When Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones debuted last year, they were quickly recognized as the best Android phones around — from the uncluttered software experience with fast updates, to brilliant cameras aced independent tests. Plenty of newer phones have surpassed the Pixels, but Google’s 2017 follow-ups are looking to take back the crown. Can the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL take back the crown? We got a chance to find out in our hands-on review.
Bezel-less design, vibrant display
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL follow last year’s design theme with a mix of glass and aluminum that lends it a unique, futuristic look. There’s no specific use for the glass — it’s purely for aesthetic. Our favorite color is the “panda” black and white variant of the Pixel 2 XL, which comes with a red power button. The Pixel 2’s “Kinda Blue” color stands out, and it’s the shade we’d likely choose for the smaller phone.
Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL show the world it’s serious about hardware.
The phones feels almost the same as their predecessors, but the metal doesn’t feel as heavy or premium as what you’d find on the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. On the back, the fingerprint sensor sits below a glass stripe, the Google logo hides at the bottom, and a single camera occupies the top left. The Pixel 2 camera placement slightly differs from the Pixel 2 XL, but the real design difference can be see when you flip the phones around.
The Pixel 2 has chunky edges around the screen, much like last year’s phones. It’s far from what you’d expect in 2017, considering one of the biggest trends this year has been the “bezel-less” design. That’s where the Pixel 2 XL comes in. It’s not as “bezel-less” as devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 or the LG V30, but you’ll find significantly reduced edges here. Shrinking the edges has an importance: You get a more compact phone, but a bigger display. The Pixel 2 XL is slightly larger than the Pixel XL, but you’re getting a much bigger 6-inch screen over a 5.5-inch screen. It didn’t feel tough to hold with one hand, though I have large hands. The Pixel 2 and last year’s Pixel are similar in dimensions, and they have the same 5-inch screen size.
We wish both phones got the same bezel-less design. They’re almost identical in specifications, but you’ll still feel a little left out if you prefer smaller phones. Google sort of makes up for this by popping in two front-facing stereo speakers on the top and bottom of both devices. This is one of the best improvements over last year’s Pixels, because it was easy to block the bottom-firing speaker when holding the phone.
The 5-inch AMOLED Pixel 2 has a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution (441 pixels-per-inch) with a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. The screen is protected by the latest Gorilla Glass 5 from Corning. The Pixel 2 XL also features Gorilla Glass 5, but the 6-inch OLED screen has a higher 2,880 x 1,440 pixel resolution (538 ppi). The screens looked bright and colorful — the Pixel 2 XL screen was more vibrant and sharp — but we’ll have to do more testing when we receive review units to see how they fare against the competition.
The phones are finally water resistant with an IP67 rating — that means like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, you can take them underwater up to one meter for 30 minutes.
Not everything is an improvement, though. The company has followed Apple and HTC in removing the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of USB-C audio — good luck charging your phone and listening to music at the same time. Google didn’t offer up a good reason for this decision, and we think it’s hostile to users. Wireless earbud sales may be on the rise, but the 3.5mm jack is still widely used. Don’t worry — there’s an adapter included in the box, and both devices also utilize the new Bluetooth 5 chip for wireless connections.
Blazing fast performance, pure Android
What made last year’s Pixel phone unique was how it was one of the only Android phones to see true hardware and software optimization. Because Google designed the hardware and Android software, the devices felt faster, smoother, and more fluid than most Android devices. The same looks to be true again for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
Both are powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 — the same processor powering the Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30. You get 4GB of RAM, and options for 64GB or 128GB of storage. From what we saw in our brief testing, you can expect impressive speed when moving through the Android operating system.
Google Pixel 2 Compared To
The Pixel 2 has a 2,700mAh battery, and the Pixel 2 XL has a larger 3,520mAh battery capacity.
Both devices offer Active Edge, which lets you “squeeze” the phone to trigger a function — largely to activate Google Assistant. It’s a neat feature , but it’s not new – HTC introduced the same feature in its U11 smartphone.
We’re surprised at how much Google can do just with software.
You’ll find Android 8.0 Oreo installed, the new version of the Android OS released in August. It brings new features such as picture-in-picture mode and notification channels, and the Pixel 2 and 2 XL also have some other neat software improvements — notably a new home screen. The Google Search bar is on the bottom for easier access, there are new live wallpapers that subtly change, and a dynamic calendar widget shows what’s next on your agenda at a quick glance. There’s also an Always-On Display, which can not only tell you the time, it will identify a song playing it the background and show it here without you asking. It even happens locally on the device – no internet connectivity needed.
Google Lens is also a beta feature that Pixel 2 owners will be able to experience. It basically lets you identify objects, and buildings with just your camera and machine learning technology. It’s impressive and we can’t wait to try it out. Google also said the Pixel 2 XL’s camera is better optimized for augmented reality, though we weren’t able to try anything out yet.
The software changes all seem useful and better designed, but the main selling point here is still fast updates. When the next version of Android rolls around, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL will be the first to receive it. The same is true for security updates. If that matters to you, the Pixels are no-brainers.
The 2016 Google Pixel quickly became known as the best camera phone when it was released last year, oftentimes beating out the lauded iPhone 7 Plus. We’ll have to do more testing to see how the Pixel 2 and 2 XL cameras fare, but independent camera review site DxOMark has given the phones the highest marks ever doled out — 98 out of 100.
We saw virtually no shutter lag when taking photos with the single 12-megapixel camera, which now features optical image stabilization. The photos now capture three seconds of video when you tap the shutter icon, so much like Apple’s Live Photos, you now get moving pictures.
But the highlight is Portrait Mode, which adds a blur effect (bokeh) behind a subject, so you get DSLR-like images. Google is mimicking Apple and a few other Android manufacturers, but this impressive trick is that this is all done with one single-lens camera — not a dual-camera setup. Through machine learning and software algorithms, the single-lens camera can accurately identify the primary subject and blur out the background. Since it doesn’t require two cameras, it even works with the front-facing 8-megapixel camera. The feature worked well in our initial tests, doing a fairly good job with a selfie I took, though you could see it missed the tips of my hair in some parts. We’ll have to test this feature in depth to see how it stacks up against the iPhone X and 8 Plus, but we’re surprised at how much Google can do just with software.
Availability and price
The Google Pixel 2 will set you back $650. That’s a lot cheaper than many other Snapdragon 835 flagships devices we’ve been seeing this year from other manufacturers. Sadly, the Pixel 2 XL will drain your wallet even more as it costs $850. It’s similarly priced to the LG V30 and Galaxy S8 Plus.
Both phones are available for pre-order now, and they’re expected to ship towards the end of October.
So far, there’s a lot to like about the new devices from Google. Our biggest gripe is the loss of the headphone jack, but we’re looking forward to testing the phones further to see if the other improvements and features make up for it.