Google Pixel 2 review

Update: Google Pixel 2 has launched, though it's out of stock for 2-3 weeks in the US and UK, and the elusive white version won't start shipping to some customers until November. In the US, your best bet is to order it from Verizon, which doesn't have the wait times of the official Google Store. Our review has been updated below.

The Google Pixel 2 is here to prove that two cameras aren’t always better than one on a phone, especially if you favor photo quality over today’s trendy all-screen designs.

It’s Google’s superior software that pushes this Android Oreo phone to snap the best-looking pictures we’ve seen, topping the camera on last year’s impressive Pixel and Pixel XL debut.

What’s more, this year's upgrade is faster, water-resistant and adds a new way to call up the Google Assistant: simply squeeze the phone’s sides to launch your new AI buddy. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s easier than accidentally hitting another (Bixby) button.

The Pixel 2, with its 5-inch screen, doesn’t look like the future of smartphones, except for its lack a 3.5mm headphone jack. Unlike the Pixel 2 XL, which has an edge-to-edge 6-inch display and tall 18:9 aspect ratio, this one is bezel-heavy. Of course, we now know it has more vibrant colors and no signs (yet) of screen burn-in problems like its larger counterpart.

The bezels really shouldn’t bother you if you want a phone that’s a great size, runs smart software and has a fantastic camera that will make your friends – even your Samsung-owning friends – jealous. This is one for people who favor functionality over fashion.

Price and release date

  • Starts at $649 / £629 for 64GB model
  • Ships to first buyers on Thursday, October 19

The Google Pixel 2 price is keeping up with its competition, even if its design doesn’t seem as current. It was announced on October 4, and the first shipment date to customers was October 19.

It costs $649 or £629 for the 64GB version, and $749 or £729 for the 128GB configuration. In the US, this phone is sold on-contract through Verizon only among the carriers, but ordering it from the Google Store will mean it works on all networks, including AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

For a limited time, you can get a free Google Home Mini with your purchase of the new Pixel 2 if you're in the US, UK, Australia, Canada or Germany. However, expect long wait times, especially for the delayed white version.

Design

  • Great size and likable design
  • Squeeze the sides to launch Google Assistant
  • Waterproof, but no 3.5mm headphone jack

The Google Pixel 2 has a likable size and aesthetic, if you can look past the fact that the phone won’t wow you with a all-screen front. It has a futuristic camera, but the design seems dated.

It easily fits into one hand thanks to its palmable dimensions and light weight. A few years ago, this would’ve been considered a phablet, but today, next to the Note 8, it’s a normal-sized Android phone. You can eke out one-hand-operation with its 5-inch screen. That was literally a tall order when we used the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL.

Both new Pixel phones are now IP67 waterproof (meaning they can go underwater up to 1m or 3.3ft down for an hour) and retain a glass-and-metal design on the back, albeit with less glass toward the top compared to their predecessors. The fingerprint has been moved – don’t worry, it’s not off-center, like Samsung’s new phones – onto the textured aluminum portion of the back, while the camera remains on the glass side and has a protective ring around it now.

You won’t find a headphone jack on this phone or even USB-C earbuds inside the box. It just comes with a simple 3.5mm-to-USB-C adapter. Google may have done some advanced AI research and figured out you probably own better headphones than ones it usually supplies for free. Plus, it’s all the more reason for you to buy into those Pixel Buds, right?

Sound out of this phone still sounds great when paired with the headphones and we even liked listening to music through the dual front-facing stereo speakers. This has become rare among smartphones, which too often fire onboard audio out of the bottom of the phone through a single speaker. It increases the size of the top and bottom bezel, but the stereo speakers are part of the functionality-over-fashion trade-off we’re talking about.

It pulls a feature from the HTC U11 called EdgeSense. Squeezing the phone’s sides launches the Google Assistant, which in our experience, has come in handy. It’s also way better than adding a dedicated AI button. Samsung uses such a button for its Bixby assistant and we can’t stop accidentally pressing it on the Galaxy S8 and Note 8. Our only complaint is that Google won’t allow you to customize this squeezable feature to open up the camera or another app of your choice.

The Pixel 2 XL comes in four colors: Just Black, Clearly White, Kinda Blue and Black & White. In the US, the currently-sold-out Kinda Blue version is a Verizon-exclusive.

Screen

  • Full HD 1080p screen is bright and colorful
  • Thick bezels make it far from an all-screen phone
  • Not the best choice for Google Daydream VR

The 5-inch Google Pixel 2 display looks superb for Full HD, but it’s also uninspiring at the same time. It’s bright and colorful, though not as rich as a best-in-class Samsung smartphone screen.

What’s distracting about is its screen-to-body ration. Large bezels flank the screen on all sides. It’s even more noticeable in 2017 with so many all-screen Android phones around, including the bigger Google Pixel 2 XL. It’s especially distracting when the bottom three on-screen buttons show up in a black bar outline and seem to eat into your precious screen space.

The display works okay with Google Daydream, but it’s less than ideal given the fact that you can see individual pixels at 1080p. The headset really calls for a Quad HD display from the Pixel 2 XL.

We did like its new always-on display, which shows the date, time and notification icons, and the overdue double-tap-to-wake-the-screen functionality. It’s now a lot easier to see what’s going on with your phone before you wake it up, and double tap it to set your day in motion. 

You just have to get beyond the bezels and the fact that a Google Pixel 2 case makes the outline seem even more pronounced with another outline.

Interface and reliability

  • New Android Oreo software enhancements
  • To get Android P and Android Q first

Google Pixel 2 is how many people will experience Android Oreo for the first time, and it’s a great way to get to know all about Google’s latest software update.

It’s pre-installed with Google’s apps, and the user interface is exactly how the company wants everything to be laid out. We will go on the record to say that Samsung’s software has gotten better over the years, but stock Android is still extremely clean, yet thoroughly customizable.

Here’s what’s different if you’re upgrading: swiping down on the rear fingerprint sensor now pulls down the notification shade (and it goes back up with a swipe up). That makes one-handed operation of this phone even simpler.

Picture-in-picture is seemingly everywhere, and the little floating box works with more than just YouTube videos that keep running as you navigate throughout the rest of your phone. We also found Google Maps kept us on the right path in a small window as we opened up our email to find the exact name of our destination. How brilliant is that?

The best part is that the Pixel 2 is due for Android P and Android Q updates and will be among the first devices to get them thanks to everything being owned and operated by Google. That’s a big deal for anyone who is months away from being able to update to Oreo. We feel your pain.

Specs and performance

  • Fast Snapdragon 835 chipset and 4GB of RAM
  • 64GB or 128GB of internal storage, but no microSD card slot
  • Boot times filed down to just 10 seconds

The Pixel 2 fails to introduce the world to a brand new Snapdragon chipset like its predecessor did – it’s the same chip that’s in the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, Moto Z 2 Force and so on.

That’s okay, because the eight-month-old chipset and 4GB of RAM run smoothly on the Pixel 2 and it more than meets the benchmarks of its closest competition. Why do some phones have 6GB of RAM then? They're gearing up for apps two years from now and desktop virtualization. For now, we found 4GB of RAM enough to handle today’s multitasking needs.

Our Geekbench benchmark scoring put the Google Pixel 2 at a 6,260 multi-score, and it never sank below 6,000, even when trying to pressure it with multiple app downloads and multitasking. That’s a good sign for the future, at least.

You’ll get more storage from the Google Pixel 2, which starts at 64GB of internal space, instead of last year’s 32GB of starter size, and it maxes out at the new 128GB of storage option. There’s still no microSD card slot on the Pixel phones, which is a shame when so many other Android phones carry this expandable storage option.

Pixel 2 boot times are about ten seconds long, meaning we’ve come a long way from the unforgivable minute-and-a-half boot times we experienced on Google’s Nexus 6 phone four years ago. Back then, the phone’s camera was poor too. Times have really changed for Google phones.

Camera

  • Stunning 12.2MP camera that shoots great low-light photos
  • The software behind it makes it better than Samsung's camera
  • The camera app could use a couple more features

The camera is the best part of the Pixel 2 experience. Pictures are consistently in focus and true-to-life while still looking vibrant. Color accuracy is what Google gets right.

That actually doesn’t do this camera justice. Photos taken in low-light conditions, likely a dimly lit restaurant, looked as if we had turned on the lights when using the Pixel 2. Everything seemed a lot darker when using the iPhone 8 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which you’d expect to be the two smartphone camera leaders.

Google’s 12.2MP main camera, with an f/1.8 aperture, and 8MP selfie camera, with an f/2.4 aperture, bests its competition in almost all ways. It has a background-blurring portrait mode both on the front and back camera, 240fps slow motion video and settings that get deeper than any Google camera before today.

The default camera software isn’t perfect, however. Both Samsung and LG make it easier to snap a timed photo with a convenient hand gesture, while Google forces you to tap buttons. In group photos, this either results in an awkward face for the photo-taker who lunges to press the button while holding the phone out, or having to configure the timer while the group waits. We also miss the easy swipe-to-switch gesture to transition between the main and selfie cameras, which both Samsung and LG do so well. 

The photo quality is best-in-class, even without a second telephoto camera, and the video quality is steady with electronic image stabilization. This phone has optical image stabilization (OIS) this year and proves steady in our tests, more so than the original Pixel phones.

If you’re looking for the best camera on a mobile phone, you’re not going to be disappointed with your photos. It’s now the leader among smartphone cameras.

Battery life

  • Smaller 2,700mAh battery still gets all-day battery life
  • Battery saving tricks can extend the battery life further
  • Fast charges, but no visual power meter when phone is off

The Google Pixel 2 battery lasts all day with moderate use, which you may not expect given its rather small 2,700mAh battery size. It saves power in a number of important ways.

Its 1080p screen is a secret weapon to burning fewer unnecessary pixels, even when the screen remains bright. Google also has fairly smart Android Oreo battery saving options right in the notification shade. This can help extend the battery life beyond a day if you’re careful enough.

Running a looped HD video at full brightness and at a full charge resulted in 86% remaining in the battery life tank. That’s about average for smartphones of this size. You’re not going to be disappointed, but you’re also not going to be impressed with how this one performs.

While the Pixel 2 charges quickly thanks to fast charging, we’re sad that Google hasn’t found a way to display the battery life percentage whenever you charge a turned off phone. Every other Android phone can do this. When charging a phone from 0%, it’s impossible to tell if it’s at 10% or 100% unless you boot up the phone mid-change. That’s a bit annoying.

It all makes sense now. The Pixel 2’s standout camera clues us in on why Google named its smartphone series the Pixel in the first place. It was on its way to building the best camera on a phone, and this device fulfills that foreshadowed promise.

Great photos are among the most desirable features of any new smartphone, and this single-lens camera performs better than the advanced dual-lens cameras we’ve tested in almost every way. It’s even a great performer in low-light conditions. 

We got use out of the new Google Assistant shortcut that has you squeeze the sides of the Pixel 2, and we like it a lot better than Samsung’s often-mispressed Bixby button. Dual front-facing stereo speakers and a water-resistant design make it an even more enjoyable phone.

I’ve heard people pre-judge the Pixel 2 (and Google) by its look, and not because they’re being forced to say goodbye to the headphone jack. It’s due to the design, especially the screen, which doesn’t look ambitious. It’s large bezels don’t scream 2017. You shouldn’t, however, judge the Pixel 2 by its cover – judge it by testing out its new camera.

Who’s it for?

The Pixel 2 is a great choice for anyone who wants to upgrade their always-on-them camera to the best among smartphones. It doesn’t have a fancy dual-lens camera or telephoto capabilities, but it does have portrait mode on both the main and selfie camera and color accuracy we just can’t find on another device. 

Should I buy it?

Yes, if you’re looking to have the edge among smartphone photos, this is your new weapon. It’s not for people who carry around a DSLR or a mirrorless camera to snap great photos already, or people who couldn’t care less about taking quality pictures in the first place. This is for everyone else in that meaty middle who thinks of themselves as an amateur photographer (on Instagram) and hasn’t already been swayed from Samsung’s superior edge-to-edge screen. 

Matt Swider
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