Google puts best foot forward with Pixel 2 XL

Google has produced a very good smartphone camera. The Pixel 2 XL's screen has rounded corners and an always-on display mode to show the current time and notifications.
Google has produced a very good smartphone camera. The Pixel 2 XL's screen has rounded corners and an always-on display mode to show the current time and notifications.PHOTO: GOOGLE

Latest Pixel phone is all about its excellent camera and smooth, Google-centric user experience

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.

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

This Portrait Mode works by using a dual-pixel sensor set-up. The camera takes multiple images from each left and right pixel to create a depth map of the scene. This information is processed by the camera software to create the 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 effects. 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 social media.

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.

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.

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 are 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.

Compared with 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. The screen has rounded corners and an always-on display mode to show the current time and notifications.


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

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

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

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android Oreo 8.0

    MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

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

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,520mAh


    FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5




    OVERALL: 4/5

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.

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 the 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. It runs very smoothly 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.

Google has 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 for any Android device in the market. Meanwhile, Google Assistant, available soon in Singapore English, is arguably more useful than competing assistant apps.

Singtel, Google's exclusive partner here, has not announced the local pricing yet. 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 are top-tier, but not best-in-class yet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Google puts best foot forward with Pixel 2 XL'. Print Edition | Subscribe