The Pixel 2 XL (starting at $849) is a true Google phone—possibly the most Google phone ever. The company has remixed its favorite features from HTC and LG to make a supersized flagship with a unique personality. While the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL has roughly the same power and hardware capabilities as the 5-inch Pixel 2, the XL has a better design and better performance. It also has the finest smartphone camera we’ve tested. That makes it the best all-around Android phone available right now, and our Editors’ Choice.
Here’s a slight shocker: Although Google tries to hide it, the smaller Pixel 2 (made by HTC) and the larger Pixel 2 XL (made by LG) are different phones; they’re not just big and small variants, like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. They have very different screen panels, a different screen-to-body ratio, different call and multimedia audio, and different VR performance.
The Pixel 2 XL has the same 6-inch Quad HD OLED panel as the LG V30, but it’s in a custom chassis that’s a little taller at 6.2 inches to the V30’s 6.0 inches. That’s to make room for front-facing speakers. The back is a warm, cozy mix of matte metal and glass, in black and white (or all black). The phone measures 6.2 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.2 ounces—it’s definitely bigger and heavier than the Galaxy S8 (5.9 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches, 5.5 ounces), although it’s slightly shorter than the Note 8 (6.4 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches, 6.9 ounces).
I’m very happy to see the modern 18:9 form factor here rather than the smaller Pixel’s outdated 16:9. After using a Samsung Galaxy S8 for a while, I’ve become a major partisan of tall, narrow phones, which give you more screen area while still remaining easy to hold. It’s IP67 water resistant, like Samsung’s latest phones.
Here’s the statement, though: Google takes that LG body and puts…HTC’s squeeze sensor on it! This shocks me a little—the squeeze sensor from the HTC U11 is one of its proudest inventions right now—but apparently the tech was part of Google’s $1.1-billion HTC deal. Squeeze the phone slightly below its midriff, even if it’s in a case, and it’ll launch Google Assistant. You can alter the squeeze sensitivity and it’ll work even if the phone is off, but as far as I can tell, you can’t change it to launch a different app.
Inside, there’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB of storage, just like the smaller Pixel. The 3,520mAh battery, along with Google’s relatively efficient software and the not-so-bright screen, makes for excellent battery life. We got 9 hours, 25 minutes of continuous LTE video streaming at maximum brightness, which is between the Galaxy S8 (5 hours, 45 minutes) and Note 8’s (10 hours) results and outpaces other leading smartphones. The phone has Qualcomm’s fast charging technology, although it lacks wireless charging.
Screen and Audio
The Pixel 2 XL has a 6-inch, 2,880-by-1,440 OLED display, for 536 pixels per inch (ppi). It’s the same resolution and pixel density as the V30, though not quite as pixel dense as the slightly smaller S8 (570ppi). It could also be a little brighter; it’s not as bright as the Galaxy S8, which is in turn not as bright as the Galaxy Note 8. It’s still well within the acceptable range, though. Our model’s screen also tended a touch bluish, while our Pixel 2 looks aggressively yellow. Neither screen matches up to the Galaxy Note 8’s, but as I said, both are absolutely fine.
The new Pixels have no headphone jack and instead come with USB-C dongles. You have to use this adapter to attach headphones; some third-party adapters that work with Motorola phones, for instance, don’t work here.
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 XL’s front-facing speakers give the phone a relatively rich, full sound that’s better than the Galaxy S8, Note 8, V30, or Pixel 2. Compared with phones with single speakers, you hear more of a distinct separation between instruments in a track. Compared with the smaller Pixel, which has front-facing speakers, the XL sounds fuller and is about 2dB louder at maximum volume.
Call Quality and Networking
The Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 2 have distinct differences in voice quality. Voices sound more rounded and less harsh on this model than on the smaller Pixel, though the smaller model is louder. Transmissions through the mic have very good, but not quite perfect, noise cancellation on both. The front-facing speakers help in speakerphone mode. Both phones have louder earpieces and more consistent voice tone than the latest iPhones.
Both Pixel 2s sport category 15, or 800Mbps, LTE, and are compatible with all the major US networks. They lack Band 71, T-Mobile’s new 600MHz network specifically for rural coverage. If you’re in one of T-Mobile’s Band 71 areas, you’ll need to get an LG V30, it’s currently the only Band 71 phone.
The Pixels will get their best speeds on networks other than Sprint, though, because their 4×4 MIMO antennas are tuned for non-Sprint bands. (They’ll work on Sprint, just in a 600Mbps mode.) According to modem experts, the Pixel has the hardware for gigabit LTE, but Google chose not to support the full spec. That’s a little perplexing, but more than speed, we’re glad to see 4×4 MIMO here for the coverage and signal strength improvements it brings.
Dual-band Wi-Fi support is excellent, on par with the Samsung Galaxy phones. The Pixel 2 XL also has Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC.
Performance and Software
When you get a Pixel, you get the latest Google software, currently Android 8.0 Oreo. That’s refreshing. You also get OS and security updates before anyone else does. And you get Google’s applications, like its calendar and messaging apps, without redundant manufacturer apps. If you’re into hacking, models bought directly from Google (not through Verizon, more on this in a bit) are easy to modify.
Google has added some minor tweaks with varying levels of success. I like the idea of Now Playing, a feature that automatically listens to ambient music and tells you what’s playing on the 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.
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.
I surprised myself at how much I used the new squeeze-to-Google-Assistant feature, though. You can set Google Assistant to activate by voice even when the phone is locked. After a bunch of false-start activations in conversations where I was saying “Google” a lot, I turned to the squeeze sensor. By squeezing the phone about two-thirds of the way down, the Assistant pops up (it never launched accidentally). On a Pixel, the Assistant can manipulate on-device settings (like turning off Wi-Fi) as well as answer internet-based questions.
You can’t shake the fact that Google’s apps are better than OEM apps, and it’s nice to see them on a phone where they aren’t redundant. Google Assistant is far better than Samsung’s Bixby, because it integrates on-device and internet queries seamlessly, and the squeeze sensor is much better than Samsung’s Bixby button, which is way too easy to press accidentally.
One Camera, Not Two
The Pixel 2 XL gets its camera right. The main sensor’s specs are pretty much the same as our previous Editors’ Choice, the Samsung Galaxy S8, but Google’s software is a touch better than Samsung’s in low light, making this the best phone camera we’ve seen so far.
See How We Test Phones
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL share a 12.2MP, f/1.8 main camera setup. That looks to be the sweet spot for phone sensors; go any higher in terms of megapixels, and you lose low-light capabilities.
Google’s camera app has relatively few modes and options. By default, there’s no manual mode or RAW support, but you can get both through third-party apps (and the vast majority of people shoot in auto anyway). The phone does have Motion Photos, which, like, Apple’s Live Photos, add a short video to your still photos.
Google also manages to do bokeh Portrait mode with the single camera sensor through software. We took a photo of a heavily bearded GSMArena editor, and it worked pretty well, but stray hairs behind other hairs tended to be blurred out as part of the background. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not worse than on dual-camera phones. Bokeh works with the 8-megapixel front camera, too.
In auto mode, the Pixel 2 XL takes the best photos of any camera we’ve tested this year. While the results are on par with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 in good light, the Pixel 2 XL really shines in low light. It’s able to gather a little more light, allowing it to raise shutter speeds and reduce blur, and its color balance is a bit truer than the S8/Note 8. While the Note 8 would judge some skin tones to be too bluish under streetlights, the Pixel made our test model look more human.
The 8-megapixel front-facing camera has, in theory, a tighter aperture than the Galaxy phones do—f/2.4 to f/1.7—which results in grainier, noisier low-light photos than you get from the Samsungs. Samsung’s image quality is compromised by an intense smoothing algorithm that’s part of the default settings, and isn’t to everyone’s tastes. In good light, the Pixel’s front-facing images are fantastic.
The Pixel 2 XL lacks a second main camera, which competitors like the LG V30, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, and iPhone Plus models all have. I recently got into a debate about whether wide angle or 2x zoom is a better approach there, but we agreed that the second cameras have benefits. That said, the advantage of a second camera doesn’t outweigh having the best possible main camera, and the Pixel 2 XL has that best possible camera.
The camera may also get better with time. Google says it has a Pixel Visual Core processor in the phone that is not yet active, but will improve HDR photography in mixed lighting conditions. The chip will become active with Android Oreo 8.1 “in the coming weeks.” The Pixel’s HDR performance is already excellent, so this is just going to be icing on the cake.
If you want to live in VR, the Pixel 2 XL is the best phone to choose.
I’m skeptical about the attraction of VR; I think it’s about to be outpaced by augmented reality, which nobody currently does well, but which we’ll be hearing a lot more about in 2018. But the Pixel 2 XL’s Daydream system, along with the new $99 Daydream View headset, is a bit more comfortable to wear and less expensive than Samsung’s Gear VR. Neither system will bowl you over with a massive selection of VR content, which is VR’s fatal flaw.
This is one area where the bigger Pixel leaps ahead of the smaller one, though. It’s hard to tell the difference between a 440ppi screen and a 536ppi panel with the naked eye, but it gets much easier when you’re wearing a VR headset: Daydream on the smaller Pixel looks genuinely pixelated, to a distracting extent, while it’s acceptably fine-grained on the Pixel 2 XL. You see the biggest difference in text. Words appear to shift and pulse distractingly on the smaller Pixel, making it a slightly unpleasant phone to use for VR.
Where to Buy and Conclusions
Buying a Pixel 2 XL may be a little out of your comfort zone, because it isn’t sold directly by most carriers. But it’s worth it. Verizon sells the 64GB Pixel 2 XL directly for $849.99 or $35.41 per month. But that model has bloatware and a locked bootloader. Just go instead to the Google Store online, where it’s $849 or $35.38 per month.
Balancing the Pixel 2 XL against the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy has a standard headphone jack, wireless charging, and a microSD card slot. It’s also a little easier to hold, because it’s narrower. The Pixel 2 XL brings cleaner and more updated software, longer battery life, better low-light camera performance, and none of that Bixby nonsense.
We understand that the XL’s missing headphone jack will be a deal breaker for some, and the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 are spectacular alternatives. I’m sticking with my S8, personally. But the Pixel 2 XL’s software and low-light camera performance make it an elegant, no-worry experience for the average buyer. So we’re going to flip our Editors’ Choice over to the Pixel 2 XL and make it our general recommendation for Android smartphones.