Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL review: The new standard for Android

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
(Image: © Android Central)

Google's smartphone division is in a very interesting, even precarious, position. At once, it's trying to appeal to two disparate ends of the market: the design and experience-focused high-end phone buyer who is typically drawn to the iPhone; and the Google-loving Android enthusiast that wants a very different set of features and desires the "purest" Google experience. The latter comes from years of selling Google-sanctioned Nexus phones that were so often the dream devices of Android diehards, while the former comes from Google's goal to capture the most lucrative and sought-after group of consumers in the market.

The solution, as was the case last year with the canonical Pixels, comes in the form of "one" phone that's actually two — this year, it's the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Starting at $649 for the base model Pixel 2 and going up to $949 for the top Pixel 2 XL, these things are costly — and Google thinks it has both the hardware and software chops to make them worth it. A refined emphasis on in-house hardware design and a compelling story about deep integration with Google's bevy of services make the Pixel 2 and 2 XL rather unique among Android phones — and, of course, quite similar to Apple's playbook with the iPhone.

Google's hardware division isn't a project or a hobby anymore. It's the real deal. Let's see if the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL live up to that standard in our full review.

About this review

I am writing this review after six days using the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. They were used on both the Project Fi and Verizon networks in the greater Seattle, WA area. The software was not updated during the course of our review.

For our video review, Alex Dobie has also been using both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL for a total of five days in Manchester, UK, and Munich, Germany on the EE and Vodafone networks (roaming on Telekom.de and Vodafone DE while in Germany.) The phones were provided to Android Central for review by Google.

Because of their considerable similarities, we're grouping together both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL into a single review. The opinions and observations expressed in this review are applicable to both phones, except in specific places where one model is mentioned in particular.

In video form

Pixel 2 and 2 XL Video review

For the full visual take on these new phones from Google, be sure to watch our complete video review put together by our very own Alex Dobie. For the specific details on the pair, you'll want to read our entire written review here.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Keep it simple

Pixel 2 and 2 XL Hardware

2016's HTC-built Pixel and Pixel XL were identical phones simply built at two different scales. This year, despite Google's insistence on branding of the "Pixel 2" as a single phone, things aren't so simple. Sure, from a glance, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL look like the same phone in two different sizes. But pick them up, and each is clearly unique.

The larger Pixel 2 XL is getting a majority of the attention, and rightfully so.

The Pixel 2 XL is getting a majority of the attention, and I'd say rightfully so. The big 18:9 display, rounded corners and smaller bezels just feel more modern, looking very similar to the LG V30 (wonder why) and Galaxy S8+. In stark contrast to the smaller Pixel 2, the 2 XL's front glass is steeply curved on all sides to flow over the edges and meet the metal sides further down. It feels and looks absolutely fantastic, and the lack of any sharp edges or right angles on the entire front just feels "right."

The problem, from my perspective, is its overall size that will be too big for some to manage. It's basically the same size as the Galaxy S8+ — just under 2 mm shorter, but also over 3 mm wider and the same weight. For another comparison, the Pixel 2 XL is larger (and not just a little bit) in every dimension than the LG V30. It teeters on the edge of being too big to reach across, and is definitely too big to comfortably reach the top quarter of the display when holding it in one hand. Thankfully, the Pixel 2 XL has a flat display that doesn't have accidental palm touch issues, and a fingerprint sensor in a perfect position to reach in any case.

The Pixel 2, on the other hand, harkens back in so many ways to the Nexus 5X — the proportions, the curves, the overall look from the front. Its metal sides come up further and to a sharper beveled edge where they meet front glass, and the glass itself is nearly flat with only a minor amount of "2.5D" curving at the edges. The 16:9 display obviously isn't as tall as the 2 XL, but the bezels on the top and bottom add enough height that the overall proportions are very similar to its larger sibling.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL specs

Once you get past the front and how the glass curves, the phones are almost identical.

For all of this typing focused on the differences between the two, there is so much shared in the hardware of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. Once you get past the front and how the glass curves into the sides, things are as close to identical as possible. The aluminum frame feels thick and finely constructed, with a textured coating that gives you far more grip — albeit at the expense of feeling a bit less like metal than the 2016 Pixels, a compromise I feel is worthwhile. The glass insert at the top of the phones is smaller now and inset perfectly, but now marred by a small camera bump that makes the taller 2 XL wobble on the table a bit when you're tapping the screen.

There isn't much else to say about the design of these phones, particularly when you have them both in black as I do. Like their predecessors, and even more so this time around, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL are monolithic, near-featureless and quite basic in their overall hardware. They don't have the stunning curves, flashy polished metal or distinctive lines of many other phones out there. The best you get here are the offset colored power buttons on "kinda blue" Pixel 2 and "black & white" Pixel 2 XL.

The hardware is clean, efficient and beautiful — but not flashy.

Mercifully, Google has added IP67 water- and dust-resistance to the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, which is downright table stakes at this point (and some would argue it was last year). Whether directly related or not, this has also coincided with the loss of the headphone jack — which was something Google specifically mentioned as a benefit on the original Pixels. (Ugh. C'mon.) It includes a USB-C to 3.5 mm headphone adapter in the box, and sells extras in the Google Store (opens in new tab) for $20 $9, but frustratingly doesn't put USB-C headphones in the box. The industry is leaving the 3.5 mm headphone jack behind, I get that — but I really wish Google didn't cheap out here, particularly on the $849 Pixel 2 XL, and chose to include some headphones considering how few people have USB-C headphones right now.

Adding to the frustration is attempting to navigate the world of USB-C adapters and headphones. At this point there's no clear or consistent way to know if when you buy them that they'll actually work with your phone. For example HTC's headphones don't work with the Pixel 2, but its headphone adapter does. And Motorola's adapter doesn't work with Google's phones at all.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

A tale of two displays

Alright, back to the differences again — let's talk about displays. Google's biggest selling point on the Pixel 2 XL's display was its color accuracy and the fact that it could reproduce 100% of the DCI-P3 color space. And to my eyes, that's clearly where all of the tuning time went: accuracy above all else. Because this screen, I hate to say, looks a bit dull and washed out. Being used to Samsung's vibrant and colorful displays — which by default exhibit punchier, more saturated colors — the 2 XL is kind of disappointing when you first look at it. No matter how you feel about the colors you'll notice an apparent color shifting when viewing the phone off-axis at all, to the point where holding the phone at an angle the colors at the top of the display (further from you) are more blue/green than what's at the bottom.

The Pixel 2 XL's display is actually disappointing, but the standard Pixel 2 surprises.

The 2880x1440 resolution is plenty high, but the Pixel 2 XL exhibits the same sort of soft grain and grit as the V30 on white backgrounds when scrolling — one of those things you can't un-see once it's been pointed out. It's something we expect to see on super low-end phones, but not anything remotely high-end in the past few years — and it's surely not a problem that Samsung has with its OLED displays nowadays.

Thankfully over time your eyes get used to its calibration, as they do with any other phone, and you start to see some of the benefits compared to last year. The Pixel 2 XL gets much dimmer in low-light situations where you want it to, peak brightness is higher — though it is, of course, not as bright as a Galaxy Note 8 — and daylight visibility improved because of it.

Funny enough, it's the smaller, lower resolution, less-accurate and ostensibly lower-end Pixel 2 display that actually looks better to my eyes. Its brightness (both high and low) is very similar to the 2 XL, but it doesn't exhibit the grain on white backgrounds or the color shifting at angles that are annoying on the larger phone. At the same time, its colors have a bit more punch and depth to them — mostly due to the display just being a tad warmer overall.

I don't think the display quality differences are so big that they alone should make you want to choose one phone over the other. There are other factors like the actual physical size of the screen and the design of the phone that are likely bigger purchase drivers. But it's certainly worth noting that just because the Pixel 2 XL is bigger and more expensive doesn't mean it has the better display.

Google Pixel 2 XL

The best around

Pixel 2 and 2 XL Software and experience

For the vast majority of people out there, the best Android experience comes directly from Google on a Pixel phone. If there's one thing we've seen play out consistently over the years, it's new high-end phones coming out with piles of bells and whistles to appeal to as many people as possible, only to eventually hurt the daily experience because of how they were saddled with all of this superfluous crap. Google's Pixel phones are the exact opposite: in having fewer features and options for customization, they offer a superior daily experience for almost every kind of smartphone user today.

Google has gotten really good at this whole user experience and interface design thing.

Loading up your Pixel 2 or 2 XL for the first time, you won't be greeted by a super-long setup process, duplicate apps, extra account permissions or clunky backup and restore settings. Google's default apps are some of the best in the business — many of which you'd likely install on any Android phone — so for many people, they won't feel like they have to go hunting for anything from the Play Store from the start. As it turns out, Google has gotten really good at this user experience and interface design stuff — everything just flows and makes sense. Android 8.0 Oreo has a lot of nice features that will be great for any Android user, but it's absolutely fantastic to see it all working as intended by its creators with no additional changes.