Google and Apple are both going big, but which phone will be better?
Last year, Google decided to take on Apple's iPhone by… well, making a phone that looked decidedly like an iPhone. And it was fine, but the imitation didn't match the source material.
Now it's 2017, and the companies' respective visions for a top-end smartphone have diverged. Apple showed its hand last month with the iPhone X, which brings a radical screen-centric redesign to the iconic handset, complete with higher-end components, plenty of premium flash, and a massive price point to match.
Google's Pixel 2 XL doesn't copy the iPhone X, thankfully, but it follows the similar all-face screen approach, more closely resembling the recent efforts of Android such as Samsung and LG. It's an attractive-looking handset with some added perks, plus its own sizable price point – albeit a fair bit lower than Apple's.
Both hit stores in November, so if you're eyeing something new, large, and beautiful, these might be two of the top phones on your list. But which seems more worth the investment? Here's how this battle looks from now, based on the specs and our hands-on time with each.
DESIGN: THE NOTCH HAS IT
The iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL both move away from the tried-and-true (or maybe tired-and-true) iPhone aesthetic from the last few years, which is good news for Apple – and maybe even better news for Google, given the lacklustre impact of the last Pixel.
Apple's new ultra-premium device is all screen on the front, top to bottom and left to right – well, except for that odd notch right at the center top. That might throw you for a loop, but ultimately the screen-centric approach is truly dazzling. Pop in glass on the back and this is a gorgeous phone. And it better be for what it costs, right?
The Pixel 2 XL, meanwhile, kind of resembles a cross between the Galaxy S8 and the LG G6 – both phones we really like the look of. But it doesn't have any real defining elements on the front, except that it feels a little too big: the top and bottom bezel are a bit much, and it kind of diminishes the all-screen design.
The smaller glass cutout on the back is a nice touch, though, and the more colourful home button is neat. But ultimately, the iPhone X makes a much stronger first impression.
Likely winner: Apple iPhone X
SCREEN: SHINING STARS
Now that Apple is making the move to OLED panels for the iPhone X, it can finally compete on screen quality with most Android rivals – including the Pixel 2 XL.
Apple's panel is a 5.8in display at the extra-tall 18:9 aspect ratio, and at 2436×1125 (458 pixels per inch), it's a nice step up from the already-crisp iPhone 8 Plus panel (a 5.5in 1080p LCD, at that). But the Pixel 2 XL has it beat on sharpness, with its 6in, 18:9 OLED display coming in at 2880 × 1440 (538 ppi).
Given the display size for both phones, we'd honestly be surprised to see much of a visual difference in clarity, and both phones will benefit from the deeper blacks and brilliant contrast of OLED tech. In fact, Apple's True Tone technology – which automatically adjusts the colour based on your ambient lighting – could give it an edge.
Also, Google hasn't said anything about the Pixel 2 XL supporting HDR content, although the original phones were updated to decode HDR content via a software update. We'll have to see how that shakes out, but the iPhone X supports mobile HDR.
But at this point, until we spend enough time with both, we're calling it a draw. Both ought to look fantastic, really.
Likely winner: Draw
CAMERA: A REPEAT WIN?
When the Pixel and Pixel XL launched last year, Google declared that the offered the best smartphone camera to date – and they weren't lying. So when they say that the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are even better, well, we're pretty optimistic.
That's certainly our takeaway after a brief hands-on, too, in which we pulled brilliant shots from within a dark hall with some awkward overhead lighting. You have to see it to believe it. Google's 12MP f/1.8 back camera has both optical and electronic image stabilisation, as well as dual-pixel PDAF and laser-assisted focusing – and it snaps several shots in an instant and stitches them all together for one wonderful result.
It also does a Portrait-style mode from both the back and front cameras, despite the fact that it's not a dual-sensor phone. Now that's impressive. The Pixel 2 XL really could boast the best camera on the market.
But the iPhone X has two back cameras, of course, like the iPhone 8 and 7 Plus models. Both are 12MP shooters (f/1.8 wide angle and f/2.4 telephoto), and you get optical image stabilisation on both this time around. With more light captured by the sensor, better low-light shooting thanks to the added optical stabilisation on the second sensor, and improved HDR shooting, it should be Apple's best smartphone camera to date.
And the second sensor brings improved Portrait shots, along with the cool new Portrait Lighting feature, which lets you tweak the scene around your subject. We didn't get to take many snaps with the iPhone X during our hands-on, but we haven't done much with the Pixel 2 XL either.
Our hunch is that one Google back camera will be even better than Apple's duo, even if only by a smidge – and it won't be long before we find out for sure either way.
Likely winner: Google Pixel 2 XL
PERFORMANCE: BIONIC BOOSTER
The Pixel 2 XL comes with a top-of-the-line Android chip, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, but it's not totally cutting-edge right now – we've seen it in phones for six months now. Still, with 4GB RAM alongside, it won't disappoint when running games and media, and pure Android 8.0 Oreo should work like a dream.
And yet if we're talking benchmarks, the iPhone X's A11 Bionic chip seems to crush all competition. Apple has 3GB RAM stuffed in here, but this ultra-efficient, mega-powered system-on-a-chip comes out well ahead of the smartphone competition in testing.
You might not see a big difference in real-world usage, but the power is there if developers need it – and it might emerge at some point down the line. Plus, iOS 11 is super speedy. Both of these will pack more than enough power, but Apple has more more, it seems.
Likely winner: Apple iPhone X
BATTERY AND PERKS: ODDS AND ENDS
Google built the Pixel line in the mould of the iPhone, so unsurprisingly, it has some similar traits. For example, fixed storage: the iPhone X comes in 64GB and 256GB varieties, while the Pixel 2 XL offers 64GB or 128GB. And no, you can't expand that with a microSD card in either case. Still, Google does offer free unlimited storage for your photos and videos via Google Photos, whereas on Apple you have to pay for iCloud storage above the initial 5GB limit.
As for battery, the Pixel 2 XL wins on paper with its 3520mAh cell within, while Apple's is a bit conservative at 2716mAh. We'll have to see how that actually pans out in everyday use, however. Both should hopefully be strong all-day performers with average use. The iPhone X does have an edge with wireless charging here, though.
Google's phone adds the new Active Edge pressure sensitivity to the sides, letting you squeeze the phone to bring up the Google Assistant. On the other hand, Apple has 3D Touch pressure sensitivity with the screen, which really hasn't proven to be a massively critical addition.
The Pixel 2 XL does offer the advantage of Daydream View VR support, with a newer version of the headset launching this month with a wider field of vision. Daydream is decent, mid-range VR, but it's something that Apple can't touch. On the other hand, Apple is making a big augmented reality push with iOS 11 and ARKit, and the front-facing TrueDepth camera array on the iPhone X enables some of that silliness – like animated emoji that match your facial movements. Yeah.
It also powers the Face ID system for unlocking your phone with your face, but the jury's still out on that. We imagine we'll miss the Touch ID sensor, while Google has its own fingerprint sensor in a pretty ideal spot on the back.
And both of these phones lack a headphone port, so that's a loss all around. There are some ups and downs in this catch-all category, but for now, we'll calling it about even overall.
Likely winner: Draw
INITIAL VERDICT: WAIT AND SEE
With the Pixel 2 XL seeming much less like an iPhone knockoff than last year's handset, and the iPhone X seeming less like another boring rendition of an old theme, the comparison here isn't as cut and dry as before.
In short, both of these seem like extremely powerful, capable, and feature-packed devices, and unless something truly awful emerges in testing, we have a hunch that they'll be among our favourite smartphones in the world come next month.
The iPhone X has the more dashing look of the two, while the Pixel 2 XL is likely to win the camera battle – and everything else seems close enough to consider a wash at a glance. But the iPhone X costs more, and that's sure to be a key distinguisher between the phones.
Our feeling is that the iPhone X will be the more exotic and uniquely craveable phone of the pair, while the Pixel 2 XL will be a lot more practical, and a bit more affordable. As far as the overall quality or value equation, well, we're not quite ready to make a hard determination there – but we're excited to bring you our full verdicts for both come November. We advise you hold off on any big buying decisions until then, if possible.
Likely winner: Too close to call