In 2016, Google jumped into the Android hardware space with its first self-branded device as the Google Pixel. Google’s software prowess shined on the Pixel 1, offering up exclusive features like the Google Assistant, the best Android camera thanks to advanced software processing, fast day-one OS updates and betas and the smoothest, best-performing overall build of Android. The killer software package made it the best Android phone of the previous generation.
The Pixel still represented Google’s first foray into smartphone hardware, though, and it didn’t offer anything special in the hardware department. It was a bland-looking iPhone clone. It had the same specs and basic design as everything else. The Pixel even skipped water resistance, which had become an expected feature at that price point. Google said it wanted to make its own hardware, but it didn’t actually build special hardware.
Google had an excuse, however: the original Pixel was a rush job. All the evidence we have points to it being blasted out the door in about 9 months, approximately half the usual development time for a smartphone. This year Google’s second-generation smartphones—the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL—arrive after a development timeframe much closer to the usual smartphone schedule. Expectations are rightfully a lot higher.
The software package is pretty much the same story as last year: Google is still blowing away its competition with a killer software package that no other Android OEM can touch. Of course the company that makes Android also knows how best to make an Android phone, so with the Pixel 2 you’re getting all the “best practices” for Android. Google gives you three years of day-one OS updates, an incredible camera, the best UI performance, a cohesive software package, and (if you buy the XL at least) hardware that’s “good enough” to stand up to the rest of the high-end smartphone crowd.
This go-round, Google has actually done something special with the hardware, too. The back design is more refined than last year, and the Pixel represents one of the only premium, aluminum unibody phones left standing. From HTC, Google is borrowing the U11’s pressure sensitive sides, so a quick squeeze at any time—even when the phone is off—will fire up the Google Assistant.
In fact, less than a day before our review was set to publish, Google dropped major hardware news on us. The Pixel 2 has two SoCs. There’s the expected Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, but the Pixel 2 also hides a custom Google-designed SoC called the “Pixel Visual Core.” While currently dormant, the SoC packs in eight Google-designed Image Processing Units (IPUs) that will eventually enable the Pixel 2 to process photos faster and more efficiently than ever.
All these changes make the Pixel 2 hardware situation more complicated than it was in the first year. Like Apple, Google does not own any smartphone manufacturing facilities, but it does all the engineering work itself and outsources the manufacturing to a company like Foxconn. Google’s Pixel strategy has been to partner with an Android OEM and build a phone together. Last year the Pixel and Pixel XL were built with the help of HTC. This year the duties are split between LG and HTC. LG is building the Pixel 2 XL, while HTC is building the smaller Pixel 2. (Next year, Google will probably have a much bigger hand in the hardware design, since it acquired the Pixel team from HTC. In September, Google paid $1.1 billion for about 2,000 HTC engineers and a patent-sharing deal.
The “Google” Pixel phones definitely feel like two different devices from two different companies. These devices share the same SoC, cameras, software, and roughly the same design; the screens, bodies, and little details are completely different. But make no mistake about it—the new Pixels remain in the upper echelon of Android phones.