For a majority of the 10 years smartphones have been mainstream, phone makers have been copying each other’s designs. It’s not easy to differentiate when all you really have is a slab of glass and a handful of variables like materials, camera, ports, and bezels to work with. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to suss out some genuine schools of design thought, and genuinely competing philosophies of phone design are only beginning to emerge.
That’s why the designs for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are remarkable: in its second year of making phone hardware, Google is establishing an aesthetic that isn’t just consistent, but is distinct from what both Apple and Samsung are doing. Google hardware is all about pragmatism and approachability.
Google also layers on a new iteration to the oldest of tech clichés: the integration of hardware and software. For Google, the future isn’t in the merger of hardware and software; it’s in the merger of hardware and machine learning.
The new Pixels also seem like pretty good phones.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are Google-made phones coming out on October 19th. The less-expensive model is the 5-inch Pixel 2 with 64GB of storage, at $649. The Pixel 2 XL starts at $849. You can spend $100 more on either model to get 128GB of storage.
The phones are identical except for a few key things: the size and type of screen, the size of the battery, and the basic hardware design. Otherwise, they have the same cameras, same processors, same dual-speakers — the works.
You may have heard that the Pixel 2 is manufactured by HTC and the 2 XL is manufactured by LG. That’s true, but Google is again insisting that it made these phones, and that it isn’t just tweaking around the edges of existing phones like it did with the old Nexus line. Having used these phones a little bit over the course of a couple days, I saw a lot more Google here than I did LG or HTC.
Google is quite proud of the screens on these phones, both of which are OLED (though they’re produced by different manufacturers). The company claims they have a contrast ratio of 100,000:1, which compares to 1,400:1 on the iPhone 8. When I asked Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh about them, he was confident. “Screens have so many dimensions: brightness, color gamut, quality, contrast ratio,” he said. “We’ll be strong in every dimension — certainly competitive in every dimension — and leading in many.” The screens can be set to always-on, showing time and notification icons on a black background. They look nice, but I’ll need to do a lot more looking and testing before I can say anything definitive.
The speakers on both phones got plenty loud without too much distortion. I’m sure it was a priority to get those speakers in there, but I’m also sure I would rather have smaller bezels. The overall audio story on Pixel 2 is a big deal: it does away with the headphone jack, but it also supports a bunch of new audio codecs over Bluetooth 5. I can also tell you that the Pixel 2 is a thousand percent better at recognizing when I say “OK Google” than last year’s phone.
There is a lot about these phones that is not very surprising: the standard Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, OLED screens, 12-megapixel rear cameras and 8-megapixel selfie cameras. When people say phones are boring now, what they often mean is that you can’t really differentiate them by looking at a spec sheet. That’s mostly true of the Pixel 2.
When you hold a Samsung Galaxy phone (or, for the very brief time I got to try it, the iPhone X), you’re hit in the face with the flashiness: curved screens, notches for face-detecting cameras, the chrome and the glitz.
Google’s not going for all that. These phones aren’t homely, but they’re also not flashy. They have glass “shades” on the back for the antennas to work, and they have bezels to house the speakers. You might not get people at a bar oohing and aahing over the design, but you will get the practical benefits of a simpler design.
The screen doesn’t curve around the sides like the S8, but you don’t have to worry about rogue touches. There’s no notch on the screen enabling truly edge-to-edge design, but there’s also… no notch on the screen. There’s no shiny glass, but the finish on the aluminum makes it easier to grip. Every time it faced a design trade-off, Google chose the more pragmatic option.
That’s not to say there aren’t impressive design elements to point out. There are no visible antenna lines anywhere on the XL’s aluminum unibody. Even though the 6-inch screen on the XL might not technically count as edge-to-edge, it still fits a much larger screen in a body that’s just a little bigger than last year’s Pixel XL, which had a 5.5-inch screen. On both, you’ll see that there is no camera bump beyond a slight raised ridge around the lens.
One of the most telling things about holding the phones is the finish on the aluminum. They almost feel more like plastic than metal; I literally had to double-check by holding the phone to my wrist like a baby bottle to see if it was cool like metal should be. That finish plus the bezels make the phone more grippable; on the XL, it hides the antenna lines. The aluminum does mean that there’s no wireless charging, however.
They’re also kind of fun. Many of the color choices (three on the Pixel 2, two on the XL) have a power button that stands out. The white Pixel 2 XL, in particular, has a black glass shade on the back, a white body, and a neon power button. It’s like a Stormtrooper who secretly wears crazy underpants.
I like practicality, but I still think the bezels on the smaller Pixel 2 are too big, and I wish the XL was a little smaller.
Let’s talk about cameras. It will be nerdy.
If there’s any single thing that makes a great phone great, it’s the camera. Last year’s Pixel was the best camera you could get on a phone for nearly a year, so the Pixel 2 has a lot to live up to. And if there’s any place where Google is going out on a limb with the Pixel 2, it’s with the choices it made on the camera.
Rather than go with dual lenses and a camera bump like Apple, Google is sticking to a single lens on the back and pairing it to a pile of innovations that — like the phones themselves — seem iterative when taken individually. But taken together and put through the filter of Google’s machine learning, I think they have a chance to be something really special.
Here are some of the hardware changes Google is cramming into its camera stack:
- It’s switching to a dual-pixel sensor on the back, which means that every single pixel is made of two smaller ones.
- It’s adding optical image stabilization for photos and videos, in addition to electronic image stabilization.
- The dual-pixel setup means that the pixels in the sensor are slightly smaller than last year’s Pixel: 1.4μm vs. 1.55μm.
- To compensate for the smaller pixels, the aperture on the lens is opening up to let in more light: f/1.8 compared to last year’s f/2.0.
- Although it gets more advanced phase detection for focus with the dual pixels, it’s keeping laser autofocus, too.
- It’s individually calibrating each phone in the factory to account for the tiny distortions that are inevitable on every camera lens.
To be very, very clear: I have only taken a few dozen photos with these phones, and I was using preproduction software, so it is way too early for me to render any kind of judgement. That said, I am impressed with the results I’ve seen so far.
It’s dangerous to judge based on so few shots, but: if Google can consistently produce similar results to what I’ve already seen, it has made a big leap over last year’s Pixel camera, and stands a strong chance of contending with the dual-lens / camera bump system on the iPhone 8 (and presumably the iPhone X). Now that you have a list of specs for the camera, here are a bunch of things Google has done to make each of those iterative hardware changes multiply each other rather than just add up:
Portrait Mode: Like Apple and darn near everybody else, Google is adding a portrait mode to the Pixel 2. Seang Chau, VP of engineering at Google, says they trained an algorithm on “millions” of faces to account for properly blurring around hair.
That’s pretty standard stuff, to be blunt. What’s less standard is that Google is enabling that background blur effect on the 8-megapixel front-facing camera as well. It’s also able to create the bokeh effect on the rear camera for any object. Doing that requires creating a depth map, and the usual way to create that depth map is to use two separate camera sensors.
The Pixel 2 just has the one, but it also has that dual-pixel camera sensor. Instead creating a depth map from images that are spaced a half-inch or so apart, it’s using images that are spaced less than a micron apart. “They’re really close to each other and it’s really, really noisy,” Chau says. “But guess what: we have algorithms for that … we can increase the signal-to-noise ratio using our same HDR algorithm by overlapping multiple shots and get a much better depth map.”
Low light: Taking multiple shots in auto HDR mode is still the key to how Google approaches low-light photography. Even though the Pixel 2 has OIS, Chau tells me that it won’t leave the shutter open for a longer time when it’s dark. The OIS helps, but Google’s primary strategy is still to take a bunch of shots and let its algorithm jam on all that data to combine them into a single image.
Video stabilization: Flashy demos of video stabilization on phones have been around for a long time, and Google, of course, has its own. The company contends that it’s different on the Pixel 2, though. Google says that usually video stabilization on phones is handled by software only, cropping in to the image to remove jitters. The OIS module is often locked in place for video, so it doesn’t float around and make life harder for the algorithm.
On the Pixel 2, the OIS module is free to float around, because Google worked with the parts manufacturer to pull the location data out of the module in real time. So it can detect your hand shake through gyros, detect where the OIS module is at the same time, and then combine those two jittery graphs into a giant pile of messy data that Google machine learning algorithms parse into stable video.
Motion Photos: Like Apple’s Live Photos, the Pixel 2’s camera can be set to automatically record a short clip with every photo. And like Apple, Google’s file format for these photos is going to take a while to be supported by the social networks you will want to share them on. Google’s implementation is based on appending the moving image to a standard JPEG file, so maybe it will happen quickly. You’ll be able to export into standard formats like MOV and GIF files from the Google Photos app (and, one assumes, Google’s own Motion Stills app).
There’s machine learning here, too, of course. The phone detects stuff you’d want to cut out, like the blurry motion of putting your phone back into your pocket. It also does an analysis of the beginning and end of each three-second motion photo and attempts to trim the clip to make better-looking loops.
Augmented Reality stickers: Google’s ARCore framework is fully active on the Pixel 2, so Google is building little moving “stickers” that you can stick into your scene in real time. It’s also taking advantage of some partnerships to get custom stickers, starting with some pretty twee little avatars from Stranger Things. Google says that the individual calibration of each phone’s lens is important to AR performance.
That is a lot of stuff to pile into a camera update, but the thing to remember is that Google is sticking to the strategy it formed last year: leaning heavily into HDR and machine learning. By default, the Pixel 2 takes a ton of shots whenever you hit the shutter button, and then does a ton of computer work on those shots to create a single image.
I do have concerns that all that could result in artificial-looking images — overly aggressive HDR can do that — but based on what I’ve seen and the results from the original Pixel, I’d say Google deserves the benefit of the doubt on this stuff (though probably not the benefit of the hype, so to speak). We’ll obviously have much more to say in the full review.
As it does every year, Google is playing around with how you Google on the Google phone.
The biggest change — and the biggest gimmick — is that you can squeeze the sides of the Pixel 2 to launch the Google Assistant. Mario Queiroz, VP of product management for Google’s consumer hardware division, says, “What we tried to do with Active Edge was not make it a gimmick, [but instead ask] how could it perform a useful function.” One of those functions is also silencing the phone when it’s ringing.
The squeeze works, but you have to get used to it a little. It took me a minute to figure out that a quick squeeze works better than a death grip.
The Pixel 2 home screen is new, too: Google put a huge Google search button at the bottom, integrated into the dock. It also integrated the search box you see with the app drawer with that button. So there’s one less way to Google now. It will also pay attention to your wallpaper: if it’s dark, the app launcher and notification shade will automatically switch to a dark mode to match.
The Pixel 2 will also be the first phone to fully support Google Lens, the company’s new system for recognizing objects in photos. To start, it’ll only work on a few categories like books, movie posters, business cards, and landmarks. Lens isn’t built directly into the camera, though: it’s a button on either the Google Photos app or inside the Google Assistant
We tried a demo, and it worked fine identifying a book. I also pointed it at my watch, and it knew it was a watch, but it was too much to ask that it identify the precise model. Google says more categories will get added over time.
Google is also giving the Pixel 2 one more trick: ambiently identifying music. Just like the microphones are always on and listening for you to say “OK Google,” they will now also listen for music. The always-on lock screen will silently show what music is playing. Google says the new “Now Playing” feature happens locally, with a small database that is stored on the phone itself and updated periodically. No data is sent to the cloud.
There’s something almost Scandinavian about the ethos of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It’s most obvious in the pragmatic hardware design, which at every turn is designed for simplicity and usability over beauty. They’re nice to look at, but they’re a little unassuming. The vibe is like a Volvo car, or an Ikea coffee table, or even Lego. There’s a little fun to be had, but mostly they’re meant to be comfortable and reliable.
The big question, I think, is whether Google has constructed phones that can become more than the sum of their parts. There’s no question that Apple and Samsung have advantages that Google doesn’t: more advanced silicon, better access to high-end components, and economies of scale.
The other big question is whether Google can keep these phones in stock, a very common problem with last year’s Pixel. Nobody at the company will guarantee that, but I get the sense that they’re confident it’ll be better than last year. (This is not a high bar.) At the very least, the Google Store is getting revamped so that you’ll be able to preorder and hold your place in line whether or not the phone is currently in stock.
What Google has is that it’s Google, so it can find clever ways to apply machine learning and AI to problems that other companies can just force with nicer hardware. The main battlefield there will be the camera, but it will play out in all the other usual arenas, too: battery life, performance, and, of course, in personal assistants.
This isn’t going to be the year when the Pixel takes on the iPhone and the Galaxy in terms of sales numbers, but Google is very serious about taking them on in terms of quality and functionality.