. And Google’s built-in artificially intelligent virtual assistant, called Assistant, is still fairly dumb.
But hey, the Pixel probably won’t burn down your garage or injure a child. So if you prefer Android and are already hooked on Google’s suite of internet-powered software, including its maps, photos, email and document-editing apps, then you probably won’t regret buying the Pixel.
Google said that it had optimized Pixel to be speedy, with real-world applications that consumers could perceive, like making the touch screen feel very responsive. It also said that it would improve its virtual assistant over time and that photos taken with the Pixel look more natural.
In the United States, Google’s Pixel will initially be available for Verizon Wireless or Project Fi, Google’s cheaper phone service. Like other high-end phones, Pixel’s starting price is about $650. Pixel comes in two different screen sizes: five diagonal inches and 5.5 diagonal inches. Google provided the 5.5-inch model, Pixel XL, for testing.
After testing Pixel for five days, I concluded that although the device’s features are underwhelming, this is a good smartphone for Android fans. It does a great job doing what Google designed it to do: Running Android in its purest form, untainted by slipshod third-party apps. Better yet, this is an opportune time to consider breaking up with your carrier and switching to Project Fi, Google’s phone service that costs as little as $30 a month.
Here’s what stood out in my tests of Pixel:
Google’s Still-Annoying Assistant
In a comparison of voice-controlled virtual assistants offered by Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft last January, I determined that none were great, though Google’s was slightly ahead of the pack. Nine months later, the situation remains largely the same: Artificially intelligent assistants still aren’t that smart.
And so it was with Google’s supposedly new-and-improved virtual assistant, called Assistant, on the Pixel. The search giant says the difference with Assistant is that it is capable of “two-way conversations.” In plain English, what Google means is you can make requests to Assistant and ask follow-up questions, and Assistant might understand the context to respond appropriately.
Google offers this example: You can ask, “Where is the Taj Mahal?” and then ask, “How old is it?”
While that sounds compelling in theory, Assistant failed at responding fully to many requests made with natural language. When I asked, “What time is ‘Westworld’ on TV?” Assistant displayed a web search result containing the synopsis for the new sci-fi show. When I followed up with, “So what time is it on?” Assistant told me the current time, which was 9:35 p.m.
From there on, Assistant continued to hit foul balls. When I said, “book me a table nearby,” Assistant would try to book a table only at a restaurant called Rich Table, and didn’t list other options.
On the plus side, Assistant can handle a conversation about the weather. When I asked for the weather and it said it was raining, I asked whether it would stop raining this week. “Rain is not expected this week in San Francisco,” it said. Better.
In its current state, attempting to accomplish complex tasks with Assistant on Pixel will waste more time than it saves.
A Mediocre Camera
Like pretty much every handset maker, Google proclaims Pixel’s camera to be the best on the market. Its rear camera has a 12.3-megapixel sensor, similar to the iPhone 7’s 12-megapixel sensor. So I took photos with the Pixel and compared them with shots taken with the iPhone 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7.
All the cameras took clear, visually appealing photographs with rich details, but there were major differences in color, even without any filters applied. The photos taken with the Pixel looked colder — they appeared to exaggerate cyans and magentas. The ones taken with the iPhone looked more vivid, though they appeared to slightly bump up yellows to make photos look warmer. The color in pictures taken with the Samsung phone looked oversaturated and unnatural.
I decided to let a blind jury weigh in. My partner, a professional photographer, took photos with each camera of a plant in a colorful vase in natural lighting. She labeled each photograph A, B and C, and I sent the photos out to 30 people and, without revealing which phone each letter corresponded with, asked them to vote for their favorite. (Before reading the results below, take a look and make your own vote.)
Photo A was taken with the Samsung phone, photo B with Google’s Pixel, and photo C with an iPhone 7. Out of 30 votes, 19 voted for the iPhone, eight voted for the Pixel, and three voted for the Samsung phone. People seemed to gravitate toward the warmer color profiles produced by the iPhone.
Comparisons With the Competition
Based on features alone, the Pixel is decent compared with Apple’s iPhone 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7. Here are some highlights:
■ What sets Pixel apart is its compatibility with Project Fi, Google’s experimental wireless service. You pay at least $30 a month for a package that includes unlimited minutes and messages and 1 gigabyte of cellular data. You can pay $10 more for each extra gigabyte of data or get reimbursed for the cellular data you don’t use.
The best part: In the United States, Project Fi relies on cell networks from Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular; Project Fi also works in more than 135 countries, and you pay the same rate no matter where you travel. In my review of Project Fi this year, I found the service to be reliable and the overall package to be a good, frugal option.
■ The Pixel’s fingerprint sensor, for unlocking the phone, is annoyingly on the back of the device rather than on the face. So when you’re on the go, you will probably be using two hands — one to hold the phone and the other to place your fingerprint on the back — to unlock the Pixel.
■ In speed tests run with the mobile app Geekbench, the Pixel was about 20 percent slower than both the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7.
■ The Pixel wasn’t designed to be water-resistant though Google says it is resistant to water sprays. The Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7 survived a dive into a pitcher of water.
■ It’s worth noting that the Pixel still has a headphone jack, which Apple eliminated from its iPhones this year (though it turns out the iPhone’s omission of the jack was not a big deal).
The Bottom Line
Largely because Samsung, the king of Android phones, is in the penalty box, now is a good time to consider trying something new, be it a different phone service or a different operating system altogether.
Using Pixel with Project Fi may also end up saving you money: If you picked, for example, a plan with two gigabytes of data, you’d pay $40 a month for cellphone and data service that works all over the world. In contrast, Verizon charges $55 a month for a similar plan that doesn’t include free international roaming.
If you are uninterested in Project Fi and are not deeply invested in Google’s ecosystem, there is another route: Try an iPhone. Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus outperformed the Pixel in every way in terms of hardware features.
And so far, to my knowledge, Apple phones haven’t blown up.