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Google Pixel 2 review: Can Google finally beat the iPhone?

by Brandon Russell | October 17, 2017October 17, 2017 6:00 am PDT

When we talk about last year’s Google Pixel, the conversation inevitably focuses on the device’s shortcomings: no dust and water resistance, no wireless charging, and no expandable storage. And its design was seen as uninspired and forgettable. Yet, many people—us included—considered it to be one of 2016’s top smartphones.

The reason is simple: Google controlled both hardware and software, allowing the search giant to create a deeper, more meaningful device. The result provided users with a highly polished experience and a market-leading camera. And it came with the added perk of unlimited high-resolution Google Photos storage.

The Pixel didn’t blow away the competition, but it was a great example of what Google was capable of—and it holds up to this day. It certainly exceeded our expectations, offering a much-needed alternative to devices from Samsung and Apple—so what if the Pixel’s market share was reportedly less than 1-percent in the U.S.

Now that the Pixel 2 has arrived, it’s clear the company is dead serious about becoming competitive in the mobile space. Whereas the original Pixel felt a little uncertain and timid, the Pixel 2 exudes confidence and bravado. Its design is sharper, the software smarter, and it features a ton of really cool tricks.

Disclaimer: Google sent us the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. For the written review, I’ll be talking about the Pixel 2. To learn more about the Pixel 2 XL, check out Jon’s video review above.

Although the Pixel 2 looks similar to last year’s Pixel, the new design feels decidedly different. The original Pixel featured awkward ergonomics, and the resulting look made it appear unfinished, as if it came off the assembly line before the final step. In other words, it was the furthest thing from flashy.

While the Pixel 2 isn’t the best looking phone I’ve ever seen, the improvements over last year’s design make a huge difference. The rear glass shade, for example, has been minimized, while the flat edges give way to a slightly rounded rear panel.

The way the device feels is reminiscent of the Nexus 5, but instead of a soft plastic, Google has opted for a brushed aluminum, which feels like it has a slight texture to it, like a very fine sandpaper. It’s very subtle, but a very welcome addition because it gives the Pixel 2 a nice grip. For what it’s worth, I used the black version of the Pixel 2, so I’m not sure if the other colors feel the same way.

Google does a really good job hiding the antenna lines, which are barely visible on the chamfered edges. Otherwise, the Pixel 2’s design is a more streamlined, premium upgrade, though the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack is a big deal. Instead, Google includes a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter for folks who still use wired headphones.

While the removal of the headphone jack is controversial, people also can’t stop talking about the Pixel 2’s bezels. In a market where most smartphones are going bezel-less, Google’s 5-inch handset, like the iPhone 8, looks like it’s stuck in 2016.

But I am willing to ignore it, or at least accept it. Yes, the Pixel 2’s bezels are chunky, but they aren’t completely horrible. Just like the iPhone 8’s bezels aren’t completely horrible. The bright side is Google utilized that space by including two front-facing stereo speakers, which are loud and sound great without much distortion at high volume.

Compared to the Pixel 2 XL, the smaller Pixel 2 includes a 5-inch Full HD display with a 100,000:1 super contrast ratio and support for always-on technology. The time and date will always be displayed, along with any notifications that come streaming in.

The screen also comes withe a built-in circular polarizer, making the display easier to view when wearing sunglasses with polarizing lenses. I have no complaints about the Pixel 2’s screen thus far; it looks sharp and produces vivid colors. It’s tough to see in bright sunlight but, then again, most displays are.

(One weird quirk we noticed with the display was the automatic brightness feature didn’t seem to accurately read the ambient light. When I was in my car at night, the automatic brightness rendered the display barely visible, so I wound up just leaving brightness at 50-percent and calling it a day.)

The rest of the Pixel 2 is pretty much identical to its larger, more advanced brother. It comes with a Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, Android 8.0 Oreo, a 12-megapixel camera with an f/1.8 aperture, optical and electronic image stabilization, and support for 120fps at 1080p. The battery is 2700mAh compared to the Pixel 2 XL’s 3520mAh battery.

That’s a marked difference in battery size, but I found the battery life to be pretty great. At the very least, the Pixel 2 will get you through a heavy day of email, web browsing, pictures, and social media. Of course, it goes without saying that mileage varies depends on your usage.

If you do find yourself without much battery left, know that the Pixel 2 supports Quick Charge technology, so if you use the included wall wart, you’ll get around 7 hours of battery with just 15 minutes of charging. Unfortunately, the aluminum design means there’s no wireless charging, which wasn’t that big of a deal last year. But when Apple starts adopting the technology, you know you’re behind.

The highlight of last year’s release, outside of the excellent camera, was the Pixel’s clean, lightning-quick software. Android 8.0 Oreo is another big step for Google, and it absolutely soars on the Pixel 2. This is how Android should be experienced.

While most of the updates to Android 8.0 Oreo occur under the hood, Google surfaces plenty of really cool features that are exclusive to the Pixel line, including a revamped launcher.

The Pixel 2 launcher moves the search bar below the app drawer (and above the software navigation keys), and I completely understand why Google did it. The quick search bar is easier to reach and more powerful than ever, allowing users to easily search content on the web, their contacts, and apps.

But I’m a little annoyed by how much room the search bar, app drawer, and onscreen navigation buttons take up. Especially on the Pixel 2’s 5-inch display, where real estate is at a premium—and you can’t remove the quick search bar unless you slap on a different launcher.

Another subtle software addition, and one I wasn’t expecting to love, is the Pixel 2’s “Now Playing” feature. When you turn the feature on (it’s off by default), your device will listen for songs playing in the background and show the artist name and title of the song on the Always-On Display.

Now Playing didn’t always work, but with big pop hits—for example, Drake’s “Signs”—it surfaced information in a matter of seconds. Double tapping the song name will take you to Assistant, where you can get more information about that song. According to Google, the song recognition feature is performed entirely on the Pixel 2, so no audio information is sent over the internet.

The other new addition to the Pixel 2 launcher is “At-a-Glance,” which is a small widget on your home screen that displays weather, the date, “unusual traffic information,” and upcoming calendar events. Google says the feature will be updated to display even more pertinent information when you need it in the near future.

There are two other additions I want to talk about. First, the Pixel 2 now supports something called “Active Edge,” which allows users to invoke Google Assistant by gently squeezing the sides of the device. When the Pixel 2 was launched, the search giant explained it didn’t want the feature to feel like a gimmick… but it’s no better than it was on the HTC U11.

Half the time I forgot Active Edge even existed. And when I did feel the urge to invoke Google Assistant, I preferred to hold down the home button. I don’t really see a reason for Active Edge to exist; the cynic in me thinks Google added the feature simply to be different.

It works as advertised, and it’s very easy to tweak. But I could live without it, and Jon shared my sentiments during his time with the Pixel 2 XL. You may feel differently, and that’s totally fine.

The second thing, and a feature Google has been hyping for months, is Google Lens. The feature is essentially Google Search for the real world, capable of recognizing landmarks, buildings, artwork, books, movies, music albums, and more.

I was under the impression (perhaps through the fault of my own) that Lens would be built right into the camera app the same way Bixby Vision is found in Samsung’s camera app, but I was wrong. Instead, the feature is built into Google Photos, so when you go to view a photo, like one taken of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, hitting the Lens button will surface pertinent information.

Which is fine, but by putting it in Photos, the feature feels disappointingly hidden, tucked away where most Pixel 2 owners probably won’t realize it’s there. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when Google was making such a big deal about Lens back at I/O.

When I did use Lens, I found it to be useful, especially when taking action on email addresses and phone numbers. But because it wasn’t prominently placed within the software, I didn’t wind up using it very often. If Google can find a better way to integrate Lens into the software, it could be a much more compelling feature.

Google does say Lens is just a preview right now, so things will likely change in the future. Right now, it’s one of those features that’s fun to toy around with (when it works!), but certainly not crucial to everyday life.

Weirdly, I got more enjoyment from the Pixel 2’s “living universe” wallpapers, which includes a serene coastline, a destructive volcano, and a gorgeous look at Earth. Each of them are subtly animated, breathing life into the Pixel 2’s otherwise static home screen.

My live wallpaper of choice was the calming coastline of Lagos, and each time I jumped back to the Pixel 2’s home screen, I felt a sense of calm, like I had escaped my busy life to a secret, secluded beach just for me. It’s not something everyone will appreciate, but I love how a small detail like that makes such a big difference.

The camera defined the original Pixel, and it defines the Pixel 2 as well. The big story here is Google didn’t opt to use a dual-lens setup, instead sticking with a single 12-megapixel dual-pixel sensor, along with an aperture of f/1.8. Optical image stabilization has also been added for photos and video, in addition to electronic image stabilization.

The results, as expected, are sumptuous. We have seen a big leap in mobile camera technology these past few years, and the Pixel 2 is among the best on the market. Google said it integrated its new components with HDR+ computational photography. That means when a photo is taken, the camera uses a burst of shots with a short exposure for evenly lit pictures and highlights.

The Pixel 2 also includes a portrait mode, which uses computational photography and machine learning to achieve high quality bokeh effects without a dual-lens setup. By creating a true depth map with a single lens, the device is capable of creating some really wonderful portrait shots.

Here’s how Google explained the technology at its October 4 event:

The Pixel 2 camera includes dual-pixel sensor technology. This means each pixel in an image includes a right and a left view. The difference in perspective from those pixels, combined with machine learning models trained on almost one million photos, means that this works on really hard cases, like a busy colorful background. And, yes, this does work with objects, too.

The results are very impressive. However, like we’ve seen from the Note 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, images can look a bit too artificial in some situations. Still, I’m incredibly happy and encouraged by what the Pixel 2’s portrait mode can do, and it’ll only improve as Google continues to fine-tune the software.

Google is also adding a Motion Photos feature, which is similar to Apple’s Live Photos. The feature essentially records a short clip with every photo, bringing images to life in new ways. I think it’s a delightful addition, just like Live Photos was in iOS.

On the video front, Google has combined optical and electronic image stabilization for smoother video, with support for 4K at 30fps and 1080p at 60fps. There’s also something known as AR Stickers, which Google demonstrated at its October 4 event.

I’ve been using the iPhone 7 as my daily driver over the past year, and I’ve reviewed several Android flagships this year. If I had to pick, the Pixel 2’s camera would be my choice. It produces high quality images, a great portrait mode, Motion Photos, and powerful video features.

The Pixel 2 doesn’t stand a chance against the Galaxy S8’s stellar design and robust feature-set, or the iPhone 8’s clout and popularity. It won’t outsell the iPhone X, and its huge bezels look obnoxious compared to the LG V30. Yet, in spite of these perceived shortcomings, the Pixel 2 offers plenty of quality, from its excellent software to its magnificent camera.

It’s clear Google is modeling its jump into mobile after Apple, focusing on the fundamentals without being overly flashy. The Pixel 2 is a simple, straightforward release, one that builds upon what the search giant released last year. It’s a more elegant, thoughtful upgrade.

I love the little touches, like the living universe wallpapers, Motion Stills, At-a-Glance, and Portrait Mode. I’m less thrilled by Active Edge, and I’d love to see Lens become a more prominent fixture of the software.

There are also some missing features, too, like the lack of a headphone jack and wireless charging. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until next year for the Pixel smartphone of our dreams. For now, the Pixel 2 is a great alternative to the Galaxy S8, and you get the added benefit of getting three years’ worth of software and security updates directly from Google.

Google has again proved it can make a great phone. With a growing ecosystem and powerful machine learning, Google is molding its mobile lineup into something very special. Now, the search giant needs to figure out how to convince existing iPhone and Galaxy owners to make the switch.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 retail for $649 and $849, respectively.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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