Google's new Pixel is downright squeezable. The 5-inch Pixel 2 (starting at $649) is a clean, good-looking Android phone built by HTC that fits well in one hand and should run speedily on all US networks. But its differentiating feature is the fact that you can squeeze the phone to trigger Google Assistant, which offers exclusive features here you can't get anywhere else. We spent some time with the Pixel 2 ahead of its release on October 19.
The Pixel's basic specs are par for the course for a 2017 flagship smartphone. You get a 5-inch, 1080p screen; 1080p might sound unimpressive, but it looks fine because the screen is smaller. As a 16:9 phone, though, it's the same width (2.7 inches) as the Samsung Galaxy S8, which has a much bigger screen; the S8 is taller and narrower, and lacks the large top and bottom bezels on the Pixel 2. The Pixel 2 looks a bit behind the times.
The matte metal-and-glass back feels like a warm ceramic, with a pleasant interplay of textures. The phone comes in black, white, or a blue-gray.
It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB or 128GB of storage. It's also IP67 water resistant and supports fast charging, with a 2,700mAh battery on board.
There are a few features missing that power users might want, but they aren't surprises: There's no expandable memory, no headphone jack, and no dual-SIM version. There's a USB-C port on the bottom, and dual front-facing speakers on the front. The front-facing speakers are more about clear sound than volume: we couldn't get either the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL to pump up to a volume that sounded decent in Google's super-noisy demo room.
In terms of LTE speed, this is a Cat 15, 800Mbps phone with support for all the US carriers' bands except T-Mobile's new Band 71. It has 4x4 MIMO on all the carriers except Sprint, to improve signal strength. You can buy it unlocked or on Verizon.
Google wants Assistant to become the core of its consumer products, and it wants to filter artificial intelligence and machine learning into everything it does. So it took HTC's most innovative technology this year—the squeeze sensor on the side of the HTC U11—put it on the Pixel 2, and set it to launch Google Assistant, the company's steadily growing, voice-activated do-anything feature.
It works. Squeeze the phone, a little below the middle, and Assistant pops up. It even works if the phone is in a case. Unlike on the U11, you can't customize the squeeze to do something different; I looked in the settings, and didn't find a way to change the application it launches.
There are some exclusive Assistant features here, too. Google really wanted to show off a feature where the phone detects what music is playing in the background, automatically. But the demo room was just too noisy for it to work—which doesn't bode well for trying to identify music in a noisy bar, unfortunately.
Machine learning also plays a role in the new Pixel camera. The 12.2-megapixel, f/1.8 shooter isn't noticeably better on standard indoor shots than last year's Pixel, or for that matter the Galaxy S8, iPhone 7, or iPhone 8. While Google claims the highest DXOMark score ever (a measurement of image quality), DXOMark is opaque enough that the argument is pretty much noise. We'll have to get the phone into the labs to find the subtle differences with the other leading camera phones.
But Google showed off its features that directly compete with Apple's: Motion Photos (like Apple's Live Photos) and Bokeh Portrait mode, which the Pixel captures with one camera, accomplishing the necessary blurring through software. We tried it on a GSMArena editor with a beard, and it was good but not perfect; protruding hairs further back on his face joined the background in being blurred out, but we only noticed that once we zoomed in on the image. You can even do bokeh with the 8-megapixel front camera.
Also, like on the iPhone 8, Google absolutely insists that its augmented reality system works just fine with one camera. It showed off a few AR demos—the usual furniture-placement app, a game, and an app that adds 3D fictional characters to your photos—but it still feels like Google's ARCore is well behind Apple's ARKit in terms of developer support so far.
The processor, modem, and camera in the Pixel 2 are top-notch, and Google Assistant is very convenient. You're getting equivalent power to a Galaxy S8 for $80 less. Google's software and smarts are the main reasons to buy a Pixel, however. The company's Nexus and Pixel phones have always been known for getting Android updates regularly and staying fast with time.
I just feel an opportunity was lost in the design department. Your screen is your window to the world, and Google is giving you less screen per square inch of phone than Samsung or LG (with the V30) are doing right now. Yes, the big bezels are similar to the iPhone 7 and 8, but there's no reason to copy one of the iPhone's less attractive features.
The Pixel 2 is available for pre-order at $649 (or $27.04 per month with Google's financing) for 64GB, or $749 for 128GB. While Verizon is the only US carrier that will have the phone in stores, if you buy the unlocked model, it'll work on any US carrier. Check back for a full review when the phone is released on October 19.