Google Pixel 2 review: Pixel 2 still has an amazing camera, but its followup is expected later this year
Update, June 5, 2018
The Google Pixel 2 reviewed here launched in October 2017 to positive reviews, cementing Google's place as a serious smartphone competitor. In addition to impressing Android users, the Pixel 2 also managed to entice iPhone users away from the iPhone X.
Eight months down the line, we still think the Pixel 2 and larger Pixel 2 XL has one of the best cameras on Android phones. While we wait for the rumored Pixel 3 and 3 XL in October, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are becoming the new Android frontrunners with their dual rear-facing cameras and coveted headphone jacks. And the Galaxy Note 9 is expected to hit in August, weeks before the new iPhones are likely to hit.
Check out CNET's best smartphones for more information on competitive products.
The review of the Pixel 2 -- originally published Oct. 17, 2017 and last updated Oct. 26, 2017, and otherwise is mostly unchanged -- follows.
Last year's inaugural Pixel was such a slam dunk, I expected this year's Google Pixel 2 -- and larger Pixel 2 XL -- to carry Google's phone even further.
In the most important ways, it has. The Pixel 2 has the best camera quality of any Android phone, and updates like water resistance and a best-in-class processor make it a top pick. The Android Oreo software will get regular updates, and Google's Lens feature taps into Google's vast search database so you can immediately learn more about the world around you.
In other ways, the Pixel 2 bucks big trends, foregoing the dual cameras seen in most of its competitors. Bokeh-effect pictures don't look quite as elegant as those on the Apple iPhone 8 Plus and the Pixel 2's battery is so-so compared to its top-tier rivals. The Pixel also doesn't flaunt super-thin bezels, so it looks less sexy than the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8. And lastly, I really do miss that headphone jack.
But the Pixel 2 is a fantastic phone for Android purists and casual fans alike. Putting aside Portrait Mode, it still has an impressive camera that can handle all sorts of tricky environments like low light, shadows and brightly lit backgrounds. In the end, the Pixel 2 mostly holds its own against the iPhone 8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 , with a few omissions (like Portrait Mode and battery life, respectively). And while the Pixel 2 isn't exciting or particularly beautiful, its whole outweighs the sum of its parts.
If you prefer a bigger display and have the budget, however, you may be interested in the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL. But be aware that there have been reported issues with its display in early review models, which I detail later.
See a full specs comparison at the end of this review.
Pixel 2 pricing and sale date
The phone is available through Verizon, the Google Store, Project Fi and Best Buy. The Pixel 2 comes in three colors: Kinda Blue, Just Black and Clearly White, and costs $649 (64GB) and $749 (128GB).
Google Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL pricing
|Pixel 2 (64GB)||$649||£629||AU$1,079|
|Pixel 2 (128GB)||$749||£729||AU$1,229|
|Pixel 2 XL (64GB)||$849||£799||AU$1,399|
|Pixel 2 XL (128GB)||$949||£899||AU$1,549|
Pixel 2 vs. Pixel 2 XL: What's the difference?
The differences between the two phones come down to price (obviously), size, bezel width and screen technology. The Pixel 2 XL has a bigger 6-inch display and a higher resolution than the 5-inch Pixel 2. It also uses a plastic-OLED (POLED) display, while the Pixel 2 has a more traditional AMOLED screen. Other than this, the phones are the same including their hardware and software features.
There have been reported issues about the display on the Pixel 2 XL though. One is screen burn-in, wherein remnants of images remain on the screen despite not being actively displayed. Screen burn-in does happen on different types of displays, but usually after some time. The fact that it's happening on such a premium and expensive phone so soon is a red flag. Google issued a statement saying that the Pixel 2 XL's burn-in issue was "in line with that of other premium smartphones and should not affect the normal, day-to-day user experience" (despite the fact that we didn't see evidence of burn-in on the Pixel 2, LG V30 or Galaxy S8). The company promises ongoing software updates starting in the next few weeks that will optimize the phone against burn-in and extended both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL's warranty to two years.
Right now, we don't know how serious or how widespread the burn-in issue is (are these anecdotal issues with an early batch of screens, or are they symptomatic of an endemic problem with the product?), or how well Google's upcoming software updates will help ameliorate the problem. In the meantime, we're keeping an eye on our other Pixel 2 XLs to see how they fare over time with normal use.
Another, more minor issue is that the Pixel 2 XL's display looks more muted and washed-out compared to others like the Galaxy S8 and LG V30 , the latter of which has the same POLED screen with the same resolution. There's also a bluish hue that's visible when tilting the phone at different angles (this is known as blue shift). Google stated that based on user feedback about this issue, it will add a new mode for saturated colors through a software update in the coming weeks. While the Pixel 2 XL's screen isn't indeed as vibrant as its competitors, I don't view the first problem as a deal breaker. As for the blue shift, this is a hardware issue you'll find on most phones if you tilt the screen far enough. How wide you want this tilting window to be depends on your tolerance.
Google Pixel 2 vs. Pixel 2 XL
|Google Pixel 2||Google Pixel 2 XL|
|Display size, resolution||5-inch AMOLED; 1,920x1080 pixels||6-inch POLED; 2,880x1x440 pixels|
|Pixel density||441 ppi||538 ppi|
|Dimensions (inches)||5.7x2.7x0.3 in||6.2x3.0x0.3 in|
|Dimensions (millimeters)||145.7x69.7x7.8 mm||157.9x76.7x7.9 mm|
|Weight (ounces, grams)||5.04 oz; 143g||6.17 oz; 175g|
|Colors||Just Black, Cleary White, Kinda Blue||Just Black, Black and White|
Squeezable sides and water resistance, but no headphone jack
Compared to the super-slim bezels of the Galaxy Note 8, LG V30 and iPhone X , the Pixel 2 looks thick and frankly, a little boring. The design does allow for front-facing speakers, which create an even, robust sound, and the glass shade on the back looks tidier and cleaner. Still, the Pixel 2's thicker bezels make it look dated compared to other top phones.
There's also the disappointing matter of the headset jack, which goes the way of the iPhone and Motorola Moto phones. Even if the design change made the Pixel 2 thinner and leaves space for a bigger battery, the omission is kind of a drag for people who have a pair of great wired headphones or earbuds they'd rather keep using without an adaptor dongle (which comes included in the box).
But it's not all bad -- the Pixel 2 is water-resistant. I submerged both the Pixel 2 and 2 XL twice in a bucket filled with a foot of water (that's well under their IP67 standard rating, which dictates a maximum depth of 1 meter, or about 3 feet) for a little over 28 minutes. They both worked fine immediately after each dunk.
Lastly, Google borrowed the HTC U11's pressure-sensitive sides. Squeeze the phone to open Google Assistant and tell it what to do. (This is in addition to launching Assistant by saying "OK, Google" or long-pressing the home button.) You can also squeeze the Pixel 2's sides to silence your ringing phone, but that's it. In general, I didn't use the squeeze feature all that much, and it would be better if you could program the squeeze to launch an app of your choice. Out of habit, I mostly launched Assistant through the Home button.
New lock and home screen features
Aside from physical changes, Google refreshed the lock and home screen too. The phone has an Always On lock screen now, showing missed notifications and messages when the screen is off. The lock screen also displays Music Detection, which is a Pixel-exclusive feature that runs continuously in the background. Whenever the phone picks up a song (for example, in a store or a car), it'll look up the artist and song and list it on your lock screen. This feature works offline and on Airplane Mode, and if you're uncomfortable with your phone "always listening" you can disable it.
On the home screen, the Google Search bar has been moved from the top of the phone to the bottom. In its place is At a Glance, which displays pertinent info about your day like calendar events, traffic, flight status and more.
Single-lens camera with awesome OIS
If you only remember one thing about the Pixel 2's 12.2-megapixel camera, make it this: It takes excellent photos.
Like last year's original Pixel, the Pixel 2 excels at indoor, outdoor and low-light shots. Photos are sharper than the Galaxy Note 8, LG V30 and OnePlus 5 , and colors were more distinct with less digital noise and artifacts. In my tests, the iPhone 8 Plus was the only phone that bested the Pixel 2's prowess, with slightly more accurate colors and hues.
The Pixel 2's only real weak point was with its Portrait Mode (called Lens Blur on last year's Pixel). Unlike most major flagship phones, the Pixel 2 doesn't have rear dual-cameras to create that artistic background blur, also known as bokeh. Instead, it uses a combination of facial algorithms and a special depth-mapping image sensor to achieve a similar depth-of-field effect.
While less patchy than last year's Pixel, the Pixel 2's bokeh effect isn't as refined or evenly blurred as the iPhone 8 Plus. Still though, the Pixel 2's portrait shots work fast and are completely usable, and I actually preferred how it handled the transition between the foreground and background. Subjects on the iPhone 8 Plus, for example, sometimes looked unnaturally superimposed against the background.
As with a handful of other phones, you can take bokeh-style shots with the front-facing camera too, but it doesn't process photos smoothly and only works on faces, not objects.
Even more Pixel 2 camera tech
If you're into cameras, there's more to know about the Pixel 2's lenses.
- Google widened the camera's aperture from f2.0 to f1.8. This lets in a tad more light to achieve that more detailed low-light photography.
- HDR+ enhanced uses a varying number of exposures to generate a single photo. This effect shines in tricky lighting situations. When I photographed a goat indoors against a bright backlight, the multiple exposures overlaid with HDR+ enhanced created a more evenly lit photo than HDR+.
- Google added optical image stabilization (OIS) on the rear camera, on top of the gyro-based electronic image stabilization that can be toggled on and off. Together, they make for less shaky photos and video. When I tested it out while walking down a paved road and on a moving merry-go-round, I was impressed by how smoothly and natural-looking stabilization worked. A huge improvement from the original Pixel.
- Motion Photos (similar to the iPhone's Live Photos) records a video for 1.5 seconds before and after a single shot. It then trims them and loops them into a Giphy-style, "live" picture.
- The camera is optimized and calibrated to support AR and comes with AR stickers. They work like regular photo stickers you add to your photos and video, but they're 3D elements and characters that move around and interact in real-life environments.
Google Lens is handy, but needs work
Google Lens is a new feature that's built into the camera's photo app and, soon, into Google Assistant. You use it to call up information on an object like a landmark or a piece of art. It's a lot like Samsung's Bixby Vision app on the Galaxy S8 and Note 8, and uses Google's most precious asset: its vast search database.
I tried Lens on paintings, books, albums and business cards (which Lens can autopopulate a Contacts card from). For the most part, it's accurate and works well. It gathers info quickly, but there were times when it called up info for a similar-looking-but-ultimately-wrong painting, or it didn't generate an "Add to contact" icon after scanning a business card.
Even though it didn't accurately identify everything I tossed its way, Lens was able to generate results for easily recognizable animals like tortoises and giraffes, and it was fun to have the chance to quickly know more about what was standing right in front of me.
Lens debuts on the Pixel 2, and will roll out to other Android devices in the future.
Battery life and processor speed
The Pixel 2's battery life was OK, but not fantastic, especially when you compare it to other top-tier (and even some higher midtier) phones. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback on airplane mode, the Pixel 2 lasted an average of 13 hours and 28 minutes. That falls short of the iPhone 8's time of 14 hours and especially the Galaxy Note 8 and OnePlus 5's results of over 17 hours.
Anecdotally, it'll last for a full day of moderate-to-heavy use, but you'll need to recharge the phone by the end of the day. When I used it heavily throughout the day surfing the web, taking tons of photos and using Assistant, the battery drained to about 50 percent in the afternoon and about 15 percent in the early evening. And FYI, it doesn't have wireless charging.
A speedy Snapdragon 835 processor matches head-to-head with its competitors in scoring high benchmark scores. Real-world usage was also smooth and fast, and the phone was quick to render portrait shots, launching apps and displaying graphic-intensive apps like VR videos and content.
Pixel 2 vs. the competition
- Pixel 2 XL: If the reported burn-in issue (and Google's supposed upcoming software fix) isn't enough to deter you from the Pixel 2 XL, you may consider the bigger Google phone if your budget allows. You'll get everything on the Pixel 2 packaged in a larger size, including the fantastic camera and Google Lens.
- Galaxy Note 8: I mostly prefer the Pixel 2's image quality and notably lower price, but the Note 8 is sleeker looking, has a longer-lasting battery and its embedded S Pen stylus puts more productivity tools at your fingerprints. Portrait mode on the main camera works slightly better than the Pixel 2, but I like that Google's phone also applies Portrait Mode to the front-facing camera.
- LG V30: CNET's final review of the V30 is coming soon and from what we observed, the V30's cameras aren't as superb as the Pixel 2, Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone. But get the V30 if you want a high-end phone that has a headphone jack and tons of video-editing tools.
- OnePlus 5: The OnePlus 5 won't get the Pixel 2's prompt Android updates. But for about $170 cheaper, the OnePlus 5 saves you serious dough, gets you comparable specs and has a strong camera, too. But, good luck finding one -- it's out of stock in the US, UK and Australia at the time of writing.
- iPhone 8 Plus: If you're in the Apple and iOS ecosystem, or want the best dual-camera setup around, the 8 Plus (or the upcoming iPhone X) makes sense. If you're on the fence, the Pixel 2's quick OS updates make it the Android phone most like the iPhone.
Google Pixel 2 spec comparison
|Google Pixel 2||Samsung Galaxy Note 8||LG V30||OnePlus 5||iPhone 8 Plus|
|Display size, resolution||5-inch; 1,920x1080 pixels||6.3-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||6-inch; 2,880x1,440 pixels||5.5-inch; 1,920x1080 pixels||5.5-inch; 1,920x1080 pixels|
|Pixel density||441 ppi||522 ppi||538 ppi||401 ppi||401 ppi|
|Dimensions (inches)||5.7x2.7x0.3 in||6.4x2.9x0.34 in||6x3x0.29 in||6.1x2.92x0.29 in||6.24x3.07x0.30 in|
|Weight (ounces, grams)||5.04 oz; 143g||6.9 oz, 195g||5.57 oz; 158g||5.4 oz; 153g||7.13 oz; 202g|
|Mobile software||Android 8.0 Oreo||Android 7.1.1 Nougat||Android 7.1.2 Nougat||Android 7.1.1 Nougat||iOS 11|
|Camera||12.2-megapixel||Dual 12-megapixel||16-megapixel (standard), 13-megapixel (wide)||16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto||Dual 12-megapixel|
|Processor||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Apple A11 Bionic|
|Storage||64GB, 128GB||64GB||64GB, 128GB||64GB, 128GB||64GB, 256GB|
|Expandable storage||None||Up to 2TB||Up to 2TB||None||None|
|Battery||2,700mAh||3,300mAh||3,300mAh||3,300mAh||2,675mAh (unconfirmed by Apple)|
|Fingerprint sensor||Back cover||Back cover||Back cover||Home button||Home button (Touch ID)|
|Special features||Water-resistant (IP67); Google Lens; unlimited photo cloud storage||Water-resistant (IP68); S Pen stylus; wireless charging||Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; wide-angle camera||Notifications toggle; dual-SIM||Water-resistant (IP67); wireless charging|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$649 (64GB), $749 (128GB)||AT&T: $950; Verizon: $960; T-Mobile: $930; Sprint: $960; US Cellular: $963||AT&T: $810; Verizon: $840: T-Mobile: $800; Sprint: $912||$479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)||$799 (64GB), $949 (256GB)|
|Price (GBP)||£629 (64GB), £729 (128GB)||£869||TBA||£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)||£799 (64GB), £949 (256GB)|
|Price (AUD)||AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,229 (128GB)||AU$1,499||TBA||AU$599(64GB), AU$699 (128GB)||AU$1,229 (64GB), AU$1,479 (256GB)|