Google’s Pixel 2 smartphones have some pretty strong hardware including excellent cameras, good displays, 4GB of RAM, at lest 64GB of storage, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor.
But it’s the software that really sets these phones apart from the competition… and in some cases, the way the software interacts with the hardware. For instance, you can squeeze the sides of the phone to trigger Google Assistant, and those excellent cameras get an assist from Google’s software.
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the among the first phones to ship with Google Android 8.0 Oreo, and they’ll be among the first to get Android 8.1 when it launches soon. But these phones aren’t just running stock Android software. They’re running Pixel software. While there are more than 2 billion Android phones in the wild, there are some features that are exclusive to the 2nd-gen Pixel phones.
So let’s take a look at some of those features.
Google has updated the Pixel Launcher in a few interesting ways. In addition to supporting Android Oreo features like notification dots, the Pixel 2 has a new At-a-Glance widget that’s permanently affixed to the top of the first page of the home screen.
The widget shows the day and date on the left, and the temperature on the right. Touching the date will bring up your default calendar app, while touching the temperature will bring up Google’s weather app (which is really just a subset of the main Google app).
Out of the box, the widget will also show your next calendar event when it’s imminent, and traffic information when it’s relevant. But you can long-press the At-a-Glance widget and open its preferences to disable those features. What you can’t do is make the widget go away altogether.
While this new widget occupies the top of the home screen, Google has moved the search widget to the bottom. I thought I’d hate that change. It turns out I kind of love it.
When you’re holding a phone in one hand, having a search widget in the bottom makes it much easier to start a search by tapping the box with your thumb since you don’t have to stretch all the way to the top of the screen. That’s especially true of large-screened phones like the 6 inch Pixel 2 XL. But even on the 5 inch Pixel 2, I found the new search bar placement to be rather convenient.
You can open app drawer by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, and it’ll keep the same wallpaper used for your home screen, giving the home and app drawer a more consistent look. The search bar also slides up to the top of the screen in this view, which really makes it feel like you’re, I don’t know, opening a drawer to reveal what’s inside (a bunch of apps).
Long-press on a blank spot on the home screen and you can change wallpapers, choose widgets, or adjust settings. Those settings include toggles that let you decide whether to add new icons to the home screen automatically when new apps are installed, whether to display the Google feed to the left of your main home screen, and whether to enable notification dots when an app wants your attention, among other things.
As for wallpapers, you can select separate ones for your home screen and lock screen… and the Pixel 2 includes 4 exclusive collections of wallpapers, although I’m pretty sure that by the time you read this someone will have shared them online for anyone to download and use on any phone.
One interesting thing about wallpapers in the Pixel Launcher? Choose one with a relatively bright color scheme, and the Quick Settings pull-down and app drawer will have a light theme. Choose a dark wallpaper and you get a dark theme (with a black background and white text).
Unfortunately that theme doesn’t extend to other parts of the operating system. The Settings menu is still black text on a white background, for instance.
All the usual lock screen features are there, including the ability to set a wallpaper, decide which notification content should be displayed, and choose whether to secure your phone with a pass code, PIN, or pattern.
But dig into the display settings and you’ll also see Ambient display options including one that lets the phone’s AMOLED display briefly light up when new notifications appear. You can also enable a “lift to check phone” feature that will bring up the same view when you pick up the phone.
Or you can flip the toggle next to the “always on” option, which means the screen literally never completely shuts off.
If always on is toggled, you’ll see the time, date, and any available notifications when the device is locked. Since only a small portion of the display is turned on at a time, the battery drain shouldn’t be too bad… although if you’re concerned about battery life you can just turn this feature off.
Since AMOLED screens can develop “burn in” problems, Google also moves the text on the lock screen by about one pixel a minute. It’s a subtle enough change that you probably won’t notice. But it’s enough of a change to help minimize the chances of the screen being damaged.
For the most part, those are all features we’ve seen on other phones. Here’s something new: a Now Playing feature that listens to nearby audio and displays the artist and song title on your lock screen.
You can enable or disable Now Playing from two different places: the Lock screen preferences in the Security settings, or the advanced Sound settings. I guess Google really wanted to make sure you could find this feature.
Now Playing is hardly the first service that uses a smartphone’s mic to identify the songs you hear at a club, on the radio, or while waiting in the checkout aisle at the supermarket. But unlike most similar services, Now Playing does this without requiring an internet connection.
The Pixel 2 has a database containing thousands of song patterns. It only takes up a little over 50MB, and it allows song identification to happen offline, without sending any data to Google’s servers. That’s the upside. The downside is that the song database isn’t all that extensive and it’s not all that fast.
I tried playing a handful of songs near the Pixel 2 and it was able to correctly identify some tracks from Adele, Al Green, Queen, and Santigold. But it didn’t recognize songs I played by Aimee Mann and Metric, neither of which are all that obscure.
Google plans to roll out updates to the database on a weekly basis, so it’ll probably get better at recognizing popular songs over time. I wouldn’t expect it to ever really learn to identify deep cuts from rare albums.
It also seems to take up to a minute for Now Playing to identify a song. If you want to know what’s playing quickly, you should probably just use the Google app or a third-party service. What could potentially make Now Playing an interesting addition to the Pixel 2 is its ubiquity.
When enabled, it should always be on the lookout (or hearout, I guess) for music playing nearby. So when you pick up your phone, there’s a good chance it’ll tell you what you’re listening to, before you even think to look it up manually. And since that data is processed locally, there’s not much of a privacy issue.
If you do want to know more about a song or artist, you can tap the name to go online and get more information.
Or you can just disable the service altogether and get a few minutes of extra battery life.
Snap a picture with the camera, open it in Google Photos (which you can access by hitting the camera roll button in the Camera app), and tap the lens button and Google will attempt to identify items in the picture.
Google is launching Google Lens as a preview at this point, but eventually the company plans to bring it to Google Assistant, where it will be available to more users.
So what kind of things can Google Lens identify? Google says it can handle landmarks and buildings, artwork that’s found in museums, book, movie, and music album and video game covers, and anything with a phone number or email (it won’t necessarily know what those last ones are, but it’ll make it easy for you to tap to load the appropriate web page or call the appropriate number.
I tested Google Lens on a few items around town and found that it had no problem identifying City Hall, but didn’t recognize the Wawa convenience store down the street. It did pick out the URL on a Loving Project poster hanging in a window.
It’s a neat trick, and one that could get more useful over time, especially if and when you can ID things in real-time instead of snapping a picture, loading it up in Google Photos, and then tapping a button.
Google Assistant and Active Edge
For the most part, Google Assistant on the Pixel 2 works the same as it does on other phones. You can interact by voice or text, and you can enable “OK Google” hotword detection so that you can speak to the assistant even when your screen is off.
But the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have a new(ish) feature, borrowed from the HTC U11: you can squeeze the sides of the phone to launch Google Assistant. If you don’t feel like saying “OK Google” in public, it offers a more discrete option.
Google calls the feature Active Edge, and you can customize the squeeze sensitivity, choose whether to allow squeezes when the screen is off, or disable the feature.
There’s also one more Active Edge option: a toggle that lets you squeeze the phone to silence the ringer when a call is incoming. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google provided more Active Edge options in the future, but right now that squeeze-to-silence option is the only one that’s not related to Google Assistant.
I could probably write a whole book about the way notifications have been changed in Android Oreo. These aren’t Pixel-exclusive features, but as the first phone to ship with Android 8.0, it’s one of the first where you’re likely to encounter the updated notification scheme.
Here are some of the highlights:
- You can snooze notifications from the pull-down notification shade.
- Notifications in the shade can be different colors… which works better with some colors than others.
- Persistent notifications will remind you if there are apps running in the background that may be consuming battery power or other resources.
- Notification dots on the home screen let you know if you’ve got new messages or other items that demand your attention. The dot colors are designed to match the app icons. You won’t see a number badge telling you how many notifications there are, making this view a bit less stressful than the notification badges on iPhones.
- Apps can now use notification channels, allowing you to assign different behaviors for different apps. Some apps will just offer a few options such as “allow sound,” or “allow notification dot.” Others, like Google Maps have a ridiculous number of options.
Picture in Picture
Android Oreo brings support for picture-in-picture mode to phones. This is something that Google originally introduced in Android TV, allowing you to watch a video while playing a game, for instance.
On phones, this feature allows you to see Google Maps navigation in a tiny window while you’re doing something else with the screen. That way you can keep an eye on navigation while dialing a phone number or looking up a song to play. And by you, I hope I’m talking about the person sitting in the passenger seat of a car, not the driver.
YouTube Red also supports Picture in Picture mode. Just start a video and then hit the home button and it’ll shrink to a small window. The non-subscription YouTube app doesn’t do this though, since it doesn’t work in the background.
None of the other video apps I’ve tried seem to support Picture in Picture Mode yet. Your results may vary, but I had no luck with Google Play Movies, Netflix, Amazon Video or VLC.
You can also delve into the Picture in Picture settings to choose which apps are allowed to work in Picture in Picture mode. Interestingly, the Pixel 2 says Google Play Movies & TV is allowed, but it didn’t seem to work for me.
This is a small addition that makes me very happy. When you’re using Bluetooth audio devices with the Pixel 2, you can see the battery level of your headphones or speakers from the BT area of the Quick Settings panel.
This feature worked with my $24 Mpow Cheetah Bluetooth headphones and with the $249 Libratone Q Adapt On Ear noise-canceling headphones Google loaned me.
Unfortunately the UE Mobile Boombox Bluetooth speaker does not want to report battery life. I assume this is because it’s an older model that only supports Bluetooth 2.1.
Display and Font Size
The Pixel 2 supports 5 different display size settings. Of course, the phone has a 5 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display no matter what you change in the software settings. But you can adjust the pixel density to make text and graphics sharper or bigger.
The default setting is a bit sharper than I’m used to seeing on a phone, but I kind of like it. And if you don’t mind losing the ability to cram quite as much content on the screen at once, you can always go for one of the larger options for bigger imagery.
Speaking of bigger, you can right-click the picture below to see the five different settings.
There are also four different font setting levels, allowing you just to change the system-wide font sizes.
Other Oreo features
As anticipated, Google has also replaced its “blob” style emojis with a whole new set that looks a bit more animated (and a bit more iOS-like).
The Settings menu has generally been overhauled… if you have a hard time finding the feature you’re looking for, the easiest thing is to use the search bar for items like “Now Playing” or “Ambient Display.”
The Battery menu has received a major overhaul, giving you granular details about which apps and features are using the most juice and how much screen-on time each app used.
There’s a new section in the Security & location setting called Google Play Protect that lets you toggle two features: “scan device for security threats” to perform regular security scans and “improve harmful app detection” by sending unknown apps to Google for detection.
And those are just a few of the many relatively minor tweaks.
Google has a habit of moving things around with each new version of Android, which should be annoying for long-time users if it means you have to spend time figuring out where a setting or feature has moved to.
But overall, Android Oreo feels like an update that gets most things right… although I’m not entirely sold on the colorful new notifications. Some things are probably better off simple.
The Pixel 2 isn’t just a phone that runs Android Oreo though. It’s also a phone that gets a bunch of new features first, including Now Playing song detection, Google Lens photo identification, and the latest Pixel Launcher, just to name a few.
Google says it’ll also receive software and security updates for three years, which is practically unheard of for an Android device. Previous Nexus and Pixel devices were only guaranteed to get 2 years of updates, and most third-party phones don’t come with much of a guarantee at all.
Not only does that mean the Pixel 2 will be one of the first phones to support Android P, Q, and maybe R, but it means you should get monthly security updates until at least 2020.
That alone might be enough to justify the phone’s $650 price tag. But the fact that it has a stellar camera, sturdy design, and excellent performance certainly helps make the case.
The Pixel 2 XL, might be a slightly tougher sell. While it’s arguably a better looking phone and it certainly has a higher-resolution display and a bigger battery, it also has a starting price of $849. I’ll have more details about what makes that phone tick when I’ve finished reviewing the smaller model.