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Google Pixel 2, Essential Phone: Avoid the iPhone X Wait

Google's "Pixel 2 XL," left, starts at $849, while the Essential Phone retails for $499. Both offer the kind of thin bezels promised by Apple's iPhone X. Background by Rene Magritte, "The Victory," 1939.

The duo, one of which is Google’s own “Pixel 2 XL,” a sequel to last year's model, and the other of which is the “Essential Phone,” from Silicon Valley startup Essential Products, are the best Android devices I've ever used, and I've been trying out Android phones since the beginning.

Of particular note, these two phones follow the trend of having screens with smaller and smaller bezels, the bezel being the part of the case that forms a frame around the screen. The screen takes up much more of the surface of the device. What that means is that there's a larger viewing area in the same-size device, and there's consequently less distraction from what you're trying to focus on visually.

We saw this trend emerge earlier this year, with devices such as LG Electronics’s “G6,” which dramatically reduced the Bezel. Some derided the G6 as not going far enough. The Pixel 2 and Essential Phone take it further.

Apple’s forthcoming iPhone X, which goes on sale today as a “pre-order,” appears to have quite a dazzling screen itself, with very little bezel. But the iPhone X may be hard to get your hands on, given reports of delays in production and limited initial availability. Shipment times being quoted this morning on Apple’s online store were for around five to six weeks, which of course is an eternity when you're lusting over some gadget.

For anyone who’s not interested in waiting, or anyone who's not interested in an iPhone, or anyone who just loves a beautiful gadget, these two machines are well worth a look.

The Pixel 2 XL retails for $849 for a model with 64 gigs of storage. A model with 128 gigs of storage sells for $100 more. A smaller model, called simply the Pixel 2, with more normal bezels, sells for $649 and $749.

The Essential sells for $499 for the 128-gig version. Both are cheaper than the starting price of the iPhone X of $999. The 256-gig model of the iPhone runs to $1,149, which has set a new bar for expensiveness in smartphones. In the last twenty years, personal computer prices dropped well below $1,000, and phone prices have crossed over $1,000, a fascinating turn of events.

Climbing out of my iPhone

I had to take to some measures to switch from being an iPhone user. The recent purchase of the Apple Watch Series 3 made it possible to leave my iPhone at home, because the watch can receive my texts and emails on it. But it turns out you can't take the SIM out of the iPhone because then AT&T’s (T) method of forwarding texts won't work. That meant I had to use the Pixel 2 and Essential phones on new SIMs.

It was also important to me to be able to continue to use my Apple AirPod wireless headphones. I couldn't manage it until I realized there is a button on the case of the AirPods that lets you pair them with a new phone. Once I pressed the button, it was easy to call up the AirPods in the Bluetooth settings section on both the Pixel and the Essential. Both phones worked just fine with the AirPods for extended music and video sessions, and for taking phone calls.

Two winning designs

Switching to Android is as good as it could ever be with these devices, as both have a clean version of the software uncluttered with bloat ware. Google’s device, of course, is the latest and greatest, the “Oreo” edition, in a “stock” installation.

Essential Products is run by Andy Rubin, who used to run Android for Google, so its implementation is similarly spare.

Overall, I really liked the industrial design of these devices. The titanium frame and mirrored back of the Essential Phone is gorgeous. The Pixel 2 is a nice update of the device, with a more selective use of materials than last year’s model. Although it has a metal frame, that frame has been coated to give it more texture, lends a nice feel in the hand while still looking great.

Both feature the “always-on” screen that shows the time and any alerts in simple white text against a black backdrop. This display stays on longer in the case of the Pixel 2, before the screen fully goes dark, and a gentle nudge of the phone is enough to wake up the always-on screen. On the Essential Phone, you have to pick it up and tilt it slightly to see the always-on display.

The "always-on" screens of the Google Pixel 2 XL, left, and Essential Phone, right.
Both devices with their always-on screens on.
Rear view of the Pixel 2 XL, left, and the Essential Phone, right. The two little dimples in the upper right corner of the Essential Phone are magnetic contacts for attaching accessories, such as a 360-degree camera.

The two devices have their fingerprint sensor moved to the back of the device, a move that is in vogue in most Android phones, so as to slim down the bezel. Having to pick up the phones to put my index finger on the back of the case was a bit of an adjustment after years of using the front-side sensor on phones. But it was hardly a deal breaker for me. Apple’s iPhone X, as you may have heard, ditches the fingerprint altogether to replace it with a “3-D sensing” capability that unlocks the phone by scanning your face.

The main event for these two devices is how they show more of your stuff in a larger screen. The Pixel 2 XL screen measures six inches on the diameter, within a frame that is 5.7 inches tall and 2.7 inches wide, which is half an inch shorter and a quarter inch narrower than the current iPhone 8 Plus (and the prior iPhone 7 Plus), despite being a bigger display by half an inch.

The Pixel 2 XL is roughly equivalent, in fact, to the measurements of the iPhone X, whose display is still smaller, at 5.8 inches.

The Essential screen, at 5.7 inches on the diagonal, is more roomy than the iPhone 8 Plus, while fitting in a frame even shorter than the Pixel 2 XL, at 5.57 inches. Its width, 2.79 inches, is wider than the Pixel, making it feel a little more square-ish.

More technical details on the Pixel 2 XL are available on Google's Web site. For more details on the Essential Phone, check the Essential Web site.

While the Pixel has merely thinned the bezels, Essential have squeezed a little more screen size in part by cutting all the space they could manage around the camera mount at the top of the device. That leaves a small “forehead,” as it's known, a curving protrusion that breaks the other wise perfect rectangle. It's the same approach that Apple has taken with the iPhone X. In Apple’s case, the forehead is larger, more obtrusive, because it houses the multiple sensors that comprise the “True Depth” camera to enable facial recognition. There was some debate about the aesthetics of this design when Apple unveiled the X in September.

In the case of the Essential Phone, the forehead didn't bother me at all.

More room for everything

I really appreciated the extra screen room on both devices when looking at pictures. I especially like the ultra-thin top bezel of the Essential Phone, which makes it feel like there's almost nothing there, a great attribute to sort-of open up the picture. Here's a comparison of the two displaying the same image file as an iPhone 7 Plus. All three have brightness cranked up to the maximum. Most noteworthy to me is that the iPhone, on the right, has the brightest whites out of the three. The Pixel 2 XL gets the most detail in the moon of the three. I should note, the greenish cast to the moon on the Pixel 2 screen, and the yellow quality of the clouds, is actually an artifact of the picture I took. The display is actually much closer to the Essential Phone and iPhone when viewing it in real life. It seems to be pretty hard to take a faithful picture of an OLED screen compared to an LCD screen.

Viewing pictures on the Pixel 2 XL, left, Essential Phone, center, and Apple iPhone 7.

When using the Google Play Music app, Android makes nice use of the extra space on these displays to show album art. The result is head and shoulders above the iPhone 7.

Playing album art full screen on Pixel 2 XL, left, Essential Phone, center, beats what things look like on an iPhone 7.

The Pixel and Essential have some things that set them apart. Not only is the Pixel 2 XL screen larger than the Essential, but the Pixel XL excels in picture taking.

I found both did a good job with night-time photography, but I would give the edge to the Pixel in terms of how much detail it can capture in low light. Some have said it's the best camera on a phone, and they may be right.

Here are two sample images, first from the Essential Phone, second from the Pixel 2 XL.

Photo taken with Essential Phone. f/1.85, 1/15, 3.4 mm, ISO 662, 0 ev; 4,160 x 3,120 pixels.
Taken with Google Pixel 2 XL. f/1.8, 0.033330s, 4.46mm, ISO 400, 0 ev; 4,032 x 3,024 pixels.

The Pixel does more with gestures, meaning, certain set ways in which you can touch the device to set off a particular function. For example, when it's asleep, you can tap the screen to wake it up to see any alerts you've gotten. That can be easier than the equivalent function on the Essential, picking it up. And you can squeeze the entire lower half of the Pixel in your fist to activate the voice-operated "Google Assistant" function, which is easier than waking up the phone and then swiping across the screen on the Essential.

Some of this is splitting hairs, and it's questionable how much it will actually matter in one’s day to day use.

The Essential folks have pioneered one thing to make their device stand out, aside from size and shape and materials. They have built magnetic contacts into the back side of the device. Via these two bumps, you can connect peripherals. At the moment, the one peripheral on offer is a 360-degree camera attachment. The possibilities down the road are intriguing. It's a little like the “Moto Mods” attachments offered by Motorola, a unit of Lenovo Group, and formerly part of Google.

Tempest in a teapot?

One big issue with the Pixel 2 XL’s screen bears addressing. In the past week, reports surfaced on The Verge and elsewhere of limitations to its display, and what appeared as potentially a defect.

The Pixel 2 XL uses what's called and OLED screen, for organic light-emitting diode. The entire world has been moving that way for some years now, though Apple’s iPhone X is its first phone with tech technology. The Essential Phone still relies on the older LCD technology.

The benefits of OLED are supposed to be things such as deeper blacks on screen and greater energy efficiency.

In the commotion this week, many noted that their Pixel has a blue tint to it whenever the screen is held at an angle.

Sure enough, I saw this whenever I turned the Pixel even slightly from being at a perpendicular angle to my line of site. It's most visible with white objects on screen. Here's another picture of all three phones displaying the moon shot. The Pixel is in the center this time. You can see how it's got a blue cast over the lightest parts of the moon.

Pixel 2 XL's screen, center, casts a blue glaze over everything when the screen is tilted slightly.

I didn't find this to be a problem for me, and truth be told, I might not have noticed immediately had sites such as TheVerge not spelled it out for me.

Another matter raised is that the colors on the Pixel don't pop as much as they do on other displays. I certainly noticed that relative to the Essential Phone, but not in a way that mattered much to me. Google apparently claims their color “gamut” is more natural.

A more serious concern appears to be what some people are seeing as “burn in,” where the screen is degrading, leaving ghost images of objects that hover behind whatever you happen to be viewing at the moment.

The Verge’s Dieter Bohn had an update on the situation yesterday, reporting that Google, after four days of looking into the matter, is standing by the quality of its displays, and plans to issue some software updates for the Pixel to alleviate any ghosting issues, and to give people a choice of a more vibrant color gamut.

Bottom line, these things have so far not been an issue for me in using the Pixel 2 XL.

Time to switch?

Would I switch from the iPhone for these phones?

It’s a high bar to change what you do once you're used to something. Tech Trader Emily Bary, who took the smaller Pixel for a spin, summed up her feeling thusly: “The Pixel 2 is a solid phone, and if I didn't know the iPhone was out there, I would probably get one.” That probably goes for a lot of people in the Apple world.

The Android user interface has come a long way, and it has many charms, though I still like aspects of the iPhone’s software interface. I like being able to tap the Home button on the iPhone to make the entire user interface shift downward, so that it's easier to reach items at that top of the screen. I like being able to swipe from the left edge of the screen to go back a page in the web browser, or to go back to my list of emails, rather than have to tape specially on an arrow button. I like the method of pressing down on the screen to select text, what's called "Force Touch," rather than what I find to be a clumsy way to select on Android. Little things like that.

I haven't done enough testing of Apple's "Siri" assistant and Google's "Google Assistant." Both are useful, both are fallible. Sometimes I'm baffled by how Google Assistant gets tripped up on things I think should be fairly intuitive. Ask it "What's the Android version on this phone?" and it will direct you to a reference to an article about how to check the system version. Ask Siri "What version of iOS?" and you get "You're running iOS 11.0."

More important, from a practical standpoint, is that I'm still using multiple Macs and iPads, and my Apple Watch, and the way that my various pieces of data are synchronized across those devices on a daily basis is something that's very useful to me. Not having that information show up on the phone was a loss. And if I moved my phone number to an Android phone, and lost the “Continuity” function that brings calls and texts to those other Apple devices, it would frustrate me.

For the moment, then, count me as another one of those people trapped in an “ecosystem” of computing, as great as these new phones are.


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