Even as a longtime Pixel fan, I admit that despite Google's efforts, the Pixel 2 and the Pixel XL 2 aren't the prettiest Android phones you can buy (that honour goes to the Samsung Galaxy S8). Nor are they overflowing with features, however superfluous, like retina scanning, facial recognition or wireless charging. And, while lasting a full day, they don't sport the absolute best battery life either. But that's besides the point. The Pixels are Android as it's meant to be. No other phone, not even the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, is as practical, easy to use or compelling.
A combination of super-fast, super-slick stock Android software, machine learning-powered features that you'll actually want to use and an amazing camera make the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL the quintessential Android phones. Moreover, they're the only phones where you're guaranteed to be first in line for updates to Android (for features and for all-important security updates). Despite their flaws and some strong competition — I've spent a year flitting between the Samsung Galaxy S8, the HTC U 11, the OnePlus 5 and the Nokia 8, to name but a few — the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the absolute best Android phones you can buy.
Google missed the mark with the original Pixel design. A mishmash of curves, chamfers, chunky bezels and an odd glass panel, it looks like a phone designed by committee, with all the compromises that entails. Google has done a far better job with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. The rear glass panel is slimmer and curves around the edges of the phone. The aluminium chassis has been given a grippier texture — the original Pixel was prone to sliding off things with alarming regularity — while both are thinner and more comfortable to hold.
That's where the similarities end. Google has opted for two different designs for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel 2 is built by HTC and closely resembles the original (also built by HTC) with a 5.0-inch 1080p 16:9 OLED screen and chunky bezels that look hopelessly dated. Fortunately, Google has put those bezels to good use, fitting a pair of front facing speakers. They are far superior to the crummy speakers smartphone makers often stuff into their smartphones, with audio that's clear and loud. Watching YouTube videos, chatting on speaker phone or even playing music is not just acceptable, but actually enjoyable — just don't expect much bass.
The Pixel XL 2 also has front-facing speakers, but they're slotted into a more contemporary design. As is de-rigueur for 2017, the Pixel XL 2, built by LG, has a 6.0-inch 18:9 POLED display with curved corners. Physically, it's just as wide as the Pixel XL and a wee bit taller too, so if you weren't comfortable with the Pixel XL, chances are you won't be comfortable with its successor. Part of the problem is that, unlike Samsung, Google hasn't managed to significantly shrink the bezel around the edges of the display (or at least hide it with an aggressive curve). The top and bottom bezels aren't exactly slim either, in part to accommodate the front facing speakers, with the top one being larger than the bottom resulting in an odd asymmetrical look.
The Pixel 2 XL is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor aesthetically, but falls short of what Samsung has done with the S8 or Essential has done with the PH-1. Still, at least it hasn't chopped out a chunk of the display like Apple has with the iPhone X. However, if there's one standout weakness for the Pixel XL 2 — aside from its size and weight, which may or may not be an issue depending on the size of your hands — it's the display.
It pains me to say it, but the display on the original Pixel XL is better. Heck, the display on the smaller Pixel 2 is better, which is to say nothing of the displays on the HTC U 11, iPhone 8 and Galaxy S8. Where the Pixel 2 uses an OLED display, the Pixel XL 2 uses a POLED display from LG (the "P" stands for plastic). It's the same technology LG uses in the LG G6 and V30, both of which have been criticised for their poor quality displays. The Pixel 2 XL's display isn't bad, but it isn't as vibrant as the display on the Pixel 2. It suffers from distracting colour shift if you view it at an angle, where the image takes on blue hue. For an £800 phone, that's disappointing.
It's not a deal-breaker, though, particularly when the rest of the phone is so good. Aside from the design differences, the Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 have identical hardware and features. That includes the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC and 4GB of memory for uncompromising performance, IP67 water resistance, a super-fast fingerprint reader and a 12.2 MP, f/1.8, OIS, PDAF, laser autofocus camera that's easily the best smartphone camera on the market (more on that later). What you won't find is a headphone jack, which is massively disappointing given that Google has implemented so many other things that users have been asking for.
There is an adaptor in the box and overall sound quality is much better than the Pixel, which barely output a whisper through its 3.5mm jack. I do wish, however, that if wired headphone users are to suffer a dongle, then it should at least be a good one. Like the HTC U 11, the Pixel 2's dongle is a chunky affair that extends the length of the phone by a good inch. When you have something like a Pixel 2 XL that's already rather large, it makes it unwieldy to carry around. If you so much as think about sitting down with the phone in your pocket and the dongle plugged in, it will bend and it will break. Why not include a flush, right-angled dongle instead?
Since Google is behind the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, both phones run the latest Android 8.0 software without any sort of odd modifications. The result is cohesive, fast and responsive software that's every bit as good as Apple's iOS, without any of the inherent restrictions Apple places on customisation. Both phones come with their own unique version of the Android home screen too, which moves the search bar to the bottom of the screen. It's a more convenient location, particularly in an age of big-screen phones, and Google's search prowess means it's quick and brings up relevant results from the web or from local storage.
Google Assistant is on-board too. Of all the digital assistants, Google's is the most advanced, even if Amazon's Alexa is the most well-connected. Integration with Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Spotify and search mean the Assistant can fish out almost any information, or play any media you ask of it using natural language, instead of the the specific voice commands that Alexa requires. It's especially good at recognising follow up questions. So, if you ask, "What's the weather" and then, "What about this weekend," it continues to display the relevant weather results. There are even suggestions for follow up questions displayed on-screen.
A neat addition is the ability to squeeze the phone, a feature introduced with the HTC U11, to activate Google Assistant. While saying, "OK Google" continues to function, the squeeze is useful for when you're on-the-go, or when it's inappropriate to activate audio. You can even type your requests into the assistant. There's also a preview of Google Lens, exclusive to Pixel phones, that taps into Google's machine learning algorithms to identify images and bring up relevant information.
Lens currently only works on pictures you've already taken — a version that lets you use Lens directly is in the works — but is startlingly good. A picture I took of Hope, the blue whale skeleton that was recently moved to the main entrance of London's Natural History Museum, was quickly identified by Lens, bringing up a Wikipedia entry and search results for the museum. It worked on a bottle of fine Woodford Reserve bourbon too, as well as vintage video game Panzer Dragoon for the Sega Saturn. Lens isn't infallible, but like all things machine learning, the more people use it, the better it gets.
Other neat additions include Smart Storage, which automatically clears out photos and video more than 60 days old after they've been backed up to Google Drive, a slick data transfer app for Android and iOS (I was up and running with my existing data in less than 10 minutes), and an always-on standby display with Now Playing. The latter is like a built-in Shazam that automatically identifies whatever is playing nearby and displays the song title on the standby screen. Double-tapping on the song name activates Google Assistant, which provides links to the song on various music services, as well as more detailed track and artist information.
What's particularly cool is that this information is stored locally, so no audio is transmitted to Google. Naturally, that means there's a limit to the songs that Pixel 2 can identify, although I haven't found it. Without being wilfully obscure — yes, the Pixel 2 is unlikely to identify that limited run vinyl pressing of your local ska band — everything I threw at the Pixel was identified. That even included Meshuggah (which, if you know anything about Meshuggah is a very unusual inclusion).
The original Pixel took consistently brilliant photos whatever the setting — it is regularly the only camera I take with me, even on holiday — and the Pixel 2 is even better. There's a 12.2 MP, f/1.8, OIS, PDAF, laser autofocus camera on the rear and an 8MP, f/2.4 camera up front, which is a small improvement over last year's Pixel. But it's not the hardware that makes for a good photo, it's the software. Google's HDR+ tech, an always-on version of HDR that debuted in the original Pixel, made a huge difference to the quality of photos. Other phones had HDR (where a phone takes a photo with both high and low exposures and combines the two pictures for greater dynamic range) but were sluggish to respond with it turned on.
The Pixel 2, like the original Pixel, is lightning fast and takes stunning photos whatever the scenario. In bright light and low light, on sunny days and overcast days or with willing subjects and fast-moving objects, the Pixel 2 performs brilliantly. Low light photography has been noticeably improved, with greater detail. Photos strike a balance between the highly saturated look of the Galaxy S8 and the flatter look of the iPhone 8. Photos are sharp with impressive detail, particularly for phone that eschews the trend towards dual-sensor setups. It even takes portrait shots, using machine learning to simulate depth of field and background blur with excellent, natural results.
At this price, most phones take great photos, but there are other features that sweeten the deal. The camera app opens in a flash, with little lag when you push the shutter button (the HTC U11's camera, while great, suffers from sluggish performance). There's 4K video recording at 30FPS, 1080p at up to 120FPS, and 720p at up to 240fps, which is optically and electronically stabilised for super-smooth results. Best of all, you get unlimited cloud storage for all your photos and videos for free at their native resolution.
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL aren't flashy. They're practical, everyday devices that respond quickly and unobtrusively, letting you get on with browsing the web, taking photos, planning your day, or whatever else you need to do with your smartphone, without fuss.
Unlike other phones that focus on flagship features that no one uses, the Pixel 2 is all about the little things. The way you can transfer all your data over from an old phone in as little as 10 minutes. The way Google Assistant better understands how real people speak, instead of of only responding to arcane commands (soon, you'll be able to say "good night" and have the Assistant silence your phone, turn off the lights, set your alarm). The way you don't need to be a photography whizz to take brilliant photos.
Only the iPhone offers as tight an integration between hardware and software as the Pixel 2 does. That's what makes both Apple's phones and Google's phones so compelling and why so many smartphone makers fall short. Cheaper, prettier options exist — and some even come with a headphone jack — but, like its predecessor, the Pixel 2 is the phone I'd recommend to everyone, iOS switchers and Android stalwarts alike.