It’s no secret around these parts that I’ve been deeply enamored with Google’s Pixel. That Android smartphone came almost out of nowhere last year to claim the crown of best mobile camera, and in the process it swept me up as a loyal fan as well. Sure, Google had previously dabbled in the mobile hardware business with its Nexus line, but the first Pixel phones were immediately recognizable as much more serious business. Over the past week I’ve been getting to grips with the Pixel’s successor, the Pixel 2 — both of them in their “regular” 5-inch versions — and trying to decide if enough has changed to merit spending a fresh $650 on the newer model.
At first glance, the two phones appear to be almost identical. The screen size is the same, the Pixel 2 is marginally taller, a tiny bit wider, and slightly thinner than the Pixel, but the overall sense of the two phones’ dimensions is the same. They even weigh the same. And I could only tell you about the small measurement differences because I looked them up. Power button, volume rocker, camera lens, and fingerprint sensor all remain in the same positions on the Pixel 2 as on the Pixel. And yes, the bezels are still vast slabs framing the display’s top and bottom. You’d be forgiven for being underwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that plenty has actually changed. And the one word to tie it all together is “refinement.”
Looking identical isn’t the same as being identical. In spite of all the similarities between these two phones, the new Pixel 2 feels superior to the older model. Both use an aluminum exterior, but the matte coating that Google has applied to the Pixel 2 is grippier and more pleasant to the touch. The Pixel tends to grow cold and unfriendly in these autumnal months, but the Pixel 2 has a more consistent surface temperature to go with its less metallic finish.
The massive chamfer that runs all along the rear edge of the 2016 Pixel has simply disappeared from the more straight-line Pixel 2. I like this change. The blockier shape and rougher texture of the Pixel 2 allow me to handle it with greater assurance than the original. It’s also nice to see the glass window on the back of the device has been shrunken down and moved above the fingerprint sensor. That doesn’t really alter the phone’s ergonomics, but it does mean I feel less glass and more metal in my hand, and it also reduces the area exposed to scratches and scuffs. I’ve been through more than one Google Pixel device, and each of them has scratched horribly on that glass area. After a week of constant use, the new one isn’t exhibiting any cosmetic flaws at all.
One of the most requested design features, from all mobile manufacturers, is water resistance, and Google has heeded the call by making the Pixel 2 water-resistant. I never had water ingress problems with the original Pixel, but a touch of waterproofing is the sort of thing you don’t really appreciate until you really, really need it.
If you want a downside to the new design, it’s the camera lens protrusion. I can’t really call it a bump, because it’s such a tiny extension from the phone’s body, but the annoyance it causes is that dust gathers really easily around it. It’s almost like it’s magnetized to attract little particles. This tarnishes an otherwise refined, utilitarian look.
I know what you’re thinking. How could I comment on the design without addressing the elephant-sized bezels in the room? Well, before you rush to judge Google for sticking with the large frames around its Pixel 2 display, I’d say it’s essential for you to hear the device’s speakers first. The front-firing stereo pair of speakers is a delight. 2017 hasn’t been a rich year for excellent speakers, as companies have increasingly prioritized thinner display bezels and other minimalist design optimizations, but Google is really delivering some wonderful sound with speakers on the Pixel 2.
The way I see it, the original Pixel had big bezels, but no excuse for them. Loudspeaker output from that phone has only ever been so-so: nothing particularly great, nothing particularly offensive. The Pixel 2 keeps the bezels, but now it makes them home to beautiful audio. I can live with that trade-off. And lest you think Google could have kept the speakers while shrinking the bezels, I encourage you to take a look at the display the company used in the Pixel 2 XL, which is a compromised mess. I’d rather have this display, which has the same resolution as on the original Pixel, and its bigger bezels over another that forces me to accept inferior quality.
I was skeptical about what Google could do to improve on the Pixel’s camera, but the Mountain View company has made a litany of incremental improvements that really make the new camera even better. First among them is the addition of optical image stabilization. It’s not a feature that’s strictly necessary for the way Google takes photos — The Pixels shoot a series of up to 10 fast exposures and then stack them for a cleaner, brighter image with the help of some algorithmic wizardry — but it still helps to minimize motion blur from an unsteady hand. The Pixel 2’s aperture has also been opened wider, now at f/1.8, which should make up for the slight reduction in pixel size in the imaging sensor.
The Pixel Visual Core that was just announced this week is another major feather in the new phone’s hat. That’s a dedicated image-processing chip that will make the Pixel 2 vastly faster and more efficient at doing the math involved in Google’s special HDR+ mode. With the OG Pixel, I’d grown accustomed to waiting for a circle to fill up after I’ve captured a photo. That was almost part of its charm, though I obviously won’t miss it on the Pixel 2 when the Pixel Visual Core comes into action. Processing delays are barely in evidence now, even while the Snapdragon 835 chip is the main thing powering the Pixel 2 camera.
As far as image quality goes, the biggest upgrade between the Pixel and Pixel 2 is in the removal of the halo effect from the original. There was a sort of lens flare that would show up on the Pixel when photographing brightly lit scenes or shooting into a light source, and I can happily report that’s entirely gone now. Google even tells me the new Pixel 2 has a custom-built lens array. I can’t tell you that the Pixel 2 is manifestly and consistently superior to the Pixel: in truly low-light conditions, I get the sense that a steadily held Pixel might outdo a Pixel 2. But with OIS on board, all of Google’s camera algorithm improvements, and the upcoming Pixel Visual Core upgrades, I think this camera is definitely one worthy of being called a generational upgrade.
Funny, right? Talking about Bluetooth when discussing major architectural changes to a new phone. Well, this matters because the original Pixel had something I could only describe as a Bluetooth death grip. Every time I put it into or pulled it out of my pocket, I’d interrupt the connection to my wireless headphones. That glass window seemed like the only opening for wireless signals to get out through, and it was super annoying on a daily basis.
With the Pixel 2, I have to work to make it lose signal to a connected Bluetooth peripheral. I’ve had no accidental degradation in signal quality or stability, and it’s only when I really occlude the entire rear window with a close (and unnatural) grip in my palm that I can disconnect the Pixel 2. This, like the small but appreciable upgrades to the camera and design, really makes the new Pixel feel like the evolved and refined version of its predecessor. I used to love the Pixel in spite of its hardware and design foibles, now I just love the Pixel (2017 edition, of course).
Not every change with the Pixel 2 is positive, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Google scything off the 3.5mm headphone jack. I don’t think it’s a big deal, and I’ll tell you why. The original Pixel’s headphone audio was awful: it made everything sound tinny and uninspiring, no matter what headphones I plugged into it. That’s to be expected, because the audio hardware Google was using was just whatever Qualcomm was providing as part of its Snapdragon system-on-a-chip. Pardon me for sounding callous, but I just can’t get worked up for the loss of an already meh feature. If it isn’t good, why are you putting it in your device?
The other way to look at this, of course, is from the perspective of sheer practicality. And I have much sympathy for that. Most people just want a device compatible with all the stuff they already have, and in case of emergency, they want to be able to plug in some random pair of headphones to listen to some music or carry out a call. Google is making that minimal-effort life impossible now, failing to even include a set of compatible earphones in the box and forcing us to use dongles for something that used to come as a free inclusion with the phone. Maybe if the Pixel 2 had a more aggressively styled design or thinner bezels, we could accept the headphone jack’s demise with more mirth.
As things stand today, Google is taking away a useful thing for the vast majority of people, and the company’s replacement is only the offer of expensive in-ear buds that customers can buy instead. I’ve long ago abandoned hope of being satisfied by the output from the Pixel’s headphone jack, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is ready to jump aboard the wireless bandwagon just yet. Google could probably have kept this feature and still delivered the Pixel 2 in much the same form it is now.
Looking at the two 5-inch Pixels, the one from yesteryear and the one from today, I see as many similarities as I do differences. I’m not among the people who bash the Pixel 2 for its resemblance to the original, and I don’t think it looks retrograde or unattractive. I think the new phone is fast, responsive, ergonomic, and still a leader in mobile imaging. You just have to dig a little deeper to identify the upgrades, but they’re definitely there.
I would, of course, have liked to see more progress being made by Google. The battery life has been practically unchanged between the Pixels, and I don’t think that was a strength of the original. The display on the new phone is also still the same 1080p Samsung panel, although with a slightly more muted, reined-in color saturation (which I favor; none of the issues with the Pixel 2 XL screen are relevant here).
Whether or not the step up from the Pixel to the Pixel 2 is enough to justify a $650 expenditure, I leave up to you. I can confidently say that this is a fine upgrade over the original, very much in the vein of an Apple S-edition iPhone. The Pixel 2 doesn’t look much different, and it doesn’t act much different, but it’s a clear and definite improvement.