Google Pixel 2 XL
FOR Design, flagship spec; speed; natural images; camera AGAINST Average audio; video lacks a little detail
The battle between Apple and Google has, for a good while, been a battle of software versus hardware. Google’s Android operating system – found in a multitude of other companies’ smartphones – touted personalisation, free-rein access to the depths of the OS, and the promise of cutting-edge software upgrades.
The search for synergy
Apple, however, boasts a synergy between hardware and software that can only come by having direct control over almost every aspect of the smartphone’s manufacture.
Naturally, Google made the move into hardware, even if its first devices were built by other companies. The first Google Pixel phone arrived in 2016 and now we have the latest range, the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL, the latter on test here.
While the Pixel 2 is pretty similar to the original Pixel, the Pixel 2 XL is a little different to its predecessor. There’s a larger, 6-inch screen (the original XL had a 5.5in screen) and the actual phone is a few millimetres taller and wider, despite being a sliver thinner and keeping the same weight.
On the top and bottom are the dual front-firing speakers. This is a good use of bezels that went to waste on the old Pixel.
The back of the phone now has a matt coating on the bottom four-fifths of the metal body which makes it much easier to hold and less susceptible to smudges and prints. It also makes it uglier, to our eyes, which is a shame. Should you drop your phone in the bath, the Pixel 2 XL is IP67 certified for water-resistance, meaning it should survive a dunking in 1m depth for up to 30 minutes.
As is becoming de rigueur on high-end phones, the handset is low on buttons and connections. Sleek is the word (just a shame about that matt overlay). The lock and volume buttons remain, on the right, and there’s the fingerprint scanner on the back, as is increasingly standard. A USBC port on the bottom is your only connection, so there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. A 3.5mm-to-usb adapter is supplied.
Our only criticism is the camera lens, which sticks out from the body of the Pixel 2 XL. While the actual protrusion is small, it does mean the phone doesn’t sit flat. We’d rather compromise with a slightly deeper phone with a sleeker back.
“The Pixel Visual Core chip, which helps make the camera so impressive, is now enabled for third-party apps”
The camera itself is superb though – certainly one of the best we’ve seen on a smartphone. There’s a f/1.8 12.2MP lens on the back and a 8MP selfie camera. This might seem par-for-the-course, but the processing built-into the Pixel 2 XL means that it packs in the detail and levels out the differences in exposure, thanks to its Auto HDR+ setting. That results in natural, insightful pictures with authentic colours and crisp edges. Both bright and dark conditions are handled with aplomb.
Moreover, the Pixel Visual Core chip, which helps make the camera so impressive, is now enabled for third-party apps too. Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp can now all use this to enhance snaps taken within the apps. According to Google, you’ll use less of your battery while taking photos too.
Powering the Pixel 2 XL is Android 8.0 Oreo, the most recent version of the operating system, and with it comes a menagerie of little tweaks that make this smartphone more useful than the original Pixel: picture in picture for watching videos; adaptive icons to better customise the home screen; snoozing notifications and notification dots.
Unique to Google’s brand of smartphones, there’s no pre-installed bloatware from the hardware manufacturer, like with other Android phones. That’s not to say it’s entirely customisable, however; the home screen gives over real estate to a fixed Google search bar, at the bottom, and a time and date widget at the top. Neither of which can be removed. Similarly, the back and open apps buttons can’t be flipped, unlike on other Android phones.
Inside, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor keeps the phone speedy and responsive. And it’s certainly rapid in use compared with most flagship phones, with only the Samsung Galaxy S9+ giving it a run for its money. The Pixel 2 XL also has 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage (or 128GB, if you pay around £100 more). There’s no expandable memory, though, so no room for a microsd card.
Battery power clocks in at 3520mah, which Google claims will deliver seven hours of use from just 15 minutes of charging. We find the 2 XL has plenty of juice to get us through the day, even with heavy use.
Want more features? Try giving it a quick squeeze. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL (and the recent HTC U11) have come up with a novel
feature; you can squeeze the lower half of the phone to fire-up Google Assistant. Assuming the phone is unlocked, it’s a quick way to get Google answers.
If you still use your phone to actually make calls, you can also enjoy the fact the Pixel 2 XL automatically screens spam calls. The screen turns red and carries the message ‘suspected spam caller’, which is a neat way to avoid them.
In between those barely there bezels is the all-important screen. Not just any screen, a POLED screen (or plastic OLED), with a plastic substrate inside the screen rather than the typical glass.
It’s a 6in display with a 18:9 aspect ratio and a 2880 x 1440 resolution for a 538 ppi (pixels per inch) density. As you might expect, there are some things this screen does really well, including deep blacks and skin tones. Watching a download of
Home on BBC iplayer, faces look more human on this phone than almost any we’ve seen, and the realism and subtlety afforded by the OLED screen makes it easy to watch.
Switch to a Samsung Galaxy S9 or an iphone 8 Plus and you get a punchier, more colourful delivery, with both digging out more detail in dark and bright corners of the screen. There are adjustments you can make on the Pixel, with the option of Natural, Boosted or Saturated colours, but while this will add some occasionally welcome ruddiness to cheeks, the picture remains on the subdued side. The smooth subtleness of OLED still holds appeal, though, and it’s enjoyable in its own right.
The Google Pixel 2 XL has done away with the 3.5mm headphone jack and opted for USBC for audio and power, as is becoming the increasingly common choice on Android. An adapter is supplied but no earphones. The phone supports Wireless HD audio with LDAC and Aptx HD, should you prefer to ditch the wires.
Into the ordinary
The Pixel 2 XL can play hi-res audio but, even with the best source material, music doesn’t quite come to life. The original Pixel proved underwhelming on the audio side and this model follows in its footsteps. Listening to a 24-bit FLAC file of Four Tet’s
Two Thousand And Seventeen, it lacks the extra layer of subtlety to really draw you into the music.
In isolation we’re well past the stage of being aggrieved by harsh treble or boomy bass, but instead we find ourselves flicking idly through tracks after barely a minute, which tends to signal a sound that lacks life.
This is a flagship Android experience and we have no qualms with the phone in use or, indeed, how long you can use it for – as we’d expect for £800. Should you want to take lots of photos you’re in for a treat, too. If you don’t require much else, and like a big screen, then look no further.
Of course, we rather value video and audio quality, and while the Pixel 2 XL is good enough for video, the audio is merely so-so. And that’s something that you don’t have to sacrifice with rivals.
There are clear pros and cons here, and ultimately your buying decision will depend on your particular spec preferences. All told, the Pixel 2 XL is good – but not quite the great marriage of hardware and software we Come were hoping for.
A matt coating on the back helps with grip – but not with aesthetics
The screen is a plastic OLED affair rather than the usual glass
It‘s taller, wider and slimmer than the original XL, but the same weight