Google Pixel 2 vs. Pixel: Should you upgrade?

It's that time of year again. We get to the new Pixel 2, a phone that we want to spend our money on, even if we have a really good phone in our pockets already.

The 2016 Pixel is still a damn good phone. Let's get that out of the way first thing. Unless yours is broken, you don't need to buy something new. We all know this every time a new phone is released or our current model is replaced by one with a higher number, but it's OK to do something (or buy something) because you want to, not because you need to. With that in mind, let's talk about how they match up against each other so all of us can decide what we're going to do.

Pixel 2 vs. Pixel: specs comparison

What's changed

At first glance, the Pixel and Pixel 2 look very much the same. You have a 5-inch "FHD" (marketing speak for 1080p) OLED display with great big bezels on the top and bottom, on-screen navigation buttons, and an aluminum back with the top third cut off and replaced by glass. Even the logo and fingerprint sensor are the same and in the same spot. But that's where the similarity ends.

For starters, the Pixel 2 puts a speaker in both of those bezels. For folks who wanted quasi-stereo front-facing speakers, the Pixel 2 now has you covered. We're not yet sure how good they will sound, but the Pixel 2 should be louder and more clear than its predecessor, which is what a lot of people wanted. Unfortunately, another change is that the Pixel 2 doesn't have a headphone jack, which not nearly as many people wanted. Google, we applaud your courage in removing the 3.5 mm headphone jack.

The Pixel 2 headphone adapter costs $20{.cta .large}

Another new trick from the Pixel 2 is Active Edge. In early 2017 HTC showed off a squeezable phone, where the act of tightening your grip acted as a type of switch or button and could launch an app or service. Google adds this in the Pixel 2 lineup, and we saw how you can launch Assistant just by gripping the phone tighter.

Since the original Pixel doesn't have the hardware mechanisms in place, this feature isn't coming to the 2016 model. Some think it's a gimmick, others simply love it, but either way, it's a big convenience feature the OG Pixel isn't going to have.

The new Snapdragon is a big deal

The biggest differences are things you can't see. The Pixel 2 uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 which is not only faster but offers improved wireless support for the next generation. It's also more power efficient than the Snapdragon 821 in the original Pixel, which is how CPU evolution works. Having a higher clock speed can hurt that efficiency, but you have to assume that Google was smart and the phone's 2,700 mAh (which is 70 mAh smaller than the 2016 version) will be adequate for most users and last the day.

The Snapdragon 821 is a great SoC. The Snapdragon 835 is a better one.

Another area where the better CPU might matter is in Daydream. You're not going to tax the 821 that's inside the original by just doing "phone stuff." You need to open intensive 3D games or put it inside a Daydream headset. And it was possible to push the original Pixel so hard while using it for Daydream that it got too hot and had to throttle the CPU, leading to a pretty poor experience in VR unless you stopped and let it cool down.

This ties in well with the next difference, which is multimedia. The Snapdragon 835 offers better multimedia input abilities through the camera as well as better output support for what you see on the screen. The new Spectra 180 ISP supports things like HDR 4K recording at 30fps while hardware accelerated features like face detection are running. The Adreno 540 GPU supports 4K 60fps output on both the internal display and an external display, at the same time. The multimedia package even has DX12 support in case you wanted to play FIFA 18 when Microsoft releases their ARM Windows 10 machines. Google isn't supporting all of these features, but do know that there were some very healthy upgrades here.

Check out the Pixel 2 specs

Finally, the Snapdragon 835 outclasses the 821 when it comes to LTE network technology. The 835 has a CAT 16 modem, with 3x20 MHz carrier aggregation and 256-QAM on the download. In simpler terms, while it's not a gigabit device, it can reach speeds of 800Mbps.

Of course, your network has to be ready and none of them are outside of a few select testing areas. The Snapdragon 835 is the first SoC that theoretically offers faster LTE speeds than it does Wi-Fi (802.11 ad WI-Fi with speeds of 867 Mbps). This means you will get the fastest speeds possible from your network even though it's not Gigabit ready.

Again, we're not saying the 2016 Pixel's Snapdragon 821 was bad. Outside of thermal issues when wrapped up in a hot felt VR headset, there are very few people complaining about performance. But it's silly to ignore the boost in power and efficiency that comes with the newer Snapdragon 835.

What stays the same

The Pixel 2 was running a "special" version of Android Oreo when Google showed it to everyone at the launch event. That means there will be a new version of Android, at least for the Pixel 2 family. It's still technically Android 8.0, but it has some meaningful differences to the version that shipped on the Pixels and Nexus phones earlier this year.

Most of the Google Experience will also come to the original 2016 Pixel.

What we are sure of is that Google was clear about a good many of the software features coming to the original. You'll have Google Lens, a smarter Google Assistant, and will be ready for Daydream 2 if you keep your "old" Pixel. We imagine that tweaked launcher with the new Google bar on the bottom is also coming (love it or hate it) but we're not sure about the new camera features like portrait mode and foodmojis. That just might need the newer Snapdragon.

You'll also still get fast updates direct from Google on your 2016 Pixel until it reaches its end-of-life. But we've not heard anything about Google tacking another year onto the update promise to match the Pixel 2 and its 3-year guarantee.

When it comes to the software and all the things you can do with it, your 2016 Pixel will give you just about the same experience as the Pixel 2. This is just how Google does things and something we've seen since the Nexus program. It's a smart move because it keeps people who may not want to buy a new phone every year happy with the brand.

One other big difference

Google has promised a full three years of OS support for the Pixel 2. While three years has been the standard for security-related updates for a while, this means you will get the next three years worth of Android updates, too. Chances are that means Android P, Android Q, and Android R.

This is a really the biggest upgrade. Outside of Apple who contracts its own in-house design for all the internal parts of an iPhone, no other company making smartphones does this. Three years worth of full software upgrades means your phone will have all the features Google develops between the day you buy it and the day the battery is so bad that it needs to be replaced.

Many of us switch phones every year so this isn't as important. But in the grand scheme of things, this is the Pixel 2's killer feature.

So should you upgrade?

Usually, this section comes with a disclaimer about your needs and a long list of reasons for both options. Not this time.

If you can live without a headphone jack or really want to have two front speakers, and have the money to spend, upgrade to the Pixel 2. The good news is that if you don't have the money to spend or aren't in love with the new changes, your 2016 Pixel is going to be fine for another 12 months even if it's no longer "the best."

When you have to think before you buy the newer model, the company making them is doing it right.

The Snapdragon 835 is tempting, especially the new connectivity upgrades. Carriers are pushing out the next generation network faster than anyone thought, and if it comes to your area in 2018 you'll be able to take advantage of fatter pipes and faster speeds in a more significant way. The better quality network will be nice for anyone using a recent phone, but the latest today is ready for more of what happens tomorrow. If you're into Daydream you really should be looking at the Pixel 2 XL, but the smaller Pixel 2 will still be a better experience than the original. And there's no telling what developers will release through 2018 that can take advantage of the beefier 835. We've seen that happen before.

Finally, if you plan to keep your phone for three years, the Pixel 2's new longer support promise makes it a must.

It's a tough decision for people who aren't worried about changing every year to make sure they have the latest and best. And that's a good thing.

See at Verizon

What about you?

Are you upgrading to the Pixel 2 from the original, or any other phone? Jump into the comments and tell us all why (or why not). Both decisions are good ones, and it's always interesting to hear all sides when it comes to who is buying and why. The feedback just might change your mind, or make you even happier about your decision.

Where to buy the Pixel 2

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.