Pixel 2 review: Google's vision of the ultimate smartphone
Google is more serious than it's ever been about hardware, and the Pixel 2 is its ultimate vision of what a smartphone should be in 2017 – fast, smart, simple, and elegant. Here's the New Atlas verdict on what the Pixel 2 has to offer, after using it for a week.
In terms of hardware specs, there's nothing groundbreaking here, and in truth it's hard for any smartphone maker to really innovate with specs right now. The Snapdragon 835 processor and 4 GB of RAM are standard for a top-end 2017 phone, as is the 5-inch, 1,080 x 1,920 pixel screen. Phones with higher resolutions are of course available, but on a screen of this size, you don't really need those extra pixels.
The trend for 18:9, bezel-free screen designs we've seen Apple, LG, and Samsung follow this year isn't in evidence with the Pixel 2 – you need to buy the bigger, more expensive Pixel 2 XL for a really forward-looking design. Unfortunately we weren't able to get our hands on the larger phone to compare it with the Pixel 2, but we'll include some thoughts about it at the end of this review.
Back to the Pixel 2, and though its specs and design might not win any innovation awards this year, the phone feels comfortable and of a premium quality when held, thanks in no small part to the textured, brushed effect Google has added on the aluminum rear of the phone, beneath the glass shade around the camera. It feels like a quality piece of kit right from the start.
Thankfully Google has added IP67 waterproofing this year, though wireless charging is still missing, and it sticks with a single-camera system on the back of the phone – a 12-megapixel sensor that Google says gets even better shots than the 2016 model.
On board is Android 8.0 Oreo with some extra Pixel bells and whistles, like the live wallpapers and date and weather widget. This Pixel-flavored version of Android is now effectively stock Android, or rather Google's vision of what Android should be, and it's intuitive and a joy to use.
One small feature we like is the option to have songs that are playing in the background instantly identified on the lock screen, with no need to launch an app. Google uses a local database stored on the phone for this, so it won't be able to identify everything, but it's one of those minor-but-very-cool touches dotted around the Pixel 2.
As Google keeps telling us, everything on the software side is increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, from the tags on your photos to the Google Assistant – but for the most part you can get the same AI-driven apps on any Android phone, and they're not a reason in themselves to go for a Pixel 2.
However, one factor that might sway you towards this handset is the camera. The original Pixel earned rave reviews for its snaps, and the Pixel 2 follows in that tradition (the camera is currently the top-rated smartphone one on DxOMark).
We can confirm it is indeed excellent. From the detail the HDR+ mode brings out, to the way the camera wrings every last drop of light out of dark scenes, this is a phone camera you can rely on again and again to bag you an impressive shot, even in tricky situations.
The autofocus and shutter button are snappy and responsive, and the phone takes high-contrast photos, with particularly dark and light areas, in its stride – colors are always bright and sharp in well-lit situations too. Again, Google's AI prowess is at work here, fine-tuning the images from the software side to get the best results.
That said, it can't work miracles – if the scene is really dark, you'll see plenty of noise creep in – but it's as good as we've seen from a phone. Considering there's only one camera lens on the Pixel 2, we're impressed.
Google has also packed in a rather neat portrait mode effect, which automatically blurs the background behind your images while keeping your subject in focus. We found it worked well most of the time, and gives you another option for getting professional-looking photos out of this handset.
We should also mention the optical image stabilization available on your video recordings, which can make a fantastic difference to the shakiness of your footage. Check out the official Google demo of the tech.
Finally there's Motion Photos, Google's answer to Live Photos, where a little snippet of video can be captured around each of your photos. It's supported on the device and in Google Photos on the web, and you can export these short clips as videos, if you need to.
Add in the unlimited, free Google Photos storage you get with your Pixel 2 and it's starting to look like a tempting package for people that need the best shots from their phone – Google Photos offers unlimited storage for free to all users, but unless you have a Pixel phone or stump up some money, photos and videos get shrunk down to 16 megapixels and 1080p HD respectively.
If the camera is one of the key features in any phone, battery life is another. We found the Pixel 2's 2,700-mAh battery had around 40-50 percent of its charge left at the end of the day, with regular, intermittent use (checking social media, making short calls, sending messages). During our usual hour of streaming video test, the battery level dropped just six percent from a full charge, which is among the best results we've seen.
The caveat is that this is a brand new phone and a brand new battery, so performance is likely to go downhill from here. Even months or years down the line though, we're confident that the Pixel 2 will always give you a full day of use, even if you're using it pretty intensively – just don't expect it to really go much beyond that.
For the sake of completeness, we should mention the squeeze-to-launch feature that lets you launch Google Assistant with a squeeze of the phone's sides – a gimmicky option which we never found any reason to use – and that there's no 3.5-mm headphone jack. It's USB-C only for the Pixel 2.
As we mentioned, we haven't had chance to test the Pixel 2 XL, but you're essentially forking out US$200 extra for a bigger screen, smaller bezels, and a bigger battery. Everything else is more or less identical between the two handsets, so it's your call for what you really want from your phone, and how much you have to spend, as to which one you go for.
After spending a week with the phone, we've no doubt that Google has produced a top-quality handset in the Pixel 2: It feels great to hold and use, it takes superb photos and video, and the Android software experience is the best we've come across yet. It's the whole package and we suspect Google fans will love it.
All that we can think to say against the phone is to do with the quality of the competition. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is a little more expensive but easily beats the Pixel in the looks department, while cheaper handsets like the Nokia 8 still give you a great overall experience while saving you some money at the same time. There's no shortage of decent Android handsets out there at the moment if you prefer Android to what Apple is offering, and that might be the Pixel 2's biggest problem.
If you need a huge, bezel-free display on your next handset then look elsewhere, but if you value camera performance and Google software design above everything else, and you want a phone you can still use in one hand, the Pixel 2 could well be the phone for you.
The Pixel 2 is available now direct from Google for $649 with 64 GB of storage, and $749 with 128 GB of storage. You can pick from black, white, blue, and a black-and-white combination as your color.
Product page: Google