The Google Pixel XL comes with what the numbers indicate is the same primary camera setup as the Nexus 6P and 5X of last year. That means a 1/2.3" Sony IMX377 12.3MP sensor behind a 26mm-equiv. lens with an f/2.0 aperture. While the aperture is rather modest in a world dominated by f/1.8 lenses and Samsung's Galaxy S7 even brighter at f/1.7, the Pixel XL's strength lies in its, um, XL pixels - 1.55µm. It relies on a combination of phase and laser autofocus, but lacks optical stabilization.
The headline feature on the Google Pixel XL (and the Pixel non-XL as well), is HDR+. It's a refinement over the previous generation, brought about by the increase in computing power in this year's SoC.
What it does is continuously capture the scene, keeping a 9-frame buffer from as soon as you open the camera app, with exposure geared towards highlight preservation. That approach gives you detail in the highlights otherwise lost to clipping, while also keeping colors in the shadows true-to-life, the engineers say.
Once you hit the shutter release button, the software stacks those 9 images together, resulting in a decrease of noise by a factor of three, compared to one single image - by its very nature noise is random, so it can't be the same in all images and the software can cancel it out (well, a lot of it). You'd think that the underexposed shadows would be too dark, but that's handled with tone mapping.
HDR+ Auto is activated by default, and even if you choose to switch it off, it reverts back to Auto when you open the app again. While that may sound frustrating, we find it convenient - as you'll find out soon enough, HDR+ Auto is the mode you should be shooting in.
As for the camera app, it's the same one that came with the 6P and 5X. The camera UI is fairly simple, but still gives you access to flash mode, white balance presets, grids, HDR+ and self-timer. The Google camera does have a couple of tricks of its own too - Photo Sphere to supplement the usual panorama and lens blur (simulated shallow depth of field).
A fast way to start the camera is to double tap the Power key when the phone is locked.
We appreciate the dedicated stills and video viewfinders, which help avoid framing inaccuracies, but to get the other shooting modes you need to resort to the hamburger menu. Another oddity of the interface is the video resolution and frame rate selection - one's in settings, the other is a toggle in the viewfinder.
The Google Pixel XL captures great photos, simple as that. Here are a few.
Now back to our (soon-to-be) standardized set of samples. The images shot on the Pixel XL have excellent detail and well-controlled noise. Colors are nicely saturated and consumer-friendly, though not as all-out as you'd get on an LG V20, for example. HDR+ Auto does tend to produce a slightly warmer output - our explanation on that is 'this is the default mode, people like warm colors, let's give people warm colors in HDR+ Auto'. Though we did find the automatic white balance to be slightly inconsistent and it often swayed from cool to warm and back while we were shooting at the same location. It didn't happen often enough to be a deal breaker though.
A prime example of the Pixel's HDR+ approach is the last sample - the sky in between the tree branches is completely blown in the image shot with HDR+ off, but it's nice and blue when you enable the feature. The benches are also a more believable shade than the snowy white in the HDR+ off image.
In extremely high-contrast HDR scenarios you'd better resort to manually engaging the HDR+ On mode - Auto won't do, as the below set of samples indicates. Sure, Auto tones down the highlights - that's its thing, but shadows remain too dark for you to be able to discern much detail there, and we're not sure what's with the green color cast. Not so in HDR+ On, where colors are accurate and you can actually see subtle tonal changes in the foliage that's in the shade.
In low light, there are readily observable differences between HDR+ off and Auto, and quite logical ones too - with the stacking off you get overall noisier images with noise visible even in fit-to-screen magnifications. HDR+ Auto clears things up nicely, without actually sacrificing fine detail.
One issue we encountered (and by the looks of it, everyone has), is lens flare. Bright light sources inside, or immediately outside the frame cause large rings of flare, but they're easy to avoid with minor adjustments in framing. That said, Google is aware of this and is working on a software fix (which is obviously a solution second best to not having a hardware flaw at all). But even at its present state, the problem is perhaps blown out of proportion - you do get lens flare more often than on other phones but it's nothing that major.
Naturally, we shot our test posters with the Google Pixel XL. In its particular case it's interesting to compare how the charts look with HDR+ turned off and set to Auto. We've also thrown in the LG G5 for reference. Of course, our tool allows you to compare the Pixel to any other smartphone that we've shot with.
Panoramas on the Pixel XL are good as well, only not quite as impressive. For starters, the implementation where you have to aim for dots on the screen is not as straightforward as the sweeping action found on other makers' phones. Output quality is pretty good - images are about 2,500px tall (so not the full vertical 4K pixels that are available), but actual detail is about on par with competitors that do shoot full-res. Stitching doesn't exhibit any visible issues either.
The Pixel XL shoots what are among the best selfies we've seen. Carried over from the 6P, the 8MP f/2.4 cam may sound pedestrian, but it's far from it. Detail is abundant, skin tones and overall colors are very pleasing, and dynamic range is pretty good as well. There's a peculiar difference in color reproduction, of all things, between HDR+ Auto and HDR+ off with Auto being a tad more saturated.
You'd definitely want to go HDR+ in low light, though. The Pixel XL is just too good. Detail and colors are nicely preserved, and noise, while present, is kept in check.
The Pixel XL can record video in a host of resolutions and frame rates, and the way it goes about selecting those is nothing short of a trainwreck. Let us elaborate.
The list of modes goes as follows: 4K@30fps; 1080p@30fps, 60fps, 120fps; 720p@30fps, 60fps, 240fps. The resolution you switch from the settings in the hamburger menu. Then for 1080p and 720p you get a toggle in the viewfinder to switch between 30fps and 60fps.
Where are the higher framerates, you ask. Well, there's a Slow Motion shooting mode in the hamburger menu, in which case you get an fps selector in the viewfinder, only in a different spot - under the record button. And you need to remember that 120fps means 1080p and 240fps means 720p, because you get literally no indication of that in the viewfinder. There has got to be a better way.
Rant over. Oh, wait - the Pixel XL records mono audio in all video modes. Don't even get us started on that.
The 4K videos on the Pixel are encoded with a bit rate around 42Mbps - a rather low number, when the LG G5 and Galaxy S7 are around 48Mbps and even the iPhone 7 records at 46Mbps. Don't be fooled, though - 2160p footage is superb. It's highly detailed, colors are spot-on and textures are rendered very naturally, without any signs of overprocessing. There's a tiny amount of noise in the trees, but nothing out of the ordinary.
1080p videos, on the other hand, get an unusually high bit rate - 21.6Mbps, with 17Mbps the de facto standard. The output is similarly good, the overall look and feel is the same, minus the fine detail. The 1080p/60fps videos are obviously smoother, but not as detailed as the 30fps - a rather common trade-off.
Finally, you can compare the Pixel XL to any of the numerous phones and tablets we've tested, but we've pre-selected the iPhone 7 Plus and LG G5.