Last year’s Pixel XL was one of my favorites phones of all time, if not my favorite. It had stellar performance, great specifications, comfortable hardware, and lots of software features I could appreciate. On top of that, it had what is still one of the best cameras on a mobile phone, but it wrapped all of that in a design that wasn’t very good-looking and did have some missing features.

Now, we’ve got the Pixel 2 family, and Google has made some major improvements. The larger of the two phones, the XL, is the one getting all the attention, and rightfully so…

The best gifts for Android users

HARDWARE AND DISPLAY |

A refined, functional design

Google’s hardware design wasn’t impressive last year, but with the Pixel 2 XL it’s becoming clearer the vision Google has for its designs. Rather than trying to make the best looking phone on the market and cramming in as many features as possible, Google’s taking the user into account with the design from the get go. It’s designing around what seems to be a vision of function over form.

The Pixel 2 XL definitely feels like a by-product of this approach for a few key reasons. First, the basic hardware itself. The back of this phone is metal, but it kinda feels like plastic at the same time. That’s because of a new coating that Google says makes the phone more durable, and it definitely feels that way. What it also does is add a lot more grip, and I love that.

The 18:9 display is here, but it’s got a little extra in tow

Another example is the bezel situation on the Pixel 2 XL. Right now, the smartphone market is at a war on bezels, and that’s creating some truly gorgeous devices. There’s no way around it: the Galaxy S8, LG V30, and Essential Phone are stunning to look at, and when you compare them the Pixel 2 XL, well, it’s not really as impressive. But like I said, Google is just taking a different approach.

The company clearly slimmed things down a lot on this phone, but the top and bottom bezels are still pretty big, and the side bezels really aren’t tiny either. However, that’s not without benefit. The little bit of extra bezel along the sides gives a bit of extra protection against accidental taps. Sitting on the top and bottom are front-facing stereo speakers, too. Those are both worthy trade-offs in my opinion.

Everything Google has done on the Pixel 2 XL in terms of design feels like something that was intentional — not just with the user experience and function in mind, but also software. Rather than adding poorly-implemented software features on top of eye-catching new hardware, the Pixels seem to put importance on building the best experience possible despite the hardware.

One example is the new pressure-sensitive frame “borrowed” from HTC. Here, that triggers Google Assistant, and in my opinion, it feels very natural in day-to-day use. Google’s keeping it simple with this feature — you’re able to activate Assistant and nothing else.

Google has also made some other pretty solid improvements with the Pixel 2 XL’s hardware, one example being the added IP67 dust and water resistance. The size of the XL, in particular, is also nice, coming in just a bit taller than last year’s, but more narrow, so it’s easier to reach across.

An unexciting OLED display

Lastly, there’s the display itself. Ignoring the bezels surrounding it, the 6-inch LG-made P-OLED panel is… pretty good. It gets relatively bright, although not quite as bright in direct sunlight as the V30 or Note 8. The viewing angles side-to-side are decent, but top-to-bottom they’re honestly pretty mediocre with noticeable “waves” of color as you move the device.

As for the display’s colors, I have pretty mixed feelings. The blacks of the OLED panel are fantastic, but Google’s choice to go with sRGB-based colors still feels weird to me. When the display is bright it looks great, but in dimmer situations, it just doesn’t feel as vibrant and gorgeous as other OLED devices. This is something that will definitely be up to personal preference though. The Pixel is definitely more accurate, but it’s much more pleasing to look at a display from LG or Samsung, and even most LCDs have been tuned with more vibrant colors.

SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE |

Where Google can really play to its strengths on the Pixel 2 XL is in the software. The phone comes out of the box with Android Oreo, and as you’d expect, it’s a very clean build of the OS. However, as we move forward, the Pixel feels less and less like the “stock Android” of yesteryear, and more like Android the way Google thinks it should be on a consumer device.

It may not be “pure,” but it’s still the best you can get

Long story short, I think Google’s take on Android on the Pixel is fantastic. You get a new launcher that takes the same app drawer swipe from last year, but adds some new animations, a new location for the search bar which I’m still not fully in love with, and a new smart widget up top. Better yet, Google’s launcher is smart, and it can play with other aspects of Android.

The biggest example of this which you may have already noticed in this video is tuning the colors to better suit the wallpaper. A typical bright wallpaper will keep things as they are in Oreo, but switching to something dark actually adjusts the colors of the search bar, app drawer, and even the notification shade to make everything feel more congruent. This is the kind of stuff I love seeing from Google.

Another interesting feature Google has added to the software on the Pixel 2 is a new way to launch the Assistant. As mentioned, a quick squeeze of the phone launches Assistant. It’s quirky, but I actually kind of like it, and everyone that I’ve let try out the feature has agreed.

Google’s software skills blow me away every time

Lastly, we’ll talk about Google Lens. Lens, as it was shown off back at I/O, is powerful, but on the Pixel 2 it’s still very much in beta, and it doesn’t do much yet. Aside from recognizing a handful of products, logos, and other simple information, it doesn’t do a ton.

In the future, though, it’ll be able to do crazy things like being able to recognize flower species at a glance, automatically recognize and connect to WiFi based on the information on the router, or even give you reviews of a restaurant it sees across the street. That’s something to be excited about, and what Google has so far is the groundwork for that.

There are more awesome little features on this phone. There’s a new always-on display which works as well as any other, the ability to swipe the fingerprint sensor to access the notification shade, and another new feature that recognizes songs automatically and shows them to you on your lock screen without ever sending information back to Google. It’s genuinely useful, and it blows me away.

Performance that ruins every other phone

The Pixel is the phone that spoils every other phone.

That’s what it really comes down to with the Pixel. You won’t be buying this phone for the specs, hardware, or even the features built-in alone. The Pixel is a phone built around a clean, easy to use, and thoughtful software experience that just works.

And let me tell you, that’s exactly what it does. The Pixel is the phone that spoils just about every other phone for you. I’ve tried several devices this year that run on top of the Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM, but none are anywhere close to as smooth as the Pixel 2 XL.

In day to day use, the Pixel 2 XL is incredibly fluid. All of the animations feel natural and well thought out, and there’s nothing in the UX that feels out of place. That’s something I can’t say about any other Android phone, at least not over time. Obviously, I’ve only been using the Pixel 2 XL a couple of weeks, but if the original is any indication, this phone is going to fly for a while.

CAMERA |

Yeah, it’s the best camera on the market. Again.

Last year’s crop of Pixel phones were easily the best options on the market for a great camera. The excellent sensor combined with Google’s work in software led to an amazing experience, and this year things are even better.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both have upgraded 12MP rear cameras (note, single sensor) which uses dual pixel technology and now includes both EIS and OIS. Without Google, this would probably be a decent camera, but it’s the company’s excellent work in computational photography that makes this camera what it is.

There are several new features built into the camera app, one of the most notable being the new Portrait mode. We’ve got a lot more on this in our review of the regular Pixel 2, but long story short, Google’s Portrait mode seems to do better with a single camera than any company, even Apple, is capable of doing with two.

Another new feature within the camera this year is Motion Photos. This feature does exactly what “Live Photos” do on iOS, and that’s capturing the seconds before and after the photo so you truly don’t miss a moment. It’s a cool gimmick, but that’s really all it is in my opinion, especially considering it’s really just an extension of Google’s Motion Stills app.

BATTERY LIFE |

As chipsets get more powerful, battery life continues to improve. So far, the Pixel 2 XL has impressed me when it comes to battery performance. I typically get less than average results in my testing (probably due to the terrible network connectivity in my area), but this device has reliably provided me with around 4-5 hours of screen on time per 15 hour day. That’s much better than I was getting with the original Pixel XL, and I’m very happy with it.

We’ll have more in-depth thoughts on battery performance after we’ve spent more time with the phone.

Fast charging returns, but Qi would’ve been nice…

Further, the Pixel 2 XL ships with its fast charger, an 18W USB-C PD charger. It works great and fills the phone up quickly, but I would have really liked to see Google bring wireless charging to this device. It especially hurts since the metal build doesn’t really feel all that metal, meaning Google probably could have gotten away with using another material that actually works with Qi.

AUDIO |

The headphone jack is gone, but at least we have decent speakers

When it comes to the audio on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, there’s good news and bad news. The good news? Front-facing speakers are back from the days of Nexus, and they’re still pretty awesome. The sound is clear and fairly loud (although I could do with a little extra volume). However, these are far from the best front-facing speakers on the market. They lack the depth that some competitors offer, but they’re still better than the majority of the market since they point at you.

The bad news? Yeah, there’s no headphone jack. After teasing Apple about the feature last year, Google has ditched it this time around. In all honesty, I haven’t missed it too much yet, but it’s certainly going to be a sore spot for most people. Thankfully, adapters aren’t too expensive, and Google is working actively on ensuring both wired and wireless headphones are available for the phone.

As for the included USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack, it’s fine. The build quality seems much better than Apple’s version, which is good. As for the sound quality, it’s just like all of the others, full of sadness.

WRAP UP |

Google is just getting better and better at this

Google’s second try with the Pixel still isn’t perfect for everyone. It has what some would consider some glaring flaws like a physical build that feels inferior to the competition. It’s missing features like wireless charging, a vibrant display, and a headphone jack. However, Google is yet again built a great Android phone for most everyone with the Pixel 2 XL — if you can handle its size. Be sure to check out smaller Pixel 2, which our Hayato is giving a look separately, if you can’t handle the XL.

All this in mind, this is a refined phone designed with consumers in mind, and software that absolutely no one else is capable of matching. Over the coming year, I think we’ll keep coming back to the Pixel 2 XL as a baseline for a lot of Android phones, just like we did last year. However, this isn’t the end of our coverage on the Pixel 2 XL. We’ll have more thoughts in a more in-depth review soon, and we also have an initial review of the standard Pixel 2 live today here on 9to5Google.

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