Google Pixel 2 XL review: the best pure Android phone

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Google Pixel 2 XL review: the best pure Android phone
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Google’s latest big-screen handset offers more intelligent software and other improvements, although it has one significant flaw.

The Pixel 2 XL is arguably the Google phone Android fans have been waiting for since the debut of its predecessor, the Pixel XL, some twelve months ago.

Amid a strong lineup of Android handsets this year, such as Samsung's Galaxy S8, the Pixel 2 XL is available for pre-order from today (20 October 2017). It brings Google’s A-game to the mobile arena, offering a new and refined design, boosted processing power and a more capable Google Assistant.

However, the hype surrounding the Pixel 2 XL means it has a lot to live up to – which it does, up to a point.

Design

Whereas Google’s Pixel 2 had a very 2016 design with big bezels and a squared-off screen, the Pixel 2 XL is bang on 2017’s trend of bezel-eating display.

The 6-inch display runs edge-to-edge on its sides, while bezels are still present on the top and bottom of the handset, though they are greatly reduced over the original Pixel XL. These bezels now house a stereo speaker array too, meaning the Pixel 2 XL makes better use of the extra space it has than its predecessor.

Chamfered edges have been dropped in favour of a rounded design that feeds back into some nicely textured aluminium, which feels very lovely in the hand.

Around the back, the glass panel that marks out Pixel phones is still present and correct – except it has been reduced by half so it now only holds the camera module, which protrudes slightly from the phone's back due to holding a more sophisticated camera than its predecessor. The Pixel 2 XL's fingerprint scanner is still well-positioned in the middle of the phones rear top-half and is easy to find when unlocking the phone in a hurry.

While the handset is a tad taller than its older sibling, it's lost a little of the Pixel XL's girth which gave the original handset a pleasant heft, though the Pixel 2 XL still feels solid and capable of surviving a few drops.

Just as it has done with the Pixel 2, Google has left the 3.5mm headphone jack on the wayside with the Pixel 2 XL, forcing users to either opt for Bluetooth headphones or use the bundled USB Type-C adapter. This is a major convenience for many, but neither option is very intrusive to use, and by removing the headphone port the handset gains its brace of speakers which have a solid audio punch.

While the headphone jack has been dropped, the Pixel 2 XL has gained IP67 water and dust resistance, which should help it survive a downpour.

Another new feature that's not so easy to spot is the HTC U11-inspired Active Edge: squeezable edges on the bottom part of the handset's sides which, when given a quick grip and release, activate the Google Assistant. It might seem a tad odd, but actually works quite well once you find the right way to squeeze the Active Edge.

The Galaxy Note 8 is more striking with its Infinity Display and glass construction. But the Pixel 2 XL feels more like a phone you can use without worrying about damaging its fancy exterior, rather than the more fashion accessory-like iPhone for example.

The large screen with its rounded design and the lack of flashiness of the chassis draws focus to the Pixel 2 XL's smart abilities and excellent take on stock Android, making it a phone that can be used hard and fast rather than a device to fondle and admire; something that we appreciate when it comes to tapping out emails and working on the go.

Display

On paper the 6in, 2,880 x 1,440 resolution pOLED display (with the p standing for the plastic panel the screen uses) looks set to be pretty good display. After all, the Pixel XL's display was impressive, so Google can only do better right? Well, not quite.

At first glance the Pixel 2 XL's display is definitely striking, with rounded corners that help make the handset's bezels fade into insignificance. However, despite hitting 99.8% sRGB coverage and offering excellent contrast in our tests, measuring in at a ratio of Infinity:1, the Pixel 2 XL's colours appear muted - if not close to washed out. Even with the display's brightness cranked up, the colours are not as vivid as they are on the AMOLED-toting Pixel 2 or the original Pixel XL.

This could be a calibration problem that Google might be able to solve with a software update, but the pOLED panel throws up another gremlin that's harder to fix; its viewing angles are pretty poor. Unless you look at the display head on then the colours fade out and take on a distracting blueish hue.

This is not great for a flagship phone, particularly as during our hands-on experience with the handset at the Pixel 2 launch event, the Pixel 2 XL's display looked a lot more impressive. There's a chance that we have received a handset from a faulty batch, but other reviewers have reported similar issues.

While the display is disappointing, in longer use with the brightness – which is admittedly excellent – on full and the adaptive display mode turned off, the Pixel 2 XL is still pleasant to watch video on, and its size makes scrolling through web pages and bouncing between apps in split-screen mode a joy.

The Pixel 2 may offer better colours but its smaller bezel-flanked display still makes the Pixel 2 XL's larger screen more desirable on the display front, as it really showcases Android at its best and offers a 'phablet' experience that really means you can get the best of both a smartphone and tablet.

For some the flaws in the Pixel 2 XL's display may be too much of a sticking point, but we found you can learn to live with its shortcomings and enjoy its pleasantly curvy design and the fact that Google's own take on Android Oreo feels fantastic on a bezelless 6-inch screen.

Features

Aside from the stereo speakers and Active Edge, the Pixel 2 XL is a tad light on standout hardware features. It has an electronic SIM which allows for connection to Google's Project Fi network without a SIM card, but this is sadly limited to US users.

It's on the software side that the Pixel 2 XL has brought out the big guns, in the form of the Google Assistant and its machine learning smarts. We've had the Google Assistant in our lives for a year now thanks to the previous Pixel phones, and it has proved to be the smartest mobile virtual assistant when pitted against the likes of Siri and Cortana.

Like its smaller sibling, the Pixel 2 XL comes packing an even smarter Assistant. You can now ask the Assistant to listen to songs and identify them, where previously it was limited to the Google voice search app.

Even more impressively, the song identification happens automatically with the always-on ambient display mode, which not only automatically identifies songs played in the phone's vicinity but also displays notifications on the lock screen without needing a user to pick up or unlock the phone, essentially providing snippets of information at a glance. It's a neat feature and didn't appear to have much impact on the battery life, though some may find a display that's partially on all the time to be a distraction.

Other smart tools include the debut of Google Lens, which uses the search giant's machine learning expertise to identity what's in a picture and serve up relevant information. Snap a picture of a book cover and Lens, which is built into the camera and will soon come to the Assistant, will serve up snippets of information about the book and its author.

Lens is far from infallible and trips up a fair bit, but it has real future potential for using computer vision to serve up genuinely useful information to a user, rather than forcing them to rely on search-powered guess work.

Overall, the Pixel 2 XL simply feels like a very smart phone; little snippets of information are served up seamlessly and rapidly based on how the Google apps and your Google account are used.

Some may be put off by having Google's algorithms effectively watch them, but those who are less concerned will be able to experience a phone that feels like it's a vehicle for practical machine learning, rather than just another phone for snapping slightly better selfies.

Next: performance, battery life, camera and verdict

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