Google Pixel 2 review: No frills, but a great camera and fast Android updates
Very good performance
Fast battery charging
IP67 dust and water resistance
Guaranteed speedy Android updates
Clever use of fingerprint reader and squeezable sides
Moderate battery life
No microSD slot or 3.5mm headphone jack
No wireless charging
Google’s second-generation Pixel handsets are again available in two sizes. We’ve already put the larger, 6-inch Pixel 2 XL through its paces. On test here is the smaller, less expensive, 5-inch Pixel 2. Like the Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 2 comes in two versions, with 64GB or 128GB of internal storage.
When Google launched its first Pixel phones last year, the search giant abandoned its strategy of publicly naming its manufacturing partners. Models in the previous Nexus line (both phones and tablets) had been built by partners including LG, Samsung, Motorola, Huawei, Asus and HTC. Still, it’s widely known that the Pixel 2 is made by HTC, while the Pixel 2 XL is an LG-manufactured handset.
Along with Google-only branding, the Pixel range has a different — and defining — design and a new pricing strategy. Google no longer positions itself offering vanilla Android and the promise of early updates for a mid-range price, as it did with the Nexus. Now it wants a share of the premium/flagship market, so the Pixel 2 has a starting price of £629 ($ 649) SIM free, rising to £729 ($ 749) for the 128GB version. (The larger Pixel 2 XL with its 6-inch screen starts at £799/$ 849 for the 64GB model, rising to £899/$ 949 for the 128GB model.)
One thing that surprises about the Pixel 2 is its physical size. Considering it packs a 5-inch screen, this phone is pretty big. The overall size of 145.7mm tall by 69.7mm wide by 7.8mm thick isn’t all that far off the Pixel 2 XL whose 6-inch screen resides in a chassis measuring 157.9mm by 76.7mm by 7.9mm.
A key part of the reason for this is the thick upper and lower screen bezels, which each house a speaker that pumps sound out through lozenge shaped grilles. The speakers deliver plenty of volume, but I’d prefer richer bass tones and less treble.
The build quality is satisfyingly good. The Gorilla Glass 5 front is smooth, and is separated from the unibody metal sides and back by a thin silver frame. The back is grippy thanks to a tactile finish. My review unit was a slightly pearly off-white colour that Google calls Clearly White. Other colour options are Just Black and Kinda Blue.
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The silver of the screen’s frame is repeated in various places, including volume and power buttons on the right, around the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and the camera lens and flash. A strip of glass at the top of the back separates the camera unit from everything else. This is distinctive, and provides a nice big internal bay for the antennas to sit unimpeded by metal.
You have to look quite closely to see the discreet Google logo on the back of the handset. In a way, that sums up the overall impression of the Pixel 2: while some will celebrate its clean lines, others will likely find it a bit bland.
There’s no 3.5mm jack, and the only port is the USB-C connector on the bottom that caters for both charging and headphones. Thankfully Google provides a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter for those who don’t want to go wireless just yet.
The 5-inch AMOLED display offers FHD resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) at 441 pixels per inch (ppi), its 16:9 aspect ratio contrasting with the 18:9 of the Pixel 2 XL. Image quality is clear and sharp, with a high maximum brightness level. There’s a Night Light mode that cuts down on blue light, which can be manually configured to the colour depth that suits you. You can set Night Light to switch on and off automatically, and add it to Quick Settings so you can use it as needed.
You may be concerned about the potential for screen burn-in, which has affected some Pixel 2 XL models. At the time of writing I’ve been using the Pixel 2 for five days, with the screen at full brightness and set to go off after half an hour. So far I’ve seen nothing untoward, screen-wise.
Like it XL stablemate, the Pixel 2 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset with Adreno 540 graphics, supported by 4GB of RAM. With no UI overlay on top of Android 8.0 (Oreo) to hold it back and stunningly fast responsiveness to screen taps, it sometimes feels that the handset is anticipating rather than reacting.
The lack of an overlay and absence of third-party apps also means plenty of free storage. I was sent the 64GB handset to review, and out of the box 10.92GB of this was already used. There’s no microSD slot for storage expansion on the Pixel 2, so the decision between the 64GB and 128GB version will be important at purchase time.
Pure unadulterated Android 8 is an interesting experience. It’s quite handy to be able to see the current time on the lock screen, for example, and notification icons also display themselves here. Simply being able to double-tap on the lock screen to wake the handset up is welcome too, but my favourite innovation is the ability to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor to see notifications and access the shortcuts tray. Swiping up hides things again. I took to this for one-handed use like a fish to water.
Squeeze the phone’s sides and up pops Google Assistant. This works best when the handset is held in a palm, but can also be done when it’s sitting on a table. It worked flawlessly every time for me, and is a neat take on the alternative of using a hardware or software button.
Google has gone for a single main camera here, rather than the more fancy dual camera options that many premium smartphones now offer. This might sound like a backward step, but in fact the 12.2-megapixel main camera shoots great images which rely on some sophisticated post-processing.
Image capture in low-light conditions is especially impressive: Auto HDR+ helps particularly with shots that have a lot of variance in light and dark. If I were using the Pixel 2 as my main handset I’d never turn this feature off. It’ll shoot 4k video at 30fps too, which while not up there with the very best (Apple’s latest iPhones do 4k at 60fps), is good enough. Both optical (OIS) and electronic (EIS) image stabilisation help to improve video capture from the rear camera. The front-facing 8-megapixel camera will capture 1080p video at 30fps.
Google Lens, which can analyse photos and extract useful information like contact details, websites, subject, locations and so on, has yet to prove useful for me, although longer term I can see how it could prove handy.
The Pixel 2’s 2,700mAh battery is on the small side for a premium handset, and battery life suffers accordingly. I did get through a day off a full charge, but gamers and those who like a lot of music during their day might struggle. The good news is that, with the supplied charger, Google says you can get up to 7 hours of life from 15 minutes of fast-charging. Wireless charging is not supported though.
The Google Pixel 2 hides its light under a bushel. The physical design is demure, Android 8 doesn’t look much different at first glance, and without a UI overlay or third-party software, bells and whistles are few and far between.
That said, I like the ‘back to basics’ feel of some of Android 8’s features — particularly the clever use of the fingerprint sensor and side-squeeze for one-handed use. The camera, too, is impressive.
I’d have liked better sound quality, some will miss the headset jack, and the handset is oversized for its screen. Still, with a Google handset you’re always assured of being first in line for software updates.