Back at the start of October, Google announced its latest smartphone, the Pixel 2. Available in two sizes, it was pitched as a premium device and priced like one as well: it started at $650 for the smaller model, $850 for the larger XL version.
My previous phone had recently died, and the old one I kept around just-in-case wasn’t going to cut it on an upcoming multi-month trip. I’m not a fan of big phones — they’re harder to hold, use, and fit in my pocket — and that made many of the available options less appealing. Even despite that, though, I found things not to like about pretty much all of the premium smartphones out there.
Apple’s iPhones are overpriced, and other than the $1000+ X model, haven’t innovated much in recent years. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is a gorgeous phone, but it’s loaded up with far too much unnecessary software. The Essential PH 1 looks stunning, but the mediocre camera is a major stumbling block. OnePlus’s devices have unbeatable performance for the money, but again, the camera just isn’t quite as good as I’d like.
So what was left? The new Pixels.
Unlike the iPhone, Google doesn’t strip out features from the smaller version of its devices — other than the screen and battery, everything else remains exactly the same. Knowing that, the decision was straightforward. Why yes, I would like to save two hundred bucks and get a phone in the size I prefer, thanks.
One pre-order and several nervous days refreshing the courier website later, I had a brand new Pixel 2 in my hands.
I’ve been using it day and night for a week now. Here’s how it’s gone.
The Basic Specs
The Pixel 2 has all the hardware you’d expect from a premium device. With a Snapdragon 835 chipset, 4GB of RAM, and either 64 or 128GB of storage, it sits solidly alongside the latest versions of other top-of-the-line Android phones.
Speaking of storage, if you use Google Photos you’ll get another Pixel-only benefit: free, unlimited cloud storage for all of your shots at maximum resolution until 2020. You’re usually limited to 15GB of total storage (including Gmail, Google Drive, etc) on Google’s free accounts, so it’s definitely a bonus.
The fingerprint sensor sits on the back of the phone towards the top, exactly where it should. It’s where my finger naturally rests, and as a result, unlocking has been zero effort, super-fast, and totally reliable. It seems like such a simple thing to get right, but not every phone does. Yes, Samsung, I’m looking at you.
Taking a cue from manufacturer HTC (which built the smaller Pixel), the phone also has squeezable sides. A firm squeeze-and-release of the lower half of the phone launches Assistant, Google’s smarter version of Siri. How many times did I think I’d use this? Less than ten, ever. How many times have I used it in the week I’ve had the phone? At least a hundred.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind talking to their phone (I’m becoming that guy, albeit only in private), you may well find yourself doing the same. Especially if you don’t like saying the kinda-dorky “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google” hotwords, it’s the fastest way to get the phone to start listening and answer whatever question’s on your mind.
You can also squeeze to silence an incoming call, but that’s it. Being able to assign other actions, like firing up the camera, would make it much more useful. Let’s hope that comes with a future update.
When it comes to cellular coverage, the days of minimal LTE support overseas seem, finally, to be numbered. At least with a high-end phone like the Pixel 2 or latest iPhones, you’re now pretty likely to get high-speed data when you’re traveling.
This site is useful if you want to check a specific combination of phone, country, and carrier, and the Pixel 2 scores well even in traditionally incompatible places like Japan. I’ll be heading there next month, so we’ll see how well it does in practice, but the signs are good.
As you’d expect when buying a phone directly from the manufacturer, the SIM card slot is unlocked for use around the world. Google’s also included an eSIM, a technology that lets you sign up for and use a carrier’s service without having to insert a physical SIM card.
It’s one of those things that sounds amazing for travelers, but scares cell companies to death – the last thing they want is to make it easier for their customers to switch. As a result, very few of them support eSIM, but a few, like Google Fi, do.
The eSIM in the Pixel 2, unfortunately, is restricted to only working with Google Fi. That makes it useless for those living outside the US, and only useful for those inside the US who can make the switch to Google’s cell service and then use a local SIM card in the physical slot when they’re traveling. Still, I guess it’s better than not having it at all.
Finally, in a first for the Pixel range, there’s now no need to be afraid of a sudden storm. The phone’s IP67 rating means it’s dustproof and can handle being submerged in up to a metre (3.3 feet) of water. Don’t drop it in the deep end of the hotel pool, but a bit of unexpected liquid is no longer a reason to panic.
Having killed two phones due to water damage while traveling, I’m very happy about the change.
The Pixel 2 uses a Samsung-made 5″ OLED screen, a technology that’s been around for years in televisions and is slowly making its way to phones.
It’s touted as the Next Big Thing, offering better colours and contrast than standard LED versions. These type of displays are known especially for having much deeper blacks, and I’ve really noticed the difference on dark-themed websites and apps or while watching video.
Text is crisp and legible, even at small font sizes, and visibility in direct sunlight is dramatically better than any other phone I’ve owned. In the past, I’ve often had to manually adjust the screen brightness when I’m outside. So far, even when walking around in the middle of a bright, sunny day, the automatic “adaptive brightness” setting has done a fine job.
Google talked up the colour accuracy of the Pixel 2 screen, and how it had been tuned to be much closer to the real world rather than the highly-saturated colours seen on most other phones. Of course, everyone who’s ever owned a smartphone had got totally used to that level of saturation, and started to grumble about how washed-out everything looked.
Responding to those complaints, Google released an update a few days ago that switched out the single “Vivid” option for saturated, boosted, or natural settings.
Switching between boosted and saturated makes a noticeable difference, and if you like your colours to really pop, you’ll probably want to do that. I’m undecided which I prefer right now, but it’s good to have the choice.
Let’s Talk About That Camera
For me, and I suspect many travelers, the biggest reason by far to buy a high-end phone is the camera quality. Having a good camera in my pocket at all times opens up more opportunities for interesting, spur-of-the-moment shots, even if my main camera is back in my room.
That’s assuming I need a “proper” camera at all. I’ve increasingly been going on trips without one, and rarely missing it. I certainly don’t miss the extra size and weight.
After using the Pixel 2 for a few days, I can confidently say my main camera is going to be spending even more time on the shelf. Other than the rare time I need a long zoom lens, there’s now very little need to pack it. The shots from this phone are exceptional.
The original Pixel had one of the best smartphone cameras of its time, and the latest model has upped the ante again. On paper, the camera specs seem good, not amazing, but those specs only tell part of the story. As usual with Google, it’s software doing much of the heavy lifting.
The phone takes up to ten photos at once, combining them all to come up with the best shot. As with other high-end phones, it can automatically save the brief movements captured before taking a photo, or use a portrait mode that smartly blurs the background while keeping people or objects in the foreground in focus. That mode works for selfies, too, if that’s your jam.
There’s also a 120fps slow-motion video setting, as well as the panorama and photosphere options that have been around for a few years now. Low-light performance is orders of magnitude better than any phone I’ve used in the past, undoubtedly helped a lot by the optical image stabilisation built into the rear camera.
Talking about photos, though, feels a bit like listening to your food: it doesn’t tell you all that much about it. So, here’s how the Pixel 2 camera performed out in the real world. All shots are taken directly from the phone, with no editing. Click on any of them for a full-size version.
Charging and Battery Life
The box includes a 3.0amp wall charger, and a too-short USB-C to USB-C cable to go with it. You’ll likely want to pick up a longer one, as well as a good USB-A to USB-C version so you can charge from most older laptops, portable batteries, USB sockets on planes, etc.
As with many new Android devices, battery life out of the box is very good. I took it off the charger at 7:30 one morning, and after a day of light use (2:20 hours of screen-on time), it was still sitting at 44% when I went to bed at 11pm.
Even on a day where I was out taking photos, using maps, listening to podcasts, and browsing the web with cellular data for several hours, I still had around 25% battery remaining when I went to bed.
It then only lost 3% charge in eight hours, which is impressive. For the first time ever, I don’t feel the need to leave my phone sitting on the charger overnight. I’m sure that like every other phone I’ve owned, battery life will decrease over time, but for now, it’s fantastic.
I’m not quite as impressed by charging speed, though. Bearing in mind there’s only a 2700mAh battery inside the Pixel 2, it’s definitely not the fastest out there, even using the bundled charger.
In my testing, the Pixel added roughly one percent per minute until it got close to full, slowing down after that. You can expect a roughly two-hour charge time from completely flat.
Adding a bit over 30% in half an hour isn’t terrible, but the Dash charger on the latest OnePlus phones, for instance, gives double that. When you’re on a tight layover, or otherwise short of time to get extra juice in your phone, you’ll notice the difference.
There’s no wireless charging, which hasn’t bothered me at all. While I’ve used it at home in the past, it’s so slow that I could never justify carrying the charging pad when I traveled. Given the better battery life of the Pixel 2, having to plug in a reversible cable once a day is pretty much the definition of a first-world problem I can live with.
One of the biggest reasons to buy a Google-branded phone is the software. The company uses devices like the Pixel to showcase what Android can do, which has two big benefits.
First, it means no crapware. The phone isn’t laden down with a bunch of unnecessary extra apps that take up space and slow everything down. Samsung is particularly bad for this, but it’s far from the only culprit. You get a “pure” Android experience with the Pixel 2, and nothing else.
Second (and related,) security updates and bug fixes are regular, timely, and ongoing. That’s a huge deal for me – I once had a Samsung Galaxy, and hated having to wait months for updates, if they came at all. Google promises operating system and security updates for at least three years after the Pixel 2 release date, and they’ll arrive straight away.
The Pixel 2 ships with Android 8 (“Oreo”), one of the very few phones to do so right now. I’m not going to go into detail about the new operating system (here’s a 20,000 word review if you’re interested), but having come from the previous version, while there are definite improvements, there aren’t many big differences in daily use.
One thing I really like, though, is unique to the Pixel 2: the “always-on” ambient display. Because of that OLED screen, the phone is able to just light up the specific part it needs, rather than the whole display. Google’s taken advantage of that, showing a minimal amount of info at all times. Even when the screen is “off,” it shows the clock, date, the next alarm, and subtle icons for any notifications.
I didn’t think I’d care much about this, but I do. It’s great. I find myself turning on the screen far less because I can see the two things I care about (time and whether I’ve got a notification) at a glance. The end result? Better battery life, fewer distractions.
There’s also a “now playing” ambient display feature, that listens in the background and tries to identify and show any song that’s currently playing. It comes disabled by default, and other than testing it out for this review, I’ll likely keep it that way.
Even in a pitch-black room at night, I barely notice the slight glow from the screen. When there’s even a small amount of other light, I can’t see it at all. Speaking of the screen, I can now double-tap it to wake it up. Sure, it’s not that much easier than pushing the power button, but when the phone’s lying on a table, it’s a little quicker.
Other small things? There’s an attractive date, weather, and calendar widget at the top of the home screen now, and the search box has moved to a logical spot at the bottom.
One of the much-touted Pixel 2 exclusives is Google Lens. In theory, this lets you take a photo of something, and get a bunch of relevant information about it. One example – taking a photo of a Wi-Fi network name and password, and having the phone automatically connect to that network – seemed particularly useful for travel.
It didn’t work. I deleted my home Wi-Fi network information, then took a photo of the sticker on the back of the router. Google Lens didn’t recognize what it was. I wrote the details in big capital letters on a sheet of paper. Same thing.
I took a photo of a bottle of wine in my fridge, and was told it was “liqueur.” I took a shot of the front of my passport, only to be informed it was a book called “Far from Boring.” Maybe that was some kind of meta-comment about the value of travel. Or maybe it wasn’t.
Sure, Google says that this feature is in preview, and being software, it’ll undoubtedly get better over time. For now, though? Don’t get too excited about it.
There was quite a bit of noise in the tech press soon after the Pixel 2 came out, complaining that the screen on the larger model (the XL) was prone to burn-in. How much of a problem this is in reality is debatable, but just in case, Google soon increased the length of the warranty on both Pixel 2 versions to two years.
That’s great news if you’re buying this smaller Pixel. Since the screen comes from a different manufacturer, it doesn’t have the same burn-in issues, but you get the extra warranty anyway.
As I’ve discovered in the past, though, getting warranty support on Google’s phones outside the country of purchase is difficult. And by difficult, I mean, almost impossible. You’ll almost certainly need to ship the phone back home if it breaks when you’re out of the country, or wait until you return.
What’s It Like to Actually Use?
Of course, it doesn’t matter how good the camera is, how much storage is available, or whether the battery lasts forever if the phone sucks to actually use.
The Pixel 2 does not suck to use.
It’s incredibly fast, in a way that benchmarks and spec sheets can’t really convey. Every Android phone I’ve used before has felt a little sluggish. Apps would take that extra second to load, and switching between them wasn’t instant. There’d be a delay loading web pages, even on a fast connection. Scrolling quickly was a series of jerky movements, not a single motion.
That’s no longer the case. A couple of days ago, I tapped a link in a chat window and literally said out loud “damn that was fast!” when it loaded in Chrome. Long web pages scroll like they’re on ice, and all the little animations for things like opening a folder are glitch-free.
The camera app loads immediately, and despite all the processing that’s going on in the background, is ready to take another photo as soon as you’ve shot the first one. The entire experience is all just remarkably smooth, in a way I didn’t think an Android phone could be.
The migration process from my old phone was equally slick. A small adapter inside the box lets you connect the two devices, and a simple, friendly onboarding process copies across your data and installs all your apps (at least if you’re coming from an Android phone). Google’s clearly put some work into this – it’s a much better experience than in the past, although I still had to log back into my apps afterwards.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not one for big phones. The Pixel 2 has very similar dimensions to my old Nexus 5x, and is a little taller than the Nexus 5 that preceded it. It’s easy to hold securely and use with one hand, and fits comfortably into the front pocket of my shorts or jeans.
If you’re not using a case, the back of the phone is surprisingly grippy. I opted for one of Google’s official fabric cases (there aren’t many third-party options yet,) which so far at least, has been equally easy to hold and hasn’t got dirty. We’ll see how that goes after a few months on the road!
So, What’s Not to Like?
The Pixel 2 is a fantastic phone for travelers, but it’s not perfect. The issues aren’t major, but they don’t have to be there at all. Frustratingly, they’re deliberate choices made by Google.
Let’s start with that design. Now, I’m not someone who much cares about what my phone looks like. It’ll stay in a case its entire life, and when I’m wandering around a new city, the last thing I want to do is show off a fancy, expensive piece of electronics.
Still, when I’m dropping $650+ on a new device, it’d be nice if it didn’t look like a throwback to early this decade. For a premium smartphone at the end of 2017, the top and bottom bezels are huge, and it’s pretty much the definition of a generic rectangular slab. It’s not exactly ugly, at least to my eyes, but the design doesn’t stand out in any way either. It’s plain. Boring.
When Samsung’s Galaxy S8 has a gorgeous edge-to-edge display and costs about the same, it’d be nice if the Pixel 2 was at least a little more attractive than the four-year-old Nexus 5 it’s currently sitting beside on my desk.
Aesthetics is one thing, but the lack of headphone jack is a bigger issue. Bluetooth earphones are fine, but sound quality isn’t as good, and battery life on all but the largest headphones isn’t going to get me through a travel day without recharging. Add in the need, at least in theory, to turn off Bluetooth in-flight, and it’s just not a great option for travelers.
Sure, you can use the adapter that came in the box to convert from USB-C to 3.5mm… if you don’t mind having one more annoying little gizmo to lose, and not being able to charge while you’re doing it. I do mind. I’ve never had to choose between charging my phone and listening to a podcast in the past, and it’s not a decision I want to have to make.
There are two main excuses trotted out for not having a headphone jack: it keeps the size of the phone down, and makes for easier waterproofing. Given those bezels, I’m definitely not buying the size argument here.
As for waterproofing? Yes, it’s harder to do when there’s a jack, but it’s far from impossible. Plenty of other companies have managed it. Google could have too, and been a bit less hostile to its customers into the bargain.
As my primary school teacher once told me, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to do it too.
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The Final Word
Despite those minor shortcomings, recommending the Pixel 2 for travelers is a no-brainer. It’s actually one of those rare situations where the smaller, cheaper version of a phone seems to be the better buy.
The XL has been plagued by negative publicity, mostly about the screen, since the day it launched. The smaller Pixel 2, though? Other than a few complaints about a clicking noise in the earpiece that was quickly fixed in a software update, it’s flown quietly under the radar.
It has perhaps the best smartphone camera of any phone on the market, so good it lets you leave your normal camera at home when you travel or avoid buying one in the first place. The size is more subjective, but for me at least, it’s perfect for slipping into a front pocket, or using while hanging from a strap on a crowded metro.
The battery life at this early stage is excellent, and will get me through all but the longest days on the road without needing to find the charger. Even the base models come with 64GB of storage, which more than enough for most people.
The Pixel 2 performs exceptionally well, with a speed and smoothness that makes it a genuine delight to use. It has the best support and warranty of any Android device, and at a time when manufacturers and carriers love to load their devices up with useless extra software, not having any of that junk is very refreshing.
It’s a fantastic smartphone, no matter how boring it might look on the surface, and has exceeded my high expectations.
Of course, that’s assuming you’ve got $650+ to spend on a phone in the first place. Not everyone does, and not everyone needs to, when you can buy a perfectly good Android phone for travel at around a third of the price… and it even comes with a headphone jack.
If you’re after the best, though? Get a Pixel 2.
It’s as simple as that.
Title image via Google, other images and screenshots via author