Google Pixel 2 XL review, a half year later

For the last half year, I’ve been using a Pixel 2 XL nearly exclusively. It’s been a trusty companion amidst the weirdness of my consumer electronics choices — currently made up of the Pixel itself, a pair of AirPods, an Apple Watch, and my Jacquard jacket. And while Ben did a great job summing it up in his initial review, I think it’s finally time to talk more about what makes the Pixel 2 XL so great and why it has, as he wrote, dethroned its predecessor.

 

After years of developer-focused Nexus phones that satisfied a craving for great software but otherwise left a lot to be desired, Google finally decided to go all-in with the Pixel at its hardware event in the fall of 2016. You probably don’t need to hear that story again, but I came away from the event more excited about Google — and therefore, my job — than I had ever been up to that point. Google was finally getting serious about hardware. Rick Osterloh made his triumphant return to Mountain View. The years to come would be exciting, and they have been so far.

Spending just a couple weeks with the first Pixel phone, I was impressed enough to call it one of the best phones ever. Fast forward almost two years and a couple Pixel successors, and I think I’ve spent enough time with these four phones that I can say definitively what I like and don’t like about them. Specifically, let’s talk about how things have gone with the Pixel 2 XL since it launched last year. Spoiler alert: It’s gone well. It’s a good phone.

DESIGN: BETRAYAL, BUT IMPROVEMENT.

In some ways I still like the first Pixel better; Abner and I chatted in Alphabet Scoop a while back about some aspects of the original that we still prefer over the newer phones.

Among those things, namely, was the attention to detail given to its admittedly boring design. In many ways, the phone might seem generic to the untrained eye, but there was an emergence here of Google’s in-house hardware design approach (which it had been fleshing out with experiments like the Chromebook Pixel for years) to a smartphone, and more importantly, to the mainstream.  The phone was absolutely no-frills, function-first, unashamedly outdated at first glance, but was at the same time the first to introduce the idea of a top-third glass back, came in a striking lightning blue color, and managed to be premium without being too flashy.

Google, wisely I think, started simple. They nailed it.

There were little details behind the simplicity that showed creativity and attention to detail that we never saw from the generic Nexus phones of years prior. You could say the design of the Nexus 5, for example, was simple as well. But it was simple in a utilitarian way that came across more as lazy and cheap than inspired. The first Pixel, as my favorite example, had a subtle “wedge” shape that allowed the back to be free of camera bumps. It’s something you wouldn’t even notice unless someone told you about it, but it provided a functional benefit. No rocking and unnecessary scratches from an uneven phone on a table.

So before I dive into what I think makes the Pixel 2 XL is so great, this praise of the first Pixel is necessary to highlight one of my only criticisms with its successor. For one, the two phones — Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL — feel like they came from different planets. That wasn’t the case with the first Pixels. And second, both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, in their own ways, feel a little bit like a step back. I wrote about their design discrepancies right after Google launched these phones, and I still haven’t gotten over it. Amazingly, to me, they seem less thoughtful than their boring predecessor.

What I hope you realize here is that I’m not talking about which physical design I actually like more. I think it goes without saying that I think the Pixel 2 XL’s outer appearance is more pleasing to the eye, the smaller bezels definitely brought the experience into 2017 (versus, like 2013), and I’m quite frankly a fan of a lot of things Google decided on for the Pixel 2 XL. The coated back is very satisfying to touch, the dual front-facing speakers are a luxury, the lack of a headphone jack doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and the curved glass and removal of the antenna lines are both upgrades. That orange button on the panda model. You can’t deny it’s a slick look.

So a lot of the design decisions Google made with the Pixel 2 XL are great, and I would have loved to see them on the smaller enigma that is the Pixel 2. But while this is a review of the larger phone, yes, that discrepancy still must go mentioned. The smaller felt like a step back from the design of the first, which for me tainted my view of the 2 XL that I love so much. It felt like the deign of the Pixel 2 XL somehow was being held back by partnerships with 3rd party manufacturers and a need to look like its smaller sibling. Some things, like that beloved wedge for example, were removed.

Like I’ve said before, I think the design weirdness with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL came down to both compromises that had to be made in display components and Google deciding it couldn’t let another year go by without introducing a modern-looking design. In fact, the first two Pixel 2 models that Google was working on were the smaller Pixel 2 and a larger version that had similarly-large bezels. They pulled off the modern look with the XL in time for launch, but for whatever reason couldn’t make it happen for the smaller of the two.

How has the design held up in the 7 months since launch? Very well. While the rest of the market is quickly racing to adopt notches to maximize display-real-estate-to-body ratios, the Pixel 2 XL maintains a classic and functional outer appearance that feels tried-and-true. At the same time, I still think the Pixel 2 XL is a looker that holds its own against the iPhone 8s and Galaxy S9s of the world. I definitely don’t feel like I’m walking around with an ancient dinosaur like I did with the OG Pixel. All in all, I think Pixel 2 XL is an improvement despite the weirdness, and everything you can ask for. Let’s just pretend the weird small one doesn’t exist and hope Google redeems itself.

DISPLAY: I WAS WRONG. AND RIGHT.

The most obvious change Google made with the Pixel 2 XL over the first model was its physical design, and a big part of that was the display. But, as you may know if you’re an avid follower of Google, the display rightfully deserves an entire section of this long-term review. To say the Pixel 2 XL saw criticism for its display, from me and everyone else, would be an understatement.

Just to sum up the problems for those that might not have followed: blue tint/discoloration at an angle, weird problems with green lines and overall graininess, burn-inblack smear problems that were uncharacteristic of most high-quality OLED panels, and people receiving phones with an entire line of dead pixels. And then there was the display’s colors. Some noted the displays general lack of vibrancy, which can attributed to Google’s tuning of the display to sRGB rather than the more saturated color profiles. Google pushed out a software fix for the latter.

Of all the issues that were had, I personally was most annoyed by the blue tint issue, noting that it’s actually worse at moderate angles than extreme angles. Despite knowing that phones without the blue tint (or with less blue tint) are out there, I just decided to deal with it. The Pixel 2 XL that I’m using today has the blue tint worse than some, but not as bad as the first review unit I had. That one was terrible enough that I initially (out of frustration, I admit) called for a recall of the first batches, thinking this was affecting everyone.

Overall, after 7 months, I feel like I was both right and wrong in my conclusion that this display is/was a severe compromise (in fact, yet another compromise that felt like a weird step back in some ways). I was right because Google shipped two phone sizes, one of which with a good display and one with a worse display. That’s pretty annoying at best and unacceptable at worst. I was wrong, though, because it turned out that most of these issues, even though they do add up to what seems like a deal breaker, turned out to be manufacturing quality problems. Lots of problem-free phones out there.

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Vlad Savov

@vladsavov

Not all Pixel 2 XL displays are bad. Some lack the annoying blue shift.

It turned out that there was a huge discrepancy between different Pixel 2 XL models, enough so that some seemed to ship with borderline miserable displays, and others shipped with pristine displays. I still blame Google even though it’s an LG-manufactured phone and an LG-sourced display, but the company responded to the issues well. They were willing to replace just about anyone’s Pixel 2 XL regardless of the reasons for their complaints, they seem to have fixed many of the quality issues, and they addressed complaints about color saturation with software.

The proactive, prompt, clear, and honest response to these issues should inspire confidence in Google as a smartphone maker. Many others wouldn’t have done near as much.

But another way I was wrong was that, all things considered, even if you got a Pixel 2 XL that had one of the less-perfect displays, it doesn’t exactly kill the phone and cover what is otherwise the best Android phone you can buy in my view. I can personally attest to this. I’ve had a blue tint-laden Pixel 2 XL the last 7 months, and I’m still using it every day. It’s great, and I’ve forgotten its display is bad. That’s the long story short: I actually enjoy the display now.

DURABILITY: GLASS CRACKS.

When it comes to durability with the Pixel 2 XL, I have to say that I’ve been pretty impressed. I know this makes many people cringe, but I don’t baby my phones. I keep multiple phones in the same pocket without cases and screen protectors sometimes, I tend to go case-less in general, I let my phones see their share of abuse throughout their life. Part of me just prefers to use the phone as the manufacturer intended, and another sees it as part of the job of reviewing phones.

So you’re welcome. I abused my daily driver so you don’t have to. Here’s what that looks like after 7 months of daily use — treating my phone more like a tool than a precious gem:

I’d say for suffering the bumps and bruises of daily life without any protection, the phone has fared quite well. Even the deeper display scratches that you can see above are impressively minor to me, considering they came from keeping 2 phones in one pocket for the entirety of CES 2018 without cases. Anyone who’s done CES knows it should have turned out worse. But I know, I’m a monster.

The truth is, because of a couple slip-ups in the first week with the phone, I’m actually on my third Pixel 2 XL. The first was because of the faulty display that needed to be replaced, the third is the one I’ve been using for almost the entirety of the last 7 months, and the one in the middle… well, I dropped it. I cracked the glass window on the top of the back, and I decided to replace the entire device. This happened from a simple drop from about 5 feet onto a hard floor, so, yeah, glass cracks sometimes. Don’t drop your phones, and it won’t.

But that’s definitely worth nothing, I think. I love the look and feel of glass phones and I am a big fan of the distinct glass top-third/fifth of the Pixels from a style standpoint. But having glass on the front and back means you have twice the chance of shattering something when you drop your phone. Thankfully, I’ve not had any problems, even with a few drops, with shattering my display. With the abuse I’ve shown the phone, I think that gives it some brownie points in this section.

BATTERY LIFE: SOLID.

Another thing people often look for in a “much, much later” review is how the battery is holding up. I’m happy to report that my Pixel is maintaining battery almost as well as it did on day one. The Pixel 2 XL may not have the best and longest battery life in the world of Android, but it’ll get you through the day without a problem. That’s still the case now, and that’s all I really care about.

One thing, though, is that wireless chargers are becoming more common, Qi has won the standards war, and I actually have a few in my house now for various devices. That’s one thing that, as I’ve written before, I hope Google has in store for the Pixel 3. There have been many a time that I’ve plopped my 2 XL on a wireless charger and had a moment of sadness.

HEADPHONE JACK: DON’T NEED IT.

I know I might be the minority on this one, but I didn’t have any qualms with Google ditching the headphone jack on the Pixel 2, and after all this time I haven’t really walked back on that opinion.

Stephen Hall

@hallstephenj

This ancient relic came with my Pixel 2 XL. Found it at the bottom of a drawer. Have used it zero times.

I get that some people really, really love their 3.5mm headphone jack. But — and I’ll save you the lecture — I really don’t mind companies getting rid of it. I’m ready to go all wireless right now, even if regular Bluetooth headphones aren’t exactly as reliable and easy to use as Apple’s AirPods.

(In fact, I’ve used the AirPods as my primary headphones with my Pixel 2 XL this year.)

Is that best for the average consumer right now? Probably not. But at least Google, unlike many Android makers, is introducing technologies to make the transition better. I hope that this fall we see them double-down on embracing wireless with a far better sequel to the Pixel Buds.

CAMERA: SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.

I don’t need to preach about the Pixel’s camera, do I? Comparing every flagship I’ve used side-by-side, I always land on the Pixel as giving the best shots to my eyes. I’m not a camera or photography enthusiast, so I’m not claiming to understand the minutiae of what makes a great photo, but the Pixel 2 XL, if nothing else, lives up to its predecessor.

While I may have some minor gripes with other aspects that I felt were steps back, the camera isn’t one of them. It’s better. The best, perhaps. You won’t be disappointed, and over the last 6 months I and my colleagues have captured countless shots with our Pixel 2 XLs that we might not have been able to capture this well otherwise. Here are some of our favorites:

Beyond the camera taking great shots, I think the camera software experience is another place that Google has just taken huge strides in since the Nexus 6P. Camera snappiness and responsiveness was another thing that I long gave the iPhone the win for, but the Pixel 2 XL has unseated it in my experience. The camera opens fast. It’s responsive. And it takes amazing shots as a bonus.

SOFTWARE: EVER-INCREASING GREATNESS.

Google is the only company that does Android right. There, I said it.

From the reliability and smoothness of the interface, to the intuitiveness of the home screen and app drawer, to design of the notification shade, using a Pixel 2 XL is simply a joy. Unlike many Android phones, it feels like Google did user testing. It feels like they made sure that using the phone actually makes sense. It feels like this was designed, and every decision Google made, whether or not you agree with it, was intentional.

I know that sounds like a lot of design-y word fluff, but I’ll try and explain what I mean.

For a long time I always found the [insert the latest flagship iPhone] to be the most reliable when it comes to software performance and design, but the Pixel 2 XL sometimes puts the iPhone to shame — both because of Apple’s slacking in that department lately and the improvements Google has brought to its flagships since the days of Nexus. On the latest stable build of Oreo, I’ve found frame rate drops and similar hiccups to be practically nonexistent on the 2 XL.

And while I’ve seen mixed reports about this across Pixel users on social media, I feel like my 2 XL hasn’t slowed down at all since I got it. Some phones tend to degrade seriously in performance over time, and the Pixel 2 XL, like its predecessor, doesn’t seem to do that.

One aspect of the software that’s much appreciated is Google’s strong stance on not shipping any bloat or unnecessary add-ons with their build of Android. It’s not “stock” in the sense that it’s barebones Android Open Source Project, but it’s stock with all the right add-ons. The Pixel 2 XL is the same story as the original Pixel — they’re both similar to how Motorola long approached Android phones, but better. All the necessary pieces of Android plus a few little tweaks and add-ons that are actually useful. Oh, and those living wallpapers? Delightful.

One of the most obvious additions that Google brought to the Pixel 2 that wasn’t around with the first is the squeeze gesture to activate the Assistant. My reaction before I used it was that it was sure to be a gimmick (that’s just my typical cynical self), but I found quite the opposite to be the case. I’ve used it several times a day, and it feels intuitive. In fact, I find it more useful than some of the other gestures Google ships, like the ability to swipe down on the fingerprint to access the notification shade and the “flip camera” option, both of which I keep turned off by default.

Another thing that I love (and this is controversial, I know), is the Google Feed. With just a little guidance (telling it not to show me stories about certain topics or from certain sources on occasion), the Feed has slowly become a solid source of content and news from me. Of course, it’s based on algorithms and therefore not perfect, but it really is a useful addition to my phone’s home screen. I find myself checking it out several times a day, and often find it’s providing topics from sources I actually care about.

In fact, I’m a fan of pretty much every decision Google made with the Pixel Launcher as a whole. Putting the Google Search bar on the bottom below my app dock is another choice that I questioned at first, but I find myself loving the proximity my thumbs have to searching the web. Another minor thing: I’m also a fan of the date and weather widget on my main screen. I know some people hate the fact that you can’t remove it without switching launchers, but I love it — a tap away from weather and calendar at all times, and it looks nice.

Many of the reasons I like these things are not just the features themselves, but Google’s aesthetic. Compared to many other Android makers, I think Google has nailed the design of its app icons (although some of them are still weird, white circles, which I guess can be an eyesore), the translucency of the app drawer, the simple and clean look of the toggles in the notification center, and everything else. It’s purely subjective, I know, but after half a year of using this phone I can’t help but keep coming back to it. The LGs and the Samsungs make some weird design choices sometimes, and I far more often find myself frustrated at minor UX things on those phones.

All of this, together with the fact that I think Android as a whole just has so many huge advantages over the competition, and you get what I think is simply the best software you can find on a smartphone, period. A notification system that isn’t completely broken, anyone? Homescreen widgets that actually make using your phone better? Tight integration with all of Google’s world-class services, some of which Apple can barely compete with? Google Assistant, which is bar-none the best phone assistant? Android has all of that.

Android P

Since I’m doing this review half a year into owning the phone, I’ve had the opportunity to try out Android P, too. With this release, the greatness of Google’s Android is getting even better. I’m of the opinion that Google is the only company really pushing mobile operating systems forward, and if you have a Pixel 2 XL, you get a taste of that future, now.

Between the adaptive battery and adaptive brightness features, app actions, slices, the digital wellbeing initiatives that have no equal on other platforms, the gesture-based navigation (which, I’ll admit, I think is really half-baked for now), and more, last year’s Pixel is about to get way better.

Another aesthetic-related aspect that I get the full benefit of as a Pixel owner, half a year later, is Google’s refreshed Material Theme making its way throughout the OS and all of Google’s apps. I love the new rounded look of the quick settings toggles, the rounded white, and pretty much every other change Google has made in Android P to modernize the look.

So, yes, it’s the same story as always. If you get the Pixel, you get super fast updates and you get to use the future of Android today. Some other phones get that opportunity with Developer Preview 2 of Android P (and that might expand in the future), but it’s not an option on plenty of the top-of-the-line Pixel 2’s competitors. And those phones don’t get security patches as reliably, either.

CONCLUSION

Google really has something going for it with smartphone hardware, and while the sales numbers aren’t really catching up yet, I think Google is now one of only a few really serious players in the Android space. While other manufacturers are chasing after very niche markets, making generic phones that follow the herd for following’s sake, or simply hardly selling phones at all, Google seems determined to reach the mainstream with the Pixel lineup.

Time will tell when, if ever, the Pixel will really break out as a threat to the Samsung Galaxy S line and the iPhone in sales, but I think the Pixel and Pixel 2 XL are proof of one thing: Google is the only company besides Apple and Samsung that might even be able to take on Apple and Samsung. With the Pixel 2 XL as great as it is, I hope units shipped eventually catches up.

With all this in view, my conclusion is this: Even with the Pixel 3 just around the corner, I’d still recommend the Pixel 2 XL to anyone who might be looking for a phone right now. With the fast-paced race of smartphone releases and plenty of other excellent options on the market, that’s saying something. I’ve used the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the LG G7 and a handful of other Android flagships, and I just keep coming back to this phone.

Honestly, I had a hard time writing this review, because I just couldn’t think of much to complain about. As you probably felt, a lot of the complaints are nitpicks that Google probably doesn’t even deserve. That’s how I know it’s a great phone. I don’t even need to write about it. I don’t have hardly any substantive concerns or complaints with it because it’s just phone. That’s something that I want, most people want, and it’s something Google is finding success delivering.

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