Now comes the Pixel 2. After testing the gadget for nearly a week, I found I prefer it to the iPhone â though this is mostly because I have always carried Android phones. Android is what Iâm used to, and all my digital data is stored with Google, even though my daughters think Iâm silly for not buying an iPhone.
Compared with other Android devices, the Pixel 2 XL, the model I tested and the larger of the two versions of the device, was also a big improvement. I own a Samsung Galaxy S7, widely considered the best Android phone on the market a year ago when it went on sale.
I liked that the Pixel 2 XLâs fingerprint reader, which instantly unlocks the phone, sat on the back of the device, not far from where my finger typically sits. I liked that the phone arrived with only a small number of essential apps, rather than the sea of flotsam that typically ships with Samsung phones. And I liked that, as my 13-year-old Snapchat-astic daughter said, âthe camera is definitely better.â
(Incidentally, she meant it was not just better than my Samsung but also better than her iPhone. And that is not sacrilege. The detail and the colors are far sharper, even to an untrained eye like mine.)
The Pixel also charged quickly; a few minutes plugged into the wall gets you hours of battery life. Google said the device is water-resistant. And the screen, 6.2 inches along the diagonal, was enormous â though not so huge that I couldnât comfortably hold the phone in one hand. It was nice that, for those rare occasions when I watched extended YouTube videos, the image stretched to the edge of the phone.
Yet is any of this all that different from other top-of-the-line phones? Not really. And Google knows this. Even the steep $849 pricing for the Pixel 2 XL was in line with rivals.
In pitching the new Pixel, the company focused on the Google Assistant â Androidâs answer to Siri â and other services that lean on what is commonly called artificial intelligence. This included Google Lens, a service that instantly identifies landmarks, books, movies and other stuff you capture in photos, as well as a service that, in similar fashion, automatically identifies songs playing on a nearby radio or television.
These were certainly the most impressive parts of the new phone. And they showed how recent advances in machine learning are producing consumer devices, cars and robots that can read, analyze and respond to their environment in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. Drawing on work by DeepMind, an A.I. lab in Britain that Google acquired in 2014, for instance, the Google Assistant now speaks with a voice thatâs closer to your own.
âIt sounds more normal,â my 13-year-old said. Still, she added that the improvement was small.
That sums up all these services. Many are technically impressive, and some are useful. But they took the Pixel only so far past the status quo.
Google Lens gave my 9-year-old several minutes of fun over the weekend. But itâs not something she â or I â would use on a regular basis. (And it mistook a picture in my bedroom of New Yorkâs Flatiron Building for the Empire State Building.)
The service that identifies songs was even more fun and more useful. But it will never be anything more than a tiny part of our daily lives. And it mistakenly identified the musical score at the end of âThe Spy Who Came In From the Coldâ as the song âChainedâ by the pop group the xx.
The Google Assistant was the most adept of all the digital assistants, easily beating Siri and Amazonâs Alexa. My younger daughter loved it. (At one point, she said it was more fun than me.)
But like those other assistants, it could not deal with more than just a handful of simple tasks, typically delivering web pages or preset answers in response to questions. When I asked the Assistant whether $824 was expensive for a smartphone, it gave me a YouTube video of a guy unboxing some sort of $20,000 monstrosity.
In most cases, it can recognize what you say. But it cannot necessarily understand what you say and respond in a completely satisfying way. That is still to come.
Google boasts that you can instantly switch the Assistant into a mode that lets you type questions rather than ask them orally. But as my wife said, these assistants are useful only because they let you handle basic tasks â like sending a text or setting an alarm â without typing. If I wanted to type, I would just visit google.com.
Still, after a few days, I was rather attached to the Pixel 2 XL. On the way to dinner on Saturday night, it correctly identified every song that played on the local 1980s station, from âThe Warriorâ to âDer Kommissar.â
Even so, I plan to keep the $849 for now. The smaller version of the new Pixel goes for $649, and I might go for that, when I finally need a new phone.