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Pixel 2 Review: No Frills Android

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Pixel 2 Review: No Frills Android

The Pixel 2 is only one of the two smartphones to come out this year from Google. One of the two phones, the Pixel 2 XL, has gotten a certain amount of heat lately in regards to its display. Google has finally come out and addressed some of the issues, but that’s about as much acknowledgment we’ve gotten so far. Fortunately, almost none of that controversy has to do with the Pixel 2.

This little 5.0-inch smartphone avoids both the controversy and the chance-taking leaps of other devices and instead seeks to simply update the celebrated original phone from last year. The question I had going into this review was as follows: Is the Pixel 2 a safe, boring phone or exactly what we need in 2017?

Design

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Let’s get this out of the way: the original Pixel was our smartphone of the year in 2016. Coming out late in the year, the Pixel was exactly the phone we had always wanted to see from Google. More than that, it ended up being the phone we wanted to use as our daily driver more than any other that came out in 2016. However, that didn’t have a whole lot to do with the design and build quality of the body of the phone. The design was simple and the materials were modest—and that hasn’t changed on the sequel.

The Pixel 2 looks very, very similar to its predecessor. On the back, it’s got the same two-tone design: the top having a glossy finish and the bottom being matte. Both are plastic, but still feel good in the hand thanks to the texture they’ve used. At no point did I feel like I was using something less than quality just because the phone isn’t made from aluminum or glass.

That is, until you push too hard on it. Reports circulated about the Pixel 2 very recently that sounded eerily similar to the iPhone 6 Bendgate situation. I didn’t try a full-on bend of our review device, but with just a little bit of pressure, I could feel that it wasn’t quite as stiff as you might hope it was. That’s not to say that the phone can’t live through heavy use and drops, it’s just something to be aware of in how you handle it.

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Other elements of the back of the phone are all in proper position for use: most notably the camera and the fingerprint scanner. I was skeptical about the decision to move the circular fingerprint scanner to the back of the phone with the original Pixel, but it’s something you quickly get used to it . For what’s worth, the fingerprint scanner is highly accurate and is placed in a convenient position (unlike, ahem, the new Galaxy phones).

On the front, the Pixel 2 is nearly identical to what you had on the original. Most importantly, it’s got the same chunky bezels on the top and bottom—and let’s be real: they’re an eyesore. Compared to phones like the Galaxy Note 8, the Essential Phone, the iPhone X, or even the Pixel 2 XL, the bezels here look like something straight out of 2016. For many people, in particular those who are coming from an older iPhone, Galaxy, or Pixel phone, it’s not going to make much of a difference. And in my time with the phone, I got used to the bezels soon enough. But every time you put it up against a more modern-looking device, the age and relatively “safe” design of the phone does show.

Display

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It’s hard to talk about the Pixel 2’s display without mentioning the controversy surrounding the Pixel 2 XL’s display. We’ve already done a comparison of the two, but the TL;DR of it all is that these two phones have very different displays. The Pixel 2 uses an HD AMOLED screen, sitting at 5.0 inches and displaying in a 16:9 ratio. That means it’s a bit smaller and not as wide as phones with less bezels, but similar to what you’d find on something like the iPhone 8.

Overall, I like the display on the Pixel 2 quite a bit. The AMOLED screen gives really vibrant colors and at this size, anything more than HD isn’t really noticeable. Furthermore, it’s a bit more manageable for those with smaller hands or pockets—and the bezels actually allow for more comfortable ways of holding it in certain situations. Most importantly, it doesn’t suffer from the same blue-tilt or burn-in issues that the Pixel XL does. Again, these are two very different displays produced by two different manufacturers and even put together by two different manufacturers.

Camera

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The original Pixel was known for its all-star camera, and that hasn’t changed with the Pixel 2. Rather than opting for the dual-lens setups of the iPhone X or the Galaxy Note 8, the Pixel 2 offers just one lens, fine-tuned to hell by Google’s masterful software engineers.

It’s a 12-megapixel lens on the back that supports produces really clear, crisp photos—especially when the lighting is favorable. Like all smartphone cameras, it struggles in overly bright overly dark situations. It’s an area manufacturers still have a lot of work to do in, but it’s one that the Pixel 2 is one of the best at. The Pixel 2 does better than others in not

The one big loss you get with Google’s decision to stick with a single camera is optical zoom. Cameras like the one on the iPhone 8 Plus have a great analog zoom feature that makes zooming actually worth doing once and a while. Even phones like the OnePlus 5 do better, which use a combination of digital and analog functions to get to a 2x zoom.

In addition, the Portrait mode on the Pixel 2, while done without a second lens, is just not as impressive as it is on the iPhone 8 Plus. The bokeh effect can be a little fake-looking sometimes—but the ability to adjust the amount of blur in post-production is helpful. Despite that Google hasn’t quite mastered some of these special features, you will be very happy with the basic photos you get out of the Pixel 2.

When it comes to the basics, the camera here is one of the best, if not the very best on the market. The fact that it’s got a great front-facing selfie camera is just icing on the cake.

Changes from the original Pixel

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There are two really big changes from the original Pixel on the sequel that people will care about—one is a great thing, and one is up for debate. The first is waterproofing, which is a feature that was curiously absent from the original Pixel in a year that pushed the waterproofing very strongly across the major phone manufacturers. The Pixel 2 offers the IP67 dust and water resistance, which is the same rating given to phones like the iPhone 8.

The second important change to mention is the removal of the headphone jack. That’s right: the campaign that Google ran on with the original Pixel is now completely contradicted. In its place is a single USB-C port that does everything from charging to audio to data transfers. The simplicity of the design is nice, but phone manufacturers have still yet to explain the decision in any way that makes sense.

I’ll be happy to get onboard once phones are thinner than the size of the headphone jack or a significant feature is introduced that completely removes the need for it. Until then, it’s a minor annoyance that doesn’t offer any benefits. Google does package in the dongle, but If you’re coming from another Android phone (like I was), I still found myself forgetting the dongle at home from time to time. In addition, I ran into a couple of situations in my time with the phone when I wanted to charge the phone and listen to headphones at the same time, which didn’t work out.

Software

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To put it very simply, the Pixel 2 offers the very best software experience you can find on a smartphone. Ahead of other Android phones, the Pixel 2 runs the newest version of Google’s operating system, Android Oreo. It’s simple yet customizable, beautiful yet functional, and home to some of the best services and apps available.

Google Now cards look cleaner and are more helpful than ever, quickly accessed with a swipe to the right of the home screen. The Google Assistant is by far the most intelligible and context-aware AI assistant out there, accessed by either a long-press of the Home button or a quick squeeze of the bottom of the phone. Notifications still function better than in iOS, allowing quick replies without leaving your current app. It’s also got an easy-to-use splitscreen mode that really comes in handy from time to time. A lot of these great features have all gotten refinements this time around, but Google has also added some new features to the mix.

A new addition in Oreo is a Picture-in-Picture mode that works with certain apps as shown in the screenshot above. Here’s how it works: when you have an active navigation going in Google Maps and close out of the app, it’ll automatically throw Maps into a small window at the bottom right corner of the screen. One more tap and it’ll expand the size of the window a bit, and then one more tap and you’ll close it out. You can also move it around the screen or swipe it away completely. It’s a neat little feature, especially for an app like Google Maps, which minimizes to only give you the information you need to see.

Google has also made some small tweaks to the look of the interface that add a slick sheen of paint on the OS. It’s got an always-on lock screen for easy time-checking, a beautiful little date/weather/calendar widget at the top, and the Google search bar has been moved down to the bottom of the screen.

It goes without saying that the software experience here is fluid and super fast. Google’s using a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 SoC that ensures it can handle just about anything you throw at it.

More important than any of that is the fact that the Pixel 2 is the iPhone of Android in terms of software updates. While phones from Samsung or LG will still struggle to deliver updates in the future, you are safe with the Pixel and ensured that you won’t be left in the dust a year from now.

Verdict

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We’ve gone through the difference between the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL in detail to give you the best idea about which is right for you. I won’t beat around the bush: the Pixel 2 XL is having some serious problems. The good news about the Pixel 2 is that it doesn’t suffer from many of the same problems the Pixel 2 XL has.

The Pixel 2 isn’t a flashy phone. If you’re looking for something to impress your friends who are getting an iPhone X, you’ll have to look at the Galaxy phones. However, if software and camera is your game like it is for me, or if you need an all-around reliable phone that doesn’t have any serious deficiencies, the Pixel 2 will make you very happy. When you throw in the size and price point, I feel confident giving the Pixel 2 a big recommendation for a large group of smartphone users out there.

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