The first-generation Google Pixel phones had a lot to live up to after the Nexus program was discontinued. Android enthusiasts were not pleased, but the quality of the Pixel and Pixel XL won most of them over. In fact, the Pixels have been some of the best phones available for the last year. Now, the Pixel 2 and 2 XL are about to launch, but are they still strong competitors with devices like the Galaxy S8 and V30 around? Let's see who these devices stack up.
Phones like the Galaxy S8 and G6 have shown just how far industrial design has come in the mobile arena. These phones have tiny bezels and big screens that fill almost all of the available surface area. Last year's Pixels looks rather old-fashioned by comparison. With the Pixel 2 XL, Google is stepping up its design game. The regular Pixel 2, not so much.
The Pixel 2 XL has a 6-inch 1440p display with a taller 18:9 aspect ratio. That means it fills the device frame better, and the bezels have been shrunken considerably. It looks vastly more modern than the OG Pixel XL. I dare say it's a beautiful device. The Pixel 2, meanwhile, has a 5-inch 1080p display and keeps the big top and bottom bezels from last year's phone. However, both devices have front-facing speakers. So, at least there's a little rationale for the large bezels on the Pixel 2. These phones are now water-resistant with an IP67 rating. That's good enough, but current phones from Samsung and LG have IP68 ratings for more protection.
These phones are still composed primarily of aluminum, for which I'm very grateful. Glass phones are all the rage right now. The Galaxy S8, Note 8, LG V30, and Moto X4 all have glass backs. Glass lets you do wireless charging more easily, but it's also slippery and gets covered in fingerprints. The second-gen Pixel devices just have a slim glass window at the top of the back panel for antennas, but it's smaller than last year's glass inlay. The panel also curves toward the edges for a more unified design aesthetic. The phones also gain a squeezable frame, which you can use to launch Google Assistant.
Google also notes that it has improved the fingerprint sensor this year. It's still in the right place on the back of the phone—not too high on the back like the Galaxy S8 and not on the front where it increases bezel size like the Moto Z series. It's said to be much faster than the old Pixels, which was definitely a drawback last year. Google's sensors were accurate, but they took just a beat longer than other phones to unlock.
LG Display Tech
Google has been planning ahead for the increasingly severe AMOLED shortage. It invested big in LG's revitalized mobile OLED operation, and the second-gen Pixels will have the displays to prove it. These phones are shipping with LG OLEDs, similar to the panel LG used on the V30.
The XL will have a resolution of 2880x1440 at 6-inches, and the smaller model is 5-inches and 1920x1080. OLEDs have the benefit of perfect black levels, and recent panels have offered great color accuracy and brightness. However, I can say from my experience with the V30 that LG's OLED tech is a few years behind Samsung's. It's not as clear and the lighting can be a little uneven.
Most of the popular flagship phones out there are using AMOLEDs supplied by Samsung. And of course, Samsung's own phones have the best displays you'll see anyplace. Even cheaper phones like the OnePlus 5 have Samsung panels.
It's unlikely the Pixels will be able to match Samsung when it comes to display quality, but it could be close. Hopefully, Google has some good QA in place to make sure the LG panels it uses are up to flagship standards.
A Single Camera
It's hard to gauge how good a camera will be from the specs. After all, most phones use the same handful of sensors. What makes photos good or mediocre is the software processing. The OG Pixels had fantastic cameras because Google developed incredible algorithms to process the photos, and it says we can expect more of the same this year.
The Pixel 2 and 2 XL have a single 12.2MP sensor. The Galaxy S8 is also a single sensor phone, but others like the Note 8, LG V30, and OnePlus 5 have a dual sensor setup. The use for that second sensor varies. Some are monochrome sensors for sharper images, and others are telephoto lenses for zoom shots. LG has wide-angle lenses, as does the Moto X4.
The lack of a second sensor means that Google's portrait mode will lack accurate distance data. However, even phones that have secondary sensors have performed poorly when applying bokeh filters with the aim of making the subject "pop." Frankly, Google probably has just as good a chance of making this work with a single sensor and its superior image processing. I say "superior" because HDR+ has been so amazing on the Pixel. Images that are poorly exposed or blurry on other phones have always looked much better on the Pixel. I can't wait to see what HDR+ can do on the Pixel 2 with refined features.
I'm less excited about Motion Photos, but I guess some people will be into it. The phone records a three-second video clip along with still photos, so you can see things move around in the gallery. This is basically the Apple camera feature on Android. No other Android phones have cloned it as well, though.
Google also offers free full-quality photo and video backups to Photos through 2020 on the Pixel 2 devices. Other phones only get unlimited "high" quality uploads, which are slightly compressed.
New Exclusive Software
Google isn't debuting a new build of Android on the Pixel this year like it did last year (it was 7.1 at the time). However, there are a lot of new features that are only available on the Pixel 2 right now. These phones have a redesigned home screen with a contextual widget at the top and a search box at the bottom. That's a radical departure from what other OEMs do.
There's no heavy OEM skin on top of Android here, and it runs Oreo out of the box. Some phones are still launching with Nougat, and clunky OEM skins continue to be a problem. I can live with LG's version of Android, but I really prefer Google's cleaner and more thoughtful build.
The Pixel 2 also includes Google Lens, which was demoed at I/O this year. Lens uses machine learning to analyze photos and identify objects, phone numbers, locations, and so on. It's built-into Google Photos, so you can simply tap the Lens button to see what it can identify. So far, it's great at landmarks and text, but it'll get smarter over time.
It's the "over time" part that really makes the Pixels a great software experience. Google pushes a security update every single month, and you're guaranteed to get those for at least three years. You also get major system updates for at least two years. So the Pixel 2 will get Android P and Q before hitting end-of-life. Almost any other phone you get will have to wait a few months at least for major updates, but the Pixel 2 will get them right away.
Getting More Expensive
Google is asking $650 for the smaller Pixel 2, which is the same price as last year. The Pixel 2XL is getting a bigger price bump to $850. The design is much more refined, so that's to be expected. Even with the price increase, the Pixel 2 XL is cheaper than some other flagship devices like the Note 8. However, it's much more spendy than the OnePlus 5. The V30 and Galaxy S8 Plus are all in the same ballpark.
The OG Pixels have been my recommendation for unlocked phones this last year, and I expect the new ones will be the pick for the next 12 months or so. You can't get them from most carriers (Verizon is the exception), so a device like the Galaxy S8 might be more appealing if you want to take advantage of carrier deals. However, Google offers monthly payments on the Pixels via the Google Store.