The Google Pixel 2 XL is the first Google mobile device I have used as a daily driver, ever. Seems odd for someone that writes about tech, especially because I’ve played with pretty much everything Google has put out, including the very first Nexus (the one with the chin) but it underlines a basic theme, at least for me and my relationship with Google hardware. I’ve always found them lacking…one way or the other. From the outright buggy software on the Nexus One, to the fast but bare-bones OS on the whole Nexus range, to the mediocre camera across the Nexus range (up until the Nexus P at least), to weird design choices…I could go on. There was almost always something awfully wrong with the Google mobile hardware experience.
So when the first Pixel came out and pretty much ticked all the boxes, (well, except the design in my opinion), I was a bit surprised and to be honest, and wondered if it was a fluke. When the Pixel 2 (and 2 XL) came out, and I read some of the early press, (especially about the 2XL) I felt like Google had gone back to the days of having one monumental flaw on each device, but decided to check it out and see for myself.
Having used the device for the better part of a month, here’s what I think about the device.
It’s worth pointing out at this point, that while the devices look slightly different and differ in size, the Pixel 2 and 2XL are almost identical in terms of specs, performance and experience that the review for this, should hold for the Pixel 2 as well, except where otherwise stated.
The way a device looks will always be subjective, so I’m not certain whether opinion on the aesthetics of a device is useful, so I’ll skip most of it, but I’ll say that the device looks modern, crisp and stylish, but in an understated way, which will contrast to the Samsung or iPhone X’s futuristic, in-your-face approach to design, that’s not saying its less pretty, far from it. It actually sits well in the same line-up without sticking out. The rounded corners (which also make their way to the display as well) do a lot to soften the device’s look (in a good way), and the contrast between the rubber-coated aluminium (which is black on the review unit, but comes in a white variant as well) that covers most of the back including the fingerprint scanner and the glass top in the area that houses the camera is nice. The device itself, though a tad slippery is nice to hold and feels premium. It’s rated IP67 for dust and water resistance, meaning you can dunk it in water of 1 meter depth for up to 30 minutes without fear of any damage.
The Pixel 2XL features a 6-inch, 18:9 P-OLED, 2560 x 1440 pixels resolution (538 ppi), Corning Gorilla Glass 5 covered display with 100% DCI-P3 coverage. If you’ve heard any bad things about the Pixel 2 XL (the Pixel 2 has none of these complaints), it probably has to do with the display, so let’s talk about those now and get them out of the way.
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“There’s a chance that the display issue is actually poor quality control.”
I’ve heard of five complaints with the Pixel 2 XL’s display:
The first is that the display is dull. Google’s explained this by saying they thought it was a good idea to calibrate the device’s display towards colour accuracy as against over-saturating it with colours as is the current practice, this meant colours by default look much closer to what they look like in real life and not what they look like on smartphones, but following user complaints, they have fixed this by offering a vivid mode that gets you the type of saturation we are now used to from mobile devices. So no issue here.
The second reported issue with the display is that it has a blue tint when you view it from an angle. I can confirm that this is a thing…in the sense that, if you were on a plain white screen and you titled it, you’ll see a bluish tint. However, if we’re being objective, it’s not so different from the tint you’ll see in other OLED displays though the colour might be different (orange is quite popular) and in actual use, it’s not noticeable. I also can’t confirm if I personally just got a better display than some of the ones people are reporting, but I used two different Pixel 2XLs in the course of the review and didn’t notice any intense colour shift.
The third issue has to do with unresponsiveness, I’m not convinced this is a thing. In fact, the only place I have been able to recreate something similar is on the explore tab on Instagram, where if you try to randomly tap highlights lightly, maybe one in ten times, you’ll find a tap that registers but does nothing. I’m convinced it’s probably instagram and not the device since I’ve not been able to recreate it anywhere, but I just thought it was worth mentioning.
There’s a fourth issue, which I noticed on one of the Pixels I used in the review, is a weird flickering just as the display is either going to sleep or waking up. It’s doesn’t happen every time nor is there a pattern to its appearance, but I can say I didn’t notice it on Android 8.0 till i upgraded the device to 8.1 and the second device, which I also upgraded to 8.1 doesn’t have the same issue.
The last reported issue, which I haven’t been able to replicate, is a burn-in issue, where apparently on some of the Pixel 2XL’s the buttons which are super-imposed on the screen become burned into the screen when the buttons are there. It’s kind of like on some tvs where when you switch channels, you’ll still see a faint outline of the old channel when the screen is completely black. I couldn’t replicate this issue with either of the devices I used for this review.
There’s a chance that the display issue is actually poor quality control, and I somehow managed to end up with a great one, but I’ll be unfair to base my review on other reviews and not my own experience.
In my experience, I’ll say it is without a doubt, the best display I have used as a daily driver, ever. In fact, the only displays I have come across which are on par or better in my opinion, would be the one on the iPhone X and the one on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Pretty much everything is a pleasure to do on this display. I also really love the idea of always on displays. If I had one complaint, it’ll be the black bars on the side when you’re watching a video in portrait mode, which happens as a result of watching content in the “standard” 16:9 aspect ratio on a display with a 18:9 aspect ratio. The weird aspect ratios are a thing in 2017 and will linger for a while as OEMs continue to try to make larger displays more comfortable for one-handed use by making them taller and thinner. The live wallpaper, which is pretty much a short video playing as your wallpaper is a pretty cool touch as well.
Speaking of watching videos, the Pixel also features two, stereo, front-facing speakers that add to the viewing experience. The sound from them is crisp and clear and can get fairly loud without much distortion, which is good, not just for media consumption, but also because I tend to take a fair number of calls over speaker phone. In my case though, I haven’t had the best of experiences with making calls this way, because it always seems like the person on the other end finds it hard to hear me as soon as its on speaker.
“If you’re very into earphones or headphones, you’ll need to go wireless.”
The device has joined the increasing number of devices that have dumped the audio jack, so if you’re very into earphones or headphones, you’ll need to go wireless like I have (not by choice, but because running with wired headphones is a mess, so I have been using wireless earphones for a bit), or make friends with the USB-C to 3.5mm jack adapter that’s included in the box. In theory using an adapter can be messy, particularly because you can’t charge your device and listen to audio at the same time, and also because having an adapter means having an extra thing to worry about leaving behind or misplacing…Unnecessary stress. In practice, a hack around this last bit, is to leave the dongle permanently connected to your earphones, still messy, but it works. Charging while listening isn’t possible at the moment without a third-party dongle as far as I know, but I find that in my experience, for the most part you won’t need to charge the device while listening to music often, thanks to the stellar battery performance.
“Battery life gives a stellar performance”
They say the best products are the ones that are able to alter your lifestyle significantly and that’s what the Pixel 2XL’s battery life has been able to do. With my immediate past devices, the Passport would typically enter battery saving mode (which I set to activate at 15%), at around 6:30-7pm and die off completely around 9-30pm (6:30pm-9:30pm coincides with when I typically get home and start to catch up with everything I have missed from the day, so heavy use), while the Priv would tap out completely around 7pm. So typically, I’ll charge the devices overnight and have them through the working day. With the Pixel 2XL I find myself going to bed around midnight still with over 20% left on most days. In fact, I’ve only ever successfully drained the battery before 6pm once, on a day when I went on a long road trip and took a zillion photos, as well as used social media networks to stay up to date.
What’s more is that the Pixel charges from 0-18% in about 10 minutes, would get to somewhere around 31-36% in 20 minutes, and gets to a full charge in about a 100 minutes, meaning on most nights, if I plugged it around 10pm, it will be fully charged before I actually fall asleep! So do I unplug it and leave it off the charger all night? Or just leave it plugged till I wake up? I still haven’t figured out what approach is best, but I’m definitely past plugging the device all night to charge.
Android is synonymous with being sluggish for most people, but I’m happy to say that between the Vanilla Android Oreo, 4GB RAM and the Snapdragon 835 processor, the experience is smooth and fast. I’ll go out on a limb and say you’ll be hard pressed to find better performance on any device (iPhone X inclusive). It’s without a doubt the fastest and smoothest android experience out now.
The android experience itself has been refined and is now a lot more pleasant, a lot of the bloatware is out, the addition of live wallpapers is great and the subtle little things (like swiping on the fingerprint scanner to pull the notification tray up or down) make the experience really amazing.
“It’s the smartest smartphone out now, thanks to the amount of Machine Learning that Google has running on the device.“
And this leads me to the second best thing about the device in my opinion. It’s the smartest smartphone out now, thanks to the amount of Machine Learning that Google has running on the device. For instance, if you allow it, the device can constantly listen and identify music playing around you without having to connect to the internet. If that’s doesn’t impress you, maybe the fact that it’ll automatically turn on and connect to a WiFi network you know as soon as come within contact with it, will. There are also other practical things, like saving the photos in a burst images or portrait photos in one collection, so that rather than scroll through the same image multiple times, all the burst shots are treated as one image.
Squeezing the sides of the device also now launches the Google Assistant (Google calls this Active Edge), which is getting a lot better by the day on itself, but not having to long press the home button, or say “Okay Google” to launch it, makes it see a lot more use. It feels like a more intuitive way to launch the assistant. Google has also baked in a new feature its calling “Google Lens” which basically allows you identify stuff you can see through your camera lens. At the moment, it’s not much use except as a party trick, however Google says its designed to become a new means of input, and I can definitely get used to adding products to a shopping cart that way for instance.
Almost tucked in every corner, you’ll find a really neat, helpful trick. More than ever before, the Pixel feels like more than a window into the world unlike most other smartphones. It’s not a passive device, you feel it actively trying to help you do stuff, even before you think about it.
“The Pixel 2 and 2XL consistently takes better photos than everything out now.”
I’ve saved the cameras for last, because it’s the absolute best thing about the Google Pixel 2XL (and Pixel 2, seeing as the cameras are identical). If you are one of those that associates the quality of shots with the camera specs, the Pixel will probably mislead you. It features a 12.2 megapixel main camera and an 8-megapixel camera in front like most other devices (in fact, the Priv for instance features an 18-megapixel camera at the back, but doesn’t come close to comparing). Unlike most of the other flagships this year (like the iPhone X and the Note 8, which sport two cameras at the back), the Pixel features just one, but consistently takes better photos in pretty much every situation. There are times where certain devices may take better shots, e.g the HTC U11 does great in low-light, however the Pixel consistently takes better photos than everything out now. By the way, all the photos in this review, including the device photos were taken with a Pixel 2XL.
Use the white divider to scroll between both sides to compare
The photography boils down to the machine learning going on in the device. For instance, the iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 achieve Bokeh (Portrait Mode one the Pixel and iPhone or Live Focus on the Note 8) by calculating the distance between both rear cameras. Google does same by using two adjacent pixels in the same camera, and letting its Machine Learning algorithms sort the rest out…and the results are amazing. Even when you shoot portrait mode with the front cameras, you get results that consistently blow you out of the water. Before now, selfies where a thing you took 10 to 20 times before finding one that worked. With the Pixel 2 and 2XL, pretty much every shot is a winner. Beyond the regular and portrait modes, you also get the Google Sphere, Panorama and slow motion video.
Speaking of Video, the experience is great as well, and its combination of Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) and Digital Image Stabilisation makes the videos come out extra smooth. The one issue you might have with videos might be the sound, which occasionally come out sounding tinny.
Sample Photos (all selfies were taking with the front camera, all photos are unedited)
Beyond just photography, the camera has a few other tricks up its sleeve as well, the Google Lens mentioned above is achieved with the camera obviously, but inside the camera app, you can also use Google Lens to scan already taken photos for objects. Google has also included what it calls Motion Photos, which is basically a short video that the camera takes just before you take a shot, so you have a few seconds before and after the shot. By default, it uses AI to determine the when to record Motion Photos, but you can turn it off, or make it take them every single time. Motion Photos are fun, however unfortunately, you can’t share them or do much with them, without installing Motion Stills (a Google app which doesn’t come preinstalled) that allows you convert them to GIFs or video and share.
The camera also features a fun Augmented Reality filter that allows you super-impose AR on real-life scenes and record videos of their interactions with the world around them. Current AR filters include Star Wars, Stranger Things and a few others. The AR filters are only available on android 8.1.
We have some interesting visitors. ???? pic.twitter.com/bu6exALvV2
— CoLab (@CoLab_kd) December 15, 2017
So in summary, you have a device that has a lovely display, a battery that lasts all day, best in-class camera, and awesome performance on one hand, but it lacks wireless charging, and a headphone jack. Whether these negatives outweigh the positives is subjective, but for me, its a resounding no. In fact, in my opinion, the most prohibitive thing about the Pixel 2XL is the cost. With a starting price of $849 for the 64GB variant and $949 for the 128GB variant (the smaller Pixel 2 starts at $649 for 64GB storage and $749 for 128GB) it’s sure to burn a hole in your wallet, if you do take the plunge.
That said, I haven’t for one second felt like I got shortchanged. It’s a really good phone. One of the best ones ever.
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