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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press
    Sabrina Ellis, Google director of product management, talks about the Google Pixel during an event in San Francisco this month. The phone may be a good alternative to those looking to ditch the fire-prone Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
October 19, 2016 1:01 AM

tech review

Camera, assistant makes Google's Pixel a viable option

ANICK JESDANUN | Associated Press

NEW YORK – Google’s ambitious new smartphone, the Pixel, doesn’t offer a lot that’s new. Yet it’s still one of the best out there.

Google achieves that by pulling together the best features from Apple, Samsung and other phone makers and at prices comparable to iPhones – starting at about $650 for the regular, 5-inch model and $770 for the 5.5-inch “XL” edition. Both versions go on sale Thursday through Verizon, Best Buy and Google’s online store.

I tested the Pixel XL model; the regular version has identical features except for its smaller display and battery – still enough for 13 hours of internet use, according to Google. With either, you get an excellent camera and a strong voice assistant that promises to get smarter.

The Pixel isn’t quite an iPhone replacement, as Google wants you to believe; hardware is just part of what makes an iPhone an iPhone. But it might serve up a strong challenge to Samsung, especially as people look for alternatives to the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7.

The camera image quality is superb – though purists may quibble. Colors in some shots look too strong and clean to me, thanks to software processing intended to reduce distortion and improve detail.

But automation pays off in another way: The Pixel will automatically combine successive shots into an animated “GIF” file, offering a fun way to share a toddler’s steps or a dog jumping. For video, the Pixel’s stabilization technology compensates for shaky hands and other movement, matching what the iPhone and Galaxy phones can do.

Low-light images taken with the Pixel in three museums aren’t as crisp as those from the iPhone 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 (which has the same camera as the Note 7). But differences are small, and the Pixel does better than typical smartphones. Where the Pixel falls short is in extreme close-ups. Its selfie camera is also inferior, with no front flash or control over the focus. But it’s fine in good light and at typical distances for selfies.

Google’s voice assistant, simply known as Google Assistant, will seem familiar to those who have used Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa features.

Google’s version goes further in offering daily updates such as weather and news, though plenty of apps already offer similar capabilities through notifications. Google is also better at remembering preferences.

What’s missing? The Pixel will be OK if you spray it with water, but don’t drop it in the pool. You also can’t expand its storage with a memory card, as you can with the S7 and Note 7 – though for $100 more, the Pixel’s 32 gigabytes of storage quadruples to 128 gigabytes, and the free online storage should take care of your photos and videos.

If you’re interested in a switch, Google tries to make it easy. The phone comes with a transfer cable, and the set-up process walks you through transferring photos, music and video, as long as it’s not encrypted. But apps won’t switch over from iPhones; you need to buy them again.