Head to Head: iPhone X vs. Pixel 2 XL

I’ve had the pleasure of using two amazing phones over the last couple months; the iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2 XL.  Both are fantastic phones; both are very fast and both have exceptional user experiences that are everything you’d expect out of flagship smartphones.  My goal is to lay out the positives and negatives for each device in as many areas of use as possible—to better inform you as you consider making a major purchase.

And it is a major purchase.  The iPhone X is the most expensive iPhone ever starting at $999, and the Pixel 2 XL is not far behind it at $774.  In 2017, flagship phones broke the $1000 price tag and the improvements don’t seem to be worth the extra coin.  On paper, the better choice from a price standpoint is going to be the Pixel 2 XL…but this comes down to more than just price.  And, you have to also ask yourself—are you ready to fork out that kind of cash for a phone?  There are so many budget and mid-range phones that are really, really great at a fraction of the cost of these two flagships.

When device subsidies (mostly) went the way of the cassette, and we started paying for everything monthly, it makes these price tags a little easier to digest.  I love the “op-ex” model of phones because it allows me to upgrade my phone each year, and my phone cost stays the same each month, year over year.  I lease a car, instead of buying it, for the same reason: budgeting.  And, in that sense, the difference between the iPhone and the Pixel are minimal each month.

But, whether subsidy, or device payment, or outright purchase—these are still expensive phones.  Another thing to consider is not the initial price tag, but the repair price tag if the device is damaged.  I take pretty good care of my phones, but something to plan for regardless of choice is insurance on these phones.  I’m a long time Apple user and swear by Apple Care, but really any plan that allows for some absorption of repair costs is going to be worth the money.

Speaking of repair—what are you most likely to repair on either of these phones?  The screen, of course.  The Pixel 2 XL has a 6” OLED display, 1440 x 2880 pixels, 18:9 aspect ratio with a pixel density of 538; compare that to the iPhone X’s 5.8” OLED, 1125 x 2436 pixels, 19.5:9 aspect ration and a pixel density of 458.  The Pixel has a screen-to-body ratio of 76%, compared to the iPhone’s 83%.  Specs aside, both screens are gorgeous.

Starting with the iPhone, the colors are great with wide color gamut and true-tone technology, and the only (possible) hangup is the notch at the top of the phone where the front sensors are located.  Some people get really upset about the notch, I don’t even notice it anymore and imagine most people will fall into that category.  The Pixel’s display is a more traditional full rectangle with rounded corners, with the front of the phone sporting minimal “chin” and “forehead” areas for the speakers, sensors, and microphones.  When the Pixel 2 XL was released there were reports of OLED burn-in and blue shifting, but it seemed very subjective and spotty at best; I haven’t noticed any burn-in and blue shift is minimal if noticeable at all.

Both phones have “long” aspect ratios that aren’t normal when it comes to video production—and so both will end up with black bars when looking at most videos natively.  The exception here (for now) is YouTube, which allows both devices to pan/crop videos in order to fully utilize the screen.  And, when fully utilized, both screens are incredible; the only significant difference being a full rectangular screen on the Pixel and a “notched” screen on the iPhone.

This may lean a bit on the design segment of the review—but the biggest difference in these devices as far as the screens are concerned is physical size, and how the screen is positioned on the front of the device.  If, for instance, the notch really bothers you—then the iPhone may not be for you.  If on the other hand, you are looking for a device that has almost exclusively screen on the front, know that although the top and bottom bezels on the Pixel, albeit small, are still there.

This seems as good a time as any to talk about the design of these phones.  Apple’s iPhone 8 and X both sport glass backs, a first for the iPhones in 2017, while the Pixel 2 has the two-tone glass and metal back; this means that wireless charging is in for the iPhone and out for the Pixel, so if that is a deal-breaker for you, you’ll want to pass on the Pixel (side note—I don’t think it should be a deal breaker; both of these phones support fast-charging and have great batteries, which I’ll get to later).

Apple brought back the stainless steel accents for the edge of the device; feedback has been hit-or-miss as to whether or not that was a good move.  The “silver” iPhone has a very shiny stainless steel band that I think looks a bit gaudy, but the “space gray” device has a darker stainless steel band that looks elegant and classy.  This, of course, is entirely subjective.  Overall, the design in a word is “valuable,” it feels and looks expensive because it is; this is presumably very important when it comes to Apple’s design language.  It feels great in the hand and is wonderful to look at, although most people are going to cover it with a case—so that design language gets a bit muted in practice.

Google’s design for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL matches the previous year, and offers both white and black metal backs, along with the black glass top section.  The design, in a word—industrious.  It’s highly functional, more traditional in terms of a larger smart phone, feels heavy in the hand (but not too heavy) and without a case doesn’t slip around nearly as much as the iPhone.  I think Google carried the industrious design element into the Google accessories, and the gray “denim” case is a nice match for this device.

As a long time iPhone user, I was very excited that Apple changed the design with the release of the X; I’ve not liked an iPhone design since the iPhone 5, and was excited to see some of the “classy” looks return to their lineup (iPhone 6 – 8 have a sort of “toy” or “candy” look to me that I never really liked).  And, they definitely hit it out of the park with the iPhone X.  Still, Google’s design on the Pixel 2, specifically limiting the bezels on the XL and reducing the overall footprint, paired with the matte aluminum finish on the back makes for a really great, traditional phone experience…and for that reason, I think the Pixel’s design is a bit better overall.  You need to see both of them in person, though, to make your own opinion.

When it comes to battery and performance, there’s not a whole lot to talk about.  I can easily get all-day battery from both phones, although the Pixel’s battery is significantly larger at 3,520mAh versus the iPhone’s 2,716 mAh cell.  Apple’s classic optimization tactics considered here, and the batteries are near neck-and-neck.

And both phones operate as you’d expect a flagship to operate: no lag, no stutter, just blazing speed.  Some benchmarks will tell you that the iPhone is superior, but essentially both phones are going to give you great performance.  The iPhone is running on 3GB of RAM and Apple’s A11 Bionic hexacore processor, which is a force to be reckoned with; the Pixel packs in 4GB of RAM alongside the octacore Snapdragon 835.  Both phones have dedicated GPUs that drive performance even further.

Another all-around important component of any smart phone in 2018 is the how well it performs for media creation.  If you’ve done any sort of research on the Pixel 2 XL, you know that the DxOMark scores are REALLY high for a phone camera, with the iPhone not far behind it.  Say what you want about the legitimacy of these scores, but in general, high scoring devices from the last couple years have had objectively good cameras, so I don’t think it’s wise to count out the ratings.

Still, photography is a largely subjective hobby, and it’s hard to say which thing is the most important thing to look for.  For still photo shooting from the rear camera, the Pixel 2 XL performs admirably with great color along with excellent accuracy and sharpness.  In good lighting, the iPhone was just as well as the Pixel 2 XL but started to underperform in lower light scenarios.

Not to be forgotten, the beloved portrait modes on both the iPhone and Pixel performed well, although significant numbers of reviews online have pointed to the Pixel 2 being the superior in this category.  Lest we forget, portrait mode is still new to smart phones and it’s easy to complain when a feature isn’t perfect—although it is worth pointing out that the Pixel’s portrait modes on both the front- and rear-facing cameras utilize a single lens, while the iPhone’s portrait mode on the rear sensors uses two (on the front, I’m sure Apple could have utilized the whole suite of sensors with some finely tuned software to create phenomenal selfie portraits, but they haven’t, at least not yet).  Personally, I’m not into the portrait photos, although I have shot a couple of review items with the previous generation iPhone 7 Plus and was generally pleased with the result.  What is undeniable, though, is that Google has done a fine job in creating a solid portrait shot with a single lens, and is using data to improve those results over time; hopefully, Apple can jump on the bandwagon here and make significant advances of their own.

Video, on the other hand, leans slightly in favor of the iPhone, with its ability to shoot 60 FPS at 4K and slow motion 240 FPS at 1080P (which, for a smart phone, is just ridiculous).  Admittedly, though, I don’t think this is a huge selling point (comparatively speaking) because the Pixel’s video capabilities are fine enough for everyday use (60 FPS at 1080P and slow motion 240 FPS at 720P).  I do think the video stabilization in the Google phone is slightly better, but they still both perform admirably well for flagship phones in that category.

Thus far, I spent a good amount of this review talking about physical specs: size, shape, design—all things that are secondary to many phone buyers, because their first concern is what “kind” of device they’re getting (namely, Android vs iOS).  And reviewers will shy away from this in most scenarios because no one wants to take a side.

A few years ago, cell phones were at an important point in their development where a buyer needed to pick an ecosystem first, before a phone, to get the full features unlocked for that phone.  And for the gadget lovers out there, this was a frustrating thing—because we just love gadgets.  Still, over the last few years, there have been significant improvements in cross-OS functionality, namely between Apple and Google (and Microsoft, to some degree) that have blurred those previously bold lines that separated the ecosystems.  And, 3 years ago, when I decided to move our family into Apple’s ecosystem (email, music, document storage, video/photo backup, document creation, even the computers we used every day) I had quite a bit of work to do that today would be much, much easier because of the now blurred lines.

What this means for buyers in 2018 is that it is now LESS important to pick an ecosystem, or to move to a new one, just to get a great new phone that utilizes whatever you already use for email, or music consumption, or cloud storage, or whatever else you have going on in your personal ecosystem.  That’s what we all have now—personal ecosystems composed of a number of different services that, for the most part, play nicely together with the rest of our services…and companies like Apple and Google work each year to make this better for all of us.

That said, every new device that comes out highlights positives or negatives about the ecosystem in which that device resides.  For instance, when Apple implemented Continuity between macOS and iOS, and their Universal Clipboard, they did so only for Apple-ecosystem devices (whether or not they did it first is irrelevant).  Likewise, any of the various voice assistants, when asked to play a certain song, will default to the music player in their ecosystem and only sometimes be able to use third-party streaming services.

So, at some point, regardless of how far we’ve come in the last few years, I think it’s still important with these two phones to pick the device that best highlights its native ecosystem—because that ecosystem is going to be the biggest limiter of everyday use and performance.

I’ll start with stock software: Android 8 versus iOS 11.  From an Android perspective, I wanted to look at a phone that had the stock experience—instead of Samsung’s skin, or LG’s skin, or HTC’s skin (you get the idea).  That’s not to say these skins don’t have their own benefits (or shortcomings…I’m talking to you, Bixby), but I wanted to get the closest intended experience of Android and nothing further.  There’s a lot to an OS, whether Android or iOS, to be able to say in one fell swoop which is better.  For instance, control center and notifications in Android are far more thorough and well-thought-out implementations versus iOS, where things like deep customization and notification groupings just haven’t been seen yet (in time, they will).  And, the existence of the app drawer on Android (which—Apple users, you can disable if you’re looking to make the switch) makes it so I don’t have to have EVERY app on my various home screens.  Additionally, we still don’t have real widgets in iOS, yet, and that’s a bit of a bummer as well.

iOS 11 was so exciting when it was announced, and when the betas were released.  I loved all of the added functionality it would bring to the table, but was sorely disappointed when I discovered that the new OS focused more on the iPad than it did on the iPhone.  Things like multitasking, and real drag-and-drop through multi-tasking, just can’t be done on the iPhone (again, YET).  In spite of this, iOS is a very stable, very familiar experience and is an easy to understand UI that doesn’t change much from generation to generation.  Still, I think that Android 8 is the better OS right now, even if you remove the ability to customize everything to the nth degree.

Next up is gestures—these are the gestures that are specific to the device that are tied to the ecosystem.  There’s no comparison to be done here; rather, a recap of what you get with each phone.  On the Pixel, you can gently squeeze the sides of the device to launch Google’s voice assistant—a neat touch if you like voice assistants (quick aside here, I can’t adequately say which ecosystem has the best assistant because I don’t use either of them, at least not frequently; both are fine at doing basic things from my experience, and in that sense are comparatively equal, however, Google’s voice assistant is anecdotally accepted as superior to Siri).  Apple, on the other hand, with the removal of the home button now puts the activation of Siri under what was previously used as the power button; this has taken some getting used to.  And, now that Siri has displaced the power button, an awkward two-button activation of the shutdown screen is required if you ever need to restart your phone.

Speaking of the home button—the iPhone X doesn’t have one; in its place is FaceID, which is really easy to set up and noticeably slower than TouchID.  I loved TouchID, it was fast, reliable, and the gold standard among fingerprint authentication for phones.  Android fans loved to pick on the home button placement, insisting the back of the phone was better.  Whether or not you agree, understand that authenticating for these phones is a wholly different experience.  The iPhone relies on your face (and you actually looking at the phone), while Google uses the reliable fingerprint approach.  Both phones can be unlocked with a PIN as well if you are stuck 5 or more years in the past.

So, although the Pixel is quicker at authentication using a fingerprint—let me be [perhaps among] the first to say that I am NOT a fan of the location of the fingerprint sensor on the Pixel.  I seem to be with the minority who prefer the placement higher, and off-center, as Samsung has put in their recent Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones.  I think the “Samsung” placement makes more sense to how most people default to holding their phones, but I recognize this also is incredibly subjective and really comes down to individual preference.

FaceID on the iPhone has been awesome in my experience, albeit a bit slow (the speed will improve over time).  And, along with FaceID comes Animoji, which is a good way to lose a few hours while sitting on the toilet.  Other gestures on the iPhone, now that we lost a home button, include swiping up from the bottom edge to go home, swiping up and to the right to get to the app switcher, down from the upper left to get to notifications and down from the upper right to get to control center.  They were all new and took very little time to get used to; my only complaint here is that those gestures are specific to the iPhone X and haven’t yet made it to other iPhones or the iPad which are running the same version of iOS…seems weird to me.  As with most Apple gestures, they are comfortable, easy to learn and make a lot of sense once you start using them—and I found myself trying to utilize the same motions on other iOS devices because it just made sense.

Related to gestures is the notion of “tap to wake,” functionality that’s been around for quite some time and wasn’t first implemented by Apple or Google.  Regardless, both phones have it—but on the Pixel, it is paired with an always-on display, which is something Apple missed the boat on with the iPhone X.  Since the X has an OLED display, there’s no reason why it should have an always-on display.  Also nice on the Pixel 2’s AOD is the Now Playing feature, which actively listens to ambient noise to identify what song is playing wherever you are.  This is a feature that is disabled by default, but is a really nice small touch; the library of known songs is relatively limited right now, but as with anything else, will improve over time.

And finally, on to the mobile experience—that is, what it’s like using these devices in the car.  Apple Car Play and Android Auto have become more and more popular in recent years, and car manufacturers are including these compatibilities as standard features.  I’ll start where both systems lack: apps.  There are only a handful of compatible apps for either platform, and this is mostly due to a lack of attention by app developers.  And with that, customization is also lacking: for instance, if you want to use Google Maps instead of stock Apple Maps on Apple Car Play, you’re out of luck; likewise, if you’re an Apple Music subscriber using an Android phone, just having the app available to you in the ecosystem doesn’t make it Android Auto compatible.

When it comes to the interfaces themselves, Apple Car Play’s home screen is not that dissimilar from iOS: left and right swipes allow you to scroll through the available applications, all of which are available to you on those home screens.  Recent apps are available at all times along a bar to the left side of the screen, as well as the iconic Apple “Home” button which is also always visible.  For Android Auto, the biggest difference is that launching the app keeps you from using your phone otherwise, while it is connected to your car.  I recognize this is a safety feature, and I certainly can appreciate that, but it is possible to safely use a cell phone in the car (traffic lights, by passengers, etc.).  The interface, in contrast to Apple Car Play, is distinct from Android’s operating system and feels more like a driving app than it does an extension of the OS.  This is another purely subjective thing, although I will admit that despite my familiarity with Apple Car Play I much prefer the interface and functionality of Android Auto.

Over the years, I’ve owned a good number of both Android and iOS phones.  I’ve seen the strides that Android’s OS has made recently and have been very impressed with the Pixel 2 XL.  At the same time, the iPhone X is the [entirely subjectively] best design I’ve seen on an iPhone yet, with an OS that is near perfect.  Both phones have amazing specs, solid hardware, and excellent performance; realistically, purchasing either one of these devices should make any buyer happy.

When comparing the phones side-by-side, the purchase decision seems to come down to one simple selection: form versus function.  This, more than anything else, may help you figure out which of these two devices is going to be most ideal for you, most of the time.

On the “form” side you have the Apple iPhone X: a futuristic phone with sleek, expensive styling.  Apple has done a great job in marketing, making their devices all about status, and the iPhone X is no exception to that.  It has plenty of function, sure, but it is the more solid pick from a consistency, sustainability, and usability perspective.  iPhone buyers get the same experience regardless of preference; it is very predictable and very comfortable.  It costs a little more, but won’t let you down if you keep your phones for two years or longer.

On the “function” side is the Pixel 2 XL: everything about this device, from its industrial design, to its near infinitely customizable user interface, to its almost perfect camera, is all about functionality and purpose.  It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, it doesn’t even have to make you stand out in the crowd— its job is to make your life easier, and the design cues in the hardware and software point to that purpose over all others.

It’s easy for any reviewer to say which device is better.  If I had to pick a new phone today, it would be the Pixel 2 XL—but that’s just me.  I think it edges the iPhone X in nearly every major category that isn’t a wash, but everyone’s experience is going to be a little different.  Regardless of what you choose, though, do your research, interact with both phones, and make a decision you can live with for a year or two.  Like I said before, both phones are excellent, but only one is going to be right for you.

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