Using a new gadget while going about your everyday life will give you a pretty good idea of how well it works. That's how we review phones most of the time. But nothing tests a device like travel — when you really want to push a smartphone to its limits, take it on the road. (Or more accurately, to the skies.)
Here's what I learned.
1. I can get by on 32 gigabytes — but only just
It's a tough call: Do you persevere with a 32GB Pixel, or stump up the $100 premium for a 128GB model? My Pixel XL review unit is a 32GB device, so I was curious to see to what extent storage anxiety would creep in over the course of a two-week trip. The answer: Saving that hundred bucks upfront will cost you some micro-management further down the line.
The 32GB Pixel obviously isn't meant for the sort of person who likes to keep tens of gigabytes of music on their phone. I'm not that kind of user — instead I'll load up few albums or playlists for a flight, and stream music the rest of the time. The 32GB Pixel manages this sort of use pretty well, but again, some micromanagement is required — especially if you're used to dumping your entire music cache onto an SD card and forgetting about it.
Storage micromanagement is the trade-off for saving $100 on your Pixel purchase.
The same applies to photos. With pics from the Pixel weighing in at between 3 and 7 megabytes, you'll need to do some pruning eventually. For me, this came a week in, with hundreds of photos quickly pushing my 32GB Pixel well past the 50 percent mark. Fortunately Google Photos makes it easy to offload your photos to the cloud — at full resolution and quality for Pixel owners.
But it's worth remembering that most of the time you'll only want to back up over Wi-Fi. And when you're traveling, that's not always simple, especially if you've got several gigabytes of photos and videos to shift. Once your stuff's in the cloud, though, reclaiming space is as simple as hitting a menu item and waiting a few minutes.
You'll need to do this dance once every few weeks, or months, depending on how quickly you burn through photo storage space. This upkeep is the main trade-off of living with a 32GB Pixel. I'm probably fine with that for now; we'll see how things pan out in 2017, when 64GB Android phones should become the norm.
2. Google's camera is always good, often spectacular
We've already been over the Pixel camera in our full review, and — spoiler alert — all of the AC editors have been seriously impressed with Google's new camera setup. Two weeks of travel with the Pixel has only reinforced that impression.
So I'm not going to retread that ground, but it is worth highlighting a few extra things I've noticed after a couple of weeks of Pixel photography.
In the next year perhaps it'll be software, not hardware, that makes the difference between a good phone camera and a really great one.
The first is how my perception of the Pixel camera has changed since our review. It's easy to point out the Pixel's stellar low-light performance, but the same was more or less true of the Nexus 6P. (Only that phone took way, way longer to get comparable pics.) Over the past couple of weeks I've managed to pull off some really impressive low-light pics that retain way more color detail than the Galaxy S7, or even the iPhone 7. (Check out the photos of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour for a great example of this.)
With enough encouragement, the 6P can do the same. But the real difference between the Pixel and the Huawei-built Nexus is how it handles daylight scenes, and dynamic range in general. The sensor's onboard HDR capabilities (new to the Pixel's sensor, but lacking in the 6P) combined with Google's post-processing magic, allows it to nail just about every outdoor shot in a way the Nexus 6P could never manage.
It's also clear Google is leaps and bounds ahead of most of its competitors when it comes to post-processing which lets it produce clean, noise-free low-light pics even at relatively high ISO levels. (Examining EXIF data from some of my night shots shows ISOs approaching 2000.) Maybe this is a sign of things to come — in the next year perhaps it'll be software, not hardware, which makes the difference between a good phone camera and a really great one.
3. Any Pixel can pick up LTE just about anywhere
Unlike a lot of Nexus phones, both the U.S. and rest-of-world spec Pixels support just about every LTE band you could want, meaning you get support for more carriers when you travel. In the U.S., your Pixel supports 17 different LTE bands; for the global model, it's a whopping 21; both models overlap on the main bands you need for the major U.S., European and Asian operators. (By contrast, the 5X and 6P's international coverage was decent, but not anywhere near as complete.)
Aside from CDMA (Verizon) support in the U.S. model, the biggest difference in connectivity between the two models is carrier aggregation — the American Pixels are configured to use different bands together for faster LTE coverage, while the combination of supported bands is slightly different for the RoW models. But that's gravy — the vast majority of LTE networks will work just fine on either model, even without CA.
Such a huge list of supported bands allows you to throw a local SIM in your Pixel when you land, and not have to worry about roaming charges. That's a big deal in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where roaming rates for UK operators tend to be astronomically high.
At the same time, using a rest-of-world Pixel comes with the added bonus of TDD-LTE support, allowing me to hook up to all the local 4G networks in China.
4. Battery life might surprise you
It's clear these phones have undergone some serious battery optimization.
Travel — particularly air travel — is a great way to kill the battery of any smartphone. You're killing time at the airport. Then you're listening to music, or trying to browse over a crappy in-flight Wi-Fi connection. Throw in a bunch of photography, tweeting and Instagramming when you land, and most handsets are easily looking at a mid-day top-up.
But through a combination of a relatively large battery (3,450mAh) and software optimizations, the Pixel weathers heavy use better than most — including, in my anecdotal experience, Samsung's Galaxy S7 edge, which uses an even larger cell. Even with lots of photography using Google's HDR+ post-processing going on, the larger Pixel depleted at a slower rate than I'd come to expect from the GS7 edge.
We're still looking at a single-day phone here, at least based on the way I use a phone in travel mode. But it's a welcome improvement, and a testament to just how optimized the Pixel is.
Meanwhile, support both 5V/3A and 9V/2A quick charging meant it was much easier to translate a quick hotel or Airbnb stop-off into a meaningful bump in battery levels, compared to last year's 6P and 5X. Quick charging is nothing new, but it's nice to see Google being mostly in step with Qualcomm in terms of charging speed, if not the technical standards themselves.
5. Live wallpapers are awesome again
Google pretty much gave up on live wallpapers after Android 4.0, but they're back with a vengeance on the Pixel. The new phones are loaded with an impressive array of 3D landscapes, and geometric patterns showing the time of day. The most impressive backdrops of all are the ones that change based on where you are and what's going on there.
When you're making your way to a new country, the preloaded Live Earth wallpaper lets you see your new surroundings in real time, with an animated 3D globe with live day/night cycles and dynamic clouds.
Live wallpapers are best when they're truly live, reflecting the world around you.
But I eventually settled on "Aurora," a backdrop that might seem little more than a colored gradient at first, but actually reflects the current time of day, temperature and other weather conditions. A sunset on a warm, humid day is reflected by bright pink and purple hues. Bright sunny skies create a pattern of deep blues. And a muggy, cloudy end to the day might make your home screen orange and earthy. Subtle animations as you unlock scroll through pages keep things feeling "live."
It's this kind of stuff that makes a live wallpaper more meaningful than just another set of animations, and as you're experiencing new surroundings (and new climates), it's nice to see this reflected on your phone.
Other odds and ends:
- The inability of "stock" Android to show both a roaming icon and a connection type icon continues to be a pet hate of mine. It's a minor UI issue, but it should be possible to show that you're roaming while also knowing whether you're on HSPA, LTE or whatever else. Basically everyone else in the Android world does this.
- Wi-Fi Assistant, the feature which lets you automatically connect to "quality" open Wi-Fi hotspots, works pretty well, but it'd be so much more useful if you could secure your connections to other public hotspots using the Google VPN, and not just those pre-approved by the software. Hotel Wi-Fi behind a captive portal is a great example.
- The back glass of my Pixel XL continues to get more and more scratched up. That's what happens when you put glass on the back without a camera bump. And that's despite the fact that...
- I have yet to drop my Pixel XL. If you do, all bets are off.
Pixel and Pixel XL owners, how have you been getting on with the phone? Anyone traveling with one in the past couple of weeks? Share your thoughts down in the comments!