While last year saw the launch of the Pixel brand, this year, saw Google try to make the Pixel 2 look special. After many rumours and leaks, the smartphones were finally announced at the ‘Made by Google’ event, which also saw the launch of the brand’s other hardware products including some new smart speakers and the Pixel Buds, new headphones range by Google.
However, all eyes were on the Google Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. The smartphones featured the latest hardware and the latest software from Google as well. But if there’s one detail that stood out from everything, it had to be those thick bezels.
Through 2017, Android fans were treated, launch after launch by bezel-less designs. Samsung made three (S8, S8+ and Note 8), LG announced the V30 (coming to India next month) and even Xiaomi launched its Mi Mix 2 with an almost edge-to-edge appearance. So despite the leaks, it was hard to believe that Google would actually launch an ‘anti-iPhone X’, a smartphone that literally challenges the edge-to-edge approach of the iPhone, with a smartphone that’s loaded with more bezel than all the flagships in 2017 combined. And that’s just the Pixel 2!
Then came the Pixel 2 XL with its own set of display issues, which was not received too well by the media.
So when I received both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL for review, I kind of knew what to expect – overpriced Android smartphones, that literally make no sense because they look outdated. But then I turned on Google’s secret weapon, the camera. And believe me, it changed my opinion about the Pixel 2, if not the Pixel 2 XL.
Build and Design
Pixel 2: 7.5/10
Pixel 2 XL: 7/10
Starting off with the smaller Pixel 2, it looks like the older Pixel model. The design seems like an evolution of the Pixel which graduates from a rounded look to one with sharper edges around the display and less rounded corners around the back. Quality of the body is top notch. No complaints here.
The overall design reminds me a lot of the Nokia 6 with the prominent speaker grille at the top and the bottom and shiny bevelled edges around the bezel.
Flip it on its back and it’s easy to notice the smartphone’s resemblance to the Pixel family. The unmistakable glass window has now grown shorter and takes up only a quarter of the back as compared to the older model.
Moving to the bigger Pixel 2 XL, with a 6-inch display. I found it too large and unwieldy for one-handed usage, but not as massive as the mammoth Xiaomi Mi Mix 2. Again, like the Pixel 2, the smartphone display is surrounded by thick bezels and it does not qualify as a bezel-less display or an edge to edge one. It’s just a taller 18:9 ratio unit sporting a QHD+ resolution.
The front face of the 2 XL is a bit different and more iPhone-like with a curved (almost 3D) slab of glass. While I appreciate the design effort by Google here, that beautiful slab of glass loses its charm because of the boring design of the metal chassis that surrounds it. Had Google (or LG) given it a pebble-like appearance with rounded sides, it would have looked pretty cool. But it did not, so it does not.
While the design is best described as boring, I did appreciate the new coating that Google has applied to both smartphones. It feels like the evolution of OnePlus One’ sandstone finish, but a lot smoother (you cannot use this one as a nail file). It does not catch any fingerprints and it is quite resistant to the usual scratches. The coating kind of reminds of the tough liner material applied on the bed of pick-up truck. The same coating also managed to hide the antenna lines, ones that are non-existent on the 2 XL and barely visible on the shiny edge surrounding the thick bezels of the Pixel 2.
Average design aside, there were some other problems that I faced after using the phones for two weeks. Both smartphones seemed to lack any sort of oleophobic coating. While the Pixel 2 XL being an already used review unit, it was a smudgy mess. Not something one would expect from a smartphone that is priced at Rs 73,000.
This applies to both the front screen and the rear glass window and seems to be the faulty application of the oleophobic coating at best. The coating usually takes years to come off on iPhones so it is surprising that with less than a month of usage, it's already off and turns the glass bits of the smartphone into a smudge-laden mess. I did not face a similar issue with the smaller Pixel 2.
Another problem with the Pixel 2 XL was how easily the matte coating on the metal caught fingerprints and smudges. To make things worse, it was very hard (almost impossible) to wipe them off. Again, not something you would expect from a smartphone that costs Rs 73,000. To make things worse, the Pixel 2’s coating was just fine and resisted any smudges and fingerprints really well.
While I would love to complain about how the new Apple iPhone 8 models look dated this year, Google could have done a lot better in this department instead of going for the plain jane look; one that just cannot stand up against the beautiful Samsung Galaxy S8, the Note 8 or even the shiny HTC U11.
Pixel 2: 8/10
Pixel 2 XL: 8/10
Unlike last year, this year’s Google Pixel 2 siblings may look a bit different on the outside, but pack in almost the same hardware on the inside. The Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL differ only when it comes to the display size and battery capacity.
On the front, you get a 5.0-inch Full HD AMOLED display (made by Samsung) on the Pixel 2, while the Pixel 2 XL gets an LG-made P-OLED QHD+ unit with a taller 18:9 display ratio.
Inside, both smartphones get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC with 4 GB RAM along with 64 GB and 128 GB internal storage options.
There’s an 8 MP camera with an f/2.4 aperture on the front and a 12 MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture on the rear. The rear camera features optical image stabilisation (OIS) and electronic image stabilisation (EIS) along with ‘dual pixel’ technology. There’s also some machine learning bits that I will emphasise on in the camera section of this review.
Connectivity options include an E-SIM and a single nano-SIM slot that lets you latch on to 4G LTE radios. Then there’s the usual flagship options like Dual-Band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth v5.0 with LE, NFC, GPS and USB 2.0 Type-C port with a reversible connector.
The fingerprint reader sits on the back and both devices also include an Active Edge that lets you squeeze the bottom half of phone to launch the Google Assistant.
The Pixel 2 features a 2,700 mAh battery while the Pixel 2 XL packs in a larger 3,520 mAh unit, which is pretty large given its thin 7.9 mm waistline. Both units are IP67 certified dust and water resistant up to 1 meter for 30 minutes.
Pixel 2: 8/10
Pixel 2 XL: 7/10
To be frank, I have no issues with the display on the Pixel 2. The Samsung-made AMOLED display showcased the most accurate colours possible with a hint of saturation. In fact, many assumed that it wasn’t an AMOLED unit to begin with because it did not strongly showcase the typical colour-shifting that we are used to seeing on the premium flagships from Samsung. There’s no noticeable red-tinge or blue tinge here either and it almost gives you the impression that you are looking at an LCD display. It’s bright too, and I had no problems using it in direct sunlight.
While Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 may showcase punchier colours, the Pixel 2 has the more natural and accurate tones. Sharpness was not a problem with a pixel density of 441 ppi. If you don’t like the natural colours then you can change the same in the colour settings to Saturated for vivid colours.
Indeed, the display’s only competitor is the iPhone 8’s TrueTone LCD display and of course the iPhone X’s Super Retina OLED unit, that is pretty much unbeatable at the moment.
Moving to the Pixel 2 XL, it does not even come close. One look at the display off axis and you will be convinced that it belongs to some mid-range device, rather than a premium Rs 73,000 flagship.
While the levels of sharpness are spot on, LG’s P-OLED unit is quite messed up in the sense that it does not showcase accurate colours to begin with, despite Google’s advertised 100 percent DCI-P3 coverage. The colours look burnt out and showcase a brown tinge, which you begin to notice as soon as you power up the smartphone and stare at the boot screen. There is a strong blue tinge when you view the display a few degrees off axis.
Another problem with XL’s display is that it’s just not bright enough. With Adaptive brightness turned on, I had to max out the brightness to get make the display look bright so that the colours look decent and usable when showing photos to friends and family. Again, the brightness levels only helped when viewed dead centre.
In short, the Pixel 2 XL’s P-OLED display just not up to the mark and certainly cannot hold its own even against the slightly lower priced Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
OS and Software
Pixel 2: 8/10
Pixel 2 XL: 7.5/10
The Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL come with the latest and most updated software from Google, Android 8.0 Oreo. Both smartphones recently received a patch that added a couple of improvements including a new display colour settings, that now lets you choose between Boosted, Natural and Saturated.
Indeed, this is the purest form of Android one can possibly get on a smartphone. There are the notification dots that let you swipe away per app notifications and also showcase tiny dots (or badges) on app icons that basically tell you that there is a notification from that particular app. Long-pressing on the icons with the notification badges will reveal a small menu called a notification preview. The preview basically relays all the notifications from that app (unless a developer chooses to channel specific ones) in the form of tiny glanceable previews, which are in reality a bit too short to reveal anything but the sender of the message.
The feature will soon see a wider rollout as Oreo gradually becomes popular and should see other smartphone manufacturers adopt the new notification options in their respective skinned versions of Android. But for now, it’s only available on the Pixel 2 smartphones and surprisingly not on the Sony Xperia XZ1 that comes with Android Oreo out of the box thanks to Sony’s customisations.
While I was happy to see notification dots natively supported on a smartphone, the feature is not as useful as I expected it to be and I eventually learned to ignore it, considering that the one single place for all your notifications has always been the notifications tray. More importantly, you really cannot reply or respond to any of those notification dot widgets like in the tray. All you can do is swipe them away.
The notifications tray has also seen some subtle changes with Android Oreo. Stacks of notifications icons from different apps will pile up at the bottom of the tray as you scroll through them, which is a good UI move. Another cool trick in the Pixel launcher is that the theme changes from white to black (this applies to notification dot previews as well) depending on the wallpaper selection.
Another feature unique to the Pixels this year is Pixel Lens. It’s a sort of replacement for Google’s Goggles, but a lot smarter as it can pull out details from images, that can be used to identify the object or even use those details in your smartphone, like pulling out contact details from a business card.
To use it, you simply have to click a picture of the object, product, monument or whatever you see and want to know more about. Once clicked, open the photo and tap on the Pixel Lens icon (third from the left after the Share extension and Edit icons). Upon tapping it, it will turn on some fancy animations to show you that it’s analysing the image at hand. And then depending on whether it gets any results (chances are it may not) it will show you details on a card below the image.
This is a new feature from Google, so it is yet to reach its full potential to be used in the manner it was intended to. At the moment it does not and reminds me of Samsung’s Bixby, which is far too incomplete for show time.
I tried Pixels Lens on books (worked just fine), products (gave similar but nothing close to accurate results) and even some fancy hotel buildings. It does not work as intended but was more than useful when it came to pulling details from a business card, which is where I used it the most. It lets you save details from a business card straight to your contacts, but the unfortunate bit is that it lets you save just one field at a time. So again, a great idea, but badly implemented.
Lens is currently available only by clicking a photo but is making its way to the Google Assistant app. This means that you no longer need to open the camera, click a photo and then get results, but simply tap on the Pixels Lens icon from the Assistant app directly. The move definitely makes Lens more accessible. During my testing, the feature did not make it to the app, but from what we know, it rolling out gradually as a server-side update.
Of taller displays
While most apps adapted well to the no-frills, almost Nexus-like experience of the Pixel 2 (its one of the reason why I like it). The Pixel 2 XL was a good example of how fragmented Google’s Android ecosystem really is. While main popular apps do support taller displays and will stretch to top and bottom ends, there were many others (from lazy developers) that don’t. This being a stock Android experience meant, that there are no customisations like on the Samsung Note 8 or the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2, which lets you manually set apps to fit the taller displays thanks to their custom software skins. So if your app does not support taller displays, you will be treated to black bars at the top and bottom of the app.
As for everything else, the software works buttery smooth. There was no hint of lag or stutter. Except for one annoying problem, app crashes.
From the Pixel launcher to Google search, to the Photos app and several third-party apps, there are plenty of crashes. These however stopped occurring over time and I have barely seen any when I was penning this review.
With the Pixel 2 XL, I also encountered some instances when the smartphone hung up and froze. This happened about two times, but a restart helped with solving the issue. Lucky for the Pixel 2, it comes from the makers of Android, which is Google. So here’s hoping that future software updates fix the same.
Pixel 2: 8.5/10
Pixel 2: 9/10
With Google’s own latest and greatest operating system on board, it’s hard to go wrong with the performance. You also need to remember that most games and apps out there are first designed for Google’s Pixel, now that the developer-friendly Nexus devices no longer exist.
With that said, performance on both smartphones was top notch and the best you can possibly get from an Android device. Despite, having less RAM than what most manufacturers have on offer (usually 6 GB), the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL played every single game I could install from the Play Store without breaking a sweat or heating up. Multi-tasking was a breeze and apps launches were super quick. Scrolling was buttery smooth and things almost felt iOS-like.
Coming to audio, both smartphones delivered great sounding audio with well-defined bass and treble notes while listening to music through connected headphones. With Android 8.0 Oreo onboard I would have loved to try out the new high-definition Bluetooth audio formats, but Google for some reason did not send across any Bluetooth headphones for us to test them out with.
Moving to the speakers, both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL feature a dual speaker setup. The Pixel 2 sounded great for its size and was loud enough for me to stream Netflix or YouTube, without the need to plug in my headphones, but this was only from a close distance. In short, it wasn’t loud enough to blast music inside a small room. Audio quality was pretty clear but could have done with better bass notes, as it did sound a bit empty despite the clarity. The Pixel 2 XL was definitely the better of two here. The dual speakers were loud enough to fill a room, and while they did jar a bit at the max volume, the audio was surprisingly clear and loud. To compare, the audio quality of the Pixel 2’s speakers was better than the iPhone 8, but Pixel 2 XL, fell a bit short of the iPhone 8 Plus. But there was this design flaw that really annoyed me a the both Pixel 2’s. I ended up missing quite a few calls because both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL’s speakers would get covered when in my jeans pocket. Since I have the habit of facing the phone towards my body when sliding into my pocket, the speakers get blocked and the audio gets muffled to the extent that you can barely hear the ringer on a crowded street. The solution, place you phone the other way around! Camera Pixel 2: 9.5/10 Pixel 2: 9.5/10 If you love clicking photos with your smartphone, this is the smartphone to buy! The humble-looking single camera setup on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL beats the pants off any single or dual camera offering on any Android smartphone. The photos I clicked using the Google Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL were stunning, both in terms of detail and clarity. The camera is quick to launch and start up and there is zero shutter lag when clicking photos, something that most cameras claim but can hardly impress when you see the results.
Think of the Pixel 2’s 12 MP camera as your typical flagships smartphone camera on steroids. It is wide awake and firing on all cylinders… all the time! It is almost as if the software behind the camera knows where to place the luminance noise and where to get rid of it, so as to deliver a clean image every single time, be in standard shooting mode or the highly-acclaimed Portrait mode. Check out the samples of the Google Pixel 2 below. Noise was clearly under control at all times, except for extremely dimly lit landscape shooting scenarios where there was barely any light in the scene. Still then Google HDR+ tech knew exactly where to place the noise (in the completely dark areas) and avoid it in the areas lit up by street lights below. It’s almost as if the camera understood the science behind clicking great photographs. Check out the samples of the Google Pixel 2 XL below.
Focusing was really quick, no matter what the lighting condition and the scenario, in fact the Google Pixel 2 is the only smartphone that could keep up with my overtly active nephew and produced DSLR-like portrait photos of him even in dim lighting.
The Portrait mode works accurately even in low light and party shots, and captured moments instantaneously at the tap of the virtual shutter button. This is all thanks to Google’s engineering and software smarts ones that let it use that f/1.8 aperture, OIS, EIS, PDAF and laser autofocus systems to deliver class-leading clarity in photos.
The science behind it
And all of the above just does not apply to the primary camera, but the front-facing one as well.
Yes! The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can shoot some amazing portrait shots (with a bokeh effect) using just a single camera, both with the front and rear cameras. And Google went to the extremes to achieve these shallow depth of field photos by using a single camera, when everyone else, including Apple, needed two.
Google explains the software and hardware magic in detail out here, but simply put, it uses the machine learning, HDR+ photos and dual pixels from a single camera sensor to produce a depth map.
Yes, Google’s engineers went down to smallest differences (distance between the pixels on the PDAF or Phase Detection Autofocus system to give them two viewpoints to the same image that are less than 1 mm apart (that’s really close). This gave them the ability to basically get two images with a minute difference in perspective, one that was enough to compute and produce a depth map.
So the camera first clicks the perfect HDR image using HDR+, then applies its machine learning-based knowledge to separate the subject from the foreground and instead of going ahead with that data (a mask) adds the data coming from the PDAF system delivering some class-leading selfies, that make every smartphone with a front-facing selfie camera including the iPhone 8 Plus and the iPhone X seem to be lacking in som parts. I’d wager that Google will come up with a Face ID replacement using the same camera tech next year.
About the Pixel Visual Core
So the Pixel 2’s cameras are quick at capturing photos, but tap on the thumbnail preview and you will notice a processing ring showing up until a slightly blurry image takes about two seconds to clear up. This is because the Pixel 2 clicks the photos and processes them later.
The cameras are what I would call the first “smart” cameras on any smartphone. At the moment, Google currently uses Qualcomm’s built-in ISP to deliver its software smarts that lead to these stunning images in all types of lighting conditions.
But Google (being Google) has something better in-store, a monster of an Image Processing Unit (IPU) called the Pixel Visual Core just waiting to be awakened.
The Pixel Visual Core is currently a dormant custom-made IPU with a low-power Cortex A53 CPU handling the eight IPU cores. When combined, these are capable of performing more than 3 trillion operations per second, keeping in mind that it resides on a mobile device.
Unfortunately, Visual Core will not be of much use to owners even when it’s activated, despite those mind-boggling numbers I just told you about. As per the Google blog, the sole purpose of its existence is to provide HDR+ processing capabilities for third-party photo apps. And that’s about it.
Moving on, on the video side of things, the details are right about the best we have seen but there is a bit of focus hunting when your subject is too close. But Apple’s 4K 60 fps on the iPhone 8 and iPhone X takes the top spot here despite Google’s complicated approach to video using both OIS and EIS for some excellently stabilised videos.
If you are looking to compare Apple to errr… Pixels, well Google Pixel wins in clarity and detail and there is clearly no competition, not even the mighty (and expensive) iPhone X in the low light photography department. Photos from the Pixel 2 / 2 XL do not tent do overdo the colour reproduction despite the always on HDR+. But when it comes to colour accuracy, the iPhone X is a lot closer to the real scene. But again, that’s just about all the iPhone X gets right. For everything else, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, does everything better… by a mile.
Pixel 2: 8/10
Pixel 2 XL: 8.5/10
As with most of the flagship Android smartphones, we have seen this year, battery life has not been much of a problem, despite the shrinking battery capacities on some units. The 10 nm manufacturing process brings about some great battery savings and luckily we have not seen any more senseless 4K displays being announced by any smartphone manufacturer after Sony.
With that, both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL faired really well. With casual usage, which is sending plenty of WhatsApp, Telegram messages, checking Slack, 3 email accounts on sync, calls and a lot of photography, I never found myself searching for a charging point at the end of a long day.
With the Pixel 2 and its 2,700 mAh battery, the smartphone would easily get me until the end of the day with about 10-15 percent charge left. And even with that, I had plenty of confidence that it would linger till the next morning without plugging the device in.
With the Pixel 2 XL and its 3,520 mAh battery, battery life was never a concern. I needed to charge the device once in one and half day. Yes, it was that good. But there is a small problem with the taller Pixel 2 sibling, charging speeds.
While the smaller Pixel 2 charged up quickly in a span of a little over an hour, the Pixel 2 XL did not. The battery inside the Pixel 2 XL takes easily over 2 hours to charge which is a shame because the OnePlus 5T’s 3,300 mAh battery charges up as quickly as the smaller Pixel 2. Still then, once it is charged up, the battery life last pretty long.
Verdict and Pricing in India
As I explained in my first impressions, the Pixel 2’s biggest enemy is its design. It’s hard to believe that a customer would pick one off a shelf with other bezel-less smartphones on the same display. This also means that a Pixel 2 customer would know what he/she wants or is looking for in a flagship smartphone. A good performer with an understated look, that is more practical and performance oriented than fancy.
Back in the Nexus days, Android purists would wait for the next Nexus device. The focus back then was not the camera, but the quick updates.
After Google introduced its Pixel brand, (they have headphones now as well) it was clear that Google wanted to lead the way, to show everyone how you build an Android smartphone and what a premium Android smartphone experience feels like.
With the Pixel 2, Google simply reiterates all of this but adds something more. Google tells us that it is serious about building good hardware and the software to match. Stuff that until now, only iPhones were made of.
And this year, it is surprising to see how much effort went into the Pixel 2 devices with Google milking every drop of performance with lesser hardware thanks to tricks like machine learning.
While last year was only the beginning, Pixel is now a brand that is neck and neck with Apple’s iPhones, and better in some areas. Although the design could have certainly been better.
So who should buy one?
Nexus users who have been waiting (and saving up) for the next best thing from Google can now look at the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL for the best Android user experience.
Those not too happy about their iPhones can also look at the Pixel 2 smartphones, now that Google has clearly proved its superior imaging skills. It’s the one feature that a lot of people look for in a smartphone, and Google just delivers the goods when compared to every other smartphone manufacturer in existence with its machine learning smarts with not just the rear, but the front camera as well.
Flagship Android smartphone owners from the Samsung, HTC and LG club can also give the Pixel a long hard look. It may not look all that flashy, but it has got the best smartphone camera on the block, one that is not afraid of the dark. As for those who own a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, well, you can stick with it, the Pixel 2 XL, is not exactly a better package overall.
Which Pixel should you buy?
At Rs 61,000 the Pixel 2 is my favourite and I would recommend it because barring the design there are few flaws.
At Rs 73,000 the Pixel 2 XL will be the perfect Android smartphone for those looking for great battery life and performance, provided they are ready to settle with the problematic display and its dull colours. In short, there are a lot of compromises here for the asking price.
Between the two, the Pixel 2 takes the cake as it is a no frills Android smartphone, which offers the basics and does them really well, while it’s at it. There’s no tap to adapt for third-party apps because there’s no nonsensical taller display, you don’t have to pinch to zoom every time you play a video either. The bezels are thin, but the grip and usability is excellent. In short, it just works! And does everything brilliantly, be it the camera, battery, display and the software.
Here’s a question I would ask you: Why would you buy any other premium Android smartphone right now?