The results speak for themselves: with the HDR+ mode set to auto, the Pixel XL takes some impressively detailed photos. Outdoors, exposure was consistently excellent and colours had real punch, without straying too far from reality. Bright skies stayed brilliant blue, but without losing any foreground colour or contrast.
Inside, it does a great job with faces, preserving features while exposing the background correctly. You can even get some great depth of field effects when shooting close-ups, without jumping into Google’s Lens Blur software setting.
It might not have optical image stabilisation, but the combination of phase detect & laser autofocus meant barely any of my shots were out of focus. The lack of shutter lag really helps here too.
Hold down the shutter button and it’ll snap a continuous burst of photos at 10fps, automatically turning the result into an animation and picking out the sharpest snaps for you to browse through. It’s brilliant for catching fast-moving action.
The front-facing camera is good for 8MP selfies, although the f/2.4 lens lets in less light and the 1.4µm pixels are smaller to boot. It’ll get the job done in daylight, but you’re better off with the rear camera when the lights go down.
It’s on the back where you’ll find the dual-tone flash. It adds some much-needed illumination to dark scenes, but two tiny LEDs are only good enough for portraits and close-ups.
Is it the best smartphone camera around, as DXOMark claims? Tough one. It’ll still blow out an extremely bright sky when trying to expose your subject if it’s in the shade, but with the right light, it really does look every bit as good as the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 Plus - if not better, when HDR+ exposes a scene just right.
Google Pixel XL software: CAN I ASSIST YOU?
Google spent more time talking up the Pixel’s software than hardware specs at its launch event - and with good reason. It’s the first phone to arrive with a pure, untouched, vanilla version of Android 7.1 Nougat.
Or rather, mostly untouched. The XL is also rocking Google’s Pixel launcher, which comes with the Google Assistant built in.
Sound familiar? Yep, it’s another AI helper like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa - one that can listen out for questions and use the web to find you the answers. Either tap and hold the home button, or say “OK Google” and it’ll spring into action.
It’s great at handling the basics: setting alarms and reminders, checking the weather forecast, converting units of measurement, and looking up simple facts.
There's a bit of Google-specific cleverness, too, finding holiday snaps from Google Photos based on date or location, crawling through your emails for flight details, and plotting driving routes on Google Maps.
Try to be too clever, though, and you’ll usually be given a web link instead of a spoken answer. You can’t identify songs yet, and until apps start supporting Assistant, you’re tied to Google’s own apps - so no Citymapper route guidance, no jumping straight into a particular show on Netflix, and no looking up Facebook profiles with your voice.
Is Assistant a killer feature you’d actually buy a Pixel just to have? Right now, no. But Google’s got big plans for the future, with app integrations and advanced AI promising a lot more to come. Siri is a big part of iOS now, but it took a few years to get there - expect Assistant to be something similar.
Google Pixel XL Android: Pure and simple
The other benefits of getting a home-grown Googlephone are of course instant updates and patches, which will land on the Pixel XL before any other handset. If you’re a hardcore Android fan, this’ll be a major selling point.
You’ll probably love the new look launcher, too. A swipe up shows the app drawer now, and a long press on any Google app brings up several contextual shortcuts for jumping right into where you want to be - just like the iPhone’s Force Touch, only without the extra hardware.
This would be great if every app used it, but a lot of third party ones don’t. Long press on an incompatible app and you’ll pick it up instead, ready to move it around the home screen. Annoying.
There were a few bugs and glitches in my pre-release review unit, like Bluetooth headphones dropping their connection with alarming regularity. I can’t say I had as many issues on the XL as we saw on the vanilla Pixel, though - so hopefully these are things that’ll get fixed quickly with software updates.