Google Pixel revisited: Does it live up to the hype?

Four months ago, Google entered the fray with its first self-branded handsets designed from the ground up by the company, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and changed the mobile industry as we knew it.

Initial reviews were glowing and analysts believe sales are strong despite purported manufacturing shortages, but since then, there have also been some notable hiccups (namely software issues) that have been reported extensively by various publications, including MobileSyrup.

MobileSyrup‘s Patrick O’Rourke and Rose Behar have revisited the Pixel to analyze the devices once more and contemplate whether the Google Pixel deserves to still be called one of the best smartphones ever made.

Cracks in the Pixel’s armour

Google Pixel held in a hand

Patrick O’Rourke

The longer I spend with Google’s Pixel, the more issues I’ve begun encountering with the phone’s design and software, though I haven’t experienced as many problems as my colleague Rose has with Google’s first flagship smartphone.

To start, I still agree with Google nixing the Nexus brand in an effort to create a true Google-manufactured Android flagship. The Nexus line served its purpose of growing the Android brand and resulted in the release of quality, affordable smartphones, elevating the overall output of other Android manufacturers in the same way Microsoft’s Surface devices pushed forward the PC industry into a new hybrid era.

Some are frustrated by the Pixel’s expensive price tag, but the mid-range build with high-end specs portion of the Android market is now rife with phones worth buying, with the the OnePlus 3T being the best example. If you aren’t looking to drop $900+ CAD on a phone, but still want your device to rock the latest Snapdragon processor and feature other marquee specs, there are a variety of options for you out there. Google wants to compete directly with Apple and to a lesser extent, LG and Samsung — this is why the Mountain View, California company released a high-end phone with a high-end price tag.

While I still stand by my belief that the Pixel is one of the best Android smartphones on the market, as with my experience with most phones I’ve reviewed, I’ve slowly begun to encounter issues with the device that didn’t occur while testing the phone for my initial review. In part this is because reviews need to be put together on a restrictive timeline. In the case of the Pixel, I only spent a few days with the phone before writing my thoughts about the device, in order to hit Google’s global review embargo.

The Google Pixel's Gorilla Glass 3 backing.

I’m still fond of the Pixel’s look, though I know I’m in the minority when it comes to that opinion. What I didn’t realize, however, is how easy it is to scuff and scratch the smartphone’s soft aluminum casing. While the Pixel I’ve been using only has a few scratches, likely because I’ve kept the phone in a Spigen case since getting my hands on it, Rose’s Pixel is covered in dents and scrapes. I likely take better care of my mobile devices than the average person, but I also don’t think Rose is very rough with her devices either. For a $900+ dollar smartphone, I expected the Pixel to hold up better to minimal wear and tear, particularly the offset ridge that runs around the phone’s screen (this seems to lose its finish easily).

Software wise, I still contend that the Google Pixel’s performance and unique Android skin are its biggest selling points. Just like I stated in my original review, I feel the easy to access app tray and overall design of the Pixel’s icons and the inclusion of Google Assistant, give Android a much-needed dose of refinement. I have, however, run into issues I didn’t experience before writing my initial review. For example, in more than one case Twitter and Facebook both crashed and wouldn’t open, even after restarting the phone. In order to get these apps to properly launch again, I needed to select ‘Force Quit’ within Android’s settings to get the apps to open again. This isn’t a problem I’ve ever encountered with a smartphone before and led to a frustrating few hours of troubleshooting.

I’ve also experienced the dreaded ‘Android Lag,’ an issue I hoped and assumed wouldn’t be part of Google’s Pixel experience. Android lag, or rather, using a Nexus device, or any Android smartphone, for a few months before having it seemingly slow down to a crawl for no apparent reason, is a huge problem on Nexus devices, particularly the Nexus 5X and 6P. While I initially hoped Pixel would be devoid of this issue because its software and hardware was developed by Google simultaneously and with optimization in mind, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

All in, however, the Pixel is a great smartphone. It takes some of the best photos I’ve ever seen an Android device shoot, is generally snappy (despite the occasional bout of Android lag) and features an incredibly refined user interface.

The Google Pixel isn’t perfect, but it’s good

Scratches on the Google Pixel

Rose Behar

The Google Pixel is flawed.

Its design is drab at best, it isn’t waterproof despite having a waterproof price point and multiple software issues have caused members of its community major inconvenience — yet despite all of that, it is one of the best smartphones experiences currently on the market.

This speaks to power of a well-tested, simple operating system — in this case true stock Android with some exclusive modifiers including Google Assistant and the delightful Pixel launcher — and a beautifully interconnected cloud ecosystem. With the Pixel, Google and its silent partner HTC have achieved what Apple is known for and what Samsung will likely never achieve. A full-fledged mobile experience that draws in users based on software, rather than hardware.

To begin with, there’s the UI itself. The Pixel launcher is one of my favourite aspects of the device. It offers space for five go-to apps and a simple swipe up pulls up the app drawer. Google Now’s main screen is a quick swipe to the right, complete with Google Assistant, which, though not overwhelmingly useful, is certainly the best of the current voice assistant crop in terms of functionality and natural language processing. Long pressing on most apps also provides a handy pop-up menu of shortcuts.

Gestures also enhance the user experience. Swiping down on the fingerprint sensor pulls down the notification shade, a simple user-friendly touch that makes one-handed operation easier.

The back of the Google Pixel

Then there are the helpful Google integrations, like unlimited free high-resolution image storage through Google Photos for Pixel users. The Pixel also comes pre-loaded with Google’s ‘Messenger’ app (no relation to Facebook’s) which paves the way for the budding RCS protocol. RCS brings many of iMessage’s best features (think high-res photo sharing and typing indicators) to Android messaging and will very likely replace SMS messages. Rogers and Fido have already adopted the protocol and Bell and Telus are likely not far behind.

Messenger isn’t unique to the Google Pixel, of course. It comes on any stock android device and can also be downloaded. It is, however, a crucial element of its overall ecosystem, soon to add a feature that is often pointed to by iOS users as a sticking point that would stop them from leaving to Android.

To top it all off, the Pixel also manages to have one of the best cameras around, capable of taking gorgeous pictures. Not my pictures, perhaps, since I still often make the rookie mistake of getting pictures that end at people’s necks, but I’ve seen some fantastic captures occur around me, including clear low-light or waning light shots and crisp, differentiated bokeh effects on close-ups.

But as delightful as all that is, it’s not all fun and games with the Pixel. I was one of the users affected by chronic LTE Band 4 connectivity issues that occurred not long after the device was launched in November. It took Google less than a month to roll out an update that solved the issue, but between November 9th and November 22nd, my network connection went out several times a day, often necessitating a reboot. Not only was this frustrating, it was dangerous.

The Google Pixel sitting on colourful moss

My partner’s Google Pixel XL had a similarly unsettling issue that caused the battery to drain suddenly and unexpectedly — once leaving him stranded with no phone in a foreign country in the middle of the night. I too experienced those sudden battery drains, though not in such a precarious situation, and that issue, to my knowledge, has now been resolved.

While these experiences might come hand in hand with a phone developed quickly by a company that thrives on the quick iteration of software updates (not all of which are completely stable) these experiences did mar my overall experience of the device.

Further, it has a slight issue with heat management, often peaking between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius while charging. This will eventually degrade the device’s decent battery life, and its lack of heat management also contributes to frequent crashes of the processing-intensive Daydream VR app.

But even with its not inconsequential flaws, Google Pixel still manages to stand out from the rest of the Android pack with a comprehensive, integrated and intuitive software package. It’s an excellent first Google-branded phone and paves the way for what has the potential to be a truly fantastic second-generation that device that should have Apple very, very worried.

Do you have the Pixel or Pixel XL? Let us know your thoughts on the device in the comments below.