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Without fail, every person who has picked up the Pixel 2 XL has said virtually the same thing: “It feels like it’s made out of plastic.” I said it myself when I first held it. Of course, neither the Pixel 2 nor the Pixel 2 XL are made out of plastic. They’re made out of Gorilla Glass and aluminum, just like every other high-end phone these days.
But Google coated all that aluminum with a textured finish that hides most of the antenna lines and also makes the phones easier to grip. Google took what could have been a visually impressive design and covered it up in the name of ergonomics. It literally made a metal phone feel like a plastic one. It chose function over form.
At nearly every turn, with both the hardware and the software, Google made that design decision again and again. There have been a few times when I wish the company had risked a little more razzamatazz, but mostly I’ve been appreciating the focus on improving the basics.
“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like,” Steve Jobs once said, “design is how it works.”
The Pixel 2 works really well.
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The Pixel 2 comes in two sizes: a very humdrum 5-inch phone with a squared-off screen and big, chunky bezels, and a slightly more impressive 6-inch version with curved corners and smaller bezels. You’ll need to spend $649 for the smaller one or $849 for the larger one, with a $100 premium for expanded storage.
As it did last year, Google has done its level best to make these two phones identical except for their size. You’ll get the same power, performance, and (most importantly) camera with either device. The only differences are supposed to be the screen and the battery. You could endlessly debate whether these are the “same phone” in two different sizes. If you replace the keel on a ship, does it make it a different boat? If you replace the screen, body, and battery on a phone, does it make it a different phone? To me, there’s more that’s similar than different, so let’s not go full Ship of Theseus on them. (Note: when I refer to “Pixel 2” below, I’m referring to both. I’ll call out the “smaller” Pixel 2 or the 2 XL specifically where applicable.)
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Last year’s Pixel had the best camera you could get on a smartphone, and not just in DxO benchmarks, but in real-world testing. Of course, since then the Galaxy Note 8, HTC U11, and the iPhone 8 all came along. And I haven’t done enough testing to say whether or not the Pixel 2 can beat the pack again. But after about a week of using the camera, I will say this: it has a real shot at being the best again.
I’ve already described the multitude of technologies that are crammed into the Pixel 2’s camera stack and image processing workflow, so I’ll just stick with the short version here. Google is using its greatest strength, machine learning, to make the camera much better.
There is a 12-megapixel dual-pixel autofocus sensor on the back and an 8-megapixel sensor on the front. On the rear, Google is using a slightly brighter lens than before with the added upgrade of optical image stabilization. But the technical details are less important than how Google approaches photography: it is treating photography like a data problem instead of just a light problem.
For regular shots in full auto, the Pixel 2 is excellent. It handles challenging lighting situations without blinking: low-light, backlit subjects, and my own shaky hands are not a problem for this camera. The selfie camera is 8 megapixels, and it probably the best front-facing camera I’ve ever used. It has a “face retouching” feature, which, like most I’ve tried, is a little over-aggressive in smoothing your pores away.