Google Pixel 2 Review: Compact and Concise, but Who’s It For?

And so to this year’s Google Pixels, now with ‘2’ in the name, still with the two sizes (regular and XL), with pumped up internals and stereo speakers but sadly missing a standard headphone jack. Google has put all its expertise in machine learning and image processing into these phones, making them a fascinating choice for the best in phone imaging, but arguably unremarkable otherwise.

This is the first in a pair of reviews, one of the regular 5”-screened Pixel, made by HTC, and one of the 6”-screened Pixel XL, made by LG, though the latter won’t be available in the UK, where this writer abides, until November, so part 2 here will be… delayed. Of course, there are plenty of other Android sites (psstt… don’t tell the editor!) with different ‘flavours’ and most of which are based in the USA, so with much earlier access to the larger Pixel, and they have their own reviews of the latter up, so bear those in mind too.

Pixel 2
With the black Pixel 2 on a dark background, the bright screen only serves to accentuate the large top and bottom bezels all the more…

But this is my take on, in this part, the Google Pixel 2, the regular sized variant. Which is… quite delightful in terms of size and feel in the hand. The two most controversial aspects are, firstly, the front bezels, which adhere to the old 16:9 design from the original Pixels – nothing wrong with this, but on a 5” screen it does rather mean squinting sometimes – the usable screen real estate is down in the 4.6” region once you’ve factored in the virtual navigation controls! The bezels, then, automatically push buyers towards the XL model, with 6” screen in 18:9 ratio and far smaller top and bottom bezels. I’ll come to that next month (I know, I know, blame UK retail availability).

The bezels aren’t offensive, but coupled with the premium price that Google is asking (starting at £629 in the UK, inc VAT), help give the impression that there’s a mismatch. This ‘old design’ Pixel 2 should have been at least £100 cheaper, leaving the XL with its next-gen design to prop up the premium end of the range.

Pixel 2 back

The other controversial element is the finish – Google has specified a rubberised plastic coating over most of the sides and back, rather than leaving anodised metal to fend for itself. I’m going to defend Google here though – it’s true that the coating may well wear or discolour in time, but the extra grip in the hand also means that users might get away without needing to cloak the phone in a TPU case. Something which I’ve always thought ironic after most people buy a premium metal phone – at least with the Pixel 2 range, users get to handle the phone they bought as-is. And without too many worries – the Pixel 2 feels good. To me, at least, though I’m careful with my hardware – anyone prone to phone drops will still want to take precautions, coating or no coating!

My apologetics here should also be in the context of reviewing the black Pixel 2, with a dark coating that won’t show dirt or stains. Cosmetics may well be more of an issue with the white and (very) light blue variants. As they say, your mileage may vary here.

Pixel 2 bottom
Pixel 2 bottom, showing a distinct absence of audio jack – just the USB Type C and a microphone hole

The infamous missing headphone jack

However, the biggest issue of all is, of course, the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack, especially galling now after Google publicly mocked Apple for its removal on the iPhone last year. Google quotes improved ruggedness, water and dust resistance (IP67) as a result of the removal, but this is a feeble excuse – there are lots of ruggedised phones with headphone jacks. And the ruggedness is itself compromised by antenna bands anyway, as Zack Nelson’s standard test showed. The jack’s removal is more about wanting to push people to wireless audio, as Apple have been doing. And, lo and behold, Google has the new Pixel Buds to sell.

The problem, of course, is that Google isn’t Apple, and its traditional target market, tech enthusiasts who appreciate the pared down, stock Android experience, is much too savvy to be swayed by marketing and sales tricks. Tech enthusiasts tend to fall into two main camps – those trying to live in the future (who will love going all digital with USB Type C headphones or standalone DACs [Digital to Analog Converters] or Apt-X HD-compatible Bluetooth headphones), and those who appreciate that Android’s biggest strength is its flexibility and adaptability and want maximum compatibility with all the other tech that they own.

And it’s the latter group who are going to rebel here. We’ve got used to Google foregoing storage expansion, we’ve even got used to them stepping away from wireless charging (the last was the Nexus 6, in 2014). For the headphone jack to be removed too is a step too far for many people, including me. The smartphone is becoming less functional, not more, and this rankles in a world where Android manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, OnePlus, Huawei and LG are throwing in every port, card and feature in their flagships. Compare the Galaxy Note 8, for example, with the similarly priced Pixel XL, and the mismatch in specifications is very noticeable.

Plugged in via the Type C to 3.5m dongle

But back to the smaller Pixel 2. The jack’s removal is alleviated slightly by the inclusion in the box of a cheap USB Type C-to-3.5mm adapter – audio is output digitally (there’s even a slight delay when plugging the dongle in, seemingly while the OS recognises the new computing accessory and loads up the right drivers!) and a tiny DAC chip in the dongle then converts the digital audio to old-fashioned volts, ready for plugging in some traditional headphones. I was all ready to criticise the DAC’s quality, but in my testing it seemed quite decent, driving my studio over-ear reference ‘cans’ with no issues.

Dongles!
The Pixel 2 dongle next to the iPhone’s – there’s a lot more electronics in the Pixel’s though, an entire DAC chipset!

So maybe the jack removal has been overblown after all? Well… maybe. You still have to remember to bring the dongle with you, or – more likely – simply keep one dongle on the end of every pair of headphones you own (I did say they were cheap)! There’s also the matter of charging the Pixel 2 while listening, for example while going to sleep at night and that’s… unfortunate. My opinion is that the jack removal was a misstep by Google, and it remains to be seen if sales bear this opinion out – there’s certainly no shortage of Android-powered competition, at all price points, so the market will decide.

Pixel 2

Google’s use of HTC for this smaller Pixel 2 meant that a suitable 1080p panel had to be bought in, since HTC doesn’t actually make components. So it turned to Samsung, maker ot the best AMOLED displays in the world and, as a result, the Pixel 2’s screen is excellent. The Pixel 2 XL’s is made by LG, by the way, and the jury’s out on this – I was impressed enough by the brief play I had with the XL model, but I wasn’t able to test it under all light conditions.

1080p is perfect for this phone/display size, of course, even with AMOLED, typically using a so-called ‘pentile’ matrix, so you don’t get full resolution for every sub-pixel. But that’s an article for another day…

Imaging

Pixel 2 camera

The star feature of the Pixel 2 is its 12MP f/1.8, 1/2.6″-sensored camera, now protected on the back by a metal ring, thankfully, and adding the amazing multi-frame combination software (HDR+) of the previous Nexus and Pixel devices to a newer sensor, large aperture and OIS, Optical Image Stabilisation. With the multiple frames now far more in ‘sync’, thanks to the OIS, the combination process is easier, faster and more reliable. Resulting in less noise, greater dynamic range and better reliability in all light conditions.

Extra secret sauce comes from the much vaunted ‘machine learning’ that Google is so proud of. When you take a photo of a person or pet or landscape (etc.), the software recognises the photo type and applies specific optimisations at capture and combination time. So it knows to expose faces more against a bright background, and so on. And it can offer a rudimentary ‘portrait’ mode (as in the recent iPhone ‘plus’ models) using both the small degree of parallax from its dual-pixel sensor and its knowledge of where a subject’s outline should finish. As it happens, the results can be stunningly good, right up with those from dual camera phones, which is a testament to Google’s continuing photo rendering expertise. Yes, there are tiny blurring and fringing artefacts when you look at portrait edges, but you have to be, well, me to pixel peep to see the errors.

Typical portrait shot, see below for some pixel peeping!
Typical portrait shot, see below for some pixel peeping!
1:1 crop
Note the blurring and fringing around my outline – typical of the faux-bokeh algorithms. I’m not saying the portrait mode is bad, it’s certainly up with the dual camera brigade – but it’s also nowhere near as clean as a proper shallow DOF shot from a DSLR.
Bokeh shot
Portrait mode also works on objects, though generally not as well, despite the machine learning – flowers aren’t as regular as people!

Results from the Pixel 2 camera are almost uniformly excellent – though comparing photos at the pixel level I still notice artefacts which shouldn’t be there. I’m putting this down to early software and it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Google’s custom Pixel Visual Core chip has now been noticed and the promise is to activate this with a firmware update by Google in the next few months. This should improve photos still further, in addition to enabling HDR+ photo capabilities via an API for third party apps.

See below for some photo samples from the Pixel 2, along with 1:1 crops and comments:

Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, crisp details here in overcast conditions in the UK
Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – ditto, crisp and sharpened, but never unpleasantly so…
Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
In dim light indoors, noise starts to appear and in my tests of last year’s Pixel, this shouldn’t happen with the HDR+ blending. So we’re waiting on updates from Google, I think…
Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, details aren’t perfect, but considering the appallingly challenging light, I was still very happy with this.
Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
Again, very low light and a macro-ish subject here. Not a bad attempt though I still feel there’s more to come in updates.
Sample photo from the Pixel 2, see below for 1:1 crop etc.
1:1 crop from the photo above
Finally, in dead of night, some impressive detail on the front of the car – remember this is all handheld, and the OIS is working well. The lit window is blown out, but the overall shot is still first class.

Media, performance, OS

Headphone jack aside, and within the constraints of a 5” display, multimedia is excellent on the Pixel 2, with the stereo speakers… solid. There’s still a hint of HTC’s left/top and right/bottom imbalance, i.e. tweeter and bass, but for the most part you won’t notice – it’s stereo and it works well for general content, movies, and so on. The speakers on the likes of the iPhone 8 Plus and ZTE Axon 7 are significantly louder and clearer, but right now I’ll just take that stereo speakers are thankfully a thing again on a Nexus/Pixel device (the last was the Nexus 6P in 2015).

The Snapdragon 835 and 4GB RAM perform as you’d expect and the Pixel 2 is lightning quick at almost everything, helped by only having to drive a 1080p display. Boot time is particularly remarkable, now down to just over 10 seconds! The fingerprint sensor is similarly quick, plus it now has support for swipe down control of the notification shade, something which we saw first in the Huawei phones and interface.

The software is Android 8/Oreo and has been covered extensively elsewhere on this site. Heck, many Android fans have been playing with Oreo in its developer preview builds for months and there are no surprises here.

Homescreens

The Pixel’s launcher remains slightly different to the Android mainstream, part of Google’s stamp for its own hardware, and the search bar is now at the bottom of the home screen, where it’s easier to get to when using the Pixel 2 one-handed (which is most of the time, this being a compact phone).

‘Active Edge’ is Google’s version of HTC’s ‘Edge Sense’ technology, whereby pressure sensors on the phone’s sides detect a squeeze to initiate something interesting. In HTC’s case it was configurable, but on the Google Pixel 2 phones it’s hard wired in the OS to launch the Google Assistant. Which is actually pretty handy, though if you poll Pixel 2 users then I’ll bet that most of them forget the feature is there most days – it just never feels as… natural as saying “OK, Google” or long pressing the home control, and so on.

Google Assistant is pretty core to Google’s vision for Android, of course, but it’s also a) very well known by now from other phones, and b) still limited in some functions according to region – annoyingly. The USA gets everything first, as usual!

Battery life from the 2700mAh built-in cell is top notch, helped by the lower resolution screen, the more efficient (than last year’s 821) Snapdragon 835 chip, plus the form factor itself – you’re less likely to want long gaming and media consumption sessions on a 5” display. Longer term use and more data points are really needed here, though, so I’ll come back to this in part 2 of this multi-device review.

Verdict

The big question though is who’s going to buy the Pixel 2 – it’s a natural upgrade for the 2015 Nexus 5X, while 6P owners will head for the Pixel 2 XL, matching size for size. Anyone with last year’s Pixel or Pixel XL is likely to want to stay put though – keeping the headphone jack and saving a lot of money in the process.

While someone in the market for a top Android phone has the likes of the LG V30, G6, Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+, Note 8, OnePlus 5, Huawei P10, and I could go on. The usual suspects, quite literally 20 or 30 different smartphones on sale at the moment from £400 up to £900 and all with specs that match or exceed the new Pixels.

So you’d really, really have to want the 100% Google experience or own a Nexus 5X. Which isn’t enough to guarantee the sort of sales Google is after. Launched as part of an entire gadget ecosystem, the Pixels are supposed to be far more than just developer phones – and that’s the issue. Almost everybody reading this review wants a return to the Nexus days, with super-functional phones at prices that were one notch down from the top end, but Google wants to be ‘the next Apple’, it seems, with a whole range of technology and a best selling super-phone at the centre. And it’s the last bit that will let the side down, I suspect.

The second part of this review will feature the Pixel 2 XL, which is a lot more impressive when set against the 2017 smartphone pantheon. And you’ll have to wait until November for my considered verdict on the retail ‘XL’ (in the UK).

PS. Thanks to James and Kevin for their help in making this review possible.

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