Make no mistake, we’re most definitely a partisan group at 9to5Google when it comes to the Google Pixel 3. Being able to pick up a device that’s been created as Google intended is the core reason that the Pixel line is so revered — and that industry-leading camera is most definitely a reason too.
We knew almost everything ahead of the Made by Google 2018 launch event that we’d (at least I would) be lying if there was an element of being underwhelmed by the hardware reveal. That said, there was no doubt that the software and camera experience would simply blow the competition out of the water.
The biggest problem is that since the Google Pixel 3 was unveiled, we’ve had a steady stream of genuinely top-tier handsets that really do offer exceptional experiences with similar price points and better base specifications.
But how does the Pixel 3 fair given it’s now six months older, six months more battered, used, abused and thoroughly tested? The short answer is exceptionally well.
Design & Hardware
It’s an older design but it checks out
The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are by no means cutting edge in the design department. Since the early leaks, the completely obnoxious notch on the Pixel 3 XL has been ridiculed, mocked, memed but never outright mimicked. One might argue that the smaller Pixel 3 is the better looking of the two devices, and it’s a point I will happily concede.
It’s fair to say that judging by the front of both devices, the design feels uninspired. I will say though that there is some nuance in other areas that really do make up for the initial lackluster appearance.
Whereas our own Stephen Hall obsesses over the minutiae such as haptics, I am one for edges. I have large — and at the moment — not so thin hands. Sharp, rigid edges are the bane of my day-to-day existence with certain phones, especially by the way I use my little finger to stabilize a smartphone.
The incredibly soft and rounded edges at the base of the Pixel 3 XL are a godsend in this regard. I can hold this relatively large phone for seriously extended periods without fear of discomfort or ‘pinky strain’. I’ve found this to be one of the genuinely most surprisingly pleasing aspects of my constant return to the Pixel 3 XL following my testing and reviewing of other handsets.
I am pleased that I have been able to use the white model daily. Any worries about scratches, scuffs, dings and scrapes are null and void — at least on my model. It does help that I’ve had a case on since about week two of owning the handset, but it’s worth noting that this is still a pretty tough cookie in many regards.
That sand-blasted or frosted glass back feels better than anything else on the market in my opinion. You seriously have to hold this device to really better understand why I say that. It’s just hard to accurately describe without rolling off silly superlatives, but my best effort is that it feels like the opposite of sandpaper. Smooth, nonabrasive and cool to the touch.
As for the haptics, I’m more than content with them. As Stephen said in his review (and several times since), they most definitely don’t match that of the iPhone XS but they are about as good as it gets on the Android side of the fence. There is a deep, satisfying rumble that bests anything else I’ve used in the Android space in the past 18 months.
Something that I think often gets glossed over in many a review — my own included — is the SIM tray positioning. By placing it at the bottom of the Pixel, Google has helped create almost seamless sides, save the volume and sleep-wake button.
This trio of hardware buttons is pretty par for the course. A colored sleep-wake button is another small touch that really rounds off the entire hardware package and one that really showcases real attention to even the most minor of details.
As for the display, the QHD+ panel is simply superb. It stacks up incredibly well against the competition and is bettered by very few in the industry in my opinion. Colors are accurate, viewing angles excellent and the brightness levels are more than good enough for usage in almost all environments — both dim and bright.
I will not defend the notch though. It feels shoehorned in and wow is it deep. As a Pixel 3 XL owner, you will go through a few phases. 1) Acceptance of the notch, 2) Ignorance of it in general usage and 3) Realization that it is still there, almost taunting you each time you watch a fullscreen video.
It would be a bit more acceptable if the notch had some impressive tech, but alas it does not. It simply has a wide-angle selfie camera that I have used about three times since owning the handset, inline with my lack of selfie-taking ability. If only we had some nice face-unlocking technology, we’ll just have to make do with a rear-mounted fingerprint reader.
My experience of the fingerprint reader — or should I say Pixel Imprint — is fast, accurate and perfectly placed under that glossy back portion of the device in the frosted glass section. It ensures that you have a comfortable unlock experience with every usage. I just hope that we don’t see in-display fingerprint scanners on the Pixel 4.
Software & Performance
Android’s front-runner can sometimes feel behind the pace
Now, this is one area I can speak with real vigour after experiencing both the highs and lows of the 2018 class of Pixel devices. For the most part, Android Pie is, and was, the best experience I have ever had on any Android device.
Although I dislike the cliche ‘buttery smooth’, there is a reason it’s often applied to the Pixel lineup when talking about Android — or at least our perception of it running on reference hardware. While the gestures do at times feel half-baked, animations, loading and overall home screen performance are exceptional.
I can’t say that I’m a fan of the Pixel Launcher method of accessing certain UI portions, such as the app drawer. Of course, like many of you reading, I will normally download a third-party launcher and make the necessary tweaks in order to make my device feel at home.
Nova Launcher does alleviate the issues with the janky gestures into app drawers, but it does so by removing some core elements of the redesigned Pixel Launcher. Because little software additions like a most recently opened or accessed apps section within the app switcher are not present on my device running Nova, I can’t honestly tell you if this feature would be useful in my day-to-day existence. A short answer would be “no”, but I couldn’t say definitively.
My experiences with Android Pie were great in general but I did notice a few bugs here and there that did somewhat tarnish the taste. It felt like 4GB of RAM might pose problems for longevity even at launch. For the most part, this has not been an issue, but when switching between multiple applications, I have noticed relaunches and fewer apps held in memory to account for the lack of system resources.
Having a music player simply stop in the background without any input from the user is inexcusable in my opinion. I’m lucky that this has not affected me all too greatly, but hope that it isn’t too much of a widespread issue.
In recent weeks, I made the bold decision to install the Android Q beta on my one and only Pixel. Performance is no better than it was when running Android Pie, although I did expect some errors, issues and problems, they have been mainly UI artefacts and the odd misfire of an application.
Please though, do not install the Q Beta on your Pixel if you rely on it heavily. I am in the privileged position of being able to drop a device and pick another up should I encounter significant issues. You should only do the same if you are able to quickly access another backup handset.
I also want to address a performance complaint that I have myself. While the Pixel 3 XL does everything you can more or less throw at it, the OnePlus 6T (and by extension the standard OnePlus 6) generally feels faster in usage. Some of that sense of extra speed is down to the increased inertia that Oxygen OS brings, while some of that surely has to come with the increased RAM allowance — especially when it comes to the multi-tasking elements.
The most versatile single lens camera ever made
What Google is able to do with a solitary camera on the Pixel 3 is nothing short of miraculous. Using a single fixed focus lens and solitary Sony IMX363 12-megapixel sensor, the Pixel 3 XL is able to do what most other smartphone camera setups (with multiple lenses and focal lengths) cannot.
The camera is so good that even if I am reviewing another device, the Pixel 3 comes with me regardless. If I had to rely on one device to simply get the perfect or near perfect shot every time, it would be the Pixel 3 XL.
Exposure, dynamic range, sharpness, contrast and color accuracy are all head and shoulders above every other handset on the market. Yes, you can get more detailed images from other camera systems, but they often have a poorer end result than the Pixel.
Now day time photography is one thing, but Google took cues from the already excellent Night Mode on Huawei devices and made something so impressive that it’s taken a re-engineered camera sensor to actually beat it — the RYYB sensor found on the P30 Pro.
Night Sight was, and still is, a masterpiece of long-exposure computational photography that wows everyone you show it to. I love being able to take superb pictures in any lighting scenario, and the on-screen prompts when it’s dark to use Night Sight really push you to use the long exposure mode more often.
I’m not the first person to say this (though I can’t quite remember where else I have read this but will update to credit them where necessary) but it’s almost as if Google has targeted the camera ahead of all else in many regards. Think about it, marketing material from so many other OEMs plays the comparison game over and over.
The iPhone relied on being the ‘Number 1’ camera for such a long time, but now the outright best stills camera is the Pixel. Yes, there are devices that have scored higher or equal stills photography rating using the DxOMark metric, but to the average consumer, most of those aren’t viable.
I don’t say that being dismissive, as I’ve tested most of these camera challengers and they are exceptional. The thing is, Google isn’t aiming for those of us that know about tech or even have a passing interest. It’s why there has been such a concentrated effort with ad campaigns, sponsored videos and TV spots around the Pixel camera.
When someone asks you what is the best smartphone camera, it used to be commonplace for people to (often wrongly) say the iPhone. It’s almost as if Google is sandwiching the Pixel into that non-tech conversation, and by targeting those that really care about smartphone photography, they’ve done exceptionally well.
Regardless of that conversation, here are some of the very best stills I’ve taken with this genuinely amazing single lens setup.
As for video quality, it is pretty bad. It’s usable, but really, really poor. The audio isn’t much better either. It’s one area multiple camera smartphones really put the Pixel in its place. The audio recording quality when in video mode was a problem that seems to have been resolved but some other problems still persist according to many users online.
Let’s hope that Google will improve all video recording aspects of the Pixel line with the Pixel 4. At the moment it’s most definitely holding back arguably the best standard smartphone shooter on the market.
Large but most definitely not in charge
As a result of not being blessed with the biggest battery, the Pixel fairs pretty poorly in the longevity stakes. Although not the best metric for battery life, I’ve had screen on time reach just over the five-hour mark on three separate occasions, no more, no less.
When there are handsets such as the OnePlus 6T that can manage almost eight hours of screen on time with similar internals and cost a few hundred dollars less, it really puts the Pixel to shame. Although with that said, the 6T has a much lower resolution display and a larger battery.
I am just not always confident that the 3,450mAh battery will hold out during routine daily usage. It’s because of this, that when I head out solely with my Pixel 3 XL, I will often take a Spigen slimline powerbank with me as a safety net.
Topping up is brief and satisfying thanks to the bundled fast charger and the Pixel 3 was the first Pixel to include wireless charging, which as proved to be a great decision. The problem though is that while 10W wireless fast charging is neat in theory, it still only available on two chargers officially — the Pixel Stand and the Belkin Boost. You’ll have to put up with trickle charge speeds if the ‘Made for Google’ logo isn’t present on the packaging.
It’s two areas in which I really do hope the Pixel 4 is able to improve the most. Battery life really is the poorest aspect of my personal experience with the 3rd generation Pixel device and it will only get worse with age. The lack of compatibility really is frustrating as even Apple allows third-party wireless fast charging — although at a lower 7.5W speed. Come on Google, fix this, please!
Should you still buy one?
Upon release, the Pixel 3 XL was naturally the device that I wanted to spend the majority of my time with. I’ve had 6 months of constant switching from handset to handset. Even despite that constant churn, I have always happily returned to the Pixel 3 XL.
Part of that isn’t even the exceptional software experience — exceptional even with a couple of minor issues here and there. I find the hardware simply exquisite. Yes, the notch is so out of proportion that it feels like a bad joke almost all the time, the thing is though, you do genuinely get used to it or at least learn to put up with it because the rest of the experience is so good.
Yes, there are other devices on the market that offer similar hardware and in some cases a faster experience, but that doesn’t discount what the entire Pixel 3 package offers.
With arguably the best camera system on the market, a solid display, a lower price now than at launch at many retailers, plus the most up to date Android releases guaranteed at least until Android R; then the Pixel offers quite a lot that you simply won’t find elsewhere.
One thing I haven’t really mentioned until this point is that if you do have the Pixel 2 XL, an upgrade to the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL is less recommended. That doesn’t mean it would be a bad choice, far from it. My personal advice would be to hold out a little longer until the fall for the Pixel 4 launch. Or alternatively, wait at least until leaks confirm what the 4th generation Pixel might potentially bring to the table.
Of course, if you’re a Pixel 3 XL owner that is happy, unhappy or indifferent with the device then please let us know in the comments section below. But remember to keep it civil.