Google’s Pixel 2 XL (starting at $849) is a true Google phone—possibly the most Google phone ever. The company has remixed its favorite features from HTC and LG to make a super-sized flagship with a unique personality. While the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL has roughly the same power and hardware capabilities as the 5-inch Pixel 2, the XL is keeping up more with current trends in screen and body design. We haven’t officially tested either phone yet, but this is the one to watch.
The LG-made Pixel 2 XL has the same 6-inch, 2,880-by-1,440 OLED panel as the LG V30, but it’s in a custom chassis that’s a little taller at 6.2 inches to the V30’s 6.0 inches. That’s to make room for front-facing speakers, which we tried but couldn’t get a good bead on in a very noisy demo room. The back is a warm, cozy mix of matte metal and glass, in black and white.
I am very happy to see the new 18:9 form factor here rather than the smaller Pixel’s outdated 16:9. After using a Samsung Galaxy S8 for a while, I’ve become a major partisan of tall, narrow phones, which give you more screen area while still remaining easy to hold.
Inside, just like on the smaller Pixel, there’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB of storage. There’s no microSD card slot and no headphone jack, just a USB-C port on the bottom. Also, like the smaller Pixel, and unlike the V30, the LTE implementation here is of the Cat15, 800Mbps variety, compatible with all four major national carriers, but lacking T-Mobile’s new Band 71 and with 4×4 MIMO on everyone’s bands except Sprint’s. A 3,520mAh battery, much bigger than the Pixel’s 2,700mAh cell, ensures decent longevity with the bigger screen.
Here’s the statement, though: Google takes that 18:9, quad HD, 6-inch LG OLED body and puts…HTC’s squeeze sensor on it! This shocks me a little—the squeeze sensor from the HTC U11 is one of its proudest inventions right now—but apparently the tech was part of Google’s $1.1-billion HTC deal. Squeeze the phone slightly below its midriff, supposedly even if it’s in a case, and it’ll launch Google Assistant. I’ve used this feature on the U11, and you don’t have to worry about accidental activation—you have to squeeze both sides. You can alter the squeeze sensitivity, but as far as I can tell, you can’t change it to launch a different app.
The Pixel 2 XL has an interesting mix of hardware features, but that’s not where Google wants you to focus: It wants you to look at Google Assistant and the phone’s AI functions.
And so you have exclusive Google features on the new Pixels, both the 2 and the 2 XL. The 2 XL tries to detect what music is playing in the room around you and shows the name of the song on its always-on display, for instance. It was very hard to make this work in the crowded, noisy demo room, but it did after a while.
You also get Google Lens, which extracts information like email addresses and phone numbers from photos, or identifies people and locations. You’ll need a Pixel to do the new Automatic Translation mode with the Google Pixel Buds earphones. And you get “AR stickers,” which put 3D characters into your photos. None of these are deal-making features, but they show Google’s commitment to keep feeding exclusive software (not to mention Android updates) to the Pixels first.
One Camera, Not Two
The Pixel 2 XL has the same 12.2-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera as the Pixel 2. Camera quality has been somehow enhanced with AI in a manner that we’ll have to test, but the original Pixels already have excellent cameras; I’m not sure the Pixel 2s can get much better. Pictures looked great in the demo room, but we had natural light there, and low light is where you see challenges in top-notch smartphone cameras nowadays.
Google wants to make it very clear that the phone, supposedly, doesn’t need the second camera that you find on the iPhone 8 Plus, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. That’s…not entirely true. Yes, the Pixel 2 XL can do augmented reality with one camera using Google’s ARCore, the way the iPhone 8 can do it with Apple’s ARKit. But that’s not what most people are using dual cameras for: They’re using them for either zoom (Apple, Samsung) or wide-angle (LG, Motorola). Zooming in with the Pixel 2 XL is digital, like on the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 8, and it isn’t going to be as sharp as a native zoom lens.
Google does manage to do bokeh Portrait mode with the single camera through software, though. We took a photo of a heavily bearded GSMArena editor, and saw some of the same artifacts you see with dual-camera bokeh. It worked pretty well, but stray hairs behind other hairs tended to be blurred out as part of the background. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not worse than on dual-camera phones. Bokeh works with the 8-megapixel front camera, too.
The Pixel 2 XL starts at $849 for the 64GB version, with the 128GB model going for $949, either unlocked or on Verizon. That’s on par with the LG V30 and iPhone 8 Plus, and less expensive than the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X. It’s available for pre-order now, with devices beginning to arrive on October 19. We’ll take a closer look then in a full review.