SAN FRANCISCO—I have touched the new Pixel phone. It’s tough to write about Google’s new smartphones because, well, it’s not about the hardware. The phones are delivery mechanisms for Google’s software and AI algorithms, and none of that is really done yet.
The hardware is fine. The Pixel 2 XL, with its slimmer bezels and 18:9 screen, looks more modern than the Pixel 2. In fact, the most striking thing about Google’s hardware is the decision to make two completely different phones.
There are some big wins here that apply to both phones. The 2 and 2XL are some of the few flagship phones that are made of metal instead of glass or plastic. Apple and Samsung have settled on more fragile glass backs for easier wireless communication, but Google solves this rather elegantly with a glass window at the top of the phone. The metal feels great and does a good job of making the phones feel like they’re worth their $650-$850 (£629-£799) price tag.
The Pixel 2 XL, which is made by LG, looks handsome. Thanks to the front-facing speakers, the bezels are a bit bigger than its closest cousin, the LG V30. But the 2 XL still looks like a modern slim-bezel smartphone. The display has curved corners, just like the iPhone X, Galaxy S8, and LG V30, and it fits in well with the rest of the high-end crowd.
The smaller Pixel 2, which is made by HTC, looks like a bit of a mess from the front. The top and bottom bezels are gigantic—and honestly pretty ugly.
Both devices are expected to have amazing cameras. This year, that camera sensor comes with a bump. The lens sticks out of the back of the phone slightly, and its placement on the corner of the back means the device will rock back and forth slightly on a table.
The camera setups are different between the phones, too. The Pixel 2 XL puts its camera lens in the corner, followed by the LED flash, which looks nice. The Pixel 2 has its LED flash in the corner of the phone, too, which pushes the giant camera lens toward the center of the phone. This does not look as good.
The sides are different, too. Pixel 2 XL has glass that curves over and meets the side. The Pixel 2 has flat glass and chamfered edges.
Of course, the biggest downside of the device applies to both models: the complete lack of a headphone jack.
Both devices run Android 8.0 with some custom software and features from Google.
The squeeze gesture might be my favorite feature on the 2 and the 2 XL. Like the HTC U 11, they have pressure-sensitive sides, and a simple squeeze of the phones will launch the Assistant. I love this feature because it’s easily the fastest way to issue a voice command. Just pull the phone out of your pocket, squeeze it before it even gets to you face, and the voice system is already up and running, ready to take a command. For something I do many times a day, having an easy way to launch voice that doesn’t rely on the hotword will be nice.
The new home screen moves the Google Search bar to the bottom of the screen, where it can be more easily accessed. Up top, there’s a widget with your next appointment and the weather, and soon it will be able to show flight and traffic data.
With the transformation of Google Now into Google Feed, Google started focusing less on the predictive calendar/flight/traffic data and more on being a news surface, so it’s nice to see a new front-and-center interface where this information can be seen again.
The 2 and 2 XL both feature a new, always-on ambient notification screen. This screen shows the time and notification icons, and since it’s super dark, it doesn’t use much power from the OLED display. Also on this screen is an always-on Music identification feature. If music is playing, the screen will quietly display the name of the song near the bottom of the display. Beaming audio data to Google 24/7 would be a bit creepy, so this is instead a local feature that uses on-device machine learning and doesn’t send any data to Google. The downside is that the music-identification selection is limited to 20,000 songs.
Both phones have Google Lens, which we didn’t get to try much at the show. There were a few demos, but without trying it out in the wild, it’s hard to get a feel for how useful it will be in real life. For now, the usage seems to be annoying. You have to take a picture of something, open Google Photos, and press the lens button. We would prefer to get a live video feed that can identify things.
That’s about it for the Pixel 2s. We saw two phones made by two manufacturers that give two distinctively different impressions when you see them. The Pixel 2 XL feels like a modern, capable smartphone, while the Pixel 2 feels like a phone that shouldn’t exist.