Moving on, you'll find a USB Type-C port on the bottom edge of either phone, flanked by a microphone and a surprisingly clear speaker. A microSIM slot rests on the phone's left edge, while the headphone jack lives up top. Ready for the sad part? While other flagship phone makers have figured out how to make their devices more life-proof despite those holes, the Pixels will only partially resist dust and water. The exact rating is IP53, but the big takeaway is that these pricey new phones can't deal with dirt or submersion as well as the new iPhones or Samsung's most recent Galaxy devices.
Meanwhile, the differences between the two Pixels are exactly what you'd expect. The Pixel XL has a 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display, a step up from the 5-inch 1080p panel on the regular Pixel. At 3,450mAh, the Pixel XL's battery is among the largest we've seen in a flagship Android phone this year, and it's a clear leap over the 2,770mAh battery used in the smaller model. That's really it. Unlike, say, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which have significantly different camera setups, there's no exciting difference between the Pixel and the Pixel XL.
With all that said, I wish the Pixels looked a little more distinctive. The iPhone comparisons are inevitable and not out of line, but even beyond that, there's a distinct lack of character on display here. As I've said, though, Google's true art is software, and one could argue this low-key design was meant to let that software really own the spotlight. That, or Google just doesn't have a great grasp on what beautiful hardware looks like yet.
That would explain why the Pixels' faces are mostly empty except for the front-facing camera, earpiece and infrared proximity sensor that sit above the screen. You'll find that same amount of space below the display too, except it's totally empty -- there's just a big helping of bezel that serves no purpose. The whole thing feels kind of austere, but things start to change when you turn the phone over. There you'll find a pane of very slightly curved (aka "2.5D") Gorilla Glass covering the top third of the phone's back, with one of Google's excellent Nexus Imprint fingerprint sensors sitting near the bottom of the glass.
That glass panel is an ... interesting design choice, to say the least. The reflective glass makes it easy to tell which side is up when you pick up the phone without looking, and it also acts as a window to let RF signals move more easily through the phone. (Think of it as the evolution of the Nexus 6P's trademark black bar.) The glass feels nice and has so far resisted scratches, but the look just isn't for me. A shame, considering it's the one truly distinctive thing about the Pixels' design language. At least the Nexus Imprint sensor does a great job picking up my fingerprints; the Pixels very rarely bugged me for another attempt.
Oh, and while we're still on the subject of looks, the finish that Google calls Quite Black isn't actually black at all. It's more of a gunmetal gray, and while that probably isn't a dealbreaker, it would've been nice to get a Pixel that was properly black, like the gorgeous Note 7. (The Pixels are also available in Very Silver and Really Blue, which are meh and kinda nice, respectively.)
Are you picking up on a theme here? For the most part, the components Google and HTC have stuck in the Pixels are first-rate -- my inner '90s child would even say they're primo. They're just sort of let down by their sense of style, or lack thereof. (It doesn't help either that they can't deal with water very well.) Those are things Google could fix for next year's Pixels (assuming they make any), but the promise of future improvement doesn't do anything for the phones we have here.
Display and sound
If you were worried that Google would skimp on the screens, relax -- both Pixels have great displays. There aren't any gimmicks here. No curved edges or tiny secondary panels; just crisp, bright AMOLED screens with the sort of punchy, vivid colors these kinds of displays are known for. In fact, I could see colors perhaps being a little too punchy for some people. While the iPhone 7 Plus and its wide color display rendered a mountain scene at twilight with periwinkle skies, the Pixel and Pixel XL made those same skies look bright aqua. Google and HTC's approach is more viscerally pleasing, but whether or not it's better is mostly a matter of taste. Both screens also offer great viewing angles, though you'll notice a little color distortion if you're looking from too oblique an angle.
I've been talking about the Pixel's and Pixel XL's screens in the same breath, but it's worth noting once more that they aren't strictly identical. Beyond the extra detail made possible by its higher-resolution display, the Pixel XL's screen seems a little brighter and its color temperature comes off a touch cooler. That makes all of the stark white found throughout Android and your apps seem crisper, which I actually really like. Don't get me wrong: The smaller Pixel's screen is really quite good, but the XL's blend of Quad HD detail and more pleasant colors make it the one to own if you've got the cash.
I was pleasantly surprised by the speakers tucked into the Pixel and the Pixel XL, though maybe I shouldn't have been. These phones were built by HTC, after all. Alas, though, you won't find any crazy stereo speaker setups here -- just a single, loud driver wedged into the bottom of each Pixel. These days my diet consists of electro-crooners like Chvrches and Lemaitre, and their respective vocals came through crisply and clearly. Even songs that focus heavily on drums -- like "Caravan" from the Whiplash soundtrack -- fare well, though you'll probably pick up on some muddiness when there are lots of highs and lows banging around at the same time. These speakers certainly won't replace an external set, but they're more than enough to listen to podcasts or sing along with new tracks without feeling like you're missing something.
The Pixels are the very first phones to ship with Android 7.1 Nougat, and, obviously, the first to offer Google's new Pixel Launcher experience. There's a lot to unpack, so let's talk about the core first: Android 7.1. Google was quick to call this new build an "incremental update" that builds on the progress made with the still-new Nougat update. (You can sift through our full Android 7.0 review here.) Incremental is right. Beyond the usual batch of bug fixes and system optimizations, there are only a handful of new features to play with.
Funnily enough, the most notable addition is also the one you're most likely to discover by accident. Long-pressing certain app icons now brings up a list of actions you can jump straight into, much like how Quick Actions work with 3D Touch as of iOS 9. The thing is, Apple's approach is more elegant. In iOS, you have to physically press the screen to access those shortcuts, a step that makes accidental actions unlikely. Here, though, you can't tell which apps have shortcuts until you long-press them; if there aren't any shortcuts, Android thinks you want to move that app icon to your home screen.
Since the Android 7.1 developer preview won't go live until later this month, the only apps that have these shortcuts enabled are ones made by Google -- long-pressing the Gmail icon offers a "compose" option, while doing that to the Calendar icon lets you quickly create a new appointment. All told, 17 of the preloaded Google apps have shortcuts for you to play with, and they're useful if you remember they're there. Thankfully, you can grab those shortcuts and drag them to your home screen for even quicker access.
Android 7.1 also brings the ability to send images straight from keyboard apps, so it's easier than ever to harass your friends with GIFs. Developers can build support for GIFs, stickers and other image formats into their keyboards, but Google's approach is already pretty damn useful. When pecking out a message in a compatible app -- like the stock Messenger -- tapping the emoji icon also reveals a GIF window you can use to search for the perfect animation. And yes, there's some naughty-ish stuff to be found. Google has blocked most of the really vulgar images, but you can definitely get more crude than you can on iOS. Throw in support for round app icons (like the ones on the Pixels), along with Daydream support (which I wasn't able to test yet), and we've already covered the biggest changes to Nougat.
Now, about you Verizon customers. You can buy the Pixels straight from a carrier store, but you'll have to deal with a little software meddling in the process. I tossed a Verizon SIM into one of my review units during the setup process, and wouldn't you know it -- the phone started downloading three Verizon apps from the Play Store. Verizon's Messages+ and the Go90 streaming service got the uninstall treatment immediately, but the My Verizon account management app can be pretty helpful. I'm still curious to see how Verizon does with its promise to keep big software updates rolling out to Pixels in a timely fashion, but at least it took a light touch with bloatware this time.
The Pixel advantage
Google wants you to feel special for buying into its vision of mobile computing -- that's why it's sweetening the deal with features you won't get on any other Android phone. Some of them are mostly cosmetic, like the redesigned setup flow and a calendar icon that shows you what the date is. Others, like the revamped Pixel Launcher interface, take a little more getting used to. All your Google Now cards still live to the left of the main home screen, but the conspicuous app launcher button is gone.
You can tap a tiny arrow above the favorite-apps tray to open the launcher if you really miss the old-school button; otherwise, the easiest way to go is to just swipe up from the bottom of the screen. That new swipe gesture feels natural, because it thematically mirrors how you pull down the notifications shade, and as far as I'm concerned, there's no going back. That persistent search bar is gone as well, which has thrown off just about everyone I've shown these phones to. The wallpaper picker has changed too, and Google has seen fit to trick out the Pixel and Pixel XL with some of the sweetest options I've seen on an Android device. Seriously: Thank you.
The rest of the Pixels' exclusive features are pretty damn valuable. These phones come with unlimited full-resolution backups of photos and videos to Google Photos; everyone else can only store downsampled versions of photos for free. Since all that media can be backed up to the cloud automatically, you probably don't need it on the phones themselves. That's where the Pixels' exclusive Smart Storage feature comes in -- when you've blown through your 32GB or 128GB of storage, Android automatically clears up space by deleting photos and videos that have already been backed up. Feeling desperate for more space? You can manually force a cleanup, though your photos, videos and apps have to have gone untouched for a while before the system will let you trash them en masse.
Pop into the settings menu and you'll also see a new tab for support -- in case something goes awry, you can reach out to a Google rep to help you walk through things. During my testing, I managed to contact a technician in just a few minutes. They can be surprisingly helpful, too; you can even share your screen with them so they can see what's going on. I just hope this level of service doesn't drop off when more people start using these phones.
Google also made it surprisingly easy to migrate data from your old phone to your new Pixel, even if that old phone was made by Apple. I tried hooking up an iPhone 7 Plus to the Pixel XL during the initial setup process, and after about seven or eight minutes of chewing, my contacts and SMS threads appeared in their respective Android apps. Google didn't have to do this, but building a near-seamless way to help someone give up his or her old phone is seriously savvy.
And then, of course, there's the Google Assistant. If you've installed Allo, Google's new cross-platform messaging app, you're probably already acquainted. If not, it's dead simple to start chatting with it. Just hold down the home button or run through the voice training process and say, "OK Google." Familiar, no? From there, just start gabbing away. The Assistant can launch apps, find restaurants and points of interest nearby, translate things you say into different languages, and even just get answers to random questions. (As it turns out, Vladimir Putin is 64 years old.) I've been consistently surprised at how accurate its voice recognition has been too, since I tend to get a little mumbly from time to time.
Also impressive is how the Assistant can "remember" the context of a line of questioning, so you can speak to it the way you would to a person. Let's go back to that weird Putin example: After asking how old he is, I asked the Assistant, "Is he married?" The Assistant didn't skip a beat and confirmed that he had been until 2014. Machine learning has grown sophisticated enough for these interactions to become common -- Siri started tracking context with the launch of iOS 9 -- but it's still terribly neat to see in action.
All told, Google's Assistant is a surprisingly thoughtful system as long as you play within the range of prescribed actions. When it can't figure out a more appropriate way to respond, the Assistant just defaults to reading web search results. More often than not, though, those little tidbits read aloud were at least enough to point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, many of the third-party integrations Google showed off at its Pixel launch event don't work yet, so you won't be hailing Ubers or reserving a table at the Smith using just your voice.
Google didn't pull any punches at its Pixel unveiling -- VP Brian Rakowski proudly proclaimed that the cameras in these smartphones are the best anyone has ever made. And the kicker? A review from the independent mobile camera testers at DxOMark giving the Pixel and Pixel XL the top spot in its photographic rankings.
While not perfect, Google's pair of Pixels can indeed capture fantastic photos -- detailed and crisp, with mostly correct colors. It shouldn't surprise you to hear that the Pixel and Pixel XL excel in bright conditions, but their cameras are actually remarkable in dim situations too. That's partly due to the optics Google ran with here. The 12.3-megapixel cameras have a f/2.0 aperture -- that's not quite as wide an opening for light as on the iPhone 7, but still pretty good. The pixels on those sensors are pretty large too, at 1.55μm -- a trait this Sony sensor shares with last year's Nexus 6P.