Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL review: Android phones done right

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
The Pixel 2 XL is the best representation of Google’s Android you can buy.

When Google (GOOG, GOOGL) launched its Pixel and Pixel XL last year, the search giant proved that it could create hardware that was every bit as good as Samsung’s and Apple’s offerings.

A year later, Google is back with the appropriately named Pixel 2 ($649) and Pixel 2 XL ($849). And not only do the phones address my biggest complaint about their predecessors — yep, they’re now waterproof — they may just be the best phones on the market.

Two-for-one special

Like last year, Google’s Pixel 2 comes in two flavors. But now the tech giant is offering them in a 5-inch model and a larger 6-inch XL version. But while the original Pixels were more or less identical, save for the XL’s larger size, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL are very different.

The Pixel 2 is more or less a clone of the original Pixel. It sports a 5-inch display with thick bezels along its top and bottom edges. The Pixel 2 XL, on the other hand, eschews those bezels for a nearly edge-to-edge display.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are designed for those who want a smaller handset or a big-screen device.

Around back, however, both phones look the same. They share the original Pixel’s two-tone design, with glass panels on the top portion of the phones and rear-mounted fingerprint readers. The Pixels don’t, however, come with any kind of facial-recognition technology, which Samsung offers on the Note 8 and Apple will include on the upcoming iPhone X.

Oh, and both phones can now survive a dip in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes without giving up the ghost. That’s a huge improvement over the original Pixels.

Screen choice

While the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have different size screens, they both use the same display technology. The Pixel 2 comes with a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution AMOLED panel, while the 2 XL has a 2,880 x 1,440 resolution AMOLED display.

Interestingly, my Pixel 2’s screen had a warmer, yellow tint, while the Pixel 2 XL’s screen had a cooler, blue tint. The difference isn’t noticeable when you view the phones separately, but when you look at them at the same time, it’s pretty obvious.

The Pixel 2 XL’s display is cooler than the iPhone 8 Plus’, but offers brilliant colors.

Between the Galaxy Note 8, iPhone 8 Plus and Pixel 2 XL, the Note 8 seems to lean toward cooler colors, while the iPhone favors warmer hues. The Pixel 2 XL seems to split the difference between the two.

Despite the fact that the Pixel 2’s panel looked warmer than the 2 XL’s, it still wasn’t as warm as the iPhone’s, though it was certainly not as cool as the Galaxy S8’s.

Camera performance

While Samsung (SSNLF) and Apple (AAPL) have stratified their smartphones’ camera abilities by adding dual-lens setups to their more expensive models, Google has opted to equip both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL with the same single-lens cameras. That’s a bit of a bummer, since Samsung and Apple use their dual-lens cameras to provide users with the ability to optically zoom in on subjects.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are slouches when it comes to general photography. DxOMark, an independent image benchmarking firm, gave the Pixel 2’s camera its highest rating, something Google was sure to brag about during the phones’ debuts.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL share the same excellent cameras.

Photos taken with the Note 8 did tend to offer more exaggerated colors, while the Pixel 2 and iPhone 8 plus looked more natural. I also liked low-light photos taken with the Pixel better than those taken with the iPhone 8 Plus, but when I used the flash, the iPhone 8 came out on top. All three cameras had trouble balancing out darker skin tones against bright clothing.

The Pixel 2 captures clean images in low-light settings.

Despite the Pixel 2’s lack of a dual-lens camera, Google still managed to integrate the now-popular portrait mode into its handsets. The feature, which creates a bokeh effect that blurs the background while leaving the foreground in focus, looked fantastic on the Pixel 2. Google says that’s because it uses “split” pixels and machine learning to achieve the effect.

The Pixel 2’s images generally looked more true-to-life than the Galaxy Note 8’s shots.

In my tests, the feature worked better with the Pixel 2 than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8, as the Note 8 had some trouble distinguishing between certain background objects and the foreground.

Google Lens

One of the most helpful features of the Pixel’s camera is the addition of Google Lens. Using machine learning, Lens can pull out specific information from a photo such as phone numbers, addresses, names, landmarks, art and media.

I took a picture of my landlord’s information while leaving my building one morning and Lens pulled out the address and phone number, making it incredibly easy for me to quickly call and complain about the pounding on the wall next door.

Google Lens can analyze images and identify their subjects, as well as pull text from them.

Lens was also able to recognize the text in a photo of a sign for Hai Street Kitchen & Co. and provide me with relevant search results, including the eatery’s nearest locations.

Samsung’s Bixby offers similar functionality, but when I took a photo of the same sign, it was unable to provide me with search results and instead offered shopping options for large signs, language translation and images with similar fonts.

Give it a squeeze

The Pixel 2 comes loaded with the latest version of Google’s Android operating system, Android 8.0 Oreo. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are considered pure Android phones, as they don’t run any additional apps than those included in Android. They also receive updates sooner than Android phones from the likes of Samsung and LG. 

Of course, Google has worked to ensure that its Google Assistant is baked directly into the Pixel 2. Using a new feature called Active Edge, you can squeeze the sides of the Pixel to instantly bring up Assistant. You can also squeeze to silence calls and allow it to open Assistant even when the screen is off.

Speaking of which, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL feature always-in displays, which show you recent notifications in white text against a black background when the screen is locked and off. This is also where Google’s Now Playing option lives.

The feature, which is turned on by default, listens for sounds playing nearby and can identify them and display them on the lock screen. I had trouble getting it to work well, though, as it took several seconds to identify some songs and couldn’t identify others.

Power and performance

Both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL come loaded with octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors, 4GB of RAM and 32GB or 128GB of storage. Both handsets have more than enough battery life to last you through the day and fast-charging adapters to top off the tank when they’re running low.

Unfortunately, Google has joined the growing number of smartphone manufacturers that have done away with headphone jacks. Instead, you’ll have to use either the USB C to 3.5mm adapter included in the box or buy a USB C-compatible headset.

Apple took a lot of heat for just this decision when it launched its iPhone 7, but to the company’s credit, it included a Lighting-compatible headset with the phone. Google does not.

Should you get it?

I was a big fan of the original Pixel and the addition of waterproofing and improved cameras have me sold on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. I’m particularly fond of the Pixel 2 XL thanks to its gorgeous design. I do wish the Now Playing option was more consistent and am disappointed that Google is making consumers switch to USB C headphones without including them in the box like Apple.

Still, if you want to avoid the iPhone and you’re sick of Samsung, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the ones to get.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.