Design and a drool-worthy spec sheet weren’t the original Pixel’s strong points.
Google chose to focus on camera smarts and a streamlined Android experience - which resulted in a great phone, but one that wasn’t much of a looker.
That all changes for 2017.
The Pixel 2 XL improves the formula with an even better camera, the latest version of Android, and all the other features you'd expect from a true blue flagship - including good looks.
Bezels are so 2016, guys. The XL ditches ‘em, and looks all the better for it.
DESIGN & BUILD: LESS IS MORE
With bulging bezels and a 16:9 screen, the vanilla Pixel 2 feels like more of the same - not so with the XL.
However, the Pixel also has to make room for a pair of front-firing stereo speakers at the top and bottom, and and Google’s Active Edge touch panels on the sides. That makes it a bit of a chunky monkey.
It’s really only 3mm larger than the original Pixel Xl, but feels sizeable once you get it in your mitts - more so than LG’s V30, which uses the same size display. Sit it to the Galaxy S8’s curved Infinity Display and the XL doesn't have quite the same wow factor.
I’m not saying it’s ugly - just that Google seems to have prioritised practical features over a class-leading design.
It’s a similar story around back: flip the XL over and you’ll spot hard-wearing aluminium instead of shiny-but-brittle glass. The bare metal has a textured finish that’s easier to grip, and does a great job of hiding fingerprints. It really makes the phone feel like a premium piece of kit, so I'm a big fan.
There is a small glass panel, but only at the very top, and it isn’t offensively glossy. It holds the single, slightly protruding camera lens, and stealthily hides the phone antennas - leaving the rest of the rear looking minimal and uninterrupted.
The fingerprint sensor sits just below, and Google reckons it’s the fastest you’ll find on any smartphone. We’re talking milliseconds here, so you’d need a seriously slo-mo camera to see any difference between this and the Huawei P10, which for my money is still incredibly quick at recognising your digits.
It’s great to see Google add IP67 dust and water resistance, meaning you can give the phone a dunking without making an insurance claim. After being noticeably absent from the original Pixel, this puts the second-gen phone on par with other big-name handsets.
My one gripe is the lack of a headphone jack. Google has ditched it, so it’s the dongle life from here on, or a switch to Bluetooth headphones.
SCREEN & SOUND: LARGE AND LOUD
Slightly larger bezels aside, the 6in screen is beautiful: you get an OLED panel with a 1440x2880 resolution, exceptional 100,000:1 contrast ratio and impeccable detail.
On the home screen, at least, things don’t look quite as impactful as Samsung’s OLED phones - colours are a bit more restrained, a little less vibrant. That might be down the polarising filter, which lets you read the screen perfectly when you've got sunglasses on - handy if you live in sunnier climes than we do here in rain-soaked London.
When you open a full-screen video, though, that all changes. Now colours have much more pop, while managing to stay on the right side of realistic. Dark scenes in particular look great, thanks to the impeccable black levels you get with OLED.
The wider colour space really helps your photos pop off the screen as well, easily putting the XL on par with the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 8. It’s not flawless, though: there’s noticeable discolouration when you tilt the phone at sharper angles, which can be distracting, and the adaptive brightness jumps between settings rather than fading slowly. These are small issues that you might not even notice, but not what you’d expect from a flagship phone.
Oddly, Google hasn’t been shouting about HDR from the rooftops - despite the XL using the same panel as LG’s V30, which supports both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. At the time of writing, neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime showed any HDR content, but YouTube would happily play HDR videos at 1440p.
Brightness really ramps up when you play a compatible video, but seeing how Google also found a way to add HDR YouTube playback to the original Pixel, this might be done through software only - fingers crossed the company will clarify this soon.
As you’d expect, the stereo speakers are a great match to the screen, pumping out clear and loud audio. They easily out-shout the LG V30’s single driver setup, and aren’t as easily muffled by your hands like the iPhone 8.
Vocals are clear, acoustic tracks impress with their clarity, and even heavier songs have a clear bass presence, without any noticeable distortion. As far as phones go, only HTC’s Boomsound setups come close.
CAMERA: THE BEST GETS BETTER
If there was one thing that elevated the original Pixel above its peers, it was the camera. It set the bar last year, with fantastic exposure, colour accuracy and image processing that few others came close to matching.
Well guess what? The Pixel 2 XL is somehow even better - without going for the same dual-sensor setup that the rest of the smartphone world is so hot for right now.
It sticks with a single 12MP sensor, but has a wider f/1.8 aperture (up from f/2.0 in the original), as well as phase-detect and laser-assisted autofocus. This would be a potent combination anywhere, but with Google’s mighty processing algorithms, the results are truly impressive.
This is partly down to how the phone actually takes several shots whenever you press the shutter button, stitching them together with some seriously clever computing to create one great-looking image. Whether you’re in perfectly bright daylight, indoors with artificial lamps, or out at night, this HDR+ setup squeezes a ridiculous amount of dynamic range into each snap.
The range has increased from last year, and it shows. Compared to an iPhone 8, skies look more defined, with fewer overexposed clouds, while shadows avoid becoming washed out. There’s none of the aggressive sharpening you’ll find in Huawei or LG’s phones, and colours are more muted and realistic - not overly vibrant like the Sony Xperia XZ1.
Samsung and Apple have exceptional phone cameras this year, but right now I think Google has the edge.
It might not use two sensors, but that doesn’t mean you miss out on fancy depth effects and bokeh blur here. The XL uses a dual pixel sensor, where every single pixel is actually made up of two smaller ones, and with some more fancy-pants algorithms, that offset can be used to calculate what should be blurred out and what should stay in sharp focus. The results are excellent, easily matching an iPhone 7 Plus for accuracy.
I’m a big fan of the new, Apple-inspired Motion Photos mode, which adds movement to your snaps using three seconds of video from before, during and after you press the shutter button.
Google reckons there’s some machine learning trickery involved, so only certain parts of each shot are animated and your hand movements aren’t captured. It really works, too, eliminating motion where there shouldn’t be any, and quality is a step above Apple’s Live Photos.
Machine learning does more than improve your photos - it recognises the objects in them and gives you handy background info, using Google Lens. It isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet, so only arrives in beta form on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
Lens is a bit buried, hidden within Google Photos and Google Assistant rather than the camera app, and there are only a few categories that work right now. My phone recognised books and film posters, but at the moment Samsung’s Bixby has a wider knowledge base.
Finally, with both optical and electronic image stabilisation on-board now, video has been given a boost too. The two systems work together for even smoother handheld footage, without cropping into your shot. It’s a shame recording is limited to 4K resolution at 30fps, though - Apple has managed to double the framerate to 60fps in the iPhone 8.