Google's new Pixel phones are kind of boring and you can get more for your money elsewhere

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Tech Guide

Google's new Pixel phones are kind of boring and you can get more for your money elsewhere

  • The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL offer the latest software from Google, but have some shortcomings.
  • The displays are fine-tuned but, as a result, look really washed out and not as colorful as other screens.
  • You'll also miss features like wireless charging and expandable storage.

Most consumers should buy a Galaxy S8 or an iPhone instead of Google's new Pixel 2 smartphones.

CNBC has been testing the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL for the past week and found that, while the phones are really good at almost everything and introduce new software features, most consumers are better off buying a more affordable device that can do just as much, if not more, than the Pixel 2.

Let's look more closely.

A boring design and bland screen

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

There's no getting around it — the standard Pixel 2 looks boring. It's blocky, like phones that launched two or more years ago, and doesn't offer the more rounded edges and expansive screens of modern handsets. It's outdated in the age of large smartphones with big screens that span from edge to edge. There's nothing special about its design.

The Pixel 2 XL, on the contrary, has a nice big screen that runs from edge to edge, much more akin to the Galaxy S8 and other flagship Android smartphones.

While the Pixel 2 feels a bit boxy and bland, the Pixel 2 XL has a more rounded look and feel, and it's the phone I preferred of the two.

The back can get kind of fingerprinty and scratched
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The back can get kind of fingerprinty and scratched

Unfortunately, I was really put off by the screens on both phones. The colors look extremely washed out compared with the iPhone and Samsung's vibrant Galaxy S8 displays, where colors seem to pop off of the screen. Colors on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL look dead, even with an optional vivid mode turned on (I couldn't tell the difference with it on and off).

Google said the displays were calibrated for more accurate whites and colors, but I wish it had aimed to keep colors more vibrant.

Standard high-end hardware

The Pixel 2 XL
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 2 XL

Qualcomm's latest processor powers both phones, as it does all modern high-end Android devices, so the devices are both fluid and don't lag during use.

Google omitted other features, though, like wireless charging, which is going to become a lot more popular now that Apple has added it to the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. That's a bummer, because I think we're going to see wireless charging continue to pop up everywhere, from cafes to the cabins of new cars.

Sorry folks, no headphone jack here
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Sorry folks, no headphone jack here

I do like that both phones have front-firing stereo speakers, which is good when you're holding the phone and watching a YouTube video or a movie on the couch.

Google also opted to ditch the headphone jack this year. I switched to Bluetooth headphones long ago, so this isn't a problem for me. Also, with new Made for Google products, including Libratone's new headphones, the Bluetooth pairing process is as simple as turning on the headphones.

Nice camera with free online storage for all your photos

The cameras are good and there's only one lens, while the iPhone 8 Plus uses two
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The cameras are good and there's only one lens, while the iPhone 8 Plus uses two

I really enjoyed using the cameras on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, which are identical. They're capable of taking portrait shots — the same Apple advertises on its high-end iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone 7 Plus — but using just a single camera lens instead of two.

A portrait of my dog came out really well
Todd Haselton | CNBC
A portrait of my dog came out really well

It worked well, especially indoors when I took a portrait of my dog in front of the fireplace. The camera is quick to snap, too, which means you can grab a lot of pictures at once. I think most folks will find it right on a par with what you'll get from a modern Samsung or Apple smartphone.

Google does offers a solid incentive to pick up a Pixel. If you own one, you get unlimited full-size photo storage in Google Photos for free for the next couple of years. That's pretty compelling given that storage doesn't come cheap.

Where they shine

Your next meeting will appear at the top of the screen
Your next meeting will appear at the top of the screen

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are loaded with all sorts of new smart features that you should know about, and which help distinguish them from other Android smartphones.

First, they feature a fun option that lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to pull up Google Assistant. The assistant is available on most Android phones and can answer all sorts of queries and perform commands so you can find out how tall the Empire State Building is, when Abraham Lincoln was born or tell the device to turn off your living room lights. Getting this quick access by squeezing the phone was a lot of fun.

You can squeeze either phone to bring up Google Assistant
Todd Haselton | CNBC
You can squeeze either phone to bring up Google Assistant

There's also a new feature called Lens. If you open Google Photos and select a photo, you'll see a small camera option that lets you access the feature. When active, it will do its best to identify landmarks, artwork, stores and other points of interest that are in your photos.

The phones can also recognize works of art
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The phones can also recognize works of art

A couple weeks ago, I used another device to snap works of art in Chicago, and Lens did a good job identifying photos most of the time.

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can recognize landmarks
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can recognize landmarks

It even identified landmarks in photos I took in Barcelona last year and the Wrigley Building in Chicago

The phone knows this is The Wrigley Building in Chicago
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The phone knows this is The Wrigley Building in Chicago

It wasn't able to identify a store front of a candy shop I took in Pennsylvania, though. Google says this feature is in beta and will eventually be able to work in real time through Google Assistant, not just in Google Photos. It's also expected to hit other Android phones in the future.

Finally, the Pixel 2 phones have a fun new feature that allows them to identify a song that's playing in the background. If it hears music at any time, the song playing will appear both in the notification bar and on your lock screen.

The Pixel 2 can recognize music playing in the background
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 2 can recognize music playing in the background

This is unlike other phones, where you need to open an app such as Shazam and ask it to identify a song. It was pretty cool to see a song title pop up on the phone while I was sitting in the car listening to the radio, though I wish it was easy to save the song so I could remember to listen to it later. Similarly, it also always shows your next meeting at the top of the screen.

Most folks should buy an iPhone 8 or Galaxy S8

The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL

While I liked using the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, I think most folks are better served by a new iPhone 8 or a Galaxy S8.

The Pixel 2 starts at $649, with the XL starting at $849.

If you prefer Android, the Galaxy S8 offers a bit more for a bit less — it's priced at $599, a full $50 cheaper than the starting Pixel 2 XL, but offers more storage options and wireless charging. It also has a better display and a great camera.

CNBC: Galaxy S8 6
Devin Hance | CNBC
CNBC: Galaxy S8 6

The trade-off is you won't have the latest Google software. If you need that, then you already know the Pixel 2 series is what you're looking for. In that case, skip the Pixel 2 and buy the superior Pixel 2 XL.

The iPhone 8 is more expensive — it starts at $699 — but I still think it's one of the best smartphones you can buy right now. If you aren't tied to Android, give that a look as well. I think it has a better screen, I appreciate the new wireless charging and I really enjoy using its camera.