The Pixel XL, designed by Google and quietly manufactured by HTC, uses an aluminum unibody construction with a thin metallic mid-frame, giving it decent stiffness in torsion and bending. Radiused corners and curved edges around the back make the XL comfortable to hold; however, it feels rather top heavy, which makes it want to tip out of your hand when holding it in portrait mode. 

Google stated that a flush-mounted rear camera was one of its design goals; it did not want a camera hump jutting out from the back. It accomplished this by placing the rear camera in the upper bezel above the display assembly and then tapering the phone’s thickness from 8.5mm at the top down to 7.3mm at the bottom. This tapered profile contributes to the phone’s imbalance, however. Its battery also sits relatively high, leaving very little in the lower part of the phone to act as a counterweight.

The Pixel XL has a very distinct look from the back, much like its predecessor, the Nexus 6P. There’s a large window cut into the upper portion of the aluminum chassis that’s covered with glass backed by a plastic insert. The partial glass back provides more grip for your fingers than the sandblasted aluminum, but it also attracts more fingerprints. There’s also the possibility that it could crack if dropped. I suspect the decision to add the glass panel was about more than just cosmetics, though. Replacing a chunk of metal with lighter plastic and glass keeps the phone’s top-heavy character in check.

Set into the glass is an extra-large, circular fingerprint sensor. The capacitive, touch-based Pixel Imprint sensor instantly wakes and unlocks the phone, independent of finger orientation. The sensor is subject to the same environmental limitations as all capacitive sensors, but is otherwise very accurate. Given how large the recessed sensor is—it’s the largest I’ve ever seen on a phone—you would think it would be easy to locate; however, my index finger does not naturally fall onto the sensor when I pick up the Pixel XL like it does with the Nexus 6P and most other phones, forcing me to slide my finger around a bit to locate it. My hit rate improved with practice, so this was only a distraction during the first few days.

One thing I do not like about the Pixel and some other phones with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors is there’s no easy way to wake the phone to check notifications when it’s sitting on a table. Having to pick it up or press the power button on the side is less convenient than double tapping the screen or waving a hand over the phone.

The Pixel’s rear camera sits flush with the rear glass in the upper-left corner. There’s a circular dual-LED flash with a slightly raised chrome ring to its left, and a rangefinder for the camera’s laser autofocus and microphone to its right. Despite the glass window, there’s still plastic antenna lines that wrap around the sides and top, along with a traditional antenna strip at the bottom.

The sides of the Pixel are flat with a chamfer around the front glass. The SIM tray is the only feature on the left edge, while the right edge holds a single-piece volume rocker and power button. Both buttons give a nice, solid click when pressed and the power button is textured to give it a different feel.

One of the things I found annoying about the Nexus 6P was how I could not pick up or handle it without accidentally pressing the mushy volume and power buttons, a result of placing the buttons so close together at the midpoint along the edge. Fortunately, this is not an issue with the Pixel XL because the buttons are further apart and positioned closer to the top of the phone.

The Pixel still has a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge. Centered on the bottom is a USB Type-C port, which supports USB 3.0 (Superspeed) data transfers, and is flanked by two symmetric slots. The single, downward-firing speaker sits within the left slot, while the right slot hides another microphone.

The front of the Pixel XL is covered edge-to-edge with Gorilla Glass 4. The glass basically sits flush with the sides but still avoids any sharp feeling edges. Unlike the back, the Pixel’s front is rather nondescript and boring. The only remarkable detail is the virtually non-existent black border around the display, which is especially nice for the colors that come with a white front.

A sufficiently large earpiece sits centered above the screen, which conceals a notification light behind its grille in the left corner. The Pixel’s ambient light and proximity sensor module is stacked below the earpiece, a poor design choice that makes the upper bezel needlessly large. Placing the headphone jack at the top means there’s no room for the sensor module between the front-facing camera and earpiece. The internal volume to the right is occupied by the rear-facing camera, flash, laser AF module, and microphone, so no room there either. By relocating the headphone jack to the bottom edge, where there’s plenty of room, Google could have placed the sensor module to the left of the earpiece and reduced the size of the upper bezel and the overall height of the phone.

The Nexus 6P, Moto Z Force, and iPhone 7 Plus all share something in common: They all have smaller lower bezels than the Pixel XL. Unlike the Pixel’s lower bezel, however, which is a featureless expanse, these three phones include a second forward-facing speaker, a square fingerprint sensor, and a large, circular fingerprint sensor, respectively, below their screens. The internal volume behind the lower bezel contains a lot of wasted space, so either Google missed an opportunity to include an additional feature, such as a front-facing speaker or capacitive navigation buttons, or it failed to optimize the Pixel’s internal layout.

The Pixel and Pixel XL come in three different cheekily named colors: Quite Black, Very Silver, or Really Blue. Our Quite Black review unit is more of a “Pretty Dark Gray” with a matching dark gray front bezel, rear glass window, and fingerprint sensor. The Very Silver model comes with a white front and white accents on the back, while the Really Blue also has a white front but matching blue accents around back.

In the end, the Pixel XL is neither the best looking nor best designed flagship phone. It has a distinctive look from the back, and color-matching the fingerprint sensor and antenna lines is a nice touch. The front is pretty plain, however. I’m also not impressed by the internal layout that makes the upper and lower bezels needlessly large and contributes to the phone’s top-heavy, unbalanced feel.

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  • BrokenCrayons - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    Its nice to see a smaller model, but even 5 inches is hard to carry in a pocket. :(
  • DM725 - Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - link

    Lol what?
  • fanofanand - Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - link

    BC wears skinny jeans :)
  • fvbounty - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    I waited for the Pixel to come out and then got a Nexus 6P for $399 and Project fi and couldn't be happier! Way overpriced for what you get, no water proofing, no OIS....
  • DukeN - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    Hmmm another unenthusiastic flagship Android device review.

    Thats ok, they needed three weeks after release unlike those great Apple devices which are done almost instantly. Coincidentally, I'm sure, the Apple phones have the best reviews!

    No bias here, just you know, luck of the draw for the last 5-7 years.
  • name99 - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    Uhh, you do realize that part 2 of the iPhone 7 review, the CPU deep dive, STILL is not out?
    And the first part of the iPhone 7 review came out three weeks after the iPhone 7 was released (October 10th vs September 16th)...

    You can make up facts all you like, and you'll never be criticized, by all the imaginary friends at your doll tea-party, but when you want to make claims on the internet, you don't get to create your own reality.
  • vikramc - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    They are iSheeps ... but it hardly matters as they are the only black sheep .. all other sites and channels are wowed by the Google phone .. so Google will kick Apple butt with its very first iteration itself .. other chinese stuff and Sammy bombs are not even competition .
  • nukmichael - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    Nice article! Original Design Manufacturer can fix LTE problem maybe, or get a 5" Pixel phone to find out what's wrong with your Pixel XL. Waiting for new update!!!
  • GooglenexusPrior - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    I had a google nexus It died due to a faulty patch from google.
    The real problem with the Google phones is they are not repairable compared to other phones.
    No one has any parts for them. If screen surface layer breaks . get a new phone. My Old Samsung. _t cost me $10 to get it replaced. Battery Bad on Google product? Get new phone. because a $30 battery failed early. And very few protective cases available. Go to a store. There walls of Samsung cases, iphone cases. ZERO google cases. Since No memory card slot I would always have issues transferring from phone to computer, especially videos. When phone failed last I had to SUE google . they wanted to charge me the cost of a new phone to fix a problem caused by their update.
  • sprockkets - Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - link

    You must not be looking hard enough. I've replaced the battery on my N5 and N7 from 2013. If anything they are the easiest to find.
    And thanks to full OTA files now you can fix any recent nexus device that is bootloader locked.

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