Hands On

Pixel 2 XL Review: Google’s Flagship Is a No-Compromises Android with a Spectacular Camera

October 17, 2017 Reviews By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Editor’s Note: As of this writing, we have put our recommendation of the Pixel 2 XL on hold. We have experienced a number of issues with the display, which other early reviewers have reported. Currently, Google is “actively investigating” the issue. We will update this review accordingly once Google addresses the bugs. That being said, this applies solely to the display on the Pixel 2 XL. The regular Pixel 2 is immune to the defects, as it is made by a different manufacturer. If you are interested in the Pixel ecosystem, and don’t mind the smaller display size, the Pixel 2 is an excellent choice. It shares virtually all of the same features as the XL, except the large display.

A year on from Google’s maiden entry into hardware, the software titan is proving to be an even more serious player in the smartphone market with its second-gen smartphones, the Pixel 2 ($649) and Pixel 2 XL ($849). Aside from size, both smartphones are near identical, with OLED displays, curved edges, squeezable bezels and fantastic single-lens camera systems that are rated higher by DxOMark than the dual-lens systems of the Samsung Note 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. Both new smartphones are also water and dust resistant. The obvious downsides are that neither supports wireless charging, and the headphone jack of last year’s phones is gone.

The Good: Updated camera, better form factor, water resistance and a snappy OS.

Who They’re For: Android fans who want a bloatware-free, no-compromises flagship smartphone.

Watch Out For: Like Apple, the new Pixel 2 and 2 XL both nix the 3.5mm headphone jack. Embrace the world of the dongle if you have yet to step into the 21st century with a pair of wireless headphones.

Alternatives: Samsung Galaxy S8, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Google’s original Pixel, LG V30

Verdict: I spent the last year using Google’s first-gen smartphone, the Pixel XL, and after a week with the updated Pixel 2 XL — well, color me impressed. Virtually every aspect has been updated — hardware and software included — and if there were ever a smartphone to turn the heads of iPhone users, this would be the one. I’m an Android user, always have been; so when Google first announced a flagship smartphone of its very own, promising a bloatware-free, pure Android experience, I was immediately smitten. While the hardware itself felt somewhat rushed — certainly not quite as buttoned up as you’d expect from Google — the software revolutionized the way that I consume news, capture media and store my photos and other info.

The Pixel 2 XL’s body is almost as pristine as its software, although it’s nowhere near as flashy as Samsung’s S8 and S8+. It trades the sharp, beveled rectangular edges of the original for soft, rounded, pleasing curves. You may be rolling your eyes wondering how exactly a smartphone’s edges could be pleasing, and before having held and used the Pixel 2 XL, I would have agreed with you. It needs to be experienced in person to be fully comprehended.

The Pixel 2 XL is thinner and taller than its predecessor. The fingerprint scanner takes up less real estate on the rear panel and the translucent bits that the old Pixel needed for its antennas are now gone. There is no noticeable taper from the top of the phone to the bottom, presumably because Google found a way to fit its high-quality camera in there without it. The glass around the camera is raised slightly, meaning the camera is the first thing that comes in contact with the table when you set the phone down. That puts me on edge a bit, but only long-term testing will reveal whether or not it’s a real issue.

As per the rumors, the new Pixel 2 and 2 XL both feature a “squeezable frame” called Active Edge. In other words, if you squeeze your phone, it will activate Google Assistant. In theory, you could program the Active Edge sensor to activate any number of other apps (though this will likely require rooting your phone).

In the jet black version we tested, the textured back is a bit tackier than the metal of the previous Pixel phones. One Gear Patrol writer remarked that the new version feels less premium than the original, but I disagree. The hand feel is solid, sturdy and comfortable — much more comfortable than the hard edges of the first gen.

The Pixel 2 and 2 XL were rated by DxOMark as having the best camera of any smartphone.

The camera was voted as the best smartphone camera by the image quality experts at DxOMark, and after testing it for a week, it really is excellent. It’s superb in low-light conditions. Its in-camera image stabilization provides nearly gimbal-quality video. And its newly added “motion photo” feature — Google’s version of Apple’s Live Photos — allows you to see the milliseconds before and after the photo was taken.

Rather than battling directly with experienced hardware makers from a raw specs POV, the first Pixels cleverly leveraged Google’s advantages in AI and machine learning to best the rest of the mobile photography market last year. The followup phones follow a similar winning formula. Unlike the dual-lens setups found on competing flagships from Samsung, LG and Apple, Google opted for a single rear camera module comprised of 12.2MP sensor paired with a faster f/1.8 aperture lens with optical image stabilization. The rear camera boasts a unique “dual-pixel sensor,” which splits image data at the pixel level to provide additional image information that Google’s algorithms use to create even better photo results.

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Unedited sample images from the Pixel 2 XL camera

This is why both versions of the Pixel 2 can emulate Apple’s background-blurring Portrait Mode via the rear and front-facing cameras without the help of an additional lens, and the results are perhaps the most impressive feat the camera manages to pull off: the Pixel 2 and 2 XL mimic the shallow depth of field produced by a lens shot at around f2.8 — incredibly well, for the most part, though at times there are some “unblurred” areas left around the edges of shots. The rest of the time, though, my Pixel 2 XL surpassed the iPhone 8 Plus’s Portrait Mode. [Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, we’ll have a full comparison of the camera on the Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, iPhone 8, iPhone X (when it becomes available), the Samsung Note8 and the LG V30.]

If you take tons of photos you don’t manually back them up to the cloud, that’s okay. With the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, every photo you take is automatically backed up to the cloud — with unlimited storage. All of your photos are safe in the event of a catastrophic phone failure, and you have access to them across every device that’s synced with your Google account.

Google Lens also makes its first appearance on the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. Take a photo of something (building, album cover or book cover), go to Google Photos, press the Lens button, and the app will bring up relevant results related to your photo. It’s kind of cool. For instance, if you took a selfie next to the Flatiron Building and didn’t know what it was, you could find out using Google Lens. Google says that this feature is still in its infancy, but for me, it worked pretty well.

Rounding out the changes, both phones now have stereo speakers embedded within the bottom and top bezels. It seems like a small alteration, but compared side-by-side with the previous generation, there’s a clear difference in clarity and bass. As for software, if you’re switching over from a Pixel already running Android 8.0, you won’t notice too much of a difference. Your Google feed still populates to the left of the home screen. The biggest updates come with the Google search bar, which now sits just below the apps on your home screen, and the weather and date widgets, which have been refreshed and sit centered at the top of the screen.

And as you would expect from any new phone, compared to the previous generation, the new Pixels are much faster. Even just scrolling through the app drawer feels seamless and lightning quick. Swapping between apps happens in fractions of a millisecond; websites load in Chrome just as quickly.

If you’re coming from another Android, or from an iPhone (I’m so proud of you, you’re doing the right thing), the Google feed on the left side is worth your attention. Not only does it give you top news stories that are relevant to you (and they actually get more and more relevant the more you use your phone), but it will also give you updates on your favorite sports teams and other info. If you press the arrow at the top, just to the right of the Weather, Eat & Drink, Entertainment and Sports icons, you’re given access to a veritable treasure trove of information and hidden features. Everything is at your fingertips: a virtual coin flip, an animal sound generator, info on when the sun will rise, suggested vacation destinations — even a virtual fidget spinner.

The new Pixel 2 XL retails for $849 and ships on October 29. Right now, if you order a Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, Google will email you a voucher for a free Home Mini within four weeks of when your phone ships.

Key Specs

Form: water-resistant metal unibody
Display: pOLED 6″ screen QHD+ 2880 x 1440
Colors: jet black or black & white
Headphone Jack: no
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Recharge Time: 7 hours of battery on 15 minutes of charging
Operating System: Android 8.0 Oreo
Cameras: 12.2MP rear, 8MP front
Water-Resistance Rating: IP67

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