Pixel 2 XL review: A.I. magic on a 6-inch display

If you're a dedicated Android user, the Pixel 2 XL is a no-brainer upgrade—unless you already own an original Pixel.

At a Glance

You’ll want the Google Pixel 2 XL if you’re looking for the most elegant Android experience possible in a 6-inch phone. You’ll want the Pixel 2 XL if you’re looking for a generous display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, amazing portrait photography, and a ton of surprise-and-delight features made possible by Google Lens and the rest of Google’s A.I. tool chest.

When the Pixel 2 XL was announced on Oct. 4, Google reminded us that its machine learning engine is watching our every move to improve its A.I. algorithms. So, yes, the Pixel 2 XL’s ever-Googley magic tricks may keep robophobes up at night. But it’s an incredible phone that grafts device experiences to life experience in simple, intuitive, and smile-provoking ways. And you’ll rightfully want one it if you’re due for a phone upgrade.

But if you already own the original Pixel, your decision is more difficult. The Pixel 2 XL kicks ass, but much of what makes it special—the most refined expression of Android, the Google Photos experience, Google Assistant in the home button, and Google Lens—is available in the first-generation Pixel phones, too. To this extent, the Pixel 2 XL (and the smaller Pixel 2, which I’ll review soon) are victims of Google’s success at creating a cloud-first, machine-learning platform that spans #MadeByGoogle devices.

pixel 2 xl in hand main Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 2 XL feels great in the hand.

Pixel 2 XL specs

Before we drill down into features, let’s get straight to Pixel 2 XL specs.

  • OS: Android 8.0 Oreo with guaranteed updates for three years 
  • Dimensions/weight: 6.2 x 3.0 x 0.3 inches/6.2 ounces
  • Display: 6-inch QHD+ (2880x1440) pOLED, 538 pixels per inch
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
  • Memory/storage: 4GB RAM/64GB or 128GB
  • Cameras: 12.2MP rear camera with f/1.8 aperture and optical + electronic image stabilization, 8MP front camera with f/2.4 aperture
  • Battery: 3520 mAh
  • Port: USB-C (and that’s all she wrote)

As first glance, the numbers don’t look mind-blowingly advanced. Other phones have similarly generous display resolutions and run the Snapdragon 835. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 even comes with 6GB of RAM. And neither the Pixel 2’s 12-megapixel resolution nor f/1.8 aperture are best-of-class for a rear camera.

But don’t get bogged down in the swamp of raw numbers. In practice, I found the Pixel 2 XL to be insanely zippy, just like the first-gen Pixel XL. Apps open in a flash, and the interface is ultra-responsive and fluid, with nary a touch of tangible latency.

pixel 2 and pixel 2 xl side by side 2 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The 5-inch Pixel 2 doesn’t have the screen real-estate or display quality of the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL. But aside from the display and physical design, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL offer all the same features and functionality.

And as our camera tests bear out, the Pixel 2’s new dual-pixel camera sensor (now featuring smaller 1.4-micron pixels) makes raw resolution and aperture speed less relevant bragging points. The upshot is the Pixel 2 should autofocus very quickly, perform better in low light situations, and deliver impressive depth-of-field bokeh effects—with just a single rear camera, instead of two like you’ll find on the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

Physical design: Less is more

Let me see a show of hands: How many of you put your phone in a case? Yeah, I thought so. Physical aesthetics don’t mean much when your phone is entombed in some other manufacturer’s plastic. Nonetheless, I give Google props for upping the Pixel’s design game in this second-generation treatment.

pixel 2 xl versus pixel xl top down Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 2 XL (left) is just about the same size as the original Pixel XL, but offers more vertical screen real estate.

The new phone’s dimensions are almost identical to that of the original Pixel, but thanks to the new 18:9 display ratio—and, more importantly, much slimmer bezels, top and bottom—you get somewhere near 5/8th of an inch of extra vertical screen real estate. It’s not life-changing, but it’s progress. The Pixel 2 XL’s front glass (Gorilla Glass 5) also has a gentle curve at the bezels. This, along with the elimination of visible antenna lines, gives the Pixel 2 XL a more polished, contemporary feel than the Pixel XL.

pixel 2 xl camera bump Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Google reduced the size of the glass panel on the Pixel 2 XL, but now there’s a slight camera bump.

Flip the phone over, and you’ll find a much smaller glass “visor” relative to the design of the original XL. It’s a subjective call, but I think the new design looks better balanced, perhaps because the fingerprint sensor sits on the aluminum unibody, rather than on top of the glass. I also love the slightly toothier texture of the coating Google applies to the aluminum. It’s just a bit more confidence-inspiring than the more silky finish of the original Pixel.

If I have any gripes, it’s the new, ever-so-slightly-protruding bump around the rear camera. It’s just high enough to give me pause when placing the phone on a coffee table. But when the Pixel 2 XL is encased in Google’s super-lush fabric case, all fears disappear.

Folks who fear the forward march of progress will lament Google’s decision to eliminate the headphone jack. Well, you’ll be marching without me. I haven’t used wired headphones in two years, and I’m convinced we’ll all look back at “You killed my headphone jack!” protests in the same way we view Grandpa Simpson reminiscing about his onion belt.

Bottom line: If you care about wired headphones, having to rely on a USB-C adapter is an inconvenience. So I hear your pain. I just don’t feel your pain.

Pixel 2 XL display upgrades

Looking at pure specs alone, the Pixel 2 XL has a spectacular display—but so do all the other flagship smartphones, so it’s becoming harder to deliver a display with a competitive advantage. Nonetheless, the phone’s 6-inch size and 2880x1440 resolution beat last year’s XL model, which measures 5.5 inches and clocks in at 2560x1440. That’s nice progress considering the Pixel 2 XL is just a bit taller than the first-gen phone.

For the 2 XL version, Google is also going with LG’s pOLED display tech, rather than AMOLED, which appeared in both sizes of the original Pixel, and remains in the 5-inch Pixel 2. The “p” stands for plastic, and allows Google to curve the edges of the display near the phone’s bezels.

pixel 2 xl display Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 2 XL has a wide, generous, 18:9 aspect ratio for video.

The Pixel 2 XL display has also been tuned for a wider color gamut, Google says, and includes a circular polarizer to increase screen visibility when viewed with sunglasses.The pOLED display doesn’t look demonstrably better than the original AMOLED, and if anything, it appears cooler in terms of color temperature, and is less saturated and brilliant. Other reviewers have found significant color inconsistencies with the display, but my review unit checks out fine in terms of display consistency. That said, I have found the display looks even cooler when viewed off-axis—a “blue shift” effect, if you will.

After 10 days of use, I have also observed the so-called “burn in” effect that other reviewers are seeing. In my case, I can see the faint, faint imprint of Android’s navigation buttons on a gray background. It doesn’t bug me personally (because only full-screen video content would ever appear in the affected area). but it could bug others. And when you add the slight burn-in to the color inconsistency concerns, and then throw in the display’s, well, blandness, you’re left with a screen upgrade that’s entire keyed into real estate, and not pixel quality.

The polarizer benefits, meanwhile, are difficult to discern. It definitely helps the display pop when wearing shades, but you’ll still need to increase display brightness on a bright day, sunglasses or not.

pixel 2 xl always on display Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 2 XL’s always-on display will briefly show you the full contents of a text before the notification collapses into a simply icon.

The coolest display upgrades, in fact, appear when the screen is off. Adding a feature that was conspicuously absent from the original Pixels, the new Pixel 2 models include an Always on Display mode for your lock screen. It’s an immensely helpful feature that lets you see the time, date, and notifications even when the phone is off.

Granted, this ambient mode does consume a nominal amount of battery life, but the convenience of seeing full text messages on the lock screen far outweighs the penalty.

Now Playing: Google’s built-in Shazam

The other big display upgrade, Now Playing, taps into Google’s machine-learning story. Think of Now Playing as an always-on, Google-fied version of Shazam, the music-identifying app.

When the phone is locked and Now Playing recognizes the digital fingerprint of a song playing in the background, the song title and artist will appear on the Always On Display. From there, you can double-tap on the song title, and you’ll be shuttled off to Google Assistant, where you can launch the song on YouTube, Google Play Music, or Spotify (though you’ll need to be subscribed to the latter two services to hear playback and to save the song to your library).

pixel 2 now playing Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Now Playing feature identifies songs playing your midst, and it’s all done locally—no data connection or WiFi required.

Now Playing is pure surprise-and-delight—not a must-have, life-changing experience, but it’s a great illustration of Google’s A.I. chops, and another example of how Google uses its awareness of the world’s data, broadly speaking, to deliver numerous little personal assists throughout the day.

Now Playing downloads a database of digital fingerprints directly to the Pixel 2, and all this data is stored locally, so you don’t need a WiFi or LTE connection to identify songs. Song identification typically takes about two to three seconds, but is currently limited to tracks that appear in the Google Play Music catalog. Google says its Now Playing database currently has tens of thousands of songs, and is updated weekly, but during testing I frequently stumped it with obscure tracks.

Here’s a partial list of Google’s song catalog, compiled by developer Kieron Quinn. You can read it to get a flavor of Now Playing’s strengths and limitations.

Google Lens: What’s lurking inside your photos?

Is Google Lens a photo feature, a surprise-and-delight trick, or a productivity tool? It’s actually all three. It’s a fantastic demonstration of Google’s machine-learning chops, and is coming to both original Pixel phones as well as this year’s models.

Open up Google Photos, and pick an image of a landmark, painting, or basically anything with words or pictures on it. Now tap the Google Lens icon, and prepare to be amazed. Google’s always-improving machine-learning engine will scan the image’s visual data, determine what it’s looking at, and then—if it hits a match—give you insights into whatever you’ve shot.

google lens direct hits Google

Google Lens definitely knows fine art. And kitschy cups. And oftentimes flowers, too.

In practice, I found Lens was almost always successful in giving me Google Search results for famous paintings I shot in public galleries. I was also thrilled when it identified a specific coffee cup, and pointed me to a shopping link.

But I was less impressed when I Googled Lens’ed a bunch of images of San Francisco’s Sutro Tower. For one shot, Lens identified the tower as a tree. In another image, Lens described the landmark as a simple transmission tower. Yet in a third shot, Lens scored a direct hit, and pointed me to a Google card on Sutro Tower proper.

google lens sutro tower Google

Google Lens struggled with three nearly identical images of Sutro Tower, the tallest structure in San Francisco.

It was a telling illustration of machine learning struggling with nearly exactly the same reference material. I was also surprised when Google Lens failed to recognize a perfectly clear shot of the 100-foot cross at the top of Mount Davidson. I would have assumed that Google’s location services would have helped Lens score a perfect match. But, hey, it’s machine learning: Maybe Lens will figure it out soon.

Play with Google Lens long enough, and it begins to feel like inspecting random objects in Fallout 4. Take a photo of a pear... and Lens will tell you you’re looking at a pear. Take a photo of a watch... and Lens will tell you it’s a watch. Hell, I should have taken a photo of a bottle cap. I was a bit chagrined that Len identified my pet Whiskey as a “street dog,” but was impressed that it could share the Latin name of a daisy.

google lens random objects Google

In case you couldn’t identify a pear on sight, Google Lens is here to help. Though calling Whiskey a “street dog” is a bit judgey.

It’s mostly fun and games until you use Lens to transport web URLs, email addresses, and phone numbers to Chrome, mail apps and the phone dialer. At this point, Google Lens becomes a time-saving productivity tool, sparing you the trouble of typing out often-confusing jumbles of letters.

google lens links Google

Would you really want to type that email address into Gmail? And who enjoys transposing annoying “phonewords” letters into numbers? Look how Google Lens takes care of the heavy lifting.

Will I remember to use Lens for this purpose? I hope so. As is so often the case with Google Assistant (and Google Now On Tap before it), simply remembering that a new Google feature exists is half the battle.

Next page: How the Pixel 2’s camera performs in Portrait mode and in low-light environments.

At a Glance
  • The Pixel 2 XL is an incredible phone that grafts device experiences to life experience in simple, intuitive and smile-provoking ways.

    Pros

    • Pure, glorious, pristine Android Oreo.
    • Amazing camera experience.
    • First phone to receive Google Lens.
    • Beautiful new display and physical design.
    • Packed with A.I.-driven surprise and delight features.

    Cons

    • Some key features aren't exclusive.
    • Not a monumental upgrade over original Pixel XL.
    • No headphone jack, no manual camera controls, meh speakers.
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