Google Pixel XL smartphone

Teardown: Google Pixel XL smartphone

Image credit: Google

Google’s first self-branded smartphone is a mixed bag.

As Brexit approaches, a number of products are suffering what we’ll probably end up calling ‘the Marmite Tax’: price adjustments blamed on the fall in the value of sterling. As I write, this trend makes the new Google phones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, arguably quite attractive buys.

The top-of-the-range 128MB XL, the specific subject of this teardown, has a current unlocked UK retail price of £819.99 including VAT. Relative to a US price, excluding VAT, of $869 and given the exchange rate in early November, that should be closer to £850. So, hey, what a bargain.

The real point here though is that flagship smartphones like the XL, Huawei P9 and iPhone 7 are beginning to look rather expensive whatever is happening in the currency markets. “But,” I hear you say, “they always have.” And that’s true. However, as the rate, scale and breadth of innovation inevitably slow with each generation, the prices tend to stand out more and more.

The XL illustrates some of the risk here.

On one level, it has the cutting-edge specifications you would expect. It runs Qualcomm’s latest chipset (the quad-core Snapdragon 821 with integrated graphics), has a gorgeous 5.5in AMOLED screen with 534ppi density, and a 12.3MP main camera that sets a new record of 89 against the DxOMark Mobile benchmark for image quality. There is also a fingerprint sensor, compatibility with the Daydream virtual reality headset and fast charging (15 minutes to load seven hours of use on a 3450mAh battery).

However, on unboxing, the typical initial reaction has been, “But it really does look like an iPhone.” Lest we forget, industrial design matters.

The company’s declaration that this is the first phone ‘by Google’ is also a little strange, although the Pixel is the first phone from the company to carry its brand.

Still, a key sales target for the Pixel range must be former Nexus owners, yet such marketing is strangely dismissive of their current phones - and much the same can be said for fans of Motorola Mobility’s output under its brief Google ownership.

So has Google fallen into the trap of delivering a product where the engineering outweighs usability and fashion and, moreover, in a market where those latter two qualities are becoming increasingly important in justifying higher price tags?

Here, we need to account for the fact that engineering has always been a core selling proposition for Google-led hardware. Not just its handsets but also Google Chromebooks have been largely about offering a signature implementation of the latest generation of the Android operating system. On this count, the Pixel XL does not disappoint, featuring the Nougat 7.1 OS and the far more intuitive Google Assistant interface.

Assistant has been updated to recognise common speech patterns and sentences, while the response time of the overall OS and the apps on it has been turbocharged based on that latest Qualcomm silicon.

Then with Samsung’s flagship Note 7 having been forced out of the market because of manufacturing defects in its battery - and assuming some collateral damage to other Samsung models - the Pixel XL finds itself with arguably a much wider high-end Android market to aim for, even if more by accident than design.

The Pixel XL has been moving units among early adopters, with several configurations quickly selling out following its October launch. But this is still a handset with enough questions around it that we will probably need to wait several months before making a definitive call about its success.

From an electronics design point of view, the iFixit teardown team also found the Pixel XL to be something of a mixed bag.

On the plus side, many of the components are installed as modules and therefore more easily and cheaply replaced. These include the USB Type-C port, USB ports being a common failure point on cellphones.

Less helpful, however, are the use of press-fit notches to secure the midframe and a display assembly fixed so that “makes it difficult to open the phone without damage”. Overall, iFixit scores the Pixel XL at 6/10 for repairability, lower than the iPhone 7S.

Considering the cost-to-sales ratio, Google’s efforts are on a par with those from Apple and Samsung for their flagships. According to an IHS Markit analysis, component and manufacturing costs are $286, though this again reflects the degree to which smartphone hardware content is converging, with the scramble for differentiation occurring elsewhere.

“Total bill of materials costs for the Google Pixel XL are, not surprisingly, in line with those of other competitors, because the supply base and specs are very similar from phone to phone - whether it’s an iPhone, a Galaxy-series phone or the Google Pixel XL,” says Andrew Rassweiler, senior director of cost benchmarking services for IHS Markit.

A final point to make about the Pixel XL is that its power does make itself known once you have it in hand, but its exterior may not make that point forcefully enough to persuade a non-Android fan immediately to trade up. It does compete on the increasingly important smartphone qualities - processor, camera, OS implementation - but you feel it should be announcing all that a lot more loudly.

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