Long ago in a Galaxy far far away… oh forget them Last Jedi feels, actually not THAT long ago and in this very galaxy, Nokia had launched a device called the Lumia 1020. It boasted some very good hardware and software (Windows Phone was silky smooth, remember?) and had a distinct design. But its highlight was a camera that seemed well ahead of not just the competition but its time. Everyone referred to it as a “camera in a phone’s body.”
And after a few weeks of using the latest Google flagship, the Pixel 2 XL, one cannot help but get a similar feeling. Yes, the phone has a very distinct design (although it cannot be called premium – the feel of the metal back seems almost grainy and plasticky), with its dual tone back (we got the black model) and its hardware is right up there with the best – a 6-inch quad HD display squeezed into a compact frame that is a mere 6.2-inches tall thanks to its 18:9 aspect ratio, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor 4 GB RAM, 64 GB of storage (albeit non-expandable) and GPS, Bluetooth, NFC, 4G (stubbornly single SIM though) and a large 3520 mAH battery. And of course, it runs Android 8.0 right out of the box, only the second phone to do so (the Sony Xperia XZ1 was the first, ironically) and of course, it is assured Android updates directly from Google.
But at the end of the day, everyone who has used the Pixel 2 XL has ended up talking about its cameras!
Those cameras rock!
On paper, there seems to be nothing special about them – the rear one is a 12.2-megapixel one with f/1.8 aperture, the one in front an 8.0-megapixel one with f/2.4 aperture. Yes, Google did talk about high DxOMark scores and “dual pixel autofocus”, but then companies were supposed to talk up their products, weren’t they?
All the “normalcy”, however, gets left on the paper when you start using the cameras. For, let’s get one thing clear: those cameras walk Google’s talk. Totally. The rear snapper on the Pixel 2XL is right up there with the best we have seen on a smartphone, matching those on the Galaxy Note 8 and the iPhone X/8 Plus. And does so well that one actually starts wondering if all the talk of dual cameras is just plain hype.
This particularly comes to the fore when we were using Portrait Mode – the very mode that most companies tell us depends heavily on dual cameras. Yes, there was a slight lag while the images were processed but the handling of edges and bokeh easily matched what we have seen from dual camera devices, with even the edges being very well defined in some cases. Also, unlike some other devices where you had to depend on the camera to determine when you can take the picture, here, you can actually snap at will and sit back and let the software work its magic. Yes, some will turn their noses up at that and claim that dual cameras deliver “real” hardware driven bokeh, but if what you are concerned about really is results (and most of us are), then these cameras will are going to deliver some very stunning portrait images for you, be it from the rear cameras or the front.
That mode apart, the Pixel 2 XL’s rear snapper builds on the heritage and formidable reputation of its predecessor. Yes, there were occasions when we felt that colors (particularly browns) were a little washed out, but most times, we found colors to be good and details very rich indeed. Yes, we do wish Google would do more with the Stock Android photography app, which seems pathetically limited when compared to what MIUI and EMUI offer, but at the end of the day, photography is about results, and its occasional lapses of inconsistency aside, the Pixel 2 XL’s deliver those. In spades. This is one of the best smartphone cameras around. Period.
That phone, though…
Get past the camera magic, however, and the scales kind of dip. Now, let us make one thing clear: the Pixel 2 XL is NOT a bad device by any stretch of the imagination. It has got great hardware, a very distinct if divisive two-tone design with glass on the top of the back and aluminium below it (some people just did not like the finish, and we found the location of the power/display button above the volume rocker in a relatively tall phone a bit inconvenient, but that said, you cannot mistake this phone for any other, and the white and black model with the orange power button looks gorgeous) and comes with the goodness of stock Android. Oh, and THOSE cameras. The problem, however, is that user expectations tend to rise with increases in the price tag. And at Rs 73,000, the Pixel 2 XL finds itself having to compete against two of the most formidable devices out there – the iPhone 8 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Yes, it more than matches them in the camera department, but a step away from that, and things are not quite as rosy.
For, rather oddly, after having been absolutely pampered by the smooth Android experience on Nexus and Pixel devices, we actually encountered lags and slowdowns on the Pixel 2 XL. Yes, for the most part, the experience was butter smooth, but there were occasions of apps crashing, the keyboard freezing (especially in Instagram) and us being left with nothing but the navigation buttons on the base of the display. Considering that stock Android is no longer the preserve of Google devices, we really expected a better performance here. Once again, the point we need to stress here is that it is not as if the Pixel 2 XL lags all the time – it does not. It is just that whenever it does stutter, it comes as a very unpleasant surprise because hey, this is Google’s OS on Google’s phone. The last time we had a complaint of this sort on a new Nexus device was perhaps the Nexus 5X.
Then there is that display – 6.0 inches and 2880 x 1440 with an 18:9 aspect ratio in a design that does not exactly shave bezels off the sides but keeps them restricted. A lot has been written about the blue tint on it and other issues, but our own experience was a satisfactory one – it was definitely not the brightest we have seen and gets bested not only by those on the iPhone 8 Plus and the Note 8 but even by the one on the OnePlus 5T, which costs half its price; but it is no deal breaker, unless you are those who associate AMOLED with insanely bright, eye-popping colors. Like to an extent the iPhone X, the AMOLED on the Pixel 2 XL tends to be closer to reality.
Call quality was decent (although reception sometimes seemed a little erratic – we found ourselves losing network connectivity in areas where the iPhone on the same network seemed to be working fine), but we expected a bit more from those front-facing speakers, which were decent rather than exceptional. The same can be said of the fingerprint scanner – it was brilliant when it worked but seemed to stumble sometimes. Battery life is, however, very good indeed. We easily saw off a day and half of normal to heavy usage, with 2-3 hours of calls, lots of gaming and emails and social networks kept on push mode.
Other touches like water resistance are handy but not really unique (the iPhone and Note 8 have them too, for instance) and the squeeze-to-launch-Google Assistant touch and naming the tune that is playing in the room (without launching a new app) seem a little gimmicky and not exactly revolutionary. Unlimited storage for photos sounds good but then, the Pixel’s camera is a 12.2 megapixel one, and Google Photos says that unlimited storage is available for all users as long as photographs are up to 16.0-megapixels. Mind you, video users stand to gain, as while the Pixel lets you store videos of any resolution free of charge on Google Photos, users of other devices can have unlimited storage for their videos only if they are up to 1080p. Google Lens Beta had not come to Google Assistant on our review device at the time this review was being written.
Happy to be snappy? Buy it! Else…
Which brings us to the BIG question: should you consider purchasing the Pixel 2 XL? Our answer is simple: yes, if you really love mobile photography, and are a spec sheet fan. For the device delivers on both fronts. If, however, you are looking for a high-performing premium level device, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone 8 Plus do not just loom on the horizon of the Pixel 2 XL, but actually overshadow it. No, it is not as if the Pixel 2 XL is a bad performer. But being good enough somehow does not remain an option when your price tag gets into the premium league. And as complete, consistent devices, we have to admit that the iPhone 8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8 outclass the Pixel 2 XL, although they have their own problems.
No, we would have had no qualms recommending the Pixel 2 XL over the likes of the OnePlus 5T, the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 and the Nokia 8, all of which sport similar processors and configurations, but the fact that you can buy two of those for the price of a single Pixel 2 XL pretty much throws a spanner in the GoogleWorks. And it is the same spanner that got thrown into the works of the Lumia 1020. It had a camera in a zone of one and was an able enough performer in other departments, but came at a price tag that made the competition look good.
All of which tempts us to use the same words to describe that worthy: In its current avatar, the Pixel 2 XL is a camera disguised as a smartphone. The camera is magnificent. But the disguise could have been better. And perhaps – perhaps (because we know not the financials) – could have been a tad more affordable.