Google Pixel 2 And Pixel 2 XL Review - Can't Get Much Better

Truly a generational leap ahead.

With the Pixel, Google is looking to redefine its vision of Android and wrestle it back from the many hardware partners that have changed it so much over the years. This year that vision has two new looks, each with its own size, sporting front-facing speakers and what the company claims is the best camera ever. Like the HTC U11 from earlier this year, the sides of the Pixel 2 can be squeezed to launch Google Assistant, and Google has built in all sorts of new AR and VR technologies into both new phones. But with a significantly higher price point on the Pixel 2 XL, and an older looking design on the smaller Pixel 2, are these really worth the look? Let’s explore Google’s latest.

Video Review

Specs

Just like last year, both the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 2 XL share most specs, but differ on size and screen properties. Google is selling the smaller Pixel 2 at two different price points: £629/$649/CAD$899/AU$1,079 for the model with 64GB of internal storage, and £729/$749/CAD$1,029 for the 128GB model. Similarly the Pixel 2 XL comes in a 64GB model for £799/$849/CAD$1,159/AU$1,229, and 128GB for £899/$949/CAD$1,289. The smaller Pixel 2 comes in three colors: Clearly White, Just Black and Kinda Blue, while the Pixel 2 XL ships in Just Black and Black & White colors. The smaller Pixel 2 features a 5.0-inch FullHD (1920 x 1080, 441ppi) Samsung AMOLED screen with 16:9 aspect ratio, while the Pixel 2 XL sports a 6-inch small bezel Quad-HD+ (2880 x 1440, 538ppi) LG P-OLED display with 18:9 aspect ratio. Both models feature Gorilla Glass 5 protection for the screen, however the Pixel 2 XL features curved edges to its glass that the smaller Pixel 2 doesn’t have.

Inside both phones is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC with Adreno 405 GPU, which sits alongside a brand new SoC custom built by Google, the Pixel Visual Core. This brand new 8-core Image Processing Unit (IPU) encompasses technologies built specifically for HDR+ computation, and represents significant processing leaps for mobile photography. Both units feature 4GB of LPDDR4x RAM, and while there’s a choice between 64GB or 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage, there’s no support for microSD cards. Both phones feature the same 8-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX 179 sensor with 1.4-micron sized pixels and an f/2.4 lens. Around back sits a single 12.2-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX 362 sensor, with that special HDR+ SoC inside, which features 1.4-micron sized pixels, an f/1.8 lens, PDAF and Laser Autofocus, as well as both OIS and EIS stabilization methods. The smaller Pixel 2 sports a 2,700mAh non-removable battery inside, while the larger Pixel 2 XL sports a 3,520mAh non-removable battery. There’s only one port on both phones, a USB Type-C port, but they both have stereo front-facing speakers and Bluetooth 5.0, as well as support for all hi quality wireless audio codecs, including aptX, aptX HD and LDAC. Both phones feature a textured metal body with IP67 water and dust resistance, and have a minor camera hump on the back.

In The Box

There's not too much to get excited about in the box, but there are a few important pieces here that many will be very happy about. Google's packaging remains simple for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, both featuring a USB Type-C to Type-C cable inside, which naturally pairs with the 5v/3a or 9v/2a power brick located next to it. In between is the important 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter for folks that want to listen to music using existing peripherals or audio systems. A handy transfer adapter is here too, and features a USB Type-A female outlet on one end, and a male USB Type-C plug on the other, allowing for simple transfer of any smartphone's data to the Pixel 2 in just minutes.

Display

Both the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL feature different size screens, as expected, with different resolutions and manufacturers as well. The smaller Pixel 2 fits a 5-inch 1080p (1920x1080) Samsung Super AMOLED display with 16:9 aspect ratio and 441 PPI density, while the larger one fits a 6-inch quad-HD+ (2880 x 1440) LG P-OLED display with 18:9 (2:1) aspect ratio and 538 PPI density inside much smaller bezels. Both panels are calibrated to sRGB with wide color gamut support and HDR10 capability. At the time of review only YouTube had HDR support on both Pixel 2 phones, although we expect updates for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and likely more apps in the very near future for HDR10 support. What’s interesting is that the panel on the Pixel 2 XL is the same panel on the LG V30, and one that supports Dolby Vision’s deeper 12-bit color versus the HDR10 10-bit scheme, however at this time there’s no software support to run this higher quality option. Google has added a new feature to supported apps, which at this time only covers YouTube, which uses pinch-to-zoom to bring 16:9 content full screen onto the 18:9 screen on the Pixel 2 XL.

Both panels are ultra sharp and look fantastic, with deep pixel densities that will only show themselves while in VR. Right off the bat there’s a clear and distinct difference between these panels and just about every other OLED panel on the market. Google is pushing sRGB color spectrum for a more accurate color palette, and as a result you’ll be looking at colors that look a bit muted from time to time. While I personally prefer the more saturated look mobile AMOLED displays have become known for, this sRGB spectrum is more correct, and at the end of the day represents a more accurate look at how developers designed color palettes and schemes. Whether or not you like this look is going to entirely depend on what sort of display you’re coming from, and what your preferences are. There are currently no ways to adjust the color spectrum as many Android phones allow, so what you see is what you get.

LG’s P-OLED panel also has a unique look to it, a look that many folks have been citing as a negative rather than something users may or may not like. LG’s panels, like the mobile OLEDs from years ago, or even the P-OLEDs found on many Android Wear smartwatches, have a gritty look to them. LG’s mobile OLED panels have always looked like this, but it’s really only noticeable at very low brightness levels, and even then only on solid color backgrounds (particularly gray). It’s not that this look is a problem, per say, and really it’s something you’ll likely only ever notice when specifically looking for it. Some folks say it’s incredibly distracting, bad, etc., but it didn’t even come up on my radar until we started putting the displays through the usual suite of tests for display quality. Samsung’s AMOLED panels don’t look this way, and as far as I can remember never have, so either it’s a big quality control issue on LG’s side, or it’s specifically designed to look like this. While it’s likely to be polarizing for those that notice it, there are other factors to these displays I feel users will notice far more readily, and will affect opinions far more than this seemingly niche issue. Some users who have already received the Pixel 2 XL have cited black level crushing, which our review unit does not show, and causes concern yet again for possible quality control or calibration issues for the XL's panel.

Both displays feature the more color-correct sRGB spectrum with wide color gamut, however each of these panels features a different hue from the other. Samsung’s AMOLED panel on the smaller Pixel 2 is a much warmer screen, giving off a subtle reddish glow to the overall image. Warmer hues tend to look friendlier though, and there’s absolutely zero color shifting when held at any angle; something the vast majority of mobile displays cannot claim. The larger Pixel 2 XL’s screen, however, is just like what we saw on the LG V30. From the front it’s a cooler shade than the Pixel 2’s screen, however it’s got a slight green tint to it. Holding the phone at angle angle off straight on results in a significant blue shift, one that looks more like the glass’s oleophobic coating or the polarizer rather than something wrong with the display panel itself. It’s these color differences that are likely far more polarizing than the aforementioned grittiness, and in the end what makes the smaller Pixel 2’s display the better one.

Outdoor visibility is excellent, and ranks among the easier displays to see outside, even in full sunlight. Pixel persistent rates are incredibly low and look remarkable, with no noticeable ghosting or shadowing of pixels while moving. This is particularly important in VR where blurring can cause motion sickness. Google has updated the Pixel Ambient Display to now display full notifications the moment they come in, allowing you to immediately read notifications without ever having to turn the screen on. After a few seconds this fades and places itself in a row of icons below the clock, which show apps that are currently displaying notifications for the next time you unlock the phone. There’s no customization here like Samsung or LG bring to the table, so like the display color properties, what you see is what you get.

Very few display customizations

Google has added a new feature that no one else has though; offline music identification without having to turn the screen on (called Now Playing). This feature requires a Spotify or Google Play Music subscription, and downloads a database to the phone of songs that can be immediately identified as you’re walking around. This data is only checked against the local database and not transmitted to anyone else, allowing you to ID songs from the comfort of your pocket or bag. Songs are displayed at the bottom of the ambient display, meaning you won’t even have to turn the phone on, just glance at the bottom of the phone to see what’s playing. This database sports tens of thousands of songs, but of course more niche tunes may not be identified correctly.

Hardware and Build

While last year’s Pixel designs were identical, save for physical size, this year’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are vastly different looking phones. Aside from the back looking and feeling similar, everything else about the physical properties of both phones is totally different. The smaller Pixel 2 is the least interesting of the two, and represents the least change from last year’s devices. Measuring in at a few millimeters taller than the original Pixel, the Pixel 2 features a thinner build with a straight profile, unlike last year’s wedge shape, which featured a thinner lower portion of the device and a thicker upper portion. This wedge shape last year enabled Google to hide the camera hump, something that’s in full force this year. This camera hump is present on both devices, although it’s not nearly as pronounced as some humps are. The front of the smaller Pixel looks visually identical to last year’s offering, save for one extremely important feature: front-facing stereo speakers. In fact the front of the Pixel 2 looks almost identical to the Nexus 5x that Google released two years ago, and features a completely flat front. In addition to that, the 16:9 screen makes for rather large bezels than the Pixel 2 XL has, which is likely a side effect of Google not being able to procure smaller LG P-OLEDs or 18:9 Samsung AMOLEDs than anything.

The larger Pixel 2 XL is a far more interesting looking device, and features the smallest bezels we’ve seen on a Google branded phone since the Nexus 6. All four edges of the glass are curved, leaving a design that looks a lot like a larger, elongated Apple Watch with its rounded glass corners. Just like the smaller Pixel 2, the Pixel 2 XL is a few millimeters taller than last year’s Pixel XL. The display under the glass isn’t curved, but it features a much taller 18:9 (2:1) display that follows in the footsteps of some big names. While these bezels aren’t the smallest on the market by any margin, they take up slightly more room for good reasons. Within the top and bottom bezel you’ll find stereo front-facing speakers, something that’s a massive improvement over last year’s bottom firing single speaker. The bezels on the left and right sides hold a new capacitive squeeze sensor that can tell when you’re squeezing the phone, which in turn launches Google Assistant.

This squeeze feature is available on both size models, and represents a more organic way of launching Assistant. This squeeze can be calibrated to be as weak or strong as you’d like, or of course disabled altogether. While the sides of the device aren’t squishy per say, they give off a nice vibration when squeezing and letting go. This feels like a natural squeeze, and the subtle vibrations given off both when squeezing in and letting go feel fantastic. Thanks to the motion itself and the types of motors, squeezing the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL feels much nicer than what is on the HTC U11, a phone that also features a squeezing function. The problem with Google’s implementation is that it can only be used to launch Google Assistant, and not customized in the way that HTC’s implementation on the U11 can. A positive for Google’s implementation is that it seems to learn when you erroneously squeeze the device, keeping these false positives from happening over time. It’s also possible to squeeze the device through a case, something that seems weird, but works perfectly in practice.

Both devices have a nice weight to them, with the Pixel 2 remaining quite a bit lighter at 143 grams and measuring in at 145.7mm high by 69.7mm wide and 7.8mm thin. The larger Pixel 2 XL, however, is a much heavier 175 grams and measures in at 157.9mm high by 76.7mm wide and 7.9mm thin. The extra fraction of a millimeter on the XL can likely be attributed to the glass, which protrudes from the frame, whereas the Pixel 2 is completely flat up top. Both phones feel particularly excellent without a case, part of which can be attributed to the grippy texture Google created for the metal. The fingerprint scanner on back is faster than ever, but ironically is physically smaller than last year’s models. Both phones are IP67 water and dust resistant too, unlike last year's Pixels.

You’ll find a much more attractive shiny etched G (for Google) on the Pixel 2 XL, while the Pixel 2 features a matte painted on G logo. Both models feature a single USB type-C port centered on the bottom of the phone, while untextured power and volume rocker buttons are both on the right side of the phone. Having all buttons on the same side of the phone is generally a better design, as it gives the phone a place to rest when watching videos without pressing buttons on accident. The trademark glass panel around the back takes up less room than last year’s Pixels, and now has curved edges to more smoothly roll up into the sides. There’s no noticeable seam between the metal and glass on either model, and while both feature a slightly different orientation for the camera and LED array on the back, the hardware inside is identical.

Performance and Memory

Most high-end Android phones have had smooth performance for a while now, but Google’s Pixel series continually raises the bar for performance levels and consistency. Everything here is liquid smooth and ultra responsive, with virtually no hiccups or pauses of any kind. While Samsung’s skin often feature more flashy elements, it tends to stutter from time to time; something the Pixel’s skin does not. Google has also consistently refined this skin over the past few years since Android 7.0 Nougat’s release, and Android 8.0 Oreo is changing that up some more. New features like picture-in-picture and floating windows line the already excellent split-screen support, making multi-tasking on the Pixel 2 a dream. These aren’t Pixel 2 exclusive features by any means, but they tend to run better on the Pixel 2 than any other set of phones out there. I definitely miss the Edge Panel on Samsung’s phones, or the floating panel on the LG V30 though, and not being able to quickly access my most used apps without having to go back home is a bummer, but it’s not the end of the world by any means.

VR and AR Performance

Google launched its Daydream VR platform with last year’s Pixel, and while there’s no big platform update to coincide with the Pixel 2’s release, Google is selling an updated headset. We’ll reserve thoughts on the new Daydream View headset for that review, but Google’s Daydream platform itself has grown considerably over the past year, adding in hundreds of new apps and games for VR space. The big Daydream 2.0 update is slated for some time soon, and is expected to bring along a new slew of features, and quite possibly some big content upgrades as well. The displays on both phones are fantastic for VR content, with the Pixel 2 XL being slightly better in this application thanks to the higher display density. Performance wise you’ll get exactly what you expect from a Daydream-ready phone; excellent 60FPS performance from the phone in VR content, and reasonable battery usage (25% or so per hour) while in VR.

Google is also focusing on AR with the Pixel 2, using new camera sensors that can render AR content at 60FPS using the phone’s native resolution. While Google showed this functionality off at its Made By Google event in San Francisco earlier in October, the functionality is so far missing from the final retail Pixel 2 phones. AR Stickers, as Google termed them, are fully interactive avatars that can liven up pictures, adding in a fun new dimension that plays along with the environment they’re in. This utilizes the same ARCore functionality that’s available to every Android powered phone running a supported version of Android, but with Google’s dedicated AR hardware it promises to function better than all but Tango-branded phones.

Benchmarks

Using the phone would never lead one to think the Pixel 2 family doesn’t sit at the very top of the benchmark charts, but alas this is the case. Benchmark ratings are of course only theoretical, but it’s surprising to see the internal storage speed, in particular, get so outclassed by other phones that don’t feel nearly as responsive or quick as the Pixel 2 family. See our suite of benchmarks run below, including 3DMark Slingshot, Futuremark’s PCMark internal storage speed test, GeekBench 4 CPU and GPU benchmarks, and AnTuTu V6.

Wireless Connectivity

While Google is still playing the carrier exclusivity game here in the US, selling officially only through Verizon, they are selling both unlocked Pixel 2 phones through the Google Store throughout many countries worldwide.  Support for FDD-LTE bands including 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/20/25/26/28/29/30/32/66, as well as TD-LTE bands 38/40/41. CAT 15 speeds (800Mbps download, 75Mbps upload), 3x Carrier-aggregation and support for higher density 4x4 MIMO signals is also here for some pretty incredible speeds and wireless capability as a whole. Google has updated its dialer with some important features, and still supports the best of what was added with last year’s Pixel. New to the Pixel dialer is Duo integration, which gives you seamless video calling support to anyone who’s got Duo installed, all without having to leave the dialer. Visual Voicemail is also integrated for all Pixel 2’s on Verizon or Fi, and everyone gets access to advanced caller ID and call blocking as well.

Dual-band 2.4Ghz and 5GHz WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds are supported, and Google continues to improve its amazing WiFi Assistant that was launched with Nexus devices a few years back. This optional service will automatically connect to known public hotspots that have no wireless security, instead relying on a VPN connection to Google’s servers to encrypt traffic from endpoint to endpoint. It’s an excellent, seamless service that requires no user input other than the initial opt in, and a little G key icon will be displayed in the status bar any time the phone is successfully connected via encrypted VPN. Bluetooth 5.0 rounds out the wireless support, and Google has added in a new Fast Pair mode that works in conjunction with a number of different protocols on all products with the Made for Google badge on them. These products will be automatically identified in your notification shade, and feature one-touch configuration for effortless pairing. NFC radios are of course included for easy accessory pairing and mobile payments, and Google supports both nano-SIM and eSIM for the first time on a Google branded device.

Battery Life

Last year we saw some excellent battery life from the Pixel XL, and some average battery life from the smaller Pixel. This year the battery life of both phones seems about equal, something that’s a bit surprising given that the display difference between the two phones isn’t all that big. For the review period, I had my wife using the smaller Pixel 2, while I used the larger Pixel 2 XL, both phones being our daily drivers. Our usage is very different to say the least, as my wife utilizes the screen on time life of a device far more than I do. On average she got between 5.5 and 7 hours of screen on time (SoT) with the smaller Pixel 2, with the battery lasting the entire day even through this heavy usage. I use my phone quite differently, normally averaging 3-4 hours of SoT, and generally find that the percentage left at the end of the day is more useful to me.

For my usage I often found the Pixel 2 XL had just under 50% battery left after a full day with that 3-4 hours SoT. Both of these phones averaged better than the previous generation Pixels, and better than the average Android phone as a whole. Quick 18W charging is available via a supported USB Type-C charger, and Google rates 7 hours of usage after just 15 minutes of charging time. In practice this claim seems absurd, and only under very ideal conditions would this hold up to scrutiny. Charging speeds of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were nice and fast, with a full charge in under an hour on the Pixel 2, and about an hour and twenty minutes on the Pixel 2 XL. Even with these times though, I wouldn’t say they last nearly as long as Google claims, but battery life in general is still excellent.

Sound

Android 8.0 Oreo marks a huge step towards a wireless audio future, and it’s pretty clear that Google planned these steps when it decided to remove the 3.5mm audio jack from the Pixel 2. This is a huge bummer, especially for someone like myself, whose vehicles only have head units with a 3.5mm aux input; no Bluetooth support. There are two sides of the silver lining here, but one still comes with a bit of a negative. Folks who still want to use their existing audio systems or headphones can use the included USB Type-C to 3.5mm audio cable, which produces some truly excellent audio quality. Audio is incredibly well balanced, and quite a bit better sounding than most phones out there, which tend to be overly bass heavy out of the box. Google also supports 24-bit high-res audio through supported apps and channels, so high-res audio enthusiasts can still enjoy that side of things. Just like other parts though, there’s no advanced EQ or other features for the audio, so in this case what you hear is what you get, which of course is a positive for audiophiles that have great sound systems.

Wireless audio junkies need look no further for the best audio in town thanks to some brand new codecs that are officially supported in Android 8.0 Oreo. Out of the box the Pixel 2 automatically decides the best codec to use based on the accessory you have paired with the phone. SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC are all supported without any need for further configuration, although you can force one codec over the other through Developer Options in the system settings menu. This allows for the absolute best wireless audio possible, and LDAC and aptX HD in particular will deliver HD audio-class wireless audio with the right equipment, replacing the need for that cord. This is the preferred method of listening to music on the Pixel 2, as Google didn’t ship the phone with wireless charging, and the 3.5mm adapter in the box doesn’t have an extra plug for charging while listening. Google does sell a cable on the Play Store that features both 3.5mm audio and USB Type-C ports for listening and charging at the same time, but you’ll always have annoying dongles to deal with if you want wired audio.

Front-facing stereo speakers are back after taking a hiatus on last year’s Pixels. When thinking of our phones as entertainment devices, there are two things that truly need to be there to make the cut; a quality screen, and good front-facing speakers. In most respects the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both nail this, but just as we found out in the Display section with different screens, neither phone features the same front-facing speaker hardware. While this seems reasonable given the huge bezel difference between the two phones, you might be surprised to find that the Pixel 2 XL, with its smaller bezels, packs in the better speaker hardware. This seems a bit baffling to say the least, but the speakers on the smaller Pixel 2 are slightly tinny sounding, and are lacking in bass. On the positive side, things like voices sound a bit clearer on the Pixel 2’s speakers versus the Pixel 2 XL, but overall don’t sound quite as good. The Pixel 2 XL’s speakers can get slightly louder before rattling, have some actual tangible bass to them, and in general seem to produce a wider range of sound than the Pixel 2’s.

Software

Android 8.0 Oreo brings along enough additions and visual changes with it, but since those aren’t exclusive to the Pixel 2, it makes more sense to cover what’s exclusive to Google’s latest line of phones. Much of Google’s new content revolves around everyday user experience rather than adding superfluous features that most people would probably never bother to use. This in itself is part of the brilliance of the Pixel line; simplicity with depth that’s not confusing. Many of Google’s features revolve around their AI initiative, normally dubbed Machine Learning. Even some of the least expected features on the Pixel 2 have components that benefit from machine learning. The new Active Edge, for example, uses machine learning to determine when you’re erroneously squeezing the phone and attempts to keep the feature from being erroneously activated on subsequent similar grabs. HDR+ and the new offline music listening service all use machine learning in different ways too, and in the end it’s working to make phones more efficient at their everyday tasks.

Other services that don’t rely on such sophisticated methods include Smart Storage, which works to keep your phone free from excess files by automatically cleaning up photos and videos that have been on your phone for longer than 60 days, so long as Google Photos backup is enabled. Just like with the original Pixel, Pixel 2 owners get unlimited photo and video backup at full size without any additional cost. Since all these items are backed up automatically, the phone can confidently remove offline copies and store them in Google’s incredible Photos app and storage architecture. Google’s improvements and feature additions to Photos over the years have put them on a pillar none can match; between the quality of backed up photos and videos for no additional cost, to the machine learning used to automatically organize and catalog your memories, it’s a service that’s completely unrivaled anywhere, and Pixel family owners get the full monty for free.

Offline automatic music recognition

Also free is Google’s human support, but is currently only available in the US. This is no different than what was offered last year, but it’s better support than most OEMs offer. From 8:30am to 4:30pm PT, customers can either call the support line or jump on support chat on their phone, found in system settings or just by asking Google Assistant for support. Personally I’ve used this to RMA a Pixel last year, which suffered from a weird hardware issue, all done effortlessly through the chat on the very same phone. Google has also added some new components to its excellent launcher, which among many things include a new At a Glance widget. This widget is automatically added to the launcher and is configurable through launcher settings, although it doesn’t act like other widgets because it’s not resizable or moveable. Time, weather and upcoming events are intelligently displayed, and Google is working on adding new features for the future. The search bar has been moved to the bottom, and new features a new layout for showing recently used apps, as well as making finding things on the phone easier.

As a massive fan of Live Wallpaper over the years, Google’s addition of four new wallpaper categories on the Pixel 2 got me very excited. Live Wallpaper is something that’s evolved over the years, from the more obnoxious efforts of the early Android 2.x days, to the subtle and beautiful Live Wallpapers of today. Google’s efforts, particularly in the Living Universe category, are simply stunning. Aerial views from Google Earth and displayed in the screen, with subtle movements that make them come alive. Cars slowly moving on a single lane road in Hawaii, birds flying above Mount Vesuvius, waves slowly crashing on the shore in Lagos and even views of our Solar System, including real-time cloud cover and lighting of the Earth are only a part of what graces this splendid collection. Google has also begun changing out the font in many parts of the OS, using a new more rounded font called Product Sans. This new font looks simply gorgeous, and adds a fresh coat of paint that we didn't realize we wanted. until we saw it.

Google Lens is finally making its first public appearance on the Pixel 2; a product that’s essentially a rebranding of the ancient Google Goggles app from days past. Lens works right from Google Photos and helps you identify things in the scene by performing a visual search using Google’s visual search algorithms. Right now Lens is only available in Google Photos (or from the Filmstrip view from the camera), but what is here is awesome. Right off the bat it’s clear Google has made significant improvements in its visual search engine over what it used to offer with Goggles, and it’s able to identify items like landmarks and buildings, art work, books, games, movies and so on and so forth. It can even translate email addresses, names and phone numbers into editable text on the phone, and likely will work hand in hand with Translate in the future. This is just a preview version of Lens, but it’s already showing more promise than Goggles ever did.

Camera Software

Google Camera has slowly evolved from an overly simplistic app in bygone years, to what’s now a very respectable camera app. The real magic of the app lies mostly on the back end though, where Google’s HDR+ processing has finally become completely standard, only disabled or enhanced through the advanced options menu. Google has moved all the toggles to the far edge of the screen now, situated opposite of the shutter button. This is a decidedly iPhone inspired move no doubt, but it also makes sense visually since there’s so much wasted black space outside of the sensor’s view. Along this row, sits icons for mode selection, timer, motion photo, grid, lighting condition selection, and flash toggle. The additional HDR+ toggle will be placed within these icons if enabled in settings.

From the main interface, a swipe to the left or right will move between photo and video mode, an action that’s completely unnecessary and should be combined into a single mode. There are already dedicated buttons for camera shutter and video recording at the bottom, which at this time simply switch between the two modes and take up unnecessary time switching between them. Additional modes can be found in the top left menu (or accessed by swiping inward from the left edge), and consist of Slow Motion, Panorama, Photo Sphere, Portrait and Settings. Within Settings you’ll find essentially only resolution and quality options, as well as the ability to turn video stabilization off if you prefer to do so.

A new double-tap to zoom is enabled by default in the viewfinder, and makes for a nice quick way to zoom in 2X without needing two hands. Slow Motion has toggles for 120FPS and 240FPS video, but no obvious quality settings otherwise. The new Portrait mode works with a single camera, and functions for both front and rear-facing cameras equally well. It’s rather a shame that this mode isn’t selected via a quick swipe to the side rather than having to go into this menu to find it, as it would make more sense to be more readily available than it currently is. There’s no manual mode of any kind, but there are simple exposure adjustments, and a new focus and exposure lock mechanism. Clicking anywhere on the screen will focus on that point as expected, popping up a sliding rule on the right side of the screen for quick +/-2 exposure changes. A new lock icon on top of this ruler locks the focus at the current point, and sliding after will continue to adjust the exposure based on this focal point.

Google doesn’t feature any kind of manual mode for the camera, and most of the modes here are as basic as they come, giving simple, straight to the point features without many options. A new, tighter integration with Google Photos comes in the form of Filmstrip, which is now a part of the camera app’s photo viewing. Clicking on the thumbnail preview on the bottom right pulls up Filmstrip, which at first looks no different from previous picture previews. What’s different here is that this is the full Google Photos app built into the camera app, giving you all the controls and post-adjustment tools that Photos has, all without having to go into another app to do such things. It’s not just smoother integration of things, it’s simplified and streamlined too, and overall an excellent addition. There's also a new Motion Photo mode that automatically takes 3 second bursts of video alongside regular photos, although this can be forced to be on or off permanently if you so choose.

Camera Performance and Results

Way back when Google launched the Nexus 5, an update to the Google Camera app nonchalantly added a new feature that would become the start of mobile photography in a heartbeat: HDR+. While other phones relied on combining multiple exposures taken in short succession, Google did something wholly different with its technology, combining imagery at the pixel level instead. HDR+ is finally taking its full form on the Pixel 2, but in a way that’s not fully ready yet. Google is using the Pixel 2 to launch its first SoC in the form of Pixel Visual Core. This 8-core IPU (Image Processing Unit) is a new chip dedicated specifically to processing HDR+ photos up to 5x faster and at 1/10th the power of using the main Application Processor (AP). Unfortunately at the time of this review, this new SoC isn’t enabled yet, although the upcoming Android 8.1 Oreo update will rectify that issue. For now though processing is done much in the same way and speed it was on last year’s Pixel.

By default standard HDR+ is enabled. This actively takes photos while in the camera app, finalizing the shot when you actually press the shutter button. The active, intelligent shooting mechanism works to take clearer pictures than other smartphones, and it does so all without user input or selection. Processing is done in the background, which can be seen if you quickly click on the preview thumbnail on the bottom right of the camera app. As the HDR+ photo is processed, an action that normally takes only a few seconds in the harshest conditions, you may notice that the photo changes slightly once done processing, noting that the machine learning may have selected a better frame of reference for the final shot, which likely contains better focus and less blurring than another frame. Since all the front-end work is done automatically, clicking the shutter button simply stops the automatic processing and tells it to then work on post processing; an amazing paradigm shift we saw with last year’s Pixel that has changed the mobile photography game completely.

This year Google’s new dual-pixel sensor focuses faster than ever before, refocusing nearly instantly in all but the darkest lighting conditions. While the focusing isn’t quite as fast as Samsung or HTC’s best, it’s still faster than anything we’ve seen from Google before, and ultimately proves to be fast enough for almost anything. Software launch speed is at the top of its game too, launching from cold boot in just over one second, while subsequent launches of the camera are absolutely instantaneous. Double tapping the power button anywhere will launch the camera app, and flicking your wrist back and forth (in a loose figure 8) will flip between front and rear facing cameras without having to press buttons. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is finally a thing on a Google branded phone, and it’s very much a welcome addition. While there were less issue with hand jitter on last year’s Pixel thanks to how HDR+ works, this year that statistic is even better, and you’ll find the most stable, blur-free photos from the Pixel 2 than you’ll find on any other phone out there.

Performance during the day and in good lighting conditions is absolutely unparalleled. The Pixel 2 has the best dynamic range we’ve ever seen from a smartphone, and absolutely blows everything else on the market out of the water. What you’ll find here is nothing short of what looks like voodoo magic; dark or shadowy spots in photos are no longer too dark, bright highlights are toned down and brought back to their natural color, and everything here looks essentially perfect. Zoom detail is incredible, and presents a wonderful balance of natural noise with clean and clear details, showing no nasty effects of harsh processing or sharpening that many other phones do. HDR+ really has become the greatest solution out there for the physical limitations of mobile camera sensors, and even though Google is using a sensor with pixels that are 1.5-microns smaller than the sensor found in the Nexus 6p/5x or original Google Pixel, you’d never know.

Even darker conditions are brighter thanks both to significant enhancements in how HDR+ works, as well as that new f/1.8 lens which accepts more light than the f/2.0 lens on the original Google Pixel. Just as in good lighting, the Pixel 2 excels in dynamic range during low lighting conditions, and it’s darker pictures that have stark contrasts between bright lights and dark shadows that look best from the Pixel 2. We certainly have a new low light champion in the Pixel 2, but that’s not to say it’s the winner in every single situation out there. When comparing directly to other flagships like the Galaxy Note 8 or LG V30, most shots from the Pixel 2 look like a generational leap over competitors. Shadows are brighter, highlights are clearer and not blown out, and colors are rich and deep.

Shots from other flagships tend to look more washed out as light lessens or becomes more extreme (e.g. sunsets), and while the Pixel 2 wins in the vast majority of situations, there are a few where Samsung’s low light processing wins. It’s actually rather interesting to see where Samsung does a better job with low light processing, and it’s usually in the absolute darkest of conditions possible; ones where there’s either very, very little light, or basically no light at all in a scene. Google’s processing ends up underexposing and then crushing black levels on top of that in these situations, whereas Samsung’s photos still exhibit brighter conditions. In all reality though there’s likely almost never a situation where anyone would actually be taking pictures in these conditions, although it’s important to point out any shortcomings that something has regardless of the absurdity.

The new portrait mode is a thing of beauty, and it not only works well, but it works instantly too, and without needing to have a secondary lens as well. The new dual-pixel sensors that Google is using on the Pixel 2 are able to sense depth in a way other sensors can’t. This depth information is then calculated by machine learning algorithms and a filter is applied, blurring the background in steps rather than a clear, harsh line. It’s this gradual stepping that makes all the difference in the world, and makes the “bokeh” blur something that actually looks good instead of “fake good,” as most phones that utilize this effect look. What’s particularly impressive is that this feature isn’t exclusive to the rear camera as other phones with dual cameras force, rather it’s also available via the front-facing camera.

It’s this portrait mode on the front-facing camera that ends up giving the Pixel 2 the crown for greatest front-facing camera ever created. Being able to take good portrait shots of yourself when needed is incredible, and it opens up a new world of possibilities that other phones can only dream of. Even if you don’t want to use this portrait mode on the front-facing camera, shots from it are unbelievable, and remain the single best we’ve ever seen from any front-facing camera on the market. HDR+ is calculated the same way here as it is on the back, and even in the lowest of lighting conditions the camera blows everything else out of the water. Once again it feels like a generational leap in every single way, from low light capabilities to processing, clarity and colors, everything just shines in a way other phones could only wish. There’s also the option for using the screen as a “flash” for front-facing photos in super dark conditions, which displays a warm beige color on the screen at max brightness for a second or two to illuminate the scene.

Video mode is stellar too, and showcases some of the very best video in the industry. Right off the bat it’s pretty clear where Google focused its efforts this time around: image stabilization. The Pixel 2 family has the absolute most stable video we’ve ever seen from a smartphone, and that includes full quality 4K video too, not just 1080p. Google has taken its excellent Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) from last year’s Pixel, which rivaled hardware solutions from most OEMs, and combined it with a hardware Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) method too. The result is video that looks like it was taken from a professional gimbal; ultra smooth video, even when running or walking down stairs. It’s absolutely unreal, and goes hand in hand with the excellent video quality itself. Daylight, low light, night time, it simply doesn’t matter. Everything looks good here, and so long as you don’t want or need manual mode adjustments or anything beyond the basic point and shoot that Google provides, you’re looking at best in class quality without any fuss. Check out the gallery below for the all the photos and video we took with both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

The Good

IP67 water and dust resistant

Stunning new design (Pixel 2 XL)

Solid build with great grippy coating

Front-facing stereo speakers

Wide Bluetooth audio support

Daydream VR support

Unrivaled performance

Excellent battery life on both phones

Squeeze to launch Google Assistant is handy

AI-driven features are helpful

WiFi Assistant and Instant Tethering make networking easy

Smart storage

Unlimited photo and video backup at full resolution

Live support at the touch of a button

Best camera ever

The Bad

Pixel 2 XL display has quality control issues

Smaller Pixel 2 has overly large bezels

No 3.5mm jack

Settings and customization can be overly basic

Conclusion

Google's vision of Android is becoming clearer and clearer with each passing year, and although we're not 100% of the way to the final product, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are an amazing example of how well a phone can be both built and designed. Despite the physical differences in design between the two, Google's two new phones are masterpieces in almost every way, offering performance and smart features that no other phones can. On top of this Google offers the power of its cloud backup service, and its support team to Pixel customers completely free, and there's tons more coming soon too. With the Android 8.1 Oreo update we'll likely see further enhancements to an already industry-leading camera, that AR functionality that was shown off but is currently MIA, and maybe even the final Google Lens product too. Google hasn't just delivered two of the best flagship-level phones you can buy this year, they're also promising so much more with each of these before the year is out. If you don't need a more robust manual camera experience, or don't need something specific like the S-Pen, these are the phones you should be buying in 2017.

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