This will be an unusual review for me.

I don't normally write about this topic, and it's one that is usually ignored when it comes to the gadgets we use, but it's an important issue.

I'm talking about the dreaded act of finding technical support.

Oh, you know the pain involved? You've had to try to figure out how to use the new unlock feature on the iPhone 7? You've struggled to find some cryptic setting on a tablet that everyone says is so obvious? You've wondered how to turn off the data on your phone so you don't get charged an arm, a leg, and another arm when it comes to your cell phone bill every month?

Worse yet, have you tried calling a cell phone store? Retailers know a little about a lot of phones, but that one camera setting on the iPhone 7 Plus that enables portrait mode? They don't have a clue about it. (The answer: You have to install the iOS beta to use it, and it requires the Plus mode) Your brother-in-law who works in I.T. and knows everything about gadgets is not exactly available 24x7.

I feel your pain. As a gadget tester these past 15 years, I'm frequently confronted by usability issues and tech support problems. Fortunately, the new Google Pixel and Pixel XL phone has some of the best support features I've seen on any smartphone. For starters, there's the Google Assistant. When you long press on the home button or say "OK, Google" to talk to the Assistant, you can then say "help" and see tips and tutorials covering basic features. This is a helpful primer on the phone.

In Google Now, which is a series of cards that appear when you flick to the left on the home screen, you can also type "help" and see tips on activities like finding directions and making calls. This guidance is more helpful than what I've seen on other smartphones and addresses a big problem with smartphone tech support.

It gets better, though. The Pixel is the first Google phone that provides free, 24-hour tech support by phone. In the Settings area, there's an obvious tab called Support. You fill out a quick form and a Google rep calls to talk about your issue within about a minute. Once again, you can ask about basic features, although if things get overly complicated (say, you ask about using the Google Assistant with Chromecast) you might have to wait on hold for another rep.

In almost every other way, the Pixel and Pixel XL phones are fairly generic, but I mean that in a good way. There are no frills here. The phone I'm testing is all black with a plastic strip protecting a fingerprint reader on the back cover. You use that reader to quickly unlock the phone, which is handy but took a while before I felt comfortable using it. (I normally press the home button or a side button to unlock a smartphone.)

The much-touted camera on the Pixel line is very good, although in my comparison shots with an iPhone 7 Plus, the photos looked quite similar. The Pixel doesn't offer the image blur effect for portraits that I liked so much on the iPhone 7 Plus.

The Pixel line comes with unlimited storage for video and photos, and I wrote about many of the other differentiating features in my preview, but using the phone for several days made me realize there are no "exceptional" features or stand-out innovations other than the voice-activated Assistant and live tech support.

For business, that's a plus in many ways. The phone just works. It has a fast Snapdragon 821 processor and 4GB of RAM, so the photo app in particular worked much faster than some of the other Android phones I've tested recently. One big ding against the Pixel is that it is not waterproof or even water resistant. The Pixel is stripped of all extra apps included on some HTC and Samsung phones which reinforces the "no frills" concept.

Battery life was phenomenal. I used the Pixel XL all day and only had to recharge right before bed. The battery recharges to almost full in about 15 minutes. Since I'm so used to a daily recharge, it wasn't a big deal, and I never had to worry about playing too many YouTube videos or streaming Google Music too long and running low on battery. The phone kept chugging away.

Does it beat the iPhone 7? That's hard to say because it comes down to a personal preference between iOS and Android, particularly when it comes to messaging, app availability, and the music and video ecosystem. I've always felt Apple provides a more fluid user experience, and I like how the MacBook I'm testing right now notifies me about phone calls and lets me text. On Android, you can tweak things like how the keyboard works and there are huge differences with messaging and video calls. The Google Duo app for video calls, for example, runs on both iOS and Android.

In the end, it's a toss up. I like both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Google Pixel XL roughly the same. I use apps like iTunes and Google Music almost equally, and I tend to use Skype for video calls, not Apple FaceTime or Google Duo. I need to keep testing the Assistant, but so far it is about as powerful as Apple Siri and not quite as hyper-connected as Amazon Alexa. Between the PIxel and the Pixel XL, the three differences are that the XL has a bigger battery, a higher res screen, and a 5.5-inch screen.

The Pixel XL I tested costs $770; the Pixel costs $650. That's a lot for any phone, but then again, a phone is the lifeblood of our existence. The Pixel line is powerful, the Google Assistant is handy, and the design is trim and lean. I recommend it for business and personal use; the choice is yours if you decide to stick with Apple.

Published on: Oct 18, 2016
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