Google’s Pixel smartphones are designed from the ground up to be the purest expression of what an Android smartphone should be.
They are simple, incredibly powerful yet ultimately devoid of all personality, instead opting to give you a blank slate upon which you can build the smartphone of your dreams.
The first Pixel did in many ways perfectly encapsulate this utopian vision, but it was not without its flaws. The larger version felt too big for its screen size, while the wedge shape didn’t have everyone convinced. Then there was the small storage coupled with a sky-high price tag.
It also felt like it was trying too hard, perfectly shown off with an annoying ad campaign designed to convince you that you didn’t need that iPhone anymore.
Sadly the Pixel 2 does still have a similarly-focused advertising campaign, but this time Google has given its phone a true sense of purpose. Powered by the company’s formidable AI, the Pixel 2 is your ultimate companion for the outside world, a hitchhiker’s towel if you will.
This is by far and away Google’s best-looking product so far. The all-metal body has given a soft-touch matt finish that feels almost like stone to the touch yet has none of the weight that you would expect.
It’s comfy and grippy to hold and unlike so many other smartphones out there it almost never picks up fingerprint marks or smudges. The same cannot be said for the glass accent at the top however.
Google has made the wholly intelligent decision of moving the camera from being underneath the glass accent in the original Pixel to its own metal-ringed housing. The previous design looked neat but the moment you cracked any part of that glass you ran the risk of utterly ruining the camera too. This is no longer a problem.
There’s very little else of note other than the lone USB-C port at the bottom, twin stereo speakers and finally the huge P-OLED curved display that takes up just about the entire front of the phone.
Speaking of which the screen on the Pixel 2 XL is a 6-inch Plastic OLED display that boasts a resolution of 2880x1440.
Now since our time using it the display has become an issue of controversy in two areas: Colour reproduction and screen burn-in issues.
Addressing the first it is unmistakably clear that what Google has done here is go for what it believes is accuracy over anything else. Unfortunately accuracy doesn’t look good when showing it off to your friends or looking at it every day.
When we first started using it the difference was stark. Colours looked a little muted which meant that was is very clearly red in the Gmail icon looks almost brown on the Pixel 2 XL’s display. Google thankfully does give you the option of turning on a feature called Vivid Colours which then gives the screen a much-needed boost.
Secondly, there have been reports of screen burn-in issues for some customers. This is where the pixels effectively show a residual ‘ghost’ of a previous image that has been used over and over again.
In this instance it looks as though the menu icons at the bottom can be ‘burnt’ into the display. It’s a very subtle effect but considering how expensive this phone is you wouldn’t expect to see something like this happening after just a few weeks, or even a few years.
To be clear, we have no concrete information of how widespread this issue is and in our own testing we haven’t had any problems whatsoever. With this in mind though we would say that if you do get the Pixel 2 XL, keep a close eye on how the display is performing and at the first sign of trouble contact Google or the shop you bought it from, you’ll almost certainly get a free replacement.
Google says it is actively investigating these reports and the hope is that it is just an isolated issue, no-one wants to see a repeat of the Note 7 fiasco all over again.
These issues aside we have to say that it is still a very good display, just not the best we’ve ever seen.
The original Pixel had one of the best cameras we’d ever seen on a smartphone and we’re happy to report that Google has once again raised the bar with the Pixel 2.
The interface is simple, practical and places almost all of the heavy-lifting on the Pixel itself. All you have to do is be in roughly the right time and place.
Google uses a combination of its own machine-learning software combined with a much bigger sensor to squeeze every last drop of detail out of the images it takes.
The results are astonishing, and while some might question the purity of what you’re ending up with the simple fact is that for 99% of customers, all they care about is pointing it in the right direction and ending up with something that on the surface at least looks like it could have been captured on a professional camera.
To this end Google now offers its own version of the ‘Portrait Mode’ effect that has swept through smartphones of late. Unlike Samsung and Apple which use dual-lens systems, Google’s Pixel 2 creates this background blur through software alone.
Despite this, Google’s version might be the best of them all. No it can’t offer the increased lighting enhancements that the iPhone 8 and iPhone X can but on sheer accuracy alone the blurring effect is astonishingly good.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Pixel 2 XL’s front camera can also take Portrait photos and honestly, they’re just as excellent as the rear camera.
Video should also get a mention here as Google has employed its own image-stabilisation and once again the results are very impressive indeed. Movement during video is smooth, with very few artefacts appearing throughout.
It can record at 60fps in 1080p, however it is limited to 30fps at 4K. It can also shoot slo-mo footage at either 120 or 240 fps.
The Pixel 2 XL runs pure Android 8.0. That means there’s no bloatware, no apps you weren’t expecting and you’ll be first in line for new updates as they’re pushed out by Google.
Android has evolved a lot in the last few years, taking on board ideas from other manufacturers and even ideas from Apple’s iOS.
The result of which is that this is Google’s most accomplished operating system yet. It’s fantastically simple to use and yet still highly-customisable.
It’s also full of small but notable little features that just make using the phone on a day-to-day basis that much easier.
Icons now have a little notch above them whenever there’s a notification, swipe left and you’ll get your very own customisable news feed that shows the latest news about your favourite topics, local weather as well as contextual information about a journey you’re taking.
The always-on lock screen now uses the smartphones microphones to recognise music that’s being played around you. In case you’re worrying about privacy, it’s actually drawing on an internal database of over 10,000 songs so the microphone recordings will never leave the phone.
The notification tray at the top has also been streamlined to organise your notifications by app rather than time you received them. If we’re being honest it’s not our favourite part of Android and it can still feel quite busy to look at when you’re trying to quickly disseminate the most important information.
A new and more quirky feature is the addition of something called Active Edge. It’s only available on the Pixel 2 XL and it uses sensors built into the sides of the phone allowing you to squeeze it to launch Google Assistant. We’ve seen this before on HTC’s U11 and as we found with that phone it can become extremely useful if you’re the kind of person who likes using voice assistants a lot. Sadly it’s not customisable.
If you’re wondering why we haven’t mentioned the processor or RAM yet there’s a very good reason which is that quite simply it’s not important. The Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM are considerably more than enough to power this phone and everything we’ve thrown at it has run smoothly and opened quickly.
The battery life is also excellent. We’ve been consistently getting a full day out of it and at one point we could even throw some virtual reality content at it and still have enough battery to see us through to the end of the day.
With the exception of the current screen issues that appear to be plaguing some handsets this is without doubt the best smartphone Google has ever made.
It doesn’t have the same WOW factor as say the Samsung Galaxy or Note 8 but it instead it opts to be quietly brilliant instead. It’s extremely well-built, sturdy and a joy to use on a day-to-day basis.
The camera is truly remarkable, and with the recent news that Google has actually hidden a dormant imaging chip inside the Pixel 2 the camera will only get better.
The Pixel 2 isn’t just an impressive piece of hardware, it’s the foundation upon which Google will build it’s AI-first future. As we move into 2018, Google will add new AI-powered features to the Pixel 2. From Google Lens to predictive messaging and even allowing your camera to literally remove objects from the world around it.
Who should buy the Google Pixel 2 XL?
This is not a case of Android vs Apple anymore. By now people have chosen their ecosystems and generally become locked into them. If you’re looking to get a new Android smartphone then, the Pixel 2 is without doubt one of the best smartphones we’ve ever used. It’s just so quietly competent in every single thing that it does. As a warning however, we have to recommend that you keep a close eye on the screen or simply wait until Google has worked out if it’s actually a serious issue or just an isolated problem.
Who shouldn’t buy the Google Pixel 2 XL?
The Pixel 2 is an expensive smartphone, it’s also designed to showcase the pinnacle of what Google can offer in terms of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. If being on the bleeding edge isn’t for you then Android offers you an absolute treasure trove of cheaper alternatives. Just be sure that you can go without the camera on this phone, it really is that good.
The Google Pixel 2 XL is available now in 64GB or 128GB for £799 and £899 respectively.