I think Google might be embarrassed by the Pixel 2.
If you watch the commercials for Google’s newest phones, or scroll through Google’s flashy product website, every shot of the phone’s screen is luxurious slow pan across the Pixel 2’s larger sibling, the Pixel 2 XL. It’s easy to see why: The Pixel 2 XL doesn’t look out of place next to the flagship phones from Samsung and Apple, sporting slim bezels on the top and bottom of the device.
The Pixel 2 was designed differently. It’s a slim rectangle, but its screen is sandwiched between large bezels on the top and bottom. While the top of the phone holds the front-facing camera and the earpiece, only a thin speaker floats in the dead space of the bottom bezel.
Google’s newest phone line also runs the latest iteration of its Android Oreo operating system, with overhauled notifications and limits on how much battery power apps can suck up in the background. Since the hardware and software are both designed by Google, it’s a kind of promise that you’re getting Android as it was intended, along with more frequent software updates if any bugs or security flaws are unearthed.
But just because the Pixel 2 has a smaller screen doesn’t mean it might not be the right phone for you. Here’s what we thought.
It’s well-designed. The phone feels better in my hand than any Android competitor due to its slightly curved but still blocky edges, and I personally like its textured plastic back. It’s light without feeling cheap and minimalist without being spartan. A thin metal ring around the face of the phone is a nice aesthetic detail. The Pixel 2 feels like the successor of Google’s Nexus 5X phone rather than the Pixel with the top and bottom speakers, but with all of the polish of the new Pixel line.
Unlike the Samsung S8 and iPhone, Google placed the volume buttons on the right side under the power button. This makes it easier to hold while watching videos in landscape. The fingerprint scanner is in the middle of the phone and is snappy and comfortable to use, as with the original Pixel. The phone has one port, a USB-C, as well as a SIM card tray.
The camera is a worthy successor to the original Google Pixel. For years, Android phones couldn’t compare with the iPhone’s integration of hardware and software. With the first Pixel, Google showed they could make similarly a impressive smartphone camera, improved by software that tweaked photos after they were taken.
The Pixel 2 and Android Oreo take Google’s image software a step further, especially with the new Portrait Mode. Much like Apple’s feature of the same name, the Pixel 2’s Portrait Mode keeps the subject of a photo crisp while imitating the blurred background created by the physical aperture of a traditional camera. People are crisply cut out from backgrounds, and even tricky details like hair are naturally separated. Since this is software and doesn’t rely on dual cameras, portrait mode can also be used on the front-facing camera, which is nice.
You can squeeze this phone and it does something. It sounds bizarre, and you think it’s dumb until you try it. The squeeze activates Google Assistant, and is confirmed by a nice haptic response (a little motor in the phone vibrates). I wish the squeeze could be set to perform different options (like take the place of the virtual home button), but I couldn’t find that option.
Android Oreo is fantastic. Google has overhauled the notification bar to give more control over how apps intrude into your life, and with some light tinkering you can tailor the entire notification experience to the level of sanity you want to maintain. The entire operating system is snappy and intuitive, and the Pixel’s always-on display shows the icons of apps currently in your notification bar when the screen is turned off.
What’s not so good
The screen is a major sticking point. Some people won’t mind it, but I’m not one of those people.
Google uses virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen for the home button, back button, and app switcher. For a company that makes just an operating system, with no control over the phone’s hardware, this makes tons of sense: Users get the same experience no matter what hardware the phone maker chooses. But that decision has always come at the expense of about a quarter inch of screen.
Lots of apps, like Spotify, and even some websites, like Quartz, have buttons that sit on the bottom of the screen. When all of these buttons stack, it can cut about an inch off the bottom of the usable screen. On a larger phone, or a phone where the bezels are more understated, this doesn’t matter much. But as I would navigate Spotify or read an article on Quartz, I would look at the top and bottom of the phone, unused, and wonder why I couldn’t have a little bit more space.
I wondered that a lot when using the phone. While watching a show on Amazon Prime Video, the picture was letter-boxed. It seemed that a slightly taller screen might help alleviate this minor inconvenience. (YouTube fit perfectly.) It’s not a deal-breaker, but there’s something frustrating about seeing the unused space right in front of you and knowing that it could be screen.
Out context with its competition, the Pixel 2 delivers on everything you’d want: It’s thin, light, sleekly-designed, and even the gimmicks, like the squeezable sides, are well-implemented. For those who want a smaller-sized phone with the latest Android operating system from Google, or just don’t want to fork over the extra $200 for the XL, the Pixel 2 is a solid choice.
But placed next to a similarly-priced competitor, like the Samsung Galaxy S8, it’s clearly not the best hardware on the market. The S8 has a comparatively enormous screen, which gives it a better aesthetic which a coworker described as, “something they would pull out in Star Wars.”
But the S8 doesn’t run Android Oreo, which is truly pleasurable to use. If you’re an Android die-hard who hates large phones, this is a worthy flagship for you.