Back in October I found myself in San Francisco when Google’s Pixel event was on, and managed to score an invite to head there in person and see what the company was planning for its second run at the Pixel phones.
I came away from the event more than impressed — it seemed Google finally had its story together after years of confusing hardware narratives, and it actually appeared to have a more coherent software and hardware strategy than Apple in 2017.
While still in the room I pre-ordered a Pixel 2 XL and decided right there after being underwhelmed by the iPhone X that I’d give Android another try after five years or so being all-in on iOS (I switched when the 4s was released). Given that I’d ditched the Mac as well this year, it seemed on brand at least.
Honestly, I had no interest in switching phones. I was perfectly happy using the iPhone, with minor annoyances, because it let me just do everything I needed to. When Google unveiled the Pixel 2, two major things tempted me away: the realization I almost use Google services for everything anyway and that the camera was gobsmackingly good.
I got my Pixel 2 XL about a month ago, and this is a look at what it’s like to move across from a long-time iPhone owner’s perspective. It's not a hardware takedown, or a head-to-head look at a specific model vs another one, but rather aims to be a nuanced take on what makes the Pixel different or maybe even better.
It goes without saying that design is subjective, but much of the excitement around the Pixel 2 was because Google broke outside of traditional phone design with this device. There's a panda-colored variant, white and black, which features a bright orange button and there's a blue version that does the same.
Google, if anything, injected fun into a device again, in a world where most devices are just slathered in aluminium. XL is seriously large, but it's comfortable in your hand and feels nice and light, while not losing that 'premium' feel Apple is famous for.
The actual design of the back is controversial, but when it comes to the front it's no question for me that this device is one of the better looking out there. Because of how Google handles the rounded edges (and the lack of a notch) it just seems endless and I love how the front is an uninterrupted, consistent shape.
Let's be honest here, however: if you have particularly small hands you will hate this phone. It's big, and sometimes you might struggle to reach the top. In general I'm totally fine with it, but pulling it out on my bike, for example, seems a lot scarier than with the iPhone 7. Your mileage may vary, but hey, it's worth it for all that glorious screen.
The screen on this thing is magic and damn lovely, no exaggeration. Every time I look at it with those nice rounded edges it's a delight, and watching Netflix or playing a game just feels awesome at this size.
OLED means that the case’s blacks bleed really well into the screen and it looks like it never ends, particularly if you set your keyboard to true black.
If you've read anything about the Pixel XL 2 you're probably already thinking something along the lines of but isn't the screen awful? I initially canceled my order after these scary articles started emerging about how terrible the Pixel XL 2's display is, but after asking around began to hear that maybe it's been blown out of proportion so put in a new one.
Honestly, the screen is great, and I've had close to zero issues with it.
Much of the hand-wringing around the Pixel XL 2 came down to Google's choice of the sRGB profile and leveraging the wide color gamut of the display. I really believe this a non-issue that's been blown way out of proportion: you straight up won't notice unless you go around putting your phone next to everyone else's, and even then it's negligible.
Like Motherboard points out, the entire thing was far less of a problem and more of a headline-grabber:
And it’s fine. Well. More than fine, it’s beautiful. The screen is great, actually. During the initial setup process, when Google is transferring files and setting up cell service, the screen is blistering white. And, yes, from side angles the screen had a strange blue tint. I haven’t noticed it since then.
Coming from an iPhone 7 the display seems awesome and a massive upgrade: OLED blacks are delightful, text is crisp and colors are vibrant. Maybe I got lucky, but I suspect the initial issues were related to a bad batch and some over-zealous journalists. Your mileage may vary, but I'm extremely happy.
I do have one complaint, but it's mostly an oddity of OLED: when you're at extreme low brightness with a dark background there's some very apparent black smudge. Will you notice it on a regular basis? Probably not. But when you do, it's just plain weird. Text bleeds as you scroll and images ghost a little -- this isn't just restricted to the Pixel 2, but the iPhone X as well because of how OLED pixels work.
How'd I get around it, or stop it from annoying me? Raising the brightness a little. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Holy shit, my battery lasts past 5:00 PM. My iPhone 7 is like... eight months old and ever since the iOS 11 update it's been a quantifiable disaster, requiring charging at least in the evening if I'm headed out, and never lasting beyond a day. Pixel 2 XL is the literal complete opposite: I no longer even think about it.
In general, I can get about a day and a half before needing to think about charging it, and go to bed with over 60% on most days. The most I’ve squeezed out of it was a solid two days, but I’ll generally slap the charger on every other day at my desk (and when I’m in a time-crunch a quick charge to 80% takes 15 minutes so uh, it’s not even a thing anymore).
I used to have so much battery anxiety, but it’s no longer an issue.
This phone blows every other device I've ever used out of the water, period. The Pixel 2 XL (and the normal Pixel 2) take photos that are incredibly true to life and don't miss a beat. No matter what I've thrown at the Pixel it's consistently outperformed any device I've seen on the market, including the iPhone X and 8, and frequently left me thinking "holy shit this is good."
Google didn't mess around with these devices: Pixel essentially focuses on camera alone and optimizes for getting you to the perfect shot as fast as possible regardless of where you are in the OS, and seriously slays the competition in almost every situation I could throw at it.
There are two key areas that continue to blow my mind regularly:
1) Detail / sharpness
I have never ever seen a phone that's able to precisely pick up on minute details in photos like the Pixel in both well-lit and low-light situations. It's particularly obvious when you take a photo of a scene with a high level of complexity, like my cat's extremely furry face or, to get even more specific, this bike boat in Amsterdam:
Download the photo and zoom in: the sharpness and depth is astounding, given how challenging a shot like this is for a phone on a rainy, grey day.
2) "It just works"
Like what made iPhone's camera so famous, the Pixel's now 'just works' in almost every circumstance I've been able to throw at it – and then some.
The last time I used Android, which was admittedly years ago, the camera app was always so slow to launch that you'd often find yourself missing the shot. Google's doubled down here, too, and it almost always is ready to go within 100ms of double tapping the power button.
This is, perhaps, one of my favorite thoughtful parts of the Pixel's interaction design: no matter what you're doing on the phone, a quick double tap on the power button gets you into the camera. No swiping, tapping or fidgeting with control center.
There's few times I've felt the need to edit or tweak photos because what comes out is so true-to-life that it's satisfying. This is especially true of Pixel's portrait mode, which is straight up magical, and blew my expectations out of the water (they were low because I couldn't figure out how a single lens could be better that two).
All this boils down to one thing: the Pixel's camera is magic.
I've had a Fujifilm X-T1 and enjoyed it for a long time, but this is the first phone that made me put it down entirely. I love shooting on the Pixel 2 XL and just wanted to take photos of everything again because it felt like the first time I had a camera in a phone all over again, except this one is damn incredible with almost zero effort.
This is especially surprising to me because until this year it was always apparent that the iPhone was the leader, particularly when it came to consistency across photos. This time around it's clear, at least to me, that the iPhone 8 and X cameras aren't that much of an improvement but the Pixel 2 is night and day. There's no question that this is a killer camera, and it shows consistently.
The icing on the cake of this great camera is that Google throws in unlimited full resolution free photo backup. In iCloud-land, I was paying $10/month just to store my photos to a company that wouldn't even notice the difference if it just offered unlimited photo backup. On the Pixel, everything's backed up, all the time and there's no more Storage Full popups.
I've collected a gallery of shots from the phone you can view here (with many of them below) and I'm adding more over time. None of these have been post-processed, and are retrieved directly from the camera for sharing here.