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Google’s Pixel 2 gives you the best of Android — if you can find it

The new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones are seen at a product launch event on Oct. 4 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP/Getty Images)

Google’s Pixel 2 is the company’s latest attempt at a branded smartphone that it hopes can take on Apple’s iPhone, as well as a variety of smartphones running Google’s own Android operating system.

The 5-inch Pixel 2 and 6-inch Pixel 2 XL are almost identical in terms of their features and basic specifications — the screen size is really the main difference between them. Getting the extra inch  from the Pixel 2 XL costs you $200 more, with a base price of $849 as compared to the smaller phone’s $649.

Here's the bad news up front: Neither phone has a headphone jack, as Google — like Apple — went with just one port for charging and audio. The phones come with a converter so you can plug your traditional headphones into the single port. The Pixel 2 line also supports Bluetooth headphones.

Both also sport crisp screens and front-facing speakers that make it a joy to watch video on because you can hold the phone any way you want without blocking the sound.

The main magic of the Pixel 2, versus the iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy line, is the integration of Google services. Not only will the Pixel continue to get the latest updates immediately from Google itself, but it also hooks into Google services in a deep way. Google Assistant is embedded in the phone and getting smarter with conversational speech. And Pixel 2 users get a generous cloud photo storage offer for unlimited photos and videos through 2020 — after that, Google has placed some additional parameters on how it will store photos. But, in a general sense, this means that running out of space due to snapping pictures shouldn’t be much of a concern.

And Google wants you to snap pictures. The company brags that the Pixel 2's camera is the best one on the market, having earned the highest marks ever for a phone from DxO Mark, a respected image rating group. Google’s also added some tricks, such as “Motion Photos,” which are reminiscent of Apple’s moving Live Photos.

The camera is impressive, particularly at picking up detail and in lowlight settings, providing crisp and clear pictures even from fairly casual snapshots. If you’re lining up a shot on the Pixel 2, there’s a good chance it will come out well.

But there are still some ways that the camera doesn’t deliver the same experience as one would get on an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. The Pixel 2 doesn’t have a dual camera — its strength is in its software — and as a result, the close-up effects aren’t as pronounced as they are on competing phones.

Battery life was not a standout feature, but both phones will get you through a day of moderate use without rushing to find an outlet at the end of the day. They do have a USB-C port for fast charging, and promise up to 7 hours of battery life on 15 minutes of charging. I got just slightly less than that, but was using the phone heavily.

The Pixel 2 also has a gimmick that allows you to squeeze the phone to call up the Google Assistant. The feature may seem kind of silly — how often do you really think about squeezing your phone? — but is implemented well. The Pixel lets you set how strong a squeeze will set off the feature, limiting the chances it will go off accidentally. I did once manage to trigger the “Active Edge” (as the squeezing feature is called) in my pocket, but only when I was trying to and had it on the lightest setting. In fact, the only problem I could see would be with a really sturdy case that could keep your squeeze from registering. But even the double-layered case Google sent me with the Pixel 2 XL didn’t block a light squeeze.

It would be nice to be able to customize the setting so that you can do something besides call up the Google Assistant, as is possible on HTC’s phones.

There’s also one big problem with the Pixel 2 that has nothing to do with the phone itself: It’s relatively hard to get. Google has agreed again to make the Pixel 2 available through just one carrier, Verizon. While consumers can also get the phone unlocked through Google’s own website, it is, generally speaking, a phone that must be sought out. It’s not going to present itself to you in stores or kiosks that aren’t Verizon’s, and that puts it at a disadvantage — particularly among those who want to comparison shop in stores.

Overall, Google's infused the Pixel 2 with smart software that complements its no-fuss but high-quality hardware. Google's home court advantage shines through and it has made two of the best phones out there. Those looking for an Android phone that takes full advantage of the operating system will love the Pixel 2 — that is, if you're willing to go out there looking for it.