Google’s Pixel Phone: Not Much New, But Still a Standout

Google's ambitious new smartphone, the Pixel, doesn't offer a lot that's new. Yet it's still one of the best out there.

Google achieves that by pulling together the best features from Apple, Samsung and other phone makers and offering them at prices comparable to iPhones -- starting at about $650 for the regular, 5-inch model and $770 for the 5.5-inch "XL" edition. Both versions go on sale Thursday through Verizon, Best Buy and Google's online store.

I tested the Pixel XL model; the regular version has identical features except for its smaller display and battery -- still enough for 13 hours of internet use, according to Google. With either, you get an excellent camera and a strong voice assistant that promises to get smarter -- all without the bloat common with other Android phones.

The Pixel isn't quite an iPhone replacement, as Google wants you to believe ; hardware is just part of what makes an iPhone an iPhone. But it might serve up a strong challenge to Samsung, especially as people look for alternatives to the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 .

The Camera

The Pixel's image quality is superb -- though purists may quibble. Colors in some shots look too strong and clean to me, thanks to software processing intended to reduce distortion and improve detail (something all phones do to some extent).

But automation pays off in another way: The Pixel will automatically combine successive shots into an animated "GIF" file, offering a fun way to share a toddler's steps or a dog jumping. For video, the Pixel's stabilization technology compensates for shaky hands and other movement, matching what the iPhone and Galaxy phones can do.

The Pixel borrows a quick-launch feature from Samsung phones. Just double tap the power button to start the camera, even if the phone is locked. To switch between the...

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