First Impressions: Google’s Pixel XL and Fi
A slick new phone, and the possible death of carrier lock-in
[NOTE: This is a wall of text. This is me spewing everything I can think of about my first impressions of these things. If that’s not your mug of meat, here’s the TL;DR — Pixel XL is pretty solidly awesome, so far; Google Fi seems to work the way I would expect it to, and kept me connected throughout my first road-trip with it.]
As much as I’m often an Apple fanboy for laptops and tablets, I’ve become quite agnostic when it comes to my phones. Several years ago, when Apple was being stubborn about sticking with tiny screens, I switched to Samsung’s Galaxy S3 and then Note 3, and never had any real issue living in the Android universe. When Apple smelled the bacon and finally produced a larger-screened iPhone, I switched back to iOS for the iPhone 6 Plus.
Now, however, it was time to upgrade again, and I found myself with some interesting choices. The iPhone 7 Plus is a solid upgrade, no question, but there’s nothing about it other than the Apple ecosystem that makes it compelling relative to an Android competitor. I already own apps in both ecosystems because of my previous defection, so there’s no “app lock-in” for me. I already sync most of my data to Google, including my music, so there’s no lock-in there. I do buy most of my movies and TV shows from iTunes; but I never watch them on my phone, so I don’t care if I’m “locked out” there.
In the meantime, several friends had switched to Google Fi on various compatible devices Google offers, and everyone seemed pretty happy with it. I’ve never been that fond of AT&T as a carrier, and my loyalty to them has been mostly a matter of inertia. I originally switched to them because my spouse got a company discount, not out of choice. She’s since changed jobs, and anyway, Google Fi’s rates are better than the discounted AT&T rate. This seemed like a good time to try switching carriers as well.
The Google Pixel XL
The first impression I had when I got the Pixel XL out of its box was that someone had finally figured out how to make an iPhone clone that was properly…grippy! The iPhone 6 Plus, without a case, feels like holding it too tightly will cause it to slide and fly right out of your hands. The Pixel XL, without a case, isn’t going anywhere, despite being made out of similar materials.
The magic appears to lie in two design choices: it’s just slightly thicker, and the edges are flat, with a polygonal taper to the back, rather rounded. Apple may have a fetish for making their devices as thin as humanly possible, but Google seems to have recognised that ergonomics occasionally argue for a millimetre or two more here and there. Also, the finish of the aluminium appears to be just slightly less mirror-smooth, which again lends it a bit more grippy-ness.
On right side, there are the usual power and volume buttons, and those are the only physical buttons on the device. On the back, at about the place you’d probably rest a finger anyway, there’s a fingerprint sensor that also allows for a few limited gestures (like swiping down to see your notifications). There’s also the now-usual array of camera (12MP), flash, and focus-assisting apertures. The top third of the back, including the cameras and the sensor, are inexplicably glass, rather than aluminium, something that other reviewers have complained about.
The bottom sports two grilles — speaker and microphone — and a USB-C port (the new standard connector for just about everything except iOS devices; even the new MacBooks are USB-C-ish). If you charge off the supplied USB-C-to-USB-C cable and AC power bricklet, it will reputedly charge from near-empty to about 7-hours worth of charge in minutes. When locked, the phone’s lock-screen will tell you whether it’s charging slowly (off a comparatively old-fashioned, underpowered USB port), normally (off, say, an Anker 5-port charging brick), or rapidly (off the proprietary brick).
[It also comes with a USB-C to USB-A cable, because they know lots of people still have USB-A everywhere].
The top sports a 3.5mm mic/headphone jack, the absence of which on the iPhone 7 has become something of a cause célèbre for Apple’s critics.
The front, of course, is a mostly solid piece of 4th Generation Gorilla Glass, with the only cutout being for the earpiece. Hiding inside the earpiece area is a tiny LED. Though off by default, this can provide the usual range of LED notifications that Android users are used to. There’s also, of course, another camera (8MP) hiding under the glass near the top.
The 5.5" screen is pretty much everything you would expect from a modern, top of the line phone in 2016: bright and sharp, with a good range of colours. Android now has a “night view” option that tones down the blue spectrum, by the way, so if you’re switching from iOS, you won’t lose that capability.
Of course, the Pixel XL is an Android phone. In fact, at the moment, it is arguably the Android phone, being the only device currently running Android Nougat 7.1. In this regard, it’s the announced successor to the Nexus series in the role of Android flagship.
This also means that, out of the box, the system is very clean. There’s no bloat-ware, no carrier-specific apps quietly sucking at your data allotment, nothing you couldn’t uninstall if you really wanted to. If you’re a minimalist, you’ll be pretty happy. Out of the box the bottom row only has pretty stock applications on it, and then the main page has two others, including the Play Store. Newly downloaded apps leave their links on the second page by default, leaving the main page clean unless you explicitly drag things over to it.
[Me, I’ve already added something like 50 apps to the thing…]
Because Google Fi is really Google Voice repurposed, Hangouts is your SMS app if you’re on Fi. Since the phone can also be used with other carriers, it still has the nominal ability to use other apps for SMS (including a ‘Messenger’ app it shipped with), but if you’re on Fi, inbound SMS will always be handled by Hangouts. If you really hate Hangouts, this might be a reason to avoid Fi; otherwise, it’s just slightly annoying that you lose an aspect of choice.
The Pixel Launcher’s front screen has two widgets hard-wired to the top row — a slide-out for Google Assistant, and a weather and date widget. Purists might grouse at the fact that you can’t get rid of these, but since they’re pretty useful, I don’t really have a problem with them.
The Google Assistant slide-out is basically Google Now made slightly easier to get to. It’s got a search bar and the usual Now cards. Nothing really new in that presentation, just in how it’s accessed.
The back, home, and multitasking buttons are all software buttons on this phone, which takes some getting used to if you’re used to being able to wake up the phone with the home button. The fingerprint sensor on the back will wake up (and of course unlock) the phone, and of course the power button will do so.
Meanwhile, there’s some tricks hiding on the bottom-row buttons. The home button will jump to Google Assistant’s voice prompt on a long press. The multitasking button will go into split-screen mode (if it’s supported by the app currently in the foreground) on a long press, and jump back to the previous application on a double-tap.
The power and volume buttons also harbour some tricks. Double-pressing the power button at any time (even when locked) will activate the camera. With the camera app up, the volume buttons double as shutter buttons, while twisting the entire phone in your hand twice will swap between front and rear cameras.
Almost everything about this phone is fast and therefore feels pretty slick. Of course, perceptions of speed change over time — some day this phone will feel dated and slow :-) But right now, everything launches quickly, responds smoothly, and behaves more or less the way an Android user expects.
So what is Google Fi, anyway?
Google Fi is sort of a meta-carrier. In the United States, it aggregates three different carriers (T-mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular). Each of these carriers, by themselves, has become sort-of second-tier, but all together, they come pretty close to matching AT&T’s coverage, at least for the places I need to go. At any rate, if you have Google Fi service, and one of Google’s compatible phones (Nexus 5x, Nexus 6P, or the new Pixel and Pixel XL), it will pick the best signal of the three for where you are at the moment.
[If you’re on an incompatible phone, then it’s basically just T-mobile, I believe].
This, by itself, is an interesting idea, especially since it could potentially expand, and indeed, already has — US Cellular is a recent addition to this federated service.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Google Fi will also happily use any good-enough WiFi signal, and allow you to place and receive calls that way. Now, other carriers do offer this — AT&T offered WiFi calling. The difference really is that Google is inverting the paradigm, because Google Fi is really Google Voice. Instead of trying to deliver your phone calls to you via Google Hangouts, it’s going to present your phone calls like phone calls, and route them over the cellular network as a phone call if it’s available.
This also means that, if you’re signed into Hangouts anywhere else, your phone calls and SMS will be available there, just as they always were with Google Voice. This means that if you were previously using an iPhone and taking advantage of its “handoff” features to answer calls or SMS on your computer or iPad, you still can…it will just be via Google Hangouts instead.
Where Google Fi becomes compelling is its price model: $20/month for basic phone/text capabilities, entirely unlimited for domestic use. Data is $10/GiB/month with no cap. If you have some idea how much data you’re going to use, you can choose to prepay, but you still only pay for what you use — you’ll be credited what you don’t use at the end of the month. On the flip-side, if you’re a data-hog and not on WiFi much, you’ll be charged that same $10/month for every GiB more that you use — but you’ll never be cut off, and you’ll never pay a higher penalty for “going over”. There’s also no extra charge for using your phone as a hotspot.
And how well does it work?
So far, I’ve been using it about a week, including a road trip through rural Wisconsin. This is an area where AT&T habitually lets me down, leaving me with no signal at all, or roaming on someone else’s EDGE network, so I was curious to see what would happen.
I was fairly well impressed. At one point or another during the trip, I was on each of the three component networks — T-Mobile in the Twin Cities; Sprint for much of the trip outbound; US Cellular in West Bend, WI. There was a narrow stretch of I-94 where I had no signal at all (and nobody else ever does, either — something about the geography of that stretch seems to preclude it), but other than that, I always had a signal when I needed one, and it was usually a 3G or LTE signal with usable data.
It also automatically picked up a couple of wide-open WiFi hotspots I came near (for example, at one restaurant we stopped at), and because that hotspot didn’t even have a captive portal, Google automatically layered a VPN connection for safety, which did not noticeably impair the phone’s data performance (I didn’t make or receive a call while it was in that state to judge voice call quality).
This coming weekend I’ll be giving it a different stress test on a trip down to Kansas City; and then again the following weekend driving all the way out to New Jersey. In both cases, I’ll be sticking to major arteries, so I’ll be surprised if it falls down on me, but I’ll report back any surprises, positive or negative, that I find.
Have specific questions?
Go ahead and ask about anything specific in the comments!
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