Is Google's Pixel really a challenger to the iPhone?

Google's 'Assistant' promises to be one of the main selling points of the flagship device

Google Pixel, smartphone,

Image: David Gilbert

Imagine having your very own personal assistant. One who never sleeps, never tires of your demands, and who only gets better the more you use them.

Sounds great right? Well, that’s Google’s big selling point for its new Pixel smartphone. It has been designed from the ground up by Google, and at the heart of the new phone is Google Assistant, a voice-activated, artificial intelligence-powered virtual helper similar to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Amazon’s Alexa.

The key here is that Google’s Assistant is always there, always willing to help, to offer contextualised suggestions based on what you are doing - be it sending an email, checking the weather or setting a reminder.

Before we get onto whether or not Assistant makes this phone worth buying, let’s look at the hardware itself.

While Google says this is its first phone that has been designed from the ground up by its own staff, it is hard not to look at the phone and think of Apple’s iPhone. The shape, the parallel antenna lines on the rear cover, the aluminium build - it all looks remarkably similar.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, and Google has added a two-tone rear cover to try and differentiate itself. Personally I don’t like the use of glass surrounding the fingerprint sensor and camera lenses on the rear - and it did crack during my testing, even though I didn’t drop the phone.

The phone comes in two sizes, the regular Pixel with a 5 inch screen, and the Pixel XL with a 5.5 inch screen. I’ve been testing the larger model and, despite the bigger size, it is still very easy to handle thanks to its narrow bezels. However, the large 'chin' on the bottom of the phone is rather unsightly, not to mention unnecessary given the navigation buttons are all on screen.

Along with the Assistant, Google says the Pixel has the best camera of any smartphone in the world. This claim is based on a rating by DxOMark, a rating system which many in the industry openly question and criticise.

In use, however, the Pixel camera is easily among the best I have ever tested. Fast, accurate and responsive, in almost all lighting conditions it stood up to anything the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S7 can produce. Still image quality was superb, and the video stabilisation makes shooting good-looking video much easier.

The Pixel camera also has a couple of nice additional features, such as the ability to quick launch the camera by double pressing the home button, as well as flicking your wrist to switch between front and rear cameras.

The camera’s burst mode (activated simply by holding down the home button) can take multiple pictures if you are trying to capture a moving subject, allowing you to pick the best. It also automatically creates a GIF from the images, which is a nice touch.

The phone’s hardware - as you would expect from a premium device going up against the iPhone and Samsung’s flagship smartphones - is top of the range including the processor and the screen. Add to this the very latest version of Android, and the performance of the Pixel is superb.

The phone’s battery is also pretty good, easily giving me a full day from a single charge. It also supports fast charging, meaning that a 15 minutes charge will give you a good five to six hours of typical usage, still short of the seven hours Google claims.

So, what of Google’s Assistant?

Accessed by long pressing the home button or simply saying "OK Google," the Assistant aims to allow you to talk as normal to get things done. It promises to understand conversational sentences rather than forcing you to speak like a machine.

For the most part, that is true. It understood what I was saying about 90% of the time, and that will improve over time according to Google.

I was able to sit at my desk and send messages, set reminders, find out information about sports, news and various stories I was working on, all without the need to touch my phone.

The Pixel is always listening for that “OK, Google” command, even when locked, and if it recognises your voice, you can unlock the phone simply by saying the phrase and access everything Assistant can do. Assistant also has a couple of fun tricks up its sleeve; it will tell you jokes and even play word games with you.

Assistant is far superior to Siri because it can use all your details to give you suggestions based on your location, the time and what you are doing.

The thing is, despite it being really impressive, after a couple of days of using it pretty heavily, I just stopped. Speaking to your phone is still a huge hurdle for this type of interaction, and I never feel comfortable doing this in public. It’s the reason Bluetooth headsets are not more common.

Assistant, along with the many other virtual assistants out there, are likely going to be at the heart of all computing for the next decade, but I’m just not ready yet to embrace that future fully.

And so, while Assistant is impressive, and the camera is very good, I’m not sure I would buy the Pixel smartphone.

The design is not as elegant as the iPhone,m and not as interesting as the Galaxy S7 edge. Google has made a very good smartphone but when you can buy a “very good” smartphone for half the price of what Google is charging for the Pixel, that’s just not enough to make the grade.

The Pixel is on sale now in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany and Australia but Google could not give me a specific date for an Irish launch of the device. When it comes to pricing, the Pixel will cost you €759 for the 32GB model and €869 for the 128GB model. The Pixel XL will set you back €899 and €1009 respectively.