Google’s Pixel smartphone sequel has been met with some stellar reception, having pushed the envelope even farther in software proficiency and camera quality. The larger Pixel 2 XL model in particular takes a worthy step forward by reducing the bezels while still cramming in dual front stereo speakers (a rarity in smartphones). But alas, Google hasn’t managed to be exempt from quality issues, which have been a continual disruption of the phone’s launch. This Synopsis will sum up what you can expect from Google’s biggest and brightest and if it’s worth it with all things considered.
The Pixel 2 XL builds on the design language of the original Pixel. The rear still struts the unique metal/glass combo, but now with less glass and a softer feeling coating atop the metallic foundation. New is also the elongated 2:1 aspect ratio that LG and Samsung have kicked off this year, with a 6.0″ sized P-OLED display flanked by dual speakers above and below.
- Latest and greatest Android software experience
- Arguably the best camera quality on a smartphone
- Front-facing stereo speakers
- Support for AptX HD high fidelity wireless audio
- Large battery
- P-OLED panel has questionable quality
- Carrier exclusivity to Verizon
- No microSD card expansion
- No wireless charging
- No headphones jack
What it’s like to use
- The Pixel 2 XL’s 6.0″ display size suggests that it wouldn’t be nearly as unwieldy as something like the Samsung Note 8, but real use has it not far off. Its height is only 5mm shorter than the Note 8, and it’s actually 2mm wider. This is because it’s not trying for the slimmest bezels.
- A lot of reviewers pass off the finish of the metal casing as plastic-y, but it deserves more credit. It’s detectably metal (doesn’t feel hollow and feels cold to the touch). The finish is coarser than the smooth, matte anodized metal we’re used to in metal smartphones. It gives off a ceramic characteristic but has the sturdy feeling of metal. It’s also grippier than the usual metal smartphone too.
- The casing cradles an elevated front glass panel, with the glass gently sloping down into the casing from every edge. The display is virtually flat (it has the slightest curve on the sides). There’s plenty of flat grip area of the casing on the sides.
- The single rear camera lens noticeably protrudes at the top right corner, and it’s easy for your finger to touch and smudge when you take the phone out of your pocket. Be ready to clean the camera cover a lot.
- We’re not a fan of the power button and volume rocker arrangement. Instead of placing them on either side like on most smartphones, Google puts them both on the right side – the volume rocker about midway point and power button above it. The problem here is that when you grasp the phone, your thumb (if you’re right-handed) naturally lands at the midway point – so the power button should be the one there because it’s used more than the volume rocker. And since the power button is higher up on an elongated phone, you have to reach to hit it (at least on average-sized hands). In our use, this volume rocker’s placement also resulted in more than usual accidental presses.
- We noticed some un-uniformity in the brightness slider. There’s a big jump in brightness between 0 and 5%, and it starts to get pretty bright at about the 20% mark. This means that at night, you’ll have a smaller range to play with compared to other phones. It’s nothing critical, just something to note.
- Grainy-ness in the P-OLED is certainly prevalent once you get to 35% brightness and under. But we don’t notice the same degree of color un-uniformity as on the similarly equipped LG V30 (said to use the same 6.0″ P-OLED panel and suffers a similar kind of problem).
- It’s no exaggeration that the colors on the Pixel 2 XL look muted, especially in comparison to the Note 8 and even the LG V30. Google refers to the color profile as “Natural”, but if natural is this dull then we’re not sure we want it. The vividness boost in the Display settings is barely noticeable. A “Saturated” option was since added, but it wasn’t done right to our eyes. It appears to just boost the red level. There’s still a pale characteristic to the colors. All this said, Google’s natural colors aren’t a deal breaker; you do get used to it.
- At first, we didn’t mind switching to the Pixel 2 XL from the shrunken bezel’d Samsung Note 8 and LG V30 (some may refer to that as the smartphone “Honeymoon period”). However, over some time, the inferior screen-to-body ratio began to weigh on us. It didn’t help that we had an LG V30 on-hand – the 2 XL is significantly taller with the same display dimensions. Granted, the 2 XL has dual front speakers, but there’s a good chunk of bezel between the display and speaker grills.
- Google opting for a single camera sensor may seem like they’re a good step behind the competition, but it’s not so. You cannot do 2x optical zoom (which in itself isn’t that useful of a feature) but it can still do proper depth of field (aka Bokeh). This is through a clever approach that uses the dual-pixel arrangement in the sensor to separate the focus extremes. It may sound like this is a compromised method but in practice it works as well as Portrait mode on the iPhone or Live Focus on the Note 8, both of which use dual camera systems to achieve the effect.
- We commend the 2 XL’s camera performance for its natural reproduction and superb capture of contrast. It’s a high-dynamic range champ, and with both optical and electronic image stabilization it’s easy to get dramatic and sharp photos. At times, close-ups on subjects like people or pets actually looked a bit too sharp.
- The camera isn’t exempt from some graininess in dark conditions or over-highlighting in bright spots like every other smartphone, but its overall caliber was maintained in whatever we threw at it.
- In Auto mode, the auto-focus (AF) is directly center. This is fine for most shots, but if the subject is in motion or off-center then you won’t get a proper focus. You’d have to tap on the screen first to manually put the focus on the subject. This is an oversight to us, and other smartphones have a smarter AF.
- Software is the Pixel’s forte. Google’s control over its OS shows in a big way. Animations are fluid and refined, actions respond with no hesitation whatsoever, and scrolling/navigating is effortless and buttery smooth.
- There’s not much change on the surface of Android 8.0 (Oreo); Google’s immediate goal is to make Android smarter. The tricks you’ll notice are:
- Whenever there’s music playing in the surrounding, Now Playing will automatically display what song it is on the Always-On screen.
- Long-pressing on an icon pops up unique actions for that specific app. If the app has a notification, you’ll see a dot on the corner of the app’s icon, and long-pressing will additionally show what the notification is.
- Notification consolidation, for when there’s many notifications, is cleaner. It groups the overflow as icons at the bottom of the shade (which are user expandable as you dig). Also, specific notification types within each app are tweakable (i.e. the importance level of status updates from a social media app or content suggestions from a Google app).
- Picture-in-Picture (PIP) mode lets you continuing viewing video content via a floating window on top of everything.
- Google Lens queries objects in your photos for relevant content across the web.
- Google joined the fray and cut the headphone jack. There’s of course a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box. For the wireless world that we’re being forced into, there’s support for the higher fidelity AptX HD and Sony’s LDAC audio codecs (not many mobile devices have these).
- We can’t say enough good things about the dual front speakers. We’d gladly trade a little bezel to have these. In other words, every phone should have them.
- The squeeze function to toggle Google Assistant is slick. Sure, it’s a luxury (long-pressing the Home button does the same thing), but there’s something super satisfying about not having to touch anything to execute a function. That said, Google should give the user the freedom to remap action to something else if it’s desired.
- Battery life of the sizable 3,520 mAh battery is great. Google has some fantastic optimizations in place that keeps background usage and battery drainage at bay. Unless you’re constantly doing heavy tasks like gaming, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get through the day on a full charge.
- Double-tap-to-wake is finally on stock Android.
- The Always-On display isn’t interact-able, but you do see the details of notifications (i.e. an email or text message) pop up when it comes in.
- You have absolutely no placement control over the top date/weather widget and bottom Google search bar – you can’t even remove them. We thought Android was all about freedom and user choice; what gives!?
The Camera Samples
The Pixel 2 XL is not quite the perfect smartphone, but it has enough going for it to understandably sway buyers. It’s a solidly built device (with a unique look) that packs a wallop when it comes to camera performance. We haven’t seen a smartphone camera so masterfully churn through a range of shooting conditions, and Google proved that you can achieve excellent bokeh captures with a single camera sensor.
It also has a strong lead when it comes to software; this is the best representation of Android right now and the latest features it offers. It really ups the experience when the OS’ response and animations feel so effortless and fluid, like you’re interacting with something real instead of computed. We have our gripes about the ungracefulness of the display tech and screen-to-body ratio, but the dual front speakers certainly help the cause.
Also See: Best Smartphones (October 2017)