The Google Pixel is back for its third year, and I’ll cut to the chase: Google has basically nailed these phones in every regard, save for a few subjective caveats you already know about. They’re both in many ways my favorite don’t-call-them-Android phones, Google’s best attempt yet at making the Pixel lineup compelling to anyone, and two of the best phones you can buy overall. For lots of iPhone users and Android users alike, these should both be seriously considered as your next…
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A return to consistency |
I talked about this at length last week as part of my first impressions, but it’s something that I think should be underscored here too before we dive in. While last year’s phones were great in their own right, the biggest thing that bothered me about them was that they had weird issues I thought Google had moved past. They had quality control problems, and they were contract manufactured by two different companies. Hence, they were differently flawed enough that we reviewed them separately.
That wasn’t just a silly problem for those who are obsessive over the minutiae of Google’s products. Things like basic word of mouth recommendation and written reviews were complicated (I couldn’t recommend either of them unequivocally as “best Android phone”, no matter how good I thought they were), and buying the best of the best of what Google had to offer last year (starting at $850!) in reality meant you were accepting a downgrade versus the previous year on an aspect of the phone that was incredibly important.
For those that don’t remember, the Pixel 2 XL looked and felt like a true successor in terms of external design, but had a big crutch that the smaller didn’t. Its display was crippled compared to everything in its price range, and was arguably worse than Pixel 1 in some ways. On the other hand, Google didn’t even acknowledge the smaller Pixel 2’s existence in its marketing images on the Google Store. That’s how outdated it looked — some would argue even more dated aesthetically than its predecessor.
That’s all necessary context for this review, but enough about last year — let’s talk about the Pixel 3. We knew basically everything about them before they launched, and yet they’ve still surprised me.
The first thing I noticed about them at the event on October 9th, and something that has stayed at the forefront of my mind in my less than a week testing the phones (that’s really not long enough for a review), is how the Pixel 3 is a much-welcome return to consistency for Google.
Like the original Google Pixel and Pixel XL, they’re the same exact phone with the exception of the display and battery sizes, and not only that, but they feel like a complete thought. In both hardware and software, they feel thoroughly finished and ready for prime time. That means we get to do just one review, and unlike last year, choosing between them is essentially a matter of size and price.
I also am glad to have found in my first 6 days with these phones that you probably shouldn’t expect a dozen articles picking apart their minor flaws in the coming weeks. There simply aren’t any nagging flaws to pick apart this year; these truly are the refinement that last year’s phones sorely needed.
Design + Hardware |
Take your pick
If you’re reading this review, you probably already know the main differences that you’ll be choosing between. The Google Pixel 3, as we’ve been saying for months now, has a design that feels like it should have been the sibling to the Google Pixel 2 XL. It seriously looks like that from the front, and in many ways — since the Pixel 3 is largely a refinement on last year — that’s what you’re getting. It has thin bezels on the top and bottom and rounded corners around the 5.5-inch display.
The larger Google Pixel 3 XL has the big internet controversy of the year — the notch. But it also has a larger 6.3-inch display. I’ve talked out against this notch-and-chin design as counter to all my aesthetic preferences, but even as ugly as it is in photos, it’s more than fine in day-to-day use. I’m mostly just neutral in my feelings toward it after just a few days — it doesn’t really detract from the experience I’ve found, save for maybe watching videos in full screen.
Has Google justified the notch, though? Nope. Earlier this year, in my plea for Google to not jump on the notch trend for the sake of the trend, I wrote that Apple was the only company that’s been able to justify it as of yet. They packed a ton of sensors and hardware in a relatively small space, and they made the the notch the only trade-off with a screen that was truly edgeless. Many Android OEMs followed with half-baked attempts that included a bottom bezel and I hoped Google wouldn’t.
But they did. Here we are. The Google Pixel 3 XL has a cutout, a chin that’s about equal in size to last year’s phone. And it’s okay. At least they have a second wide-angle camera — which enables a wide-angle selfie feature — to show for it. I personally don’t prefer the aesthetic of the notch-and-chin over the traditional slim top and bottom bezels, but there’s thankfully more to the phone than that.
This year, since it’s the only difference between the phones, my advice for those who just can’t accept that there’s no Pixel Ultra is simple: Use software to hide it or get the smaller Pixel 3. I’ve found myself embracing it as unlikely as I thought that’d be. Now that that’s addressed, let’s move on.
The beautiful displays
I guess that naturally takes us to the display, since the display is the primary difference between the two devices, and frankly, one of the biggest upgrades over last year. Whatever you think about the cutout, the displays on these phones are bar-none some of the best I’ve ever used. They’re as good or better than the iPhone X, which I felt had the best OLED display of last year. That phone made the Pixel 2 XL look plain embarrassing in comparison, so I’m glad to see that rectified.
This year’s phones both have stellar displays with none of the issues I harped on last year — blue tint, grain, black smear, etc. — and that’s really good news for me, you, all buyers, and for Google.
The two phones are essentially identical in quality to the naked eye, although the larger model is obviously bigger and packs a slightly higher resolution and PPI. Regardless of what you’re doing — watching videos on YouTube, playing games, or just scrolling through Twitter — you’ll be more than content with these displays. I’m no display guru, but to my eyes they’re gorgeous.
Side note: After using the two phones side by side, this is one of the areas that made me gravitate toward using the Pixel 3 XL. The larger display is just really nice to have, and it actually surprised me how much I actually preferred having that extra screen real estate despite the notch. Going in I thought I was going to prefer the smaller Pixel 3, but the larger one definitely grew on me.
One of the issues many had with the Pixel 2 last year was its muted — but accurate — colors. This year, Google’s admitting that shipping those muted colors by default might have been a bit of a mistake as the Pixel 3 also defaults to a new “adaptive” color mode, which bumps up colors and saturation — but has been tuned to limit the over-saturation of skin tones and reds in particular.
I already mentioned how I’m glad to see that this year’s Pixels are back to being nearly identical in terms of external design, but this new design is also a notable refinement over last year. The back is now all-glass (Gorilla Glass 5, just like the front), which means wireless charging (and the Pixel Stand!), but Google’s also keeping around the Pixel’s signature top-fifth glass back design. This year, instead of a separate piece of glass, the bottom portion is simply a soft touch glass — a matte finish on top of that single slab. The Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor is also on the back again.
For one, this feels much better than last year’s coated metal back in my opinion — it’s one of those things that you just really won’t understand unless you touch the phone for yourself. If you’ve been used to the last couple years of glass-backed iPhones or any of the last several Galaxy phones with glossy-finished backs, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the Pixel 3 on touch alone. It just feels so comfortable in the hand — there’s none of that sticky fingerprint grime.
Contrary to various reports, I don’t think the matte back is any more scratch prone than any other glass phone. We tested it ourselves by drawing “9to5Google” on the back so you could see how easy it was to wipe off. No big deal. I think the reason people think the matte is more scratchable is because they’re paying more attention — any scratches you manage to get on the back of your Google Pixel 3 would have just as easily ended up on the glass portion of last year’s model too. I’ve definitely not been babying my black Pixel 3 XL unit, and I don’t have a single permanent scratch.
The edges around the phone are metal, just like the last two years. Some early reviews — before the phone was even announced — noted that these felt somewhat plasticky. I sort-of see where that was coming from, but not really. They’re smooth and glossy and, while they aren’t stainless steel (rather, painted aluminum), they actually most closely remind me of the stainless steel edges around the iPhone X and iPhone XS. They just feel super premium in the hand to me — not plasticky.
Another thing about the external design: If you love the look and feel of the rest of Google’s hardware lineup, you’ll love these too. The “Not Pink” model has a bright orange lock button that adds just a bit of flair, while the “Clearly White” model has a mint power button. All of them just have this degree of “light hearted niceness” to their look that I haven’t seen on any other flagship phones. In the best way, Pixel 3 makes the iPhone and Galaxy phones look like they take themselves too seriously.
Over the last few years, Google has cemented its hardware design language, and I think it’s better here with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL than any of the four phones previous. Google loves these soft colors that fit into your normal life and your home seamlessly, and the Pixel phones are no exception. I personally find the “Not Pink” the most attractive — especially with the official red case.
Another thing you might have noticed about the Pixel 3 hardware design is that there’s actually some resemblance to the things Google is doing in software design. Some have pointed to the rounded corners of the notch on the Pixel 3 XL as looking eerily similar to the new design for tabs in the Chrome browser. Google confirmed at I/O that this is not an accident. It really points to just how much thought Google’s putting into these designs and integrating them across all their products.
Most the usual specs you’d expect from a phone of this caliber are also here, of course. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, an Adreno 630 GPU for pushing those graphics, 4GB of RAM — which I’ve found to be a non-issue — 64 GB or 128GB of storage, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, GPS, eSIM, radios for compatibility with pretty much any LTE network, the usual proximity and ambient light sensors, a barometer, the Android Sensor Hub, and improved haptics. Oh, haptics.
A note on those haptics: They’re the best I’ve felt on an Android phone, but they’re not quite up to par with the first generation Taptic Engine which launched with the iPhone 6s in 2015. I’m not sure if there’s a patent getting in the way of any of these OEMs ripping off Apple, but it hasn’t yet. The vibration motor in the Pixel 3 is definitely the closest we’ve had yet, but it still just doesn’t give you the forceful kick that the latest iPhones do. It’s a shame, really. Maybe one day.
There’s a new Titan M security module, which Google says provides “on-device protection for login credentials, disk encryption, app data, and the integrity of the operating system.” Obviously, there’s no easy way for us to test that, but it’s nice to know that it’s there. I guess.
The Pixel 3’s battery comes in at just under 3,000 mAh, while the larger Pixel 3 XL is 3430 mAh. I’m not one to religiously test screen-on-time performance, because I don’t find it to be a helpful indicator of real world use. But I didn’t have a single day with either of these devices where I felt the need to top up between nightly charges, and that’s using them extensively as review devices. The vast majority of people charge their phone once per night, so that’s my litmus test.
Software + AI |
Besides the camera, which we’ll touch on more below, the most compelling aspect of the Google Pixel 3 is its unmatched software — and the unique features you get on the phones powered by Google’s AI prowess. This year was more of the same with a few surprises.
Android 9 Pie, optimized
Despite Google’s seemingly intentional move away from the Android brand from a consumer-facing perspective, it’s no secret that the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL run Android 9 Pie. And run it they do. Both the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL perform noticeably better than last year’s model in my testing, and last year’s phones might have been some of the best performing in the Android space.
In my experience the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are noticeably more responsive and snappy than the Pixel 2 XL, which in my experience, was previously one of the leaders in this category. Seriously, in my first week, with the exception of a few little bugs that will probably be worked out soon, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL both felt equally like a dream. I can’t even go back to last year’s phones. This year’s software feels more polished and optimized than any phone since the original Pixel.
One thing I want to touch on: The gesture navigation that Google launched with Android Pie at I/O this year, which came to many phones in beta form earlier this year and felt really clunky for a long time, feels like it was made and optimized and perfected on the Pixel 3. I still don’t like Google’s take on gestures as much as Apple’s, but at least their bad take is essentially lag-free on Pixel 3.
And on that note, opening apps, multitasking, quickly switching between recent apps, booting up the phone, unlocking the phone — all of it feels faster than a fresh install of Android Pie on the Pixel 2 XL. This might be the butteriest phone ever. As mentioned above, there’s no sign yet that sticking with 4GB of RAM is a bottleneck here, although long-term that might change.
Plenty of things are back again with the Pixel 3 that you already know about from last year. “Now Playing” is a genuinely useful feature that listens for cues in the background to determine the songs playing without you having to even ask it — and now it keeps a history for you. This was one of my favorite features of the Google Pixel 2, and it’s not surprising to see it come back.
Google introduced lots of Digital Wellbeing features with Android 9 Pie, many of which came to other Pixel devices already via the separate Digital Wellbeing app. The Pixel 3 is the first phone to actually launch with these features, and they include App Timers, a refreshed Do Not Disturb, Wind Down, and Shhh. Before I even got my hands on the Pixel 3, many of these have become daily habits for me. Particularly, Wind Down automatically setting your phone to grayscale is very helpful for falling asleep.
Beyond Android itself, though, Google is curiously listing “Google Assistant” under the “operating system” section of the spec sheet this year. Obviously the Google Assistant is not the phone’s operating system in the traditional sense, but it seems the message Google’s sending is that the Assistant should be more central to using your phone than it ever has — that’s probably true.
With the Google Pixel 3, you’re getting the phone with the most Google Assistant features, and you’ll be getting them first. And you’re also getting the phone that will likely get the most future features for the longest. Those features include the Assistant itself and its countless features (which you can activate by squeezing using Active Edge!), Google Lens (in-camera is exclusive to Pixel 3), a new Pixel-exclusive feature called Call Screen, new Pixel Stand functionality, and more.
Call Screen was perhaps the biggest “Wow!” moment of the October 9th event last week, and rightfully so. I haven’t had a chance to use it practically yet, but I did test it out and the potentially unlimited use cases are obvious. Most obvious is that you’ll never have to deal with spam calls ever again — just screen to see if it’s a spammer, confirm, and hang up. If it’s not a spammer, you’ll know who’s calling with live transcription, and it works really well in my testing.
Finally, the Pixel Stand. We’ll be giving the Pixel Stand a full separate review, but it’s a nifty new $79 accessory that’s exclusively for the Google Pixel 3 that brings even more useful Assistant functionality. For one, your phone is essentially transformed into an always-listening Google Home. There’s also a cool Sunrise Alarm feature that brightens your phone display in the morning, it acts as a fast wireless charger, and it shows a full screen photo gallery when not in use.
One of the most underrated features of the Google Pixel line is definitely their wallpapers, and Google’s wallpaper game is stronger than ever this year. This year, the new wallpapers shipping with the device take advantage of the aways on display for the first time. Some wallpapers, like the moon for instance, will show a vague outline on the always on display. Others, like “Groove,” bounce to your music, and “San Francisco” shows an SF skyline based on the time of day.
They are a nice touch, and the kind of thoughtful take on a fundamental feature that you won’t find on many other phones. They’re all very pleasing and give just a little “surprise and delight.”
The camera |
One of the biggest software benefits with the Pixel 3 is its prowess in computational photography. The original Pixel got its name in the camera space from putting out some killer low-light shots, and that as well as every other aspect of the phone’s shooter seems improved this year too.
You can’t even talk about the Google Pixel lineup without mentioning their cameras — and these two are no exception. I’ve yet to do any extensive side-by-side comparisons in my few days with the phones (rest assured — those are coming later, likely from someone more qualified than I).
I’m not a professional photographer — or even a decent one — so I’m not exactly qualified to analyze the Pixel phones in this regard and really come to any kind of quantitative conclusion about them. I also don’t even own the latest iPhone, so I can’t tell you one way or another whether this device does a better job than that one (although I can say in my brief test it’s definitely better than the iPhone X, but so was the Google Pixel 2 XL, so that’s not saying much).
Here are some sample shots I captured in my first several days with the phone:
By my untrained eye, the camera — but more precisely, what Google’s doing computationally with the photos it captures — is as good or better than last year’s Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL. That’s saying something given that last year’s phone is still widely regarded as the best mobile camera even after a year of stellar smartphone launches — like the Galaxy Note 9, iPhone XS, and more.
One thing that makes it so great is the Pixel Visual Core chip. Google enabled it a few months after the Pixel 2 launch, but all it did at the time was improve computation time and power efficiency for HDR+ shots. This year, Google’s giving the chip more duties. The Pixel Visual Core is now being used for some of the new features, including Top Shot and Photobooth. Other new features this year include wide-angle selfies, super-res zoom, live tracking autofocus, and more.
All of these features, beyond being just new features, are all genuinely useful. Top Shot uses AI to help make sure you get a great shot that doesn’t have anyone with their eyes closed. Photobooth pulls some of the same tech from Google Clips to solve the problem of timing those selfie group shots right — it watches for everyone to smile and look at the camera before taking the shot. I really enjoyed using all these features, anyone I let try the phone for a while found them impressive too.
The Google Camera app as a whole also got a redesign with the Pixel 3, and that’s very welcome. You can now swipe easily between the various modes and you get a nice haptic feedback when you do. It’s incredibly quick and really shows off just how well optimized the Pixel 3 is in terms of software.
More features are coming later, too. For one, there’s a new feature called Night Sight that’s not shipping for a month or two, which apparently takes incredible night shots. We got a side-by-side with the iPhone XS at the event, but you’ll have to stay tuned for us to test it ourselves.
I do have several other anecdotes that would seem corroborate what Google claims about these cameras. My teenage sister-in-law gave the Pixel 3 a shot for an evening and was surprised just how well it did. Interesting enough, her favorite feature was the same as many others I talked to: wide-angle selfies. And people were definitely curious which phone I was using when posting on socials. None of these kinds of experiences are new for Pixel owners, though.
I don’t normally do much video recording on my phone (or, I guess I should say, I’m not picky about quality or frame rates when I do), but the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL can do up to 120fps in 1080p with the rear camera and 30fps in 4K, while the front camera and do 1080p in up to 30fps. It can do both OIS and EIS, and it does the job well in my experience.
While VR is basically missing in action, Google is doubling down on AR with the Pixel 3’s newly-rebranded AR Stickers feature, Playground. I haven’t used it hardly at all, much the same way that I have only used Daydream enough times to count on one hand in the last couple years. That said, Google does note that the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL do work with Daydream, so if you already own a Daydream View headset, you’re good to go. I haven’t tried it yet, personally.
On paper, almost nothing about the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL should come as a surprise. They both were easily two of the most-leaked phones ever. But after a rough ride last year that even led to Google extending warranties for all Pixel 2 buyers, we had no idea if the Pixel 3’s expected components would be high quality, their hardware in general would be a complete thought, or that Google would yet again pull off great software that’s polished the way it has been before.
It’s still early days for Google’s consumer-facing smartphone line, but I think now we know for this year: The displays are great and the external designs are beautiful, but more importantly, the software is polished, bloat-free, user-friendly, and every feature is genuinely useful. And Google’s AI is, as usual, infused everywhere to bring even more genuine value adds that should make these phones more than compelling to anyone interested in trying something new.
If there’s any one thing that makes the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL great, it’s the camera. The reputation the Pixel has picked up in photography is well-deserved. But I think what actually makes the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL so great is not any one feature, but the whole. “Now Playing” is a software feature I use all the time. Call Screen is a killer exclusive that can genuinely save time in your day. The unlimited Google Photos storage is a nice perk. The buttery UI means minimizing frustrations when you’re trying to do basic tasks. Pixel Stand is yet another thoughtful Assistant integration.
All of these things are great, and yes, many of them you can even find from other phones. Most phones in this price range have great cameras. You can buy a stand to wirelessly charge your Samsung Galaxy Note 9. Every single Android phone on the market can run the Assistant. But I don’t think any of the alternatives — even the best of them — exist at this same intersection of doing as much as the Pixel does, as well as it does, as nicely as it does.
Many other companies have traditionally pushed really hard to make sure their phones check all the boxes or pack the most features or have the most attractive design. Google is not doing that with the Pixel, and they haven’t since day one. They’re far more focused on building a phone that is the best possible overall experience — especially in the context of Assistant and the ecosystem of its other hardware — for the most people. In that regard, the Pixel 3 is a major success.
As to whether or not you’re one of those people that these phones are good value for… well, my conclusion there might be really familiar to you if you’ve read my thoughts on the last couple years of Pixel phones. A couple years ago, the OnePlus 3 was the obvious affordable alternative for the technophile just looking for a near-stock Android phone, and this year, that similar alternative for many will probably be the OnePlus 6T — which launches soon.
I feel much the same sentiment this year. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are great in so many unique ways. Early — and perhaps exclusive — access to Google’s latest software and AI features (both now and those coming in the future) is a huge benefit. The camera is incredible. Unlimited Google Photos storage. The best performance on an Android phone. Google customer service is top-notch lately. The Pixel Stand. All these things and more considered, I think the asking price is more than fair for the average person that’s walking into a Verizon store and choosing between a few phones.
But if all you’re looking for is a good-enough phone and don’t particularly care for having the best camera, especially if you aren’t already on board with Google’s ecosystem — like Google Home, Nest, etc. — it’s hard to say that everything you get is worth the extra cash.
For me, it’s more than worth it. I would pick the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL not only over most other Android phones, but even over the latest iPhones (even the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, which are far more expensive). But I’m also highly invested in Google’s ecosystem, I’m a sucker for little details like the soft touch back, and I have a near compulsive need to use Android the way Google intends it.