I still remember when we used to bicker over iPhone vs Symbian, before Android took over the second part of that argument. I also remember when Xenon vs LED flash was the most controversial discussion in the smartphone world for several years - some of you may have been toddlers when that started. And I remember when apps weren't a thing, when 3G was the hottest novelty, when we thanked our lucky stars because companies stopped using massive proprietary charging and earphone ports, and when a smartphone with a 2.8" display (Nokia N95 8GB) counted as monstrous. Nowadays, we feel cheated when the second back lens in a phone doesn't bring a lot of improvement, or when the display's color shifts at an angle as if everyone is side-glancing at their phones all the time, when a device has a MicroUSB port and not USB-C, or when it takes a fraction of a millisecond longer for a swipe to register. Look, there was a time when you had to manually switch between WiFi and 2G every single time. We're too spoiled now.
So you may excuse me if I read some of the arguments I often see nowadays in comment sections and scoff or roll my eyes at the pointlessness of it all. It's a phone, it makes calls, sends messages, takes pictures, and browses the web. Shocker: All phones do that. The teeny bit of difference in a certain feature between device A and device B isn't going to make a dent of change in most people's lives. Technology is becoming ingrained in every aspect of our lives, but a deeper black on the display, a different charging port, a 5% faster processor, those don't change anything of substance.
But we love arguing, we get passionate about those minuscule differences, we want to shout our opinion to anyone who wants to hear/read it, and it's part of our culture now to take someone else's differing opinion about Bluetooth vs 3.5mm headphones as a personal offense to our very own being. Yet if I'm being honest, those discussions are a huge part of the reason I have a job here, and I'm here to instigate another one with what is now the most controversial of all devices in our small bubble of the Android-loving internet, the Pixel 2 XL, and what may be a very controversial opinion on it: it's just fine.
After using LG and Samsung devices for many years, I moved to a Pixel 2 XL a few months ago. And... nothing has changed. I don't love it, I don't hate it. It hasn't made me swear off every other smartphone and camera nor has it blown me away with its smoothness and speed. I also don't have any issues with the display and I haven't encountered any of the gazillion reported bugs on my unit. #Ritasluck.
It's a great smartphone and it allows me to do my work for Android Police, stay in touch with friends and family, browse the web and read articles, listen to music and podcasts, take pics, and control my different smart home appliances. But it has changed nothing in the way I use my phone or what I can do with it. So if you want to read a balanced but rather indifferent opinion on the Pixel 2 XL, you can stay for the thousands of words that will follow. Otherwise, the comment section is always there for you to voice your very opinionated thoughts. You're welcome.
Everyone comes with baggage
After spending a month with a Samsung Galaxy 5 (not S) to see if I could move from Symbian to Android, I bought an HTC Desire Z in early 2011 as my first real Android device. I kept it on HTC's software all of 2 weeks before I rooted it and started flashing custom stock Android ROMs. However, my real dalliance with Android skins began with the Galaxy S3: I only installed custom lighter versions of Samsung's software on it, not stock, because I found the former to be more powerful and more stable. I then moved to the LG G2, G3, G4, G5, then Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, the latter of which stayed with me until last November. I also got a Galaxy Tab S2 8" a few months ago and I still use it. All of these devices were my main drivers and were kept on the original software from LG and Samsung, respectively.
But also over the years, I have dabbled a bit with stock Android: a month with a Nexus 4 review unit, a Nexus 7 (2013) tablet that I used intermittently for years, and a Nexus 5X as a test device for Android Police. However, I had never lived with stock Android as my main driver ever since that Desire Z and the last Ice Cream Sandwich ROM I flashed on it.
That's to say that I am very familiar with OEM skins on Android and I understand their value for the whole ecosystem, I also have a first-hand grasp of their benefits and issues.
My Galaxy S7 Edge with Nova Launcher.
But it was time to move on
By the time October 2017 rolled around, my Galaxy S7 Edge was getting a little slower and it was stuck on Nougat for the foreseeable future. My Nexus 5X was also getting a little old and when Android P's dev previews drop in a month or two, I know it won't get them. I needed to make a decision pretty quickly: either get the Pixel 2 XL (going back to a 5" display with the non-XL wasn't in the cards) either grab a Note 8 or wait for the S9+, but also get a first-gen Pixel for my work here at Android Police. I spent a few hours looking into both options, financially and practically, and chose the first.
The novelty allure of going back to stock Android after so many years was too strong. I had grown a little too accustomed to LG and Samsung's skins, and I was curious to see if I could get on without their added features. Stock Android had implemented (uhm, copied) a lot of those in the past couple of years, so it finally seemed viable again. Plus the idea of fast updates and getting to experience Android purely as Google wants us to see it, won me over. A few minutes after pre-orders were live, I clicked the button and got myself a 64GB black Pixel 2 XL.
I had to wait for my phone to ship, then wait again many weeks for it to reach me in Lebanon (long story). I won't lie to you: I was tempted to cancel my order many times over after reading dozens of reports of bad and faulty displays. My S7 Edge had a gorgeous AMOLED display, the Nokia 8 I was reviewing then had one of the best LCDs I'd seen, and I didn't want to go back to a mediocre display. That's not to mention all the other bugs I'd read about. It was a gamble, and one that was quadruply so since I couldn't return the Pixel 2 XL easily after getting it to Lebanon. I'm not sure how I basically threw $900 (with taxes) at the wind and hoped for the best. It worked. So far, knock on wood, my Pixel 2 XL is doing fine. No bugs or hardware issues, or at least none that I have ever noticed in my daily use. Many knocks on wood.
This is not a small sum to gamble with.
First impressions matter, but not much
My first few moments with the Pixel 2 XL were spent sizing it up, enjoying the texture on the back, and realizing that my fears over it being too large to hold were unfounded. But I started wincing when I turned it on.
The display's color calibration was really terrible. Android 8.1 hadn't officially rolled out yet and whatever Google had done to that AMOLED display made me nauseous. I like bright popping colors. I know they're not accurate, but I love the vibrancy of a saturated display and the red color in Gmail, which looked more like a dull maroon, was so repulsive I nearly didn't want to look at the phone anymore. Thankfully, a couple of weeks later, Android 8.1 rolled and I couldn't switch to that Saturated setting fast enough. Now I don't feel like puking when looking at my phone anymore. Is it the best display I've ever used? I don't think so, but I don't care. It shows words and images and videos. 99.9999% of the time I'm looking at the content, not the exact shade of blue or white.
Without this, I may have sold the Pixel 2 XL.
My other annoyance was with Google's propensity to overlay white or colored transparencies over the notification shade and lockscreen. It looks ugly and the only way to avoid it is to go for a very dark wallpaper, which triggers black transparencies. I don't notice it now as much as I did before, but when I do it irks me. I have two questions about that change: 1) What on earth was wrong with solid white to begin with? and 2) Who thought a white or dull color transparency layer looked good on top of anything?
From left to right: No. Oh God no. WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?
The third way the Pixel 2 XL inconvenienced me was with its lack of a MicroSD slot. I have had a collection of photos, podcasts, and miscellaneous files on a card of some form for years and it's so easy to pop it out of a phone and move it to the next one. With the Pixel, I had to spend a couple of hours transferring stuff over a USB-C stick and even then, I couldn't move everything because I only got the 64GB version. So now I rely on the Cloud. It's not an ideal solution since connection speed isn't high in Lebanon and data isn't cheap at all, but it's gotten better compared to previous years. I would love to have a MicroSD slot on Google's upcoming devices, but I learned it's not a deal breaker anymore.
And the final small disappointment came when I was packing up for a trip only a few days after getting the Pixel 2 XL. See, I stopped using wired 3.5mm earphones a long time ago, except during flights because of battery life: I don't want my phone to be depleted by the time my plane lands. So when I went to get my Sennheiser earphones I stopped with them in my hand and remembered: the Pixel 2 XL doesn't have a 3.5mm jack. Then I recalled seeing some form of adapter in the Pixel's box and got it. Whew. I would prefer not to need them, but I don't mind using it for a few hours on a flight. Bluetooth works well for me the rest of the time.
After the honeymoon period was over
Thanks to the terrible display calibration the first few days, I really had 0 days of pure enjoyment with the Pixel 2 XL. That's quite sad considering how many hundreds of dollars I spent on this phone, and nothing will bring that back, Google, you hear me? Shakes fist. From the first moment, it was down to business: install apps, optimize my homescreen, make sure everything is logged in and set up, and then use the Pixel 2 XL exactly like I was using the Nokia 8 review unit before it and the Galaxy S7 Edge before that.
Android has grown a lot in the previous years, and many of the features that used to be on one brand's skin but not another are now available for everyone; multiwindow and the customizable Quick Settings toggles come to mind. Plus, the inclusion of some Google apps by default on every Android device from any OEM as well as the availability of the rest on the Play Store make it possible to have a similar experience regardless of which brand you buy. Google Play Services also play a huge role in providing feature parity between devices. Third-party launchers, like Nova, are the last part of that equation. Install whichever one you prefer on any Android device and you're instantly back into familiar territory regardless of whether you're holding a phone from Huawei, Samsung, Sony, Google, or any other company.
However, some things have been different with the Pixel 2 XL compared to my previous experience with LG and Samsung. I will summarize the good and the bad in succinct (I'll do my best, I'm sure I'll fail) points below. But do they matter in the grand scheme of things? I doubt it.
The little things I like or appreciate about the Pixel 2 XL:
- The dual front loudspeakers are a little louder than what I'm used to. I can listen to a podcast in the car rather comfortably if I can't be bothered sometimes to manually connect Bluetooth. However, I'm not sure it's loud enough to handle the window being open when winter ends and all the outside noise comes tumbling in.
- The interface is fluid and the phone is quite responsive. I haven't encountered any bug or issue so far. Did it blow my mind enough to stop me from ever going back to a Samsung or LG or other brand? No.
- It feels great to not have to manually install some of Google's apps and disable/uninstall many of LG's or Samsung's. No, I don't want their keyboard, or their browser (I know Samsung's is good but all my history and bookmarks and logins are on Chrome), or their calendar, or their other apps. I want Gboard, Chrome, Google Calendar, and so on. There's a consistent experience out-of-the-box in stock Android that requires work to get to on other skins, and even then it's never as frictionless. The switch from Samsung's Gallery to Gmail for example can be a jarring, inconsistent experience.
- The fingerprint reader is fast, but now that I got a OnePlus 5T I know what an instantaneous scanner is. The 2 XL isn't as quick but I really like the back placement compared to my S7 Edge. It makes so much more sense than balancing a phone with my tiny hands to reach the bottom with my thumb. Remember, I spent 3 years with the LG G2, G3, and G4. Tapping things on the rear (not like that, you dirty-minded!) is in my digital DNA at this point.
- The squeeze gesture is neat. I use it to launch Assistant often because I've disabled "Ok Google" detection on all screens and when the display is off. I already have a few Google Homes and Assistant speakers, I don't need another to get confused and try to answer me as well. Squeeze is not a deal maker or breaker, but I hope to see it in more devices and with more features in the future.
- The camera is very good and fast, and I really like the portrait and motion photos capability. However, I'm not taking many photos lately so I'm not getting the most out of it. I don't have kids yet, I am hiking and traveling less, and I maintain the minimum presence on any social media platform. AR stickers can be fun too, for the two or three times that I played with them.
- I'm currently still using the Pixel Launcher and it's working well for me thanks to the Feed on the left, the search bar on the bottom, the glance widget, and the swipe to launch the app drawer. I'm itching to go back to Nova though to have a customizable grid, swipe actions on certain icons, and the swipe down on the homescreen to expand notifications. We'll see how soon I break and install it.
- Always-on display is quite nice. I disabled it on the S7 Edge because it was running through battery and on the Nokia 8 because it was pointless without WhatsApp or Slack notifications. On the Pixel 2 XL, I get all the icons and can see at a glance what needs to be taken care of. I'm also impressed by the Now Playing feature. It works offline while I'm at the gym and helps me recognize a few songs.
However, what I really, really like about the Pixel 2 XL is that battery life has been nothing short of amazing for me. I do a lot with my phone (3 wearables, Bluetooth audio, 2 email accounts syncing, WhatsApp all day, Spotify and YouTube streaming, Chrome browsing, and more), but the worst part is that I have to spend 10 hours a day in a dead-reception zone where there's barely any signal. My previous phones have struggled with that a lot and I was lucky when I got home with 20% of battery life on the Nokia 8 or 30% on the S7 Edge. With the Pixel 2 XL, I often get home with 50% of battery life left.
What black sorcery has Google done, I have no idea. Is this what Doze is supposed to do with standby battery consumption, when implemented properly? Is this how well Android and Google's apps can behave when optimized for the hardware they're running on? It's amazing to a point where I haven't used a battery pack in a long time and I felt confident leaving home several times without one for a full day out and about.
Phenomenal standby battery life, given my circumstances.
However, there are still other small areas where I don't like what the Pixel 2 XL or stock Android have to offer:
- Some file types aren't handled well by it until you install a third-party app. I almost never had that issue with LG or Samsung.
- It doesn't have themes. CyanogenMod figured out how to do it with T-Mobile's Theme Chooser more than 7 years ago. Samsung even figured out how to make TouchWiz, of all interfaces, themable. I'm sure Google can figure out how to make the 10 shades of white used in stock Android themable.
- The Quick Settings area can't be customized to show more than 3x3 icons on the grid. Samsung lets you change it to 4x3 or 5x3, and I used that to have a few more toggles on the main one. I also miss the NFC toggle and the proper sound and mute toggle, which reminds me...
- ... What happened to a good-old mute option? And to a vibrate toggle? Now if you drop down the volume, it goes to vibrate. It took me several days to understand how DND works and even so, I just can't for the life of me figure out a way to make everything silent on my phone, without vibrate for anything, but while still getting alarms and still receiving the notifications on my Wear watch. It's just impossible unless I load a silent ringtone and use it for calls and messages, but that's not a solution anyone will figure out. The only built-in option for now is to use priority-only DND all the time. No bueno.
- There's no clipboard manager on stock Android. I copy and paste things all the time and I'd gotten used to having a clipboard history on my LG and Samsung devices. Third-party options exist, but they're not as seamless as a built-in feature.
- There's no screenshot tool on Android. You take a screenshot on LG/Samsung and you can crop it, annotate it, and edit it before you even send it. Stock Android started adding a bit of that in the Google app a long time ago, but that has gone nowhere. Third-party options exist here too, but again, they're not as smooth as native solutions.
- Nougat on my S7 Edge brought the option to choose what device to listen on even if a Bluetooth headset was connected. For example, I could momentarily play something on the loudspeaker then go back to the headphones. With stock Android, once a Bluetooth audio device is connected, all audio is routed to it no questions asked. You need to disconnect your headphones to play something on the loudspeaker then reconnect them again to continue listening.
- Stock Android's default file manager is still mediocre. We saw some improvements with the "Downloads" app with Marshmallow and Nougat, but nothing since. You also still need to manually enable the option to see the local storage on a new phone.
- I miss a proper Gallery. Google Photos is great and all, but using it to view locally stored folders takes way too many taps every time. I already left feedback to the Photos team asking for an app shortcut to the "Photos on device" screen, which would solve this issue almost entirely.
- The navigation bar can't be customized. Google had some plans to make this part of the System UI Tuner, but it's gone in Android 8.1. I used a 4th button to drop down and bring up the notifications on all of my LG devices and would love to have that on stock Android.
The Google Phone app still annoys me with this: you can't tap or tap-and-hold on a contact in the list to open their contact card. It immediately calls them. Why?! There's an overflow that opens the contact card in the favorites contact list, why isn't there something like it in the full list?Update: Turns out this was a bug on my Pixel 2 XL (and my husband's/previously my Nokia 8): tapping the name was immediately starting a call in the third tab. Clearing the data for the Phone app brought back the original intended behavior of opening the contact card.
Like all my previous devices, the Pixel 2 XL stays inside a TPU case.
Some ups, some downs, but mostly steady
Even though I spent the past thousand or so words nitpicking over things the Pixel 2 XL does better or worse than my previous LG and Samsung devices, it is all nothing but minutiae. The overall experience is 90, if not 95% similar to my S7 Edge and I'm both grateful and kind of annoyed by that.
Grateful because I don't need to spend days and days discovering what a new device can and can't do and setting it up, I can easily continue where I left off with a quasi-unchanged experience. Grateful also because smartphones have gotten so good lately that every $200+ device I read or write about can do 90% of what everyone needs, no questions asked.
But I'm also annoyed because when you're taking about a thousand dollars out of your bank account and plunking them down for a phone, you want to be surprised, delighted, blown away. And it's becoming ever so impossible to do that. You may appreciate one or two new features, but that's about it. The rest is the same old story and the changes are implemented one small improvement at a time so we barely notice them.
The Pixel 2 XL is by far the most expensive smartphone I've ever purchased, but I did it because of my work for Android Police. I'm not sure I would have bought it if I wasn't so involved in covering the nooks and crannies of Google's ecosystem, and I don't think there's $900 of value in it. It hasn't spoiled me for other brands, as I find the Android experience now quite similar regardless of what you're using, timely security updates aside. But I do enjoy using it and I don't regret buying it. There are some nice features here as well as a few omissions, but all of it has been overshadowed by the contradicting narrative between Google's rosy marketing and the many issues we've seen with it. It's an alright smartphone and, like it always has, life goes on.