What makes the Google Pixel 2 XL better than the Galaxy S9+
(Editor's note: This article originally appears on the author's Medium blog.)
I got a nice surprise from my telco recently when they gave me a call to ask how I wanted my new Samsung S9+ delivered. It was surprising mostly because I hadn't ordered one. But the gods of consumerism had seen fit to bestow this unexpected gift*, and a week later I had a shiny new S9+ and wireless charger sitting on my dining table, ready to be seriously judged.
*It wasn't a gift. They were saying thanks for spending an ungodly amount of money on international roaming charges last year.
Now, I've been using a Google Pixel 2 XL since it launched in November last year, and I'm of the opinion that it's the finest phone I've ever owned. There are three key areas in which I believe the Pixel 2 to be unparalleled, two of which are probably impossible for any other phone to beat. That said, challenging my personal biases with the spiffy new South Korean flagship seemed like it would make for an interesting weekend project.
The Google Pixel Launcher + Google Assistant + Google Now trifecta is probably the closest we’ve yet come to obsolescing the smartphone home screen. It’s so useful that I’ve basically stopped organizing my home screen or installing utility apps, since you can perform most common tasks by just typing some text or saying a few words.
It's deeply integrated into Android, so you can say, "Hey Google, play some music," and it will load up Spotify and play your Discover Weekly. "Turn on the Hotspot" will toggle your wifi sharing, "Open Authenticator" will fire up Google Authenticator, and "Check my email" will show you the first few lines of your most recent messages. Combine it with a Chromecast and say “Let’s watch Jessica Jones” to fire up Netflix and pick up where you left off the other night.
If you don't want to speak to the Assistant, typing into the Launcher will give you direct access to the full suite of Google's capabilities. Typing a letter or two pulls up a list of your most-used apps, entering a flight number shows you a flight status card, pasting a DHL number shows you tracking information, typing "2.5 BTC in JPY" gives you a real-time crypto exchange calculation.
Google Now, meanwhile, attempts to organize your life for you with relevant stories, traffic advice before a trip, information about a new location you’re currently visiting, and reminders about inclement weather.
To be fair, both Pixel Launcher and Google Assistant are installable on any Android device now, but they’re better integrated on the Pixel phones, which are running Android 8.1. On Google’s devices, the Launcher is positioned on the bottom bar below your favorite apps, meaning it's available on all screens. On other Android devices, it gets swiped away when you move to a different screen.
And of course, Samsung has the much-maligned Bixby.
A light comparison
The Pixel 2 XL's camera produces pictures that are the best I've ever seen from any phone. Google recognized that there was a lot more work that could be done on the software level to make better pictures, and the difference that its Machine Learning-assisted Pixel Visual Core chip makes is eye-popping. Even against more expensive hardware – the S9+ has an f/1.5 lens vs. the Pixel 2's more pedestrian f/1.8 – the automatic post-processing that Google applies to each image consistently makes for better pictures.
The photos below show how the Pixel 2 XL and the S9+ handle the three most common photo subjects in the millennial Internet: the coffee cup, the dinner plate, and the evening selfie. All images were captured using the default “auto” mode on each phone, and then merged in Photoshop with no additional processing.
The coffee cup (Google Pixel 2 XL on the left, Samsung S9+ on the right):
"The coffee cup” is quite possibly the single most common image on the Internet; it’s ubiquitous, easy to frame, and wholly uninteresting. Touchy friends may bristle about a photo of your bare toes at the beach if you caption it “Today’s office,” but no one gets offended by a cup of coffee. As such, it’s the perfect subject for an in-depth camera comparison.
Samsung has historically made some really aggressive decisions when it comes to color saturation, and the difference when compared against the Pixel’s image is dramatic. The Google image (left) looks really muted by comparison, even though it’s more faithful to the real-life colors of the coffee cup and the table. But beyond the odd saturation, you can see that the Pixel captured a lot more detail on both the table surface and the stains on the rim of the cup.
Typically, what we look for in these types of images is a strong separation between the foreground and the background. We want the subject to be in sharp detail, and we want a pleasant blurriness on everything else in the frame. That’s roughly what we get with the Google image, which is progressively blurrier the further into the background we get. Not so much with the Samsung image though – the people in the background are still fairly sharp and the brick wall is detailed all the way to the far corner.
(For the photography nerds: I checked the metadata on the images, and it turns out that the S9+’s automatic mode decided not to shoot wide-open, and was stopped down to f/2.4. The Pixel, on the other hand, was at its maximum f/1.8 aperture. This explains the marked difference in background details, although it doesn’t explain why the Samsung device thought it was a good idea to shoot that way. Too much ambient light, maybe?)
What’s most telling though is the area outside the shop window. The Google image had enough dynamic range to show you hints of the structures outside, while the Samsung is hopelessly washed-out.
The dinner plate (Google Pixel 2 XL on top; S9+ at bottom)
Samsung’s color saturation strategy starts to make sense when aiming its lens at “the dinner plate,” in this case a lobster dish from Teppan Okochi. The straight-out-of-camera images are vibrant and lush, if a touch artificial.
The Pixel 2 XL image looks drab in comparison, although it seems to have captured a bit more texture. The lobster’s large antenna on the bottom left of the frame still has some detail in the Pixel image, whereas the S9+ seems to have just given up.
The evening selfie (Pixel 2 XL on top; S9+ at bottom)
In “the evening selfie,” we see the same story via the front-facing cameras. The S9+ appears to be trading fidelity for a more flattering image, although it isn’t clear whether it’s purposely smoothing out wrinkles or if it really just can’t capture them. (Probably a bit of both.)
Practically all of the highlights in the S9+ image are overexposed too, but neither camera is performing particularly well in this situation. The restaurant interior was not particularly well-lit and I was handholding at shutter speeds of 1/13 and 1/15, respectively. As a result the images are quite soft, but not unusable for an IG story or two.
Megapixels don’t make a difference in these low-light scenarios, only how much light is actually hitting the sensors, and the S9+ has a theoretical edge because of its wider aperture. Still, the Pixel Visual Core chip appears to be doing a lot of work behind the scenes to keep up, and manages to deliver a more balanced image with a reasonable amount of detail.
The question of whether our selfies are better served by a faithful reproduction or a real-time digital makeover is largely up to the reader.
Earlier I said that I believed the Pixel family had two aspects that other manufacturers would never be able to beat, and this is one of them. Without Google’s massive database of photographs, Apple and Samsung simply can’t improve their image processing fast enough to keep up.
Instead, they must rely on annual upgrades to the hardware itself, by releasing new phones with new lenses and sensors. Meanwhile, Google has made its bet on synthetic, software-level image processing which can be improved out-of-cycle and has no such physical limitations.
The miraculous Project Fi
The other area where Google is significantly further ahead of its competition is its awesome Project Fi service. For $60/month, you’ll get unlimited voice and data in 170 countries*. It’s a worldphone plan that unbelievably costs less than my Globe Platinum service.
*Angola, Brunei, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Nepal, and Vietnam are among those unfortunately not supported.
Now, technically any phone (even an iPhone!) can use Fi as long as you’re willing to replace your current SIM card with Fi’s own custom SIM. The Google Pixel family of devices, however, can access the service even without a SIM card inserted…which honestly feels like living in the future a little.
You could theoretically buy a Pixel, sign up for Fi, and have an all-you-can-eat postpaid worldphone in a matter of minutes without ever having set foot inside a telco outlet.
The amount of money that Fi has saved me in roaming fees over just the last four months is huge: instead of paying my telco $300 a month, I’m paying less than $100 now. No other phone feature has ever saved me this much money this quickly.
Waiting for Pistachio
It’s often said that Apple is for people who just want their devices to work, and Android is for people who want to customize. Ten years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, this difference remains as stark as ever.
Third-party vendors like Samsung and Huawei are getting better at creating a reasonably straightforward experience out of the box, but the fact that you can still replace the Phone app itself on your Android phone says a lot about how much control users have.
Within the Android ecosystem, the Google devices stand apart because they’re the only ones running the non-embellished version of the operating system. With none of the vendor skins or third-party bloatware to worry about, the Pixel family is therefore the first to receive all the latest Android updates.
It’s not a small difference either. The ninth version of Android (internally codenamed “P” or “Pistachio Ice Cream”) could become available on Pixel devices as early as August this year, even while most third-party manufacturers are still slated to be upgrading their handsets to version 8.1.
Samsung’s supermodel looks
There are areas, of course, where the South Korean manufacturer is noticeably ahead. It’s easy to diminish Samsung’s achievements by saying that it pits supermodel looks against Google’s rocket-scientist smarts, but that would only be half the story.
Its AMOLED screen is the best I’ve seen on any device bar none, better than even the iPhone X. It’s managed to pack more pixels per square inch than either the iPhone or Google flagships, and its lack of side bezels make it noticeably narrower than the Pixel 2 XL. The more slender frame means that you don’t have to reach so far with your thumbs, and I found that I could type a tiny bit faster on the S9+ keyboard as a result.
The Samsung device also feels expensive in your hand, largely because of the wraparound glass, which adds to its heft. (It’s 189g vs. the Pixel’s 175g, which is a marginal but not insignificant difference.)
The Pixel 2 XL, with its big bezels and more squat aspect ratio, looks positively frumpy next to the S9+. Google simply isn’t in the same league hardware-wise, and it doesn’t help its case by making practical decisions like opting for a matte aluminium back for better grip. (Note that if Google ever wants to support wireless charging, they will eventually need to shift to a glass back as well.)
The Pixel 2 XL’s LG-made OLED screen is not the worse display ever, but it feels like it’s one generation older than the competition.
Next to the sex appeal of the S9+ and the iPhone X, the Pixel 2 XL is the unassuming workhorse.
Throwing s* against the wall
With the S9, Samsung exhibits a tendency to be too heavily influenced by Cupertino, often to its own detriment.
The AR Emoji feature on their Camera app is a sad knockoff of Apple’s animojis. The output is so laughably bad that it feels more like a plugin for your Instagram Stories than a banner feature on one of the most expensive phones you can currently buy.
Likewise, its face and retina-based scanners are simply not as good as Apple’s… heck, the facial recognition is barely better than Windows Hello.
There’s also Bixby, Samsung’s beleaguered voice assistant. Now that it’s starting to leverage Google for its translation functionality, it’s actually become a bit more reasonable … but then, why not just use Google Assistant and Google Now in the first place?
My BP Lab on the S9+ attempts to correlate stress with heart rate and blood pressure data
Perhaps the strangest thing that I’ve become enamored with on the S9+ are the heart rate and blood pressure monitor apps, the former of which is built into Samsung Health, and the latter of which is part of a beta app called My BP Lab.
Multiple times a day, I’ve been dutifully taking my heart rate and blood pressure measurements via the new optical sensor on the back of the phone. Soon I’ll have enough data to map out which days and events in my life correlate to higher blood pressure or elevated heart rate, and whether there’s anything I can do to reduce those situations. (Unless I want to stop being an entrepreneur in the crypto space, probably nothing.)
Precisely why I’m doing this is beyond me. But it’s kinda cool, I guess.
I’ve been largely critical of Samsung in this piece, and it’s because I don’t value the handful of things that are going to no doubt make it the “best” Android phone of 2018. Its eye-popping display is really what sets it apart from the competition, everything else is just about what you would expect from a modern flagship device.
I think that Google’s offering is the superior Android device, and will continue to be for as long as Samsung rolls their own versions of the OS. Smarter software presents itself in every corner of the Pixel 2 experience, from its voice assistant to its camera to the way it identifies an incoming call from a number you’ve never seen before.
And don’t even get me started on that jaw-dropping Fi service.
If the battle for smartphone supremacy can be distilled down to the Apple iPhone X vs. the finest Android phone, then it should be represented by the device that is most emblematic of the actual state of the art. Top-notch display and wireless charging aside, Samsung just isn’t it.
… Actually, maybe there is ONE thing that the S9+ got absolutely right:
Yup, that jack still holds a lot of weight. – Rappler.com