Google's Pixel 2 & Pixel 2 XL Deliver Peak Performance For Less

Last year, Google put its name in the smartphone ring with the Pixel, a gorgeous phone that shot stunning photos. In a busy arena where it used to be all Apple and Samsung, Google started making its mark.
After an impressive freshman year outing, Google is back with round two: The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. The phones cost less than the iPhone 8 and upcoming iPhone X — Pixel 2 starts at $649 and Pixel 2 XL starts at $849, though the latter is slightly more expensive than the iPhone 8 Plus, which starts at $799. Both phones are also less expensive than Samsung's latest, the Galaxy Note8, which will cost you $929.99. Those who favor fingerprint ID over face ID will be pleased to know Google is sticking with the former for now.
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I took the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL to upstate New York for a fall weekend of leaf peeping and phone testing. Ahead, here's what to know about the new phones and how to decide if they're right for you.
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Awake & Ready To Go

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both have a new "Always On" display, which, as its name implies, stays on even when your phone is locked. Here, you'll see the time, date, and icons for apps where you have notifications. So, for example, an unread text will be represented by the message icon.

The "Now Playing" tool is notable: Turn it on in your settings to show the name and artist of any song playing on the "Always On" screen. This is Google's 2017 iteration of Shazam, and it's a smart one that works relatively well. When driving in a loud car on the highway, my Pixel 2 XL was still able to make out Lady Gaga on the radio. However, "Now Playing" only worked intermittently, sometimes showing the song title and other times not showing anything, even though a song was playing.
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Home Base

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have the Google search bar at the bottom of the home screen, instead of the top, where it was on the first Pixel. This is a welcome change that feels more intuitive — you can tap and type in a query more easily. A new "At-a-Glance" space at the top of the home screen includes the local weather, which you can tap for details, and date, which you can press to open Google Calendar.

Swiping down from the top of the screen shows recent notifications and gives you access to controls including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and night light. Swiping up shows you all of your apps. The home screen includes four default apps — phone, messages, Google Play, Chrome, and the camera — and you can press and hold other apps to pin them to the homescreen. I did this with the apps I use most frequently — Photos, Gmail, Maps, Snapchat, and Instagram. It's a nice way to keep the home screen organized and less regularly used apps out of the way. You can also press and hold down on apps to see shortcuts, such as notifications or, for Maps, instant directions to a saved location.
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Up To Date

As with the original Pixel, swiping from left to right on the home screen pulls up recent news and also gives you shortcuts to Gmail, your calendar, and recent searches on Google. I found myself scrolling through the news updates here, but tended to access my email and calendar directly from the home screen.
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Mix & Multi-task

If you're used to opening Google Maps on an iPhone, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that opening the app on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL provides far more information right off the bat, from local food spots to directions.

Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL also have a new picture-in-picture feature that lets you navigate while using another app such as Instagram or Gmail. Simply start following directions in Maps, then open another app. Your map will remain open in a small window in the corner of the screen. The number of apps that work with picture-in-picture are limited, but Google says more will be added over time.
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Power Up

At the end of a day's use, I tended to end up with somewhere between 30 and 40% battery life on the Pixel 2 XL. This was about the same as what I got when I tested the iPhone 8 Plus. You can boost your battery life by toggling on "battery saver," which will turn off the "Always On" display.
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Space Saver

One of the Pixel 2 XL's most useful features is Smart Storage. This is turned on by default and will automatically remove already backed up photos and videos from your phone after 30, 60, or 90 days (you can choose the time span). You can also go to Settings > Storage and manually choose to "Free Up Space." Those pesky "you're running out of space" notifications will be banished for good.
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Assist Me

Google has continued improving on its virtual helper, Google Assistant, since it launched the original Pixel a year ago — and it shows. I asked the Assistant to take a selfie and it immediately opened my camera to selfie mode. The Assistant also has the benefit of taking advantage of three things Google is known for — maps, translations, and the search engine — to deliver on point info about anything from the closest brunch place to how to say a phrase in French.

On the Pixel 2 XL, you can activate the Assistant by squeezing the bottom of the phone, something Google is calling Active Edge. When I originally heard about this new feature, I worried I would constantly turn on my Assistant by accident. Fortunately, I never did — when setting up the phone, you select the sensitivity level of the Active Edge, meaning you can pick the pressure that feels right to you.
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Picture Perfect

The camera was the standout tool on the first Pixel, so I had high hopes for the Pixel 2 XL: Happily, it didn't let me down. Unlike the iPhone 8 Plus and the soon-to-be-released iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL still only has one rear-facing camera instead of two, but this doesn't seem to make a difference. The phone handles low light conditions, selfies, and landscape shots like a pro.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are the first phones to feature Google Lens, a smart camera feature that's in its early stages, but can be used within Photos to identify artwork and landmarks. I didn't find much use for Lens yet, but anticipate the day when I can open my phone's camera, point it towards a restaurant, and have Lens help me reserve a table there in seconds.

Google is also introducing its own version of Apple's Live Photos called Motion Photos on the new Pixels. (Those with the original Pixel will also be able to use Motion Photos.) This is the default when you shoot and records a few seconds of video with each photo. Even though I found myself using still photos more than motion photos, it's still nice to have the option. (You can always turn Motion Photos off before or after taking the photo.)
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The picture on the left was taken with the iPhone 8 Plus, the one on the right with the Pixel 2 XL. The latter is a much sharper photo: You can make out more colors in the sky and details in the trees. The iPhone's photo, by comparison, is washed out above the tree line.
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Even though the background in the Pixel 2 XL photo on the right is slightly washed out, I still prefer this selfie to the one taken with the iPhone 8 Plus on the left, since the faces are more brightly lit. The lighting resembles the kind you might find shooting in a studio, not a tent outdoors.
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Apple is delivering portrait selfie mode in the iPhone X, but Google is delivering it at a more reasonable price on both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. So, how does it perform?

I wish I could say I loved portrait mode on the Pixel 2 XL, but I was a bit disappointed. You can see the blurred effect, called bokeh, cutting into the top of my hat, and a lack of background blur on the left side of my face (behind my hair).
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The inconsistency of background blur was worse when taking a rear-facing portrait mode photo.

You can see areas in the bottom left and right side of the Pixel 2 XL photo on the right, where the bokeh effect has not been applied. It's unfortunate, because the colors are much better than those in the photo on the left, taken with an iPhone 8 Plus. Even though the background is completely blurred there, much of it is washed out.

I'm hopeful that Google can address issues with portrait mode in upcoming software updates.
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Portrait mode aside, the Pixel 2 XL's camera continued to out-perform the iPhone 8 Plus in low light conditions. In the Pixel photo on the right, you can make out more detail in the rocks below the campfire and the scene's sunset is richer.
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The same goes for this shot taken after the sun had completely fallen. You can make out the gravel path in the foreground in the Pixel 2 XL photo on the right as well as some detail in the tents. The iPhone 8 Plus photo on the left is much darker and grainier.
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A Worthy Competitor

The original Pixel was an impressive first outing for Google hardware, and Pixel 2 improves on what was already there. There are definitely places where the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL still lag behind the iPhone — I far prefer iMessage and FaceTime to Google's messaging and video options.

However, with the exception of portrait mode, which needs some software tweaks, the cameras on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL continue to shine. If you want a DSLR-quality camera in the palm of your hand, Google's new phones deliver with best-in-class shots. The Google Assistant, easy accessibility of Search, and improved multi-tasking, are big bonuses.

If anything, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL show that although Google may still be playing catch up to its seasoned smartphone competitors in some areas, it's catching up fast.
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