Google Pixel 2 review: plainly great

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Without fail, every person who has picked up the Pixel 2 XL has said virtually the same thing: “It feels like it’s made out of plastic.” I said it myself when I first held it. Of course, neither the Pixel 2 nor the Pixel 2 XL are made out of plastic. They’re made out of Gorilla Glass and aluminum, just like every other high-end phone these days.

But Google coated all that aluminum with a textured finish that hides most of the antenna lines and also makes the phones easier to grip. Google took what could have been a visually impressive design and covered it up in the name of ergonomics. It literally made a metal phone feel like a plastic one. It chose function over form.

At nearly every turn, with both the hardware and the software, Google made that design decision again and again. There have been a few times when I wish the company had risked a little more razzamatazz, but mostly I’ve been appreciating the focus on improving the basics.

“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like,” Steve Jobs once said, “design is how it works.”

The Pixel 2 works really well.


Hardware

The Pixel 2 comes in two sizes: a very humdrum 5-inch phone with a squared-off screen and big, chunky bezels, and a slightly more impressive 6-inch version with curved corners and smaller bezels. You’ll need to spend $649 for the smaller one or $849 for the larger one, with a $100 premium for expanded storage.

As it did last year, Google has done its level best to make these two phones identical except for their size. You’ll get the same power, performance, and (most importantly) camera with either device. The only differences are supposed to be the screen and the battery. You could endlessly debate whether these are the “same phone” in two different sizes. If you replace the keel on a ship, does it make it a different boat? If you replace the screen, body, and battery on a phone, does it make it a different phone? To me, there’s more that’s similar than different, so let’s not go full Ship of Theseus on them. (Note: when I refer to “Pixel 2” below, I’m referring to both. I’ll call out the “smaller” Pixel 2 or the 2 XL specifically where applicable.)

It is true that the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are more divergent than they were last year — perhaps because they’re manufactured by different companies. I prefer the XL because I prefer big screens, but obviously the Pixel 2 is nicer and easier to hold. The XL is just a little too big, bigger even than last year’s Pixel XL, but it does have a larger screen than last year’s, too.

The smaller one comes in three colors, the bigger one in two. Each color has a slightly different texture and finish, and a few have jaunty little accent colors on their power buttons. All have what has become the signature design for Pixel devices: a glass “shade” on the back of the phone for improved wireless signals. The shade is smaller this year, stopping above the fingerprint sensor, but we’ll have to see if it’s any less prone to scratching compared to the first Pixels.

Google is sticking with the fingerprint sensor on the back, in an easy-to-reach spot. It’s fast and accurate. I wish the power button, which sits above the volume buttons, was as easy to reach on the XL. I should also note that both models do have a small camera bump this year, but it’s not quite as pronounced as what you’ll see on the latest iPhones.

The screen, especially on the 2 XL, has been polarizing. Google opted to tune the display to sRGB (the Galaxy S8, by comparison, offers four gamut options), so it looks a little more like the iPhone’s screen. But more than that, on the 2 XL the colors look muted in a way that many Android users I’ve shown it to found distasteful (even with the “vivid colors” setting turned on). I think many Android phones, especially from Samsung, are so vivid as to be phantasmagoric, so Google’s choice was to make this more “naturalistic.”

Part of the issue, Google says, is that Oreo is the first version of Android to have proper color space control. So until now, Android developers really didn’t have a way to control precisely how their colors would look on screens. The Pixel 2 is part of an effort to fix that, but even so, the more “naturalistic” color tuning on the Pixel 2 XL (and, to a lesser extent, the smaller Pixel 2) just looks a little off. The problem gets much worse when you look at the screen from angles, the color swings simply because that’s what pOLED does.

We spent a lot of time staring at different photos on the Pixel 2, the 2 XL, the iPhone 8 Plus, the Note 8, and the original Pixel XL. When you look at all the phones side by side, it’s undeniable that the Samsung phone is wildly oversaturated, the iPhone 8 looks the most natural, and the Pixel 2 XL is the most muted. Reds on the 2 XL tend to be more brownish, and skin tones look a little greener than they ought. The smaller Pixel 2 seems to have better color balance; it’s closest to the iPhone 8 of the bunch.

The charitable way to put it is that Google opted for something practical when it could have gone bolder. The less charitable way to put it is that the Pixel 2 XL has a bad screen with bad color tuning. For me, at least, I found that it doesn’t bother me unless I am actively comparing screens to another phone. When I just use the 2 XL day to day, it’s fine. In fact, I appreciate that it’s not as oversaturated as your average OLED Android phone.

There are some who fear that the Pixel 2 XL will suffer from the screen issues that plague a closely related phone, the LG V30. That’s not the case for me; my screen doesn’t have any blotches or dead pixels.

It’s also not strictly true to say that the Pixel 2 XL is a “bezel-less” phone. Although the bezels are much smaller than those on many other phones, the Samsung Galaxy S8, Note 8, LG V30, Essential Phone, and (I think) iPhone X all have smaller bezels. The glass is curved on the edges of the XL, though the screen itself is not, and I vacillate between thinking it looks elegant and thinking it looks kind of plain. I don’t have that problem with the smaller Pixel 2; I always think it looks plain.

On both phones, there are front-facing stereo speakers, as opposed to the mix of front-facing and bottom-firing ones on the iPhone. It’s one of those design decisions Google made preferring function over beauty, because even though the speakers make both phones taller and less elegant, they sound great. They get plenty loud, but even at max volume there’s no distortion. There’s even a hint of bass. Not as much as you’ll get from a proper Bluetooth speaker, but more than you’d expect from a phone.

And as long as we’re talking about audio, let’s talk about the lack of a headphone jack. For a phone that so clearly puts an emphasis on practicality, it’s a stupid and annoying change. There is a USB-C dongle in the box, but no headphones are included. I’m well aware that the desire for a traditional headphone jack is viewed by many as backwards-looking — if not quixotic — but not having one is still a near-daily hassle for many.

If there’s any bright spot about Google taking away the standard headphone port, it’s that the Pixel 2 also has greatly improved Bluetooth performance. On the original Pixel XL, I was getting no end of stutters and drops with a few different types of headphones, but nary a one on the Pixel 2. I don’t know whether to credit better antennas, better silicon, or better software — maybe all of the above — but I’m glad it’s fixed.

Both phones are rated IP67 against dust and water, and we dunked ’em both a few times without any problems. Because of the aluminum unibody design, they don’t support wireless charging. I find that disappointing, as both Samsung and Apple do support it. At least Google’s quick charging works well with the included AC adapter, offering several hours of charge with a quick top-up.

The Pixel 2 phones have the same processor as every other flagship Android phone this year: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835. They have 4GB of RAM, which is plenty. Beyond preferring it aesthetically, I’ve found that Google’s version of Android just tends to run better overall than Samsung’s or LG’s. I hope that continues to be the case over time with the Pixel 2 and Oreo. So far, it’s been snappy.

Battery life also seems good. It takes some serious work to drain the battery on the Pixel 2 XL in a single day; usually it lasts until bedtime just fine. For those who pay attention to such things, I’ll say that I’ve been getting around six hours of screen time with the brightness at around 75 percent. On the smaller Pixel 2, my results haven’t been that impressive, but still quite good. My colleague Vlad Savov has spent more time with the smaller one, and he tells me he’s getting through a full day without issue.


Camera

Last year’s Pixel had the best camera you could get on a smartphone, and not just in DxO benchmarks, but in real-world testing. Of course, since then the Galaxy Note 8, HTC U11, and the iPhone 8 all came along. And I haven’t done enough testing to say whether or not the Pixel 2 can beat the pack again. But after about a week of using the camera, I will say this: it has a real shot at being the best again.

I’ve already described the multitude of technologies that are crammed into the Pixel 2’s camera stack and image processing workflow, so I’ll just stick with the short version here. Google is using its greatest strength, machine learning, to make the camera much better.

There is a 12-megapixel dual-pixel autofocus sensor on the back and an 8-megapixel sensor on the front. On the rear, Google is using a slightly brighter lens than before with the added upgrade of optical image stabilization. But the technical details are less important than how Google approaches photography: it is treating photography like a data problem instead of just a light problem.

For regular shots in full auto, the Pixel 2 is excellent. It handles challenging lighting situations without blinking: low-light, backlit subjects, and my own shaky hands are not a problem for this camera. The selfie camera is 8 megapixels, and it probably the best front-facing camera I’ve ever used. It has a “face retouching” feature, which, like most I’ve tried, is a little over-aggressive in smoothing your pores away.

Take low light, for example: Google tells me that even though it could keep the shutter open longer to bring in more light, it’s not bothering. It doesn’t need to because every photo you take on the Pixel 2 is an algorithmically combined set of up to 10 images.

I find the Pixel 2’s photos to be way sharper than the iPhone 8 and the Note 8 — almost to a fault in a couple of cases. HDR shots are equally impressive. I prefer the Pixel 2’s images overall, even though occasionally it goes a little overboard. Colors are a little bit more subjective: Google seems to lean toward the iPhone’s more naturalistic look more than Samsung’s vivid colors. But even then, it’s worth pointing out that the primary screen you actually look at the photos on is likely going to be your phone’s screen, so the Pixel 2’s photos are going to look a little less vibrant, especially on the Pixel 2 XL.

Where things get more interesting — and a little more mixed in the results — is in portrait mode. Google attempts to do the same thing with a single lens that other cameras do with two: detect depth data and blur the background. Most phones do this by combining computer recognition with a little bit of depth data — and Google is no different in that regard.

What is different is that Google is much better at computer recognition, and it’s gathering depth data from the dual-pixel system, where the half-pixels are literally less than a micron apart on a single image sensor. Google’s proficiency at machine learning means portrait images from the Pixel 2 do a better job of cropping around hair than either the iPhone 8 or the Note 8. The dual-pixel depth sensing makes it possible to get portrait mode working on non-human subjects, but there it’s a bit more of a wash. Sometimes the Pixel 2 can’t quite tell what to blur.

Not only can both sizes of the Pixel 2 do portrait mode, both cameras on both of those phones can do it, too. On the selfie camera, however, there aren’t those dual pixels to rely on, so it needs to see your face. Portrait mode is fun, and sometimes you can get really amazing results, but to me, on all three of these phones, I still feel like this mode is ham-handed. You can almost always see the crop if you look for it.

Where the Pixel 2 can’t quite keep up is with the extra fancy effects that both Samsung and Apple layer on top of portraits. With the Pixel 2, the only option is portrait mode on or off. You have to set it before you take the photo, and you can’t adjust it after the shot.

Google is also throwing a few other tricks at the Pixel 2 camera. My favorite is Motion Photos, which is Google’s take on embedding little movable images inside your photo. Like Apple’s Live Photos, they’re cute and fun and not well-supported on social networks. Unlike Apple’s Live Photos, you can’t really do much with Google’s Motion Photos. If there’s a way to set a different part of the moving image as your key frame or a simple way to export to GIF (without resorting to a third-party app), I couldn’t find it.

I hope that Google iterates quickly on both portrait mode and Motion Photos. The basics are here and they’re fun, but without the ability to do more with them, they feel super limited. I was not able to test the other big camera feature, augmented reality stickers, as they’re getting released later.

One last thing about the camera: when you tap the little thumbnail for your last shot, it jumps directly into Google Photos instead of that weird limbo-zone camera roll you used to have to deal with.


AI & Software

If you still think that the version of Android on Google’s phones is “pure Android” and everything else is Google’s Android with extra crap layered on, I’m here to tell you that’s not really accurate anymore. More and more, “pure Android” is just a shell of functions and a few key apps and everybody builds on that. So Google’s version of Android is distinctly Google.

The first and most important piece of that puzzle is the Google Assistant. It is, of course, available on other phones, but on the Pixel 2 it just seems to subtly feel like it’s more central to the experience. For me, it became clear when I said “OK Google” and the Pixel 2 actually heard me from across the room and woke up.

Android phones have been promising that voice experience for years now, but the truth is that it never really worked all that well. The Pixel 2, with its loud speakers and clearly improved microphones, practically feels like a Google Home smart speaker to me.

Google isn’t really touting that feature much. Instead it’s talking about Active Edge, the feature that lets you squeeze the phone to launch the Assistant. There’s a short setup workflow, which I strongly recommend you don’t skip because it explains that to use Active Edge, you should give the thing a quick squeeze, not a hard grip.

You can alter how hard you have to squeeze it to make it go; I found over time that harder is better, otherwise you might launch the Assistant just by picking your phone up. You can also set the squeeze to silence an incoming call, but those are really the only options that matter. You can’t set the squeeze to do anything else, just like the Bixby button on Samsung’s phones. Annoying.

Anyway, Active Edge works, and it’s convenient, but I have so many years of “long press the home button for Siri or Assistant” muscle memory built up that I didn’t really use it at first. But over time I started to appreciate it more, if only because it was slightly faster than holding the home button down. I’m still not a talk-to-my-phone person, but I am doing it a little bit more than before.

And “doing a little bit more than before” is kind of a theme with the Google Assistant. Google will happily tell you it can provide “100 million” more answers than it could a year ago, but that feels like an awfully inflated number to me. Even so, the Assistant doesn’t quite get enough credit for the improvements it’s made in the past year, because they’ve been so individually iterative and small.

There is one whiz-bang feature getting added to the Pixel 2: Google Lens. It’s part of Google’s plan to make your camera a new kind of input, alongside typing and talking. That’s a nice vision, but the Pixel 2 is very far from realizing it at launch.

For now, Lens is just a button inside the Google Photos app. You tap it on a photo you’ve already taken and it will attempt to identify the object. Google is only supporting kind of obvious stuff at first: book covers, album covers, popular artwork, landmarks, etc. It can identify other things, but how often do you need your phone to tell you that a coffee mug is a coffee mug? It did successfully identify about half the cars I pointed it at, which is neat, and as a “find more cute dogs like the one I just saw at the park” tool, it’s unparalleled.

But the real point of Lens is for it to be built into the Assistant, working in real time in a more conversational way, and then after that, in Google Keep and the camera app and who knows what else. Everywhere you type, Google wants to be able to use images. Until it can get further toward that goal, Lens is a sideshow in the Photos app. A good show, to be sure, but not a really important one.

I’m more impressed with the feature that ambiently listens for whatever music is playing around you and displays it on the always-on lock screen. It sounds like a creepy feature, but the Pixel 2 is already always listening for you to say “OK Google,” so this is just one more thing for it to listen to. All of that music recognition happens locally on the phone, and the database of songs is stored locally, too, which should help alleviate some of the obvious privacy concerns that come along with these kinds of features.

Speaking of that always-on lock screen, it’s nice but more limited than what you can get on a Samsung phone, and there’s no way to set a theme on it.

Every year, Google moves some stuff around on the home screen, and this year is no different. The Google search button has been integrated into the dock, and it’s also been combined with on-device search. In theory it’s great, and it’s definitely easier to tap than when it was at the top, but I often ended up tapping something I didn’t want to when I just wanted to do a quick web search. Also, when you combine it with the new Weather / Calendar widget at the top of the screen, you end up with less space for your icons than you had before.

There are some nice little moving wallpapers, but there aren’t enough of them and there’s no way to make your own. One nice bit: when you choose a dark wallpaper the notification shade and app drawer automatically switch over to a dark theme.


A lot of phones are designed to razzle dazzle you with their first impressions. The screens on Samsung phones wrap around the edges. The iPhone X and Essential phones have screens that go so far to the edge that they have notches cut out of their screens.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL do not razzle dazzle. It’s not just the somewhat disappointing screen on the Pixel 2 XL, it’s that Google has gone out of its way to do things that are functional instead of flashy. Instead of going bezel-less, it added front-facing speakers. Instead of a million camera effects, it focused on one or two, while making the core camera experience much better with machine learning. The list goes on.

The Pixel 2 has many, many things going for it. Were it not for a few problems — the screen, the slightly inelegant design, and (yes) the lack of a headphone jack — it might have received the highest score we’ve ever given a phone. As it is, it’s a great phone, but not quite a home run.

Still, there are just a lot of little things that are better on the Pixel 2. You find yourself using the Assistant more because it’s giving you better answers over time. You are able to triage your notifications a little faster. The camera makes it much easier to get great shots, even in low light.

The Pixel 2 isn’t the nice dining room table with the fancy silverware. It’s the kitchen counter where you actually eat. It’s not as impressive, but it’s much more comfortable. That’s what makes the design of this year’s Google Phones great. They’re meant to be of use, and they are.

8.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Incredible camera
  • Great speakers
  • Best Android experience

Bad Stuff

  • Muted colors on-screen
  • No headphone jack
  • Lacks some customization in camera features

8.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Incredible camera
  • Great speakers
  • Best Android experience

Bad Stuff

  • Huge bezels around screen
  • No headphone jack
  • Lacks some customization in camera features

Video by:

Director: Phil Esposito
Host: Dieter Bohn
Assistant Director: Felicia Shivakumar
Camera: Vjeran Pavic
Producer: Will Joel
Graphics: Garret Beard
Audio: Andrew Marino
Supervising Director: Tom Connors

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