The Google Pixel 2 XL is a great phone if you have nothing else to rely on

The Pixel 2 XL.
The Pixel 2 XL.
Image: Google
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When I review a new phone, I run it through a battery of tests: how well it takes photos in low light, how it handles running dozens of apps at once, how it handles in the office, out in the world, and all the other places you tend to take your phone over the course of its life. But this past week with the new Google Pixel 2 XL in my possession, I couldn’t really do any of that.

I was unexpectedly stuck in a hospital room in Boston, whiling away the hours as I sat with a sick family member. During the day, I didn’t stray much farther than the hospital cafeteria. By the time I drove home each night, I was too tired to do anything other than sleep. Instead of testing how the phone performs in ideal situations, I saw how the Google Pixel 2 XL performs when you have nothing to do but kill time.

We’ve all been there—a flight that’s been delayed; a subway stuck underground; a friend who’s caught in traffic as you sit at the bar—relying on the little black rectangle in front of us for distraction, entertainment, and connection to the outside world. For me, it was mostly distraction from the beeps of hospital monitors, the unending stream of nurses and family members, and the crappy television that seemed stuck on whatever channel Dr. Phil is on.

The Google Pixel 2 XL is the sequel to Google’s well-received (but unspectacular) Pixel XL, released last year. The new device was revealed, along with other products earlier this month. It has many of the features you’d expect from a modern smartphone, including an impressive 12-megapixel camera, 4 GB of memory, a large 6-inch screen, and a large battery. It doesn’t look out of place next to Apple and Samsung’s latest flagship devices, and at $850, it’s around $100 cheaper than both rivals’ top-of-the-line options.

On the other hand, there’s nothing that makes Google’s new devices stand out among the competition, either, as my colleague Dave Gershgorn notes in his review of 2 XL’s little brother, the Pixel 2. They’re not wildly cheaper, nor do they feature compelling gimmicks; although it’s neat to activate Google Assistant by squeezing the sides of the phone, Samsung’s phones feel better designed than Google’s offerings, and the excellent Samsung Galaxy S8+ costs the same.

But as I sat day after day in a hospital room with both the Pixel 2 XL and my own iPhone 7 Plus beside me, I was impressed with 2 XL’s superior battery life. Even after hours of playing mindless games, trawling through Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, the phone still had more than enough charge to navigate my hour-plus drive home.

Before I spent my week in hospital rooms, I had been on vacation in Vermont. I managed to get a few great shots on the Pixel 2 XL of the region erupting in fall colors. The new Pixels automatically take some of your better photos and turn them into works of art through the Creations function built into Google Photos. But mainly, I used the camera to test out the new portrait mode on family members in hospital (it works surprisingly well, given that it doesn’t require two cameras like Apple’s and Samsung’s do).

An auto-processed shot from the Pixel 2 XL, run through Google Photos.
An auto-processed shot from the Pixel 2 XL, run through Google Photos.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

The phone might be missing some features that other flagships have—its screen is not quite as massive or sharp as those on the forthcoming iPhone X or the Samsung Note 8, for example—but it’s a workhorse for those endless waiting room moments.

Using a phone like this when there is literally nothing else to do, you realize how far smartphones have come in such a short period of time. Yes, this phone is not as spectacular as some of its competitors, but it takes beautiful photos, lasts over a day on one charge, has a massive screen, and has built-in technologies—like real-time translations and computer vision that can understand what’s in photos you take—that just work. (I ended up never trying out the new Daydream View VR headset Google supplied with the phone, because something about dancing around in a virtual world in a hospital recovery room felt strange to me.)

The Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL will likely sell about as well as their predecessors did—a footnote next to the dozens of millions of phones that companies like Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, and others, sell. There’s no good reason to buy these phones over any others for the price, but if the Pixel 2 XL is what makes an also-ran smartphone in 2017, it’s a strong reminder of just how far we’ve come in the world of pocket computers in the last ten years.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated the Pixel 2 XL is not water-resistant, when in fact it is.