Google Pixel 2 XL Review — Return to the Android throne?

Audio & Camera

Audio

As has been seen since the iPhone 7, and with a few other Android manufacturers, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack on the Pixel 2 XL. As a workaround, Google provides a USB-C to 3.5mm adaptor in the box, but they do not include a pair of earphones unless mandated to by law in countries such as Australia. Unfortunately, the adaptor is rather flimsy, and in my experience it stopped working after just 2 uses in total despite no physical wear-and-tear. That being said, when it works, listening to music the adaptor has no loss in audio quality, which is a big plus.

The stereo speakers, though, is where the 2 XL really shines. Audio output is crisp, and very very loud. There is a good mix of high and low notes, and there is no issues with tinny audio as is so common on quite a few smartphones. Delightfully, the speakers are front facing, one at the top and one at the bottom, which means you can forget the travails of having your hand accidentally muffling the audio as you hold your device.

Camera & Video

The first generation Pixel XL had the best camera when it launched, and even as competitors released newer devices, it kept pace with offerings such as the Note 8 and iPhone 8/X. The 2 XL, though, took that brilliance even further to undisputedly become the best still-image camera. Colours are pretty much accurate every time, fine detail is present to an astounding degree. Autofocus lock is achieved pretty easily, although sometimes it does end up being confused if presented with fast moving subjects.

While normal still images are great, the Pixel family — and this includes the first generation XL — all struggle with stitching panoramas with vast, empty backgrounds, such as a beachfront. This seems to be a software-limited issue though, rather than hardware, so I am hoping that Google fixes it soon.

As far as Portrait mode goes, it’s pretty well implemented — the background blur is done well enough to make the isolation of the subject very obvious, but it is literally rough around the edges, struggling with things like seatbelts, spectacles, and unruly hair. Google claims that machine learning will be the key to solve this issue over time, so let’s see how it works out.

Have a look at some samples.

There is a severe downside to the Camera app, however. Even in 2017, Google’s official app refuses to give users Manual camera control (i.e. the ability to select shutter speed, ISO, focus distance, and even White Balance), as well as the ability to capture DNG RAW images. Those features aren’t disabled, by the way, but they’re not available on the official app, forcing you to rely on third-parties like Manual Camera or Camera FV-5.

In terms of video though, the 2 XL is good, but not the best. As was with the display, there is a lot of variance between units. Some units, such as the first one I tried from Google, have an extremely aggressive focus that is unable to keep focus locked to a certain point, causing the video to repeatedly go in and out of focus. The problem is exacerbated when you put a refractive material in front of the camera, such as a plastic or glass window.

Unfortunately I did not get to try video on the second 2 XL unit I received, but other websites and my friends who own the retail 2 XL have reported no such issues. I’m not entirely sure what the issue was, but it is worthwhile to note that it is not how the 2 XL is supposed to behave.

That being said, that is not the only issue there is with video recording. As you can hear in the sample, audio is extremely tinny and has hardly any range at all, and I have no clue why it is happening. However, Google has begun trialing a software patch for it, and users report that the Android 8.1 has shown no signs of the issue since the first Developer Preview.

That aside, the videos shot on the 2 XL have the incredibly amazing image stabilisation, thanks to the simultaneous combination of Optical Image Stabilisation as well as Electronic Image Stabilisation. This reduces the “inertia” that stabilised videos on the first gen Pixels exhibited, and ensures that large pans start and end smoothly while micro-movements of the hand are ignored.

With these issues fixed, and ignoring the functionality deficiencies, the 2 XL does have a still image and video camera with stellar picture quality that is in definite contention for the best available on the market right now.

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