Google Pixel 2 XL Review – Stuck in Customs

Google Pixel 2 XL Review

TL;DR? (Too Long; Didn’t Read?)

Google Pixel 2 XL
Well here’s a spoiler alert… the Google Pixel 2 mobile phone is AWESOME! It’s the best phone I’ve ever used. You can buy one unlocked direct from Google. There are two different models, they both have identical specs inside and out except for the size/screen and battery capacity.

Pixel 2 XL (6 inches, 2880 x 1440 pixels, 64GB) – $849
Pixel 2 (5 inches, 1920 x 1080 pixels, 64GB) – $649

Important note: I paid full price for my Pixel 2 and I have no agreement with Google to write this article. This is not some smarmy product-placement review.

Sneaky Sister Review

I recently did a Sony A7r Mark III Review where I sneaked in a Pixel 2 photo. No one found it… even the trained professional eye has trouble seeing the difference between these two drastically different devices.

Things I love about the Pixel 2

There’s so much to love, but I’ll try to keep things fun and simple. Where do I start? I’m a photographer so let’s start with the camera.

Best Camera of all Mobile Phones

I don’t follow scores from DxOMark but if that’s your sort of thing, you’ll see here that the Pixel 2 tops even the new iPhone X. But I can tell just by using it in a variety of conditions and comparing it to photos from friends using the latest iPhone or Samsung. They’re always blown away at the quality of the photos.

The Pixel 2 has a 12.2MP main camera, with a f/1.8 aperture, and 8MP selfie camera, with a f/2.4 aperture. There’s not much difference in the lens specs between the various phone manufacturers, what matters the most is the software and this is where Google has a huge advantage.

First example, is the Pixel 2 a Big Camera Replacement?

Copyright Trey Ratcliff

Check out this impossible library in Tianjin, China. I was not allowed to take my big Sony camera, but I don’t think I could have gotten a better shot even if I had.

Second example, HDR+ Mode


HDR+ mode makes landscape photos look so good you might be deceived into thinking it came from a full-frame camera. Google didn’t stop there, with the Android 8.1 update the phones take full advantage of a built-in co-processor called the “Pixel Visual Core”. With this new custom-designed chip enabled the HDR+ modes run 5x faster and at less than one-tenth the energy.

HOT TIP: Don’t even bother putting the Camera icon on your dock. Just double-click the power button to turn on the camera. Volume Up will then snap the photo. Hold down Volume Up to take a burst.

Portrait Mode

In Portrait mode Google still figures out how to make a beautiful bokeh (meaning the areas around the main subject are soft and blurry) with just a single lens (Apple requires two lenses). Simply click on the part of the image you want in focus and take the shot.

My good friend Dave Gent channeling his inner Tane (our assistant and his son). To get this effect, just put the camera in Portrait mode, and the machine learning will automatically blur the background to make you look like a pro.

My daughter Scarlett is a Tim Tam fiend! She often comes out to my studio to steal chocolate then pose for me. Note that some of these are edited in the default Photos editor on the phone. It has some pretty fun presets and then you can open up a few more basic sliders to adjust things like shadows, color, and something called “Pop,” which is a bit like HDR tonal contrast.

Portrait mode is not just for people or selfies. It’s perfect for any sort of shot where you want that sweet buttery bokeh. When you take a photo of a person, the machine learning knows where the face is and can figure out what to blur. But you can still use Portrait mode to make one thing in focus and the rest all nice and blurry. The only difference here is you need to click on the part that is in focus.

HOT TIP: When taking a photo, hold down the Volume Up button to take a burst of photos. Maybe one of them will turn out well!

Low Light Shots

Low light is another area where the Pixel 2 really excels. Don’t use the flash, just tap to select the part of the photo you want exposed and take the shot. You can make other quick adjustments in the built-in photo editing software.

Scarlett loves posing for the camera. This was taken in very dark conditions in the Britomart area of Auckland.

A few Pixel 2 camera tips!

  • Quickly pressing the power button twice will open the camera app even if your phone is locked. This is the fastest and easiest way to launch it.
  • When in camera mode, press the up or down volume buttons to take the photo. I always use this method, it results in a more stable / sharper image.
  • Set the flash to always off. You really never need a flash but, on the rare occasion you do, you can manually turn it on (but don’t forget to turn it back off!).
  • Double tapping the screen will zoom in.
  • When in the camera app, open Settings, then go to Advanced and turn “HDR+ control” to on. This will enable a new option where you can turn HDR+ off/on or try HDR+ enhanced. I generally just leave HDR+ on but I’ve been experimenting with enhanced mode for still shots of landscapes or cityscapes (you will need to hold the phone very still in enhanced mode).

HOT TIP: Get to know two Pixel tools for editing your photos. The first one is just the default photo editor. It’s very simple and comes with about 15 presets. You can further adjust the light, color, and pop of an image to your satisfaction. The second app to get is Snapseed (it’s free). There is a lot of power in there. Don’t forget to try out the new “Head Pose” tool that allows you to take a picture of someone and do some fun stuff to it such as re-posing the head, adjusting the eye size, increasing the smile, etc. Freaky fun. Besides that, Snapseed has many other amazing tools that are worth exploring.

Augmented Reality

Play with Augmented Reality, it’s really fun! Open the camera app and select “AR Stickers” from the menu. You can then drag all sort of fun and interactive characters into your photos and video. As you move the phone around, you’ll see everything respond in 3D in real-time. This one photo doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s very fun for kids of all ages.

Voice and Data Anywhere in the World! Never change SIM cards

I personally travel a lot, and by a lot I mean a LOT! I think I was in about 15 – 20 different countries last year. Trying to get a local SIM card in each country is a huge pain in the ass. And even when I did I would lose that little pokey thing to change out the SIM cards.

Google solved this problem in a unique way. The Pixel 2 uses a virtual SIM and combined with their Google Fi service. Here’s a $20 credit if you’d like to try Project Fi. You can get one phone number that works anywhere in the world, plus data for just $10/GB. No need to worry if you run over, Google caps your bill at $60. Yes, they may throttle your speed if you exceed 15GBs but it’s still a great deal. As you roam around Google connects you to the best cellular service for that area. It somehow switches so seamlessly you never lose the connection. You pay Google and they pay the local providers. As soon as my plane lands I switch on my phone and boom, I’ve got voice and data. Genius!!

Personally, I bought the Pixel phone and then just transferred over my existing USA phone number. (Note: You CAN still use your existing SIM card if you wish.)

One caveat… I believe that Google Fi still only works for a USA phone number. I’m not 100% sure though, comment below if you have more information. The phone also supports a physical SIM card, so you can always get a local SIM card and then you’ll have a local phone number and perhaps a slightly cheaper data plan. I also don’t think you can use the physical and virtual SIM at the same time, but it’s easy enough to switch to the virtual SIM when traveling.

Every country around the world is covered except North Korea.

Comparing to the iPhone X form-factor

I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. She’s kind of like an ex that is crazy as hell with a real aesthetic upside.

This new iPhone X also has an excellent camera (although not as clever as the machine-learning in the Google Pixel), but the Sad Trombone is the form factor of that cut-out on the top. When you are sharing photos, the framing is a glaring offense to the photo itself. Imagine looking at “Starry Night” from Vincent Van Gogh or “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” from Georges Seurat with that little notch carved out. And all for a somewhat-secure facial recognition feature, which is easily trumped/equaled by the Pixel 2 fingerprint system on the back. When I see people share their photos on the iPhone X, just like a bad watermark, all I can think about is that annoying notch. It’s an annoying aesthetic element that detracts from the viewing experience.

iGouging? Sharing your photos with this sort of frame is not aesthetically pleasing to me, but maybe that is just me.

“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Cutoutte” by Georges Seurat now hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Video Fun!

Video is getting better and better on these! It’s almost indistinguishable from using an Osmo with a phone, which we use to make much of our content for Passport members. The key improvement in the Pixel 2 has been the motion stabilization. Also note these are just quick video demos and not meant to be a great work of filmography.

Also, you can amp it all the way up to 240 FPS. Here’s a sample of that of some seagulls in Queenstown.

Personalized Google Real News

Google gets to know your tastes and serves up news just for you. When you swipe right from the home screen, you get customized news stories ala Reddit. You can further go in and choose categories of things that interest you. I have stuff like AR, Cryptocurrency, Mirrorless Cameras, Black Mirror, Black Mirrorless cameras, etc.

One time I did a Google search for the guy that was in Will & Grace, so Google thought I was interested in that show, which I am not. When it started showing me stories on Will & Grace, I clicked the vertical “…” and clicked, “I’m not interested in stories about Will & Grace”. Done!

Somehow, Google has also figured out that I have a lot of confusion about the new Star Wars movie, so it’s always giving me stories trying to explain what the heck was going on in the middle of that movie. So now it serves those up to me. Every time I click on an article, it knows I am interested in that sort of thing. It’s got a great feedback loop like that.

Other Great Features

Now Playing feature listens for music every 60 seconds and shows you name of the song that’s playing, even when offline! It uses a local database with 10s of thousands of songs and is updated with new music each week. You can click on the song and then save it to your Google Play or Spotify account. (Note: you’ll have to go turn this feature on deep in the Settings at Sound > Advanced)

The fingerprint reader is on the back and is far more comfortable and convenient. You can also assign multiple fingerprints so I can quickly unlock my phone with either hand.

Always-on display, which shows the date, time and notifications. You can also double-tap the display or swipe on the fingerprint reader to show more info.

Google Lens is a cool feature in the photos app. After taking a photo of any object or landmark then click on the Google Lens icon and it will tell the name of the thing or place with a link for more info.

Or take a photo of a business card, and it will identify everything in there and ask if you want them to be added to your contacts. It’s a great party trick.

There’s a good story behind when I got this card! I was at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton out taking photos at the beach club there. Security came over to me, and I always have a sinking feeling when that is happening…Oh what did I do now? But, in this case, she saw I was a photographer and came over to show me all her photos of the sunset on her phone! And then she showed me she actually captured the elusive green flash as the sun sank into the water. So now, I believe it!

The phone is IP67 rated which means it is water resistant and can survive underwater up to 1 meter for 30 minutes.

You can squeeze the phone’s sides to launch the Google Assistant (which blows away Siri for accuracy and info). Quick tip, you can adjust the sensitivity of the “squeeze” in the settings. I set mine to a firm squeeze because I kept accidentally launching the assistant in my pants. Nobody wants that!

Since this is a Google device you will always get the latest Android version, and get it first.

Unlimited Storage is a feature on all Android phones but I thought I’d mention it in case there are some iPhone users reading this. Google is constantly backing up your photos and videos to the Cloud and then freeing up space on your phone. I’ve never, ever, run out of space. (128GB versions of both the normal and XL models are also available if you need more than 64GB local storage.)

Get your Pixel photos into Lightroom on your Laptop

I sometimes like to take the photo with my phone and then, later, edit the best ones in Lightroom on my laptop. The built-in photo editing is great, but I get a bit more power out of using Lightroom or Aurora HDR 2018 on the desktop.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Get all your syncing enabled on your laptop version of LR. You’ll have to be an Adobe Cloud member, but most Adobe users are now.
  • Install LR mobile on your Pixel 2
  • Create a new album on your Laptop version and make a new Album. Right click it and choose Sync with Lightroom CC
  • After it appears on your Pixel, go into the album and click the option at the bottom to Add Photos.

You can now go through your mobile photos and choose the ones to sync! Note, they will only sync when you are connected to Wifi.

A few Minor Complaints

I know I sound like a Google Pixel fanboy, well it’s because I am! However, I do have a few minor complaints.

Like other new phones it does not come with a 3.5mm headphone jack. So you’re forced to use either an adaptor, find some USB-C headphones (headphones are not included), or get some Bluetooth ones. I still find Bluetooth connections to be a pain, and it’s one more thing I have to keep charged. Argh.

I recommend these Bluetooth headphones if you decide to go down that route:

I wish it supported dual SIM cards so I could have a local New Zealand SIM (and NZ phone number) AND the global data services at the same time.

Final Analysis

Get it! Curtis and I peer-pressured our assistant Tane into getting one. He was an iPhone guy and worried about leaving that ecosystem. Also, it’s a lot of money for him because we pay him with one-dollar bills into his waistband. But, he went ahead and did it anyway, and he LOVES it. He’s a happy camper and doesn’t know why he didn’t switch earlier. Ripping off the iBandaid was not nearly as bad as he thought, and, within 24 hours, he’s up and running better than ever. You can too!

Other Sample Photos

How about a BUNCH of sample photos? Note as of the initial writing of this, I’ve only had the phone for a few weeks. Some of the photos are from my friend Curtis, and I’ll be sure to give him credit for those in the captions. Enjoy!









Trey Ratcliff - - Creative Commons Noncommercial contact

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