The Pixel 2 (starting at $649) combines pure Google software and a great camera in a one-hand-friendly size. But while its specs generally measure up to the larger Pixel 2 XL, its design and performance don’t quite get there. That makes the XL our Editors’ Choice, and the phone to get if you want the full Google experience.
In an era of tiny-bezel phones, the Pixel 2 is a bit of a throwback. At 5.7 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 5.0 ounces, it fits very well into one hand. But its 5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 OLED screen is bracketed by relatively large top and bottom bezels, much like you see on the iPhone 8.
As a 16:9 phone, the Pixel 2 is the same width as the Samsung Galaxy S8, which has a much bigger screen; the S8 is taller and narrower, and lacks the large top and bottom bezels. The Pixel 2’s screen also looks a bit yellowish, while the Pixel 2 XL is bluer and the Galaxy S8 is balanced in the middle.
The matte metal-and-glass back feels like a warm ceramic, with a pleasant interplay of textures. The phone comes in black, white, or a blue-gray, and is IP67 water resistant. It comes in 64GB and 128GB models. Our 64GB model had 52GB available.
The fingerprint sensor is on the back of the phone. The big bezels here are ostensibly for the front-facing speakers, although the Pixel 2 XL manages to get in both front-facing speakers and smaller bezels. There are a few features missing that power users might want, but they aren’t surprises: There’s no memory card slot, no headphone jack, and no dual-SIM version.
Modem and Battery
The Pixels may have very different bodies, but they have the same modem and LTE performance. That means a Category 15, 800Mbps modem supporting all of the US bands except T-Mobile’s new Band 71, which will cover rural areas in the future. (For Band 71, you need an LG V30 right now.) The phone is 600Mbps on Sprint because it lacks 4×4 MIMO on Sprint’s Band 41, but it has 4×4 MIMO for the other US and Canadian carriers (even Freedom!), which extends coverage and speed in weak signal areas. According to modem experts, the Pixel has the hardware for gigabit LTE, but Google chose not to support the full spec.
Wi-Fi support is excellent, on par with the Samsung Galaxy phones. The Pixel 2 XL also has Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC.
Those big front-facing speakers really pay off with the Pixel 2’s speakerphone, which is very loud, if rather harsh. Loud but harsh is also how we’d describe the earpiece voice tone; we prefer the Pixel 2 XL, which has a rounder sound, if not quite as loud. Noise cancellation is fine, if not industry-leading.
The Pixel only has a 2,700mAh battery, but Google’s software has always been great at conserving power. We got 8 hours, 48 minutes of LTE streaming on our Pixel 2, which is terrific for a small phone like this. It doesn’t quite measure up to the Pixel 2 XL (9 hours, 25 minutes), but of course, the XL has more room inside. The phone supports fast charging, but not wireless charging.
Software and Performance
When it comes to software and performance, you’re getting pretty much the same experience here that you do on the Pixel 2 XL for $200 more—and it’s a beautiful, Google-centric experience.
That starts with Android 8.0 Oreo, and assures you of timely updates for at least the next few years. It continues with a lack of redundant OEM apps and carrier bloatware, as long as you don’t buy the phone from Verizon. Google’s calendar and messaging apps look better than other manufacturers’, and unlike on Samsung phones, you won’t end up juggling two different browsers or two different calendar apps. Pixel phones are just cleaner.
See How We Test Phones
Google has put a few exclusive twists on Android here. I like the new feature that listens to ambient music and tells you what’s playing automatically, right on your lock screen. But when I tried it with ten songs, it only worked on four of them. Google says it’s primed with the most popular tracks, and it’ll be updated as time goes on. Fair enough.
Google Lens has some promise; it’s a feature that automatically recognizes text in photos or lets you look up books, albums, artwork, and locations in Google Photos. It worked easily on books I tried, but it’s not a huge differentiator, and I kept forgetting it was there.
But the star of the show, clearly, is Google Assistant, Google’s voice interface that’s more conversational, flexible, and knowledgeable than Siri or Bixby. You can activate the Assistant in a bunch of different ways. You can turn on an option to have it recognize your voice even when the phone’s screen is off, for example. I ended up using the squeeze sensor a lot. Introduced originally on HTC’s U11, the sensor lets you squeeze the phone slightly below its midriff to launch the Assistant (but no other app). It even works when the phone is in a case.
You could argue that performance is smoother on the Pixel 2 than on the XL, because the same 2.46GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with 4GB of RAM is pushing fewer screen pixels. In our benchmarks, that showed up as higher gaming frame rates for the smaller phone. But in actual practice, we didn’t see any difference in the UI or in-game performance.
Higher frame rates would mean good things for VR, but if you’re interested in VR, the Pixel 2 isn’t the phone to get. I tried the Pixel 2 with Google’s new $99 Daydream View headset. The new headset is comfortable and costs less than Samsung’s $129 Gear VR. But the Pixel 2’s 440ppi screen isn’t dense enough for a comfortable VR experience. Individual pixels in VR apps are much too visible, and text, especially, would pulse and shift as I moved my head around. For VR headset use, you should get a phone with a higher-density screen, like the Pixel 2 XL, LG V30, or Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
Also, like on the iPhone 8, Google absolutely insists that its augmented reality system works just fine with one camera. It showed off a few AR demos at a media event—the usual furniture-placement app, a game, and an app that adds 3D fictional characters to your photos—but it still feels like Google’s ARCore is well behind Apple’s ARKit in terms of developer support so far.
Multimedia and Camera
As mentioned earlier, the Pixel 2’s front-facing speakers are loud, but they sound tinny compared with the richer audio coming out of the Pixel 2 XL. The lack of a headphone jack will hurt a bit, especially because Google doesn’t even include headphones here, just a dongle.
Google clearly wants to push you toward Bluetooth, and it’s pushing a new “fast pairing” technique that’s supposed to make it easier to pair your Bluetooth headset. Right now, though, it only works with a handful of headsets: the Libratone QAdapt Over Ear, Google’s own Pixel Buds, the Plantronics V8200, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and some headphones made by a company named AiAiAi. That said, I didn’t have any trouble pairing the phone to my Plantronics Voyager UC headset.
The Pixel 2’s 12.2-megapixel, f/1.8 camera is among the best of its kind. We’ve seen, testing smartphone cameras recently, that 12 or 13 megapixels is about the top limit of low-light quality on a smartphone sensor; anything more, like the 16 megapixels on LG’s V30, is wasted in low light.
Google’s Pixel camera software is very simple, without RAW support, manual mode, or many scene settings; Google encourages you to strike out and get that stuff through third-party camera apps. Currently, the flagship software feature is Motion Photos, which, like Apple’s Live Photos, capture a snippet of video with each picture. The phone also has a software bokeh mode that works on both the front and rear cameras.
Upgrades are coming, showing that this camera app isn’t a fixed point. Google says that an upgrade “in the coming weeks” for the phone’s HDR capabilities will enhance image quality in mixed lighting.
We tested the Pixel 2 against the Pixel 2 XL and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8/S8. They’re all terrific in good light. In low light, we were surprised to see some differences between the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL models, given that they supposedly have the same camera. But we saw them: Every once in a while, the Pixel didn’t judge colors in low light quite as well as its bigger counterpart. Maybe that was because of shifting light when we were taking our test photos, but it was enough to cement our decision in favor of the Pixel 2 XL.
Both Pixels are able to maintain slightly faster shutter speeds in low light than the Galaxy S8 does, which gives you more of a fighting chance against blur, and they don’t do the hideous overprocessing that the LG V30 does. That makes them the best smartphone cameras out there right now.
There’s only one main camera, but that’s less concerning on a $649, 5-inch phone than it is on the bigger Pixel 2 XL. Competing phones at this size and price range don’t generally have dual cameras.
Comparisons and Conclusions
There’s a smooth set of stair steps up the Android flagship price ladder. The OnePlus 5 costs $479. The Pixel 2 is $649. The Galaxy S8 clocks in around $720, the Pixel 2 XL is $849, and the Galaxy Note 8 is in the $900 zone.
This becomes a question of sweet spots, and I just don’t think the Pixel 2 is it. If you’re just looking for a good, affordable Android phone, the OnePlus 5 is pretty great. If you’re looking for the Pixel experience, the XL is superior. And I still love the body design of the Samsung Galaxy S8, the most elegantly built phone on the market.
This isn’t to say that the Pixel 2 is a bad phone. It’s suffering from the same problem that the iPhone 8 is, which is being the lower-middle child in a crowded field of good choices. As it is, it’s our fourth (or so) choice for a higher-end Android phone, which is more of a statement about the strength of the Android field than the weakness of the Pixel 2. If you’re aching for a Pixel this year, go big.
And if you buy one, buy it from Google. Verizon is selling the Pixel as well, but it’ll be laden with bloatware and harder to hack. As Google has a 24-month financing program (bringing the phone’s price to $27.04 per month), getting the unlocked model straight from the source is your best bet.