Friday, 9 December 2022

Google Pixel 7

Here we go then with the 7th generation of Google's Pixel range which started in 2016 following the Nexus line (which served us well from 2010). Time flies, as they say, and that Nexus One had a giant 3.7" screen to wow us back then. Now, the smallest Pixel of this generation is almost double that! On with my thoughts, though. Has the 7 injected more excitement than the 6 from last year, I wondered, or is it worth buying over last season's budget 6a offering..?

We're getting used to receiving nothing much in tiny product boxes these days apart from the product - and this isn't far off. The USB-C to USB-C cable and USB-C to USB-A adapter, some papers which nobody reads, a pokey-hole tool for the SIM Card Tray and that's your lot. The days of bundled chargers are gone for many, going for most and only being held onto by OEMs based in the far-east it seems now.

I have been supplied by Google's PR in the UK with the Lemongrass version of the Pixel 7 and it really is a very nice pastel shade. If I'd seen it alongside the others, Obsidian and Snow (black and white to us!), I might well have chosen it anyway. The unit is £599 to buy in the UK for the 128GB storage version or £699 if you want 256GB. A significant difference from the Pro version's pricing. The extras you get with the Pro version are a bigger phone, 120Hz refresh rate on the screen instead of 90Hz, 1440p instead of 1080p, some bigger storage options with more RAM, a bigger battery to drive all that and no doubt most significantly for many, the 5x optical zoom with OIS. So, if all that's important to the user, stump up the extra £250!

In the hand, the phone is big. And oblong. With sharp, squared corners. A bit bigger than the 6a (which I felt was big enough anyway, coming from the dinky Pixel 5) but obviously smaller than the 7 Pro. It's very comparable in size to the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, which I happen to have here, though used naked, the latter's plastic back is apparent. The Pixel 7 is very nicely built with 'heft'. Solid and clearly well manufactured with a sturdy aluminium frame, slightly curving around the back to meet the Gorilla Glass Victus rear. Ironically, in this colour, the back actually doesn't look like glass - until you catch the light reflecting on it. The front panel is also Victus, but the standout feature of the design is the huge lump of a camera 'bar' across the back!

I do like this design feature in principle, as I did when others did it before Google (such as TCL with their 10 Pro), but I don't like it sticking out so far and with very sharp edges. For the person who's going to use it without a case, I guess it does help with handling as it gives a 'ledge' for the fingers - but I think they made it this design to be in keeping with the 7 Pro - which maybe justifiably needed the extra space for the camera - not because they needed to. The 'bar' on the Pixel 6a is much better, subtle, and pleasing to the eye. The Pixel 7 is rated IP6/8 for dust/water, so good reassurance there.

Slap a TPU case on it and it smooths out the harshness of the bar. There's a 'G' in the middle of the back and on that camera bar there's a pill-shaped cutout for the cameras and an LED flash. It's shiny chrome in colour but does have a slightly 'matt' finish. Down at the bottom, we have two grilles, one for a microphone, one for the 'right' speaker and the USB-C port - which is stylishly accented inside with the colour of the device. A very nice touch. On the right we have the power button and volume rocker (the wrong way round - come on Google!) with chrome accenting and they feel as sturdy and well-made as the rest of the phone. SIM Card Tray is on the left and that's about it really for the tour.

The front panel has a 2mm bezel top, right and left, with a bit more on the chin. It's a good-looking AMOLED panel, 6.3" with a ratio of 20:9 returning 416ppi. The 90Hz refresh rate is a step up from the 60Hz of the 6a but not as much as the 120Hz of the 7 Pro. And I can't tell the difference between any of them, unlike most people in the world, it seems! Apparently, the screen is supposed to be good for 1000nits or brightness in manual and 1400nits in auto - but I'm afraid that I don't see that. It is bright, but I don't see it as that bright - especially when compared to other devices I have kicking around, like the aforementioned Samsung and my trusty Motorola Edge 30 Neo. The same is true for colours as I see them, other devices have much richer, saturated and bright colours throughout, even when the 'Adaptive Colours' is selected over 'Natural' in settings. I don't know who makes this panel for Google but it's not as vibrant as the ones Samsung seem to use on their mid-to-upper tier phones, nor the Motorola's pOLED (which we think is made by LG). Unless they're dumbing it down on purpose to make it look more natural. Still, for most people not doing a side-by-side comparison, I'm sure they'll be absolutely fine with the way it looks.

Up at the top of the panel there's Selfie camera punch-hole, centre and slightly inside the line of the bezel, just underneath the 'left' speaker doubling up as the earpiece for phone calls. It's tucked away in a very, very thin slither of an opening between the glass and frame. In the glass, there's an optical fingerprint scanner. This has taken much criticism across the Pixel 6 range and in my experience here, it's not really that much better. Maybe a tad. What is different here however, hugely different for real world use, is the addition (at last) of Face Unlock. Google listened and brought it back. And it works excellently. In all but the dullest conditions, it renders the not-so-good fingerprint scanner redundant. Maybe not quite as fast as Samsung's implementation, but not far off - and certainly better than Motorola's.

The unit I have here has got 128GB of storage (UFS3.1) and 8GB RAM. The storage seems fast enough on read/writes and RAM certainly adequate for task-switching in my tests here. This, all supported by the new Tensor G2 from Google/Samsung running under the latest Android 13 of course with bang up-to-date security. The Pixel 7, incidentally, gets update support through to October 2027 for security and Android 16.

This second-generation chipset is supposed to be faster than the first (on the 6 range), with enhanced Machine Learning (AI), better/faster translation, speech recognition, camera capability, security and a bunch of other stuff working hard under the bonnet. I certainly don't see any problems during workflows here as it handles tasks efficiently and with speed. The translation of live speech is, frankly, jaw-droppingly good.

Gaming is something which I dip in and out of. I don't push mobile phones to the limits that some do with heavy all-action FPS titles and the like. I'm more likely to be playing puzzle games or at most, Mario Kart/Angry Birds! However, I did load up Asphalt 9 (with 2.52GB download!) and gave it a whirl for a while. I didn't notice any jittering or juddering in framerates or slowdown - it all seemed very smooth. The phone did get a little warm after an extended period, but really not very hot (like the Sony Xperia 5 Mk.IV did during my review period). This only happened during this 'heavy' game too - my twee(!) games, above, run without a hitch and no heat. For the average user, not heavy gamer, this will be great for casual titles.

There's only space for one physical nanoSIM Card in the slot, but an eSIM can be used as well if needed. No microSD of course. Of course! It's a Pixel. Connectivity seems very good here. I use EE 4G in the UK and have a pretty good signal for voice and data, though I can't test the 5G. It holds onto calls well, reported both ends as good and clear, but as always with cellular, your mileage will vary based on signal and operator etc. WiFi 6e is supported for those who can access that lofty level! For the rest of us, the phone connects without issue to various routers on broadband tested here and seems, again, to hang on in there. GPS looks good, with secure locks for mapping and other apps needing that functionality, offering quick and accurate connection. NFC, similarly, works just fine for pairing up various bits of gear and using Google Pay. No issues or quirky behaviour.

In isolation, the sound coming from the stereo speakers is very good. It's loud and with decent enough quality reproduction to keep most people out there very happy. The stereo effect is good with a wide-enough soundstage when the phone is held out in front of the viewer at, say, 18 inches. The screen is big enough to watch visual media and the sound is, well, good enough. However, when the phone's speakers are put up against (what I consider to be) the best, they're not as good. I have conducted testing alongside various other phones which, well, just sound better. Even the Pixel 6a I think has a better sound, which was really surprising. Using a range of music and video apps, a range of music genres and files encoded differently for audio and video, it is my honest opinion that if sound from speakers is what you're after, you can do better elsewhere - and not always for more money. I come back to my Edge 30 Neo again, for half the price, which beats the audio hands-down. But I'm nit-picking. As I say, for the huge majority of users not doing side-by-side tests, much like for the OLED panel, above, they will be very happy. This is just a warning for any audiophiles out there!

There's no 3.5mm audio-out of course, so we're down to dongles and adapters or USB-C head/earphones - or do what everyone seems to want us to do now - turn to Bluetooth! We have v5.2 here with LE and aptX HD so as with all things Bluetooth and head/earphones these days, dongles, adapters and whatever, the reproduction will be measurable based on the connected equipment and not the phone. Apart from Sony (and a few lower-end phones from some OEMs) it seems like any physical connection is yesterday's news. So, any review here will be of that equipment, not the Pixel 7. Just for the record, most of the gear I connected via Bluetooth sounded great! The physical range seems good enough, if not the best, for wandering around, listening, without the phone in your pocket.

Getting audio/video out to a TV or PC is not as straight forward as having a Samsung DeX or Motorola Ready For system where you can use a USB-C to HDMI lead and pipe it down, no latency, local and direct. Google want you to be online so they're not going to throw that switch to enable offline anything! So you have to Cast it. Via a compatible TV/Monitor or better still for Google's goals, a ChromeCast unit with Google TV. The downside of this is that everything you 'cast' from your phone doesn't really go to your TV from the phone, not even via just your WiFi router, but out and up to Google's servers with the instructions and downloaded from there. It's all a bit more complicated than it should be, using up data and bandwidth, just so that Google can make sure that you're online - and likely to be available to have adverts served up to you. The USB socket is 3.2, so capable of a physical connection. They could throw the switch in software if they wanted to.

The very same USB-C 3.2 socket which one might use for audio/video seems good enough for charging up the phone, though it's no super-fast charger, capped at 20W - so the best part of a couple of hours to charge it right up. A quick boost should give you about half the battery in half an hour if you get stuck, though. This all supported by wireless charging, also capped at 20W, but most of my Qi Chargers are trickle units 10/15W anyway for overnight or desktop, so that's fine. You can also charge other devices by placing them on the back - and even use pass-through charging, cabling up the 7 at the same time.

The battery is 4,355mAh and in my tests it is very good. Not quite Pixel 5 level, but not that far off. My 10% Reading Test returns about two and a half hours and with middling use, it could make to the end of two days. As always, it depends on what you're doing with it. I measured 36 hours one day between charges and 7 hours of screen-on-time. It's decent enough for all but the heaviest of users, out and about, who might want to take along a powerbank.

Lacking that 5x optical zoom is, of course, a miss, but for most users who know about pinch/splaying fingers for digital zoom will be very happy with that on the main camera - particularly when Google's AI smarts get in on the act. No, of course, it won't survive pixel-peeping like the Pro version might, but for most people, for most uses, they will be very happy. Especially when they realise they have saved £250! They're the smart ones - almost as smart as the software on show here which pulls off some amazing tricks. When engaging Night Sight, you realise that pixels can see light that your eyes can't! Quite phenomenal to look into a dark cupboard, see nothing, fire off a shot and then see what's in there. A nightmare waiting to happen during Halloween! Tap the '2' button for more smarts and the Super Res 2x zoom which gives you more than you're entitled to with any other dumb system! Digitally zoom in with your fingers in good light and watch as the camera's software turns a fuzzy mess into something that most of us would be happy to share around on social media.

The main camera is a 50MP f1.9 unit with OIS and it's supported by a wide-angle 12MP f2.2 shooter and 10MP f2.2 Selfie round the front. You can shoot 4K video at 60fps with the main camera and that has OIS as well. Night Sight, Action Panning, great portraits with selectable depth of field (before and after) with Blur, Unblur tools - even Magic Eraser now (which is very smart and somewhat addictive)! The kind of stuff that Nokia were trying to do with the 9 PureView so long ago. Colour Focus is Google's version of Moto's Spot Colour, isolating a colour and rendering the rest mono, Skin Tone adjustments, colour shifting/tinting/casting, adding text, highlighting, filtering and loads more. Google's camera smarts coupled up with Google Photos app is a veritable playground and productivity suite. When you start to tweak, you realise why so many hold up the Pixel phones aloft, merely for this feature-set. Amazing.

For a deep dive, with samples, charts and diagrams galore, I'm going to hand you over to the folks at GSMArena who have done just that, with further insights into the pros and cons of the Pixel 7's camera setup to give you a much better understanding that I can here. Two full pages of it on their website, starting here.

So often, the Pixel experience is all about the software, not hardware, as we see above. Google have tried to evolve their hardware over the years but there's no doubt that other OEMs are doing it better, with more physical features, tweaks to Android which are well thought out and pushing physical boundaries and they fold, flip and roll! There is talk of Google producing a folding phone sometime soon and have been working with Samsung on the Android 12L rollout to facilitate that, eventuality. In the meantime, yes, Google focus on software smarts - clever additions to the online, connected experience - and as I speak there's a bunch more arriving in the December 2022 Feature Drop with the latest security patch.

Some people now consider that this no longer 'pure' Android, a Vanilla flavour. I can see what they mean, because actually, the likes of the Nokia XR20, Sony models, FairPhone 4 and anything else hanging onto the AndroidOne badge/scheme are much closer to that than Google have become with Pixels. They have stamped their own set of features on their phones, many of which you only get on Pixels, at least initially while they decide at some point down the line whether or not they are going to roll them out to be a part of Android itself. And no more so than now.

I have already mentioned the transcribing feature, above, (which, incidentally, can be used pretty much anywhere in the UI instead of typing) then there's the evergreen Now Playing which 'listens' out for any music playing and has a stab at telling you what it is, with Share hooks then to add it to your Music service. Some may think that the camera smarts are worth the purchase price alone - I think Now Playing is! Locked launcher screen elements is a bad move, Google. Search field taking up the bottom (when there are hundred ways to invoke Google Search) and At A Glance at the top. Neither can be moved, though at least the latter now has oodles of settings and preferences to choose from.

Then there's the Always on Display, which is, at last, growing in popularity after years of OEMs catching up with the idea (much like Qi Charging). I do have a complaint about the AoD however - that it just isn't bright enough. But Google are not alone here. There are very few AoD implementations which are bright enough - and only one that I know of where the user can control the brightness thereof - Samsung's. I don't know why this is so neglected. The algorithms are just wrong. As they are for many devices for Adaptive Brightness - yes auto-brightness, which most just get wrong. Some exceptions, the Pixels being one of them, but the greatest offender here is Sony.

The Android 12/13 Theming, Material You, Icons, Wallpaper and Styles are rolling out quite broadly now to other non-Pixel phones, for those OEMs who wish to adopt them. When Material You was first introduced, I was sceptical and thought that Samsung/Motorola were doing this better anyway. However, I am now completely sold on the idea and love the smart way in which the Theming works and am most put out if I have to use a phone on Android 12 which doesn't have it! Another big bonus for Pixel. It's been well thought out, imagined, and executed with system-wide theming when selected. I'm not sure about the big button shortcuts on the drop-down Notification Shade, however. They seem comically big, and I don't see what's wrong with the way they were, Samsung-like, smaller circles with more in view. Or here's a mad idea - let the user choose!

There are smarts in terms of hooking up Google's Messages App to a desktop PC with Device-Pairing for those who don't want to go down the Microsoft Phone Link route. Or teamed up with a Chromebook there's a Phone Hub which can be employed to do even more. There's an increasing amount of joined-up thinking going on as ChromeOS evolves and Google shift Android more towards ChromeOS, landscape options, tablets and maybe even Fuchsia!

Then there's all the Digital Wellbeing, fitness, now sleep/snore detection going on which regular users are hooking up with various watches, monitors, and other gear to make the most out of looking after themselves in a busy world. Tons of stuff to play with, particularly if you have a Pixel Watch. Imagine - a Pixel Phone, Pixel Watch, and a Chromebook! For those who have a Google One subscription, at the time of writing, they can also make use of an auto-VPN service where, when turned on, Google say they will protect your privacy and security by routing your online traffic via another service, invisible to the user. The best use I can see for this is if you're hooked up in an airport or the like on a public WiFi facility and could probably use some protection from hacking, depending on what systems you're using.

Google have also just introduced Clear Calling where background noise is removed when you're taking a phone call, Call Screening - which I used for the first time last week and it really is impressive as the Google Assistant reads out a predefined script telling your caller that you're screening and invite them to state their business. If they do, Google then transcribes what they are saying so you can just read it or interrupt if you then want to speak with them. Just fiendish! Spatial Audio is coming in January 2023, apparently, for us to make use of via (some) head/earphones and the hardware is already geared up to work with that.

I'm just skimming the surface here regarding the Google Assistant, smarts and what AI can do for the Pixel user. There's tons more of this stuff which would require a book, not online review! There's no doubt at all that for those who are prepared to get into bed with Google, sell them their soul (or at least their data) and scoop up what's on offer it can be a fun and productive platter. Deep diving is needed, so get yourself a Pixel and explore!

And that's probably what readers here need to do. There's only so much I can write about when there's so much! There are lots of other phones, however, that you can buy for the same £600 which will bring you a different feature-set, different emphasis, different capabilities and focus. You need to understand the whole Pixel/Google 'thing' really to want to get onboard with buying a Pixel phone. Appreciate the advantages. Live with the shortcomings, which you know you could get, without, elsewhere with your money.

For about half the price, you could still buy a Pixel 6a - and this is where I started. I have one here and I was trying to work out if there's enough here with the Pixel 7 to tempt me to upgrade. The honest answer is probably no, but it's a personal thing. I think I can live with last year's Tensor chipset, the 60Hz refresh-rate screen and a little bit less RAM but what I would miss is the slightly smaller size and the Qi Charging now. The 6a's speakers are actually better (slightly) and if I were buying new, now, it would save me a shedload of cash. I still get security updates to October 2026 and Android 15. All for under £300.

The Pixel 7 is a tremendously capable device plugged straight into the heart of Google and what they're doing. If you value that above all else, then there's no competition for your money. It performs beautifully and if you're going to make good use of that camera, the online smarts, transcription and all the rest then there's firstly, no other choice in quite the same way, and secondly, you won't regret it. Look elsewhere for other bells and whistles, but you might regret not being a satellite to the real mothership.

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