Google Pixel review: Assistant, camera add up to a winner

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Google Pixel review: Assistant, camera add up to a winner

Smartphone buyers should have Pixel on the short list.

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Google Pixel review: Assistant, camera add up to a winner

Edward C. Baig , USA TODAY 9:02 a.m. EDT October 18, 2016
636123502586343442-Google-Pixel-USAT-1014-SCREEN-SHOT.jpg

Pixel by Google(Photo: Josmar Taveras, USAT)

NEW YORKGoogle's new Pixel phones should be on a smartphone shopper's shortlist — and not just for those disheartened by Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 recall.

Pixel is a winner for anyone looking for an excellent phone.

Start with cameras that are at the very least on par with the terrific cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 that represent its main competition.

Add the baked-in voice-enabled Google Assistant, Google’s answer to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa, where another battleground is poised to take place. Such digital assistants still represent a work in progress, including Google Assistant, but Google's voice brings a high IQ and a world of potential.

Pixels are also the first phones in which Google took over all aspects of the hardware and software design (though HTC actually manufactured the units), borrowing from Apple’s playbook.

Google Pixel XL   ****EMBARGOED UNTIL 9AM, TUES 10/18/2016

Google Pixel XL ****EMBARGOED UNTIL 9AM, TUES 10/18/2016 Photo by Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT: RD xxxxx Baig_Google Pixel 10/17/2016 [Via MerlinFTP Drop] (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

Over the past several days, I’ve been testing the larger of the two Pixel models, the Pixel XL, which boasts a lovely Quad HD 5.5-inch display and costs $769 for 32 gigabytes of storage or $869 for 128GB. The smaller Pixel has a Full HD 5-inch screen and costs $649 or $749, respectively.

The phones are already on back order and will be available through Verizon (as the exclusive U.S. carrier), at Best Buy, via Google’s Project Fi or Google’s own Play Store. You can get an unlocked version that will work with any of the other major U.S. carriers.

The timing for Google couldn't have been better, coming on the heels of Samsung's decision to stop making the Note 7, a high-end phablet that had attracted a fierce following but which was vulnerable to overheating and fire. The expanded recall may convince some Android users to try a new brand.

Here are the key takeaways:

*Design: Pixels are crafted out of an aerospace-grade aluminum slab and glass and the XL model feels like the high priced phone that it is. It's a tad shorter than the iPhone 7 Plus and viewed from the front the two phones look a fair bit alike, though from the rear not so much. The relatively wide bezels on the front appear to be mostly wasted real estate, since there is are no physical buttons. On the upper third of the back, Pixel has a Gorilla Glass-covered glass shade that reveals smudges.

What I do like though is that there’s no camera bump as on most other phones—the rear lens and flash lay flat.

The fingerprint sensor you can use to unlock the phone is also on the rear. And when you do unlock the devices, you can swipe down on the sensor to reveal notifications, a small but nice feature.

The new fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone.

The new fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

Pixels run the latest version of Android called Nougat and with Google in charge, you ought to get software updates as soon as they are ready. The phone has a robust Qualcomm processor.

And score one for Google against the iPhone 7: Pixel has the same standard 3.55mm headphone connector that the iPhone 7 got rid of and that every other smartphone I know has.

Alas, there’s only a single speaker on Pixel; Apple added stereo speakers to the Phone 7 and other smartphones also have them.

And unlike the iPhone 7 or ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, you wouldn’t want to drop Pixel in a puddle. It is not fully water resistant.

Using the camera on Pixel.    Photo by Robert Deutsch,

Using the camera on Pixel. Photo by Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT: RD xxxxx Baig_Google Pixel 10/17/2016 [Via MerlinFTP Drop] (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

*Camera. I detected only subtle differences between the pictures and videos I shot here (under all sorts of lighting conditions) and those I’ve captured on a Galaxy or the iPhone. Consider that high praise. I was impressed with the color and fine detail on most shots. The main rear camera on the Pixel is a 12.3-megapixel shooter with large pixels and an f/2.0 aperture (good in dim light). It is fast to fire.

By double twisting the phone, you can switch from the rear camera to the front 8-megapixel selfie camera or back, a trick that usually (but not always) worked.

Maybe as important as the picture quality is what you can do with the images you capture. Google is giving Pixel owners unlimited free cloud storage at full resolution for all the pictures and videos shot with the phone, including 4K video. That’s a big deal.

Google Assistant delivers  delivers the weather.

Google Assistant delivers delivers the weather. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

*Google Assistant: You can summon the Google Assistant by barking out “OK Google” or by pressing down and holding against the phone’s home key. As with other digital assistants it can give you the basics: stock quotes, sports scores, even tell you a lame joke. But Google is pushing the conversational aspects of its AI-based Assistant further. You can tap contextual buttons that appear on the screen with suggested replies, or you can respond by voice.

I asked the Assistant to “tell me about my day” and it reported my local weather, told me what appointments I had coming and how long my commute would take. Without prompting, it then played radio broadcasts from NPR, Fox, News, Bloomberg, and BBC.

A Google Assistant search found Sydney with a horse.

A Google Assistant search found Sydney with a horse. (Photo: Edward C. Baig)

When I asked it to show me pictures of Sydney with horses, it correctly surmised that I meant my daughter Sydney rather than Sydney, Australia, and found pictures I'd taken of of her with horses in my Google Photos stash. When I instead asked the Assistant to “show me pictures of Sydney with bridges” it pulled pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge off the web.

Google Assistant was also able to translate “how do I find a bathroom in French?” into that language. Given the same query, Siri pointed me to the web. To be fair, on some complicated requests, the Assistant also directed me to the web.

Google Assistant was able to identify songs where I only knew a few of the lyrics and played them, sometimes, through YouTube.

There's a fun aspect to the Assistant too. I could play trivia, or have the Assistant and flip a coin with the appropriate sound effect as I tried to guess heads or tails.

Most promising is the idea that you can continue a conversation without repeating search parameters each step of the way. So you might ask it to find you an Italian restaurant. You can then can ask how late the place is open, without repeating the name of the restaurant or have the Google Assistant find the menu. In my experience, however, such queries were hit or miss.

Another example: I asked Google to show me pictures of dogs and it did so off the web. Without mentioning dogs I followed up with "how about by the beach?" and Google surfaced web images of canines by the beach. Impressive.

Pixel help screen

Pixel help screen (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USAT)

*Battery. The phone kept a charge well into the evenings during my mixed use; since I never ran it down I didn’t get to test a fast charging feature that Google claims can get you up to 7 hours of juice in just 15 minutes, using the USB-C adapter that comes in the box.

*Worth noting: If you run into a tech support snag, you can solicit help by tapping a “support” tab inside the phone’s settings. From there, you can request a call back from a support agent 24/7 or alternatively open a chat session (the hours are more limited). You can even remotely share your screen with the person helping you out.

Pixel will be the first phone to support Google Daydream, but the mobile virtual reality headset wasn't yet available for testing.

Google's new phones are powerful, pricey, and pretty darn intelligent and demonstrate Google's commitment to be a major player in the space.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

The bottom line

Pixel by Google

$649 on up; store.google.com

Pro. Google Assistant, excellent camera, free cloud photo storage, free support, Daydream ready, fast USB-C charging

Con. Not water resistant, only a single speaker

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