Early 2017 update
The Google Pixel remains our favorite phone, bar none -- unless you're looking for a bigger screen, in which case we'd recommend its big brother, the Pixel XL.
The Pixel strikes a terrific balance between speed and beauty, ergonomics and straight-up usability. It's the purest vehicle for Android Nougat 7.0, Google's mobile operating system. It's a relatively quick-charger. And it offers the most seamless integration with Google's Daydream View VR headset (though the list of compatible phones continues to grow).
Of course, the Pixel isn't perfect; the rear panel's glass treatment may be an aesthetic misfire for some, and it's vulnerable to cracking. It's also not as water-resistant as others, and though its camera is superb, the iPhone 7 Plus delivers superior video quality in portrait mode (read more about how the two stack up). Still, these are mostly minor quibbles; if you're looking for an alternative to the latest model iPhones, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL are worth a serious look.
Looking ahead, Google hasn't officially stated anything yet about the future of the Pixel line, but there are rumors swirling about innovative AR and VR developments and, possibly, a foldable display. But with the next Pixel not expected before October 2017 (a year after the original debuted), Android fans may be tempted by the Samsung Galaxy S8, which is rumored to be hitting in March or April.
Editors' note, February 16, 2017:
With the Pixel, Google stepped up to bat, called its shot, and knocked it out of the park. If there was any lingering doubt about Google's capacity to step out on its own, it's gone. Sure, HTC may have put the phones together, but Google designed, engineered, and branded them. And the timing couldn't be more fortunate with Samsung still emerging from the hangover of a very difficult 2016.
Starting at $649 in the US, £599 in the UK and AU$1,079 in Australia, the Pixel is fast, with an elevated, smooth design. Heavy investments in its camera resulted in a nimble shooter too. Though its special portrait mode is poor, it otherwise takes amazing shots that rival those of the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
It's also the first phone to have the search giant's new, thoroughly robust voice-and-search service, called Google Assistant, built in. It's the most natural voice assistant I've experienced, and comes closest to giving me that Jarvis from "Iron Man" experience all these assistants appear to be chasing.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge may still be the most visually striking phone on the market. But, if you're wary of Samsung phones, the Pixel -- a strong contender for the best premium Android phone -- makes a terrific alternative.
Why the Pixel is one of the best Android phones right now
So what's so great about the Pixel? Aside from the premium hardware, like the camera and processor, it packs new software features that are handy to use day-to-day. Read on to find out more.
The camera is (mostly) awesome
As you can tell from its name, Google makes a big deal about the Pixel's camera, and it is superb. It takes even better shots than the already stellar iPhone 7 Plus, which I consider to be the reigning champion of camera phones. If you want the full scoop on how these two compare, check out CNET's feature, Google Pixel vs. iPhone 7 Plus: Which camera is better?
The camera is fast, images are in focus, and colors look vibrant. Close-up shots appear especially sharp and refined. Landscape scenes retain an impressive amount of detail and depth, even with objects that are far away.
Photos taken in dim lighting understandably weren't as sharp and had more digital artifacts. But the camera did a good job at capturing available light and brightening up scenes. The flash made skin tones look natural as well, and if it hadn't been for a few reflections in eyes, it would've been hard to tell in the photos that it was even used.
The front-facing camera is excellent, too. It has a wide enough lens to fit a lot of content (read: faces) in each frame, and it softened skin tones enough to look appealing without appearing too airbrushed. To see the images I captured, check out the slideshow below.
The camera can shoot 4K video, and though it doesn't have optical image stabilization, it uses a combination of the gyroscope and software to steady your videos all the same. This feature works well, and it's useful when you're moving while recording footage. But it does give your videos a sort of surreal, almost drone-like quality.
Google Assistant helps organize your day
The Pixel is deeply integrated with Google's search services, and it's the first hardware device to have Google Assistant baked in. Assistant is an AI bot that uses machine learning and Google's vast search database to answer all kinds of questions you throw its way. It can schedule reminders, look up facts and places to eat, set alarms, give directions, translate phrases and more. And the more you use it, the more it's supposed to learn about you and become more personalized.
Unlike Google Now (the company's previous iteration of a digital assistant), Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana, Assistant is genuinely conversational. You can use your voice to speak to it in a natural, back-and-forth way, and it has a chat-like interface. After every interaction, there are suggested follow-up queries you can tap on to keep the conversation going.
Like with most voice assistants, you forget that they're there. But when you do remember, Assistant can be useful. It doesn't hear every question correctly every time, but when it does, it works relatively quickly. Compared to Siri, which sort of checks out after it finishes each task, Assistant builds upon my previous queries, so it made me interact with it longer.
Android Nougat packs some sweetness
- The device runs a pure version of Android 7.1 Nougat. It's the first to have Google's messaging service Allo and its video calling app Duo preloaded (you can uninstall them if you want).
- Launcher shortcuts, aka Google's take on Apple's 3D Touch, lets you long-press on some apps to call up additional menu options.
- You can send GIFs inside Google Keyboard, for all your GIF-fy delights.
- To reduce eye strain from viewing a bright, bluish display at night, there's a Night Light setting that tints the screen yellow. (Other Android phones and the iPhone already do this.)
- On the back is a fingerprint reader for added user security and services such as Android Pay. It works quickly, and as a bonus you can use it to slide down notifications on the screen.
It looks and feels great
The Pixel and Pixel XL are nearly identical, but the latter has a bigger, sharper display and a bumped-up battery. Other than that, they're pretty much the same. Both are polished and well crafted, and their sleek, one-piece aluminum design make them more elegant than previous Nexus devices.