Subtitle: It could be worse.
So it’s been a fair while since I’ve gotten the Pixel 2 XL, and it’s enough time to figure out if it works well as my daily driver. Here are my thoughts.
It’s pure Android. I can do what I like with it, for the most part.
It’s fairly fast and snappy, almost on par with iOS (but not quite).
It does all the smartphone stuff like you’d expect… mostly.
The camera is pretty good, if a tiny bit sluggish.
Battery life is actually really great, especially with higher brightness.
Integration with Google services is awesome.
Yeah, I haven’t got much to say that I haven’t already said in previous articles. It’s a good phone, the end.
To be honest, I have a pretty low tolerance for shit when it comes to phones. And yet Android finds new ways to piss me off. To be fair, before I tear into the Pixel 2 XL, it is a very good phone. It’s probably one of the few Android phones I’d consider buying. But most of my praise boils down to “It’s stock Android, and free from Samsung bloat”, and to be honest, that isn’t really saying much and isn’t high praise. But I do have quite a few complaints – big ones.
There are odd bugs that never quite get sorted. In a previous review, I was discussing how Smart Lock doesn’t work reliably, and how Trusted Voice also frequently screws up. After installing Android P betas, and the beta of Google Services, and trying a few other workarounds, it still doesn’t work reliably. Sometimes it does, usually it doesn’t, and nobody seems to know how or why. The answer online is usually “Don’t use it” or “They’ll fix it eventually” but this issue has persisted for over a year now with no fix in sight. Why even have these features if they don’t work? Trusted Voice failing frequently is a major issue, because the Assistant won’t work unless the phone is unlocked – even for simple queries. Sometimes the weather info displays on the Always On Display – and sometimes it doesn’t. The compass almost never works properly. Sometimes Google apps will just return “Something went wrong” with no description of what or why. Asking about currently playing songs often returns an error. Check out the Pixel forums on Reddit – it’s littered with lots of little “This doesn’t work quite right” threads that basically end with “Yeah I said the same thing a while ago and Google never fixed it.”
Apps seem of more variable quality on Google Play. Again, this isn’t something specific to the Pixel line, but rather a comment on Android in particular. If I take an iOS app and compare it with its Android version, the iOS app often looks better and performs smoother. I’ve tested this with my partner’s iPhone 8+ and even something as simple as Facebook performs better (yes, Facebook is complete garbage – shoot me). There’s a weird inconsistent quality of apps that still persists. I had this issue back in 2012 when I got a Galaxy Note as my first dive into the Android market, and it still persists. Oh, it’s gotten better, but when I look at her screen with neatly aligned text that’s scaled properly, and then look at my screen with its incorrectly scaled text that clips through UI elements, and I wonder what the fuck I’m looking at and why it’s still this bad.
Notifications are still a bit odd. iOS notifications aren’t particularly robust, but they do work, for the most part. Messages pop up with a banner, you can tap to reply within the banner even on the lock screen, and it just works as expected. On Android P it all feels clunky – I can tap on a message but I have to double tap it to get it to open when I unlock the phone, and then I can reply. Notification dots on icons are fairly inconspicuous, which is nice but sometimes easy to miss. Gmail push notifications seem to be remarkably delayed on my Pixel 2 XL – my iPad will get the notification pretty much straight away, but my Pixel will get it several minutes later. This occurred on Oreo too.
For some reason, MMS doesn’t work well for me. I’m with Telstra, one of the major networks in Australia, and the default MMS app simply won’t send photos. Attempting to do so will result in a kind of SMTP mailer daemon complaining the attachment is too big. Using something like Textra that lets me manually assign a value for compression works, but why the fuck do I have to do that? Okay, it sometimes works with Textra – at other times, it just doesn’t, and I don’t know why or how to fix it. Granted, I don’t use MMS very often – but when I do, I expect it to work given that it’s been around for… how long, now? It’s been like that since I got the phone.
I get a lot of phantom touches or ignored touches. The best way I can describe this is that the screen is ‘overly sensitive’ but only when it wants to be. For example, I can scroll an article on Wikipedia, and hover my thumb over the screen, and before I know it I’ve somehow tapped on a random article I had no intention of viewing. The same can happen with Facebook likes, selecting random text, or occasionally activating in my pocket resulting in music playing. Conversely, sometimes it simply doesn’t register a tap – I can try to tap on something to close a tab or something and it’ll ignore me several times. Rapid taps seem to be less well differentiated. It’s incredibly annoying.
The screen isn’t great. It’s not bad, but it’s far from great – at for a phone that costs about $1500 for the 128GB variant I have, you’d expect a really good screen. Colours always seem a little off. The screen doesn’t seem super bright even at high brightness. It also doesn’t seem… well, ‘sharp’ I guess is the way I’d describe it. Compared with my partner’s iPhone 8+, the screen looks pretty drab and sad. And again – this isn’t a cheap phone, it isn’t entry level, I expect better.
Google support seems awful. Apple might be arseholes when it comes to warranty, but if you’re entitled to repairs or replacement under warranty (and thanks to Australian Consumer Law, you frequently are), you can wander into any Apple store and get it dealt with, often within a reasonable time frame. If something happens to this phone, I’m basically fucked, because Google often runs out of stock and can’t offer many solutions. That leaves me at the mercy of my retailer, which isn’t a fun prospect. Also the constant lack of bug fixes for frequently and repeatedly reported issues is incredibly infuriating.
Adblocking is fucking awful. I don’t like ads on mobile pages because they’re invariably awful. They chew up massive amounts of screen real-estate, they’re often animated which can slow pages down, and they seem to have a habit of loading last, causing pages to jump all over the place. Looking at content on a mobile screen can be hard enough without obtrusive advertisements. Content blockers on iOS work seamlessly with Safari and do their job well. On Android? You either have to root to get some sort of host level blocking, or you’re stuck using something like Blokada. And while Blokada works by setting up a VPN and does actually (mostly) do what you want, it will fuck up in interesting ways. Most notably, whenever I leave the house and thus lose my WiFi connection, all traffic ceases. Which means that I can’t access streaming media when I’m in the car unless I turn Blokada off. This might seem like a small issue, but it’s incredibly annoying that I have to manage something as simple as this. Yes, Google makes money out of selling ads, I get that – but I don’t want to be bombarded with shitty advertising practices either, most of which don’t come from Google. Apple don’t seem to care about letting me block ads. Why the hell can’t I do something similar in Android? The alternative is to get a browser that blocks ads – which means abandoning Chrome.
App support is fairly irrelevant these days – the vast majority of things come out on both iOS and Google Play, although iOS tends to have higher quality app releases. Maybe that’s because they’re only building for a homogeneous set of hardware, or maybe Android just has problems. Who knows?
Software updates – again, fairly irrelevant with stock Android. Google pushes updates, I get said update, the world keeps on ticking.
Integration with Google Services. Surprisingly, for a phone that is basically stock Google, I actually care less about Google’s services. The single good thing that it does is upload to Google Photos reliably. Under iOS it kinda mostly works but sometimes you have to open the app and wait for it to upload, while on Android it’ll just do it in the background. Google Maps works the same – except it actually seems a bit more sluggish on Android for some reason. Gmail gives me late notifications (per last time), or sometimes doesn’t notify at all (and I don’t know why). Google Assistant is way better than Siri – but then again, if Trusted Voice decides it isn’t going to work, it’s basically fucking useless and I might as well just type my instructions anyway. YouTube Music is awful, and Google Play Music is good but getting shut down – and oddly enough sometimes gives me random errors and refuses to work properly. Things work about as well as iOS except with the ability to run in the background – which only really benefits Google Photos.
Funnily enough, as much as there’s a ‘reality distortion field’ around Apple products (and some people defend their bullshit to the hilt for no good reason), the same field can be observed around the Pixel line and Android in general. Phone appears to have a fault? ‘Mine’s working fine you must have fucked it up.’ Turns out the issue is reproducible on other handsets? ‘Oh Google will fix it.’ Google didn’t fix it? ‘Well it was a shit feature anyway, don’t use it.’ Sometimes it’s an almost Westworld-esque response of ‘Doesn’t look like anything to me…’ whenever a fault or issue is brought up, with occasional ‘I had this same issue last year and it’s still fucking broken’. Granted, Apple make plenty of fuck-ups too – but after using iPhones for over a decade now, more often than not they actually do work without too many issues (Antennagate notwithstanding).
Basically my entire experience with this boils down to “Well it’s okay I guess I dunno”.
On the one hand, I think it’s probably the best Android phone available – purely because it stays close to Google’s vision of Android and blows away a lot of the bloat that outfits like Samsung keep clinging to. I don’t need fucking Bixby and I don’t want it, nor do I want the load of other apps that are basically duplicating what Google have already provided. Let me install my own stuff and choose what I want. The Pixel 2 XL is a blank slate in that respect. It also comes with an awesome camera and enough power to act as a highly competent smartphone.
But there’s also loads of annoying little bugs that probably wouldn’t annoy me if they stood in isolation. But when they occur together, it makes the phone frustrating to use. Having it refuse to send an MMS and then fail to trigger a touch event, only to then trigger the Home button when I was nowhere near it, makes me want to throw the fucking thing out the front door. Saying ‘Hey Google’ only to have it go ‘TRUSTED VOICE NOT RECOGNISED DEVICE IS LOCKED LOL’ when all I wanted to do is find out what 20 lbs is in kilograms is infuriating. Downloading an app and then watching the UI elements look all weird, while it looks perfectly fine on iOS, is disheartening. When these things conspire to get in the way and prevent you from doing what you were trying to accomplish, it becomes an exercise in frustration.
Is Apple free of this issue? No – things fuck up on iOS and on iPhones too. I’ve had my fair share of wanting to toss my iPhone out a window. But they were far less frequent. I’ve never had an MMS fail to send on iOS because the app wouldn’t compress it properly. I didn’t have problems with phantom touches or unrecognised touches. Siri, as remarkably inept as she is, would at least attempt to parse a sentence when my voice was detected, as opposed to Google Assistant answering and then locking the phone. At least features usually operate as noted, unlike Trusted Places which has been broken for ages and apparently will never be fixed.
I don’t tolerate fuck-ups from Apple because they run the show from top to bottom. Samsung can (and frequently do) shove loads of bloat and introduce annoying bugs or ‘features’, but to be fair they are sometimes hampered by Google doing something to Android. But with the Pixel line, Google are there from start to finish – and if something is fucked up, it’s entirely Google’s fault. They control the OS, they control the hardware, they shouldn’t be allowing persistent bugs to stop features from working reliably. And yet they don’t.
So what it comes down to is that I don’t feel like it’s a reliable platform. It feels underwhelming. When it works, it works great – but then it merely seems equal to iOS. Fact is both platforms are at the point where for the vast majority of users, there’s no difference in capabilities – just user experience. Most people don’t care that Steam Link or uTorrent isn’t available on iOS. Most people know that they can get Google Photos on either platform, same with Google Maps. But most people will notice when features bug out or fail to work, and Google’s repeated lack of interest in fixing some issues (or worse – fixing and then subsequently breaking them again) becomes frustrating. For all of the time it’s been out, Android still feels almost like it hasn’t matured yet. iOS, for all of its faults (and it’s got loads of them), feels like a mature, dependable mobile OS. The opposite of MacOS, in other words.
Do I recommend the Pixel 2 XL? Well yeah, I do, because it’s still a fantastic phone, and Google might fix the issues I’ve had (or they might not, or they might break them later, who knows?). But even as someone who likes Google’s services and tries to use them as much as I can (because they’re free or good value, let’s be honest!), the entire experience feels somewhat hollow compared to iOS. Does Android ‘do more’ by giving me more freedom to install different apps? Yes, yes it does. Did it actually make that big of a difference to me? Actually no, it didn’t make a single lick of difference in the slightest.