Unbeatable camera makes you overlook the average design Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL review

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While last year saw the launch of the Pixel brand, this year, saw Google try to make the Pixel 2 look special. After many rumours and leaks, the smartphones were finally announced at the ‘Made by Google’ event, which also saw the launch of the brand’s other hardware products including some new smart speakers and the Pixel Buds, new headphones range by Google.

However, all eyes were on the Google Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. The smartphones featured the latest hardware and the latest software from Google as well. But if there’s one detail that stood out from everything, it had to be those thick bezels.

Through 2017, Android fans were treated, launch after launch by bezel-less designs. Samsung made three (S8, S8+ and Note 8), LG announced the V30 (coming to India next month) and even Xiaomi launched its Mi Mix 2 with an almost edge-to-edge appearance. So despite the leaks, it was hard to believe that Google would actually launch an ‘anti-iPhone X’, a smartphone that literally challenges the edge-to-edge approach of the iPhone, with a smartphone that’s loaded with more bezel than all the flagships in 2017 combined. And that’s just the Pixel 2!

Then came the Pixel 2 XL with its own set of display issues, which was not received too well by the media.

 So when I received both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL for review, I kind of knew what to expect – overpriced Android smartphones, that literally make no sense because they look outdated. But then I turned on Google’s secret weapon, the camera. And believe me, it changed my opinion about the Pixel 2, if not the Pixel 2 XL.

Build and Design

Pixel 2: 8/10

Pixel 2 XL: 8.5/10

Starting off with the smaller Pixel 2, it looks like the older Pixel model. The design seems like an evolution of the Pixel which graduates from a rounded look to one with sharper edges around the display and less rounded corners around the back. Quality of the body is top notch. No complaints here.

The overall design reminds me a lot of the Nokia 6 with the prominent speaker grille at the top and the bottom and shiny bevelled edges around the bezel.Flip it on its back and it’s easy to notice the smartphone’s resemblance to the Pixel family. The unmistakable glass window has now grown shorter and takes up only a quarter of the back as compared to the older model.

Moving to the bigger Pixel 2 XL, with a 6-inch display. I found it too large and unwieldy for one-handed usage, but not as massive as the mammoth Xiaomi Mi Mix 2. Again, like the Pixel 2, the smartphone display is surrounded by thick bezels and it does not qualify as a bezel-less display or an edge to edge one. It’s just a taller 18:9 ratio unit sporting a QHD+ resolution.

The front face of the 2 XL is a bit different and more iPhone-like with a curved (almost 3D) slab of glass. While I appreciate the design effort by Google here, that beautiful slab of glass loses its charm because of the boring design of the metal chassis that surrounds it. Had Google (or LG) given it a pebble-like appearance with rounded sides, it would have looked pretty cool. But it did not, so it does not.

While the design is best described as boring, I did appreciate the new coating that Google has applied to both smartphones. It feels like the evolution of OnePlus One’ sandstone finish, but a lot smoother (you cannot use this one as a nail file). It does not catch any fingerprints and it is quite resistant to the usual scratches. The coating kind of reminds of the tough liner material applied on the bed of pick-up truck. The same coating also managed to hide the antenna lines, ones that are non-existent on the 2 XL and barely visible on the shiny edge surrounding the thick bezels of the Pixel 2.

Average design aside, there were some other problems that I faced after using the phones for two weeks. Both smartphones seemed to lack any sort of oleophobic coating. While the Pixel 2 XL being an already used review unit, it was a smudgy mess. Not something one would expect from a smartphone that is priced at Rs 73,000.

This applies to both the front screen and the rear glass window and seems to be the faulty application of the oleophobic coating at best. The coating usually takes years to come off on iPhones so it is surprising that with less than a month of usage, it’s already off and turns the glass bits of the smartphone into a smudge-laden mess. I did not face a similar issue with the smaller Pixel 2.

Another problem with the Pixel 2 XL was how easily the matte coating on the metal caught fingerprints and smudges. To make things worse, it was very hard (almost impossible) to wipe them off. Again, not something you would expect from a smartphone that costs Rs 73,000. To make things worse, the Pixel 2’s coating was just fine and resisted any smudges and fingerprints really well.

Features

Pixel 2: 7.5/10

Pixel 2 XL: 7/10

Unlike last year, this year’s Google Pixel 2 siblings may look a bit different on the outside, but pack in almost the same hardware on the inside. The Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL differ only when it comes to the display size and battery capacity.

On the front, you get a 5.0-inch Full HD AMOLED display (made by Samsung) on the Pixel 2, while the Pixel 2 XL gets an LG-made P-OLED QHD+ unit with a taller 18:9 display ratio.

Inside, both smartphones get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC with 4 GB RAM along with 64 GB and 128 GB internal storage options.

There’s an 8 MP camera with an f/2.4 aperture on the front and a 12 MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture on the rear. The rear camera features optical image stabilisation (OIS) and electronic image stabilisation (EIS) along with ‘dual pixel’ technology. There’s also some machine learning bits that I will emphasise on in the camera section of this review.

Connectivity options include an E-SIM and a single nano-SIM slot that lets you latch on to 4G LTE radios. Then there’s the usual flagship options like Dual-Band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth v5.0 with LE, NFC, GPS and USB 2.0 Type-C port with a reversible connector.

The fingerprint reader sits on the back and both devices also include an Active Edge that lets you squeeze the bottom half of phone to launch the Google Assistant.

The Pixel 2 features a 2,700 mAh battery while the Pixel 2 XL packs in a larger 3,520 mAh unit, which is pretty large given its thin 7.9 mm waistline. Both units are IP67 certified dust and water resistant up to 1 meter for 30 minutes.

Display

Pixel 2: 8/10

Pixel 2 XL: 7/10

To be frank, I have no issues with the display on the Pixel 2. The Samsung-made AMOLED display showcased the most accurate colours possible with a hint of saturation. In fact, many assumed that it wasn’t an AMOLED unit to begin with because it did not strongly showcase the typical colour-shifting that we are used to seeing on the premium flagships from Samsung. There’s no noticeable red-tinge or blue tinge here either and it almost gives you the impression that you are looking at an LCD display. It’s bright too, and I had no problems using it in direct sunlight.

While Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 may showcase punchier colours, the Pixel 2 has the more natural and accurate tones. Sharpness was not a problem with a pixel density of 441 ppi. If you don’t like the natural colours then you can change the same in the colour settings to Saturated for vivid colours.

Indeed, the display’s only competitor is the iPhone 8’s TrueTone LCD display and of course the iPhone X’s Super Retina OLED unit, that is pretty much unbeatable at the moment.

Moving to the Pixel 2 XL, it does not even come close. One look at the display off axis and you will be convinced that it belongs to some mid-range device, rather than a premium Rs 73,000 flagship.

OS and Software

Pixel 2: 8/10

Pixel 2 XL: 7.5/10

The Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL come with the latest and most updated software from Google, Android 8.0 Oreo. Both smartphones recently received a patch that added a couple of improvements including a new display colour settings, that now lets you choose between Boosted, Natural and Saturated.

Indeed, this is the purest form of Android one can possibly get on a smartphone. There are the notification dots that let you swipe away per app notifications and also showcase tiny dots (or badges) on app icons that basically tell you that there is a notification from that particular app. Long-pressing on the icons with the notification badges will reveal a small menu called a notification preview. The preview basically relays all the notifications from that app (unless a developer chooses to channel specific ones) in the form of tiny glanceable previews, which are in reality a bit too short to reveal anything but the sender of the message.

Pixel Lens

Another feature unique to the Pixels this year is Pixel Lens. It’s a sort of replacement for Google’s Goggles, but a lot smarter as it can pull out details from images, that can be used to identify the object or even use those details in your smartphone, like pulling out contact details from a business card.

To use it, you simply have to click a picture of the object, product, monument or whatever you see and want to know more about. Once clicked, open the photo and tap on the Pixel Lens icon (third from the left after the Share extension and Edit icons). Upon tapping it, it will turn on some fancy animations to show you that it’s analysing the image at hand. And then depending on whether it gets any results (chances are it may not) it will show you details on a card below the image.

This is a new feature from Google, so it is yet to reach its full potential to be used in the manner it was intended to. At the moment it does not and reminds me of Samsung’s Bixby, which is far too incomplete for show time.

Of taller displays

While most apps adapted well to the no-frills, almost Nexus-like experience of the Pixel 2 (its one of the reason why I like it). The Pixel 2 XL was a good example of how fragmented Google’s Android ecosystem really is. While main popular apps do support taller displays and will stretch to top and bottom ends, there were many others (from lazy developers) that don’t. This being a stock Android experience meant, that there are no customisations like on the Samsung Note 8 or the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2, which lets you manually set apps to fit the taller displays thanks to their custom software skins. So if your app does not support taller displays, you will be treated to black bars at the top and bottom of the app.

As for everything else, the software works buttery smooth. There was no hint of lag or stutter. Except for one annoying problem, app crashes.

Performance

Pixel 2: 8.5/10

Pixel 2: 9/10

With Google’s own latest and greatest operating system on board, it’s hard to go wrong with the performance. You also need to remember that most games and apps out there are first designed for Google’s Pixel, now that the developer-friendly Nexus devices no longer exist.

The science behind it

And all of the above just does not apply to the primary camera, but the front-facing one as well.

Yes! The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can shoot some amazing portrait shots (with a bokeh effect) using just a single camera, both with the front and rear cameras. And Google went to the extremes to achieve these shallow depth of field photos by using a single camera, when everyone else, including Apple, needed two.

Google explains the software and hardware magic in detail out here, but simply put, it uses the machine learning, HDR+ photos and dual pixels from a single camera sensor to produce a depth map.

About the Pixel Visual Core

So the Pixel 2’s cameras are quick at capturing photos, but tap on the thumbnail preview and you will notice a processing ring showing up until a slightly blurry image takes about two seconds to clear up. This is because the Pixel 2 clicks the photos and processes them later.

The cameras are what I would call the first “smart” cameras on any smartphone. At the moment, Google currently uses Qualcomm’s built-in ISP to deliver its software smarts that lead to these stunning images in all types of lighting conditions.

But Google (being Google) has something better in-store, a monster of an Image Processing Unit (IPU) called the Pixel Visual Core just waiting to be awakened.

The Pixel Visual Core is currently a dormant custom-made IPU with a low-power Cortex A53 CPU handling the eight IPU cores. When combined, these are capable of performing more than 3 trillion operations per second, keeping in mind that it resides on a mobile device.

Unfortunately, Visual Core will not be of much use to owners even when it’s activated, despite those mind-boggling numbers I just told you about. As per the Google blog, the sole purpose of its existence is to provide HDR+ processing capabilities for third-party photo apps. And that’s about it.

Moving on, on the video side of things, the details are right about the best we have seen but there is a bit of focus hunting when your subject is too close. But Apple’s 4K 60 fps on the iPhone 8 and iPhone X takes the top spot here despite Google’s complicated approach to video using both OIS and EIS for some excellently stabilised videos.

Battery

Pixel 2: 8/10

Pixel 2 XL: 8.5/10

As with most of the flagship Android smartphones, we have seen this year, battery life has not been much of a problem, despite the shrinking battery capacities on some units. The 10 nm manufacturing process brings about some great battery savings and luckily we have not seen any more senseless 4K displays being announced by any smartphone manufacturer after Sony.

With that, both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL faired really well. With casual usage, which is sending plenty of WhatsApp, Telegram messages, checking Slack, 3 email accounts on sync, calls and a lot of photography, I never found myself searching for a charging point at the end of a long day.

So who should buy one?

Nexus users who have been waiting (and saving up) for the next best thing from Google can now look at the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL for the best Android user experience.

Those not too happy about their iPhones can also look at the Pixel 2 smartphones, now that Google has clearly proved its superior imaging skills. It’s the one feature that a lot of people look for in a smartphone, and Google just delivers the goods when compared to every other smartphone manufacturer in existence with its machine learning smarts with not just the rear, but the front camera as well.

Flagship Android smartphone owners from the Samsung, HTC and LG club can also give the Pixel a long hard look. It may not look all that flashy, but it has got the best smartphone camera on the block, one that is not afraid of the dark. As for those who own a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, well, you can stick with it, the Pixel 2 XL, is not exactly a better package overall.

Which Pixel should you buy?

At Rs 61,000 the Pixel 2 is my favourite and I would recommend it because barring the design there are few flaws.

At Rs 73,000 the Pixel 2 XL will be the perfect Android smartphone for those looking for great battery life and performance, provided they are ready to settle with the problematic display and its dull colours. In short, there are a lot of compromises here for the asking price.