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.
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.
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.
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
Hardware and performance
The Pixel 2 XL packs the same hardware as the Pixel 2 – a Qualcomm 835 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM – and it delivers the same level of performance.
In our Geekbench 4 tests, the Pixel 2 XL scored 1,895 in the single core test, while the multicore score was a very decent 6,263. This is pretty much around the same performance as the Galaxy Note 8, which like the Pixel XL 2 has an octa-core chip.
But these benchmarks don't do justice to how well the Pixel 2 XL actually performs, thanks to the fact that it's optimised to run near-stock Android Oreo. Google has put in a lot of work to making sure that in practice, the Pixel 2 XL is buttery-smooth to use. The only change that Google has made to the base OS is that it's added the Pixel Launcher on top, which adds a few light interface additions, such as app tray and the ability to quickly launch the calendar app from tapping on the data on the home screen.
With the Pixel Launcher on top of Android Oreo, Google is presenting its best vision of its mobile OS, and with the Snapdragon chip, everything from browsing multiple web pages to watching video and using services like Slack at the same time is very slick indeed, and we encountered no slowdown despite running multiple apps and multitasking.
According to our benchmark testing, the 3,520mAh battery delivers just over 15 hours of power, but in real world use this can vary. On a full charge the handset's battery can last more than a day with average use ranging from web browsing and messaging to watching the odd video clip on social media.
Heavy use of the phone with its display on full brightness will see the battery drop. For example, we saw our handset bleed 5% of its battery life after 10 minutes of heavy use, which included opening multiple apps and watching videos. Use the Pixel 2 XL heavily for a working day and you'll be reaching for the charger come the late evening, which is about on par with the Pixel XL and other powerful smartphones.
There's a power saver mode which aims to get more life out of the battery by reducing performance and background services. However, when we engaged the mode and kept using the handset we noticed a drop of 4% over ten minutes of continuous use, which we feel wasn't worth the dip in performance which makes flicking through Android feel a little jerky. That being use handset lightly when in power saving mode and the battery life is can keep going for well over a day and a half.
Fast charging is on offer as well and can give the Pixel 2 XL enough juice in 15 minutes to last an evening of emails and web browsing, which is more preferable than trying to eke out every last drop of battery life.
Speaking of smartphone cameras, the Pixel XL had one of the best mobile cameras around, and thankfully the Pixel 2 XL continues that legacy.
Photos snapped through the 12MP, f/1.8 aperture lens are detailed and have nicely balanced colours. There is a small but noticeable improvement in contrast and detail over the camera of the original Pixels, too.
However, video at 4K/30fps is a weaker point, with captured footage appearing to have less detail when compared side-by-side with a video caught on Pixel XL. This issue is likely down to poor video compression though, which is something that Google should be able to patch out.
Optical image stabilisation is now available in the Pixel 2 XL, helping achieve better macro and low light photography, but things get smart when the optical image stabilisation is combined with the handset's electronic image stabilisation. Machine learning stitches the two techniques together and smooths out any bumps and jerks when recording video; if you need to shoot a video one handed or after a lot of coffee, the smart stabilisation really works well to iron out any jittery movement.
And the machine learning doesn't stop there. When taking stills, the Pixel 2 XL captures multiple pictures from a single shot and uses smart algorithms to form the best possible picture out of the images. It also records a three second clip to create a form of 'live photo' with smartly selected beginning and end points for the clips.
The Pixel 2 XL’s camera also has a novel approach to snapping photos with impressive depth of field, thanks to the use of a lens that has pixels made up of two smaller pixels, forming a dual pixel camera that uses machine learning to measure the depth of pictures, without needing a second lens like the OnePlus 5 or iPhone 8 Plus.
This is the tech behind the Pixel 2 XL's portrait mode, which helps keep the subject of a photo in focus while artistically blurring the background. Working on the 8MP front-facing camera as well, the Portrait mode produces some very nice pictures that achieve some of the fancy bokeh effects that would normally be the domain of DSLR cameras.
Without a doubt, the Pixel 2 XL has one of the best cameras out of any smartphone, and if Google can improve the video compression then that camera will go from excellent to sublime.
While it's getting difficult to actually buy a bad smartphone these days, there has been a clutch of impressive handsets that made their debut this year – were it not for them the Pixel 2 XL would be the best Android handset around.
Despite our disappointment with the display, the size of it combined with the performance of the hardware and the Google's smart software means the Pixel 2 XL is great for work and play.
On the other hand, if you value your privacy then the Pixel 2 XL is not for you, as its smart features are at their best with free access to your apps and data.
The lack of headphone jack will be a sticking point for many – and the price will be another. Google has joined Apple and Samsung in increasing pricing of the higher-end models: the Pixel XL 2 will set you back $1,399 (64GB) or $1,549 (128GB).
That’s seriously pricey, and what’s worse, they’re still Telstra exclusives, like the original Pixels, for those wanting to buy on contract. The lowest price plan is a hefty $101 per month for 2GB – and you can’t shop around for better deals as you can for the latest Apple and Samsung flagships.
Fans of pure Android who want a well-made, big-screen workhorse of a smartphone will want the Pixel 2 XL, which is worth the extra cost over the smaller and less impressively-designed Pixel 2.
However, for those who are less fussed about smart virtual assistants and near-stock Android, Samsung’s Galaxy flagships are likely to be the better fit thanks to their superior design and displays. And Apple fans are not likely to be swayed when the iPhone X is on the horizon and is only (comparatively speaking) a little more expensive.
Nevertheless, the Pixel 2 XL is Google's attempt to showcase its machine learning chops and present the best take on Android around, and it succeeds with aplomb. If Google can keep improving upon its Pixel phones each year, then we could soon be seeing a new smartphone champion to knock Apple and Samsung off their pedestals.