Like the Google Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 2 has an excellent camera.
Performance is reliable thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC.
It's also helped along by consistent software thanks to stock Android Oreo.
“The PC is no longer the only computing device, or even the main one, that most users interact with,” Bill Gates wrote in his foreword for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh. This line sets the precedent for a $1000 smartphone. When the smartphone is becoming our first (and often only) computing device, why should it be cheap? It also outlines how major innovation is now happening around smartphones more than ever in the past.
The Apple iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 show what pinnacle of technology can be crammed into a mobile device. However, if you want to see an intelligent device then look no further than Google’s in-house devices. The Pixel phones, like the Nexus line before it, look underwhelming at first but they grow upon you in such a way that there is no looking beyond. It is very similar to the original search engine; it was lackluster at first but has grown to such an extent that we now say, “Just Google it.”
In 2016, Google stunned a lot of consumers and its Android partners (the most), by launching the Pixel-branded smartphones. The idea was simple: Rather than dictating terms to its partners (who often don’t listen), Google would lead from the front by innovating both in terms of premium hardware as well as software. The move forced it’s OEM partners to take note and hurt their core customer base. The effect has been plausible so far with Samsung leading in design and smaller brands such as OnePlus, Huawei and Xiaomi innovating in the price to features ratio and software distribution.
While the first-generation Pixel phones can be seen as a hobby for Google, the second-generation devices are more of an orchestrated effort. Rather than going back to the drawing board, Google just listed out the misgivings of original Pixel phones and fixed them in the design department. Then it concentrated on the aspect of a smartphone that now decides the winner more than ever before: Camera. We’ll get into it in a bit but what really matters today for a good smartphone is whether it can adapt to you and not the other way around. Google seems to have gotten that part right with its own devices and that is potentially its biggest asset.
Why the Pixel 2?
I knew that it is the Pixel 2 for me the moment Google introduced the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL in October last year. I have always held my heart for compact phones and my previous two devices had 4.7-inch and 5-inch displays respectively.
One of the most common arguments made by the industry is that the phones are extremely compact with slimmer bezels but I feel most flagships with 6-inch displays are hard to handle in one hand despite those disappearing bezels. However, what made me zero in on Pixel 2 is the display issue that started appearing on the larger Pixel 2 XL within days of its availability. I wanted a compact smartphone that didn’t suffer from any major issue and the Pixel 2 does fit that description. I’ve been using it as my primary phone for more than two months now and here are some thoughts, or say, an evaluation of all it’s features.
Here’s what you get: Pixel 2 (Just Black in my case), an 18W USB Type-C fast charger, USB Type-C to USB Type-A OTG dongle and USB Type-C to 3.5mm dongle.
Here’s what you don’t get: Headphones
The moment you decide to get a smartphone that costs over Rs 30,000, the feature that decides the winner is the camera (or cameras in case of some smartphones). Yes, the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have just two cameras, one at the front and at the rear. This is in stark contrast to what Apple, Samsung, LG and other industry leaders such as Huawei have been doing for sometime now. You associate Apple with hardware, Samsung with electronics, Huawei with telecom gear and Google with search, or in other words, data. With the second generation Pixel smartphones, Google is proving that beyond sensors it has the data that is more valuable for producing smartphone images than additional sensors in the first place.
Here is how the Pixel 2’s camera differs from the original Pixel: a new Sony-sourced 12-megapixel image sensor with wider f/1.8 aperture, a smaller sensor (1.4 micron vs 1.54 micron) to support dual-pixel autofocus, a dedicated chipset to process HDR+ images, optical image stabilization, PORTRAIT MODE, and a camera app fused with machine learning. What does this mean for consumers: A smartphone camera that not only takes great pictures but is also extremely reliable.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Portrait Mode. The use of all caps in the previous paragraph was deliberate. Since the launch of iPhone 7 Plus in 2016 and the use of that dreamy portrait on stage, smartphone makers have gone overboard to sell this feature on their latest devices. If you are someone like me who is coming from a Nexus 6P or even original the Pixel phones, then it is easy to describe Portrait Mode on the Pixel 2 as Lens Blur 2.0. Google has mostly improved on the way it is implemented on the device. A professional photographer would use a fast lens to produce portrait shots with shallow depth of field. Since smartphones lack the ability to pack such a lens, it uses software and sometimes even an additional image sensor to blur the background. In theory, you will end up with pictures where the foreground is exposed in such a way that the background automatically disappears or blurs out.
Rather than using two image sensors and fusing their data on top of each other to map depth of the image, Google is relying on the dual-pixel image sensor. In the case of a dual-pixel sensor, each pixel is divided into left and right pixels and this separation helps Google understand the distance in the background. To click a picture in Portrait Mode, you simply tap the hamburger icon at the left, select portrait mode and then click the shutter button. Google then captures a normal image and another one with that shallow depth of field. You notice that it is a software based implementation right off the bat but where it really excels is detecting the edges. Say you are clicking a portrait mode image of a friend or family member then Google will perfectly understand the edge of their cloth or hair to perfectly isolate that part from the background.
There is also an option to tap to focus to indicate the part that you want to be highlighted and it works without any false positives. I’ve tried comparing the portrait images shot with Pixel 2 with one shot using a 50mm prime lens attached to a full-frame DSLR. The DSLR definitely takes the best portrait pictures but Pixel 2 comes so close to being perfect for a smartphone result that it is really hard to complain. There are times it fails to accurately blur the background but those instances are so rare that I’ve started relying on it extensively.
The portrait mode is not just restricted to humans but it also works with any other kind of subject such as food or pets. The portrait mode not only works with the rear camera which uses the dual-pixel sensor but also works with the front 8-megapixel sensor which does not have any additional hardware to support the feature. I post a selfie on Instagram at least once every week but with the Pixel 2, I am forced to think about that. The front camera takes such incredible selfies with blurred backgrounds that it becomes the default mode with the selfie camera. It also stands as an example of how much Google’s AI and deep learning efforts have succeeded in the field of image recognition. I would let the sample images do rest of the talking for Google’s portrait mode on Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
While the portrait mode is the real star in terms of the camera, the Pixel 2 is no slouch when it comes to normal photography. There is a saying that “The best camera is the one that is always with you” but it fails to emphasize that the camera should be quick. The Pixel 2, in that sense, is really quick. Pull the phone from the phone from your pocket and double press the power button and camera launches immediately. Twist the phone and it switches between the front and rear camera. In terms of camera launch time, the Pixel 2 is slow only in comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8 smartphones. However, the pictures it takes are definitely not short of being incredibly good.
Google is doubling down on HDR mode this time by keeping it active on Pixel 2 by default. The HDR+ mode allows for the Pixel 2 to capture more details in shadows without affecting the brighter areas in the image. Google does that by taking 10 underexposed images in a burst to better capture background like blue sky. It is very difficult to say how much the HDR mode has improved from previous Pixel phone but it is definitely faster. More often I found the processed image ready to view in the Photos app and to speed things up, Google has even thrown in a dedicated chipset called Pixel Visual Core. The Pixel Visual Core was activated with the release of Android 8.1 Oreo and I have only seen Pixel 2 processing images faster than before. Apart from taking good pictures, the camera should be capable of displaying them immediately and Pixel 2 has just achieved that without missing out on HDR feature.
The raison d’être for the first generation Pixel was software but the raison d’être for the second generation Pixel is the camera. It is fast, reliable and as much consistent with image reproduction that only the Apple iPhone was known for in the past. It takes absolutely stunning photos with great details, good exposure and little need for any tweak in bright daylight. In low-light, it does a good job as far as minimizing noise is concerned but I am sure the Galaxy Note 8 is the real king of low-light photography. There is no doubt that the iPhone shoots the best stabilized video and the Google Pixel 2 comes very close with smoother video capture thanks to optical image stabilization.
Is this the best camera on the smartphone right now? I think, YES.
Design and Display
With the Pixel 2, Google is not changing a lot in terms of design. While the larger Pixel 2 XL has gotten some cosmetic changes up front, the Pixel 2 is almost identical to its predecessor. However, there is design change that really needs to be appreciated.
Like the original Pixel series, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL sport a dual-tone finish at the back combining metal and glass, which has in fact become the signature of Pixel-branded devices. On the Pixel 2, the glass window at the back is smaller than its predecessor, meaning that the fingerprint sensor sits embedded within the metal part and not the glass section.
On the first generation Pixel, the extended use of glass made for a cumbersome experience while the holding the device and on the Pixel 2, everything feels natural and aesthetically right. I am a sceptic when it comes to putting glass on the back because when they drop, it’s not just the glass that shatters but also your heart. While Google is not getting rid of glass, it is good to see the company is listening to customer feedback and addressing the issues in the iterative model.
The only thing that you really need to know here is that the Pixel 2 does not suffer from any of the display issues reported by Pixel 2 XL owners. Since the Pixel 2 is made by HTC, it uses a 5-inch AMOLED panel from Samsung Display, which is arguably the best smartphone display manufacturer right now. However, the display has a resolution of just 1920 x 1080 pixels, which now seems ancient in comparison to all those Full HD+ (2160 x 1080) and Quad HD (2560 x 1440) panels.
The 1080p AMOLED display used here has very good color reproduction and has the deep blacks that OLED panels are known for. It is easily viewable under direct sunlight, offers excellent viewing angles despite its smaller form factor and even supports ambient display mode which is really useful to view notifications at a glance. I’d have liked to see a Quad HD panel since that would have led to increase in pixel density and better color profile overall. In 2018, Full HD does not look (or sound) really flagship level but we have to make do with it in this case.
If there is one critical issue with the display then it has to be the Gorilla Glass 5 protection. I have been using the Pixel 2 extensively without any screen protection and the Gorilla Glass 5 already has a lot of scratch on top even though I haven’t put them in company with keys or blades. While displays are prone to small micro-abrasions after some time, this is totally unexpected from Gorilla Glass. My colleague Nash, who has Pixel 2 XL and barely uses it, has also noticed scratches on his phone. It seems this version of Gorilla Glass is not that tough after all. It is advisable that you slap a case and screen protector on as soon as you buy the Pixel 2.
The reason for buying the new Pixel phones might be it’s camera but one cannot discount the fact that it has great software as well. My Pixel 2, at the time of writing, is running Android 8.1 Oreo with the January security patch. It is this very promise of timely software updates and monthly security updates that makes it preferred to a Galaxy S8, Galaxy Note 8 or LG V30+, which are all still on Android 7.1 Nougat.
I’ve always admired the consistency in UI design available on Apple’s iOS and with the release of Nougat and Oreo that consistency is now becoming part of Android as well. The material design completely ironed out all the design inconsistency seen on previous versions of Android and with Oreo, it just gets better. The UI and navigation design is now similar whether you are using an app made by Google or third-party apps like Saavn, BookMyShow or Paytm.
The most usable improvements, however, come in the form of features like notification dots and PiP mode. With notification dots and notification channels, Android users have more control on how notifications are delivered and displayed on their device. I really like PiP mode which allows you to watch a video while continuing to check your Twitter feed. Sadly this feature is only limited to Netflix and you need a YouTube Red subscription (not available in India) to get this support. Android Oreo basically fills all the gaps left open by Nougat.
I remember listening to The Beatles for the first time at a friends place and didn’t know the artist and felt embarrassing to ask them directly. It was a time when Shazam did not exist and if you have felt the same way then Google has a solution with its Pixel phones called Now Playing. In simple terms, it is Shazam that does not need internet connection. The feature works as part of the Pixel’s ambient services and in my time with the device, it has managed to recognize everything from Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You to Neruppuda from RajiniKanth’s Kabali to Zara Sa Zhoom Loon Main by Asha Bhosle. It even suggested a track called Moonwalk by Labyrinth which definitely took me by surprise. There is search beyond text and the ‘Now Playing’ feature is a very good example of that.
Other software tricks that come handy include the fingerprint gesture which allows you to check your notifications by simply swiping the finger up or down on the sensor. It is a nice way to check notifications when you know that you don’t plan to go on checking every single one of them. As it turns out, the Pixel 2’s software is far from perfect in terms of stability. There have been times when apps have crashed and the home screen has turned blank on me. The only good news being that such instances are few.
Performance and Battery Life
The Google Pixel 2 gets all the greatest in hardware internals right now: 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC and the Adreno 540 GPU. The most notable thing here is how fast the Pixel is when it comes to boot. It starts almost instantaneously and I’m yet to make it sweat when it comes to sheer performance. Whether you are a normal user who spends most of the time splitting between social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram or a heavy duty user who plays games like Injustice or Real Racing 3.
Most apps perform way better on Pixel than a competing device which runs its own runtime in the background. If you believe in benchmarks, the Pixel 2 scored in the same region as the OnePlus 5T, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30+. Android developers are yet to make apps that demand as much as eight gigabytes of RAM and the Pixel 2 will be good for at least two more years before apps get enhanced graphics capability and native support for screens with higher refresh rates. For now, Pixel 2 is a beast in its own respect.
If there is even a reason to consider the Pixel 2 XL over regular Pixel 2 then it has to be battery life. I didn’t have much expectation from the Pixel 2 since it has a relatively small 2,700mAh battery but it totally surprised me. I got screen on time between 3.5 hours and 7.5 hours depending on what I was doing on the device and whether the internet was working.
I have been able to get full day of use on Pixel 2 and often ended up leaving the charger at home. When it comes to charging, the Pixel 2 supports 18W fast charging, which is not insanely fast like OnePlus’ Dash Charge, but does the job well. The Pixel 2 can be charged from zero to full in just under 90 minutes.
Lack of a Headphone jack
The lack of a headphone jack is one of the biggest disappointments you need to be prepared for with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. What makes the deal even worse is the fact that Google didn’t feel any courtesy to throw in USB Type-C headphones. Apple, a company known for pushing its accessories gives lightning-based EarPods with the iPhone 7 and later. This is one key area where I like the direction that Samsung and LG are heading towards. They not only are retaining the headphone jack but also offer superior quality headphones in the form of AKG-tuned earbuds bundled with the Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8 duo.
Another disappointment is the supplied USB Type-C to 3.5mm headphone dongle, which is longer than the one offered by Apple and is plain ugly to carry around. I haven’t lost it yet but I have put it back in the box it came in and have gone the Bluetooth way.
The Google Pixel 2 launched at Rs 61,000 and it made no sense to buy it at that time. However, the prices have dropped and I’ve seen Flipkart selling it for as low as Rs 39,999. At that price, it makes for a great premium compact smartphone. The Pixel 2 ticks all the boxes for a great smartphone with an excellent camera, good display, day-long battery life, flagship-level performance and a design that would be fine for most users.
However, what makes it exceptional is Google’s AI and machine learning that makes the phone adapt to you by pushing out traffic details and alerting you about Trump’s latest tweet. It’s always the small things that have the most use case and I have been triggering Google Assistant by squeezing the phone to do something as simple as changing the display brightness. If you want a compact smartphone that gets accustomed to your behavior and gives predictive notifications then look no further than Pixel 2.