Hands on with Google's Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL: Seriously impressive smartphones

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Google (GOOG, GOOGL) on Wednesday rolled out its newest smartphones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and they look primed to take on anything Apple (AAPL) or Samsung (SSNLF) have to throw at them. Available for pre-order Oct. 3, the 5-inch Pixel 2 starts at $649, while the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL starts at $849.

I got to spend some time with both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and while both phones have the same internal parts and cameras, I’m particularly enamored with the Pixel 2 XL thanks to its brilliant edge-to-edge display.

The bold and the beautiful

Google has stratified its two premium devices by creating a kind of base phone with Pixel 2 and a more high-end offering in the Pixel 2 XL. The difference comes down to the size and type of displays found on both phones, but it makes a real impact.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

The Pixel 2 is essentially the same as the original Pixel save for a few refinements. The handset is a bit lighter than its predecessor and feels sleeker when you grip it with one hand.

The display is also similar to last year’s model. Once again you get a 5-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution AMOLED panel that promises rich, dynamic colors. The Pixel 2 XL, meanwhile, sports a gorgeous, 6-inch edge-to-edge 2800 X 1440 resolution P-OLED panel with swooping curves at its edges. P-OLED panels are essentially just OLED screens with polymer substrates that allow manufacturers to create curved displays.

 

The Pixel 2 XL has a rounded, edge-to-edge display that’s absolutely stunning.

The Pixel 2 XL’s panel serves as a direct response to Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8 and Apple’s iPhone X, all of which have edge-to-edge displays. The decision to use such a screen makes the Pixel 2 XL really stand out next to the Pixel 2, which still has large bezels above and below its display.

Seriously, the Pixel 2 XL is one pretty smartphone.

Unfortunately, Google has killed the headphone jack, though the company said it will include an adapter with its phones so you can connect your old headphones to the device’s USB C port.

Camera power

Google chose not to attach two lenses to its smartphones. That’s a bit of a letdown, as Apple and Samsung use such a feature to let you zoom in on a subject using their devices’ telephoto lenses.

But Google doesn’t seem to think that will be an issue. During its keynote, the company said its phones’ 12-MP cameras received the highest DxOMark rating of any smartphone. DxOMark is a trusted, independent evaluator of standalone and smartphone cameras.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL share the same 12-MP camera.

Google also managed to include a Portrait mode, which lets you capture a photo with a bokeh effect that blurs the background while keeping the foreground in focus. So far, the feature has been hit or miss with Apple and Samsung’s offerings, but Google, which uses dual-pixel technology in its camera and machine-learning software, seems to have hit the jackpot with its version.

I took several images in Portrait mode using both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and both phones were able to capture exceptional shots with blurred backgrounds. And unlike Apple or Samsung’s Portrait modes, I didn’t notice any issues with portions of the background being clear while other areas were blurred. The camera seemed perfectly able to separate the two.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL support Portrait mode with the front and rear-facing cameras, which blurs the background and keeps the foreground in focus.

Pure Android and an assist

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL will come loaded with Google’s new Android Oreo operating system when they launch, which means you’ll be able to use the company’s new picture-in-picture features and improved notifications.

Google has also made improvements to its Assistant. This time around, Assistant lets you control more aspects of your phone using your voice. You can, for example, tell Assistant to take a selfie, and it will automatically launch the Camera app in selfie mode. Strangely, it was unable to launch the Portrait mode feature.

The new home screen for the Pixel 2 XL.

In addition to enhancing Assistant’s capabilities, Google has added a new function called Active Edge that lets you squeeze the sides of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL to pull up the digital companion.

It seems like a gimmicky feature, and only works when you squeeze the lower portion of the handsets, but it was consistent and, despite the noise level in the demo area, Assistant was able to hear everything I said.

Power and performance

Inside, Google equipped both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 octa-core processors and 4GB of RAM. In terms of storage, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL will come with 64GB and 128GB options.

Google says it has equipped the Pixel 2 with a 2,700-mAh battery and the Pixel 2 XL with a 3,520-mAh power house. Both phones can get an extra 7 hours of use by charging them for just 15 minutes.

Thankfully, Google also chose to make both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL water-resistant, so you’ll be able to dunk them in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes without them giving up the ghost.

Should you get them?

I’ve only spent a short time with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, but they’re both impressive devices. I’m especially interested in the Pixel 2XL and its wonderful display. The cameras on both handsets are also intriguing and will likely prove tough competitors for Apple’s fantastic iPhone 8 Plus.

Still, I’ll have to hold off until I can fully review these handsets before I can say whether you should buy them or not. But they’ve certainly got potential.

More from Dan:

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.