And then the Galaxy S8 widened the gap even further this spring. But this autumn offers another opportunity for Google to assert itself in the hardware space, and the Pixel 2 XL brings dramatic improvements to last year's model. The standard Pixel 2 might be more of the same, for the most part, but the Pixel 2 XL is a true standout.
But is it brilliant enough handset to take down the Galaxy S8 Plus, the current king of phablets? Now that we've reviewed both handsets, here's our verdict.
Design: Similar, but not identical
Both phones follow the same core philosophy: they're nearly all screen on the front with no buttons to speak of, as both have fingerprint sensors on the back. And those screens are taller than average, so they really dazzle with their minimal bezel footprints.
But the Galaxy S8 Plus has a couple edges. We really dig the way the top and bottom bezel curve into the display, and there's very little bezel along the sides. And the Pixel 2 XL just has a hair too much bezel on both the sides and top, like Google missed the memo about emphasizing the screen as much as possible. It's still nice, but the Galaxy S8 Plus looks much sleeker.
On the rear side, the Pixel 2 XL's two-tone look with the glass cutout looks a lot cooler than before, although the all-glass backing of the Galaxy S8 Plus is likewise luxurious. We're split on that side, but overall, Samsung packs in more wow factor for sure.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus
Screen: Small differences
You can't really go wrong with either screen here. Both are Quad HD OLED displays that are big, bright, and absolutely beautiful. The Galaxy S8 Plus packs in a 6.2in display at an 18.5:9 aspect ratio (2960x1440), while the Pixel 2 XL comes in at 6in at 18:9 (2880:1440).
What's the difference? Well, the Pixel 2 XL's pOLED panel has some very, very slight deficiencies compared to Samsung's Super AMOLED display. Google's polarising filter makes things look a bit muted on the home screen, and there's some discolouration when you tilt the phone at sharp angles, while the adaptive brightness makes big leaps instead of subtle shifts.
Overall, both are stunners the vast majority of the time, with wider colour gamut and impressive black levels – but the Pixel XL 2's screen falters here and there. It's enough to give Samsung the slightest of nods.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus
Camera: Sharp shooters
Last year, the Pixel's defining feature was an absolutely brilliant back camera that stole the mantle away from all competitors. And the Pixel 2 seemingly does it again.
We haven't gone deep into a head-to-head test just yet, but based on our review testing and our own eyes, we'd say the Pixel 2 XL takes the top prize here. The single 12-megapixel camera (f/1.8) delivers dazzling shots in all kinds of lighting, thanks to its phase-detect and laser-assisted autofocus.
Also helpful: Google's masterful processing algorithms, which stitch together multiple shots on the fly every time you hit the shutter button. You won't even notice that it's happening, but you will notice how consistently awesome the results are. And the dynamic range is increased from last year's Pixel. It really is pretty astounding.
We think it has a leg up on the Galaxy S8 Plus, but not nearly enough to bury Samsung at all. They're still very close, and both can provide outstanding shots. The Galaxy's single 12MP back camera (f/1.7) with optical image stabilisation and dual-pixel autofocus likewise takes multiple shots and crams together the best parts for one fab final photo, and the results are consistently lifelike and fantastic.
Ultimately, though, we put the Galaxy S8 Plus on par with the original Pixel's camera, and now the Pixel 2 XL is better. So there you have it.
Winner: Google Pixel 2 XL