In November this year I got my paws on the Google Pixel2XL at the Singapore launch event and wanted to see how it would match up against my existing phone, the Samsung Note8. I told the Google real-human assistant (you know, as opposed to the artificial intelligence system they have) this, and he let out a low whistle.
“That’s a tough battle,” he said.
It’s true. The Note8 is widely considered to be the best Android phone available to man, but now that Google has released the Pixel, they’re basically neck to neck. Both phones are already considered very powerful, and it’s really the nitty gritty details that give either one an edge over the other. Now, I’m no tech wizard although I do super love geeking out over gadgets, so I can’t give you solid commentary on the intricacies of the specs in either phone. But I am an intensive phone user, and one who obsessively customizes and tweaks her phones to get the best possible user experience out of it, and it is based on that that I am now presenting to you: ANDROID WARS!!!!!! GOOGLE VS SAMSUNG.
I was seeded media sets for both the Google and the Samsung. I am not being paid for any content created relating to either phones, nor do I earn a commission on sales or anything remotely like that. If you want to know why I switched from being a full on Apple user to Android, I’ll be blogging about that in a separate post.
We also did a comparison of the Apple iPhone X, Google Pixel 2XL, and Samsung Note8 on Hype Hunt’s latest episode – which you can watch here:
But because we’re limited by screen time and also cos it’s a lifestyle and not tech show, we covered more day-to-day features on the show. This post will be a bit more about the in-depth user experience.
Right out of the box, both phones operate Android but different versions of it. The Samsung Note8 runs Android 7.1.1, affectionately known as Nougat. And the Google Pixel runs the Android 8 – the new Oreo system.
Because Google’s Pixel is native to the software it runs on (Google owns Android, FYI), the Pixel is likely to get updates before anyone else in the future, and it’s also probably going to run more smoothly with these updates. There’s no news yet of the Note8 getting the Oreo, and because Samsung is third party to the Google Android OS, it still has a layer of what’s called the ‘samsung skin’ on the phone. This means that the Note8 will be marginally slower than the Pixel because commands from the Android system will go through the Samsung skin first before you see it. In reality, this hasnt made a huge difference for me. My Note8 doesnt lag, and neither does my Pixel2XL. I also dont really see a huge difference between the two versions of Android, but i think this is more a FOMO situation than anything else cos some people are bound to just want the latest version of the OS.
At the moment though, I actually prefer the older version of the OS that my Samsung Note8 runs because it’s more customisable, especially with regards to widget control. This is because of the Samsung skin that runs on top of the Google Android OS, but it’s also why the Note8 is a bit slower than the Pixel.
The Google Pixel2XL comes with free original quality Google Photo storage until 2020. This is pretty cool cos as far as I can tell, google photos is the default storage album for the Pixel phones. So everything you take is automatically uploaded to the cloud unless you disable it, and the phone has the option of freeing up storage space on the device itself by deleting images that are already backed up to your Google Photos. This might make you panic, the idea of photos just deleting themselves, but its ok cos its all stored in full res on your Google Photos which you can access any time on your phone as long as you have internet connection! This is an extremely cool function because I am all too familiar with that “YOUR PHONE IS OUT OF STORAGE SPACE” pop up and that’s just never going to happen again with the Pixel!
The Samsung Note8 does not come with free anything as far as I can tell, but I dont think the unlimited original quality google photos is a dealbreaker for the Pixel vs Note8 because actually, all phones can download the google photos app and get free unlimited high quality cloud storage. I’ve been using this app since my iphone days and this is actually super. Basically the minute you get wifi, the phone starts uploading photos that youve taken or downloaded on your phone to the Google photos cloud linked to your gmail account. Anything under 16mp is fine, anything above that gets compressed to 16mp. Which honestly is enough for most people unless youre a professional photographer, cos 16mp is pretty generous for a photo anyway. It’s just that with the Pixel, you can keep your pictures in original quality lor.
The Samsung Note8 also comes with two sim card slots so you can run two numbers at the same time, whereas the Google Pixel2XL only comes with one. Again, this is not a dealbreaker, unless you travel a lot to one other specific country for work. Like say, if you live in Singapore but work in Malaysia, then the dual-sim would be invaluable because you can run your SG and work number in the same phone instead of switching to and fro especially when you need to authorize banking transactions or whatever with your OTP.
Both phones are pretty big, with the Samsung being a wee bit longer. No real difference lah cos big is just big. But once you turn it on, the difference kicks in because Samsung has a bigger screen, so you get more real estate on your device.
The most noticeable difference from the front is that the Samsung Note8 has a slightly curved screen that tapers off at the edges, a design aspect ported over from the Samsung Galaxy S series. This gives it a really nice, classy look. The Google Pixel 2XL has a glossy screen too, which is very pretty, but for all intents and purposes it’s just a straightforward and nice looking screen. Both phones have Always On Display functionality, which means that you can tell the time without waking up the phone. The Pixel’s AOD is cooler by a margin because it has auto music recognition, so if you’re in a mall or cafe and there’s music playing in the background, the Pixel will auto-detect it and display the song currently playing in your vicinity. It’s basically like Shazam, for those of you familiar with the service, except it detects the song playing automatically in the background.
The Samsung Note8 is a fingerprint magnet through and through. It picks up fingerprints more easily than the Google Pixel2XL, and while i dont understand exactly why, I can just honestly say that it’s a noticeable difference when both phones are sleeping. This really bothered me at first, and now I’ve just come to accept it as is. I’m going to get a matte screen protector for it so hopefully it stops picking up fingerprints then.
Speaking of fingerprint magnets – the back of the phones also differ quite a bit. I think this is just a minor point because most people will buy a case anyway, but the Samsung Note8 has a really glossy (and thus, fingerprinty) backing, whereas the Google has a nice matte metal back panel. I have no idea why Samsung makes phones with glossy backs and smudgy fronts because literally everyone I know will pick a matte option if they have half a chance to. I definitely prefer the matte feel of the Google Pixel2XL’s back, but then again, this isnt really a big deal once you put cases on both phones. And as far as I know, both phones come with cases out of the box.
Oh, and one last thing. Fingerprint related also. The fingerprint scanner on the Google Pixel2XL is perfectly placed. I really hated using the iphone fingerprint scanner because I found it irritating (the new iPhone X has done away with that though, I heard), and the Samsung Note8 fingerprint scanner is just pure awkward. It’s too high up, it’s on the same panel as the camera (and so you end up touching the camera lens instead quite a bit), and it’s basically a very strange position to have a fingerprint scanner. You can bypass this if you use the iris scanner or passcode instead, but it’s just annoying if youre already used to unlocking your phone with a fingerprint.
When you power on the phones, the first thing that comes to mind is that the Google Pixel is cuter. The time stamp uses a thicker font, which makes it look more adorable, and the Pixel’s app icons are brightly colored little circles that reflect the spirit of the quad-colored google logo.
The Samsung Note8 is a bit more grown up. I’m using a theme that I found in the inbuilt Samsung theme store, and I adore it because I’ve tweaked my phone screen to show me exactly what I want in the way I want it. As a result, my entire display is more muted, with more jewel tones and less bright pop colors. This is mainly because I have tweaked the phone extensively, but it’s worth noting that while you can do all this on the Samsung Note8 right off the bat, you need a third party launcher on the Google Pixel to change or edit the theme, which is kind of troublesome. I’ve used third party theme launchers before (I used a Sony XPeria, very briefly, 2 years ago) and I hated it because it was just so cumbersome and it slows the phone down. So if you dont want to figure out the mechanics of using a third party launcher, you’re stuck with the original Google skin that the phone comes with.
It actually really annoys me that I cant customize the way the Pixel looks, but to be fair, the original Pixel configuration is pretty gorgeous from day one of use. It comes with a live wallpaper enabled, and mine is an aerial view of a sea washing up against a cliffy beach. The waves move too, they’re perpetually crashing against the beach, and the overall effect is really nice. The same live wallpaper is also available on the Note8, but somehow i think its more optimised for the Pixel cos the movement and colors seem more vivid there.
Both phones have killer cameras. I initially thought the Samsung was a definite win, but after using both phones for about two weeks, I think they’re basically on par.
Both cameras are really good, impressive markers of how far technology has come. The Google Pixel2XL operates on a single lens, whereas the Samsung Note8 has 2 lenses. Google is trying to prove, i think, that you can get great photos without needing two lenses, and they do quite a good job of that with their Portrait mode. The portrait mode on the Google is also available for the front facing lens, which is nice if you want professional looking selfies. The Note8 only has portrait mode for the back camera, but it is the only camera (of the current 3 flagships – Google, Apple, and Samsung) that allows you to toggle the intensity of the portrait mode, so you can decide how bokeh you want the photos to be.
As a result of its single-lens configuration, the Google photos look a bit more digitized. I actually have to edit the photos to soften them a bit, otherwise it’s too sharp and looks unnatural in certain lighting conditions. The colors on the Google are also more true to real life, so they look a bit colder. But then again, some argue that colors on the iphone and Samsung are artificially saturated. So it depends on what floats your boat. Either way, you’re probably going to edit a picture before posting it, which brings me to my next point – the native photo editing capabilities within the Google Photos folder on the Pixel is fantastic. It’s actually pretty impressive for a native editor. Here are some examples of the photos on both phones:
Photos with the back cam:
These photos are all unedited. But once you put in editing, both phones produce fantastic photos lah. I think the act of comparing the cameras is really just an exercise in how amazing technology is now. I’ve shot entire blogposts on purely the Samsung Note 8 camera – look at these amazing low light photos in this Mexican restaurant we went to in Melbourne! I don’t have blogposts that are fully shot on the Google Pixel yet cos I just got it not too long ago, but the Pixel camera is honestly also damn good, like I’m super impressed every single time I use it. I’m going to just put some of my favourite photos from both phones here.. these are edited using various apps on the phones:
PS. This all refers to photos – the video taking capability on the Samsung Note8 is a clear win – you can see us test the two phones and their video functions in our latest Hype Hunt episode. This may not be a big concern for most people because not everyone uses their phones to take video – but it’s important to me because I film and edit my #Jemmainajiffy videos on my phone.
EARPHONE JACK: Google 0, Samsung 1
SPEAKERS: Google 2, Samsung 1
I have mixed feelings about this. The earphone jack actually doesn’t matter to me because I’ve been using wireless earphones for a long time, I hate wires. I use the cordless Samsung Icon GearX buds with the Note8, but when I was on my iPhone, I used the wireless Sudio Sweden Vasa Blas. So the earphone jack thing actually doesn’t matter to me, although I know it might to some people.
I really don’t know how to feel about the speakers. I think both phones leave a lot to be desired in terms of how they’ve designed the audio experience. Firstly, I think in terms of speakers, Google has got the right idea there, installing front facing dual stereo speakers on the top and bottom of the phone. Samsung only has one speaker on the Note8, and it’s placed at the bottom right of the phone, which is an incredibly awkward place for a speaker because when you’re using your phone chances are your finger will block the speaker and muffle the audio. Between this speaker and the fingerprint placement thing, I think Samsung really needs to find whoever is making these decisions and shake some sense into him, because both of these are really major design flaws.
But then when the music actually starts playing, the sound output on the Samsung is significantly better than the Google. I’m really not a tech expert so I don’t know what the industry term for this is, besides saying the same song just sounds better played on the Samsung than the Google.
So.. the conclusion is you would not be buying either phone for their audio experience.
This is no longer an issue if you listen to your music with headphones on or whatever, but it’s noticeable to me because I listen to podcasts in the morning while I’m getting ready, and I don’t plug in because I want to be able to move around and choose clothes etc etc. So podcasts are always broadcasted off my phone in the mornings. And also, like I mentioned before, I like to watch Netflix videos while conditioning my hair, and obviously I won’t have earphones in while in the shower, so yeah, there are just some situations where I’ll be using the phone speakers instead of wireless earphones, and those are the situations in which the output experience matters.
Props to the Pixel, however, for putting in a lot of effort into designing the music experience of their phone. For example, like mentioned before, when your pixel picks up music playing somewhere in the vicinity, it auto-identifies the song information and puts it on the Always On Display, which is a cool feature especially for Shazam lovers. And when you use the Pixel to play music off Spotify or something, the entire screen changes to the album art, which is pretty nice.
If only the Pixel had better audio output quality. Sigh!
I must say that getting into the AI functions of my phones is a relatively recent thing – I tried Siri briefly when I was using the iPhone, found it totally unusable, and quickly forgot all about it.
But ever since getting on Android, I started fiddling with the AI features on both the Samsung and Google again. Google uses Google Assistant, and Samsung uses Bixby. I’m just going to say, straight up, that there is absolutely no competition here. Google wins hands down.
The Google Pixel 2XL has fantastic, fantastic google assistant capability – it activates either by voice (saying “ok google” wakes the phone up”) or by squeezing the phone. This is so random and cute that I just adore the weirdness of the whole thing. What a time to be alive – you can pick up your phone and squeeze it and it will wake up and ask you what you need! This must be what married life is like.
The voice recognition on the Google Pixel 2XL is AMAZING. It can recognize what youre saying relatively easily, it’s able to discern the intention of your statement pretty easily (so I can say “ok google take me home” and it maps me home), and it is incredibly quick. Singlish recognition is coming to Google Assistant soon too, which is an added plus, though not a dealbreaker. All in all, I think the Google Assistant function is integral to your phone usage – I use it nonstop when I’m holding on to the Pixel.
The Samsung has Bixby, which can also be voice-activated (say “hi bixby” to wake it up) or physcially activated with a dedicated Bixby button. Bixby is developed by Samsung, and it doesn’t have the same advantages as Google of having, well, the largest search engine and artificial intelligence database in the world. So when you bear in mind that Bixby is still a baby, it makes sense that it’s just not as good as the Google Assistant. It does have some pretty promising features – I programmed some quick commands into it, which basically means I link stacked commands to a certain series of keywords. (EG. I say “Hi Bixby Goodnight” and it turns off wifi, turns off bluetooth, turns on blue lighting filter, sets my alarm for the next day, clears all my notifications, and optimises my phone battery in the background)
In theory, this is fantastic. But the voice recognition capabiliy of the Samsung is just not as good as the Google. Bixby often doesnt understand my speech, which I’m a bit offended at because I’ve been using it for like a month already. And it also randomly wakes up sometimes for no good reason without me activating it. I dont think this is simply a Bixby problem – I think it might be Samsung’s internal voice recognition software, because I also have Google assistant downloaded on my Note8 and it doesnt recognize my speech as accurately as the Google Pixel. Google Assistant on the Note8 is still better than Bixby on the Note8, but yeah, its just not as accurate.
Overall, Bixby and Google Assistant both have different capabilities (Bixby’s stackable quick commands are honestly genius) and in an ideal world, using both on the Note8 would really render the Note8 a powerhouse. But Samsung really needs to work on its voice recognition technology, because that is such a crucial part of the AI experience. So yes, for now, Google wins.
Both phones are water-resistant, so you can take them into the pool or the beach without worry. Personally, I load Netflix shows on them and prop it up in the bathroom so I can watch new episodes of shows while conditioning my hair, which is a half-hour affair.
Battery is pretty good on both, especially when you tweak the power saving modes on the Note8. They can comfortably go a full day on a single charge in my experience, though the Pixel has overall longer battery life.
But the Samsung’s main advantage is its stylus. Honestly, incorporating a stylus into the Note series is a brilliant move. Firstly, it differentiates the Note so distinctly from every other phone out there, that if youre dependent on the stylus, you’re never even going to consider moving to another phone system.
Secondly, it is a damned good stylus. It’s made by Wacom, which is what, like, every serious digital artist in the world uses. It’s pressure sensitive, which means your handwriting on the Note is personalised and pretty, but beyond that, it also means that you can sign off on documents while on the go, which is a huge thing for freelancers like me. The Note8 comes with Office suites, so if clients send me contracts, I can easily endorse them and send them back without having to look for a printer/scanner. This is amazing. I cannot emphasize this enough.
The stylus is also waterproof and made to play well with the Samsung screen. This has two main functions, the more obscure of the two being if youre trying to take a photo underwater, you can use the stylus to do this, because sometimes screens dont recognize your finger underwater. The second, and more relevant function, is that when you use the stylus to take notes, you can lean your wrist on the Samsung screen while writing/jotting notes down using their native Samsung Notes app. This is amazing. You have no idea. I have been using this nonstop at press conferences to jot down important notes and points that I later incorporate into my articles, and its not only more intuitive to use a pen-like stylus, it also looks more professional because i dont look like I might be texting when the speaker is talking? I assume this is the same for office meetings or school lectures.
And lastly – if you’re into doodling, this is also pretty great. I use the stylus every single day for drawing on images, especially on my instagram posts or instagram stories. It just makes for more personalised content, and I personally love doodling, so it made total sense. It also complements the big screen very well, because you have a lot of real estate to doodle on! Every single doodled photo in this post was doodled on using the Note8 Stylus.
The stylus slides right into the Note8 and clicks into place so youre not likely to misplace it – it sends an alert to your Note8 if you move too far from the stylus to remind you not to leave it behind. Pretty impressive!
This is an incredibly close fight because both phones are fantastic and I find myself perpetually amazed that we are living in an age where phones are able to be so powerful: they’re basically tiny computers by now. COLOR ME IMPRESSED Is what I am saying. But if youre looking to definitively buy one of the two, telling you both are great isnt going to help much. So I re-looked at the functions and features on both phones, and I narrowed it down to basically one criteria..
The deciding factor is AI vs hardware. Everything else is so excellent on both phones that this is really the main differentiation point of the two phones. If you foresee yourself relying on Google Assistant, the Google Pixel2XL will give you an integrated, smooth experience with the AI. If you love the idea of having a waterproof stylus that can quickly mark up documents and essentially act as an extra arm for you, then the Samsung Note8 might just be your best bet. So ask yourself this question, and you’ll find your decision a lot clearer.
Ultimately, both phones are stellar and I’m pretty sure youre going to love whichever one you finally go with. The real winner here, is the consumer. Keep competing, all you phone makers. I am here for it.