- Impressive camera
- Battery life
- IP67 rating
- Active Edge is frustrating at times
- Portrait Mode needs some work
Last year, Google set the tone for its smartphone ambitions. The company was going to use manufacturing partners but control the entire product experience. The first Pixel smartphones took impressive photos -- something Googles' phones were never known for -- had a new software experience, and laid the groundwork for future devices.
This year, Google's second generation Pixel devices, which begin shipping October 19, expand on the company's new approach.
Last week Google sent me a Pixel 2 and a Pixel 2 XL. These two devices are essentially identical, save for size. I've primarily used the Pixel 2 XL, as I think it better compares to flagship phones from Samsung and Apple, Google's two biggest competitors. That and it's priced at $850 or $950, depending on storage amount.
With the Pixel 2 XL, Google partnered with LG for manufacturing. Unlike previous Google devices that featured some very obvious design cues from manufacturing partners, the Pixel 2 XL stands apart when compared to the LG V30.
A 6-inch QHD+ (2880 x 1440) display takes up the majority of the front, with minimal bezels surrounding the screen. Instead of taking the same approach as Samsung did with this year's crop of phones, the Pixel 2 XL still has a small bezel above and below the screen. The benefit of how Google handled it not only avoids a notch like Apple had to do with the iPhone X for sensors, but the Pixel 2 XL now has two front-facing speakers, and they are loud. Not the kind of loud that sacrifices sound quality, but loud enough start streaming music and leave the phone on a table or desk and still hear the music across the room.
On the right side of the frame is the volume up and down keys, along with the power/wake button. The left side is bare, save for the SIM card slot.
The back of the phone is made of two different materials, with the unibody aluminum material taking up most of it. The top quarter, or so, is glass and where the camera and flash are located. Just beneath the glass section is the fingerprint sensor, that once again doubles as a pseudo-trackpad, with a swipe down on it revealing the notification shade.
As Apple did with the iPhone 7, Google has ditched the headphone jack with the Pixel 2 line. Instead, you'll need to use the included USB-C to 3.5mm adapter, or go completely wireless. The lone port on the bottom is USB-C and has fast charging. Wireless charging is nowhere to be found in the Pixel 2 line.
The smaller Pixel 2 has a similar design, although the bezels around the display are much bigger and the phone feels like it has a lower build quality than the Pixel 2 XL.
Google equipped the Pixel 2 XL with a Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 3,520 milliamp-hour battery. Storage options are either 64GB or 128GB, with a $100 premium for the latter option.
The spec sheet, in terms of processor and memory, more or less matches every flagship Android device released this year. Instead of relying on brand new chips to drive performance gains, Google's rather unbloated software approach to Android provides for a smooth experience.
To be clear, the Pixel isn't running stock Android. It's running Android with a Pixel launcher and further customizations that you can only find on the Pixel. But those customizations are far from overbearing or enough to cause sluggish performance as is often the case with proprietary skins.
All of that to say the Pixel 2 XL's performance during my time with it has been just fine. Apps launch without issue, the camera app opens in a split second when the power button is double-pressed, and overall it's smooth. Even scrolling in the Facebook app is jitter free.
Battery life on the Pixel 2 XL is enough to get through a full day of somewhat heavy use, of Slack, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Twitter, and mixed YouTube use.
Foregoing the urge to match the industry trend of putting two cameras on a smartphone, Google stuck with a single lens. The 12.2-megapixel rear shooter has an aperture of f/1.8, with optical and electronic image stabilization. On the front, there's an 8-megapixel camera, with a f/2.4 aperture.
With competition using a second rear camera primarily as a way for better measuring depth of field and adding a blurry background, or bokeh, to photos, Google added a Portrait mode to the camera app. According to Google, the camera can still capture all of the required depth information and differentiate between the subject and the background.
I've taken a handful of shots with the Portrait mode, and I have mixed feelings about the results. The camera does a decent job of adding the fake bokeh effect but struggles. Look at the hand on the left in the above photo. Part of the hand is blurry, and then part of the background right next to it was left alone. Now look at the arm holding the football, it's blurry, yet the football isn't. Obviously, there's some fine-tuning to be done with Portrait mode, but the results are impressive considering the fact that Google is doing it with one camera.
The front-facing camera also has a Portrait mode, and I've found it to do an OK job when taking selfies. I'm not sure how often I'll use it, but it's a nice feature to have. Each time a Portrait photo is captured, a normal photo and then a portrait photo are saved. Below is one such combination, so you can see the difference between a standard selfie and one captured with Portrait mode.
Outside of Portrait mode, the camera on the Pixel 2 XL captures vibrant and sharp photos. Photos aren't overly saturated, and even in harsh lighting conditions, the camera does a good job of capturing the scene.
Pixel 2 users have a few different options when it comes to triggering Google Assistant. Of course, the standard "OK Google" voice command is present, as is a long-press on the home button. With the Pixel 2, however, you can now squeeze the edges on the bottom half of the device to open Assistant. Right now, Active Edge can only be used to launch Assistant or silence an incoming call. I would love to see Google add more options, such as a shutter release when the camera is open.
In the Settings app you can adjust how soft or hard of a squeeze will trigger Active Edge. I've had a hard time finding the right setting, and have gone from accidentally triggering Assistant when taking the phone out of my pocket or picking it up, to not being able to launch Assistant with what I felt like was an adequate squeeze.
Google Assistant has been around for a year now and has improved a lot throughout that time. With the Pixel 2 line, the company is adding even more features to the phone, some of which fall under the Assistant name. For example, Google Lens uses artificial intelligence to examine and determine what's in a picture, and then provide information to the user. At launch, Lens is only available in the Photos app, but it will eventually make its way to the Google Assistant app. It's also one of Google's products that for the time being is exclusive to the Pixel 2 lineup.
Lens can read text and provide shortcuts to call a phone number or compose an email. It can also provide movie information and showtimes based on a movie poster, or even name the type of flower(s) in a photo.
Now Playing is another exclusive feature Google introduced with the Pixel 2. When enabled, your phone will identify any music playing nearby and display the artist and song title on the Always-On Display. What's impressive about this feature is that any information captured by the phone never leaves the phone. Meaning Google has figured out how to identify music without the need for an active data connection. Of course that also means Google isn't constantly transmitting every noise your device captures to its servers.
It's taken me by surprise a few times when I've glanced over at the Pixel 2 XL on my desk to see song info passively displayed on the bottom, even though I'm streaming music on a different device.
It started with software
The Pixel 2 XL is the ultimate Google device. It showcases the company's software initiatives, be it Daydream for VR, Assistant for AI, or the Android platform as a whole. It's rather impressive when you consider this is only the second year where the company has taken the approach of providing a robust Google experience seriously.
With the Nexus line, Google framed it as providing a pure Android experience but lacked control over hardware and design. With Pixel, the company's focus shifted. But it was just the beginning, and the devices felt somewhat uninspired.
With the Pixel 2 line, the devices feel like something we've come to expect from the search giant's software ambitions, only now it's transplanted that approach to hardware. There's a familiar, yet simplistic design to both devices. Nothing stands out, except maybe the bright orange colored power button on the black and white model. At the same time, there's nothing missing and everything has a place and a purpose.
Android users have limitless options when it comes to devices and the experience each one provides. Every device maker takes Android and then adds or removes features they feel users want and will use. Sometimes, those changes are beneficial. Often times, they end up hampering the experience and get in the way.
As Google continues to develop the Pixel line, it's putting its own spin on Android. Only, instead of having to worry about compatibility between something like Samsung Cloud and Google Drive, anything Google adds to the Pixel will naturally work with the entire Google ecosystem.
It's the biggest reason I find the Pixel 2 XL (well, either Pixel, really) so attractive. There's no fluff and no bloat... just Google and its myriad of services. And if there's one thing Google does really well, it's services. It just happens to have hardware now to back it up.