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Google Pixel 2 XL review: Hugely disappointing

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Say it quietly but, on the face of it, there’s nothing all that special about the Google Pixel 2 XL. It might be the search giant’s flagship smartphone for 2017 but there isn’t a single thing it does that rival manufacturers haven’t done already – and done very well for that matter.

Want a screen with barely-there bezels and curved corners? Take your pick. A phone that responds if you squeeze it? Yep, someone else got there first. How about water-resistance, an 18:9 aspect ratio display and ridiculously high prices? So passé, darling.

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Google will, of course, point to its camera processing technology and the exclusivity of the Google Pixel launcher software as features to mark out the Pixel 2 XL from the Android competition. And, to be fair, in the absence of major problems elsewhere, those would be enough to push the Pixel 2 to the top of the tree.

The trouble is, as we’ll see shortly, there are problems with the LG-built Pixel 2 XL and they’re serious enough to trip up the Pixel 2 XL before it even gets started.

READ NEXT: Google Pixel 2 review

Google Pixel 2 XL review: Screen has-been

Despite looking so good on paper, it’s the display that undermines everything. The specifications are enticing. It measures 6in across the diagonal, its resolution of 1,440 x 2,880 means photos, videos and game graphics look stupendously sharp and the P-OLED panel ensures there’s oodles of lovely contrast.

Fire up “Costa Rica in 4K 60fps” on YouTube and you’ll witness a freakish amount of detail, rich colours and smooth motion. Placed side by side with a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus the colours look a tad more balanced and a lot less over-saturated.

Load up a web page or ebook and you’ll immediately spot a big problem, however: tilt the screen even slightly (left, right, up or down) and the screen takes on a blue-ish tint.

You might be more forgiving than me, but I read a lot on my phone and I find it horribly distracting. Plus, if you’re not demanding perfection from your smartphone screen when you’ve spent £799 on it, there’s something terribly, drastically wrong.

That’s not all, though, because technically, it’s a touch below par as well. Brightness peaks at 445cd/m² (and it’s been reduced after a recent software update), which is fine and means it’ll be readable in most conditions but there will be situations where you’ll have to shield the screen with your hand to read it. For the record, the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus’ display peaks much higher than this; in auto-brightness mode, it can go higher than 900cd/m².

Then there’s the irritating flickering it exhibits when transitioning from one brightness level to another in auto-brightness mode and the fact that some users reported screen burn before after using the phone after only a few short days of use. Google has since responded to this issue with a software update that, among other things, reduces maximum brightness by 50cd/m2, and a statement that says the Pixel XL’s display is not different to rival displays in this regard. However, with all the other issues with the Pixel 2 XL’s screen, it’s hardly encouraging. 

Put simply, the Pixel 2 XL’s display is not good enough. Not for a phone that costs this much or even one that costs half the amount. It’s a long way behind its rivals and, to be frank, a huge disappointment that undermines the phone as a whole. And that’s a huge shame because there are so many things that the Pixel 2 XL gets right.

Google Pixel 2 XL review: Design

The design, for instance, is great. I like it mainly because it’s different, but also because it’s practical. The two-textured glass and sand-blasted aluminium rear give plenty of grip and because there’s less glass at the top this year, it’s less likely to scuff and scratch and end up looking unsightly.

The curved corners bordering the display give the phone an attractive-looking frame and, despite the elongated aspect ratio, video content doesn’t leave unattractive borders to the left or right. You can zoom to fill with a simple pinch out. 

 

On the rear, the centrally-located fingerprint reader is, mercifully, easy to reach and unlocks the phone with alarming alacrity. Even the front-facing stereo speaker grilles look elegant, plus the screen’s Gorilla Glass 5 topping feels smooth under the finger, is easy to keep clear of smudges and, so far, has resisted any hairline scratches or scuff marks. You also get IP67 dust and water-resistance, a feature missing from last year’s Pixel XL.

I was sent the black version of the phone to review, which looks smart, but it’s also available in white, and two-tone black-and-white. Which looks best to you will come down to personal preference, but there will be some no doubt disappointed to find there’s no gold or rose gold variant, and still more disgruntled Pixel fans to discover that the phone has no 3.5mm headphone jack.

The Pixel 2 XL does come with a USB Type-C adapter in the box, and you can always use Bluetooth headphones instead, but this may rule out the phone for anyone who has invested serious money in a pair of good quality wired headphones.

Google Pixel 2 XL review: Performance

The Google Pixel 2 XL’s internals are impressive, too, but there are annoyances even here. You get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 with 4GB of RAM and the phone comes in 64GB or 128GB storage configurations. There’s no microSD expansion option, though, nor the option to add a second SIM card.

That top-end processor does mean it’s quick, though. As you can see from the performance graphs below, it’s basically a match for every flagship smartphone on the market, including the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, with only the iPhone 8 Plus stretching out any kind of lead.

That translates to a phone that feels ultra-responsive and snappy to use, as you’d expect. The only thing to note is that because you can’t drop the screen resolution as you can with the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, demanding games may not run quite as smoothly. We’re not talking choppy frame rates here, though, and there are very few titles that can stretch the sort of power contained within the Google Pixel 2 XL anyway.

We’ve seen superb results from many Snapdragon 835-based phones this year, with the OnePlus 5 leading the pack on 20hrs 40mins in our video rundown test, so I had high hopes of the Pixel 2 XL and its 3,520mAh battery. In the event, the Google Pixel 2 XL lasted 15hrs 9mins, falling more than five hours short of the OnePlus. For context, the Exynos 8895-based Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus also lasts much longer in this test, keeping going for 20hrs 33mins.

That’s not to say it’s bad, though. Last year’s Pixel XL scored much the same in our video test but tended to need a top up well short of a day’s moderate use. So far, the Pixel 2 XL is performing much better for me, lasting a full day and well into the next. In fact, after a few days of use, the GSAM Battery monitor app is reporting an average battery life per complete charge of well north of 30 hours, which is hugely impressive and better than any other phone I’ve used recently. It’s early days yet, and the average battery life rating indicated by the GSAM app tends to fall over the first few weeks of use, but even so I can’t imagine it settling out lower than 24 hours of use.

And, while it’s a shame there’s no wireless charging, the Pixel 2 XL does charge reasonably quickly. Using the cable and charger supplied in the box, the 2 XL reached 36% in half an hour and was fully charged in 1hr 27mins. That can’t match the OnePlus 5’s rate of charge, but it’s good enough.

Google Pixel 2 XL: Camera

And so, at last, to the camera, and at least here Google Pixel 2 XL takes some steps towards redemption. At launch, Google made great play of the fact that camera test website DxOMark had awarded it a score of 98 – higher than any other smartphone on the market – and in my testing the camera largely lives up to this billing. (For context, last year’s Pixel scored 86.)

The Pixel 2 XL’s 12.2-megapixel sensor, coupled with a bright f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilisation and both phase-detect and laser autofocus go together to produce fantastic image quality, the best I’ve seen from any smartphone. And with Google refining the performance of its superb HDR+ processing algorithms, it’s quicker to capture those images as well.

In fact, by default, the Pixel 2 XL no longer gives you the option of toggling HDR+ on and off from the viewfinder screen. You have to delve into the Advanced menu in the camera app to bring the feature back. Not that you’re going to want to.

Compared with last year’s Pixel XL, which still holds its own among the very best smartphone cameras, photographs captured by the Pixel 2 have better colour reproduction in all conditions and a more neutral cast in low light. The original Pixel camera did many things well, but its white balance compensation often erred on the warm side, lending images a slightly yellow tinge.

The difference isn’t night and day, and the new Pixel camera captures no more detail than last year’s, but images now look slightly more natural, more balanced, with more richly saturated colours.

There’s also a couple of new features here. “Motion Photo” mode which captures a short segment of video to wrap around your stills – a bit like Apple’s Live Photo feature. It’s a nice thing to have, works surprisingly well, and in auto mode is supposed to activate automatically only when it detects movement in-frame. That’s great, because you don’t always want to see your photographs continually dancing before your eyes when looking back through them on the Google Photos app, and you don’t want to have to keep turning it off and on again. However, so far I haven’t been all that impressed – it seems to activate even with the slightest motion.

Portrait mode is another me-too feature but one that works remarkably well. It’s designed to replicate the blurred background bokeh you get when shooting with a DSLR with the aperture wide open. Usually, with this sort of feature, there’s a series of small areas that the algorithm gets a little wrong, resulting in a hard edge or a blurred bit of hair. With the Pixel 2 XL’s portrait mode, the transition is more natural, resulting in a far more convincing effect.

The Pixel 2 XL can also capture 4K video at 30fps, which isn’t all that surprising; most phones manage that feat these days. What’s good though is that the super-smooth electronic image stabilisation (EIS) is just as good as it was last year.

Disappointingly, though, quality seems to have taken a small step backwards. Compared side by side with the same scene shot on last year’s Pixel XL, the Pixel 2’s footage looks too dark and oversaturated; freeze the frame and it’s clear, too, that there’s a less detail being captured as well.

Here, at least, the Samsung Galaxy S8 has the upper hand. I shot the same scene at the same time as the Google Pixel 2 XL and saw videos just as smoothly stabilised but with crisper details and far more balanced colours.

It isn’t as if the Pixel 2 XL compensates by including loads of fun features to play around with. You get a slow-motion mode, which captures at 120fps or 240fps, and that’s about it.

Finally, to the front camera, which is pretty darned good. It’s an 8-megapixel effort and can use the display as a makeshift flash in low light or backlit conditions. It produces cracking selfies that burst with texture and detail. Once again, there aren’t too many toys to play around with – just a skin-smoothing beauty mode and countdown timer – but you’ll be so pleased with the results you’ll probably not be all that worried.

Google Pixel 2 XL review: Android 8.0 Oreo

On the software front, the Google Pixel 2 XL is largely the same as last year’s Pixel from last year. It’s running Android Oreo, of course, but this doesn’t bring too many dramatic changes with it.

There are a few visual tweaks, with most obvious of these being the repositioning of the search box to the bottom of the homescreen and a new-look, slightly transparent app drawer, but this is no dramatic departure. The new time, date and weather app is an elegant addition, too, displaying important notifications such as calendar appointments alongside the basic info.

The best new feature is Pixel 2 XL’s always-on display. This displays the time and date and notifications on the lockscreen, even with the phone on standby, as you’d expect it to, so you don’t have to keep switching on your phone to check up on things. And it has a neat trick up its sleeve: it’s constantly on the listen and will show you what music is playing nearby, right on the lockscreen.

The feature, called “Now Playing” does this locally, using a database of music stored on your phone, meaning it isn’t using your data to discover what you’re listening to. That’s good to know. It works uncannily well, too: classical music is a bit of a challenge, but for pop music, all you have to do is wait 30 seconds or so and the artist and track name appear automatically in the lower portion of the screen. It’s very clever indeed, and doesn’t appear to negatively impact battery life.

Next, there’s the “Active Edge” feature, which we’ve seen before on the HTC U11. All this means is that there are pressure sensors built into the frame of the phone that let you squeeze to activate various functions. It’s not as fully featured as it is on the U11 – you can only activate the Google Assistant and silence incoming calls – and it’s a bit of a gimmick. Plus, while you can activate Google Assistant from the lockscreen with it, you do have to unlock the phone to see any results.

Google Lens, however, is far from an inconsequential gewgaw. Using Google’s scarily powerful computer vision AI technology, this promises, eventually, to be able to analyse images live from your camera, identifying objects and text, delivering useful information to you on the fly. Think live translations of foreign languages text or even ratings of restaurants and bars when you point your camera at them.

When Google showed this off at its I/O developer conference earlier this year, it was one of the most interesting technologies announced. Alas, what you get on the Pixel 2 XL is merely a preview. It doesn’t let you analyse the world around you live, only after the fact in Google Photos.

And it’s a little hit and miss right now, identifying a bottle of red wine as “liqueur”, the BT Tower as simply a “control tower”, although it did identify the Golden Gate bridge successfully from a holiday snap and, impressively, a Redwood tree from the Giant’s Forest in California’s Sequoia National Park.

Google Pixel 2 XL review: Verdict

It’s a little disappointing that the Pixel 2 XL’s potentially most useful – and exciting – feature isn’t fully ready yet but, to be honest, I’m not at all convinced by the phone as a whole anyway. Yes, it has the latest, fastest processor inside it and, yes, it’s a competent all-round flagship smartphone. It looks nice, feels nice and has an excellent camera.

However, for every positive point, there seems to be a negative nasty lurking just around the corner. The software is great but Google Lens isn’t ready yet (and Active Edge is a pointless bagatelle). The camera is brilliant but video quality has taken a step back from last year, and the screen… well, let’s just say once you see the colour shift taking place you just won’t be able to unsee it. Trust me on this one: it’s a deal-breaker.

And so, although I’d very much like to, this is not a phone that I can, in its current state, recommend. If you desperately want a Google phone you’ll have to opt for the much smaller, less attractive Google Pixel 2, or simply choose the best big-screened phone on the market: the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, which you can now buy for a lot less than the Pixel 2 XL. Maybe Google should have chosen HTC to build the XL after all.

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