Most high-end smartphones shipping in 2017 have Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors and at least 4GB of RAM. So it’s not surprising that Google’s new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones follow suit. The phones score very well on benchmarks and feel pretty zippy when performing most tasks.
But benchmarks only tell part of the story, because there are a lot of other things that help determine whether a phone is actually pleasant to use.
There’s battery life, audio quality, display quality, and special features like the Pixel Visual Core that helps process HDR photos quickly. And there’s the software.
The Google Pixel 2 has one of the best cameras of any smartphone on the market. It has Google’s latest smartphone software, and it’ll continue to be one of the first phones to get new features and security updates for some time.
And it offers all-around excellent performance… although Google did make a few decisions that might turn off some users.
Let’s take a look at the performance of Google’s Pixel 2 smartphone with a 5 inch display.
This phone features a 5 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel AMOLED display. Google also sells a larger Pixel 2 XL with a 6 inch, 2880 x 1440 pixel screen.
The larger model has a more striking design, thanks to slimmer top and bottom bezels, a curved glass display which slopes down over the right and left sides of the phone a bit, and an 18:9 (or 2:1) aspect ratio, which lets you display two apps side-by-side in square windows.
But the larger phone sells for $849 and up and it’s a bit unwieldy to hold compared with the smaller, more affordable Pixel 2 with its more traditional design.
Both phones feature Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors, 4GB of RAM, and both are available with 64GB or 128GB of storage. The demo units Google loaned me come with 64GB.
Neither phone has a microSD card slot. Neither has a dedicated headphone jack. And it probably goes without saying in 2017, but neither has a replaceable battery.
But the phones do have stereo front-facing speakers, pressure-sensitive sides that you can squeeze to launch Google Assistant if you enable the “Active Edge” feature, an always-on display option, and a Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor on the back.
Both are also waterproof, with an IP68 water and dust resistance rating.
The phone support fast charging and ship with a rapid charger and a USB Type-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter. They do not support wireless charging, which is at least partially due to their (mostly) metal bodies.
Using the phone
I spent most of a week just using the phone as a phone before I bothered running any benchmarks on the Pixel 2. It certainly felt like the fastest smartphone I’ve ever used… although I should point out that I haven’t spent much time with 2017 flagships. I’ve been using a Google Nexus 5X for the past year, which was a mid-range device when it launched… in 2015.
While the Motorola Moto X4 Android One edition smartphone feels a little more responsive than my Nexus 5X, the Pixel 2 feels much faster.
I notice this most when taking a series of photos. The Nexus 5X has a stellar camera for a phone that sold for $400 at launch and which I picked up last year for just $250. But if you have HDR+ enabled and snap a bunch of pictures in quick succession, eventually the phone will make you wait until it’s finished processing HDR in the background before you can take any more.
That’s a problem I haven’t run into on the Pixel 2. The Pixel Visual Core coprocessor is probably at least partially to thank. But the updated processor and software probably help as well.
I haven’t found a single Android app or game that doesn’t run well on this phone, but that’s hardly surprising since most apps and games target phones with a lot less horsepower. But games like Eternium that need to load a fair amount of content do so pretty quickly, and less resource-heavy games like Stranger Things load almost instantly.
You can also use Android’s split-screen multitasking to view two apps at once, so you can keep a chat window open while surfing the web or watch a video while writing an email.
Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video, and Google Play Movies & TV all stream videos perfectly, and pictures and videos look good from any angle.
While the Pixel 2 has a 1080p screen at a time when many flagships have 1440p or higher displays, the 5 inch phone has 441 pixels per inch, far exceeding the pixel density available on most iPhones.
You can also adjust the effective pixel density by adjusting the Display Size and Font Size options in the phone’s display settings.
The AMOLED screen also offers excellent contrast, blacks that are truly black, and the ability to turn on just a portion of the screen at a time, which is why it’s possible to have an “always on” display that shows the time, date, and notifications with minimal impact on battery life.
I’m also inclined to agree with folks who think colors look better on the Pixel 2 than the Pixel 2 XL. It’s possible that the Pixel 2 XL display may be more accurate, but the smaller phone has colors that are brighter, more vibrant, and the display looks less grainy.
I did also confirm that it’s impossible to differentiate various shades of black on my Pixel 2 review unit. This issue doesn’t bother me that much, but it could make it tough to make out some finer details in dark pictures or videos. It’s unclear if a software update could address the issue.
The Pixel 2 supports a pretty good range of brightness levels, with the dimmest being low enough that I can turn on the phone in the middle of the night without blinding myself, and the brightest being so light that you’ll probably only ever need to use it if you’re standing outside on a sunny day.
There’s also a night light option that allows you to filter out blue light at night time, which may help make it easier to fall asleep.
The Pixel 2 has top and bottom bezels that wouldn’t have been remarkable a year ago… but compared to other 2017 flagships, they look kind of big. The good news is that Google made use of the space to put stereo front facing speakers on the phone with one above the screen and one below.
Like most smartphone speakers, these are heavy on the high and mid frequencies, while offering very little bass. But they’re pretty loud and clear. I wouldn’t want to listen to a lot of music with this phone’s built-in speakers, but they’re pretty bearable when listening to the occasional song or watching a short YouTube video. If I didn’t already have a Bluetooth speaker that I use to listen to internet radio in the kitchen, I might even be satisfied using the internal speakers to listen to NPR as I cook.
Since there’s no 3.5mm audio jack, you have three options for using headphones:
- Use wireless headphones.
- Use headphones that connect to the USB Type-C port.
- Use wired headphones with the USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter included in the box.
For the most part, I’ve gone with the first option. I already have a cheap pair of wireless headphones that I regularly use with smartphones and I had no problem pairing them with the Pixel 2.
Google also loaned me a pair of Libratone’s $249 wireless on-ear noise-canceling headphones to test with the Pixel 2. The active noise cancellation is remarkable. I walked by a construction site and didn’t even hear the machinery until I switched off the feature. But audio sounded a little more muffled and bass-heavy than I would have liked, and the headphones sort of pinched my ears when I wore them for too long, so I went back to using my $24 Mpow Cheetah earbuds.
The problem with wireless headphones is that they need to be charged. The good news is that the Pixel 2 will tell you how much battery life is left in your Bluetooth headphones, helping you to make sure you don’t head out the door with a pair of headphones that are about to die.
Theoretically, USB-C headphones could alleviate that problem. But they’re pretty expensive right now, and while they’ll work with a growing number of phones, you probably won’t be able to plug them into other audio gear.
If you’ve already got a pair of wired headphones that you want to use with the phone, I guess you’re stuck using a dongle for now.
Generally speaking, I don’t find the lack of a headphone jack to be a dealbreaker. But it is my least favorite thing about this phone.
The Pixel 2 has a 2700 mAh battery, while the larger Pixel 2 XL has a 3520 mAh battery to help drive the larger, higher-resolution display, although most reviewers seem to agree that the larger phone gets longer battery battery life.
Both phone should be able to get you through a day though. I regularly unplugged the Pixel 2 at around 6:00 in the morning and watched as the battery level slowly crept down to about 30 percent by 8:00 in the evening.
During days when I used the camera a lot or played games, the battery drained more quickly. But the phone comes with an 18 watt fast charger that helps you top off the battery pretty quickly. Google says you should get up to 7 hours of battery life from a 15 minute charge… that figure’s obviously going to vary depending on how you use the phone, but it doesn’t take long to get an extra 10 or 20 percent on the battery meter, assuming you use the charger that comes in the box.
If you want to squeeze some extra run time out of the battery, there are a bunch of special features you can disable.
Here’s a checklist of things you might want to turn off in the phone’s Settings to prolong battery life. Thanks to a few different technologies, none of these alone will have a huge impact on battery life, but they can certainly have a cumulative effect:
- Ambient Display (which wakes the screen to display notifications as they come in or when you lift your phone).
- Always-on display
- Now Playing (which always listens for nearby music)
And of course you can turn off Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless features if you’re not using them. I tend to keep Bluetooth and GPS enabled, but NFC turned off.
Alright, enough of this subjective stuff. I ran a few different synthetic benchmarks to see how the phone fared.
Tests like Antutu and Geekbench don’t necessarily give you numbers that reflect real-world usage. But since they’re uniform tests that can be run on a wide range of devices, they do offer some basis for comparison (even though some device makers have been known to take steps to cheat at benchmarks).
If you want to know how the Pixel 2 compares with other Snapdragon 835-powered phones, you’re in the wrong place. The two other phones I’ve got handy right now are both mid-range devices.
The Google Nexus 5X was released in 2015 and features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. The Moto X4 Android One Edition is a new phone that launches this month and which has a Snapdragon 630 chip, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage.
Unsurprisingly, the Pixel 2 runs circles around the both.
Google’s new flagship features a faster processor, more powerful graphics, more RAM, and more storage than either of those phones. So it doesn’t just come out ahead in PCMark, 3DMark, GeekBenchm, and Antutu. It comes out way ahead. In fact, the Pixel 2 scored more than three times higher than the Nexus 5X in Antutu.
Does the phone feel three times faster than the Nexus 5X? Not really. But that’s because Android is optimized to run on low-end hardware as well as devices with premium specs.
What benchmarks like these tell you is what your phone is capable when running truly demanding software… the kind of software you’re probably not going to run on your phone very often.
But while the Pixel 2 doesn’t necessarily seem to be 3 times faster in day-to-day use, it is a lot more stable and responsive. Apps load quickly, and flipping back and forth between a few apps is easy, because the phone has enough RAM to keep multiple programs in memory.
The fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone is fast and accurate, allowing me to unlock the phone without entering a PIN or passcode. I’ve come to think of the fingerprint sensor as a power button, since I rarely actually press the phone’s power button.
I don’t find myself using the Active Edge feature much, because I just don’t use Google Assistant very often. But squeezing the sides of the phone to ask a question does seem more natural than saying “OK Google.”
Since the phone has such a stellar camera though, I picked up a cheap tripod mount for it… and realized that it has a tendency to launch Assistant when I clamp the phone in place. You might want to disable Active Edge if you plan to use the phone with a tripod for shooting video.
I’ve been using Nexus phones for years, so the lack of a microSD card slot doesn’t really bother me. But I am glad that Google doesn’t offer phones with 32GB of storage or less anymore. The $649 asking price for a model with 64GB seems pretty reasonable… especially since Google will let you back up original-quality versions of your photos to Google Photos for no additional charge through 2020.
Or you can spend an extra $100 to pick up the 128GB model.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with the performance of this phone.