Is it possible Google’s Pixel phones don’t have a bigger market share because not enough people have experienced using them?
Prior to this week, I’d only had brief encounters with the Google Pixel Line. Granted, I was never impressed with the two-toned design and, from what I could see, Google wasn’t leading the mobile handset industry in innovation. But with each iteration, Google has polished that look and checked off more and more feature boxes.
I’m not saying the 5.5-inch Google Pixel 3 ($799 for 64 GB) or 6.3-inch Google Pixel 3 XL ($899, 64 GB) outshine the iPhone Xs, Xs Max or the Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and Note 9. They don’t. On the other hand, I’m certainly smitten with the Google Pixel 3 XL. And it’s not only because of the masterfully designed chassis, high-quality camera, or attractive, mostly edge-to-edge screen. It’s how expertly Google integrates the Google software experience with the handset.
If you’re a Google fan, there’s probably no better handset experience than the Pixel 3 XL. The Pixel 3, which shares all the same features as the XL (CPU, cameras, screen technology), is a good phone, and at 2.7-inches x 5.7-inches x 0.3 inches, it feels so small and light compared to the 3 XL. However, the screen’s large black bezels at the top and bottom edge make it generally a less compelling handset choice, at least in my eyes and it’s for that reason that I will focus much of my review on the 3 XL, with the understanding that the smaller phone can match it on virtually all performance metrics and software features.
If you read no further, know that I’ll have no trouble recommending the Google Pixel 3 XL to friends and family who lean Android and, especially, Google. If you want to know why, read on.
A Ripening Design
I never liked Google’s original Pixel two-tone chassis design, a Frankenstein creation that was supposed to be distinct but looked indecisive to me. Google’s been refining it ever since and the Google Pixel 3 XL and smaller Pixel 3 aluminum and Gorilla Glass 5 bodies (especially the matte-finish, etched sections on the back) are things of beauty. The 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL measures 6.2 inches by 3 inches wide by just 0.3-inches thick, which makes it almost the exact same shape and size as Apple’s iPhone Xs Max. At 184 grams, it’s also a noticeable 24 grams lighter than Apple’s largest handset.
Both the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3 have flexible, high-resolution, OLED screens. The XL’s 2960 x 1440 resolution actually beats the iPhone Xs Max (2688 x 1242). However, there’s a certain vibrancy and color depth that, at least to my eyes, the Pixel 3 XL lacks when compared to the iPhone and also to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. I like the screen, it’s just not as eye-popping. Google also undercuts the visual experience a bit by not extending the screen on the Pixel 3 XL, to the bottom edge to accommodate a powerful speaker, and by going overboard on the notch, which accommodates two 8 MP cameras, an ambient light sensor, and another speaker. Apple squeezes eight elements into its TrueDepth module on the iPhone Xs Max, and yet its notch isn’t as deep. On the Pixel 3 XL, the notch is more noticeable than the iPhone’s on full screen images and apps.
On the back of both Pixel 3 handsets is the single 12 MP camera, a LED flash and the tiny Spectral + Flicker sensor. I applaud Google for having one of the shallowest camera bumps in the flagship phone game. Centered in the top third of the phone is the fingerprint sensor. I like that it’s nowhere near the camera and would suggest other Android phone manufacturers (looking at you, Samsung) follow suit.
On the right side is the volume rocker and a colorful power/sleep button. On my Clearly White Pixel 3 XL, the button is a bright, almost day-glow green. I love the color pop. On my Just Black Pixel 3, the button is just black; kind of a disappointment.
In the center of the bottom edge is the USB-Charging/data/audio port There’s no 3.5 mm jack, but you can use the included USB-C headphones, which I ended up liking (they’re comfortable, sound great and work well with Google Assistant), and if you have a pair of Beats, the phone comes with a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter. The USB-C port sits next to the SIM slot. By the way, the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL are dual-SIM phones.
In general, both the Google Pixel 3 and the larger Pixel 3 XL are a pleasure to hold. The etched glass backs make them far less slippery than some high-gloss, glass devices. I usually carried the Pixel 3 phones in cases but would be quite proud to carry them around caseless, as well. Both phones are IP68-rated, which means they can handle dust and water, up to 1.5 m for 30 minutes. I gave the Pixel 3 XL a dousing which it handled just fine.
I’m spoiled by the iPhone Xs Max’s lightning-quick Face ID and the Note 9’s similarly effective facial unlock. On the iPhone, I pick up the phone and swipe up from the bottom of the screen, barely registering that the phone just scanned my mug to unlock. I had to retrain myself on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL to reach around the back and place one registered finger on the fingerprint sensor. At least registering my print was a fast, painless process and the fingerprint recognition is split-second fast.
As you would expect, the Pixel 3 offers the purest Android 9 experience yet, including the new system navigation, which does away with the task and back buttons and shrinks the familiar home square icon to a narrow, flat bar. A long press on the button brings up Google Assistant, but I usually tapped it to return home or slid the bar back and forth to horizontally scroll through open apps. Personally, I think this is a navigational improvement.
If I swipe up from the bottom, I can access all of my apps and if I turn the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL to view it in landscape mode, the screen and apps reorient themselves into a wide-screen view. This is something Apple should’ve done with the iPhone Plus (and now iPhone Xs Max) years ago.
The Google Quick Search bar lives near the bottom of the screen, just above the home bar. It’s good, easy-to-access global search for local apps and Web content. I do wish it could also search across Google services, so I could quickly find a file stored in, for instance, Google Drive.
I love an Android phone that embraces native Google, including Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Drive, YouTube (which you don’t have to download) and Docs (oddly, Google Fit does not come pre-installed). One of the reasons I’ve never taken to Android is that the experience is subtly different (and sometimes not so subtly) with each Android manufacturer.
No Google technology is more ubiquitous in the Pixel 3 and 3 XL than Google Assistant. The AI-based voice and digital assistance can be summoned with a long press of the home button, your voice, “OK, Google,” and even a squeeze (Active Edge). Though something of a gimmick, I’ve come to enjoy giving my Pixel 3 a firm squeeze for quick access to Google Assistant smarts.
Google Assistant is easily as smart, if not smarter than Siri and Amazon Echo. I can ask it all kinds of questions (The Pixel 3 XL’s mics pick up a normal spoken voice even with background music) and follow up questions. For example, I asked how to say “’Where is the bathroom’ in French”. Google Assistant returned the translated words and spoke them aloud. I then squeezed the phone again and said, “What about ‘Thank you?’” Google Assistant returned the translated French, which is “Je vous remercie.” I found that I could do this endlessly, I just started each query with “What about...”
If Google’s Pixel’s are known for anything, it’s their photographic prowess and, in general, the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL do not disappoint. Sure, I think they have the camera configuration a little backwards, giving us to 8 MP cameras — f1.8 normal and f2.2 wide angle — on the front of the phone and just a single f1.8 12 MP camera on the back. Obviously, the trend is for two or more rear cameras, with at least one of them usually being a 2x optical zoom lens. In the case of Apple, the second lens is for both 2X zoom and to build Portrait Mode shots. On the other hand, Apple’s iPhone X series are all adept at creating detailed Portrait Mode photos without using a second lens. In other words, Google’s decision to use a single 12 MP lens shouldn’t be held against the Pixel 3 line.
It’s remarkable how similar Google’s Camera app experience has become to Apple’s on iOS. The key photo modes are at the bottom, right above the centered shutter, which is bookended by a recent photo thumbnail on the right and the switch cameras icon on the left (on the iPhone, they switch positions). However, Google’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL hide a lot of extra camera functionality under the “More” button, including more esoteric options like Photo Sphere (a fun VR image option that you’ll need a lot of patience to use), Slow motion, Photobooth, which takes a photo when your subject smiles (this works quite well), the augmented reality app Playground, and Google Lens.
However, Google Lens which can identify objects, text, QR codes, and more, isn’t actually hidden under More. It’s live in the camera at all times, you just have to hold your finger down on the screen and it’ll start analyzing the scene
I used Google lens to accurately identify food, places, text, and business cards.
Whether using the front, dual 8 MP cameras or the rear 12 MP camera, the Google Pixel 3 XL is an excellent shooter. The rear camera includes auto-focus, optical and electronic images stabilization (more on that later) and a 76-degree field of view.
Google’s Pixel 3’s use HDR+ to capture up to 8 frames and combine them for the best photo. Yes, it’s similar to Apple’s Smart HDR, though that technology captures more frames to find the best elements and lighting options for a final shot.
I left HDR+ and Smart HDR on for all my photos. In the end, both cameras took excellent photos. In some cases, the Google Pixel 3’s 12 MP camera outshone the iPhone Xs Max, especially in low-light action shots. But for backlit images, the iPhone usually managed to pull in more light for brighter foreground objects. I also think the iPhone Xs Max color management edges out the Google Pixel 3 XL.
Despite having just one lens, Google’s 12 MP Pixel 3 XL camera is an excellent Portrait mode shooter. Unlike the iPhone Xs series, it essentially handles the images as two planes: the in-focus foreground and the defocused background. Still, the resulting images can be striking. I do like how you can adjust the bokeh effect and even which objects to focus on after taking the photo, though Google manages to hide this feature two levels deep in the photo editing tools.
Since they’re driven primarily by software, it’s not surprising that the Pixel 3’s Portrait mode capabilities are just as strong on the front 8 MP cameras as it is on the rear 12 MP one. Plus, Portrait mode works for both the standard and ultra-wide 8 MP cameras. You toggle between the cameras seamlessly using a slider. The wide angle is almost fisheye; a fully defocused, wide-angle portrait mode shot can look freaky. The purpose of the wide-angle Group Selfie, though, is to gather in as many friends as possible for a group shot that most front facing cameras can’t match.
I have a couple of relatively minor Portrait Mode criticisms. One is that, the algorithm can, especially when the contrast of the foreground object too closely matches something in the background, pull a background section into foreground focus. The other issue is that the phone can take a moment to show you the Portrait mode results. Watching the phone “process” an image like this is definitely not endearing.
By the way, Google Pixel 3 lets you switch between front and rear cameras with a quick wrist twist gesture (there’s a little vibration to let you know it’s working). I love this feature and hope that others adopt it.
As I noted earlier, there’s only one rear camera, which means optical zoom is out of the question. Google, however, uses something called Super Rez Zoom. It relies on our shaky hands to capture extra image pixels across an HDR+ burst of images that can be used to fill in gaps when you zoom in on the image. It’s a novel approach, but, in my tests, it did not outperform Apple’s iPhone Xs max 12 MP, 2X optical zoom lens.
There are some other notable and entertaining camera features, including Playground, an augmented reality mode that lets you drop animated three-dimensional Playmoji, like a cute anthropomorphic hamburger and licensed 3D characters like Iron Man, into your real-world photos.
I can also tap on a moving object and the Pixel 3’s camera will keep it in focus for action shots. This worked pretty well, but if the subject left the frame, I had to tap the screen to have it follow it again.
There’s also panorama and 1080p slow motion. The Pixel 3 shoots at either 120 fps (which is labeled as 1/4) or 240 fps (labeled as 1/8). After you’ve shot your slo-mo video, the Pixel 3 lets you adjust where in the video you want your slow motion to stop and start.
You can also shoot 4K 30 fps video. It looks good, but also showed the overall performance differences between the A12 Bionic-running iPhone Xs Max and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845-running Pixel 3 XL. For one thing, I can’t pinch and zoom in on my 4K video on the Pixel 3 XL. In addition, scrubbing through the video is not nearly as smooth as it is on the iPhone.
What’s missing from this camera experience is Night Shot, the super-low-light photography feature that Google highlighted during the Pixel 3 launch. It’s supposed to arrive as a software update in a few days.
Pixel Stand/Wireless Charging and Lock Screen
I’m a big fan of the Pixel 3’s always on display, which shows time, date, local temperature, and icons to let you know you have notifications from social media apps, like Instagram, security updates and notifications from smart home apps like Nest Hello. I could touch the screen to wake and get some quick details on all of them. There’s also a fun, new Shazam-like Now Playing feature (you have to turn it on under settings) that will show you the name of whatever song it hears playing. I had the phone set up next to my smart speaker and it accurately identified every song in my playlist.
The new Pixel Stand $79, supercharges the sleep screen experience. In addition to being able to wirelessly fast-charge the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL, you get more shortcuts on the screen to Google Assistant and saying, “Okay Google Good Morning,” will give you a complete rundown of your day (as long as the phone is unlocked), including the weather, your schedule, traffic to work, and news. Much of it shows up in large fonts and colorful icons on the docked phone. In my first test, I got everything except my news briefing. Google Assistant promised one and then there was silence. It worked on subsequent attempts, delivering a Reuters news brief, that, oddly, I could not pause using my voice.
At night, the docked phone screen dims further so it’s not a bright beacon in your bedroom. I could still open my eyes in the middle of the night and read the time, but it didn’t keep me awake, either.
If you’re charging in the daytime, when you don’t have Do Not Disturb hours set, Google Pixel 3 on the Pixel Stand will run a slideshow of your photos. You can choose which albums or let Google do the sorting. The photos appear in both horizontal split-screen mode and full-screen, which inadvertently really highlights the size of that notch.
Apple has Screen Time and in Android 9 (Pie), Google has Digital Wellbeing. There’s no app, so you have to find it under Settings. Still, it’s a rich experience with a lot of control for the things that will matter most for people trying to start a digital diet. There’s the report screen that puts your activities into a circle. It’s not a great visualization, and I would’ve preferred at least a pie chart. You can set individual app timers with pre-set or custom time settings. When the time ends, the app is paused. Google couples this setting with details on how long you’ve spent with each app that day. I set my Twitter usage timer to 15 minutes. First, I got a notification that I had five minutes left. To be honest, a little panic set in. Minutes later, Twitter shut down and I got the notification that Twitter had been paused until tomorrow. I clicked on Learn More, shut off the timer and resumed Tweeting. Not sure how effective that will be in the long run.
There’s a Wind Down setting that can fade the screen to grayscale at a pre-appointed time — which can be pretty startling when you’re not prepared for it — and the Do Not Disturb has an impressive level of control. Personally, though, I like the new “Shh” feature that silences the phone when you turn it face down on the table. It’s the perfect antidote to digital dinner interruptions.
Unlike Apple Screen Time, Google’s Digital Wellbeing won’t nudge you with weekly report notifications. You can set it and forget it or occasionally dig into settings for a usage update. I’d like to see the option to receive occasional reports.
Playtime and Call Screen
Both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are solid content consumption devices, though I certainly prefer watching video and playing games on the larger 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL. As for the stereo speakers, they can get really loud. In side-by-side tests with the iPhone Xs Max, the Google Pixel 3 XL was just slightly louder. The difference here might be that both 3 XL speakers are front facing, while the iPhone Xs Max has one in the TrueDepth Module and one along the bottom edge of the phone.
I also tried out the Call Screening feature which is, to be honest, less exciting that I thought it would be. When a call came in, I chose the Screen Call option and then Google Duplex took over told the caller that I was screening the call and that I’d be getting a transcribed copy of the conversation. On the Google Pixel 3 XL, I read what the caller said and then chose from a series of canned responses. Oddly, none of them was explicitly, “No thanks,” or “Don’t call again.” Instead it was prompts for them to tell me more and questions about the call’s urgency. The caller (it was me) offered me a free cruise, but Duplex didn’t really ask questions about that. It’s nice to not have to pick up the phone, but you still have to decide to screen the call and you have to choose each response.
Inside the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, you’ll find the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 running on most modern Android handsets. I couldn’t run Geekbench 4 on my Pixel 3 handsets, but benchmark numbers I’ve seen online put it right in line with other Snapdragon 845 handsets.
In practice, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, which are both backed by 4 GB of RAM, have generally excellent performance, though I did see some odd hiccups, like the app screen on the Google Pixel 3 resolving itself from slightly pixelated to sharp. It was fast, but I noticed it on more than one occasion. Plus, there’s the visible processing of Portrait mode shots. Even so, these are minor issues that I bet most people will never notice.
Battery life was as good as promised. The Google Pixel 3 XL’s 3430 mAh battery gave me a solid 11 hours of battery life with almost constant usage. The smaller 2915 mAh battery in the Google Pixel 3 also managed 10 hours in more intermittent use.
Why Buy a Pixel 3
Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are, naturally, fantastic showcases for the ultimate Android 9 experience, but they’re almost equally about the Google and its growing lists of apps and services. Gone is the confusion over whether you should use, for example, Bixby or Google Assistant, or Samsung’s Internet or Chrome, or the “Gallery” or Google Photos. That clarity is, at least to me, especially appealing.
There are many things to like about the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The design is now eye-catching, the cameras are excellent, the performance is good, and I’m happy with battery life.
I hesitate, though, to call these must-have Android devices. I think Google went overboard with the Pixel 3 XL notch and I do think the screen technology is a tick or so behind competitors. Plus, Google’s is out of step in certain areas, offering just a 64- and 128 GB options, instead of 246 and even 512 GB, and I do miss true 2 X optical zoom, at least on the larger phone.
Still, I think they’re worth recommending for anyone who craves a pure Android experience and is devoted to Google’s wide assortment of apps and services. Google’s Pixel 3 XL, in particular is attractive, and fun and easy to use with tremendous functionality and intelligence. I would also recommend the Pixel Stand, which is not only a great wireless charging companion, but extends the Pixel 3’s functionality as well.