In 2016, for the first time, Made by Google phones hit store shelves with a fresh look and new name to replace the aging Nexus. While Nexus represented pure Android for the nerds, Pixel was about making something truly great for everyone. And it was. Both the Pixel and Pixel XL set a new benchmark for how good an Android phone could be. 

Following it up was always going to be a challenge. How do you improve on something that was already so good? The Pixel 2 received mixed reviews when it hit the market it in 2017, with quality control issues coming to the fore - especially on the XL model - and the smaller one looking decidedly outdated. 

How's it looking in 2018?

While a little of 2016's Pixel design language continued on to the 2017 model, the phone looked like something new. The metal-built chassis still feels solid and well-made, and despite its slightly rounded corners, still looks and feels very rectangular compared to its predecessor. It also appears noticeably longer.

This added length is predominantly down to the front facing stereo speakers above and below the regular-sized 16:9 ratio full HD screen. While many will see the addition of stereo speakers as a positive, it does mean there's a generous amount of bezel on the front. Although, the first generation Pixel also had hefty bezels, but no speakers. 

Considering the whole reason behind having a smaller screened phone is, presumably, to have a smaller device, it's a little confusing that Google has made a phone which is only a couple of millimetres away from being the same length as a BlackBerry KeyOne; a phone with a physical keyboard built in. Still, it's nice and narrow, making it easy to hold and use in one hand.

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With HTC's involvement in building Google's hardware, you'd hope some of the bass-filled, loud BoomSound stereo audio would make its way to the Pixel 2. Sadly, it doesn't. The front facing speakers offer very little benefit over your regular single loudspeaker. They're just not very loud. This could be down to the IP67-certified waterproofing, muting the audio somewhat.

The speakers are covered by long, slim pill-shaped openings, precisely cut into the front glass. Which, by the way, are the only parts breaking the surface of the glass.

Glancing around the edges reveals a similar attention to detail, minimalism and simplicity is echoed in the rest of the phone's look. The bottom edge has just the Type-C port, the top edge nothing, even the SIM tray on the left edge, volume and power buttons on the right blend into the anodised finish of the aluminium edges. And, apart from on the polished, angled chamfers, you can't see any antenna bands at all. 

It's the same story on the back. The Google logo is barely visible and the fingerprint sensor is colour-matched to the metal back. The glossy, glass panel on the top - where the camera and LED flash - adds a splash of contrast which helps the Pixel line keep its identity, and sets it apart from all the other smartphones out there.

As you may have noticed, there is no headphone jack. We didn't find this particularly troublesome, given our preference for wireless earphones. But in those instances where we wanted to test wired ones, the included Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter was very useful.

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While there's nothing especially wrong with the look or build. It's hard not to notice how simple, even basic, it looks compared to its modern competition. Compare it to the Galaxy S8, LG G6 and it starts to look that way.

One thing we did notice was that there was a fair bit of shuffling around to make use of the physical controls. The fingerprint sensor is easy to reach with an index finger, but then to get to the power button - which is confusingly placed above the volume rocker - we had to shift the phone. Then, to make use of the squeeze-able ActiveEdge, we'd have to shift the phone again.

Still, it's stylish, minimalist and attractive in its own right, and the addition of water and dust proofing means it's not just a classic, understated phone; it's also built to survive whatever you can throw at it. 

A display that's better than the XL model?

  • 5-inch 16:9 AMOLED
  • 1920 x 1080 resolution
  • Gorilla Glass 5

Google equipped the latest Pixel with a 16:9 ratio 5-inch AMOLED display. At full HD resolution, it's not the most pixel-packed panel out there, but with it only being 5-inches, not being QuadHD doesn't make a massive amount of difference. Unless you're looking at it really close, you're going to see a nice, sharp display. With that said, with more than a year since launch, the 16:9 ratio looks even more dated than it did when it launched. 

The one thing that surprised us was that we had to keep double-checking that it was, in fact, AMOLED at all. Traditionally, AMOLED based screens are very vibrant, with vivid colours, eye-popping contrast and deep blacks. Pixel 2's isn't really any of those things. A fact that's made even more plainly clear when compared to 2018's Pixel 3. 

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Google has calibrated these AMOLED screens to appear more "natural". That means skin tones don't come out as pink or red-ish. Which is a good thing. But then, all the other colours are muted as well. Bright blue skies and green grass look a little faded, and there's not as much contrast as we'd like to see. 

Within the display settings, there's are two more colour options: "boosted" and "saturated". The former adds a little more vividity, but the saturated setting is comfortably the most pleasing to the eye. Contrast is noticeably improved over the natural setting, making images seem a bit sharper and more dynamic. Colours are given a healthy boost too, without going over the top. It still isn't quite as dynamic as the Pixel 3's OLED panel, but it's better now than it was at launch. 

If you like that natural, accurate, almost LCD-like look, you'll enjoy the Pixel 2's "natural" screen calibration. And in all honesty, once we got playing games, flicking through photos and watching movies we forgot our complaints. Everything looks nice enough, and it is nice to see an AMOLED panel where colours aren't far too saturated.

Open Netflix, and start watching movies, then it becomes obvious why Google went down this route. It's almost as if the screen was calibrated to be optimal for watching your favourite films on Netflix, and nothing else. The colour balance is just, better. The reduction of oversaturated reds and oranges means video appears properly colour corrected, which isn't something you normally see on AMOLED panels.

It's just when you're looking around the phone's home screen and interface that things don't pop as much as you'd hope they would. We're hoping this is something that can be improved in a software update.

There is one problem here though. For a phone that's seemingly been calibrated to look amazing watching movies, it has the wrong aspect ratio screen. A 5-inch 16:9 panel isn't the most expansive canvas for watching 18:9 Netflix content, or 21:9 cinematic films. There's some heavy letterboxing, which is especially noticeably on a smaller screen. 

How good is the Pixel 2's software?

As you'd expect from a new pure Google handset, it runs the latest clean version of Android. For 2018, that meant upgrading to Android Pie, as soon as it was available. 

Like Android N and O, the app drawer drags up from the bottom of the screen, and you can swipe upwards from any part of the screen to get to it. However, with Android P's new gesture-based system, it does mean an extra long, or additional swipe up, now that a simple swipe launches the multitasking recent apps cards view. 

One cool feature is the "Now Playing" feature which - in one fell swoop - aims to kill Shazam's music discovery app. And it would, if it was consistently excellent.

When activated, it automatically shows you what you're listening to on the lock screen. If you're like us, there are plenty of times when a song comes on during a movie, TV show, or in a bar, and you want to hear know what it is. With the Pixel, all you need to do is look at your lock screen. Chances are, in the time you've heard and thought "I wonder what this song is", Pixel 2 has already figured it out and is displaying it on your lock screen. At least, it will if it's a popular song.

In our testing, the songs that it does recognise will display on the screen within about 10 seconds. The odd one or two took a bit longer, and many others weren't recognised at all. As a couple of examples, it didn't know Benjamin Clementine's "Quintessence" or Beck's "Up All Night".

To compare initially, we turned to the popular Shazam music discovery app and activated the automatic tagging. Shazam's dedicated app seemed to recognise songs quicker, and recognise more of them, including more obscure ones. Since launch, again, this service has improved considerably, with it now recognising virtually any song. 

The overall experience in the latest version of pure Android is very clean and tidy. Main settings are easy to get to, with more advanced options in each category truncated and collapsable under an "advanced" tab. Notifications are neatly organised, and indicated with new notification dots above app icons. The new Autofill is a godsend, remembering your passwords and being able to fill them in wherever you are in the interface, whatever app you're in. 

Compared to Oreo it feels a little swifter and smoother, with more responsive and instantaneous switching between interfaces and apps. 

Still speedy?

  • Snapdragon 835 processor
  • 4GB RAM 
  • 64GB or 128GB storage

If you want a phone that gets about its business with minimal fuss; the Pixel 2 is certainly one way to go. Thanks to having a pure version of Android 9 that's finely tuned, and a Snapdragon 835 processor, everything is effortless and fast. Despite being a 1+ year-old processor, it's plenty capable enough and, while 4GB RAM may not seem like a lot in the modern age of 6GB or 8GB RAM equipped phones, we've never struggled at all with performance.

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Whether we were switching between apps, dragging up the app drawer, sliding down notifications or running two apps side-by-side, it was responsive and buttery smooth.

Similarly, loading games and downloading content was as fast as we've seen on any Android phone. In this regard, it's actually refreshing to have a relatively small phone perform as reliably and responsively as the big, bad flagships of the smartphone world.

The fingerprint sensor on the back is similarly responsive. Unlocking the phone takes the blink of an eye, and swiping on it to bring down the notification and quick settings shade is a very convenient and reliable method of controlling the interface. To the point where switching back to the old way of just dragging down from the top of the screen seems archaic and decidedly cumbersome.

Combining this effortless performance with the clean, uncomplicated and attractive Android 8 software is a winning pairing. 

How long goes the Pixel 2 last per charge?

  • 2,700mAh battery
  • Quick Charge 3.0 

As flagship phones go, the Pixel 2 is quite small, meaning the battery inside is also quite small. Despite this, with moderate use, the Pixel 2 was comfortably able to get through a day. The Pixel could get from wake-up at 7:30am to bedtime around 11:30pm and just about still have some juice left in it. On particularly light days, it sometimes had more than 50 per cent left over after the work day was finished. 

It's nothing close to being a two-day battery, but even for heavy users we suspect this is going to be good enough to get you through your busy work day. Given that this is only 2,700mAh, that's mighty impressive performance. 

Even if you're a really heavy user and you do drain it within a day, the quick-charging technology ensures that just 30 mins plugged in will be enough to more than half-fill the battery again. 

Cameras to inspire?

  • 12MP single camera
  • HDR+ and OIS
  • 8MP front camera
  • Night Side mode added via update

If there's one area that's really impressive on the Pixel 2, it's the camera. And that's no surprise. Like last year, Google has married a single camera with its own AI-powered smarts to create a camera that takes great pictures from front and back cameras virtually every time without any effort from the user. 

Point your phone at the subject, press the shutter button and it makes images that are sharp, colourful, natural and detailed. In contrasting light conditions it pulls in the might of its AI-powered HDR+ feature to balance it out and still give you a good image. 

When it first launched, the Pixel 2 did struggle in very low light, but now with Night Sight mode added via an app update, it can take incredible pictures even at night time. Like the Pixel 3, it can take a completely handheld long exposure shot and stabilises the result so that there's plenty of light, detail, and no blur. 

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What's interesting here is that the Pixel 2 has only the one camera on the back, and still offers the Portrait mode which - in most phones - uses two cameras. When selected, this gets the subject in the foreground sharp and in focus, and adds some heavy attractive background blur behind it.

The way it does this is by snapping multiple images within a split-second, the Google smarts comes in again and helps figure out which bit is the background, and which is the subject. And, we have to say, the results are just as good (or bad) as they would be in a dual camera-equipped device.

You'll still see the odd stray hair blur out in portraits around the edges, particularly if what's in the background is a similar colour or lightness to the subject. In other words, there needs to be a good visual distinction between the subject and the backdrop to get the best results.

Those who like taking selfies will be pleased to know the front camera also benefits from Google's tech, ensuring you get some of the best quality selfies we've ever seen, and even including the ability to take portrait shots using the front facing snapper, and results are almost identical to those from the main camera. It's one of the best front and back camera combinations we've ever used. 

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Verdict

2017's Pixels were fantastic. Perhaps the first time in years that Google's "pure" line of phones had no compromises. Great screens, great build, amazing cameras, good battery life and pure Android in one proper flagship package. In 2017, with the Pixel 2, it's a similar story, although there's not a huge amount of improvement. 

The decision to make one phone 18:9 and the other 16:9 was unusual. That means the phones don't really look like they're in the same family when you're looking at them from the front. But then again, a similar thing happened in 2018 with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. 

Then there's the issue of the display being a little lack lustre, and the design being a little plain. With the Pixel, you're getting a good phone, but we're not sure it deserves its true flagship price. Although, saying that, the natural display performance combined with minimalist, clean looks and a great camera might be exactly what you're looking for in a phone. 

In short: we think the Pixel 2 will divide opinion It's not as visually exciting as a lot of other phones. However, it does offer a pure Android experience like no other, in a phone that takes some of the best photos and selfies we've seen. It's a phone that won't wow you from the outset, but will grow on you as time goes on, like a good second album. 

First published in October 2017.


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Alternatives to consider

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OnePlus 6T

If you want a more vibrant, bigger display in a phone that offers the faster performance and better battery life, the 6.41-inch OnePlus 6T will do the trick. OnePlus prides itself on offering a flagship experience and build for a more reasonable price. 

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Samsung Galaxy S8

As flagship Android phones go, the best Samsung set the bar really high in mid-2017, and is still the phone to beat. Samsung's Galaxy S8 has the impressive bezel-free Infinity Display and looks incredible. What's more, it's got a best-in-class camera. It's fast, sexy, and impossible to fault. If you want to spend flagship money, the S8 arguably offers that bit more than the Pixel. 

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LG G6

If you want a phone that fits comfortably in one hand, is almost all-screen and can perform as well as the best of them, the LG G5 is worth your consideration. It's not as shiny or impressive as the S8, but it's technically superb. 

Read the full article: LG G6 review