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.

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Pixel 2 XL camera: Portrait Mode for the win 

If you’ve read this far, you’re likely extremely Pixel-curious, and if you’re extremely Pixel-curious, you’re probably well aware of Google’s camera upgrades for the Pixel 2 family (both models have exactly the same camera).

For instance: Low-light performance is better than last year’s phone, thanks to optical image stabilization and a new approach to HDR. And video has been improved by marrying electronic stabilization to optical stabilization. And the Pixel 2’s dual-pixel technology does DSLR-style bokeh effects with just a single camera.

low light pixel 2 option Jon Phillips

It’s difficult to take a bad shot at sundown with the Pixel 2 XL.

But how does it all perform? In blunt terms, the overall camera experience is the best I’ve ever used. Camera performance isn’t flawless, mind you, but the results are often mind-blowing.

Let’s look at some Portrait mode shots. When you shoot a portrait, the Pixel 2 will save two images—one with background blur, and one untouched. I’m providing crops of each version side by side to give you a better idea of Google’s machine-learning, algorithmic magic.

pixel 2 portrait comparison 2Jon Phillips

Using just a single camera lens, Google’s machine-learning algorithms can create stunning bokeh effects on the Pixel 2.

As you can see, Google’s software was able to almost perfectly mask Whiskey’s shape against a complex background. And because Google’s machine learning is designed to improve over time, we may see even better results in the future.

pixel 2 portrait comparisonJon Phillips

Notice how the blurred image fails to resolve some of the hair on the top of Whiskey’s ears. It’s subtle, and you have to look for these flaws to find them.

We’re currently testing the Pixel 2’s camera performance against other smartphones, paying close attention to portrait modes. All of the phones suffer a bit of detail degradation in the transition from blur to sharpness, but in my quick anecdotal comparisons, the Pixel 2 seems extremely capable with just its single camera. But if you’re looking for “mistakes,” check out the hair on Whiskey’s ears in the shot above. An SLR camera would have resolved the hair properly—blurring the hair, but not eliminating it entirely.

pixel 2 portrait comparison 3Jon Phillips

Another beautiful Portrait mode shot. You don’t even have to try to shoot a nice shot. But notice how the piece of lint on the right side of the statue doesn’t appear on the blurred image.

I’m especially happy with the photo of the Buddha head above—if only because I shot it with almost reckless disregard for my final results. And check out the lint removal on the ear. It’s probably a lucky accident, but it does make the photo looks better. Nice clean-up work, Google.

Low light photos and video stabilization

Once you get into elite flagship phone territory—I’m talking Galaxy Note 8, LG V30 and iPhone 8 Plus—you’re mostly assured of capturing great photos in good lighting conditions. Low light performance is what separates the elite from the also-rans, and the Pixel 2 delivers low-light in spades. First, check out how the Pixel 2 compares to last year’s model.

low light pixel 1 vs pixel 2 Jon Phillips

The original Pixel delivers admirable results in this extremely dim environment, but the Pixel 2’s camera is tuned for even better shots. Check out the label on the Oban bottle.

The shot above illustrates extreme crops of a much larger scene. I locked down each phone on a tripod to eliminate camera shake, so image stabilization shouldn’t necessarily be in play. Overall, across various shots, I found that the Pixel 2 XL delivers the appearance of longer exposures compared to the original Pixel, but not at the expense of detail. Look at the clarity of the whiskey bottle label.

Now check out how low-light performance compares to the iPhone 8 Plus.

pixel 2 xl versus iphone 8 plus low light Adam Patrick Murray

The iPhone 8 Plus image may look brighter and more vibrant when viewed close to full frame, but once you zoom in and inspect pixels, you find the Pixel 2 delivers better clarity.

pixel 2 xl versus iphone 8 plus low light close up Adam Patrick Murray.

Click this cropped image to make it full screen, and check out the detail on the white Porsche.

If you took the time to click and enlarge the second image, you’ll see how well Google’s camera retains clarity under challenging lighting conditions. Granted, the iPhone 8 Plus looks beautiful when viewed full-frame—which is fine when you’re viewing photos on a phone—but once you zoom in closely on both shots, you see just how far Google has come in terms of raw image quality.

The Pixel 2 camera also delivers remarkable image stabilization in video. I took a number of videos on my weekend hike up Mount Davidson, and what I recorded sometimes looked like it was shot on a gimbal—mostly free of discernible shake, and with none of the jelly effect that we see in so many smartphone videos. You can watch the video at the top of this article to see Google’s fused optical and electronic image stabilization in action.

Google Photos: For Pixel, Pixel 2, and everyone

When you buy a Pixel 2, you get free, unlimited storage for all your photos and video at original quality through the end of 2020. After that, you get unlimited storage for what Google calls “high-quality” photos taken with your Pixel phone. For regular-old consumers, these freebies are reason enough to switch.

But I have to call special attention to the Google Photos app—specifically its Assistant features. The app is actually available to all Android and iOS users, but the Pixel phones are the app’s main entry point. And Google Photos rocks

google photos assistant panorama Jon Phillips

This panorama shot of the Bay Bridge was stitched together by Photos Assistant. All on its own. Without my asking.

Exhibit A: The panorama shot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge I’ve inserted above. I actually had no intention of shooting a panorama. I merely shot a bunch of photos of the bridge, and walked away. A few hours later, the Photos Assistant app sent me the stitched-together image, all by its own volition. Basically: Thought you might like to see this. Enjoy.

And that’s what Photos Assistant does. It finds similar images that were shot in close succession and turns them into trippy animations. It creates a chronological photo essay of your trip to wine country. It find photos of your beloved dog, and sends you a movie—with a soundtrack!—that chronicles your pup over a number of years. And it takes interesting photos, and tweaks them for dramatic effect. All of these gems pop up as notifications for you to save or discard as you please.

Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Sometimes it’s freaky and scary. But when those Googlers get it right, they really nail it.

Pixel 2 launcher tweaks and Active Edge

Like the first-gen Pixels, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL offer Android—now version 8.0, aka Oreo—in its most elegant, bloat-free form. Call me crazy, but I want Android expressed just how Google intends it to be expressed, free of unnecessary apps and customizations. “Pure” Android Oreo—the version seeded to developers—doesn’t have Now Playing. Nor does it come with the Pixel launcher. But other than these tweaks, the Android experience on Pixel 2 is about as pure as it gets.

In terms of pure UX design, I find Google’s version of Android more intuitive to navigate than Samsung’s TouchWiz interface on the latest Galaxy phones. And in terms of raw visual design aesthetics, the Pixel 2 experience looks cleaner and classier than the designs we see from the rest of the Android pack. It’s a fun, bright aesthetic that elevates playfulness over techiness

For the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, Google has made some subtle tweaks to the Pixel launcher, and the changes are pleasant, but not revolutionary.

pixel 2 xl search bar Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Your Google search bar is now full-width and obvious—so maybe you’ll use it more often.

The most obvious tweak is a redesigned Google search field: Where the original Pixels had a search “pill” in the top-left corner, the Pixel 2s have a full-width search field at the bottom of the home screen. The new search bar is much more in your face, and may compel me to actually use traditional Google search, rather than resorting to Google Assistant or opening a Chrome tab, which offer different behaviors and less comprehensive search results.

The collapsed weather widget at the top of the home screen also has a new design. It now spans nearly the full width of the display, and is rendered in a slightly tweaked version of Google’s Product Sans font. Before, if you tapped anywhere on the weather widget, you opened up the full Weather app. Now, if you tap on the (much larger) date you’ll launch Calendar, and if you tap on your local temperature you’ll launch Weather. 

pixel 2 xl weather widget Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Google made its weather widget more legible and useful in the Pixel 2 XL.

Google didn’t stop with flat interface design, as there are some physical U.I. tweaks as well. The most showy is Active Edge. Borrowing a trick straight from HTC playbook, you can squeeze the bottom of the phone’s unibody to launch Google Assistant—adding yet another way to launch Assistant (you can still voice “OK Google” or long-press the home button). Active Edge really feels like a “we did it because we can” feature, its fun factor notwithstanding. I just wish it could trigger other actions, like launching user-defined apps, per HTC’s Edge Sense.

pixel 2 xl fingerprint sensor Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 2 XL’s fingerprint sensor almost seems to unlock before you touch the sensor. It’s just that fast.

Finally, the Pixel 2 models have a new fingerprint sensor—the fastest in the world, Google says. Yes, it’s fast. Damn fast. Like, it basically unlocks if you even think about touching it.

I kid. But, yeah. it’s fast.

Pixel 2 XL: Should you buy it?

I clearly love what Google has done with its Pixel phones. And to everything I mention above, you can add:

  • The Pixels’ Quick Switch Adapter, which makes migrating from your current phone to the Pixel 2 remarkably easy.
  • The camera app’s filmstrip, which drops you straight into Google Photos.
  • Easier Bluetooth headphone pairing thanks to a new Fast Pair feature.
  • The personalized Google app feed that lives to the left of your home screen (it’s my first stop for news every morning).
  • IP67 dust and water resistance (hallelujah!).
  • And of course Google Assistant, the most aware, constantly evolving A.I. assistant working today.

Yes, I have my quibbles. As stated above, I don’t care about the lack of a headphone jack, but I’m not impressed with the audio quality of Google new front-facing speakers. In fact, every now and then I've heard weird distortion in some of my notification sounds. This combined with the screen burn-in issue suggests Google may have quality-control issues to address. Neither problem has affected my my Pixel 2 XL experience in any material way, but they must be noted.

I would also like manual, DSLR-style camera controls, like those available in LG and Samsung flagships. And I do see immense value in all of S Pen features available in the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. A Pixel with an intelligent stylus would be epic, but the Pixel 2 XL is “just” a phone.

pixel 2 google lens art indentification Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

You can’t remember the artwork you shot? Google Lens can tell you everything you need to know about a mysterious painting (as long as it’s famous). 

But my biggest gripe of all? It’s that the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t feel like a monumental, stop-the-presses, this-is-a-game-changer upgrade over the Pixel XL. The physical design is better. The camera is a lot better. But none of these advances are amazeballs better, and the Pixel 2 doesn’t feel a grand revelation like the original from 2016.

Once you consider that Google Lens is coming to the original Pixels, and that Google Assistant and Google Photos are phone- and platform-agnostic, you find yourself faced with a tough decision. If you’ve haven’t bought a new phone in two years, and don’t care about Samsung’s S Pen, then the Pixel 2 XL is the phone you want to buy.

But if you already own an original Pixel, look closely at your bank balance, and think about your priorities in life. To wit: The Pixel XL has been my daily driver for the last year, and I don’t think I’d splurge $849 on the latest model.

It’s OK to wait. October 4, 2018 is now less than a year away. 

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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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