Google Pixel 2 XL Review: Imperfect Phone of the Future?

All of Google’s ducks were seemingly lined up in a row. The industry was moving towards ‘bezel-less’ phones with 18:9 screens, its Assistant is now pretty mature, its camera image processing is second to none, its wireless audio is top notch, and so on. And as a result, the Pixel 2 XL is very nearly the perfect smartphone, the template for everything else for the next five years. As Google are inclined to do though, they arguably blew it – and not for the reasons you might suspect me of picking*. I’m talking display and pricing – read on…

* referring to the absence of a 3.5mm ‘headphone’ jack, of course, ironically, a year after publicly mocking Apple for dropping this. See my Google Pixel 2 review for a whole section on this omission.

Pixel 2 XL front

As in previous years, Google has gone with the ‘big and small’ strategy, though this time around, despite the disparity in screen diagonals (5″ versus 6″) the phones themselves aren’t that different in terms of size in the hand, thanks to the difference in aspect ratios and bezel sizes. It’s also gone with a twin-manufacturer solution, with HTC making the smaller Pixel and LG this (slightly) larger one – an awful lot of the components are the same, ditto the textured coated aluminium cases, meaning that the size of this review can be kept down since you’ll have read a lot of what’s relevant already.

Pixel 2 XL rear view

The 6″ display

The display is by far the biggest difference between the two Pixels and so we have to start here. At 18:9 ratio and 6″ 1440p P-OLED (Plastic Organic Light Emitting Diode) this should have been utterly stunning and cutting edge – and it’s not. You’ll read the same in many other Pixel 2 XL reviews and this much is true – it needs to be at, or close to, maximum brightness all the time for displayed content to really impress. To be fair, its visibility outdoors is very good, so maybe the brightness/battery tradeoff has been calculated properly by LG and Google – there’s the usual issue with AMOLED screens whereby the whiter and brighter you make them the more battery power they suck.

Pixel 2 XL oblique

Secondly, LG’s P-OLED displays aren’t – quite – up to the quality of every other AMOLED supplier’s components in terms of viewing angles. While I had no issues using the Pixel 2 XL ‘head on’, the slightest tilt in any direction does result in the display getting ‘bluer’ and ‘colder’. It could be argued that you’ll only ever use your phone ‘head on’, but what about showing your partner some photos, letting your kids watch you playing a game, or whatever. There are, in real life, plenty of use cases where you view the display from significant angles. So having this LG panel that’s rather fussy is disappointing in a 2017 super-premium (starting at £800) flagship.

Other display issues that have featured in the news for the Pixel 2 XL include ‘burn in’ for the virtual controls, but Google is about to release a software update to randomly move the controls a few pixels every now and then – Samsung has been doing this for years and it’s said to help a lot. Plus my review device (after another journalist) is showing no burn-in at all, so take the horror stories with a pinch of salt.

Others have pointed out that the display isn’t vibrant enough, pointing out colour calibration issues generally. And while I accept this criticism – and that Google will improve things with updates – at the same time, the Pixel 2 XL display seemed clear and accurate to me (with the optional ‘Vivid colours’ toggle on by default, note). I think it’s that many reviewers have become used to Samsung’s more saturated AMOLED panels – the Pixel 2 XL’s display seemed more iPhone-like (i.e. closer to a good LCD, viewing angle issues aside).

In terms of the OS and applications using the whole of the 18:9 screen, Android has had this covered for years, in part due to the variety of hardware that Android powers. So every single application, first and third party, uses the display properly. The two exceptions are games – which usually hard code themselves to specific aspect ratios and which sometimes show black bars, and video players (e.g. YouTube, Netflix) – which have source material almost certainly encoded for 16:9. The latter turn out to be less of an issue than you might think, with the two apps mentioned both providing a gesture or control to stretch or crop content slightly to use all the Pixel 2 XL’s err… pixels. And other media apps will doubtless follow suit, since 18:9 screens are very much the rage these days.

Audio

Actually watching video material (let’s say YouTube) on the Pixel 2 XL is a tremendous experience, thanks to front-facing stereo speakers, making a welcome come back to Google’s phones (last seen on the Nexus 6P). In fact, despite what other reviewers might say, they’re not actually full stereo. Instead, following the modern trend, the earpiece is beefed up and made to handle middle and upper frequencies, while the bottom speaker (where there’s a lot more room, not least because of the jack removal!) handles the ‘oomph’, the bass, or as much of the bass as you’d expect from a small phone component.

This arrangement was first used on the HTC 10, which didn’t really convince, but it’s a lot better used here and you have to really, really pay attention to notice that the sound from the earpiece/left channel is lacking in bottom end. Even though I’m something of a phone speaker snob(!), I’d be quite happy with what the Pixel 2 XL puts out, and the vast majority of users will simply be happy that audio is loud, pretty crisp and occasionally stunning, given the right stereo source material.

Jack aside (and do read my Pixel 2 review, since I still think that removing the 3.5mm jack was a mis-step), there’s quite a lot to recommend audio on the Pixel 2 XL. Bluetooth 5.0 is supported in both the Snapdragon 835 chipset and the Android 8.0 (‘Oreo’) OS, along with a whole range of advanced codecs, including aptX HD and Sony’s LDAC. In short however high end you go in terms of Bluetooth headphones, the Pixel 2 XL will keep up, with near perfect audio quality.

There’s no USB Type C headset in the box (just a dongle with DAC built-in for traditional 3.5mm headphones), but let’s face it, the very economics of in-box accessories means that have to be pretty cheap and nasty – witness the headphones Apple and others have been including for years. Not terrible per se, but certainly not a very good experience for anyone who likes their music. So as long as you invest in Bluetooth headphones that are capable (so thinking £50+) then you’ll get a good listening experience here, albeit with the need to occasionally charge up the ‘phones, something not needed with wired headphones, of course.

If, like me, you’ve distrusted Bluetooth audio in the past, then it’s worth taking another look. Use decent equipment along with the Pixel 2 range, its fast chipset and high end codecs, and results might even exceed those from wired headphones, certainly in terms of volume.

Pixel 2 XL camera

Imaging

I covered the Pixel 2 range’s camera extensively in the first review part – and tests are still ongoing, in the knowledge that Google still hasn’t enabled its Visual Core image processor in the phones – this update is now expected in a month or so’s time. And at that point the HDR+ software will get even better. The raw camera specs look good anyway (12MP, f/1.8, 1/2.6″ sensor, OIS, PDAF and laser auto-focus) but they’re raised to a different level by the HDR+ processing, combining multiple short exposures in every case to produce purer results with higher dynamic range.

You will have seen some results in the first review part, so here are some more samples, from the Pixel 2 XL, this time in good light (which escaped me for the Pixel 2). As usual, see below each shot for a 1:1 crop and comments.

Camera sample, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop
Great results in good light – as expected for any phone, of course. Moving on…
Camera sample, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop – stunning detail here from the Pixel 2 camera and software combination…
Camera sample, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop – again super detail, just look at the rust spots on the light frame…
Camera sample, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop, the Pixel 2 camera makes short work of anything macro, with accurate focussing.
Camera sample, see below for 1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop, this time in very low light, and still details are crisp, amazing work from the HDR+ software…

Video capture is up to 4K, of course, and beautifully stabilised using OIS and software techniques, though it’s marred by the audio track only being in mono, and even that recorded from just the one microphone (down the bottom of the phone). At least the iPhone has the decency to capture with multiple microphones and then use them to cancel wind noise and deliver ‘cleaned up’ mono…

Battery

An obvious change from the regular Pixel 2, the sealed battery here is 3520mAh, and life on a charge is very good. You can help it further by turning off the ‘double tap to wake’, the ‘Now playing’ audio recognition (which is cool but only knew a fraction of my own collection), and even the always on time, date and notification icons – all these drain power by a percent or three per day, so it’s very much up to you what you leave on and what you turn off.

Charging is via USB Type C ‘Power Delivery’ and so 3A at 5V – plug in something capable and ‘rapid charging’ pops up on screen. With Qi charging back in fashion at the moment, it’s kind of a shame that Google has gone all-metal (through which charging can’t happen), but hey, there’s always next year.

Pixel 2 XL

Verdict

As with the smaller Pixel 2, the price somewhat dominates the verdict – which is unfortunate. I hate doing this, preferring to judge a phone on its own merits, letting people look the price up on their own, but in this case, as with the standard ‘2’, I just can’t look the other way. The review (64GB) Pixel 2 XL retails at £799 in the UK, which is insane. Yes, there’s the latest chipset, yes, the design is very ‘2017’, yes, the camera’s pretty good (though the HDR+ software is common to older Google devices such as the first Pixels and even the Nexus 5X/6P, i.e. isn’t exclusive), but I get to review a lot of top smartphones, from all ecosystems, and my gut feel is that the Pixel 2 XL should be £599. In other words, it’s over-priced by £200, just as for the smaller Pixel 2. This then has to come down to Google ‘positioning’ the Pixel 2 phones against the iPhone rather than trying to compete against the rest of the Android world. And there can only be a limited number of people willing to pay this made-up Google ‘premium’, sadly.

Away from pricing and overlooking the off-axis blue tint from the display, there’s an awful lot to like about the Pixel 2 XL – the design is perfect, it’s stylish, functional, has a super camera, good speakers, it absolutely deserves to be considered in the same breath as the Galaxy S8, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and so on. Moreover it’s stock Android plus some Google goodness, and that’s always very welcome to see.

Whereas I was wondering who was going to buy the regular Pixel 2, I know exactly who’ll buy the XL version – geeks and Android enthusiasts. My worry this time is that there aren’t enough of these to really scratch Google’s itch in going after the Apple iPhone market and demographic.

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