Pixel 2 review: Google's smartest phone yet

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Pixel 2 review: Google's smartest phone yet
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Google’s latest smartphone offers more intelligent software and other improvements, but is it enough to take on Samsung's flagships?

Google-branded smartphones first made their debut with the Nexus One handset back in 2010, made in collaboration with HTC and designed to offer a pure Android experience. Several years later, Google dreamed up the Pixel phones – handsets manufactured by HTC but 100% designed by Google.

The Pixel and larger sibling the Pixel XL introduced Android Nougat and, more importantly, the machine learning powered Google Assistant; the result was a brace of well-received (if not ground-breaking) smartphones featuring a genuinely smart virtual assistant.

Now Google is looking to build upon its Pixel prowess with the Pixel 2, which is available for pre-orders from today (20 October 2017). And it succeeds with that aim – mostly.

Design

The Pixel 2 sports a design that's very much an evolution over its predecessor, rather than a revolution. It's now slimmer and with less chunky chamfered edges, adding up to an altogether tidier appearance.

The aluminium-and-glass aesthetic is still present and correct, only this time the glass panel that gave the original Pixel its distinct look has been shrunk down so it takes up less than a quarter of the phone's rear panel, harking back to the design of the Nexus 6P.

The fingerprint scanner now sits amid the textured aluminium back-panel. While not as nice to the touch as the smooth metal or glass found in other flagship smartphones, it fits the Pixel 2's tweaked design nicely and helps make the lighter phone still feel sturdy, comfortable to hold, and less likely to escape your grasp.

Unlike a good few Android phones that made their debut this year, the Pixel 2 eschews the edge-to-edge screen design and has rather chunky bezels, which make the screen feel a little cramped despite sitting at 5-inches; while not ugly the bezels certainly keep the Pixel 2 from looking as sleek as other 2017 Android phones.

The upside to the bezels is they hold a set of stereo speakers that give the handset a much punchier sound than the original Pixel, though headphones are still the best option for audio.

Speaking of headphones, Google has aped Apple with the Pixel 2 and done away with the 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, audio will be piped through the handset's USB Type-C port, meaning people without Bluetooth headphones will need to use the bundled adapter or invest in USB-C headphones.

With the removal of one feature comes the addition of another; the HTC U11-inspired Active Edge. A quick squeeze of the solid-feeling lower quarter sides of the handset activates the Google Assistant without the need to bark 'Ok Google' or long-press the virtual home button. What felt like a gimmick at first, is actually genuinely useful if you use Google's virtual assistant regularly.

Overall, the Pixel 2 has a design that's nowhere near as flashy as other Android handsets, such as Samsung's Galaxy S8. Rather, the Pixel 2 in some ways feels as though it has drawn influence from Scandinavian furniture, with a pragmatic and unassuming design that almost melts away with use as focus is drawn to the tactile feel of the handset and its smart features.

Display

Measuring 5in across and sporting a Full HD AMOLED panel, the Pixel 2's 441ppi display is the same as the first Pixel's on paper, but given the latter had a vibrant and bright display, that's no bad thing.

The Pixel 2 keeps up the good work of its predecessor too, with top contrast ratio of infinity:1, and excellent brightness when compared to other modern Android handsets, but this time the Pixel 2 presents more natural colours, with 96% sRGB coverage, over the original model. It lacks a little of the punch of its predecessor but avoids displaying colours that look unnatural or overblown in videos and photos.

A 5in Full HD display with a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio is fairly standard in modern mobiles, but to help jazz things up, Google has added a Samsung Galaxy-style 'always on' display, which will display the time, date and incoming notification without needing the user to wake the handset. It's a useful feature, but it can get a little distracting at times.

While the Pixel 2's display is up to the standard of most flagship Android phones, we can't help but feel Google could have pushed the envelope more with the screen. We would have preferred it to aim for a bezel-less design, but that energy was saved for the larger Pixel 2 XL.

Software

It's on the software side that the Pixel 2 really begins to shine. Rather than offering a 'pure Android' experience, the Pixel family uses a unique, custom launcher, which offers a more polished, premium experience than the stock version of Android Oreo.

The Pixel Launcher has been given a nip and tuck to be slightly slicker on the Pixel 2. For example, the Google Now widget is now sitting at the bottom of the home screen, rather than as a thick icon in the top left-hand corner.

Such tweaks have made using the Pixel 2 very smooth and slick, compared to the rather clunky experience Android used to offer. Even with the Pixel Launcher, Android is arguably not quite as immediately intuitive as Apple's iOS, but the flexibility of the software more than compensates, and the edge Apple has with its App Store ecosystem is getting slimmer every day.

Where the Pixel 2 really stands out from the crowd, however, is with the Google Assistant. The Assistant made its debut with the previous Pixel, but with the Pixel 2, Google's virtual assistant really stretches its legs.

Not only has the Google Assistant become smarter and more capable over the past year, it's tightly integrated into the Pixel 2's native apps, meaning you can ask it to do all manner of things, such as identify music you are listening to without the need for the Shazam app, something that wasn't possible with the older Pixel beyond going into the Google Now voice search app. It will also display song information automatically when the display is in its Always On mode.

The Pixel 2 also sees the debut of Google Lens, which uses machine learning to identify what's in a picture and serve up information about it - for example a shot of a shop sign will present opening hours, or a picture of a book cover will bring up snippets about the author. In practise, Google Lens can be a little hit and miss, but it's still early days and the potential of the machine learning Google has built into the Pixel 2's software and its Assistant is pretty impressive.

Features

Google's machine learning prowess is really the main feature of the Pixel 2, designed to showcase how smart the search giant's software has become. As such, the Pixel 2 is hardly flush with additional standout features.

IP67 water and dust resistance is thankfully now included, and the handset has a built-in electronic SIM that allows users on the Google Project Fi network, meaning the Pixel 2 can be used without a SIM card. However, Project Fi is only available in the US, so it has limited appeal in Australia for the time being.

Alongside the addition of stereo speakers, Active Edge, and the removal of the 3.5mm jack, the rest of the Pixel 2's feature set is the same as its predecessor. Fast charging is present and correct, and while there's no microSD slot to expand storage, Google's offer of unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos should ensure that the built-in memory is more than enough for most people.

Next: performance, battery life, camera and verdict

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