My replacement Google Pixel 2 XL arrived yesterday, and I’ve spent much of the intervening time configuring and testing it.
So far, so good. This refurbished device—which, like my Apple refurbished hardware purchases, looks and feels brand new—appears to mostly solve my biggest issue with the original phone I purchased last November. That said, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully trust it. And there is an endemic audio issue that this new device absolutely does not fix.
Can I live with it? I think so.
First, let me outline the issues I’ve had with the Pixel 2 XL. These represent only a small subset of the many issues that others have had with this handset. But they are troubling problems when you consider that the Pixel 2 XL, as configured and shipped to me, cost over $1000.
The first was performance: Like all of the other Android devices I’ve owned—and I’ve owned dozens—the Pixel 2 XL exhibited obvious performance rot over time.
That this had happened so quickly in its lifetime was disappointing but not unprecedented: Its predecessor, the Pixel XL, did exactly the same. And the performance issues that I noticed most clearly were identical to what had happened previously with that device: You press something on-screen—like the Camera app icon—and when nothing happens, you go to press it again, but then the underlying action (the Camera app appearing) finally does happen, so you inadvertently press on something else. This is frustrating, and continual, and it really wears on you over time.
Based on my years of experience across those many devices, it’s clear to me that performance rot is an endemic Android issue. And it’s one that’s not solved by the “pure” Android experience that Google provides on its own devices. The only recourse is to reset the handset to its humble factory beginnings, and that’s something I did repeatedly with the original Pixel XL.
I’ll probably do so, too, with this phone. (I’ve only done it once so far, and that was to install the first Android P developer preview.) But I do this kind of thing enough with Windows, too, and maybe I just need to accept this reality and stop worrying about it.
The other major issue I had was with using USB-C audio.
As you may know, I use, very much prefer, and strongly recommend the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear noise-canceling headphones. They are expensive, for sure, at $250. But if you fly at all, or commute by bus or train, these headphones are a godsend. Are, in fact, necessary.
Bose makes two versions of the QuietComfort 20, one for iPhones and their peculiar audio controls, and one for everything else. Even when I was using an iPhone primarily, however, I purchased the version for everything else because they are more universally compatible. And because those buttons worked just fine with the iPhone.
These headphones worked great with the original Pixel XL and my previous Android handsets, like the Nexus 6P. Those devices, of course, had normal headphone jacks. But the headphones also worked great with the iPhone 7 Plus, which does not: Apple’s Lightning dongle worked flawlessly, without any audio hiccups or other issues.
Not so with the Pixel 2 XL. Like Apple, Google dispensed with the headphone jack on its latest handset. But unlike Apple, Google didn’t get it right: The USB-C-to-headphone dongle never worked consistently for me. And it was especially bad with the Bose QuietComfort 20. I experienced all kinds of popping sounds when the headphones’ cable moved around, and when I manually navigated to the next song (or podcast or whatever). And the sound would just stop working through USB-C all-together, sometimes right in the middle of playback, so it would start playing out of the speakers instead. On more than one occasion—and this is embarrassing—the person sitting next to me on a plane told me that audio was coming out of the phone speakers while I was listening via the headphones.
(These issues extended to USB-C headphones too, in case that isn’t clear. Over time, audio over USB-C just failed.)
I had other audio issues, too. The earpiece speaker would stop working when I made phone calls, for example, turning all calls into overly-loud speakerphone calls. A reboot usually solved that one, temporarily, but the sporadic nature of this problem was likewise frustrating.
By the time my most recent trip rolled around, I had simply started bringing a second phone with me so I could use that to listen to music, podcasts, and audiobooks on the go. That’s a cute luxury, of course, but it’s also a silly necessity. So when I got back from Colorado this past week, I did a bit of research about the Pixel 2 XL warranty and then contacted customer service.
It went about as good as I could have hoped, kind of like when you call support at your cable company and just sleepwalk through all the troubleshooting nonsense they make you go through so you can simply arrive at the end-point you already know is necessary. In this case, that the phone has a mechanical/physical defect and needs to be replaced.
Anyway, we did step through a few basic troubleshooting steps, which were pointless. But I must have answered the questions correctly because Google scheduled a refurbished phone replacement at a cost of $1,005.94 ($949.00 plus taxes; shipping was at least free) to my credit card. I’ll get that back if I return my first Pixel 2 XL within 30 days.
It arrived mid-day on Wednesday.
I had three primary worries about the new phone: Whether the audio issues would be fixed, whether it would exhibit any of the other problems that Pixel 2 XL owners had reported, and whether I would be able to easily transfer my Project Fi configuration and phone number from the old device to the new. (As you may recall, I had big issues with that latter bit when I switched to Android last fall.)
It didn’t get off to a great start: You can configure your Project Fi connectivity during the initial Android setup, and because the Pixel 2 XL has an internal eSIM (in addition to a normal SIM tray), you don’t even need to swap or use a SIM to do so. But Project Fi setup failed right up-front.
“Here we go,” I said out loud, to no one in particular.
Sucking it up, I let the phone update before I looked at Project Fi again. This involved an incredible number of app and system service updates through the Google Play Store and even an OS upgrade (to Android 8.1).
I used this downtime to test audio a bit by playing a YouTube video and swapping between the Bose headphones with a USB-C adapter and a pair of USB-C earbuds. That worked normally, and I could even jiggle the cables around with no issues. So that was good.
And then I set up Project Fi. And … It worked fine, and quickly. After a few test calls and text messages, I could tell see that everything was going to be fine on that count. And my old Pixel 2 XL reports Project Fi is “not fully activated,” which makes sense.
So now I was ready for some more audio tests.
This involved installing Audible (audiobooks) and Pocket Casts (podcasts), downloading some content, and seeing how that worked. And then streaming music via Google Play Music.
This all worked fine. But there is an audible “pop” that happens whenever I switch manually between the song (or other content I’m listening to) and the next song. It’s annoying, and especially pronounced on the Bose headset, but it doesn’t happen if the song just ends and naturally switches to the next song. So it’s … bearable. Not ideal. But I can live with it.
(I happened to mention this on Windows Weekly yesterday and Leo noted that this was a common issue with USB-C audio dongles. This is not an issue with Apple’s Lightning dongles.)
With this little bit of confidence, I started installing more apps and downloading more content. I will wipe out my first Pixel 2 XL this week, and if all goes well through the weekend, I’ll ship it back to Google so it can become their problem.
Looking ahead, I will be on the lookout for any further issues. And I will almost certainly find myself resetting the handset from time-to-time to handle what I expect to be regular performance rot problems. Testing new beta milestones of the next Android P release should help with that.
But you may be wondering. Why even bother? What is it about the Pixel 2 XL that keeps me hanging on even though I’ve had all these issues?
We all do a bit of mental math when it comes to a purchase like this. It’s not just about the cost, which is substantial in this case, it’s about some combination of benefits that just puts it over the top.
This math is personal: The reasons why I might choose the Pixel 2 XL, in this case, may not add up for you. But as I’ve written before, the Pixel 2 XL has what I perceive to be the best smartphone camera in the market (especially for low-light shots) and Project Fi compatibility, which provides me with seamless and inexpensive usage both at home and internationally. Both of these things are very important to me, but the combination of both in one device is what sells it for me.
Of course, the phone has to work too. It has to handle the basics, like playing back audio. And performing well over time. And the Pixel 2 XL has other issues, like its display, which can be almost impossible to see in broad daylight. All of this is put into that equation, and evaluated. All of us will arrive at an answer that works for us.
And there are and will be phones that reset the math. The Samsung Galaxy S9+, despite its camera (which is excellent but not Pixel 2 XL quality) and lack of Project Fi compatibility came really close. But I ultimately felt that the gorgeous display wasn’t enough to make me give up the things I really cared about. Maybe the OnePlus 6. Maybe some future iPhone.
We’ll see. For now, I’ll semi-nervously continue using the Pixel 2 XL, waiting for the audio to pop and then fail as it did before. But hoping that it does not.
Tagged with Pixel 2 XL