Google launched two new Pixel phones this year, both sequels to last year’s original Pixels, but the formula has definitely changed. Last year’s phones were basically identical, sharing the same manufacturer and differentiated almost solely by their screen size. This year, however, we have two manufacturers and two distinctly different designs. LG made the bigger Pixel 2 XL, while HTC hung around for the smaller Pixel 2. The specs are almost the same, just like last year, but LG has run into some serious trouble with their new pOLED displays. Uneven brightness, a distinct blue tint at even the slightest viewing angles and screen burn-in have plagued the Pixel 2 XL from the start, leaving HTC’s model to quietly step into the spotlight. Let’s take a closer look at this little brother that’s becoming the unexpected king of the mountain.
The Pixel 2 XL is loosely based on LG’s new V30 and has the fresher, more modern design. The smaller Pixel 2 looks a little dated in comparison with sizable bezels and a more angular design language. That doesn’t make it an ugly phone and it’s actually quite nice in person. The smaller 5-inch screen allows for a more hand-friendly size and the aluminum and glass design is as premium as its big brother’s. A light chamfer surrounds the top edge, breaking up the all matte finish, and front facing stereo speakers help interrupt the large top and bottom bezels’ surface area. Overall, it’s a satisfying design that has more character than expected.
The backs of both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are almost identical, and I guess that’s just Google’s way of maintaining a “family resemblance.” The design is similar to last year, but the glass window has been cut in half, resulting in a more polished look as it now only takes up about a quarter of the back. There’s a thicker matte coating this year that surrounds the back and sides, which many have complained feels like plastic. I think it’s fine and apparently it’s being utilized to hide antenna bands like LG’s G5 did last year. And yeah, people complained about that coating, too. The rear fingerprint scanner is centered and now situated below the glass, which in my opinion makes it easier to find. A single 12.2MP camera sits at the top left next to a dual-LED flash.
As far as the design inspiration for these phones, including the original Pixels from last year, I can’t help but think way back to an HTC design that launched in May 2012. The back of the HTC Evo 4G LTE, exclusive to Sprint, had a similar design language to the Pixel line. HTC made the original Pixels, so I have a sneaking suspicion that the old Evo might be a first cousin. What do you think?
The bottom of the Pixel 2 has a USB Type C port and no headphone jack. It’s a curious omission as they really talked up the headphone jacks on last year’s Pixels (a slight to Apple), but now everyone seems to be axing them this year. At least Google includes a dongle in the box to connect your old headphones, so you won’t have to upgrade those just yet. A microphone port is all that sits to the left.
The power button is above a single volume rocker on the right side and a nano SIM tray is housed on the left. Interestingly, the Pixel 2 also has an integrated eSIM that works with Google’s Project Fi. You can even seamlessly jump back and forth between a physical carrier SIM and the eSIM. It’s a nice addition.
After using both Pixel 2 phones, the smaller one just won me over. Notwithstanding the screen issues, the Pixel 2 XL just seemed a little clunkier in comparison. Maybe I just don’t like giant phones. The big brother’s design is more contemporary with an 18:9 aspect ratio and smaller bezels, but sometimes simpler is just better. Both phones have an IP67 rating for water and dust resistance, and come with 64GB ($649) or 128GB ($749) storage options. There’s no microSD support, but with a minimum of 64GB of storage and excellent Google cloud support, I no longer consider that a negative. Some of you probably disagree. I’m definitely a fan of HTC’s second effort, giant bezels and all.
|Google Pixel 2|
|Display||5.0 inch AMOLED , 441 ppi (1080 x 1920), Corning Gorilla Glass 5|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 835|
|Storage||64GB & 128GB (no microSD)|
|Rear Camera||12.2MP, f/1.8, laser/phase detection autofocus, dual-LED flash|
|Front Camera||8MP, f/2.4|
|Charging||USB-C with fast charging|
|Sound||Dual front facing stereo speakers, no 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Software||Android 8.0 Oreo|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac|
|Sensors||Fingerprint, accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer|
|Measurements||145.7 x 69.7 x 7.8mm|
|Colors||Just Black, Clearly White, Kinda Blue|
The specs are all top notch and worthy of a 2017 flagship. It shares the same spec sheet with the Pixel 2 XL, other than the screen and battery size, and the two cameras are identical. No iPhone 8 or 8 Plus dilemma here. Under the hood is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 CPU with 4GB RAM, powering anything you can throw at it with ease. Everything was fluid, apps opened quickly and videos, web browsing and other daily tasks were stutter free. It’s among the fastest phones I’ve ever used, which is credited to a clean version of Android coupled with powerful hardware. Even Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 with 6GB of RAM occasionally stutters, thanks to a custom skin. Gaming is especially good with the front facing speakers and the large bezels are actually beneficial, providing an adequate amount of room for your hands when playing in landscape.
The 5-inch screen is a 1080p AMOLED panel, a step down from the QHD resolution of it’s bigger brother, but at 441ppi, everything is as sharp as it’s going to get. And here’s the crazy part… It’s actually a superior display. The pOLED panel on the Pixel 2 XL is suffering from a host of problems as LG’s reemergence in the OLED game hasn’t gone well thus far. The Pixel 2’s Samsung panel is a proven component and similar to last year’s Pixel, with great viewing angles and deep blacks. Colors are more muted this time around as Google is going for more natural colors, but they’re not washed out like on the Pixel 2 XL.
What Google has done is set the panels to sRGB, which is an option on many OLED handsets, but they removed the option to turn it off. There is a “Vivid colors” mode you can toggle, but it only increases saturation by 10%. It’s definitely worse on the bigger phone as the Pixel 2 still looks very good. I’m coming from a Samsung Galaxy S8, which arguably has the best panel ever put on a smartphone, and I have no complaints with the Pixel.
Outdoor viewing has been great and I never had trouble seeing the display in direct sunlight.
The front facing stereo speakers are outstanding. You just can’t replicate that sound any other way. The combination of a front facing top speaker with a bottom firing one just isn’t quite the same. HTC’s and Apple’s latest phones have that kind of setup. And speaking of HTC, they’re no stranger to front facing BoomSound audio, although the ones on the Pixel 2 are a bit behind HTC’s best. Overall volume and bass are solid and I couldn’t hear any distortion with the volume maxed out. Coming from the Galaxy S8’s single bottom firing speaker, the setup on the Pixel 2 is night and day.
Battery life has been a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting the relatively small 2700mAh battery to carry me through a full day and night (with an added Android Wear watch tethered), but the battery’s endurance was more than adequate. I rarely dropped below 20% before plugging in at the end of the night. So far, I’m averaging around 4 hours of screen-on-time, give or take. Heavier users have Google’s standard battery saver option if needed.
The Pixel 2 supports fast charging via USB Type C with an 18W charger. Google claims that you can get seven hours of use from a 15 minute charge. But how do you define seven hours of use? I was able to charge my Pixel 2 from 5% to 100% in 78 minutes, which is very fast indeed.
I recently reviewed the Essential Phone and it really defined what stock Android is. The Pixel line is supposed to be synonymous with stock Android, but there’s a bit of flavor on Google’s dish compared to the bland offering from Essential. Google is definitely straying a little from pure Android for the sake of features, but there’s still no heavy skin or overlay like you’d get with a typical Android manufacturer. So let’s take a look at Google’s spin on Android 8.0 Oreo.
The biggest visual change from last year is the placement of Google’s search bar at the bottom. It seems like a lazy effort as if they felt something just needed to look different, but I got used to it after the first day. The settings menu has changed a little, for better or worse, but it’s still relatively simple and clean. There are a lot of advanced tabs that hide additional options to keep things uncluttered, but I’m not a huge fan. I don’t like folders in my settings.
The additional features that Google has added this year create a more complete experience, as opposed to sticking with a barebones user interface. For starters, there’s Active Edge, which is a carbon copy of HTC’s Edge Sense feature where you squeeze the phone to launch an app. You’re unfortunately limited to just activating Google Assistant, but it’s the quickest way to get there. HTC’s Edge Sense is more versatile, however, allowing you to assign an app of your choice to the squeeze feature. Using the fingerprint sensor to swipe for notifications makes a return and little things like “Double-tap to check phone” are always welcome.
A simple long press of the multitasking button now brings up multi-window (or split-screen) and picture-in-picture mode allows you to minimize a YouTube video to a small window, which can float around on top of any screen you want. Unfortunately, it’s limited to YouTube Red subscribers (not cool). Google does offer a three month trial if you haven’t tested it out yet, but otherwise you’ll have to shell out $10 per month for the feature. A handful of other apps can utilize the picture-in-picture feature, such as Google Play Movies & TV, Google Maps, Chrome and Duo. It’s one of those things that developers will have to get onboard with.
Notification dots now appear on app icons and you can press the icon to get additional options. It’s kind of like Peek and Pop on iOS, but without the 3D Touch. Another cool feature is Now Playing, which will automatically identify music playing in the background and show the artist and song on the lock screen. It works most of the time and Google even gives you options to buy the song or listen to it on YouTube, etc. It utilizes an offline database on the phone, so nothing is being transferred to the cloud. I can only assume that the database updates itself periodically.
There’s a new section in Google’s Wallpapers app called Living universe. It’s an interesting take on live wallpapers as the background is static, but a few minor elements are live. For example, you can look down at a coastline in Lagos, Portugal and see waves crashing on the distant beach. Or you can look at Monument Valley in Utah and watch tiny hot air balloons float by. They’re definitely more subtle than earlier live wallpapers, but cool nonetheless.
A dark theme also automatically kicks in if you set a dark wallpaper. The notifications tray and app drawer go from white to black. It’s a cool effect and nice attention to detail.
All of these additions seem to beg the question, “What is stock Android, anyway?” I think it’s become more of a base to be built on these days and I have no problem with Google throwing a few decorations on the stock Android tree.
Before I get to the camera itself, let’s look at three new features from Google. The first one is Google Lens, which can identify a subject and provide additional information via Google Assistant. For example, it can identify a breed of dog or specific product in a picture, or recognize a store front and provide reviews and additional information. It’s not exactly as advertised, at least not yet, but it’s also a “preview” addition. You can’t get live information as you point the camera at an object, storefront, etc. A picture must first be taken and then you can access Lens within the Google Photos app. It’s not as intuitive as I expected and thought it would be within the camera app itself. Google says that’s coming in a future update.
Lens is similar in concept to Samsung’s Bixby Vision, but Google’s AI tech is more evolved than Samsung’s and they obviously have access to more data. It doesn’t always get it right, but it’s still impressively accurate.
The second feature is Portrait mode. It’s the same as on other recent flagships, but doesn’t require two cameras to work. A bokeh affect on the rear camera is achieved by using dual-pixel technology, which identifies depth by “splitting” the scene into two viewpoints as every pixel is actually two smaller ones, side-by-side. This creates a stereo view, just like a dual-camera setup. A mask around the main subject is then identified and the background around that mask is blurred according to depth. Yeah, I’m kind of lost, too. But it generally works as well as dual-camera smartphones and ragged features of the main subject (hair in this case) are well outlined.
The front facing camera creates a mask around the main subject, but lacks the dual-pixel tech to identify depth. The bokeh affect is there, but the background is more uniformly blurred.
The third feature is Motion Photo, where a brief video accompanies the picture taken, showing what happened right before and after the shot. It’s similar to Live Photos on the iPhone and kind of cool, if not otherwise useless. They just kind of live inside of Google Photos, requiring a third-party app to share one as a GIF. And if you edit a Motion photo, the video part is lost.
The HDR+ main camera with dual-pixel autofocus might just be the best I’ve ever used. It’s a 12.2MP, f/1.8 shooter with both optical image stabilization (OIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS). The combination of the two allows for very smooth video recording and well focused shots if you have a less than steady hand. Image processing has also improved this year, resulting in outstanding shots in virtually all lighting conditions. Exposure, color saturation and sharpness are all on point.
Looking down a dark parking garage can cause smartphone cameras to lose a lot of detail in the underground, but the Pixel handled it better than my naked eye. It looks brighter in the picture than it did in person.
Indoor shots were equally impressive. Colors are vibrant, but not overly so. It takes a bit of the edge off of what Samsung’s latest Galaxy series produce. The difference is subtle, but it’s there.
Noise never crept in when the lights went down. In fact, like the parking garage, the pictures were brighter than what I saw in person.
Night shots were great overall, but a little more noise than I expected was sometimes present. A bit of lens flare also found its way in when there were bright, overhead lights. Exposure and sharpness were both excellent, however.
High Dynamic Range is on by default (HDR+ mode) and I never felt the need to turn it off. That option is available. There’s also an eight-core Image Processing Unit (IPU) inside both new Pixel phones called the Pixel Visual Core. They’re currently inactive and Google never even mentioned it when they unveiled the phones. The unit will go live when the phones are updated to Android 8.1, which will process HDR+ images a lot faster and more efficiently. It will also allow third party apps to utilize HDR+, so their images will have the same quality as the native camera. This isn’t just a software update, but a true hardware update and I’m surprised Google kept it under wraps until recently.
The camera has many options, but overall is still relatively simple. You can shoot in full auto mode or adjust the lighting conditions manually. Choose a sunny or cloudy day, or type of indoor lighting. There are also options for panorama shots, Photo Sphere for 360 degree shots and Portrait mode. Unfortunately, there aren’t a set of comprehensive manual controls, but for virtually all users this won’t be an issue. The camera is that good.
The main camera can shoot 4K video at 30fps and can slow things down to 120fps at 1080p and 240fps at 720p. A combination of OIS and EIS keeps video incredibly steady. I have yet to shoot better video on a phone. The front facing camera is 8MP at f/2.4 and can shoot 1080P video. Image quality is again above and beyond just about anything out there, and remember that Portrait mode is also available (just without depth perception). There’s also a Face Retouching option that tries to smooth out your skin and hide blemishes. It works fairly well without turning you into a mannequin (something Huawei excels at).
I have a hard time keeping phones for more than six months. The promise of a better experience with new hardware is often too hard to resist, but every once in a while a phone is good enough to keep me grounded. The Pixel 2 is probably one of those phones.
I’ve never had more confidence with a camera. I appreciate the simplicity and quality of the physical hardware, although I know some will balk at the sizable bezels. Front facing stereo speakers have no substitute. And stock Android 8.0 Oreo is always better than a third party skin, not to mention that Pixels are always first in line for software updates. If you want Android 9.0 Pecan Pie (yeah, I just called it) first, you’ll want a Pixel phone.
It’s a real shame that the Pixel 2 XL launched with a subpar pOLED display from LG. Google just announced a plan for fixing the display with software updates, but the damage may already be done. Colors will become more saturated and elements will move or disappear more often to avoid burn-in, and maybe that’ll be enough to satisfy both users and reviewers alike. The bottom line, however, is that it never should’ve happened.
The Pixel 2 stormed out of the gate without compromise. The Samsung AMOLED panel is simply outstanding and the specs aren’t lessened in any meaningful way, so the experience is identical to its big brother. There are rumblings out there about clicks and noises coming from some Pixel 2 units, but I haven’t experienced any of that. As far as I’m concerned, the Pixel 2 is Google’s Android 8.0 Oreo champion. The unlikely king of the mountain this year.
If you made it this far in my review, then head over to Talk Android’s YouTube channel and check out my Pixel 2 unboxing video. The phone’s so nice, I unboxed it twice… You’ll have to watch it to understand. And while you’re over there, be sure to subscribe. Netflix wishes it was us.