Google Pixel 2 review

The Google Pixel 2 is an odd phone. It has no headphone jack, large bezels and an uninspiring design. It doesn’t ignite excitement in the same way the hardware of the larger Pixel 2 XL does, with its curved, tall 18:9 display.

Samsung, LG and even Apple have phones with tiny bezels and bleeding edge design. The smaller 5in Pixel 2 has neither of these things.

But the little Pixel is still a winner for two reasons: its software and its camera. It’s the first phone I’ve used for a long time where the hardware melts away and you’re just left with the best possible software experience a phone can give you right now.

That’s what happens with the best PCs and with the iPad, but in a competitive phone market, manufacturers have to excite consumers with flashy hardware. This sometimes leaves the software with something to be desired, particularly in Android’s fragmented world.

Not so with the Pixel.

The Google Pixel 2 (left) next to the Pixel 2 XL

Price and availability

The Pixel 2 will go on sale from Google on 19 October for £629 for the 64GB model, and £729 for the 128GB version. This makes the base model £30 more than the original Pixel at launch, but with double the storage.

Carphone Warehouse is also stocking the phone on contract and SIM-free unlocked. 

The larger Pixel 2 XL will ship on 15 November.

Design and build

Taste is subjective of course, but the Pixel 2 is not as pretty as the larger Pixel 2 XL. The latter has an edge to edge curved display with a higher resolution. The smaller Pixel 2 reviewed here has a 5in 1080p display with two big, black bezels at the top and bottom.

It's pretty ugly from the front, and not a phone I'd pick on aesthetic merit. When LG has done well with the sleek XL version, it's hard not to be disappointed by HTC's effort on this smaller one.

Thankfully, Google has put stereo front facing speakers in the bezels, vastly improving the audio output from last year’s first generation. It’s easy to hold in one hand but your thumb may still struggle to reach the top of the screen.

Google made three colours of the smaller Pixel, with Just Black, Clearly White and Kinda Blue for the Miles Davis fans out there. My review device is in black which is quite a pedestrian design, but all three versions have black fronts (as do all Pixel 2 XL models).

The white and blue designs are only different on the back and sides, though the blue has a cool turquoise power button that helps it stand out. The Google logo on the back is barely visible on the black model.

The rear metal and glass design of the first Pixel has been carried over but altered slightly. The glass section is now shallower, housing a camera with the smallest of bumps, a dual LED flash and light sensors hidden by the black designs, but visible on the blue and white. The fingerprint sensor is not the fastest I’ve ever used (OnePlus 5, Huawei P10) but is exactly where it should be on the rear of a phone: in the middle.

I think the white version of the Pixel 2 is the best looking, but not as lovely as the black and white 2 XL that has a bright orange power button. Swoon.

The aluminium body is slightly more textured than the original Pixel and so feels more grippy and premium in the hand. HTC made both of these phones for Google, but they are surprisingly different from one another.

The Pixel 2 is not wedge shaped like its predecessor so cannot hide its camera bump, and the volume rocker and power button on the right edge are similar, except the power button is no longer textured.

The design is boxy but it hides its aerial lines well in the thin body. The design is oddly reminiscent of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and personally I don’t think it’s overly exciting despite its premium build. From the front it’s a bit ugly and cheap-looking.

It’s not going to stand out on a shelf next to the Galaxy S8 or iPhone X, and if it weren’t for all the redeeming features of the software experience, I’d pass on the Pixel 2.

Features and specifications

Dimensions

The phone feels lighter than I expected it to be, but at 143g is pretty normal (the iPhone 8 is 148g). It measures 145.7 x 69.7 x 7.8 mm, 0.7mm thinner than the first Pixel. It is far more utilitarian, but thankfully screams along with the Snapdragon 835 (4x2.35 GHz and 4x1.9 GHz) chipset and 4GB RAM. You have a choice between 64 and 128GB of non-expandable storage, but you’ll pay £100 extra for the latter.

This is where the Pixel lifts its unexciting design above Android phones from OEMs like Samsung, LG and Sony. When Google can handle the hardware and give it stock Android, the performance is unparalleled. In 2017 only the OnePlus 5 is as fluid in overall software experience as the Pixel 2.

Despite making a huge joke about having one last year when the iPhone didn’t, the Pixel 2 does not have a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s a shame to see it go but it won’t be long before all audio on smartphones is run through USB-C, the same port you charge the phone with. The phone ships with an adapter (£9 to buy separately) but no headphones in the box.

Don't get me wrong, not having a headphone jack is still, in 2017, very annoying and user hostile. But it's the norm now.

The Pixel 2 is IP67 water resistant (splash not dunk) but it doesn’t have wireless charging. Personally, I always prefer a speedy wired charge to a slow wireless one, but when even the iPhone has it now, Google is a tad behind.

Display

The screen is a 5in OLED with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and 441ppi. Blacks are brilliantly dark and viewing angles are superb in all conditions including bright sunlight. It’s a portal to one of the most responsive Android experiences around.

If you want the best of the best then you’ll have to opt for the higher resolution Pixel 2 XL, but the difference is only noticeable when comparing side by side. Compared to a phone like the Galaxy S8, the smaller Pixel 2 has a slightly dull tint, but Samsung’s panels are best in class.

Camera

And then, the camera. Oh my. The Pixel had an amazing camera and the Pixel 2 has improved it. Brilliantly, you get the same sensor and set up on the smaller Pixel 2 and the larger 2 XL so if you like smaller phones then you don’t lose out like you do with Apple (iPhone 8 and 8 Plus) and Huawei (P10 and P10 Plus).

There is a single 12.2Mp sensor with f/1.8 and optical image stabilisation. It can record UHD 4K video at 30fps, not quite as good as the iPhone 8’s ridiculous UHD 4K at 60fps. The front facing camera is 8Mp with f/2.4 and capable of recording HD 1080p video.

Detail and lighting in dusk shots excel on the Pixel 2, but note the sunspot to the lower left of the image

Eschewing the dual lens trend, Google has leant on its post-processing prowess to bring a superlative photography experience to the Pixel 2. Taking a photo actually takes several images that the software quickly processes into one combined end product. This method increases the high dynamic range (HDR) and leaves phenomenal results, notably so in low light.

The Pixel 2 handles low light incredibly in low light, showing excellent detail in bright and dark areas

HDR+, Google’s algorithmic wizardry in the camera app, is on by default. You can turn it off if you want, but you shouldn’t. This is surely the best all round point-and-shoot phone camera going for pure ease of use and quality of photos. Low light shots show detail excellently, and the software pays attention to the composition of the whole scene to great effect.

Despite there only being one lens, the Pixel 2 has a Portrait Mode like the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus. This is achieved by Google using a dual-pixel sensor in both cameras, meaning each pixel takes in the image and focus data rather than only being able to handle one. This means the processing can easier identify the intended subject of a portrait mode shot.

Results are slightly less natural than the dual camera results of an iPhone 8 Plus or Galaxy Note 8, but for a single lens to be able to do this is absolutely ridiculous. You will love it, as will selfie-addicts. More than any phone, the photos from the Pixel 2 will not need much tinkering before uploading to social media.

The edges of the subject are blurred very well by Google's post processing

Unlike Apple’s portrait forays, the Pixel one arrives at launch not in beta and fully formed. One thing you will have to wait for though is AR sticker integration for photo-fun. But with the mountain of photo data Google is sitting on, I expect the experience will be decent.

Finally, take a photo of something and chances are Google knows what it is. The Pixel 2 is the first phone to get Google Lens integration in Google Photos. Go to your camera roll and tap the Lens icon and you’ll more often than not get a good result. It can identify buildings and landmarks, or extract URLs, email addresses and phone numbers to then immediately action.

When Lens works, it works very well. But it can't identify everything yet

It’s very good but not something everyone is pining for. It could quietly be the future though, particularly with possible AR integration to view the world live Google Glass style through the phone’s display, rather than by reviewing taken images.

Motion photo capture is a lot like Apple’s live photos where photos spring to live with a couple of seconds of video. But rather than pressing to view a snippet of film like on iPhone, you toggle motion on or off in Photos, and the software loops the video as it sees best. It’s a neat touch, but can only be viewed between Pixel devices; at the time of writing the original Pixel can view but not take them. Pixel

Video recording is also top notch, combining OIS and EIS to bring good stability. It is an all-around excellent photography experience, from viewfinder to post processing to viewing.

Assistant

Lens is all part of the Google Assistant. Assistant on the Pixel 2 activated either by the familiar long press of the home button from any screen, or by Active Edge, a feature carried over by HTC from its U11 (though it can also be found on the LG-made Pixel 2 XL).

The pressure sensitive sides of the phone have no physical give in them but can detect levels of pressure. Setting the squeeze to your preference lets you open Assistant from anywhere in the phone or even when it’s locked. Unlike the U11 though, that’s all it can do – it’s either on or off and you can’t assign it to do different things like open the camera (it can be used to silence calls though, it’s only other optional use).

Assistant baked into Google Pixel hardware is still the best way to experience it, despite it being present on other Android devices. Connection to Google Home devices worked for me brilliantly, and it all simply felt right at home on the Pixel 2, whereas I have felt Assistant is tacked-on to other phones, especially when they offer it alongside Bixby (Samsung) or Alexa (HTC).

Daydream View

Google also sent me a Daydream View, its improved VR headset, to try out. It is very comfortable even over my glasses and it’s easy to navigate the UI with the included controller. Apps are a tad scarce but the available games are entertaining enough, while YouTube VR will surely be a gateway to the VR living room of the future once everyone has a smartphone capable of it.

But if you’re after an HD VR experience, this isn’t it. Having the Pixel 2 that close to your face shows up, well, pixels. Text and video becomes blurry and I’d rather just watch a TV.

Battery life

The Pixel 2 has an adequate 2,700mAh non-removable battery, which is about as much juice as Google could squeeze into such a slim device. It charges via the supplied USB-C fast charger, and I saw excellent charging speeds particularly from empty to about 60% in around half an hour.

Google claims you can get 7 hours of use out of a 15-minute charge which I am dubious about. I’ll update this review with more observations the more I use the device, but at the moment the phone is usually getting me through a whole day starting at 100% at 8am and ending up with about 15% by 10pm, which is great.

On another day though I used the phone for just shy of nine hours before it hit 20%, recording under three hours of screen on time which isn’t amazing. Hopefully long-term use will prove less erratic, but if battery life is your concern you’ll want the 3,250mAh Pixel 2 XL.

Battery saver mode can be toggled on and off easily in the notification shade and if you go into the battery section in settings it’ll even tell you which apps are caning your battery and, excellently, let you action it straight away rather than just close it (the example below allowing me to turn off location services)

Connectivity

The phone has Bluetooth 5.0, hopefully to overcome the original Pixel's less than stellar connectivity. In my time so far with the Pixel 2 it has kept decent connections with wearables, speakers and headphones, so things look to have improved here.

There's also NFC for Android Pay that works as expected, while Wi-Fi connections are slick with dual band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac. Hotspotting to 4G also worked without a hitch. 

Benchmarks

I ran speed tests for the Pixel 2 against the larger Pixel 2 XL, the iPhone 8 and four other Android flagships that have the same processor as the Pixel (the Snapdragon 835). The results below represent what I would have expected: no real-life difference between the multi-core scores for any of the phones with an 835.

The Pixel 2 only feels faster and more fluid than every phone on the list (bar, perhaps the unusually fast OnePlus 5) because of the stock nature of Android with no skin to process.

The Pixel 2 ran faster than the XL in terms of frame rate because of its lower resolution screen, while the iPhone pulls ahead in terms of raw possible speed thanks to that A11 chip.

But realistically, all these phones are just as fast as each other.

Audio

The Pixel 2's stereo speakers are pretty good for YouTube videos and the occasional dip into Instagram stories, but you won't want to play an album or watch a film on them. I found even podcasts sounded a bit tinny and trebly and preferred to use headphones.

This of course involves the included adapter, and music streamed from Spotify sounded good through AKG in-ear headphones. With no headphones in the box though, audio quality will depend how good your cans are.

Call quality on the Pixel 2 is very good, with all 2G calls sounding crisp and clear (the earpiece also goes excruciatingly loud, which is better than quiet). VoLTE and Wi-Fi calls are available depending on your service and operator, and all worked in my testing. 

Software

The lure of the Pixel 2 is not its pedestrian design but its superb software. As described it takes care of photos to an unbelievable level, such is Google prowess in post processing and machine learning. Google Photos is so far ahead of the competition it’s not even fair anymore.

The Pixel launcher is slightly tweaked now, putting the Google search bar at the foot of the screen rather than a tab at the top. You can’t change remove it, but you can edit the five icons that site above it, and a swipe up gets you your full alphabetized list.

Android 8.0 Oreo out the box gives you a completely up to date Google software experience and I really can’t fault the performance of the phone at all. From streaming music, watching video and gaming, to multitasking between data intensive apps, the phone didn’t chug once where the iPhone 8 does in my experience.

Google gets all the little things right too, like swiping on the fingerprint sensor to bring the notification shade down. As well as the tidied-up menus in Oreo, the Pixel 2 has an improved always on display with new font, notification icons and a cool ‘now playing’ feature that can tell what music is playing around you from an offline library of about 10,000 tracks.

It’s another example of Google using its obscene mine of data to bring another nice-to-have feature to its totally polished vision of Android. Where other manufacturers tack things on needlessly, Google refinements have an air of effortless about them.

And for the record, it got Fleetwood Mac, Badly Drawn Boy and Green Day first time, but not, to the irritation of my alternative-minded colleague, I Am Kloot. I’ll let the phone off though.

Notification dots don’t fully work yet on phones like the Sony Xperia XZ1 but work flawlessly here, though I still find long pressing apps to see shortcuts unintuitive. Apple does it better, where you keep your thumb held down to scroll up the menu. I instinctively do it on the Pixel, but that drags the icon away for repositioning, so I don’t use it.

Music playing on Pixel 2 uses the colours of album artwork in the notification

One thing that Google has quietly changed from the original Pixel is limit its unlimited storage for photos (bear with me). A purchase of the original got you unlimited Google Photo storage for life, whereas the Pixel 2 gets you unlimited for three years. Google hopes you’ll pay for it after that, or buy the next Pixel. It’s a small detail that likely won’t bother you, but it’s worth noting.

Overall, the software of the Pixel 2 is uniformly excellent, but if you like the slick futurism of Samsung’s latest Android skin you might find the Pixel 2 a little bland.

Google Pixel 2: Specs

  • Android 8.0 Oreo
  • 5in AMOLED Full HD display 1080x1920
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64/128GB storage
  • 12Mp rear camera
  • 8Mp front camera
  • Dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • 2700mAh battery
  • USB-C charging port
  • Fast Charging support
  • IP67 waterproof
  • Android 8.0 Oreo
  • 5in AMOLED Full HD display 1080x1920
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64/128GB storage
  • 12Mp rear camera
  • 8Mp front camera
  • Dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • 2700mAh battery
  • USB-C charging port
  • Fast Charging support
  • IP67 waterproof

OUR VERDICT

The Pixel 2 is a boring phone until you turn it on. The uninspiring hardware melts away to present you with a bleeding edge vision of the Android future, with machine learning fully integrated. It’s not quite there yet, but this is where we are heading.

The camera, one lens down on some competitors, is better than all of them in most situations thanks to the superior software onboard. You only get that benefit when you buy Google hardware, and the company is finally realising the end to end product that Apple has been making for a decade.

If you want a smartphone to fawn over and make your friends jealous with, you won’t want the Pixel 2. But it’s faster than the Galaxy S8 and takes better photos. It delivers the best overall camera and software experience on any Android smartphone to date.

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