Google’s latest smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, deliver a pure version of Android that also includes one of the most effective cameras available.
Google Pixel 3 Specs
Display: 5.5-inch 2160 x 1080 P-OLED display 18:9 aspect ratio with 443 pixels per inch
This third iteration of Google’s own phone lineup is less about physical design and more about software prowess. Rather than try to make a phone more attractive than others visually, the company chose to throw its best punches through artificial intelligence (AI) software that makes them do impressive things.
Same old Pixel
When I reviewed the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, I noted that they were far from winning any accolades for pageantry. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL aren’t meant to be stunning at first glance, but I would still consider them better designs than the previous two iterations.
The back is now flush with glass framing a soft matte textured surface that feels very nice to hold. Little has changed in philosophy, however, with the lens still situated in the top left and fingerprint sensor nearby in the middle. With USB-C at the bottom, volume and power buttons on the right edge and SIM card slot, little has changed that way.
There’s still no headphone jack, though Google does include a USB-C adapter in the box. There is eSIM support, effectively making both phones dual-SIM devices for carriers who offer it. Slide a nano SIM into the slot, while also getting a signal for the eSIM from the local carrier.
The biggest change is the screen on both devices. First, Google went with bigger panels—5.5-inches on the Pixel 3 and 6.3-inches for the Pixel 3 XL. The latter model also has a larger resolution display at 2960 x 1440, yet also includes a notch at the top to make room for the earpiece and dual lenses. The smaller Pixel 3 doesn’t have a notch.
The notch is divisive for some, and it’s a wonder why Google didn’t make it elective to disable it. As of this review, the only way I found worked to do so was to turn on developer options. Personally, I’m not as bothered by notches in screens unless I’m watching video that doesn’t constrain itself properly.
I was more interested in sourcing better displays this time around. Last year, the Pixel phones were mired in inconsistency and muted colours, particularly on the Pixel 2 XL. These two devices offer much better visuals to look at, courtesy of OLED panels manufactured by Samsung. There’s a vibrancy to the displays that I found made a big difference, though I would stop short in suggesting they’re better than what some other competitors have put out this year.
This is an interesting one, given Android’s reputation for more porous defenses. Google played up its new Titan M security module, whose sole purpose is to keep important information away from hacking attempts. This includes passwords and sensitive data, which are stored separately from internal memory, like RAM, for instance. The plan appears to be an expanding rollout that would bring in more authentication methodologies that have some backbone to them. Time will tell.
Sometimes, a subtle change feels like a big move in the right direction. That’s how I felt with the smoothness of the interface when punctuated by the excellent haptic feedback. Tapping on the navigation softkeys and using the fingerprint sensor was like butter in a technical way.
Every Pixel I’ve tested has run Android like a dream, so I wasn’t surprised. The marriage of hardware and software here is very harmonious, leading to a very consistent experience. You’d notice it early on, but even more so as time goes on after you’ve packed it with apps and content.
This is partly a consequence of the lightweight feel Android 9 Pie has. There’s a minimalism to this pure version of the operating system that I’ve appreciated going back to the company’s Nexus devices. Multitasking is far better now, though it’s obvious Google borrowed the layout and concept from others, including Apple (Palm and BlackBerry had it first).
Swift operation was everywhere. From basic browsing, shooting photos, watching video, listening to music and playing games, the phones held up extremely well. I was never concerned with lag or slowdowns at any point and time.
While I liked the larger display on the Pixel 3 XL, I found the smaller Pixel 3 to be the perfect size. A sizeable screen with a lightweight body, it made one-handed operation much easier. Both devices are fragile, however, and I would strongly recommend using a case for protection.
Last year, the Pixel 2 phones sometimes shocked me with their sheer brilliance at capturing images with interesting composition. On paper, it would appear little changed with the Pixel 3, given the numbers are the same, but there’s a lot that’s changed.
Contrary to rumours, Google chose not to add any additional lenses in the rear, opting to add a second one in the front for wide-angle selfies. There’s some magic going on there, though I would argue the real deal is in the rear. With new HDR (high dynamic range) algorithms working in real-time, these phones were capable of photos that improved upon last year’s results considerably.
That was a pretty high bar to pass, but the results don’t lie. Since there’s no manual mode for control over shutter speed and ISO, the software had to do the heavy lifting instead. Both phones have the same exact camera, so there’s no difference in performance or output, which is great news. I came away with some excellent shots, regardless of where or how I shot.
It was the Night Sight mode that made things the most interesting. The way in which it illuminates dark scenes is spectacular because it not only salvages a difficult shooting situation, it often delivers a photo you can actually work with. The mode is a bit technical, but it essentially shoots a burst of images at varying exposures and interpolates the data to produce a shot that would’ve otherwise been impossible without a tripod.
Top Shot is also a great insurance policy in that it captures a series of shots that raise the odds in capturing the exact moment you intended. Motion Photos needs to be turned on (and HDR+ Enhanced turned off) for it to work, and is well worth using for moving subjects.
Super Res Zoom is Google’s way of covering for the lack of a telephoto lens. Zooming in to 2x, the feature sharpens detail with clarity I’ve never seen before in any phone’s digital zoom. It stops working beyond 2x, but as is, the results are impressive.
Google offers free cloud storage for all photos and videos at full resolution until 2022. That’s great backup for devices that will compel you to shoot a lot.
Google released its own wireless charging dock in the Pixel Stand, but went beyond conventional by making it functionally diverse. When first placing either phone onto the stand, it will ask if you want to set up Google Assistant—effectively turning the phone-stand duo into a Google Home product.
More than that, if you have a Nest Hello smart doorbell, either Pixel 3 can show the live feed from the doorbell’s camera when someone arrives. The phones can display photos from your Google Photos account, turning them into digital photo frames. They can also display warm colours that brighten like a sunrise, illuminating your dark room as your morning alarm approaches. In contrast, you can also have your phone screen go completely dark when going to sleep.
This was one of the coolest concepts I’ve seen for a charging product. Hopefully, Google continues to develop it with more features moving forward.
Music and headphones
Unlike last year, Google includes a pair of earbud headphones in the box with either Pixel 3. They plug directly into the USB-C port, so you can’t listen to music and charge the device at the same time, though I found some success doing it by laying the phone upside down or sideways onto the Pixel Stand to reveal the port underneath.
The USB-C-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter is also in the box, so you’re never out of reach for your own headphones. You can also go wireless via Bluetooth, too.
Google upgraded the speakers for both phones, except they did so with a catch. While certainly louder, they create a vibration effect on the back of the phone that is highly unusual. Quality is quite good, so there’s no real problem there, it’s that the back panel seems to vibrate a lot. I personally didn’t find it too distracting, but I can see how others might not like it.
The Now Playing feature introduced last year is back, and even better. It recognizes music and tells you the artist and song no matter where you are. It still works offline, too, provided the track is in a limited database Google maintains for such situations.
A quick note about call quality: it’s probably better than it was last year, though I never really had an issue with the Pixel 2 that way.
A major addition to both phones is wireless charging. Working with any Qi-enabled pad or surface, either Pixel 3 will charge without needing to plug anything in. This was long overdue for Google, and it’s good the company finally jumped on the wagon. The Pixel Stand just adds to the usefulness.
I had little trouble going a full day using either phone, though the XL model tended to last longer, overall. On paper, the batteries are a bit small for these devices, respectively, but I attribute much of their performance to how Android runs here.
If you’re looking for a beautiful phone, neither of these hit that mark. They aren’t beauty contestants, they’re efficient workers that do a lot of things really well. It’s the usability, performance and camera output that proves how effective they are.
I feel like I’m outlining the same things I pointed out last year when giving my final thoughts. It’s more of the same, only better, which is certainly a good thing. Three years of guaranteed system and security updates should keep things going well for some time. If you’re looking for an Android phone that keeps it simple, but delivers often, these new Pixels are good choices.
The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are available now.