Google Pixel 2 XL – A week (or so) later

Or: It’s hard to love, but harder to hate.

I’ve been using the Pixel 2 XL as my daily phone for a while now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it probably epitomises the best and worst of Android as a platform. Without further preamble, let’s get into the things that I absolutely hate.

Sometimes, things just don’t work

And that’s basically my entire complaint. Thanks for coming out, guys!

Okay, but seriously, this is my biggest issue with Android, and the Pixel 2 XL. You would think that, with Google having absolute control over this particular phone, that there wouldn’t be any major issues with important features working. You would think that it would take into account other Google products, like a Google Home, and play nicely with them. But strangely, and apparently at random, sometimes things just outright don’t work – and nobody really has a satisfactory reason for why.

What things, specifically?

Trusted Voice Frequently Breaks

‘Trusted voice’ is where you can talk to Google Assistant and have it unlock the phone. This is an essential option because Google Assistant will do precisely jack shit until the phone is unlocked. Sometimes, and apparently at random, it’ll say ‘voice not recognised’ and demand that the phone be unlocked via PIN or fingerprint… and then Google Assistant will simply not process the request.

Meanwhile, in the other room, the Google Home sometimes processes the request – probably because it heard me asking my phone a question. But I don’t want to talk to the speaker, which is in a room where I can’t really hear the reply. I want to talk to the phone! That’s a separate issue – and supposedly one that isn’t supposed to happen – but seems to be linked to times when Trusted Voice fails to unlock the phone.

I’ve tried multiple things to get it to work – retraining it, enabling and disabling it, rebooting the phone, deleting the voice model entirely and starting from scratch (not easy to do with a Google Home also attached – because it means wiping the model for that too apparently…), but nothing seems to be a definitive fix. I even tried apparently silly ideas, like changing the input or query language to US English. Sometimes it works. A lot of the time it doesn’t. It basically means Google Assistant is completely useless unless the phone is unlocked already. One of the best AI features the platform offers just won’t work as intended.

Trawl the Google tech support forums and you’ll find lots of people with the exact same issue, from various time periods, all with no apparent solution. It usually breaks after a particular update has released, and then discussion dies off with no apparent solution. Is it because a subsequent update fixes it? Why the hell does it even break in the first place, on a Google branded phone?

A workaround led me to my next issue…

Trusted Places Frequently Breaks

So my next idea was just to enable Trusted Places – an option that will keep the phone unlocked when it’s within a particular GPS location (in this case, my home). I don’t particularly like this option, as it’s pretty insecure, but on the other hand, at least it’d let Google Assistant work without having to use a fingerprint for every query. Also the only other person here is my partner, and if she wants to look at my phone, she already knows the PIN.

Anyway, I enabled it, and… it didn’t work. At first I didn’t even notice because I’d become so accustomed to just dropping my finger over the sensor at the back, but when Assistant once again failed to unlocked the device, I remembered I’d enabled it. And sure enough, it was active – just not working at all. At first I had it enabled for my home address, but then I figured I’d create a custom location with GPS coordinates (which some have suggested will fix it). Nope – didn’t work. Rebooting the phone did work, but only for a short period – at some point, it’d just stop working again.

Again, like with Trusted Voice, there’s loads of forum posts about this issue with the Pixel line of phones. And like with Trusted Voice, they appear at different time periods, often after a suspected update. And, again, like with Trusted Voice, there was never any actual solution posted. Either it went away, or people gave up and stopped trying. I don’t really know which one happened. Oddly enough, one thing sort of worked for me – opening Google Maps. Whether it just forces the GPS location to update and thus triggers the trusted place detection, or whether the GPS location accuracy is awful without Google Maps running, is something I haven’t figured out. Either way, it’s not a real solution.

Little Things Are Off

When I wanted to installed the Android P beta (because I like to live on the edge), I saw some solid advice to back up my phone. Well, it does that automatically, but when I went to check, I did notice that my SMS messages hadn’t updated in over 24 hours. “No problem,” I thought to myself, “I’ll just force a backup now.” Except there was no button to do that. The help screen said that there should be one there, but I couldn’t for the life of me find it. I could turn off backups, and I could see when things were last backed up, and I could add a Google Account, but otherwise I couldn’t force a backup. Why? Was the documentation out of date? If so – why?! It’s a Google phone that’s been around for nearly a year!

I went to update a few things in my Google account. I had to enter my password and go through 2 factor authentication, which amounts to tapping an on screen prompt (my phone is the device for 2 factor auth, after all). And… it didn’t work. Cue generic ‘Something went wrong’ error every. Single. Time. Why? Why does this happen with a Google phone?

Sometimes I’ll notice quite a bit of battery drain for no apparent reason. While it’s great that apps can do true multitasking, some apps (like Facebook) abuse the shit out of this. Fortunately I can limit their background activity, but it’s a little annoying all the same – especially coming from iOS where apps just can’t do this sort of thing.

All in all, every so often there’s something that just don’t work quite as expected, or fails, or otherwise breaks the otherwise excellent experience. And it’s somewhat jarring to go and research it and found out that loads of people have had the same issue, and nobody managed to fix it. I just don’t understand how this sort of thing happens on a phone that Google have tight control over. This is pure Android – Google’s idea of what Android is supposed to be. No Samsung or similar to get in the way, no odd hardware issues with pushing updates, just pure Google. And they still can’t get it right.

The reason I have an Android phone is for Google’s services – and the reason I have a Pixel in particular is because I want straight up Android with Google’s services. So when things only sometimes work, for no discernible reason, I’m pretty annoyed.

Many things are better!

On the other hand, there are loads of things that I just outright prefer with the Pixel, and Android in particular coming from iOS.

Updates from Google!

There’s no way I’d ever use another phone other than a Pixel (or whatever Google will call their phones). It’s great that I can just get new updates OTA without any interference. My friend, with his S8+, still isn’t on the latest Android release. Meanwhile, I’m on Android P Beta 3 – and I’ll definitely get the full release well before he does. If Android needs a patch, Google will just push it and I’ll get it. I don’t have to worry about Samsung dicking around with it before pushing it. This is the most Apple-esque part of the package and the biggest advantage of picking a Pixel phone.

Little things matter!

If I want a reliable music player on iOS, I’m going to have to pick Apple Music. Does Spotify and similar work? Yeah, but if you want Siri integration, or if you have a device that relies on the default music app to pull stuff, then you’re stuck with Apple Music. On Android? I can do whatever I like. Spotify can easily be the default. I can shout at Assistant and have to play music on Spotify (when it unlocks). The experience is just more seamless with 3rd party apps than under Apple.

If I want to copy some files to my phone, I can do it easily – I don’t need to do some juggling with sandboxed apps like I do on iOS. For example, if I need to get some PDFs onto my device, I don’t have to try to use GoodReader or something – I just straight up copy them into a folder and that’s the end of it.

The integration with Google services is great. Google Photos is way more reliable, for a start. On iOS it would nearly always work, but every so often it wouldn’t upload a video or would stop syncing. On Android, it just works – all the time. I put the phone down, I come back, and everything has synced with no effort on my part. Gmail just works out of the box. So does Drive. Of course I expect nothing less, but the integration is much better with an Android device. Also it’s nice not having to worry too much about storage space for backups or anything like that – unlike Apple, Google give out a generous amount of storage space for photos and device backups. Granted, what they might be doing with that data may make you nervous (or be absolutely unacceptable), but it’s cheaper than the iOS ecosystem.

One of the biggest things though is that the Pixel is consistently smooth. Every other Android device I’ve owned has been a Samsung phone (either a Note or a Galaxy S). Each and every year, I’ll read something like ‘the phone feels much smoother’ but each and every year I’m disappointed after a week or so. There will be times when TouchWiz or some other Samsung ‘feature’ results in a bit of jank or slowdown. I haven’t experienced that on the Pixel 2 XL at all – not a single time. It’s very iOS in how smooth it is. At no point did it feel like an inferior attempt at a mobile OS.

This is how Android should be

I’ve long had trouble switching from iOS. I’d sit there and go “Well, I use loads of Google services, and Apple’s efforts aren’t getting any better – why don’t I just switch?” And then I’d go buy the latest Samsung phone because it had X or Y versus the pure Google phones (which, to be fair, have had their flaws each and every year – the first few Nexus phones weren’t great after all). But each year I’d go back to iOS, because iOS is smooth, it works as expected (even with the restrictions), and is predictably updated.

But the Pixel phones are now proper flagship phones that compete with Samsung’s offerings, with the added bonus of straight up, pure Android. There’s no excessive jank, everything is smooth. A lot of the issues with Samsung layering their apps and UI elements of dubious utility over what Android comes with is erased. Pure Android is just straight up better to use, so long as you don’t think you’ll miss some of the features from other phones. For me, I definitely don’t – my phone is one of my most essential tools, it’s far and away my most used device, so I need it to be reliable and nice to use. Extra crap getting in the way, features I don’t want nor need, and unneeded bloat aren’t beneficial. Pure Android on a Pixel phone fixes those issues.

But there are other issues with illustrates how far Google has to go with some things. When basic features just straight up don’t work, or only work circumstantially, I have to wonder what the hell is going on at Google. Having features like Trusted Places just stop working for no apparent reason isn’t great on any device, but it’s especially grating on a Google-branded phone where they have much tighter control over the integration of software and hardware. Does that mean they’re not allowed to make mistakes? No, far from it – sometimes things do break and it’s just the nature of increasingly complex software. But when it seems to be a recurring issue, on their own flagship phones, it becomes a lot more questionable.

But in spite of all that, I’m leaning towards being converted. There’s nothing that sticks out about this phone that I hate. In the past, I’ve had issues with Samsung’s regular jankiness and awful TouchWiz bullshit. I’d feel like I was fighting the phone at times. I don’t have those issues anymore.

I’ll post an update a little while later to see if I stick with it. See you then!

 

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