If your main use for a phone is taking photos of anything and everything, the Pixel 2 is the phone for you. It has a single-lens camera that, through a combination of smart software, a great lens, and dark magic, allows you to take off-the-cuff snapshots that still turn out great. But if you’ve bought a premium phone in the last 18 months, I’m not sure the Pixel 2 offers enough to justify the jump — particularly if you’re eyeing those iPhone Xs that are sure to be sold out for months and months. And even if you’re thinking about upgrading, there may be another Pixel you should think about.
The Pixel 2 now features an always-on screen you can enable; it’ll drain the battery ever so slightly, but your phone will display the time, date, and notifications for new emails, texts, or other updates. It also has a feature you can turn on called Now Playing, which can display the title and artist of music that’s playing wherever you are (think of it like an always-on Shazam), from a library of about 20,000 songs stored locally on your phone. It’s a neat-enough feature, but it’s a small library — it’ll recognize the Beatles, not so much Blood Orange — and it takes about 50 seconds for Now Playing to recognize a song.
There’s also a new “squeeze” function: If you press in on both sides of the phone, you’ll automatically bring up your Google Assistant. How useful you’ll find this feature depends greatly on how useful you find Google Assistant. The digital AI is already leaps and bounds smarter and more capable than it was a year ago when it debuted, and the ability to type questions instead of speaking them makes using it in public or in an open office much less embarrassing. But the squeeze functionality, when done right, is a quick gesture that makes sense when you’re holding the phone, so it’s a shame the Pixel 2 binds it only to the Google Assistant. And the thing I most often want to do quickly when I’m holding my phone is take a picture. Which brings us to the Pixel 2’s biggest selling point: It can take really, really nice photos.
The camera is Google’s great leap forward, and unlike the dual-lens competition, it only has one lens. The secret is a dual-pixel sensor. Every pixel captured by the phone’s camera sensor is actually captured by a left and a right sensor, splitting them in two.
Combined with some software tricks, this allows the Pixel 2’s single lens to get a sense of how close and far away objects are. It also means that with a single lens, the Pixel 2 can combine hardware and software to create the “portrait mode” effect that the iPhone 7 Plus debuted and the Samsung Note 8 showed off, taking a subject in the foreground and keeping it in focus while blurring the background. It’s known as bokeh, and you recognize it as soon as you see it — to the average person, it just scans as “fancy.”
I tested out portrait mode using, from top to bottom, the Pixel 2 XL, an iPhone 8 Plus, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (the latter two are dual-lens cameras).
All three were able to apply blur as objects got farther away while keeping the edges of the foregrounded apples in focus, but the Pixel 2 required the least amount of fuss — both the iPhone 8 and the Note 8 required me to reposition myself repeatedly before its portrait mode would kick in. And the Note 8 in particular had visible masking problems around the upper edge of the apples, its software struggling to determine where foreground object ended and background blur began.
As a point-and-shoot camera, the Pixel 2 was equally impressive. I took it out on a cloudy weekend day and came away impressed with its ability to take great shots with very little setup. Again, I tested a Pixel 2 XL, an iPhone 8 Plus, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. You’ll see the Pixel 2 has a completely different tone than the iPhone or Note 8 — you can see some actual gradation in the clouds, and the leaves and berries on the trees have more dynamic range in color. I likely could have gotten better shots with the iPhone and Note 8 by spending some time in settings, but these were all taken cold — the camera app opened up, the tree lined up, and a picture snapped. To my eye, the Pixel 2 took the best pictures.
I also tried out all three phones in low-light situations, shooting pictures about 45 minutes after sunset, which is where the Pixel 2 truly stood out. Low-light shooting is difficult for any camera, and the Pixel’s optical and software stabilization helped capture as much of the picture as possible. It was able to capture more detail with less grain than either the iPhone 8 or Samsung Note 8. Again, from left to right is the Pixel 2 XL, an iPhone 8 Plus, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
Finally, because the Pixel 2’s software is smart enough to recognize faces, its single-lens front-facing 8 MP camera can shoot in portrait mode. Which means you can suddenly take selfies with that bokeh effect. I don’t take many selfies, but I could understand how this feature alone could be a selling point for many.
Last year, Google put out the best smartphone camera on the market. With the Pixel 2, it’s done even better. It’s the Pixel 2’s true standout feature, and if you really care about getting great photos with your phone, the Pixel 2’s camera deserves a spot in your pocket. (If you want even more detail on the camera’s qualities, written by people who know a lot more about photography than I do, you can read a review at DXoMark, which gave the phone’s camera a nearly perfect rating.)
Hope You Love Wireless Headphones
The Pixel 2 is the most high-profile Android phone to hit the market without a 3.5 mm headphone jack. The Pixel 2 comes with a USB-C-to-3.5 mm dongle, but dongles are annoying and easy to lose. If you’re planning on getting a Pixel 2, you’re going to want a pair of wireless headphones, period.
The Pixel 2 tries to reduce some of the wireless pairing by using “fast pair,” which means a pop-up will appear onscreen when you turn on headphones or speakers built to work with the Pixel. So far, the two brands Google mention are Libratone and AiAiAi — not exactly common brands — but more companies may join the pack. Google sent along a pair of Libratone headphones for testing, and they did indeed sync up with a simple single tap on the Pixel 2, and reconnected quickly when I turned them back on around the Pixel 2.
But the basic problems of Bluetooth wireless headphones remain. I found the headphones dropping signal when I walked around outside in New York City, where other radio signals, lack of nearby surfaces to bounce Bluetooth radio signals off, and the difficulty of sending Bluetooth radio waves from the phone, through the water inside my own own body, and up to the headphone on my head all present challenges. The Pixel 2 supports Bluetooth 5.0, which will ostensibly solve some of these problems, but there aren’t really headphones available that support Bluetooth 5.0.
But the premium market is going wireless — I’d bet my next paycheck Samsung’s Galaxy phones drop the audio jack in 2018 — so if you want a top-end phone, you’re going to have to give up the 3.5 mm jack eventually. Bottom line: The audio jack is likely going away on many, if not most, phones, the same way most computers lost CD/DVD drives. The 3.5 mm jack takes up valuable space inside a phone and makes it harder to make phones water- and dust-proof. But there are real problems with the Bluetooth standard, both on the software side and as a pure physics problem. Plus, making my headphones yet another thing I need to remember to plug in and charge at night is a pain — especially when I’m stuck on a subway with uncharged wireless headphones, no dongle, and a guy doing an off-key cover of “Hallelujah” in the middle of the train car.
(And, for what it’s worth, both models of the Pixel 2 sport pretty decent internal speakers, with acceptable bass and stereo sound. It’s not anything you’d want to play at a party, but it’s fine for background music while working by yourself, or for speakerphone calls.)
Should You Size Up?
I tested out both the 5.7-inch Pixel 2 and the 6.2-inch Pixel 2 XL. I’m generally a fan of large screens — if you spend a lot of time looking at your phone, you may as well have as much to look at as possible — but unlike the iPhone, where the Plus model also has a better camera, there’s really no difference between the two models’ specs besides size and price: The Pixel 2 starts at $649, while the Pixel XL starts at $849. (Both double up storage from 64 GB to 128 GB for an extra $100, but you don’t really need the space. Google automatically backs up photos and video taken on the Pixel into the cloud, making storage space a non-issue unless you’re an offline movie or podcast hoarder.)
The Pixel 2 XL has a more modern look, with slimmer top and bottom bezels, making for a taller, slimmer screen. This is great for scrolling Twitter or Facebook, but runs into some issues with other apps that haven’t adapted to the new screen size. What’s more, the XL’s screen has a size ratio of 18:9. Since the vast majority of modern TV and movies are shot in 16:9, this means that if you watch anything on your XL, you either have black bars on either side, or you slice off the top and bottom of whatever you’re watching. (The smaller Pixel 2 has a 16:9 ratio screen.) In effect, if want you watch something without cutting off the top and bottom, the size difference between the XL and the regular-sized Pixel 2 image is negligible. If you’ve got smaller hands or just want to save $200, the Pixel 2 non-XL is a better fit. I didn’t have trouble handling the XL, but still found myself enjoying holding (and stuffing into my pocket) the regular-sized Pixel more.
Who Should Get a Pixel 2?
If you love taking great photos, have wireless headphones you love, and are due for an upgrade, the Pixel 2 sports the sharpest camera I’ve used — you’ll get the best shots for the least amount of work. You’ll also be getting a clean install of Android 8.0 and Google Assistant, the most helpful phone assistant available (which is still not that helpful, but that’s a whole different article). You won’t get a phone as flashy as the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the upcoming iPhone X, but you’re likely throwing all these phones in cases regardless.
But hear me out: If you really want a premium phone with no bloatware, the latest version of Android, and a great camera, I’ve got a great one for you: It’s called the Pixel. Google released it last year. That Pixel had a few problems — its Gorilla Glass 4 was prone to cracking, as I can attest from personal experience (always, always buy a case for your phone). You can’t squeeze it and get to your Google Assistant. You won’t be able to shoot in portrait mode (or take selfies with cool blurry backgrounds). But it has a headphone jack and still runs like a champ on every app I can throw at it. What’s more, while I was out shooting photos with the Pixel 2, iPhone 8, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8, I also snapped a few with the year-old Pixel. Here’s the Halloween lights outside my house. The original Pixel is on the left, the Pixel 2 is on the right.
The original Pixel picture is slightly lossier, with a bit more grain visible in the sky as the sensors strain to capture as much light as possible. But it’s still a beautiful low-light night shot.
The Pixel 2 isn’t even on sale yet, and I’m already seeing certified refurbished and unlocked Pixel XLs for $470. That price is likely to go down in the near future. What’s more, Google recently bought out the engineering team at HTC that is believed to have been behind the original Pixel and some of the Pixel 2. If you’re okay with being a year behind (and, really, at this point in the smartphone’s evolution, phones tend to break physically before they become obsolete due to processors or software), there may be an even better Pixel coming down the line in 2018 or 2019 — and you may be happiest saving a few dollars, grabbing last year’s model, and snapping away.
This article has been updated to clarify how the front-facing camera of the Pixel 2 works.