Subtitle: TouchWiz is still shit.
A while back, I had a Galaxy S8+ that I initially adored. I thought I’d found the phone to break the shackles of iOS. But alas, it was not meant to be – because Samsung are fucking awful with their software. I absolutely loathe TouchWiz. I hate that Samsung are hell-bent on duplicating every single thing Google does – even worse, they do an objectively inferior job at everything they try to provide an ‘alternative’ for (Bixby is shit, and probably always will be shit). Add onto that a bunch of ‘features’ that feel unfinished or ridiculous afterthoughts, and horribly nested settings menus, and the phone eventually becomes a pain in the arse to use.
iOS, by contrast, is pure simplicity. It’s so simple that it gets really friggin’ frustrating after a while – my icons have to be in a neat sequential grid with no exceptions, Safari is the default for pretty much everything (except Google’s apps), and if you don’t want to use Apple Music… well, I hope you like relaunching the app all the time. And Siri, while being reasonably good at basic stuff, is utterly hopeless at anything remotely complex. On top of all of this, Apple are becoming increasingly draconian with their App Store – their decision to disallow Steam’s streaming app is further proof that they’re sliding towards being too profit-focused with the App Store.
So what’s a guy to do? Well, when my much-adored girlfriend’s iPhone 6S decided to shit the bed, I did what any loving boyfriend would do – I got myself a new phone and gave her my iPhone 8 Plus. I got a Pixel 2 XL. The decision wasn’t easy – the Pixel 3 isn’t far off, and there have been quality control issues with the Pixel 2 XL line, and you can technically get ‘more phone’ with the Samsung Galaxy S9 – but I have good reasons for picking the Pixel. I’d already started migrating entirely to Google’s services – yes, privacy concerns etc, but to be honest I’m not that interesting to watch, and if Google’s services deliver a significant benefit to me by using my data, well that might be an acceptable trade off. Apple might make a point of privacy, but when I ask Siri to navigate to a very specific street, and she picks a vaguely similar one on the opposite side of town instead, then the product simply isn’t good enough.
Out of the box impressions
The Pixel 2 XL is a fairly boring, non-descript phone. Which is honestly how I like my phones. It has two audio grilles on the front of the phone, with two top bezels, and a front facing camera. The power button is sensibly placed, as are the two volume buttons. The bottom has a single USB-C port; no headphone jack here. The back has a camera, the flash, and the fingerprint scanner. And that’s actually it. There’s pretty much nothing else to note about the phone. It’s just a big screen.
The screen is always-on, but unlike Samsung’s always on display, this one is fairly basic. That said, I find it much more useful, because it does flash up snippets of messages and notifications apart from just displaying little icons (which Samsung’s display sometimes wouldn’t do for me). I’m undecided whether this is worth the increased battery drain.
Inside the box is a USB-C cable, a fast charging adapter, and a USB to USB-C adapter. Also included is a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter. There’s also some pamphlets which nobody reads, and a SIM tray tool. It’s IP67 rated, meaning it’s somewhat water resistant (if it gets splashed with rain or very briefly submerged, with proper care it’ll be okay), but there’s no wireless charging – a curious omission in my opinion. Mine also came bundled with some headphones (with a 3.5mm bayonet end…) for some reason, maybe it was part of the deal, I don’t really know. They’re okay quality I guess, probably better than Apple’s included earbuds.
Setting it up is very easy – I just plugged in my Google account details, answered some simple questions, and away it went. It updated a bunch of stuff, and I installed what apps I wanted to use. Google Drive on iOS will actually import a lot of your info (like contacts, calendars, and even photos/videos), so I didn’t have to do much at all.
One interesting feature is that squeezing the phone will activate Google Assistant, which is deeply integrated with the OS. I don’t know how useful this actually is over just saying ‘Hey Google’ but it’s a nice little gesture.
Pure Android is awesome
If there’s one thing I noticed immediately upon using the phone, it’s that pure Android is probably the best thing I’ve ever experienced on an Android phone. It’s Apple-like. Apple might be awful with their restrictions, but they do generally have nice user interfaces that flow nicely, are fluid to use, and get out of the way. Although later iOS releases have taken a few missteps, generally I find iOS fairly easy to navigate, especially with settings. Samsung’s efforts are abysmal – with each release there are more pointless things polluting the settings menu, with lots of things hidden away in different areas of the phone. It’s so bad that you’re better off typing in a search string, or taking a guess at a category and hoping that there’s a link at the bottom (which they’ve had to add because it’s such a pain in the arse to find things). On top of that, there’s loads of very niche features that I’d wager most people either forget about or never use.
Pure Android, on the other hand, is minimalist. The OS just gets out of the way. The settings screen is remarkably Spartan – there’s not a whole lot to play around with, but by the same token, there really isn’t anything you should need to change. It all focuses on core OS functionality. I don’t need 3 different ways to quick launch apps, I don’t need little edge panels that slide out when I least want them, and I don’t want duplicate apps polluting the system. The OS just needs to get out of the way and let the apps shine through. Pure Android accomplishes that – and at the same time, it runs much smoother.
Some people might find the lack of customisation stifling – some people really like having all of those weird options Samsung likes to throw at you. Initially I thought I liked it too – but most of them are only situationally useful, and some of them tend to get in the way more than they actually provide any benefit. But Google’s insistence on a fairly clean OS with minimal interruptions pays off – if you like how clean iOS is, you’ll love pure Android. It’s basically like iOS, except it’s not as restrictive.
Google’s apps shine
Google’s apps are awesome – mostly because Google have had a long time to improve their services to the point where they mostly set the standard for what internet services should provide. Google tend to produce very good apps and services – and the excellent integration with Android is one of the reasons Android is so popular as a platform.
So when developers like Samsung go out of their way to disrupt that, it makes the system much more frustrating to work with – and all the more refreshing to not have to deal with it on pure Android. Samsung pushes their outdated Gallery app to the forefront – but I don’t want to deal with it, I want to use Google Photos, because that’s where all my photos are! Okay, I can disable the Gallery app – but if I recall correctly, if I wanted to assign a photo from Google Photos to a contact (within Samsung’s Contacts app, no less…) there was no way to directly access Google Photos (but there was a reference to Picassa, for some reason). Why do I need so many duplicated apps when Google’s apps are why the vast majority of us are here? Why do I want Samsung’s cloud service when Google’s is much better? Who the hell even wants to entertain the idea of Bixby, let alone use it? And why would I ever want to use Samsung’s mail client when I can use Gmail? Even if I didn’t have a Gmail account, I can think of many other apps I’d rather use than Samsung’s horrid email client.
Going to pure Android and not having all of this competing garbage is refreshing. I can just use the apps that I want. I get the high quality apps that Google produce without having to push all the other rubbish out of the way. Again, it’s very Apple-like; the OS provides a nice base to build off with apps that are actually worth using, as opposed to the Samsung approach of ‘pile more shit on and let the user spend a while sorting it out.’
I hate Samsung’s glacially slow update speeds. Google, having much more control over the Pixel line, release updates much more quickly. Hell, you can opt in to beta test the next Android release. Samsung will work hard to make TouchWiz, the bloated mess of the smartphone sector, work with the next release, and probably start to roll out the update 6 or so months after the official release… if you’re lucky. On a Pixel phone? No problems – it’s like Apple, you just get your update.
But more than that, I noticed that updates install very quickly. I had to install two point releases of Android 8, and I noted that the install process was very quick. It was downloaded without much effort and I got a prompt to reboot the phone to complete the install – I did so, and after a very brief pause, the phone launched and I could keep working while it finalised the rest of the install. Whenever my S8+ had to do an update (even small point releases) it’d take forever to reboot, then install it, then maybe reboot again, and then load up TouchWiz. No so here.
First Impressions – Awesome
I’m still cautious about this phone, because my first impressions of the S8+ were highly positive; it even seemed as though TouchWiz had finally improved. But the true test is always when the phone becomes a daily driver, and the honeymoon period of ‘new, shiny tech’ wears off. I’ll post a new review a little while after this one.
But with that said, I have a much lower tolerance for bullshit these days than I did a few years ago, so I tend to notice flaws that interrupt my use of a device much more quickly. So far, my first impressions are that there’s little to actually get in my way with the Pixel 2 XL. I liked how predictable iOS was – it was just an easy system to navigate around it. Partially because it was so familiar to me, but also because Apple tended to only implement features that were mostly fleshed out. Samsung’s approach of ‘throw everything in and hope it works’ has led to a load of features from various releases, amalgamating into a complete mess of a UI with features heaped upon features, few of which providing any significant benefit to most end users.
The Pixel 2 XL is just pure Android. It’s a very simple, vanilla, almost spartan Android experience. There’s no flashy Samsung stuff here – it’s just a straight up, no nonsense OS. But that’s exactly what I want from my phone – I need it to be easy to use, I need it to be reliable, and I need it to ‘just work’. If I feel like I’m fighting the phone, or it’s slowing me down, I’m going to start to hate it. Mobile phones are an exceptionally important part of most of our lives now – for many of us, they’re how we do most of our online socialising, browsing, media consumption, and maybe even gaming. They’ve become an almost indispensible tool. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not isn’t relevant to this discussion – but if you do use your phone a lot, I’m willing to wager that you’d want a good one.
For me, I think this vanilla Android approach will work quite well. Only time will tell if it breaks the hold that iOS has previous had on me, with its sleek and smooth UI and well crafted core apps. But so far Android is putting up a good fight.