With its new Pixel 2 smartphone, Google is playing things safe.
The second generation of the company’s flagship phone, which starts at $649 and begins shipping Tuesday, takes most of its cues from its predecessor, the original Pixel. The two phones’ designs are similar and their specs are mostly the same.
But that’s a good thing.
When the original Pixel arrived a year ago, it solved the biggest headache of using Google’s smartphone operating system by offering users an unadulterated version of Android. Instead of larding up the phone with messy, unnecessary features, as third-party smartphone makers often do, Google got back to basics. The phone combined Google’s leading apps and features — Maps, Search, Photos, Assistant, etc. — with smart, simple hardware.
Pixel 2 does all that still. It’s just a little bit better.
I spent about five days with the Pixel 2, the smaller of Google's two new Pixel phones (for more about the Pixel 2 XL, check out my colleague Tony's review). That wasn't enough time to really put the phone through its paces, and I'll have plenty more thoughts to share in the coming weeks. But I was able to get a good handle on the phone's performance, battery life, camera, and overall design.
Here are my impressions:
Not much has changed
Let's start with the hardware.
For the Pixel 2 in particular, not much is different from last year's model, design-wise. The Pixel 2, like the original Pixel, has a 5-inch, AMOLED display, rear fingerprint scanner, squared-off edges, and a single camera lens. While it comes in a new shade of light blue, the Pixel 2 is about as nondescript as a smartphone can get.
That may sound like a put-down, but the fact that Google played it straight with the Pixel 2 is one of the things I like best about it. In an age when the borders around screens are shrinking to the infinitesimal, screens seem to go on forever, and everything is made out of glass, Google opted to stick with what worked in the past.
Now, that's not the most forward-thinking approach, and the Pixel 2 won't win any awards for creativity or futuristic design. But most people don't need or likely even want a $1,000 glass phone. They need a sturdy, reliable phone that can withstand being tossed in a bag, dropped on the ground, or doused in water. That's the Pixel 2.
The phone is fairly lightweight at 5 ounces, but it feels durable, even with its high-end OLED screen. It has a different feel in the hand than the first-generation Pixel, thanks to a textured, grippy coating on its back. And the Pixel 2 meets the IP67 water resistance standard, which means it can withstand being submerged in about three feet of water for 30 minutes.
It also has sensational battery life. In my tests, the phone lasted nearly two days on a single charge.
Of course, playing videos or using the camera will drain the Pixel's battery, just like on any other smartphone.
"Always on" display
What sets the Pixel 2 apart from the previous Pixel — and Apple's rival iPhone 8 — is its so-called always-on display. The screen always shows the time, even when the device is locked and the rest of the display is turned off. It also shows the date and symbols for any notifications you have. And even when the phone is locked, it should be able to detect what song is playing in the background and show it on the screen.
That always-on feature is a product of the device having an OLED screen. Unlike traditional LCD displays, such screens can light up individual areas or even pixels while keeping the rest off.
After using the phone for five days, I began to consider the always-on feature a must-have. It's something I loved about the Samsung Galaxy S8 and something I wish I had on my iPhone 6s. While seemingly a minor detail, the feature is incredibly helpful and, just as importantly, doesn't waste battery life.
In addition to offering the always-on feature, the Pixel 2's screen is just plain stunning. It's sharp, bright, and immersive. It almost make you feel like you're falling into it. Videos are beautiful, photos are crisp and clear, and colors are vibrant.
In the future, most smartphone makers will likely move to OLED screens and for good reason — they're simply gorgeous.
Portrait mode, but for selfies
The hallmark feature of the Pixel phones are their cameras. And that's certainly the case with the Pixel 2.
I'll be putting the Pixel's camera through its full paces over the next several weeks, but for now, I can safely say that it's easily on par with the iPhone 8 and Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.
The photos I took with the device were stunning. They're almost impossibly detailed without looking fake or overwrought. Their colors are beautiful and true-to-life. And the camera has extra controls that make it feel closer to a DSLR.
One great feature is its ability to take portrait photos with blurred backgrounds. It's a capability that's similar to the portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus and iPhone 8 Plus. But Apple's phones can only take portrait photos using their rear cameras. The Pixel 2 can take such shot with both its front and rear cameras.
Indeed, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the only phones currently on the market that can take portrait-mode selfies, although the iPhone X will have the same feature when it arrives in a few weeks.
In the photo above, you can see how the Pixel 2's portrait feature can transform an incredibly average selfie with a busy background into a sharp photo that I'd be unashamed to send to friends or post on Instagram. The technology isn't perfect yet — it cut off several strands of my hair — but its flaws aren't glaring.
This selfie portrait mode is easily my favorite feature of the Pixel 2. What makes it even better is that it comes on a phone that's much cheaper than the upcoming iPhone X.
And the best part about the Pixel 2's camera is that it's exactly the same as the one in the Pixel 2 XL, which means you don't even have to pay extra to get the bigger phone, like you do with the iPhones 7 and 8 models. Neither of the new Pixel phones relies on a dual-lens camera to work its portrait magic. Instead, both phones use just one camera lens and some software to offer the feature.
Squeeze for Assistant
A new hardware feature of the Pixel 2 is its so-called Active Edge. Thanks to a new sensor, the Pixel 2 will automatically launch Google Assistant, the company's smart assistant feature, when you squeeze its sides. (You can also activate Assistant by saying, "OK Google.")
While Active Edge is a neat idea, it was far too sensitive for my liking and a bit awkward to use, in part because its sensor is located slightly lower than where my hand naturally gripped the phone. I found myself either enabling Assistant by accident or needing several squeezes to get it to launch.
You can adjust the sensitivity of the sensor in the settings menu. But even after experimenting with different levels, I still haven't found a setting that works quite right for me.
That said, I can't figure out a better way to activate a voice assistant aside from using a catchphrase. The dedicated button Samsung uses to launch its Bixby assistant seems silly. And I'm not a fan of Apple's model, where you have to use the home button to activate Siri. For now, squeezing does seem like the best of those choices.
As for Assistant itself, I'm convinced it's the best smart assistant around. It can perform simple tasks in response to commands, such as "take a photo." It can also figure out what to do if you give it a more complex command, such as "play a makeup tutorial from YouTube." And it can answer nuanced questions, such as "What are some nearby restaurants that are open on Sunday?"
Assistant continues to get smarter and has the brains of Google behind it. If a smart assistant is a priority for you, the Pixel phone is the best option on the market.
So long, headphone jack
If there's one major disappointment with the Pixel 2, it's the lack of a headphone jack.
Google introduced the first-generation Pixel last year right after Apple unveiled the iPhone 7, which infamously lacked a headphone jack. Company officials made a big deal that they didn't follow Apple's footsteps and that the Pixel had the standard jack.
But Google reversed course this year and removed the headphone jack from the new phone. With the Pixel 2, you either have to use Bluetooth headphones or use an adapter to connect your wired headphones. Those are crummy alternatives that almost no one likes, and it's disappointing Google followed Apple's path.
And actually, things are worse for Pixel users than iPhone purchasers, because Google doesn't include wired earbuds with its phones. Apple at least includes headphones with its smartphones that can plug directly into their Lightning data ports.
This particular design choice is one of the few with the Pixel 2 where I think Google missed the mark. Removing the headphone jack is a big and potentially costly inconvenience. It forces people to put up with an awkward dongle — or spend as much as several hundred dollars to get wireless headphones.
Google has a halfway decent reason for removing the jack — doing so will allow it to make devices with thinner borders around their screens in the future. But in making the move, the company seems to have lost sight of its customers' needs.
But is it too "Google-y"?
A huge selling point of the Pixel 2 and the original Pixel is how seamlessly Google's apps and services are integrated into the phone. If you're entrenched in Google's ecosystem, you'll love this about the new device.
If you swipe all the way to the right on the home screen, you'll bring up the Google app, which you can customize for news, alerts, and directions. You'll find a Google search bar on the main home screen. The Pixel 2 will automatically save all the photos you take to the Google Photos service without you having to lift a finger. And when you use Google's new Lens feature — a visual search engine that can identify objects in the real world — it will automatically detect email addresses and prompt you to send a message through Gmail.
This integration with Google's services is one of the main reasons to switch to the Pixel 2 from other devices. And Google is eager for switchers, maybe even desperate.
When you set it up, the Pixel 2 repeatedly prods you to transfer over your data from an iPhone. And Google helpfully included in the phone's box a special adapter in the box that allows you to connect the Pixel 2 to Apple's phone to make the process easier.
But that same tie to Google's services that makes the Pixel 2 great can also be a major roadblock for iPhone users.
Switching to a whole new operating system isn't as simple as attaching a tiny dongle and syncing your photos. For one thing, it can take a lot of work to transfer the data you have stored in Apple's iCloud service to Google's comparable service and to the Pixel phone.
That's not to say making the switch is impossible, but it's certainly not as easy as Google's marketing would have you believe.
The Pixel 2 isn't a luxury device, and its design isn't going to wow anyone. For current Pixel owners, it's not much of an upgrade. The specs are mostly identical, the overall design has barely changed, and it costs the same as the Pixel did when it was released.
Both Apple and Samsung make phones that are more beautiful and higher-end, so their fans may not see the appeal. And even if they did, they may find it difficult to switch.
But I'm a fan of the Pixel 2. It's easy and comfortable to use. I could imagine owning the Pixel 2 for years and not wanting or really needing to upgrade.
That's because its a workhorse phone that should hold up for years. Google is selling it for $649, a relatively reasonable price. Its selfie camera is a fantastic feature.
And it has other things to like. It's only a hair bigger than the iPhone 6s. It has noticeable borders around its screen, which I prefer. It still has a fingerprint scanner.
All those qualities combine to make the Pixel 2 the best phone for most people. It's ideal for those who need a great phone for work and play but aren't obsessed with having a super-thin border around their smartphone screen and aren't impressed by "courageous" design choices.
To use an analogy, if the iPhone X is the hot, eye-catching gadget of the moment, the Pixel 2 is the device you want to grow old with.
And if you asked me whether I'd encourage family and friends to settle down with the Pixel 2 also, my answer would be a resounding "yes."