First Looks

Design and features of Pixel 2 XL defy current trends

The metal build of the Pixel 2 XL and the smaller Pixel 2 means that the smartphones do not support wireless charging.
The metal build of the Pixel 2 XL and the smaller Pixel 2 means that the smartphones do not support wireless charging.PHOTO: GOOGLE

The Google Pixel 2 XL smartphone charts its own course among this year's flagship phones, with a blend of features that may seem contradictory to those who follow current smartphone design trends.

Take its best feature, the 12-megapixel rear camera that has being hailed as the best smartphone camera by camera review website DxOMark, which had exclusive access to the device.

Unlike its rivals that use a dual-camera system to enable effects like Portrait Mode, which blurs the background for a bokeh effect, the Pixel does it with a single camera.

Google says this is made possible by having a dual-pixel sensor setup, in which each pixel is divided into a left and a right pixel. The camera takes multiple images from each left and right pixel to create a depth map of the scene.

Add some maths to process the depth information captured by the camera and the result is Portrait Mode that looks good enough, at least to me. In addition, Portrait Mode is available for the front-facing camera, too, which is not present on other phones. I was also very impressed by the almost imperceptible shutter lag while taking photos.

More importantly, every photo taken can be scanned by Google Lens, a feature that is exclusive to the two Pixel 2 models.

Integrated in Google Photos, it lets you extract relevant information from a photo by simply tapping on the Lens icon.

For instance, it can pick out the date of a screening from a movie poster, or contact information from a name card.

The phone has a grippy feel, thanks to a non-slip material coating its aluminium body. While practical, this means that the Pixel 2 XL does not quite feel like the latest premium phones with smooth glass backs.

Its metal build means that the Pixel 2 XL, as well as the smaller Pixel 2, does not support wireless charging, unlike the latest flagships from Apple and Samsung. This seems incongruous, considering Google Nexus phones had this feature before it went mainstream.

The Pixel 2 XL also does not have an edge-to-edge screen like other premium phones this year. It has a fair amount of bezel, though the glass edges at the sides segue nicely into its frame.

To be fair, the screen looks as good as its rivals. It is an Oled (organic light-emitting display) panel that produces eye-popping colours. It also supports always-on display, which lets it show the time and notifications. This display will also show the name of any song playing in the vicinity, a feature dubbed Now Playing.

In short, the phone is always listening (it has to listen constantly for the OK Google cue to activate Google Assistant anyway) and will automatically identify any song using a built-in music database that is updated weekly, so it does not need to connect to the cloud to work.

At the same time, this design lets Google fit stereo speakers at the front, which compensates somewhat for the most divisive thing about the Pixel - its lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, Google bundles a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter with the phone.

This is similar to Apple omitting the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. But it may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, especially audiophiles with expensive wired headphones - not to mention Google had made fun of Apple for removing the headphone jack at the first Pixel launch last year.

Like the HTC U11 phone, squeezing the sides of the Pixel 2 XL triggers the Google Assistant. Doing so will also silence an incoming call. During my short hands-on, I could not find a way to change this default behaviour. If true, this is a pity since I found squeezing to turn on the torch to be most useful on the HTC phone.

Despite rumours of it sporting a newer Qualcomm chip like last year's Pixel handset, the Pixel 2 XL has the same Snapdragon 835 chip as other flagship Android devices. Its 3,520mAh battery gives it, on paper, the edge over the Samsung Galaxy Note8 (3,300mAh) and is similar to the Galaxy S8+ (3,500mAh).

It comes in two colours, a black version which looks professional and understated and a dual-tone black-and-white version.

 

The black-and-white model also sports an orange power button, which looks tacky to me. Others, however, may find that it adds personality to the device.

The Pixel 2 XL will be available in Singapore on Nov 15 in an exclusive partnership with Singtel. No pricing details have been released yet. It will also come with Singapore English support for Google Assistant later this year.

Vincent Chang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Design and features of Pixel 2 XL defy current trends'. Print Edition | Subscribe