[Review] Pixel 2 (XL) - a phone that's damned near perfect

Okay, so it's been a few years since I've been on the 'pure Google' train.  My last device was the Nexus 4.  Since, I've been enjoying what LG's put out.  I didn't mind the 'bloat' as I think they produced a very good product.  Perfect balance of features, specs and performance for the extraneous features.

I have to admit, last year when Google came out with the Pixel rebrand, I wasn't as enthused with it (you know how hard I am to adapting to change), but it had come along with a nice camera.

This year, watching the event I was pretty excited.  I don't know what is it that did it.  The camera was very exciting (and it's more than I expected) Assistant maturing, bringing Lens to Photos ... there was a lot to like.

I was absolutely floored when I was able to get my unit to review.  Excited!

Then the shitstorm that was the malignment news network out there.  To be honest, the folks that seemed to share this FUD about the device, are doing it only to draw it down.  Trying to find something of a flaw.  But I'll talk more about that later on.  On to the review.

Okay, so we know it's an expensive phone.  IN Canada it's going to run you: $899 for the 2, $1160 for the 2 XL (then add $130 to either if you wanted to double the storage).  That's a lot.  But to show you it's a premium device here's the specs

6.0" @ 2880x1440
Snapdragon 835
64GB storage
12MP (f/1.8, 1/2.6", 1.4um, OIS)
8MP (f/2.4, 1/3.2", 1.4um)
3520mAh (PD 2.0)
Android 8.0 (and beyond)

Compare those specs to other flagships over at our database page

But specs are not the only measure of the phone, but it's the baseline on which we all talk about.

So, let's first go over the feel.  I'll be talking this review about the XL.  It's the one I got, and it's the one I would prefer.  The non-XL is the exact same except for the display (and the issues folks are complaining about).

The feel of the phone people may say feels like a plastic phone, but it's not.  It's a covering or painting over a metallic case.  I think it feels awesome in the hand.  It does stretch my size preference.  With the 2:1 screen ratio we at least get a near bezel-less display and get a lot of screen real estate for it.

The fingerprint sensor is in the precise spot it needs to be. The power button is a bit high on the side for me.  I would have preferred the button to have had a different texture rather than the colour difference.

Then there's the squeeze factor.  It seemed at first that it was something I wouldn't care about.  Now, you can only squeeze the very lower portion of it.  Luckily you can adjust the sensitivity.  I find, depending on the settings that there are sometimes that picking it up by the bottom or taking it out of my pocket can set it off.  Just a point of note, if you end up wanting to use the squeeze, you can set the security so that the assistant answers can be shown outside of the lock screen (otherwise you'll input your question and not hear your answer until you unlock).

Speaking of unlock ... let's unlock and visit this phone's software.

It's pure Android.  So nothing more, nothing less than what's needed.  People have asked me how it responds.  Is it snappy?  Is it blazing fast?

Sure it's fast.  But I think my LG G6 is a hair faster (probably a bias thing) - but what I do notice about it is that as much as it snappy it has a very FLUID response feel.  Maybe it's the animations, but it's done just right.

Then it's all Google apps... Google all the way down.  Android Messages, Allo, Drive, nothing not being made by them.

Just the way I like it.  I find myself often replacing Samsung's or LG's default apps with the Google'y version anyways, so this saves me a step.

The other nice thing about it being full on Google is that it's using my Chrome password autofill... you have no idea how much time this saved me setting up my phone.  Oh My God... thank you.

The new Pixel Launcher has moved the Google Search bar closer to your fingers by having it at the bottom of the screen, which is uncannily handy.  I tend to use 'search' more than I use Assistant, as there still tends to be some difference in the results.  Depending on what you want to get ... often I want to find a simple one-word answer, I'll use assistant; but if I want to find out more, Search is better.  For example, "how many liters are there in 100 gallons" is a definite Assistant search.  "How late is Up Shot Coffee open" is another.  Trying to find out information on a company is something I'll use search for.  Anyhow; however I want results for a search, it's super easy to do it now.

(The only complaint I can find with the software end of it is the volume controls ... it's awesome how many 'steps' there are now for media control, but they've blended the notification control and ringtone control.  I like having notifications low, but having my ringer loud.  So... complaint 1 of 2 for this device.)

The newest unique feature they've introduced for this device is "Now Playing".  The idea here is that it's got essentially SoundHound running in the background listening for music.  On the lockscreen it'll show the name of the song it recognizes, during usage, it'll show as a smaller notification card.

Tapping the card brings you to an assistant "what song is this" search result.

The coolest thing about this feature is that it'll work without internet.  Now, in order to do that it's not going to work for EVERY song, but in my testing I can't think of a situation where I remembered to check that it didn't have the answer.  It doesn't happen as fast as SoundHound works, but it still works.  It was something that even my wife would turn to me at a point and say "so what song does your phone say this is?"

I was surprised that even when I went to an event at one point with a pipeband there it said "Spirit of Scotland - Scotland the Brave".  It was so wrong, but amazing points for the fact it was able to even guess that it was something like it.  Would be cool to see how it responds in other live music areas (I only really had the one chance before writing this).

So, how does it work?  The idea is that it stores about a 500MB file on your phone for it to check the sound it hears against about 17,000 songs.  During the launch event they mentioned how it was important for folks to feel 'secure' that there was no private information about what's going on around you being sent back to Google HQ (you bunch of tin foil hatters) that it was going to check the what it heard only against what's on the phone. My fear was it would work with only songs that I had in my own library.  But that's not the case.  It's very cool, and well done.

Android 8.0 also now introduces the Bluetooth accessory battery monitor.  Some of my BT headphones do allow me to see the battery in the notification.  This should go a little deeper, however for ones that worked for me it was only showing the battery readout if I went into the BT settings screen.

Everything works (well except for Picture in Picture, I couldn't figure how to get that to work).  It works well, no stuttering, no hiccups.  I have had one reboot, just one randomly ... but that's way better than any other device I've used.  And when I make it my main device I really put it through its paces and putting strain on it.

So, speaking of putting strain on it, let's talk about the battery.

It's damned good.  Well, it should be, at 3520mAh it should last a long time.  According to some of the battery charts, it was getting 18-22 hours of usage (and it's a big screen).  I'd often finish my work day with about 70+% left.

The only downside of this device (and my only second complaint) is that it's eschewed the Qualcomm Quick Charge standard for the USB Power Delivery.  This, and I'm just guessing, is the format/standard for things like the Chromebooks and other laptops that use USB-C for their charging and accessories.  Anyways, it just means for me that I can't plug it in to my QC3.0 or 2.0 chargers and get a speedy recharge.  It'll be the normal charge speed, which just feels super slow by comparison.

It's a good thing the battery seemingly lasts forever.

So, it's a device that feels premium, looks awesome (more on the display later), lasts a long time, performs spectacularly ... and that's not even the best part yet.

Let's get to talking about the camera.  Yes, that camera ... the one that's captured the highest DxOMark to date.  But ... like benchmarks, can we really trust it?

In this case, yup.

I took a few photos with it and it was okay, but nothing spectacular at first.  Where it really shone was outside ... we were at a football game and took a few pictures and it looked great, for sure some nice HDR work going on (sun was out, but there was some cloud), so cool; but it wasn't until that I took a selfie with my wife (an ussie?) and even she went "oh, wow, that's awesome!"  I was taken aback.

Then I played with their 'portrait' mode and it looked even better.  Portrait mode uses some of the machine learning inside the device to detect what's going on in the scene and then hype up the focus on the subject by simulating the bokeh effect for the background.

It really makes it pop ... it isn't until you look at a little bit later that you notice "oh hey, that's simulated".  It's not perfect; you can see in one shot some guy's face that's still in focus, which is pretty funny, or you can see that hair just becomes blurred ... some you can easily see, some you have to look.

Another feature they've added in is the 'auto motion'; which I believe Samsung had introduced (or Apple) where it takes some little bit of video just before and after the shutter snaps.  I leave the feature on all the time to check it out if it got something neat.  Sometimes it does, sometimes not.

It's too bad that the little motion it can't save as a .GIF ... ah well.

To make showing off your photos you took even better, Google Photos got an upgrade just for the Pixels.  It included Google Lens.

The idea here is that you can look at your photo in Google, and it this little icon (kinda looks like the Instagram logo) and it'll scan your photo to see what it sees.  Is it a dog, is it beer?

It's not perfect (yet) but it's pretty impressive.  Can't wait to see where it goes from here.

For some more samples you can see below or in the quick gallery I made here:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/GNirjI1wYA93NdVb2

I just was amazed how well it did some reproduction of the colours, especially in the outdoors.  Indoors there was some struggle, but still did better than others in similar conditions.

So, while we're on the topic of reproduction of colour, let's address the elephant in the room.

Display FUD

Yup, so, since it was learned that LG was making the panels for the XL suddenly everybody started to hate on it... harshly.

First up, there was discussion that the display 'tints' to blue as your look at the screen obliquely. Oh nos!  Most displays don't look great if you don't look at them head on.  Here's a question for those people pointing this out... how often do you watch your display turned away at an angle?  Probably some times, but it's because it's not the focus.  When you're watching your phone with purpose, it's head on and things are fine.  Show it to a few people and they won't even notice what you're talking about.

Second, there was the issue of "it's mottled looking".  I ... maybe could see that.  Apparnetly you had to turn down the brightness, get it to a screen with more grey/blue than reds/yellows and you could see that fine 'noise' in the display.  If you remember my review of the LG Flex all those years ago ... well, again, I'm picky, and I had to really strain myself to be able to kinda see what people are talking about.

Again, put it in the hands of most people and they wouldn't even notice.

Thirdly, there's the claim of burn in.  Okay... again, I REALLY had to work to find the EXACT kind of scenario to even see what was happening.  Lower your brightness below 50% (50-30%), find a picture or something you can make go in full screen so the navigation bar goes away and you may see a slight line where it was.  Maybe a dot of the home button.  Don't have it too dark or you might not see it.

In my opinion, it could be made to be seen that it's there.  But again, it's a problem you had to go and hunt for.  99.9999% of the time it would never be seen, and after finding the right image for it to reproduce this scenario, I left it for a while, and it seemed to lessen to me.  So, it could just be a slow fade.  I think this is a real non-issue.

Again, putting it into the hands of people and even when I tried to reproduce the 'issue', none of them saw it.

Lastly, there's complaints about a popping noise ... nothing I heard. 

All these nay-sayers... and maybe they're legitimate, but to me, and I'm pretty picky, there's nothing the matter here.  Nothing that says "well, throw that away".

For those of you who bought and are concerned, Google's got your back.  Oh, yeah, it's a 2 year warranty with 3 years support!

The real winner here for the photos is that Google is going to give you 2 years of unlimited FULL RESOLUTION photos and videos for Pixel 2 shot stuff (the original Pixel got lifetime).

So... overall, yeah, it's an expensive phone.  But it stands up to every other smartphone I've tried thus far and really outshines them.

For me there's just a few niggling points:

  1. It's just at the end of 'large' for me (thankfully there's the fingerprint sensor swipe to bring down the notification shade)
  2. The volume level for notifications and ring tone are linked
  3. It's not QuickCharge compatible

Now, sure there's a couple of other minor points I'd love to see Google have put in.  Qi charging would have made this a no-brainer buy, I miss being able to swipe from the camera and go directly into my photos and I wish the fingerprint sensor could allow you to tap it to turn off (or double tap the screen area to do the same).

But those are just icing on the cake.  The phone is pretty fantastic and I'm going to be really sad when I have to send it back to Google.

This is about 2500 words to this point (let alone a bunch of photos) and there's really still more to talk about.  But, you get the highlights.

I'm going to put some of these screenshots of other features that Google throws in for you to just look after, and if you have any questions, just let me know.