Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have finally arrived, and there’s not much to be surprised about in terms of specs on paper. All the leaks were spot-on. There’s no Pixel Ultra. So while we would — in a normal year — be barely processing where these phones sit in the market, analyzing how they compare to the competition, and talking about their looks (or lack thereof), we’ve had the luxury of already having done more of that than average. That said, what’s new as of today?
There are some new details to peruse, but mostly what’s new is we’ve finally been able to see them for ourselves — in person. We’ve been able to get an idea of how they feel, and we can see them not just as phones with spec sheets going head-to-head with Samsung or OnePlus, but as Google’s centerpiece for its newly-expanded ecosystem. We already knew everything about Niagara Falls, but we’ve now been there ourselves to feel the mist hitting our face.
My first and most significant impression of the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL is that any opinion you have without playing with it yourself is an ill-informed one. I’m the person that jokingly considered boycotting Google if they launched a phone with a notch and a chin, and I openly pleaded for something this year that was visually distinct from the generic notched designs that have invaded the Android space over the last year or two. And I also talked openly about just how dated the Google Pixel 2 looked last year, even compared to its already dated-looking predecessor.
Lately, I’ve had familiar feelings from when the original Pixel leaked (and then launched). At the time I thought — expecting that it was going to be nothing but a hopeful rebrand of the Nexus lineup — the Pixel was going to have a tough time being a compelling product with such “outdated” looks and its top-tier price tag. But then I was delighted at the event and came away excited and surprised to see that all of those feelings just melted away as soon as I felt just how well the device worked.
For those that don’t remember, that phone, largely thanks to its incredible camera, reliable, polished, and consistent software, tight integration with the smartest assistant in the AI battle, and thoughtful design decisions in terms of both hardware and added software features, made it largely regarded as one of the — if not the — best Android phones. To this day, I still feel foolish for thinking it was “ugly”.
Last year, to me, felt… different. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL felt like a weird step sideways. The Pixel 2 felt like a Pixel 1.5 (or some would even argue 0.5) in the looks department, while the larger Pixel 2 XL felt like a true successor. The Google Store homepage showcase phone, however, was plagued by many issues with its most critical component. Its display was a mess. Not a deal-breaker, but a mess nonetheless. It overshadowed the phone’s otherwise incredible-as-always software, at least for me.
Given the negative emotions I had associated with the notch-and-chin-sporting, “it must be fake!” (according to those in denial), conspiracy-surrounded, totally-leaked Google Pixel 3 XL, I was somewhat worried that this year would be a continuation of last year — another year that felt like the phones were an unpolished, rushed, afterthought compared to their former greatness.
But today, all of the preconceived notions I had about the XL’s arbitrarily “bad” design decisions practically melted away. With just a few hours with the phones, I felt the very same initial delight that I felt with the original Pixel. The hardware issues and external design discrepancies of last year are basically gone by my first impression and the software, even with some weird pre-launch bugs, is once again able to shine through as clearly the most compelling aspect of this phone.
But give me some tangible examples of what you mean, Stephen. Please? Okay.
One thing that you just can’t know about the Pixel 3 and 3 XL unless you check it out for yourself is just how nice the matte, soft-touch glass back is. It feels like the softest hard surface you’ve ever touched. Like a piece of glass that’s been sanded with the finest grain sand paper ever. If you’re used to the sticky feeling of your smudged-up glass iPhone 8/X or Samsung Galaxy, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised by just how nice this phone feels in your hand.
Another thing is that the two phones once again feel like they are true siblings! Last year’s Pixel 2 and 2 XL felt like they were entirely different generations or made by completely different teams — despite the fact that they had lots of fundamental similarities. The camera lenses were swapped around. The edge where the glass met the body was very different. The bezels were different. The displays were from different worlds of quality. One had rounded corners on the display. The vibration motor of the smaller Pixel 2 felt like a step down. Even the coating on the two phones, to me at least, felt different.
This year, all of that weirdness is gone. The only differences I could feel or sense between the two phones were the top of the display — the difference you already know about. The Pixel 3 XL has that notch and the smaller Pixel 3 goes with a design similar to last year’s Pixel 2 XL. That’s how it should be. Not only because it helps phone reviewers that obsess over these details not get annoyed, but because it makes recommending these phones way easier! I might be able to say “Yes, the Pixel 3 is a great phone!” without conditions. That wasn’t true last year, and it looks like it might be true this year.
I guess I’ll talk a little about that notch — even though it’s the most tired topic in the entire conversation. I spent about an hour with the Google Pixel 3 XL today, and long story short, I basically forgot that the notch and chin were there. I remembered how different looking at a phone in photos on the internet is from actually using it. It’s the same observation I made when I first tried the iPhone X for a few weeks. Not only do you forget it’s there, you appreciate the extra screen real estate. I’ll hold my final opinion for the review, but for now I’m leaning toward it being a non-issue.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t think many people outside of tech circles have nearly as strong opinions on “the notch” nor the industrial design enthusiast’s aversion to it. Looking at the phones in photos it sticks out like a sore thumb to me, but it’s just a different story using it. It’s not something to praise necessarily, but I’d equate it to my sentiment about the original Google Pixel’s design. The external appearance wasn’t worth praising, but it was functional and non-problematic.
It’s worth noting that there’s always the option of the indentical-in-every-other-way smaller Pixel 3 if you want to go with a more traditional look (one that I have much the same conclusion about, by the way). Also, Google confirmed it’s adding an option to turn off the notch. So even if you are a hardline and passionate anti-notch-ist, you can convert your Pixel 3 XL to a Pixel 2 XL look with a single tap.
Some more random first observations:
- My experience with this is practically useless since the phones at the event had the standard apps installed and nothing more, but I didn’t notice any issues with 4GB of RAM.
- I love the Not Pink color. It truly is Not Pink, but it also is. Hard to describe. I want one.
- The Clearly White Pixel 3 XL is gorgeous too. I wanted a truly-white XL last year.
- Performance of the app switcher/multitasking is way more snappy than on Pixel 2/XL. Google was clearly building this feature for these phones and optimizing it here first.
- The vibration motor is improved over the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, but still no Taptic Engine. It just doesn’t have the forceful kick and tactility that the iPhone has. Better than every other Android phone so far, though, in my opinion.
- The screens on both are the same quality and gorgeous. I’ll talk more about them in my full review.
- I really like the all-blank left rail on the phones. No SIM tray. No nothing. Really sleek.
- The device is metal. Not polycarbonate or any other weird material. Metal. Glass back. Google confirmed this to us directly. It also feels nice and premium to my touch — don’t know why some people said it felt plasticky.
- Pixel Stand seems like a no-brainer for any Pixel 3 owner. More thoughts on that later.
I have way more thoughts on the Pixel 3, but for now I just wanted to explain how my the first few hours were so different from last year — in the best way possible. So many things you expect to be great with the Pixels are unsurprisingly great. The camera is as good as you expect. All the new features seem genuinely useful to me. The software is exactly what you expect — although perhaps a bit better and more responsive than the stable build on Pixel 2 XL.
For now, know this: My feelings and expectations about both these phones and Google’s future smartphone efforts are completely refreshed after today’s event. I’m much more optimistic about these phones than I was just 24 hours ago, and I can’t wait to dive in deep.