Everything you need to know about the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

Julian Chokkattu
Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

At a jam-packed October 4 conference in San Francisco, Google announced the Google Home Mini, a high-end Chromebook called the Pixelbook, and a new Daydream View virtual reality headset. But the undisputed highlights were the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, two high-end smartphones designed with enthusiasts in mind.

They’re a step above your average phones. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, the newest version of Google’s Android operating system, and they carry the torch for Google’s premium  program. In many ways, they’re the search giant’s vision of ideal smartphones. In an earnings call, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said the Pixel 2 and 2 XL’s pre-orders on day one “were more than double what they were last year.”

Software

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL run Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, the latest version of Google’s operating system, and have features you won’t find in other Oreo-touting devices. On top of that, both phones have just been treated to an update that could fix some issues users have been complaining about.

In the update, perhaps the biggest changes is the addition of three display options — Boosted, Natural, and Saturated. If you feel like the colors on your Pixel or Pixel XL are a little washed out or boring, you probably want the Saturated option. The update also lowers the maximum screen brightness and fades away the navigation controls if you’re not using them, in an attempt to fix the burn-in issues some have been complaining about. Last but not least is the faint clicking noise some Pixel users have noted. It seems as though that noise was a software issue rather than a hardware one — and as such has been fixed in the update.

One of the most dramatic features you’ll only find on Pixel devices is an upgraded Pixel Launcher, the app that powers the phones’ home screens. Google search bar has moved from the top of the screen to the bottom, where’s it’s easier to reach with your thumbs. There’s a new “daily briefing” widget that shows the current weather, temperature, and upcoming calendar entries, and a completely transparent notification and navigation bar.

Now Playing, a  feature of the Google Assistant that’s exclusive to the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, uses “always-on” three-microphone technology and on-device machine learning to listen for tunes nearby. If it identifies a match, you’ll see a handy link to the corresponding Google Play Music store listing in the notifications shade. And if the Pixel or Pixel 2 XL’s low-power Always-On Display mode is enabled, you’ll see a persistent black-and-white alert on the lock screen.

That’s all in addition to Android 8.0 Oreo features like Notification Channels, which let you toggle categories of alerts on a per-app basis, and Notification Badges, which mimic iOS’ unread badge counters. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — Oreo has a picture-in-picture mode, an Autofill service that remembers your app login passwords, and a battery-optimizing task manager that quashes misbehaving background apps. For a full rundown, check out our guide to Android 8.0 Oreo.

A major advantage of the Pixel-series phones is that they’re typically the first to get new version of Android, and the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are no different. Google says that both will get three years of software upgrades.

At the event on October 4, Google highlighted ARCore, an augmented reality framework that powers ARKit-like experiences. Unlike the search giant’s hardware-based Project Tango, which requires special sensors, ARCore is compatible with the Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL, and any Android device running 7.0 Nougat or later. Apps that take advantage project digital characters onto real-world objects by detecting horizontal surfaces and reading the surrounding environment’s ambient light.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL also support AR Stickers which will be available in the Pixel camera. It projects digital stickers onto surfaces, and early partners include Saturday Night Live, YouTube, Disney, the NBA, and Netflix.

Pixel 2

google pixel 2 images 034

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

google pixel 2 images 033

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

From a distance, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the Pixel 2 and its predecessor, the 2016 Pixel, apart. The two handsets have the same rounded corners in common, and the same thick bezels above and below the 5-inch, 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) wide-color gamut, 24-bit P-OLED screen that can display 16.7 million colors. The front camera hasn’t budged from the top-left corner of the front panel, and the Pixel 2’s rear features the same two-toned, minimalist design as last year’s Pixel. With the exception of an etched “G” logo toward the bottom, a camera in the left-hand corner, and a Google-branded fingerprint sensor that unlocks “faster than any smartphone,” the Pixel 2’s unibody is a familiar sea of glass, soft-touch plastic, and “hybrid” aluminum.

But some things have changed, and mostly (but not all) for the better. The Pixel 2 has two speakers — one above the screen and one below — in stereo configuration. Gone is the first-gen Pixel’s awkward camera silhouette, as is the 16:9 aspect ratio. The display is now 18:9, just like the LG G6, which means apps in Android’s split-screen multitasking view get an equitable amount of screen real estate. And like the iPhone 7, Moto Z2 Force, and HTC U Ultra before it, the Pixel 2 does away with the headphone jack. The Pixel 2 ships with a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter, but if you leave it behind without a pair of Bluetooth earbuds handy, you’ll have to borrow someone else’s.

Read our Pixel 2 review to learn more about the smartphone.

Pixel 2 XL

Google Pixel 2 XL in hand home

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

While the Pixel 2 looks more or less like last year’s model, the Pixel 2 XL is a different story. The 6-inch QHD (2,560 x 1,440 pixels) P-OLED display stretches from the far-left side to the far right, stopping just short of the Pixel 2 XL’s rounded edges. The screen’s corners are curved on all four sides, and it’s much taller than the Pixel 2’s. There’s barely enough room for the stereo speakers and front camera.

The rest of the Pixel 2 XL is less trailblazing. It’s got the same two-tone design as the Pixel 2, down to the rear camera’s placement, fingerprint sensor, and Google logo. And just like the Pixel 2, it eschews a 3.5mm headphone jack connector for a single USB-C port.

You can check out our Pixel 2 XL review to see our thoughts on the phone.

Powerful processors

Somewhat surprisingly, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL’s designs are about the only thing that set them apart. They’re in many ways cut from the same cloth.

Both phones are IP67 dust- and water-resistant, which means they can survive being submerged in up to three feet of water for 30 minutes, and their touchscreens boast shatter- and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 5. On Project Fi, they use eSIM technology to switch between cell networks on the fly. And both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have Active Edge, capacitive bezels that trigger Google’s AI Assistant, silence phone calls, snap photos, and launch other apps when squeezed (à la the HTC U11).

Under the hood, the new Pixel phones pack Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835, an octa-core system-on-chip that boasts a 27 percent performance advantage over the first-gen Pixel phones’ Snapdragon 821. It’s paired with 4GB of RAM, Bluetooth 5.0 radios, and up to 128GB of internal storage, and charges quickly thanks to compatibility with USB Power Delivery.

Generally speaking, five minutes of charging delivers five hours of battery life with the included 18W charging adapter. And with a 27W adapter, you’ll get even faster charging speeds.

If there’s one area where the Pixel 2 XL has the advantage, it’s battery life. Google pegs its 3,520mAh battery at a “full two days” on a charge, compared to the 2,700mAh Pixel 2 battery’s “full day.”

Top-of-the-line cameras

Last year’s Pixel phones had spectacular cameras that rivaled that of the iPhone, and the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL don’t rest on their laurels. They earned a score of 98 from DXOMark, the photography agency’s highest-ever rating. Google’s head of hardware, Rick Osterloh, describes them as “best in class” sensors that “completely revolutionize” the photo-taking experience.

A custom-designed Google imaging chip powers the cameras in both phones: An 8-megapixel f/2.4 aperture sensor on front, and a single-lens 12.2-megapixel rear f/1.8 aperture rear camera with optical image stabilization, phase detection autofocus, and high dynamic range (HDR). Google calls it the Pixel Camera, and it’s capable of all sorts of software tricks that the first-gen Pixel phones weren’t.

Google uses what’s called Fused Video stabilization — a combination of the aforementioned optical image stabilization and electronic image stabilization — to smooth out jerky videos automatically.

One is an iPhone Portrait Mode-like bokeh mode that captures in-focus foregrounds and out-of-focus backgrounds (Google says that thanks to machine learning, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL don’t need a second camera to achieve the effect). Another, Motion Photos, snaps three-second video clips before and after a picture is taken (think Apple’s Live Photos).

But the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL’s cameras can do more than snap great photos. They’re the leading platform for Google Lens, an AI photo analyzer than can pick out books, DVD covers, architectural landmarks, and more. Thanks to Google-designed machine-learning chips that process more than 180 trillion floating point operations per second, Google Lens can give a description of a building in a photo, identify the artist of a painting, or even enter a Wi-Fi password automatically from a photo of the underside of a Wi-Fi router.

Release date and price

Given all that technology, you’d be forgiven for expecting the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Pixel to cost an arm and a leg. But both come in below the $900-plus asking prices of the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X.

The Pixel 2 (in “just black,” “clearly white,” and “kinda blue” colors) is available in 64GB and 128GB storage configurations for $650 and $750 unlocked, respectively. Alternatively, you can opt for Google’s monthly financing, which is $27.04 per month for the 64GB model and $31.21 per month for the 128GB model. The Pixel 2 XL (in black and white) comes in the same sizes as the Pixel 2 — 64GB or 128GB — for $850 and $950, respectively. A 24-month installment plan for the 64GB starts at $35.38 per month and $39.54 per month for the 128GB. Both went on sale starting October 19.

If you’re looking to purchase the phones from a carrier, you’ll have to be on Verizon as Big Red is the exclusive carrier selling the phone. You can still purchase them from Google unlocked and they will work on all major U.S. networks. For accessories, Google launched a Made For Google program with a strong list of accessory makers, similar to Apple’s Made For iPhone program.

Update: The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have been updated to solve display issues and the faint clicking noise.

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