Google puts best foot forward with Pixel 2 XL

The Pixel 2 XL impresses with its high dynamic range (HDR) feature that automatically produces a better picture from multiple shots.
The Pixel 2 XL impresses with its high dynamic range (HDR) feature that automatically produces a better picture from multiple shots.PHOTO: GOOGLE

The Google Pixel 2 XL is not perfect. It is not even the best Android smartphone when it comes to features and, arguably, design. But it perfectly embodies Google's approach of combining artificial intelligence (AI), software and hardware to create an overall experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Camera

The best example is the 12.2-megapixel rear camera. Unlike rivals that employ a dual-camera systems to create the blurred background effect, or bokeh, the Pixel manages this with a single camera.

Google says this feature, dubbed Portrait Mode, works by using a dual-pixel sensor setup. 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.

The depth information is processed by the camera software, trained by Google using machine learning, to create this bokeh effect. Because it is software-based, Portrait Mode also works for the front camera when taking selfies.

However, the software is not infallible. Occasionally, it fails to distinguish between parts of a subject and the background, creating unintentionally hilarious artifacts. In addition, Portrait Mode can look exaggerated because it often blurs everything in the background to the same extent regardless of the actual physical distance. But overall, it looks dramatic and hence ideal for posting on Instagram and social media.

The camera also does not have optical zoom, unlike other flagship phones that use dual cameras to enable this feature. Hence, I believe Google will probably switch to dual cameras with its next Pixel phones.

For normal photography, the Pixel 2 XL impresses with its high dynamic range (HDR) feature that automatically produces a better picture from multiple shots. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned a photo backlit by a sunny sky from a potentially wasted shot into a good-looking image.

More importantly, you don't have to worry about busting the limited storage on the phone. Google offers free, unlimited original-quality cloud storage for photos and videos taken with the Pixel 2 phones till the end of 2020, after which it reverts to free, unlimited high-quality (16MP photos and up to 1080p videos) storage.

Images taken by the camera can be further analysed using the Google Lens feature within the Google Photos app. Currently exclusive to the Pixel phones, Lens picks out relevant information from photos, such as dates and contact information and gives you the choice to act on them with an appropriate app like the calendar or e-mail app.

Design

The Pixel 2 XL does not have a near bezel-less screen like the ones on this year's premium smartphones. The top and bottom portions of the bezel can be excused by the presence of stereo, front-firing speakers, but the sides of the bezel is thicker than some mid-tier models. To be fair, the bezel, as well as the textured, sandpaper-like finish on its metal body (which incidentally rules out wireless charging), make the phone easy to hold.

Its design feels like a natural evolution of last year's Pixel, with a similar two-tone look at the back that is instantly recognisable. My Just Black review set has two shades of black while the Black & White version adds a quirky or tacky touch, depending on your taste, with an orange-coloured power button.

Display

Coming from a Samsung smartphone known for its saturated colours, the Pixel 2 XL's Oled (organic light-emitting display) screen looks less vibrant, but is probably closer to neutral. There is an option to enable more vivid colours, but the effect seems minimal. A slight bluish tint is evident when viewed from the sides. Perhaps I am used to Samsung's displays, but the LG-made screen on the Pixel 2 XL is not as good-looking and not as bright.

The screen has rounded corners and an always-on display mode to show the current time and notifications. In addition, a Now Playing feature taps a built-in song database numbering in the tens of thousands to identify the title of a song playing in the background and shows it on the lock screen. Google says it works in airplane mode, when the phone is not connected online, and the database will be updated regularly. In my testing, it can recognise most popular songs on the radio (unless it is a classical piece) which is probably its intended use case anyway.

Features and performance

Taking a page from HTC, the sides of the Pixel 2 phones can be squeezed to trigger the Google Assistant. Dubbed Active Edge, this feature can also silence incoming calls, but it is a shame that Google, unlike HTC, does not let users configure the gesture for other uses.

Probably the most divisive thing about the Pixel 2 phones is their lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack. A USB Type-C to 3.5mm dongle is included, but it is inconvenient and likely to be misplaced.

The Pixel 2 XL runs on the latest Android Oreo 8.0 operating system, but with Google's own customisation, such as the search bar at the bottom. The rear fingerprint sensor can be swiped to pull down the notification shade, a useful tweak that I believe is also available on Google Nexus phones and the Galaxy S8.

More importantly, it runs very smooth with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. I could easily get over a day's usage without having to charge it. But it would probably be a stretch to make it last two days.

On the 64GB review set, the essential files take up almost 10GB of internal storage, which is something to consider as the Pixel lacks a SD card slot for additional storage.

In fact, the lack of expandable storage is but one entry in the list of features that are missing on the two Pixel 2 models compared to some of their rivals. Wireless charging and, of course, the headphone jack, are others that come to mind. To me, its design, while above-average for a smartphone this year, does not excite me as much as Samsung's sleek Galaxy S8 or Note8 phones.

Final words

But Google has once again produced a very good smartphone camera, which is probably what most mainstream users want. The firm has promised three years of software updates, which is longer than any Android device in the market. Meanwhile, Google Assistant, available soon in Singapore English, is arguably more useful than similar assistant app on its rivals.

There is definitely room for improvement for next year's Pixel, but with this iteration, I can clearly see how Google is tapping its expertise in software and AI to differentiate itself from other smartphone vendors and make a better phone.

Singtel, Google’s exclusive partner here, has said that it will reveal local pricing on Oct 27. Note that only the Pixel 2 XL will be available in Singapore - the 5-inch Pixel 2 is not sold here. Pre-orders start from Nov 8 and the phone will be available at Singtel stores on Nov 15.

Verdict: Like its predecessor, the latest Google Pixel is all about its excellent camera and smooth, Google-centric user experience. Its hardware and design is top-tier, but not best-in-class yet.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: Local pricing yet to be confirmed, US pricing starts at US$849 (S$1,148), excluding taxes

PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (Quad-core 2.35 GHz and Quad-core 1.9 GHz)

DISPLAY: 6-inch, Quad HD P-Oled, 2,880 x 1,440 pixels, 538 ppi pixel density

OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 8.0

MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

CAMERA: 12.2MP, f/1.8 (rear); 8MP, f/2.4 (front)

BATTERY: Non-removable 3,520mAh

RATING

FEATURES: 4/5

DESIGN: 4/5

PERFORMANCE: 5/5

VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

OVERALL: 4/5

ST DIGITAL EDITOR'S CHOICE