Google Pixel 2 XL Three Week Review: Hard To Recommend At This Price

Google Pixel 2

While I love giving hot takes on products after the first 24 hours, to give a product its full respect with a comprehensive assessment, I believe one needs to spend weeks with a device. Only then can you fully see the pros and cons. I spent over three weeks with Google’s latest flagship phone, the Pixel 2 XL. I have seen many “reviews” out there, so I opted to do more of a top 10 list of things I think you need to know about. Let me know what you think or ask me any questions on Twitter at @PatrickMoorhead.

1/ Google is not trying to impress with hardware, but with software

Google executives made the case at their launch event that they believe phone hardware was a commodity and therefore they would be focused on the software. The Pixel 2 XL hardware reflects this as the Pixel 2 XL feels generally commodity and non-differentiated. I would go far as to call it ho-hum. Google’s north star is in opposition to Apple and Samsung, who both believe one can differentiate with hardware, and therefore put a lot more energy into their hardware, which shows. The Pixel 2 XL hardware is solid, but it is nowhere even close to being in the same league as a flagship Galaxy or iPhone. This is in terms of major hardware deficiencies which I examine below.

When it came to software, I haven’t seen much yet on the Pixel 2 that swings me around the room and does something no other phone does. I do appreciate knowing that when the latest Android version comes out, I will get it first here on this phone. I also appreciate the Oreo notification system. Android has always been the best at that.

Google Lens worked some of the time, but if it does not work most of the time, why do it? Also, Lens forces you to go through an extra hoop. For example, when I shoot a QR code with an iPhone, it automatically detects and acts on it. With Pixel 2 XL, I needed to take the picture, open the Lens feature and then act on the QR code. Why add the extra step?

The Pixel 2 can also identify playing music and display the title. That’s nice as it does save a step in the process, but I can easily identify music with Shazam? I can imagine that some users are so into music that they need to see what is playing all the time, but it seems small to me.

The software had some neat tricks, but in my opinion, not a reason to buy the Pixel 2 over another phone until the features are perfected, or there’s just more value there. After using the Samsung Galaxy Note8, I can confidently say the TouchWiz bloat is gone, removing one benefit of buying a Google phone. And on the Note8, you can use all those great Google services you know and love.
2/ Display is not edge-to-edge, it has quality issues, and it is not just me
I have assessed so many products as an “ex-product guy” that I am the one that finds everything, every single imperfection, shortcut, or tradeoff. This time it was not just me, for the display, it was users and reviewers. Display consternation was so bad, review sites like PCMag removed their Pixel 2 rating for a while.

It all comes down to the LG display Google used, the packaging of it, and the tuning of it. First, flagship phones from Samsung, Apple, LG, and Huawei all have edge-to-edge displays with the lack of a border. The Pixel 2 has a giant north and south border and looks like a flagship phone from 2016. Next, the LG display Google used has a blue to brown tint if you do not look at it head-on. Trust me, it is annoying- don’t buy one without knowing you are OK with this. I have not seen this issue on Samsung or Apple OLED displays that use Samsung glass but have seen it on LG phones with LG glass. Next, there’s the color and brightness tuning, which, after complaints, Google just updated, but people are complaining it’s still not good enough. Finally, there’s OLED burn-in or the fear of it, which got many reviewers like PCMag to pull their ratings. Google enhanced their warranty in response, updated software, but phones like the Galaxy and iPhone do not have the issue.

3/ Camera scores overall great on DXOMark

There are many ways to rate and evaluate smartphone cameras and DXOMark right now is the standard tool. The Pixel 2 XL scored the highest anyone has seen so far, a 98.  The impressive thing about it is that the Pixel did this with one, not two lenses. The high scores on what DXOMark calls its “traditional tests” are thanks to 1/2.6-inch 12MP sensor with an f/1.8 aperture, dual-pixel autofocus, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) and HDR+ technology. As you expect, it got dinged on bokeh and zoom as a result.

4/ But camera zoom and bokeh are not great

While Google beamed with pride on stage with the ability to do single lens bokeh on-stage with incredible algorithms, in my opinion, the bokeh quality was unacceptable. It is a technical feat for sure, but not nearly good enough. I fought hard to take a picture with good bokeh like the iPhone 8 and X and the Samsung Note8. With the Pixel 2, hair was blurred in the wrong places; things were in focus that shouldn’t have been- it was a mess. Two cameras matter until they do not, and they still do

The Pixel 2 received a lower score on zoom as well, as it only has one lens, it must use digital zoom to achieve 2-10X magnification. Apple and Samsung use that second lens for a 2X physical zoom. This is where I think the DXOMark ranking is off and “it depends.” If you take many distant shots or even close-ups, you will want a camera with two lenses, not one doing it digitally. There’s only so much machine learning can clean up.

5/ Slip-proof coating

While some didn’t care for the two-texture top and bottom of the Pixel, they serve a very important purpose. With shiny and slippery at the top and gritty at the bottom, I could hold and use the phone without a case. In fact, it is one of the only phones I can use without a case. Score one for the Pixel 2 XL.

6/ No face or iris login, but fast rear fingerprint reader

The Samsung Galaxy 8 has iris and 2D face login and the iPhone X has 3D face login. The Pixel 2 XL does not have any of these- it has a very fast fingerprint reader on the back of the device. My fingers get chapped a lot, so I opted not to use the rear finger-reader at all because the reader did not like my fingers. Therefore I used the PIN, just like I did in 2015.

7/ Lack of Gigabit LTE

Almost every major carrier in the world will support “Gigabit LTE” by the end of the year, but the Google Pixel 2 won’t. This is a huge disappointment for those more technically savvy buyers who can appreciate this capability. Pixel 2 users will miss out on the fast speeds, some I’ve seen tested as high as 300mbps downstream on AT&T in San Francisco.  The irony is that Google ran promotions saying Gigabit LTE only ran on Android, which was true for Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, Asus, Sharp, BUT NOT ON the Google Pixel 2.

8/ Squeeze to invoke Google Assistant a bit of a gimmick

As with the HTC U11, you can squeeze the lower portion of the Pixel 2 and Google Assistant will pop up. This physical gesture is used instead of saying “OK Google” or hitting the microphone icon on the search bar. At first, I was excited but after using it, less excited. If you want to do anything interesting, you need to put in your password, which defeats the purpose of the squeeze. This is where I’d love to see Google add a 3D face ID to remove friction.  One interesting discovery I made with the “squeeze to assist” was that when I placed it into my car phone holder, it squeezed the edge and invoked Assistant.

9/ Dual front-facing speakers but no headphone jack

Google went out of their way last year to rib Apple for removing the headphone jack. I think they thought we’d forget about that when they removed theirs. We didn’t.  While I have gotten by fine without a headphone jack, some will be perturbed by it. What you will likely be perturbed at more is that the Pixel 2 doesn’t ship with headphones. Nope, not in there, but you do get a headphone dongle. This might be fine if both Samsung and Apple didn’t provide headphones, but they both do.

One thing I enjoyed about the Pixel 2 was its stereo speakers. As the Pixel 2 has larger north and south display border, there is room for front-firing speakers. And while they aren’t as loud as I would have expected, it did provide some spatial effect when watching movies or listening to music.

10/ Lack of wireless charging

Samsung has supported Qi wireless charging for years, Apple just joined the party, but Google Pixel 2 XL hasn’t shown up yet. I can’t even think of a good reason other than a metal backing was more important.

So what?

The Google Pixel 2 XL is a sturdy phone and it would have probably won editor’s choice by everyone in 2015. The problem is it’s 2017 and aside from its cameras that takes great non-zoom, non-bokeh photos, there’s a lack of differentiation and, in fact, is missing key features.

Google did say that hardware was commoditized at their launch event, but unfortunately for users, I think the company acted on it. The Pixel 2 XL lacks an edge-to-edge display for a smaller form factor, lacks dual cameras for better zoomed and bokeh photos, lacks Gigabit LTE for much faster and more efficient downloads, lacks wireless charging for simplicity, and lacks an iris and 3D face login for security and simplicity.

But buyers will get a good non-zoom, non-bokeh camera, bloat-free software environment, slip-resistant coating, squeeze to Assistant, and a Google promise that kick butt software is on the way. Add to all this its nightmare display that most reviewers hate, some are OK with, but none love, you really need to pass this phone up.

At the current price ($849 tested), I cannot recommend the Pixel 2 XL phone to anyone, not even Googler friends in Austin, as they can accomplish nearly everything Android better on a Samsung Galaxy 8 or Apple iPhone 8 or X. I hope the next Pixel uses all those new HTC resources to shore up its feature deficiencies, gets ahead of major potholes like the display and moves ahead as I would personally like to see the best of Google, because this the Pixel 2 XL currently isn’t it.