As of December 2020, the Pixel 2 series is no longer officially supported by Google, which rounds off three full years of software support for the former flagship smartphone. But what kind of mark has it left on the Android space?
While the original Google Pixel proved to be a huge entrance for the new series, the follow-up helped cement the wider device series as a candidate for the “best Android smartphone” of 2017. It took a number of the core features introduced a year earlier and iterated, refined, and polished to a gold standard smartphone experience.
The recently released Google Pixel 5 pulls the Pixel 2 series back into focus as there are some hardware similarities and throwbacks to what the cult favorite Pixel series smartphone is. I’ll also confirm ahead of this deep dive that the past few weeks are the first of any note that I have personally spent with the Pixel 2 XL, so I’m coming from an outsider position. I have not lived with the device pre-2021, meaning my perspective is completely fresh. But how has this handsome handset held up?
Video — Google Pixel 2 XL postmortem
What has aged well
- Software updates
What hasn’t aged well
- Some software issues
- Specific camera problems
The most striking of the entire Pixel series to date has to be the Pixel 2 XL in “Panda” colorway. It’s a standout, a real winner for Google in terms of device awareness. There really are not other Android smartphones that look like the black and white Google Pixel 2 XL, and I can instantly see why people have found it so endearing.
I’m not sure why, but the orange power button adds an endearing quality that even the Pixel 4 in its own black and white variant hasn’t quite captured in the same way. I do hope that Google continues to add these playful little touches into future Pixel hardware, as it’s a neat little differentiator that holds up over time.
It’s strange to think that the aluminum chassis with a plastic coating of the Pixel 2 XL would essentially return on the Pixel 5. There’s a certain feel from metal that can’t quite be replicated, even with textured glass. It’s cold to the touch, abrasive, and in many cases, lightweight. Dents and dings are more easily felt, but give me a dent over a crack on the backplate of a smartphone any day.
Disappointingly, an IP67 rating isn’t enough to consider the Pixel 2 XL truly watertight or safe from a dip in a pool or a deep puddle. This might not be a big deal but with newer models, but it’s nice not having to worry about water damage when it’s damp or you want to take some underwater photos.
Design-wise, Google struck a timeless classic look that is instantly recognizable and endearing to fans on top. If anything, it has aged better than any recent Pixel design, and the upcoming Pixel 6 looks like it might offer a little bit of the Nexus series and a hefty sprinkling of the Panda Pixel 2 XL. In that sense, it’s hard to argue that the 2 XL is “peak” Pixel, at least from a look-and-feel perspective.
Let’s talk about the display issues, as the noticeable blue shift when holding the Google Pixel 2 XL at an angle still persists. This is something I actively went searching for, but it remains a fairly substantial problem. Move the device off-axis by just a few degrees, and anything on your screen will look off-color and is dipped into a blue hue.
Some software updates have lessened the problem, but overall it’s something that has blemished what — from a direct front-on view — is a fairly nice looking AMOLED display. By 2021 standards, there is a lot of bezel on show here, but it doesn’t look bad in any way. Plus, there are front-facing stereo speakers.
I would happily lose a little portion of my future smartphone displays just to regain front-facing stereo speakers. It’s really nice to have sound fired toward you rather than out at 90 degrees and into your surroundings. What’s more impressive in some ways is that the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t even have the best speakers out there, it’s just a much nicer experience when the audio is pointing toward your face. It’s starker when compared directly with the latest Pixel 5 – which has a fairly poor under-display speaker and bottom-firing speaker combo.
At launch, the Google Pixel 2 XL came with the highest-end specifications you would find in a 2017 Android smartphone. This has stood the device in good stead to last longer than many other smartphones released at the same time.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset and 4GB of RAM places the Google Pixel 2 XL toward the lower end of the 2021 mid-range smartphone spectrum in terms of raw benchmarks. That’s pretty impressive, given how far the top end has accelerated in recent years. Slapping in the highest-end internals available at the time does mean that the creep of time isn’t quite as detrimental as it would be with moderate internals.
One big gripe will undoubtedly be the base 64GB of internal storage. It’s not expandable either. However, it’s only a sore point if you are a data hoarder or take tons of high-resolution photos and 4K UHD videos. Sure, you can’t install mountains of apps, but for most people, 64GB is a fairly good sweet spot.
It was even more impressive in 2017 when many smartphones were still hugging 16 and 32GB of base storage. A lack of micro SD card expandability has been a point of contention, and it stings, especially as many other devices of the same era come with the option.
Software and experience
For me, the biggest notable difference is in loading speeds when using applications and loading portions of Android 11. I’m sure this is not just down to one single hardware area, but the full combination of 4GB of RAM and the Snapdragon 835 chipset. What’s more, the Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765G has a lower memory bandwidth – while retaining the same UFS 2.1 storage – but with 8GB of RAM, it’s capable of holding more apps in memory.
This does have a detrimental effect on the experience. App hangs are more common, but that doesn’t mean daily performance is bad. It’s actually pretty darned good, considering this is a smartphone from 2017. I’d put it on par with the Pixel 4a in terms of the core “feel,” but in some areas, it can feel a step behind. As I’ve said, it’s very close to the Pixel 4a, but the newer device manages a little better in some areas — likely owing to the enhanced software development and support, given it’s a key device here in 2021 for Google.
With Android 11 as the most up-to-date stable release of the mobile OS, you don’t feel left out — at least for a little while longer. A bonus is that since Android 10, the gesture navigation actually lets you regain a faint sliver of display real estate because of the switch away from on-screen buttons. If you like watching movies and videos, regaining an extra few millimeters is really nice after having a portion allotted to on-screen buttons that can’t be moved or removed.
Because the rooting process is just so dang easy, being able to throw a custom ROM on the Pixel 2 XL actually means a “level” of long term support is available with some caveats. It won’t be anything like you’ve become accustomed to, but true hardware holdouts may want to turn to LineageOS. One of the biggest third-party ROMs offers nightly builds to keep your device running long after it has been left in the dust by Google’s software teams.
It’s also worth mentioning the excellent Active Edge squeeze gesture for the Google Assistant was introduced on the Pixel 2 series. We’ve since seen it disappear in favor of voice activation and potentially new gestures in Android 12 but it really is a fantastic haptic-feedback style approach that is sorely missed on Made by Google devices as of 2021.
The original Pixel camera was sublime, but the Pixel 2 and 2 XL took things to another level. I can honestly say that while things can be a little bit hit or miss, still images still just about hang in there on the Pixel 2 XL, more so than I initially expected they would.
My fairly brief experience will likely never quite match that of many of you out there reading, but I can only speak from my own point of view. I understand that camera issues have been rife in recent years, with shutdowns, lockups, and more plaguing ageing devices. I can’t speak from a place of experience, but this isn’t a great look. Google has suggested that some of the issues are related to camera hardware failures rather than software problems, meaning that updates might not even be able to resolve lingering problems.
Google Camera app updates still might be able to provide a sliver of hope to those affected, but when the Pixel 2 XL camera works, I’m still thoroughly impressed with what it can do around 85% of the time. That’s very good given the age of the Sony IMX362 sensor and its drawbacks and limitations.
The addition of excellent Night Sight and enhancements to Portrait Mode only elevate the post-launch camera above most, if not all, affordable Android devices released in late 2020 and early 2021. That’s one of the biggest compliments I can pay the Pixel 2 XL at this stage – the ability to hang in there with many devices using far superior sensors and with added focal lengths.
I’ve taken photos and been more than happy with the end result. At first glance, it’s really hard to discern just what has changed and how things have improved year-over-year. Android Authority has a really interesting comparison video between the OG Pixel and Pixel 5, and the differences are not quite as far apart as you might have thought. It highlights the tweaking that has been done without major camera hardware jumps.
Video isn’t by any means a strong suit, but you can record 4K UHD video, and it’s acceptable. It pales in comparison to the similarly aged iPhone X and the framerates on offer are not the greatest. Come for the stills, skip the video unless you just want a short clip is what I’d say with the Pixel 2 XL.
I don’t want to delve into the battery performance on a three-year-old device, as my experience almost certainly won’t mimic yours — especially on what amounts to a brand new smartphone. Not having wireless charging is a sore point for me, but only because I have multiple charge pads dotted around my home. Wireless charging brings about degradation concerns, while the aluminum construction was only recently solved with some neat engineering on the Pixel 5.
I would suggest disabling the Always-on display feature and the constant listening feature for the Google Assistant, as this can help squeeze a little extra out of the Pixel 2 XL lifespan each day. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 is superseded by many mid-range processors in terms of power efficiency, then mix in natural battery degradation and, being completely honest, you might have a bad time.
For what it’s worth, the 3,520 mAh manages to see me through a day with around four hours of screen on time. Not mind-blowing, but still more than enough for me to not have to be too worried about finding the 18W charge brick and cable before the end of the day. Throw in some video streaming, and that figure can decrease to around three hours. It’s understandable on a four-year-old device.
The worrying aspect here is that changing out and replacing the battery is not an easy task and can take a couple of hours or more if you’re inexperienced. Because of the risk of bricking your device, an approved battery replacement from uBreakiFix is something we would highly suggest.
While the original Pixel and Pixel XL helped move Google away from the feeling of an unfinished Nexus series, the Pixel 2 and more specifically the Pixel 2 XL put the Mountain View firm right in the eye line of every Android buyer out there.
Sure, hindsight is 20/20 and there are a number of fatal flaws that creep up on Google every year with hardware. The kinks shouldn’t be forgiven, but when things are flowing, the experience pushes away niggles and quirks to the side in favor of what was briefly one of the best Android phones to date. By most metrics it really does hold up well, something that’s hard to say of many rival devices released during the same era.
In 2017, I chose the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 over the Google Pixel 2 XL. At the time this felt like the right decision, but now, it easy to see why the Pixel would have been a far superior long-term choice. It’s easy to see just from the playful color palette why it endeared itself to so many people, but let’s not forget that the Pixel 2 XL was also one of the best Android devices in recent memory.
Should you still buy the Google Pixel 2 XL?
There are many better, newer devices available today that will far more closely align with or suit your specific daily needs now and in the future. Sure, the design might not be as nice, but in reality, the Pixel 4a 5G may provide you with a solid option or upgrade. Getting hold of a Google Pixel 2 XL in “good” condition is a tough job, as you’re wading into a world of devices that are likely to have been used and abused over the past three or so years.
Disclaimer: I have been lucky enough to grab a sealed Google Pixel 2 XL, meaning that my experience with this now three-year-old smartphone is not one akin to someone using it extensively over the period since launch, and this has skewed my external perception. While this is rare, I think in this solo instance picking one up for under $150 is acceptable. I’m still convinced that a newer device — like the Pixel 4a — would be a far better option, simply for longevity purposes.
At launch, I would cast envious glances at some of my friends rocking the panda Pixel, and I can see why it’s held in such regard by fans. You’re almost spoiled as everything that has followed — save maybe the Pixel 3a and 4a — can sometimes feel a little stale in comparison. I’ll admit that I do like the Pixel 5 and its “just enough” approach.
With Google set to slap their own chips in upcoming Pixel hardware, we might finally see a truly worthy upgrade to the fan-favorite Pixel 2 XL — and it’s about time.
Author: Damien Wilde