After a rocky start, Google’s tweaks and changes have given the Pixel 2 XL the appeal that it needed. It’s not the best design to encase this new display format, but at its heart this is a powerful pure Android handset with a class-leading camera
- Solid build
- Good battery performance
- Great camera performance in most conditions
- Display’s saturated mode gives the look we wanted
- Design doesn’t make best use of space
- No 3.5mm headphone socket
- Camera white balance inconsistencies
- No microSD card slot
Google stepped away from the Nexus family in 2016 and launched the Pixel smartphones, adopting the line of the previous Chromebook Pixel and Pixel C and presenting a Google-designed premium product.
The Pixel 2 XL is the second-gen, looking to replace one of our favourite 2016 phones. It’s an ambitious device, switching to an 18:9 display and looking to refine the bodywork of the previous device.
What’s new for the Google Pixel 2 XL?
- 157.9 x 76.7 x 7.9mm, 175g
- 18:9 aspect display
- Just Black or Black and White colours
- Aluminium body, IP67 protection
Google has kept a design quirk in the Pixel 2 XL with that split rear that we saw on the original model. It’s reduced on this model – manufactured by LG – leaving only a small section at the rear top that’s glass, with the rest of the body metal.
The front is all glass, with the surface curving at the edges to flow into the aluminium bodywork. The fit and finish is great, displaying great quality in all directions and coming in two colours: black or black and white. The black version is a little more stealthy, while the black and white version is adorned with an orange power button. Little details matter and this gives the design a lift, although the general theme here seems to be slightly understated compared to the more showy iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy devices.
This phone is IP67 rated, giving it the water-proofing which it needs to sit in this flagship position: the previous version wasn’t and that was the biggest criticism of the phone. The metal work is also coated for a surface that has some grip: this doesn’t feel like the metal body of the iPhone 7 or HTC 10, it feels distinctly different, which we like.
But let’s talk about size. Measuring 157.9 x 76.7 x 7.9mm, the first thing you might notice is that this phone is larger than it perhaps needs to be. It’s only slightly smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus so despite the shift in display aspect (with the aim of giving you a big screen without a big body), the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t really achieve that aim.
Pitching the size against more formidable competition, it’s noticeably larger than the LG V30 (which has the same 6-inch 18:9) display, so in some regards, the Pixel 2 XL is a little unambitious: it makes a move to a different aspect display while not fully delivering one of the greatest benefits of that design shift, namely, a more compact body.
One of the things the design allows for is front-facing stereo speakers. The performance from those speakers is good, but only good, so they perhaps don’t justify the space they’re given. They’re no match for HTC BoomSound, lacking the richness and volume of HTC’s solution.
Other things to note are that the 3.5mm headphone socket is gone, so it’s USB Type-C for audio, or the dongle in the box to use your old headphones. The fingerprint scanner remains on the rear in a sensible place, certainly more practical to use than Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Note 8 models and we found this perfectly fast to unlock the phone. It also offers a swipe shortcut to quickly pull down the notifications area.
Pixel 2 XL display: A false start, now corrected
- 6-inch OLED, 2880 x 1440 pixel resolution, 538ppi
- 18:9 aspect
- Offers three colour settings
We’re going to focus on the display next, because we think it’s worth a few more words than normal. As we’ve already detailed, the Pixel 2 XL moves to a new display aspect, following the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8+, LG V30 or the Apple iPhone X.
It is, we suspect, the same panel that’s used in the LG V30, given that it’s referred to as p-OLED (which LG tends to use as Samsung dominates the AMOLED nomenclature) and the exact same size and resolution as the LG V30, but when the Pixel 2 XL initially launched, it looked totally different.
The thing that we all expect from OLED displays is that they give nice deep blacks but also vibrancy and pop. It is vibrancy and pop that the Pixel 2 XL lacked when it launched, which drew a lot of criticism. Google clarified the position, saying that the Pixel 2 XL has been tuned to look more natural and support a wider colour gamut. That’s also supported by Android 8.0 Oreo and the result is that you’re looking at the original colours that were created.
In that “natural” state, this display looks pretty flat and lifeless compared to any number of existing devices. It doesn’t look as good as the old Pixel XL, the iPhone 8 or the LG V30. It doesn’t look as nice as the OnePlus 5 or even as vibrant as the smaller Pixel 2.
But in that form there is a strange dichotomy to this display: while things like your Instagram feed won’t have the sheen that all other top smartphones offer, the Pixel 2 XL’s display works really well in particular conditions. Watching Star Trek Discovery on Netflix, the Pixel 2 XL looked many times better than the LG V30; by contrast, LG’s phone looks red in shadows and noisy in lower light scenes, with the Pixel 2 XL delivering cleaner accuracy – despite LG claiming that it would be showing the HDR version. Discovery is notable because so much is set against darkness.
A fix for the muted display was released, however, adding a new “saturated” option. While some supported Google’s original position of “natural”, we found it lacklustre. Fortunately, the release of that additional display option pulls the phone back into the enjoyment zone for us. With that mode engaged, the Pixel 2 XL is more comparable to other flagship phones. It addresses our biggest complaint with the phone.
Some people have complained about “burn-in” on early devices, although we’ve not seen this on the second Pixel 2 XL that we have. Others also criticised off-axis colour shift. For us, this was never as big a deal as the display tuning itself, which leaves us a lot happier with the Pixel 2 XL following this software update. Perhaps it isn’t natural and even if Google claims it’s a byproduct of what we’ve become accustomed to, it’s still what we want to see.
Hardware and battery performance
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 4GB RAM
- 64 or 128GB storage
- 3520mAh battery
With the display behind us, it’s easy to say that the Pixel 2 XL is every bit as powerful as other flagship devices of 2017. Yes, some have 6GB of RAM – like the OnePlus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – but on the whole, the Pixel 2 XL runs as fast and as smoothly as other devices. We’ve extend this further and say that Google’s pure Android software means that the Pixel 2 XL often runs smoother over long periods than some Samsung devices.
It’s here that you’ll notice a benefit over the older device too: it will handle some more demanding tasks with ease, for example, you won’t get asked if you want to turn down the graphical textures in Total War Battles Kingdom, because the phone can handle it. You’d expect pure Android to run smoothly on this hardware and it does – except for the occasional app closing unexpectedly. There might be some software gremlins still in the works.
We didn’t find it to run hot, however. Even during the initial start-up and mass of app installations we opted to do, the phone still stayed cool.
The consideration worth floating on the hardware setup is that the first device to launch with this hardware as the Samsung Galaxy S8, a full 6 months ago, so during the lifetime of the Pixel 2 XL it will be surpassed by the Snapdragon 845 devices in early 2018. Still, the pace of smartphone progress is such that you’ll never be up to date, unless you always by the newest phone as soon as it launches.
Google themselves point to the hardware race in smartphones, preferring to say that AI is part of the future for making phones better and that it will be machine learning that enhances experiences. It depends, of course, whether it’s the Google AI experience you want.
Turning to the battery and the 3520mAh cell in the Pixel 2 XL provides good day-long performance. As with most of these large format devices in 2017, it’s fairly easy to get through a day with some left in the tank. Stock Android isn’t especially strong on battery saving measures and this could be better: power saving feels like a limp home mode, rather than giving you granular power savings all through the day.
Fast charging is in place to bring that battery back into contention, using that USB Type-C on the base. This is very much the norm for Android devices these days, especially at this level.
Software and performance
- Android 8.0 Oreo
- Google Assistant
- New Pixel Launcher
The Google Pixel 2 XL launches with Android Oreo. That used to be one of the major selling points of Google’s devices – you got the latest version of Android first – but with Oreo already updating on the older Pixels, there’s less “newness” about these new devices. The position still remains, however, that you’ll be first on the list for updates to new versions in the future, with the Android 8.1 beta already roll-out.
There is some newness to get excited about and we do really like the new Pixel Launcher. This makes a few tweaks, changing the relationship between the home screen, the Google app and searching, slightly. There’s now a search bar at the bottom of the home screen and this will give you live search results both for your contacts and Google searches, as well as offering up common apps that you use.
This leaves the Google App off to the left with your tailored “feed” in it. This is the remnants of what was started by Google Now and we still find it very useful. It knows what you search for, so it knows what you’re interested in.
There’s also the shift to bring more information to the top your home screen, with calendar appointments appearing here. If you’re a busy person, it’s surprising how quickly little details like that enhance the experience. It’s a perpetual reminder and so much more useful that sitting in with the rest of your notifications.
Other changes in the software are mostly to support hardware functions, like giving you the option to have songs identified on the lock screen. It’s a form of always listening and it will consume more battery, while also being more convenient than having to open an app. At first we weren’t taken with this feature, but its performance has got better and we now find ourselves glancing at our phone to identify songs on the fly.
There’s a lot more happening under the skin of Oreo however, and these somewhat superficial details mean less on Android than they might on iOS, due to the flexibility in Google’s platform.
What’s most important is that Oreo is slick and fast, and full of refinement. The days of needing that manufacturer skin are long gone, with little details coming to the fore, like how the apps tray bounces when you hit the end of the scroll, and how smooth the transparencies are. What you won’t find are a huge range of additional functions added in. Android sticks to its own services in Google Play (music, movies and apps) and supports functions like Cast, leaving a lot of the wider expansion to AI, through Google Assistant.
Google Assistant is perhaps Google’s most aggressive foray into other devices and platforms, because you’ll have lots of options to control other home devices. That functionality from Google Home flows into Android devices, meaning you can control things like Nest heating or Hue lighting with your voice.
One hardware addition on the Pixel 2 XL is the ability to squeeze the frame to launch Google Assistant, rather than saying “Ok Google” or long pressing the home button. It’s a gesture adopted from the HTC U11. We didn’t use it there and we can’t say we’ve really used it here either. It very much depends on how you use Assistant and whether you need that direct access. If you do, it’s perfectly easy to do and we’ve not found it to trigger by accident.
Perhaps more useful is the ability to squeeze to silence a call. If you’re walking around with your phone in your hand, there’s almost nothing easier to do. There’s also full control over these elements so you can pick and choose what you want to have on or off.
Google sees AI as the future of phones and one element that plays into this is the new Google Lens, which is basically an evolution of Google Goggles. It will identify objects the camera can see. This flows into Google Assistant, so that it is fully integrated with the AI system.
Google Lens is pretty smart and can identify a whole range of things. It seems to have been setup to recognise the common first and foremost. It will identity some breeds of dog, it will pull up information about the brewery from a beer label, but it still feels like a work in progress. It’s AI after all and we expect it to keep learning – although we’ll admit to not actually finding a need for it too much.
Overall, the Pixel 2 XL is slick and fun to use, but unlike the original Pixel, it doesn’t feel quite as exclusive as the original phones did. Yes, having free unlimited storage for full resolution pictures in Google Photos is really attractive, but there isn’t a huge amount in the experience that really makes this phone different from other Androids. One thing we love, however, is the ability to have floating Google Maps Navigation, however. That’s really slick.
First class camera performance
- Rear: 12.2-megapixels, 1.4µm, f/1.8, OIS
- Front: 8-megapixels, 1.4µm, f/2.4
- Pixel Visual Core
The original Pixel was best known for its camera and there’s a great deal of consistency in what Google offers in this new device. It’s still a single camera setup and the camera app remains very much as it was before, but does add in some extras. There’s now motion photos which look to be the equivalent of Apple’s Live Photos that launched a few years ago; we’re still not sure it has its place, but you can get some amusing or interesting results, and there’s now portrait mode too.
The rear camera is 12-megapixels which behaves much as the previous Pixel camera did which is good news. It’s generally very good at taking photos, and we think that the colour balance of those photos is now much easier to confirm following the addition of the display’s “saturated mode”, whereas the “natural” setting doesn’t give a true reflection of what you’ll see when you share your pictures.
The front camera gives great selfies, although we’ve found its generally warmer in the results it produces than the back camera. The photo of yourself will be slightly more blushed than the portrait you’ve just taken of your loved one, but we’ve found it generally produces better selfies than the iPhone X, which can make you look a little fuller in the face than you perhaps are.
This perhaps highlights another consideration with the Pixel 2 XL camera: the rear camera can struggle with white balance at times. White balance was something that the Pixel XL struggled with before and it seems it’s not quite right here. In the UK in October you don’t have the best natural light for outdoor photos, but we’ve seen it lacking colour in some outdoor photos as things get a little pale, at other times adding in the richness you probably want and not being entirely consistent with it.
The camera is fast to focus and capture, but does lean on processing to then improve the photo you’ve taken. Various techniques are used to ensure that HDR looks nicely balanced with highs and lows realistically presented for great overall results. This is a phone where you can generally leave HDR on and get the results you want, which is one of its stand-out strengths. We’d says it’s the best performing phone for HDR photos meaning it handles difficult conditions well.
Then there’s portrait mode. Portrait mode and bokeh are the emperor’s new clothes in smartphones, trying to create that shallow depth of field effect that a good SLR will give you. Here it’s created by another AI algorithm and it’s about as effective as other dual or single camera versions of this technology. It essentially identifies the subject and then blurs the background. It can work when there’s distinction between the two, but if you happen to have hair the same colour as the background – or just wispy hair – then it will get blurred around the edges. Or, as in the example below, there’s a faint halo around the head as it separates foreground from background.
If you really want a great portrait effect, use a real camera, but being able to use it on the front camera can give some great selfies – it’s perhaps a little strange that you can’t use face smoothing and the portrait effect at the same time for total selfie madness. It also looks like there’s a little over-sharpening happening on the front camera, but overall it’s easy to get great results from this camera.
With many cameras offering this type of portrait mode, we’d say that the Pixel 2 XL is among the best: we’ve seen some terrible results from the likes of the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and the iPhone and it’s perhaps surprising that the Pixel 2 does so well.
The Pixel 2 XL is almost certainly the best performing single-lens camera on the market, but it does miss out on some novelty. When using the Pixel 2 we miss the convenience of the Note 8’s zoom mode for getting closer to the action and we miss the creative opportunities offered by the LG V30; overall though, the Pixel 2 XL camera leaves you plenty to be excited about.
Boosting the Pixel’s performance is a second core – the Pixel Visual Core. This wasn’t really part of the launch line-up, it was kept in reserve to be announced a little later. This core aims to boost photos take in other apps, bringing more camera power to things like Instagram so you get better results when using the native camera in those apps.
The Google Pixel 2 XL brought with it a great deal of excitement at launch, with a sense of ambitious design, embracing the 18:9 display and moving things forward, as well as adding that water proofing to keep pace with the best out there.
While the design is good, it’s not as adventurous as the Samsungs of this world. The Pixel 2 XL won’t quite turn heads for the right reasons. While the shift in display aspect brings some glamour, it hangs onto bezel that it should have perhaps tried to eliminate for more radical looks.
In its initial form, the Pixel 2 XL display didn’t look good and that saw this phone stumble. But following software updates, it’s now a much more compelling option: this is now the pure Google phone we want it to be, once you’ve switched it over to “saturated” mode so it gives you a better visual experience, including letting you verify that those photos you take look as good as you think they do.
The camera has a strength in HDR and although its portrait mode isn’t perfect, we’ve seen some rivals really stumble here. You don’t get the excitement of a zoom or wide angle lens, which might put some off at this price. At its heart though, it’s a strong camera.
Overall, the Pixel 2 XL is much more attractive some months after its initial launch. The display options make it much more pleasurable to use day-to-day, but as we roll into 2018, there are going to be some very strong rivals coming.