In broad daylight, the Pixel 2 XL captures excellent images with plenty of fine detail, which it renders much more naturally than the latest Galaxies. Foliage in particular is a lot more lifelike coming out of the Pixel.
With this review we are test driving a new camera samples compare tool. If you are viewing this page on the desktop version of our website, look for the compare icon next to the image thumbnails. Clicking on it will let you select two photos to examine side by side. Do let us know in the review comments if you find it useful or if you have any suggestions.
On the other hand, the Pixel's shots are noisier, noticeably so when you look closely - the slightly plasticky-smooth photos of the Note8 are practically noiseless in comparison. Mind you, we're talking about the Pixel's images taken with HDR+ enabled - without it, the photos are even noisier. You're not supposed to be shooting with HDR+ off, though - it's a Pixel after all, that's its thing.
HDR+ is what gives the Pixel 2 XL an edge in dynamic range over the competition, if only just. The processing is tuned for highlight preservation and you can typically count on the Pixel to deliver marginally more detail in clouds, for example, where other phones would clip to white.
Colors are pleasantly vivid - the Pixel's muted display colors, however, don't quite do them justice.
Being our usual thorough selves, we made sure to double up on all the sample shots and try out all three available states for Google's signature HDR+ algorithm. Last year, with the original Pixel, we did come by some scenes, where having it on brought about doubtful improvements.
This time, however, its benefits are a lot more obvious and well pronounced. Leaving it on simply produced clearer samples, with more detail and less noise consistently across the board.
It's no surprise the HDR+ on/off toggle is not even available in the viewfinder. To bring it back you would have to dig into the camera's advanced options. But if you ask us, there is no point in doing that. Just leave it on and let it do its magic.
Taking that into account, we only felt it necessary to upload a single set of samples to out photo compare tool - those using the default Auto HDR+ mode.
The panoramas we got out of the Pixel 2 XL were very much underwhelming, surprisingly so. A mere 1,800px tall, the panos are soft and not very detailed. The no-issues stitching doesn't really help much.
In low light, the Pixel 2 XL does a little more of what it does during the day and tones down bright light sources. While not necessarily a bad thing, it's still a little odd - it's just that we're sort of wired to expect areas around floodlights to be more clipped than on the Pixel. Can you have too much of a good thing?
Still, the Pixel 2 XL does a splendid job with the most demanding of scenarios where there are both brightly lit portions of the frame and deep shadows and manages to extract detail in both extremes. Shadows are very well developed and even if there's noticeable noise, there's actual texture in there that a Note8 can't manage to capture.
This holds true for well lit areas as well - where Samsung's noise suppression algorithms would render stucco noiselessly smooth, the Pixel's shots will be noisier, but more detailed. On the flipside, areas of solid color will be closer to that solid color when coming out of the Note, and grainier if you're looking at Pixel photos - it's particularly irritating in the night sky (those aren't stars).
Still, the Pixel 2 XL holds on well to colors in the dark - one of the key advantages of HDR+ Google advertised at the launch of the original Pixel last year.
The Pixel 2 XL has a single camera but it can take portraits with artificial background defocusing blur nonetheless. Thanks to a combination of dual pixel phase detection and machine learning, as detailed by Google engineers, the Pixel draws an outline of what it determines to be the subject, and keeps it in sharp focus. It then figures out what's behind and in front of it and applies varying amounts of blur depending on the varying distance from the subject. So, technically, one better than the dual-camera phones that mostly apply a fixed amount of blur.
In reality, the Pixel does indeed produce convincing portraits with mostly accurate subject isolation. The usual caveats apply - stray strands of hair could confuse it, and you're always better off if you have more distance between your subject and your background.
The subject doesn't need to be a person either. Google's algorithms can typically recognize everyday objects too and blur (and not blur) accordingly. For objects that aren't in the database it still works, just the depth map only relies on the data collected from the dual pixels. The thing is, at no point does the Pixel give you a live preview, so you can't really be sure what's going to come out in the end.
The selfie camera is excellent too. It benefits from the HDR+ algorithms for noise reduction as well, and has a portrait mode of its own, albeit without the benefit of the depth-sensing dual pixels - just the machine learning for subject recognition.
Selfies are detailed, skin tones are pleasing, and the Pixel goes out of its way to keep your face properly exposed. In short, we loved last year's selfie cam, and they've made it even better.
The Google Pixel 2 XL can record 2160p videos at 30fps, as well as the usual 1080p at 60fps and 30fps. There is no 2160p/60fps like on a certain iRival, and the Pixel's 1080p slo-mo is limited to 120fps, half the iRival's max framerate.
The 2160p videos are encoded with a 41Mbps bitrate, 1080p/60fps footage gets a little less than 33MBps, while plain old 1080p/30fps weighs in at around 21.5Mbps. Audio is single-channel mono and is encoded at 96Kbps - if Apple can get away with mono audio, Google can too, right? Not really, both companies are charging quite a lot for their products and we really think they should step up their game in this department.
4K videos are nice and detailed without looking overprocessed - the Pixel nails the balance that both the iPhone 8 Plus and the Galaxy Note8 just barely miss, the two erring on opposite sides. White balance is spot on and colors are neither bleak nor overly saturated - good job, Google!
It's a bit more of the same in 1080p/30fps, where the Pixel 2 XL's video is easily on par if not better than current competitors.
The 1080p/60fps videos from the Pixel, however, are pretty soft - the Note8 and the iPhone 8 Plus can definitely do better in this respect.
Speaking of competitors, check out how the Pixel 2 XL's videos stack up next to the Note8 in our Video compare tool. We've also pre-selected the older Pixel, so you can see how worthy of an upgrade the new one is, but you can easily pick a different set of phones to compare.
Since it manages to retain good flagship-quality in 1080p video capture as well, we also include FullHD samples for your pixel-peeping pleasure.