The Pixel 2 XL is Google's ultimate vision of an Android phone, and it's a pretty fantastic one at that – the killer camera, gorgeous screen, and pure OS experience make it a strong pick.
But there are phones we covet above the Pixel 2 XL: the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus, which are approaching nearly a year on the market and remain our favourite phones today. But maybe not tomorrow, since the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus were just announced and seem poised to supplant their predecessors as the must-have flagships.
The Galaxy S9 Plus and the Pixel 2 XL are very comparable in a lot of ways, but each has its perks – and if you're about to splash out on a pricey phone, there are reasons to consider each of these above the other. Here's how this battle looks based on early specs and our hands-on impressions of the S9 Plus.
Design: A familiar battle
Haven't we already done this showdown before? Almost! See, the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is a dead ringer for the Galaxy S8 Plus, with the same screen-centric front, alluring curves, and light bezel. It's a glass-and-aluminum stunner, and the only obvious difference this time around is better placement for the fingerprint sensor on the back.
As for the Pixel 2 XL, it's still a bit drab by comparison. We like the two-tone effect on the back, which looks better than on the first Pixel, but the front lacks any kind of wow factor – and it has far too much bezel, making the phone feel larger than it needs to. It's fine, certainly, but the Galaxy S8 has a clear aesthetic edge here.
Screens: Slightly more pop
Again, we feel a little déjà vu in this category, since the Galaxy S9 Plus' display looks largely unchanged from the one before it. And once more, that's no complaint. It's a 6.2in Quad HD Super AMOLED stunner at an 18.5:9 aspect ratio, which means it's super tall and has plenty of extra room for your apps, games, and media.
The Galaxy S8 Plus had arguably the best screen on the market (essentially tied with the standard S8), and at first glance, the Galaxy S9 Plus doesn't step down in any way.
What about the Pixel 2 XL then? Well, it's also pretty great – it's a 6in OLED panel at 18:9 that's just as sharp as either Galaxy screen, but doesn't have quite the same colourful pop. There's also a bit of discolouration at sharp angles that you don't see on Samsung's handsets. For the most part, it's excellent… but those tiny caveats remain.
Camera: Adjustable, you say?
Right now, for our money, the Pixel 2 XL and the standard Pixel 2 have the absolute best smartphone camera on the market today. Google bucked the dual-camera trend to deliver one absolute monster of a 12MP (f/1.8) sensor.
Phase-detect and laser-assisted autofocus help deliver killer shots, but it's really Google's image processing algorithms that seem to set the Pixel 2 camera apart from the competition. Seriously clever computing stitches together multiple shots and delivers one seamless, oft-stunning result. You'll get loads of dynamic range, accurate colours, and still some of the dual camera-like bokeh effects due to its dual-pixel approach.
On paper, the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus seems to have some advantages. First off, it does have the secondary back sensor for bokeh and other effects, and the wider f/1.5 aperture on the 12MP main sensor should let in loads of light. More crucially, the S9 Plus packs in adjustable aperture, automatically swapping between f/1.5 and f/2.4 for better exposure and more detail when you have plenty of light.
The Galaxy S8 camera was quite nice, but was still solidly edged out by the Pixel 2 XL. Will the Galaxy S9 Plus make up the difference – or even come ahead this time? It's too early to tell, but Samsung is certainly trying to make a stronger camera play this time around.
Performance: Pure muscle
When it comes to raw, benchmark-pushing ability, this one's an easy win for the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus. The Plus packs in Samsung's Exynos 9810 chip in some other territories, or the slightly weaker Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 elsewhere. And both of those come out ahead of the year-old Snapdragon 835 seen in the Pixel 2 XL. We can't imagine there's a huge difference in everyday usage, but it's there on the stat sheet.
Furthermore, the Galaxy S9 Plus packs in 6GB RAM, which is more than the 4GB seen in the Pixel 2 XL (and the standard Galaxy S9, for that matter). That ought to help with multitasking needs and maintaining the smoothness of your mobile experience.
On the other hand, the Pixel 2 XL benefits significantly from running stock Android with some light customisations, and it'll always have the latest and greatest Android installed – including the incoming Android 9.0 P once it's out. We like Samsung's OS skin atop Android Oreo, and it's not the slow, ugly TouchWiz of the past.
But given the choice purely on preference, we'll take stock any day. And stock Android tends to be a hair swifter on comparable hardware, as well. We haven't used the Galaxy S9 enough yet to know whether there's really a discernable difference in speed in either direction, but we're curious to find out.
Battery and perks: Samsung has perks
Both handsets have nearly the same kind of battery capacity: 3,500mAh on the Galaxy S9 Plus and 3,520mAh on the Pixel 2 XL. No, we don't think that extra 20mAh will make any real difference, although the Pixel 2 XL's stock Android build could give it an edge over Samsung's TouchWiz-skinned OS.
The Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S8 Plus were both very strong all-day performers, so we suspect it will ultimately be much the same in this comparison. The Galaxy S9 Plus does have an edge over the Pixel 2 XL with wireless charging capabilities, however.
Both handsets come with 64GB of internal storage on the base model, but only the Galaxy S9 Plus offers expandable storage via microSD. That's a bad look, Google.
The Pixel 2 XL also has squeezable Active Edge sides that let you pull up the Google Assistant, but it's hardly a hugely critical addition. We barely used it, really.
You'll find a mobile VR headset for both: Samsung has the Gear VR and Google has Daydream. Gear VR still has the edge on both quality and quantity of games and apps, plus the headset is a fair bit more comfortable to boot.
Also, the Galaxy S9 Plus has Samsung's DeX Station, which lets you plug in an external monitor and use your phone like a PC. We weren't too keen on the original version that launched with the Galaxy S8, but the new edition has your phone flat with the screen up, letting you use it as a touchpad or keyboard as needed. That could make a world of difference.
Initial verdict: The S9 looks fine
We're big fans of Google's Pixel 2 XL – in fact, it's our second favourite phone in the world as of this writing. But our first favourite is the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, tied with the standard S8.
And honestly, we're not seeing anything that'll sink the Galaxy S9's status at this point. Maybe the Pixel 3 XL will ultimately do the trick later this year, but Samsung has some key edges here: more alluring design, a slightly better screen, more power, wireless charging, expandable storage support, and even the better VR headset.
Google's one big potential advantage remains the Pixel 2 XL's astonishing back camera – but Samsung is making a hard charge here with its adjustable aperture including a very wide f/1.5. But even if Google still ends up with the slight edge on snapshot quality, we suspect the Galaxy S9 Plus will become the new overall phone to beat, all things considered.
We'll find out once we review the Galaxy S9 Plus, however, and we will update this piece accordingly with a final verdict at that point. Stay tuned.