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.

Pixel Launcher

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.

Lock Screen

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.

Google Lens

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.

Notifications

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.

Bluetooth Audio

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.

Verdict

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.

Read More:

Google Pixel 2 Smartphone review

Google Pixel 2 Camera review

Google Pixel 2 Performance review

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9 replies on “Google Pixel 2 Review: Software”

  1. Question to people who love the Android platform, Google vanilla style (not because of custom ROMs): how do you deal with the fact that the underlying philosophy and ethos of the whole platform is that it’s a massive surveillance and data mining operation about you, the user? Aka. “you are the product?”

    This is not a trolling question (I hope!), but kind of like a captain obvious question, late 2017.

    I ask because I’ve found that many people who naturally gravitate towards fee software on the desktop are perfectly content with vanilla Google Android on mobile. I find this a little puzzling.

    1. I am running Oreo on a rooted Nexus 6P (rooted primarily to run AdAway, which kills off a lot of the more abusive aspects of using an OS built by an advertising company), with GPS off most of the time. There are tradeoffs to either ecosystem, and I do appreciate Apple stepping up on the privacy front, but their developer-hostile, ultra-locked-down platform doesn’t do all kinds of things that I want to do as a developer (like fiddle with actual files, ssh into servers, scan wifi APs, etc.)

    2. how do you deal with the fact that the underlying philosophy and ethos of the whole platform is that it’s a massive surveillance and data mining operation about you, the user? Aka. “you are the product?”

      So, there are two issues to discuss here.

      The first is the evolution of the software and services companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google provide. Let’s take Google Photos, for example. It is an incredibly useful service, provided for free, by Google. Not only does it enable you to store an unlimited number of photos (up to 13mp) in the cloud, but it allows you to search your collection for photos of people, places, and things, without having to spend hours annotating and cataloging every photo first. No doubt this is just the start of the types of services that can be enabled through Google Photos.

      None on this technology would be feasible if Google wasn’t able to data mine the billions of photos uploaded to its service. The fact that its free rather than a paid service is irrelevant — the data is being mined with your permission to provide you with a service that many find incredibly useful.

      And this is really just the beginning. The more software systems know about you and your life, the more useful they can be to you. It does feel creepy to have your phone tell you how long it will take you to get to the restaurant you arranged, by email, to meet your friends in later, but in a few years time (if that) we won’t be using email to do that, we’ll be Alexa, Siri, Google Home, or one of their descendants directly to organize dinner with our friends tonight, and it will go off and do it for you, and reminding you when you need to set off, based on local traffic conditions.

      A few years after that, we’ll be telling our online avatar to find the best deal on a new self-drive car, and it will go off and do all the work itself, based on what it knows about your finances, preferences, and tastes, and present you with the best deals it could negotiate with the local car dealers.

      And so on. This is where the personal computing is heading, and the always on, always connected aspect will be an integral part of it, and that includes allowing access to your personal data to whatever software systems are driving the AI part of it. There is no getting away from this, unless you deliberately choose to disconnect completely from it, and only a vanishingly small number of people will, since the benefits they bring will be too compelling.

      Which brings us to the second issue — what about corporate/government surveillance? The key point here is that government oppression existed perfectly fine hundreds of years before surveillance technology came along. Catholics in post-Reformation Britain were hounded from pillar to post. The Stasi in East Germany and the KGB in Soviet Russia didn’t need always-on microphones to suppress the freedoms of millions of people.

      In other words, the technology is a red herring. It is the strengths the protections provided by society and government that matter. If those are eroded to the point where people are being victimized and oppressed, it really doesn’t matter what technology exists. The same goes for corporate behavior. If regulation and public pressure isn’t enough, then it really doesn’t matter what tech they’re using.

      So, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter which platform you use — they’re all going to use data-mining and personal information to provide you with better services. Indeed, those that don’t are going to struggle to keep up. If Google Maps provides better real-time traffic routing than Apple’s software because it can datamine realtime GPS locations from thousands of Android phones being driven around the cities, then more people are going to start using Google Maps. It’s really as simple as that.

      Of course, we should not be blind to the potential abuses, from all parties with access to that amount of data, and we should be able to exact a price from those who do abuse the system, but questioning why people would be content to use free Google services over other, paid services is, I believe, missing the point entirely.

  2. Great review. But looks like the new features will be passe in a week after owning the phone. But the 3 year updates should really help sell the phone. After all, the hardware seems pretty powerful to last that long. I ordered the Pixel 2 XL and intend to actually keep it for 3+ years.

    How far back does Apple provide updates to its devices?

    1. Apple’s pretty much the champ here, with 4-5 years of updates… Although older phones don’t always get the latest features when a new version of iOS is released, and some updates have been known to make older phones feel slower (not because they disable hardware, but because the hardware may just not be able to keep up with the latest software).

      But yeah, I stick with Android because I prefer the UI and the more open ecosystem. And I’ve primarily used Nexus devices in the past… But even those usually only get a 2 year guarantee. So the move to a 3 year promise is a step in the right direction.

      1. And despite the argument that ROM’s exist for older Android devices, the stock Android reigns over everything for stability. In that respect, as I’ve grown older I appreciate the fact that it makes complete sense for one company to make the hardware and software.

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