Reviews

Google Pixel 2 Review

Google Pixel 2 Review

Last year’s Pixel launch was a bit of a departure for Google. The company had previously been selling the Nexus line of devices, which were known for their value proposition due to the combination of competent hardware, pure Android software from Google and an affordable price. The Pixel had the first two but came with significantly jacked up prices that seemed like nothing more than a power move. Google also started heavily stressing on the fact that the phones were ‘Made by Google’, even though nothing had changed from the Nexus program and other OEMs (HTC, in this case) were still making the phones for Google.

This year we have two more Pixel phones, the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. Unlike last year, they are made by two different companies, HTC and LG, respectively, and have a lot more differences between them. I have the smaller Pixel 2 this year and I’ve been spending some time with it so here’s my review.

 

Design

The major difference between the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL is the design. While the Pixel and Pixel XL looked identical except for their size, the Pixel 2 XL has a more modern 18:9 display with thin bezels whereas the Pixel 2 has a more traditional 16:9 display.

2017 has been the year of taller aspect ratio displays and nearly every manufacturer now has a phone with such a display on the market. So much so that the smaller Pixel 2 looks really out of place and outdated. It’s not just the lack of taller display but how enormous the front bezels are, with no real justification for them. Sure, you get front facing stereo speakers, but so does the Pixel 2 XL, and it has much thinner bezels.

On the right the phone has power and volume buttons. Google’s arrangement of placing the volume buttons below the power button continues to bug me, as almost every other Android manufacturer has them upside down. Of course, this won’t be an issue for most people who don’t switch back and forth between multiple devices. But what will bug them are the actual buttons, which are flat and really hard to press sometimes, with an unsatisfying mushy feel. There is also no texture on them to tell them apart. I really do not like using them.

On the left is a solitary SIM tray that holds a single nano SIM. If you want dual SIM or microSD support, these aren’t the droids you are looking for.

On the bottom is mostly the USB-C connector. After mocking Apple last year for removing the headphone jack, Google basically did exactly that, minus any of the justification. So while Apple had to face the music for dropping the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 despite giving a reasonable explanation, the rest of the industry gets to quietly remove it now without anyone batting an eye.

The back of the Pixel 2 is the only place where it looks similar to the Pixel 2 XL. The camera and flash are flipped but they still have the same two tone finish with a metal back and a glass area at the top, reminiscent of last year’s model. The glass is smaller this year and doesn’t cover the camera, so we won’t see the annoying lens flare this year. Google does coat the metal on the back with an additional material, which to me does not quite have the feel of metal and instead feels like hard plastic. It’s also quite susceptible to smudges, although not nearly as much as all-glass phones.

I like the overall size of the Pixel 2. It’s not quite as small as the iPhone SE, so for people looking for truly small smartphones that is still the way to go. However, it is still reasonably compact for a flagship device. I just wish it wasn’t as tall as it is and had smaller bezels. I am sure there are good reasons for that from an engineering perspective but it does not look good at all and makes the phone almost look cheap compared to other 2017 flagships. The design, in general, is extremely laid-back and boring, especially in black on this smaller model.

 

Display

The Pixel 2 has a 5.0, 1920×1080 AMOLED display manufactured by Samsung but custom tuned by Google. Most people reading this would be aware of the kerfuffle surrounding the Pixel 2 XL pOLED display manufactured by LG, but most of that doesn’t apply to the smaller Pixel 2. Samsung makes the best OLED displays in the industry and the Pixel 2 definitely benefits from that.

While the unit initially shipped with less than ideal color calibration, Google later issued an update that fixed this. The phone now ships with three color profiles: Natural, Boosted, and Saturated. Natural is standard sRGB profile, with Boosted having about 10% saturation added. Saturated is the typical oversaturated nonsense OLED displays are known for. This profile was missing on the original build and was added later after many people thought the display looked “bland”.

Running on the Natural profile, the display on the Pixel 2 looks damn near perfect. It’s a typical high quality Samsung AMOLED panel with excellent colors, contrast, viewing angles and outdoor visibility. My only complaint with it is that it doesn’t get dim enough and even at its lowest brightness setting it’s still too bright to use in pitch darkness.

One cool thing about Android Oreo is that it supports system level color management, which means developers can add wide color support within their applications and the OS will render the colors correctly. While previously you would need the entire display to be in DCI-P3 to display a DCI-P3 image, with color management you can have a P3 image on screen where just the image is in wide color without the entire UI being rendered in wide color. As of now, I don’t know any application that has support for wide color, including Google’s own, but at least the framework is now there for developers to take advantage of.

 

Software

The Pixel 2 ships with Android 8.0 Oreo. But the version number is just part of the story and it’s more about the software experience in general that define and separate Google’s Android phones from others.

As with the Pixel last year, the Pixel 2 doesn’t really have what would technically qualify as stock Android but rather a whole suite of Google customizations on top of it. Take the launcher, for example, that has been slightly updated from last year. The most striking thing is the Google search bar has been moved from being far out of reach right at the top to being right at the bottom. It even sits below the dock with a row of icons above it. I do like it here because I use it a lot and hated having to reach all the way to the top. Also new on the homescreen is a new widget that shows the day and date as well as the weather. When you have any appointments, they appear below on a second line. It’s quite simple but surprisingly effective at conveying information.

As before you swipe up to go to the app drawer, the Google search bar deftly transforming into a search bar for apps. The app drawer background is by default white but it can actually turn black if you have set a dark wallpaper, which is quite clever (this also applies to the notification shade). Speaking of wallpapers, Google has some nice live wallpapers this year with subtle moving elements and parallax effects.

Google Assistant remains a big part of the experience and this year Google has a new trick to invoke it. Instead of press and holding the Home button or saying “OK Google”, you just squeeze your phone. Technically, this isn’t a new trick and the HTC U11 launched earlier this year had it first but with Google having acquired part of HTC I guess you can say it isn’t technically a copy but using its own tech. I personally never quite got around to using this feature; the pressure was either too high or too low for me, meaning I was either squeezing the life out of the phone trying to invoke Assistant or accidentally invoking it while picking the phone up. I also don’t really use Assistant a lot so I just decided to turn it off.

Another party trick with the Pixel 2 is the Now Playing feature. The phone is constantly listening to songs playing around it and when it recognizes something, it shows the name on the lockscreen, without you having to do anything. In practice, this feature works incredibly well; the phone would pick up a tune playing somewhere in the background or a song in one of the videos you are watching and recognize it. When you’re at a club or a bar the phone will even pick up the song amidst all the noise and even before I feel like finding out the name of the song the information is already there on the lockscreen. If I want to know more, I can unlock the phone, tap on the name in the notification shade and it opens Assistant with links to the song. I know having an always-listening device sounds creepy but Google says the feature works completely offline and having tested it in airplane mode I can confirm it doesn’t need any internet connection to work.

The other important feature Google bragged about on stage during the keynote was Google Lens. It lets you take a picture of something and using machine learning and Google’s vast search database will provide more information on the object in the picture. You can take a picture of a painting and find out more about it (assuming it’s famous) or a book and get links to purchase it. It doesn’t work on everything and for a lot of things it will give generic results for that particular object (a ‘computer mouse’ instead of the exact product name, for example) but it’s a feature that will only improve with more time and data. I personally didn’t use it much.

A less flashy and more useful thing is the new always-on mode for the lockscreen. Finally, we have a permanent clock on the lockscreen along with icons for notifications that don’t require you to turn the phone on every time to see. The OLED display ensures only the pixels that are lit up are consuming power and the text shifts around subtly so it doesn’t burn in. The intensity of the brightness also adjusts according to the ambient lighting and if you turn the screen down it just turns off. I just wish it showed the battery status as well like Samsung does and I hope it gets added in the next version.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Pixel users get free, unlimited, and uncompressed cloud backup storage for their photos and videos. While free, unlimited storage is available to every Google Photos user, Pixel and Pixel 2 users get to save their images and videos in full native quality without any compression. This is only available till 15 January, 2021, after which it will compress them like on other phones but still, to have full quality unlimited backups for over three years is pretty sweet. Just ask an iCloud user the value of that.

For me, more than all the squeezing action, the magic song recognitions and the unlimited backups, what matters most is just the experience of using the device and this is one area where Google stomps all over the competition, including, at times, Apple. I am very perceptive of UI frame rate and for me, a smooth, steady 60fps (or whatever the native display refresh rate is) frame rate is the most important thing while using the phone. I won’t say the Pixel 2 achieves this 100% of the time but it’s almost there and it’s way more consistent than anybody else, including Apple. The core system apps are obviously incredibly fluid but even third party apps like Twitter and Instagram — which, in my experience, can be notoriously bad at times — scroll smoother than they do on the iPhone 8 Plus. This fluidity is addictive and once you get used to it everything feels jarring and revolting. I also have a Galaxy Note8 and a OnePlus 5T sitting here with me and while both are excellent phones in their own right, neither can come close to matching the smoothness of the UI and animations on the Pixel 2 (or even the original Pixel, for that matter).

As someone who prefers Android over iOS, I can’t be more pleased with its current state on the Pixel 2. I can’t always tell you what the big changes are in Oreo, and that’s mostly because there aren’t any. But to me that’s more reassuring that a release that has massive headline changes because it means Google spent more time working on existing things before moving on adding more. And that really has been the difference in Android and iOS development over the past few years. Apple has been adding features at a breakneck speed, rarely stopping to see if they things they already have are working properly while Google has merely been polishing Android for the good part of the past three years. The open nature of Android means Google doesn’t even really need to work on adding more features — the developers and OEMs can do that — leaving it free to work on improving the basics, like touch latency, audio latency or UI frame rate, and it really shows on the Pixel 2. Admittedly, there have been a number of reported issues since the launch, particularly on the Pixel 2 XL, but speaking from personal experience it has been nothing but smooth sailing for me on the smaller Pixel 2.

Google still has a lot of work to do, specifically with regards to hardware, but when it comes to the core software experience, Android has never been in a better place. Neither has Google, who to me is currently doing the best work in software. The day the company gets its hardware act together is the day we will finally have better Pixels than iPhones.

 

Camera

The Pixel 2 has a 12.2 megapixel f1.8 camera on the back. It has dual-pixel phase detection autofocus along with laser autofocus and optical image stabilization. On the front is an 8 megapixel camera with f2.4 aperture and fixed focus lens. Both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have the same cameras front and back so you don’t lose out on anything because you went with the smaller model.

The Pixel 2 uses the same HDR+ technique that Google introduced with last year’s Pixel camera. Instead of capturing a single frame when the user presses the shutter button, the Pixel and Pixel 2 cameras are constantly capturing images when the camera app is open. When the user hits the shutter button, it takes the last few images and combines them together. Stacking multiple images together helps the camera improve the dynamic range as well as reduce noise.

The HDR+ is by default enabled and set to Auto mode. Unlike other phones, Auto here doesn’t mean the camera may or may not enable the effect depending upon the lighting conditions but that it’s always on. Auto does use the image stacking technique but it isn’t aggressive about adjusting the dynamic range and is more suitable for everyday shooting. You can also switch to HDR+ On mode, in which it applies a much more dramatic HDR effect. It’s also slower and it takes a second or so after pressing the shutter to save the image, so it’s not ideal for everyday use. You can also disable HDR+ entirely. Unlike the Pixel, the Pixel 2 remembers your setting when you close the camera app and doesn’t default to HDR+ Auto every time you open it.

Unlike other phones, the Pixel 2 camera is definitely designed to operate by default in the HDR+ Auto mode. This immediately gives it an advantage over the other phones due to the additional processing involved, and it shows. Images captured with the Pixel 2 have much wider dynamic range and low noise, two things all smartphone cameras struggle with. They also usually have good colors and punchy contrast. When you combine all this, it’s easy to see why people are such big fans of the Pixel cameras. For people who just like to point and click, the Pixel 2 camera will do all the heavy lifting for you with its intelligent algorithms and give you great results almost every single time.

But is it the ‘best camera’ that it is touted to be? I don’t think so because there are some definite problems with the Pixel 2 camera. The HDR+ processing usually works to the Pixel’s favor but there are times when the images definitely look over-processed. In most situations the camera manages to balance the dynamic range just fine but occasionally it is too aggressive with suppressing the highlights and bringing up the shadows, which makes the image look artificially tone-mapped and unnatural. It’s especially noticeable on faces where the skin tones can look quite unnatural at times.

Another issue is with white balancing, which can be quite aggressive in removing the color cast. In daylight situations, I found it better to switch to manual white balance and use the Sunny profile to bring some warmth back to the images so they don’t look as cold and lifeless as they do on Auto. Other times I noticed the camera added a slight green cast to daylight images, which was also sorted by switching to manual white balance. If you are shooting with this phone, I would suggest first using the manual white balance profile ideal for your lighting conditions instead of just relying on auto. In majority of the cases, you will get better results.

I also had issues with focusing. The Pixel 2 uses laser assisted autofocus, which bounces off an infrared beam off the subject to determine how far it is from the camera. The problem is, this system is easily fooled by glass. When shooting through glass, the camera tends to focus on the glass rather than what is outside because the infrared beam is bouncing off the glass. You have to put the phone right next to the glass so it can focus outside. I learned this the hard way on a recent flight while trying to record something through the window while sitting in the middle seat. All I got was a perfectly focused footage of the glass window.

Lastly, the image quality with HDR+ disabled is simply abhorrent. I bring this up because even though it is unlikely that anyone will shoot in this mode in the main camera app, every other camera app, be it Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter, all shoot in this mode because as of the time of this writing, they do not have access to the HDR+ processing. Google’s answer to this is Pixel Visual Core, a custom SoC separate from the main SoC that will handle camera image processing duties. This was previously disabled but enabled in the Android 8.1 update and allows third party apps access to the same HDR+ processing as the main camera app. The problem is, it is up to the developers to adopt this feature and you can bet most Android developers aren’t going to bother. Which means the quality you get in those apps would be the same as disabling HDR+ in the main camera app. My solution would be to always shoot in the main Camera app and then import those images in other apps like Instagram.

One small thing worth pointing out is that despite the native color management in Oreo the camera does not capture wide color images or videos. Somehow the iPhone is still the only phone to do that and the entire industry is sleeping on it.

Moving on, the Pixel 2 is also the first Google phone to implement Portrait mode. Unlike other companies, Google is doing this with only one camera instead of two. The way this works is by having two photodiodes per pixel on the sensor, which are primarily used for speeding up autofocus by capturing two separate perspectives. Google goes one step further and uses this data to create a depth map of the subject and then by applying machine learning algorithms is able to separate it from the background. The background is then blurred, leaving only the subject in focus.

I was heavily sceptical about the quality of this effect but in my testing, the feature has worked remarkably well on most occasions. Most of the images I captured had very clearly separated subjects without any funny business happening around the edges. Unsurprisingly, it works best on people although I’ve managed to get it working properly even on objects. It’s not always reliable and I’ve had my fair share of odd blurring but these are usually few and far between. As for the quality of the blur effect, it is a bit heavy handed at times, causing the subject to look like a cardboard cutout. Apple does a much better job at this, applying the blur gradually so things at different distance in the background have different intensities of blur. Google does have some catching up to do in this regard but I think they are off to a great start and the Pixel 2 Portrait mode is a lot better at launch than what the iPhone 7 Plus Portrait mode was when it launched last year.

The Pixel 2 also has Motion Photos, which is a rip-off of the Live Photo feature on the iPhone. When enabled, the camera records a couple of seconds video just before you took the photo. To view these, you have to use the Google Photos app, which links the photo and the video together so the video plays every time you open the photo. Unlike Live Photos, which play a shorter version of the clip and then stop to show you the photo, the Motion Photos just keep looping the video like a GIF, which I thought was daft. To see the photo, you then have to stop Motion Photos, which then stops the effect for all the photos.

I have to quickly mention the flash before moving on to video. I thought it was odd at first that the flash can be used with or without HDR+ but I quickly learned why. With HDR+ disabled, the flash works normally, highlighting the subject and turning the background dark. With HDR+ enabled (either Auto or On), the flash works more like the slow sync flash on the iPhone 8, where the foreground is lit by the flash but the background is lit by the ambient light, making the scene look more natural.

The Pixel 2 records 4K videos in 30fps. There is no fancy 4K 60fps video in HEVC here because the hardware on Android phones just isn’t there yet. Having said that, the quality of the 4K videos on the Pixel 2 is still excellent. Google has also done a tremendous job of stabilizing the video, which combines both OIS as well as EIS for an even smoother video. And unlike the iPhones, you also get stereo sound.

I don’t normally talk much about the front camera so I will make this quick. The Pixel 2 has an excellent front camera that takes some great looking photos and videos. It even has the same HDR+ processing as on the main camera with the same caveats wherein it makes some images look overprocessed and when it is your own face it is a lot more noticeable. The white balance issue I mentioned before also persists and it’s best to use manual white balance whenever possible. What I loved most about this camera is the Portrait mode, which works brilliantly despite not even having a dual-pixel sensor but pure software processing.

You can find all photos I took with the camera in full quality here. Note that these were captured on Android 8.0 and not 8.1.

Before I wrap the camera section, I want to talk about the camera app itself. Compared to the incredibly accomplished hardware and the advanced software algorithms running underneath, Google’s camera app is incredibly lackluster. There is no manual mode of any sort for still images and white balance and exposure is pretty much all you get in terms of manual controls. Want to take a timelapse? Nope. RAW images? Sorry, can’t do that but hey, we do get half a dozen panorama options. What annoys me about this is that unlike iOS, Android does not have a great selection of third party camera apps so you’re mostly stuck with the app your phone comes with. As such, it behoves Google to take it upon itself to build a great camera app that lets the user take full advantage of the hardware but instead we get this toy app that might just be a giant shutter button for all its worth.

Coming back to my previous point about the Pixel 2 being considered the best camera phone on the market; it really isn’t. However, it is in the top three for me alongside the iPhone 8 Plus (ideally it would be the X but I haven’t used that yet) and the Galaxy Note8. Like the Pixel 2 the iPhone is great for someone who just wants to point and shoot and produces consistently great pictures, more consistently, in fact, than the Pixel 2. It also has a telephoto lens that takes great portrait images and zooms into things. It also has an excellent selection of photography apps available and Apple’s image processing even within third party apps is second to none. The Note8 also takes some stunning pictures in any lighting conditions and has a stabilized telephoto lens. It is also the one with the most accomplished camera app that does everything that I want and more. Apart from these I also see HTC and LG sporting some good cameras these days, so there’s that. I wouldn’t really call any of them best as they are all good at different things but at the same time you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

 

Battery Life

The Pixel 2 has a relatively tiny 2700mAh battery, which should be your first clue. The second clue is that this is still Android, which means for all intents and purposes it will still mysteriously eat your battery while you sleep and there’s nothing you can do about it. What I’m getting at is that the battery life isn’t great. I can get through one full day when I’m just sitting at home all day, using the phone intermittently. On days when I am outside, using the phone at high brightness and taking a lot of pictures, the battery tanks completely in about 7-8 hours with about three hours of use. You pay for that small size with an inferior battery life and this is not a phone you can use without a power bank.

Like the Pixel before, the Pixel 2 supports fast charging but only through the USB-C Power Delivery protocol. This means it does not support the popular Quick Charge solution made by Qualcomm and what almost every fast charge compatible charger and power bank on the market supports. This means you can’t just plug in any fast charger or power bank into your phone and get fast charging. It will charge, but slowly. You are pretty much limited to the charger that Google makes to get fast charging on this phone and there are no USB-PD fast charging power banks that I know of.

 

Miscellaneous

I do quite like the stereo speakers on this phone. They don’t sound quite as rich as the ones on the iPhone 8 but they are just as loud and almost nearly as good. The speakers are not identical, just like on the iPhone, where the earpiece speaker is more treble heavy while the bottom speaker is more bass heavy but when they play together it’s hard to notice the difference between them and this is more so in case of the Pixel 2 where both speakers fire directly at you. Like Apple (and unlike every other Android OEM that I know of), Google also switches the left and right channels to match the orientation of the content on screen although by default, the top speaker is assigned left and the bottom, right.

The fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 2 is kinda slow, which I find especially aggravating because of Google’s claim of having the fastest fingerprint sensor on the market. I can find a dozen different Chinese phones that have way faster fingerprint sensors than this. The actual sensor might even be the fastest but the time between placing your finger on the sensor the screen lighting up is noticeably slower than on other phones.

The front glass seems very susceptible to scratches. I got a couple of deep ones from carrying two phones in the same pocket on two occasions. On either occasion it was only for a brief period but apparently that was enough to carve the screen like a Halloween pumpkin. I still wouldn’t recommend anyone get those shitty screen protectors but just to be careful of what you let touch the screen.

There is a USB-C to 3.5mm audio adapter provided in the box but there are no actual earphones provided with the phone. In comparison, not only both Samsung and LG still offer a headphone jack on their phone but also provide high quality earphones (AKG and B&O, respectively) and even Apple’s EarPods are better than no earphones at all.

Google no longer provides two cables with the phone. Last year’s Pixel came with a full size USB-C to USB-C cable and then a shorter USB-C to USB-A cable. The latter is missing on the Pixel 2. You do get a USB-C male to USB-A female adapter but that’s for different use entirely. Basically, unless your computer has a USB-C port, you will have to buy your own cable to connect to it. Same goes for connecting to power banks that don’t have a USB-C cable.

There is a small LED hidden in the top right corner of the front of the phone. It’s off by default but it’s easy to turn on. The always-on display sort of makes it redundant but I like having it anyway.

The new packaging with the solid Google colors on the back and the #teampixel hashtag is disgustingly plebeian.

 

Verdict

Last year, I called out the Pixel for being overpriced, suggesting the high price was a mere power move to compete with Apple in the mind of the consumer, even though the hardware couldn’t really cash the cheques Google’s marketing department was writing.

That’s true of the Pixel 2 as well, but to a lesser degree. While the Pixel felt like Google came with a knife to a gunfight and then used it to stab long time Nexus fans in the back, the Pixel 2 offers better justification for its high price. This year we get waterproofing, stereo speakers, better cameras all round and faster hardware. It’s like Google set the price for a phone three years away and is slowly building up to it. It’s not quite there yet, though.

The Pixel 2 to me is just a tiny bit lacking. I’m sure there are people who want a small display but I’m also sure they want it in a body that’s also small and the Pixel 2’s comically large bezels don’t really help. Next to the Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 2 looks like it’s from a different century and it’s absurd that Google thought it was alright to sell these two phones side by side.

The battery life is also wholly unimpressive, no thanks to the small capacity battery. Which just makes me wonder, what exactly is happening inside this phone that is taking so much space that they couldn’t make it smaller or put in a bigger battery? It comes across as lazy engineering or worse, deliberate differentiation to sell the more expensive XL model. And this despite Google’s claims that it doesn’t reserve the best features for the more expensive model (implying Apple does).

That aside, I didn’t find a lot to fault with the Pixel 2. Aesthetics aside, the phone is generally well built and feels nice in the hand. The display is small but really high quality. The camera, both front and back, takes reliably good photos and videos almost every time. The speakers sound great, the phone is waterproof and there’s also fast charging. But most importantly, the phone works really well and is a real joy to use.

At ₹61,000 for 64GB and ₹70,000 for 128GB, the Pixel 2 is laughably overpriced and if you’re spending that much you’re better off just buying the XL. If, however, you manage to find it under ₹50,000 then it is definitely worth considering. I would still recommend going with the XL unless you must have a smaller phone, in which case the last year’s Pixel at ₹34,999 is actually the better option right now.


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