Google's second swing at self-branded phones promises more — and asks more of your wallet.
Years of experiments with the Nexus program culminated with the launch of Google's self-designed and self-branded Pixel phones in 2016. The promise was simple: a phone that offered the best possible way to experience Android and Google services, hands-down. In practice, it came with many compromises and a higher prices than many were used to paying for a Google-backed phone. There was room to improve.
Fast forward exactly one year, and Google is back at it again. Same approach, same branding, same message — and a pair of phones that once again ask a lot of your wallet, but in turn offer even more of what people are looking for in a top-of-the-line smartphone today. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, though not actually manufactured by the same companies, are launching as a pair with the same goal once again: give you the best Android experience, exactly as Google intended, without the typical annoyances associated with the competition.
I have just spent a brief amount of time with the new phones — here are my first impressions of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL from Google.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Hardware
Google is very clearly trying to keep a visual similarity from the original Pixels to the new models, starting with their glass "visor" panel on the back and working down to the monolithic aluminum body. The body is coated in a decidedly different texture, though, feeling more like an actual rubberized soft touch coating rather than raw aluminum.
That should make the phones a bit easier to grip and keep the aluminum from getting dinged up, but right off the bat they don't feel quite as solid or high-end as the originals. You still get that cold sensation to the touch to remind you they're metal, but the finish gives off more a plastic-like impression almost like an ode back to the Nexus 5. The coating is most noticeable in the black models, which have dramatically more texture and depth that the white and blue colors.
The "kinda blue" color, which is exclusive to the smaller Pixel 2, isn't nearly the standout stunner than the "really blue" of last year — it's more of a soft shade that almost looks grey in some lighting. It's punctuated by a turquoise power button that stands out on the edge of the phone. The white version of the Pixel 2 XL (but not the Pixel 2) also has a statement power button, but it's a coral/peach/orange color — I think it's neat, even though it has absolutely no purpose or designation that you have anything special in your phone.
The first big design difference you notice between the two phones is how the aluminum case wraps around the sides and meets the front glass. On the larger Pixel 2 XL, the metal is more rounded and doesn't creep so far up along the edge — instead, it meets the 3D curved front glass part of the way down the side in a sort of waterfall effect. The Pixel 2, on the other hand, reminds me of the Nexus 5X: the metal reaches all the way up the side flat, and matches up with near-flat glass on the front at a tighter angle.
Then, you notice the biggest difference: the screen size and screen-to-body ratio. From the front, the Pixel 2 XL is a dead ringer for the LG V30. It has the same 18:9 aspect ratio, rounded corners and relatively small bezels all around as LG's latest flagship — plus stereo speakers, of course. Let's get one thing clear: the screen bezels are noticeable, and this is not a "bezel-less" phone. But it's way ahead of last year's Pixel XL ... and interestingly also the Pixel 2.
The Pixel 2's face is dominated by its large top and bottom bezels, as well as its contrasting 16:9 aspect ratio and square corners on the display. With a screen size of just 5 inches the bezels don't make this phone massive overall — it's the right size to nestle in your hand well, and you can reach all corners of the display without much fumbling around.
Despite the screen size differences both are AMOLED, with the Pixel 2 XL having LG's own P-OLED technology that's currently in use with the LG V30. Google quotes the same type of experience on both phones, with the main differentiators being the 2 XL's higher 2880x1440 resolution and 100% of DCI-P3 color space reproduction compared to the 1920x1080 and 93% on the standard Pixel 2.
In my time with the phones, both looked really good, and seemed like a marked improvement over the so-so panels in the original Pixels. The real question will be how that feeling holds up when using them in bright sunlight situations, where AMOLED panels typically do well but is a real test of how bright they can get.
We got this far and haven't even mentioned specs. That's not on accident — there's nothing inside of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL that you wouldn't expect, and subsequently it's hard to say they're missing any major features. A Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64 or 128GB of storage are par for the course in a flagship phone for 2017. I have no doubt that the internal specs are more than capable of making Google's software fly.
Also table stakes is IP67 water- and dust-resistance, which both phones thankfully now offer. Conversely Google hasn't added back in an SD card slot, and has chosen to make the irksome move to remove the headphone jack — you'll get a USB-C to 3.5 mm adapter in the box, and extra ones will cost you $20 a pop. Some people will never be able to live with a phone that doesn't have a headphone jack ... I'm not quite that opinionated, but I'm close. My biggest issue with the decision is that Google isn't making any sort of claim about what removing the 3.5 mm jack did for the phone — it's just removing it with no clear user benefit, while other phones of this size still have the port.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Cameras
After absolutely killing it with last year's Pixels, Google is doubling down on the camera experience in 2017 — and it's doing so by sticking with a single camera lens while the rest of the industry is hitting dual lenses. The sensor is now a 12.2MP unit, which has slightly smaller 1.4-micron pixels but sits behind a wider f/1.8 aperture. It's also very surprisingly supported by optical image stabilization (OIS). Google's still doing its great electronic image stabilization that made the original Pixels such great video cameras.
These cameras are going to be fantastic.
Google's proprietary image processing is still the star of the show here, and Google thinks that its software is so advanced that it can even handle "Portrait Mode" shots that other phones need two physical cameras for. Using machine learning algorithms and its dual pixel auto focus system, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL can get an accurate depth map of an image and selectively blur the background. Google is so confident in the feature it even lets you use it with the front-facing camera.
The launch of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL is also the coming out party for Google Lens, which was originally shown off as a concept several months ago at Google I/O. Google Lens is built right into Google Assistant and the camera interface, and simply lets you scan images on your screen or take photos and pick out information about them. That could be grabbing an email address or name off of a document, identifying someone's face on a billboard, or finding out more information about a landmark you see in a new city. It's powered by the same knowledge graph that powers Google Search, and demos we saw at Google's even were very promising.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Software
Once again, google preempted much of what it has to announce in the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL's software with the long, drawn-out beta program and official release of Android 8.0 Oreo over a month ago. The release of new hardware instead marks a very subtle tweaking of the interface and the updating of many Google apps and services for the Pixels.
The Pixel 2 and 2 XL have a new launcher experience that puts the search bar at the bottom of the home screen so it's easier to reach, and reclaims that space at the top for a new calendar/appointment widget. There's also a super neat trick to be found on the always-on display when the phone is idle: the phones can constantly listen for music and identify it, showing the information on the lock screen without you even asking. Google says the process of identifying the sounds and words can happen locally to the phone, which shows how powerful they are.
The only truly new piece of software is the "Active Edge" function, which clearly comes directly from HTC's "Edge Sense" — basically, you can squeeze the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL to make it launch Google Assistant ... and only launch Google Assistant. Just like on the HTC U11 the pressure required to activate Active Edge is customizable, and it's designed to both work in a case and also not accidentally activate when you don't want it to. Given that Active Edge on the Pixel 2 and 2 XL does less than Edge Sense on the U11 is a bit baffling, and doubly so when all Active Edge does is duplicate what you could already do by long pressing on your home button. We'll see if Google iterates on this with future updates.
Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL More to come
There's so much more to discover with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL that simply can't be picked up in just a handful of minutes using them. We still need to evaluate battery life, the cameras, screen quality in a variety of conditions and of course how the software holds up when we start using it in daily life.
Be sure to follow Android Central as we spend the coming weeks and months with these two phones.
Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
- Google Pixel 2 + Pixel 2 XL are official
- Google Pixel 2 specs
- Our 2016 Pixel reviews
- Join our Pixel 2 forums