Google is indisputably the leader in software--most of us use at least one of the company’s products on a daily basis. But it’s also making a strong play to be a major player in hardware, too. Whether you’re sending messages via Gmail, using Drive apps to write a letter or manage a spreadsheet, or searching for the nearest Thai restaurant, Google’s newest array of devices make it easier than ever to tap into its web-connected services.
That’s especially true of the new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones. After heavy testing the past week, we’ve found both to be premium smartphones, rightfully deserving of a spot in the same league as the iPhone 8, Samsung’s S8, and Galaxy Note 8.
By controlling the build of both the hardware and underlying operating system, the Pixel 2 is optimized for Android and comes free of any third-party apps that often clutter the experience and slow performance. That means you’ll find the Pixel 2 is fast, power efficient, and takes better photos than the phone in your pocket now. It also means you’ll be the first in line to get operating system updates—Google promises three years worth of updates for Pixel 2 owners, which is likely longer than you’ll own the phone.
Making the switch to Pixel 2 couldn’t be easier—for both Android or iPhone owners. The phone comes with a small dongle to tether your existing phone to your new Pixel. During the setup process, it asks you what you want to transfer—photos, contacts, etc.—and quickly ports that information over to the new device so you don’t have to spend all day reconfiguring your new phone. The transfer process and setup took us only a few minutes before we were ready to make calls, take pictures, and send Tweets.
The build quality is excellent, though the phones feel lighter and, admittedly, somehow cheaper than the new iPhone. The back is a lightweight aluminum shell that’s been coated with a matte finish, so the phone has a tactile sensation that makes it easy to grip. Unlike many of the new plus sized phones that have highly curved (and slippery) edges, the Pixel 2 has sharper sides making it easier to clutch—the smaller Pixel 2 has an even more squared shape than the larger XL. Both are fully waterproof, have a fingerprint sensor on the back used to unlock the phone, and include a “squeeze” gesture—firmly grasp the edges of the phone to bring up Google Assistant, Android’s digital helper. “Hey, Google,” interactivity is being baked into every device Google rolls out right now, making it as easy as possible to interact with the company’s software.
Overall, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the two phones apart other than their size. Both have stereo speakers on the face, use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, and have identical camera specs front and back, but the XL has a larger screen with less blank space (a smaller bezel) around the display. Also, because that larger screen is going to require more juice, the XL gets a larger battery. But, that’s it. So, choose based on the size you prefer, and whether you want the damn thing to fit in your pocket.
The biggest reason to buy the Google Pixel XL 2: Photos.
The built in camera has just a single lens on the back (unlike the dual lenses being rolled out on competitive models), but thanks to some serious processing, it can turn neat tricks like portrait mode. It’s important to note here, you won’t be fooled when looking at a side-by-side comparison of a headshot taken on a DSLR, but that’s not the point. The Pixel 2 snaps sharp images and then determines the subject from background, blurring the latter for a pleasing portrait. It’s not perfect, as you can see in the image below, where it failed around the neck and right shoulder, but it’s good enough for Instagram.
Image quality, while generally great, can be a mixed bag. In bright daylight, the Pixel 2 takes wonderful photos and renders colors more naturally than other models. Compared side-by-side with iPhone 8 Plus, there’s better dynamic range—you see more highlights and shadows in the same photo. And the image appears cooler—whites are whiter whereas the iPhone gives a slight orange hue. The Pixel 2 is especially strong in challenging situations, for example a brightly backlit scene, or an image that includes both dark trees and bright blue skies. Other cameras meter for one area or the other, and you end up with something like green trees and white sky. But because the Pixel 2 is capturing more data, it tends to render both areas more accurately.
It does the same thing in low light, but, when pixel peeping, we found far more noise in the image than the same shot on an iPhone 8 Plus. See the two images below for an example from a nice scene in New York City.
100 percent crops from the night scene above clearly shows more noise in the Pixel 2 XL image than in the iPhone 8 Plus.
In any case, it’s a strong camera that works well for social sharing. If you want fine art prints, get a dedicated shooter.
The best part, for heavy photo-takers, is that Pixel owners get 3 years of full-size image storage for free. Google Photos is a powerful online backup and sharing service (it can ID people and even pets now). Non-Pixel users can still get unlimited storage, but their images are saved at a smaller size—original images can still be saved to Google Photos, but count against your storage limits (15 GB free; $10 per month for 1 terabyte).
Finally, the question we most often get asked: How’s the battery? On the Pixel 2 XL, we’ve been using the phone far more in a single day than we ever should. Plus, we have the “ambient display” set to on, so the screen always shows us the time of day and notification icons. But, in the week of normal use, we’ve never come close to draining the phone before going to bed.
When you do need a charge, you’ll be bummed to learn that the Pixel 2 doesn’t support wireless charging. But, a quick 15-minute charge gives you 7 hours of use. Plus, that quick charger with USB-C cable comes standard in the box; a similar charger for iPhone 8 will set you back extra cash (so will a wireless charging base).
The Pixel 2 starts at $649 and the Pixel 2 XL at $849. Both models are on sale now.