Google has made it a point to deliver a unique and exciting software experience with its Pixel smartphone range. Hardware was a problem, and somehow, they made it even worse with the second generation devices. While the software is perfect, it's impossible to say the same for the hardware, there's never been that perfect Google smartphone. While the Pixel got us excited for being the first Made by Google smartphone (since shuttering the Nexus program), the Pixel 2 showcased Google’s increasing reliance on software smarts (machine learning) to add a noticeable level of innovation to its camera. And what a showcase it was. Despite the drab hardware, there was no ignoring the software.
A year later, we now have Google Pixel 3, and the biggest question on my mind is, what's changed? The software experience will be amazing and a spectacular camera is a given. But what's changed on the hardware front? Has Google finally addressed those persistent quality control issues? Is it just an overpriced piece of Android hardware, a one-trick pony?
Build and Design: 8/10
Simply put, the Pixel 3 XL is a smartphone that makes other phones look good. It makes the iPhone XS look awesome and the Oppo Find X look futuristic.
At best, the Pixel 3 XL looks subtle and simple. It feels solid and premium and while the etched matte finish of the glass back may not be grippy, it does prevent the phone from slipping off flat surfaces like an office table or a glass top.
The painted metal frame finished in white that holds the curved edge screens of Gorilla Glass 5 (on either side) kind of reminds me of the white finish of a dentist's chair. It's boring. No matter how attractive and minimalist it looks on store.google.com, remember that renders can be deceiving.
And that is just the beginning of my long list of annoyances with Pixel’s design.
The device is prone to scratches despite featuring Gorilla Glass 5 on both sides and the finish is not exactly flawless either.
While the white paint did remind me of coating found on the arms of a dentist’s chair, the Type-C port felt sharp to the touch. Even OnePlus got that quality pain point rectified with the OnePlus 6 this year, so it’s strange to see this show up on a device that is priced more than twice as much. It definitely needs another run on the CNC machine as someone in quality clearly missed it! Thankfully, there are hardly any perforations on the body because of the Pixel's dual speaker design which, as per Google's design philosophy, is traditionally placed on the display with cutouts in the glass.
Then there’s that power button.
It’s loose and annoying and definitely not a feature that prevents it from being accidentally pressed down. You think you may have pressed that mint green power button to wake your Pixel 3 XL, but you haven’t, not unless you have taken the effort to reach out to it with your thumb and then pressed it down at the very centre of the button. Press it on the sides of the top and bottom edges of the button, and it does not register a press. There have been countless times I have failed to press it and I have cursed Google’s designers every single time this has happened.
Apart from the above, the design is boring. The phone definitely doesn't look like a premium device from either the front or the back, and that gigantic display notch doesn't help matters any. Even Google seems embarrassed by it and tries to hide the notch behind dark wallpapers.
You really cannot ignore that notch.
I know it’s subjective, but a notch this large definitely deserves a mention in my review, especially when most premium Android smartphones from Oppo (Find X, F9 Pro), Vivo (Nex S, V11 Pro) and OnePlus (with the 6T) are working hard to get rid of it.
More importantly, the notch does little justify its existence. Apple's notch at least has a slew of advanced sensors. Google's notch just has an additional camera for wide-angle selfies.
On the UX and software side of things, the notch again gets in the way. While smaller notches on other smartphones barely eat up the notifications bar, the one on the Pixel 3 XL eats up a centimetre off the top of the display. The “bathtub” (notch) is a blatant waste of display space and it's there just so that you can take wider selfies? That's a trade-off that makes no sense.
But hey, if you, like me, don’t like that hideous tub, you can turn it off by activating Developer Options and then going into 'Display Cut-out'. Once in there, don’t forget to try out the various notch options (including the double notch) while you're at it.
To make things worse, there's a thick chin at the bottom, and as far as I can tell, Google made no attempt to minimise it.
It isn’t clear why Google didn’t fold the OLED display into the bottom chin as Apple did. I wouldn't expect this of other Android devices, but given Google's premium pricing, I'd expect them to go the extra mile with the hardware. There is, of course, the front firing speaker, which would have forced a chin anyway.
Did Google keep the chin to emphasise audio quality over the elegance of design or was it just sheer happenstance?
Either way, considering the amount of space both the notch and the chin take up, you really cannot call the Pixel 3 XL a bezel-less device.
Despite being an improvement over the Pixel 2 XL, the bland design is still a major turn off. I expected more from a device retailing at Rs 83,000.
When it comes to features, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 clearly sits at the top, being the new king of excess, but when it comes to hardware, the Pixel, like the iPhone, tries to do more with less.
There’s a 6.3-inch flexible OLED display sporting a QHD+ resolution of 2,960 x 1,440 pixels (523 PPI). Inside, you get a tried and tested Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC paired with 4 GB RAM and 64 GB of internal storage that is not expandable. The top of the line 3 XL, which is priced at Rs 87,000, only packs in 128 GB of internal storage. While that seems less, considering that this is a camera phone at heart, Google does offer unlimited photo and video storage on its cloud via the Photos app. And all of these photos and videos will be stored at full resolution, so technically, even a 64 GB Pixel should suffice most needs, provided you have enough bandwidth.
There are no dual cameras at the back either. Google lets its machine learning brains do all the processing using software and the Pixel Core chip. Thus, a single 12 MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture does the job of capturing the photos. On the front, Google went in for a dual camera setup with an 8 MP + 8 MP wide and ultra-wide combination for taking regular and group selfies.
Connectivity options include the usual single SIM setup with an added eSIM option. Sadly, it's an either/or situation. You cannot use an eSIM and a nano-SIM simultaneously, making the Pixel 3 a single SIM device. Apart from this, there’s support for 4G VoLTE, Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 GHz + 5 GHz) 2x2 MIMO and no 3.5 mm headphone jack. Thankfully, Google, unlike Apple, at least provides a dongle that connects to the Type-C USB port in the box so you can plug in the headphones you have already invested in.
Power is supplied by a 3,430 mAh battery and it does feature support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge standard. The charger itself is rated for 18 W fast charging. For the first time, Qi wireless charging is also supported, thanks to that frosted glass back. Sadly, charging speed and battery haven't changed much since the Pixel 2 XL.
Notch aside, the display is a big jump from the horribly dull display of the Pixel 2 XL. It's such a huge jump that if it wasn't for the camera, this display would easily have been the defining feature of the phone
The Google Pixel 3 XL also gets HDR support (UHDA certification). HDR delivers vibrant and well contrasted HDR 10 encoded video on the Pixel, but there is a problem with the ‘black crush’ effect and colour banding, which kind of ruins the experience in dark scenes.
Watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix was an immersive experience, but the black crush ruined the dark scenes. But the display was a lot brighter than the XS Max and showed a lot more detail. But, while watching YouTube HDR 10 content, which the iPhone XS now supports, there was no discernible difference in video quality. Clearly, the limitations of HDR 10 in Netflix are holding back the Pixel 3 XL's brilliant display.
On a related note, the Pixel 3 XL's display is noticeably dimmer than that of the iPhone XS Max.
The display was bright enough indoors and all content looked great. I expected better performance outdoors, but the Pixel 3 XL just wasn't bright enough for comfortable use in daylight. The OLED displays of the Note 9 and iPhone XS Max do a far better job in this regard.
The combination of the notch and the chin, apart from ruining the looks of the smartphone, also make for an annoying off-centred video viewing experience. While you can pinch to zoom to fill the screen, this also looks off because of that jutting chin and massive notch. I've no idea how Google's designers were satisfied with such an uncomfortably asymmetric design.
When it comes to software, Pixel devices have always been the first to receive the latest updates. And with the Pixel 3 XL, Google continues that tradition.
You get Android 9 Pie with a couple of Google-centric customisations like those fancy new animated wallpapers (these are beautiful), an adaptive battery mode that will also be coming to older Pixels, a Digital Wellbeing app and the fluid Pixel interface that is still buttery smooth and possibly the best you can get on an Android smartphone today.
Digital Wellbeing features a Dashboard giving you all of your usage statistics that it collects from day to day use. The app, unlike iOS 12’s digital wellbeing app called Screen Time, is not out of its beta state yet, which is a bit surprising considering Google was the first to announce the feature for its smartphones.
It allows you to gradually reduce your app usage by putting timers on specific apps and showing you statistics about what kind of apps you use the most. But at the end of the day, it all depends on self-control as you have the keys to setting all of those app timers.
Wind down is a great way to end your day. Your Pixel’s display will switch to greyscale and eventually stop showing any notifications (basically making your phone boring) convincing you to put your phone down (and hopefully not switch on the TV) and sleep. It’s a lovely feature and to an extent, switching to greyscale at the end of the day did remind me that I needed to put my phone down and sleep. The problem is you can switch it off and on several occasions, I did end up doing just that despite scheduling the feature to switch on automatically.
What I also loved about the software experience is Google’s reliance on the new haptic vibration motor, which is right about the best you can get on an Android smartphone. While the LG G7 featured a great one compared to the rest of the premium smartphones of the year, the 3 XL’s is even better and more accurate. Whether you are navigating the smartphone using the new gesture navigation or swiping down on your notifications, there are subtle and accurate vibrations that bring the software alive. How I wish Samsung and the rest of the premium smartphone manufacturers could follow Google with this!
Gaming is a bit of problem on the Pixel 3 XL.
Playing games with the display notch was a pain. In Real Racing 3 where any tap on the display applies the breaks on your supercar, I frequently ended up bringing the car to a complete halt because my finger unconsciously tapped the edge of the display, just below the notch. This is a problem because every gamer needs to get a good grip of the smartphone, no matter what genre of gaming you are into.
The solution was to hide the notch (in Developer Options) which changes the aspect ratio of the game from 18:9 to 16:9, resulting in the game showcasing bigger buttons and content. Using an iPhone 8 Plus as my daily driver, I can honestly say that I love bezels when it comes to gaming because they let me comfortably grip my device. But it's not just that. I didn't have these issues on the near bezel-less Oppo Find X, so the issue is more about optimisation.
The Oppo Find X, for example, despite having razor-thin bezels, does a fine job of accidental touch rejection around the edges. Out here on the Pixel 3 XL, the thin bezels (available everywhere apart from the bottom chin) become a problem.
The Pixel 3 XL showcased some rather odd behaviour when gaming. Games that require a continuous internet connection, games like Asphalt and Real Racing, would restart every time I'd navigate away from them. This did not affect offline games. I don't know if it's a RAM issue or not, but judging by the fact that only games that require an internet connection were affected, it's possible that the internet connection to background apps is being more aggressively culled.
Reboots and notch issues aside, the gaming experience has been simply incredible.
Pixel USB-C earbuds
Pixel USB-C earbuds deliver an average audio quality that is somehow not even comparable to Apple’s bundled EarPods. There’s way too much distortion even though they are loud and the audio lacks texture. To be honest, if you are an audiophile, you might as well chuck this set into a bin. They're fine as a pair of backup earbuds, but not worthy of much else.
To make things worse, the fit is also terrible. If you have perfect ears, the Pixel USB-C earbuds will fit snugly, anyone else will have trouble. In my case, my left and right ears aren't identical and I had a lot of trouble getting the Buds to fit. While the bud on the left ear fitted well, the one on the right had an air gap thanks to the adjustment knot that's part of the earbuds' design. This also had a detrimental effect on bass notes.
While I admired the knot-styled adjustment system, I just could not find the right setting to fit my right ear. Of my friends who tried the set, only one could get it to fit snugly. Eventually, I gave up and went back to my standard wired EarPods. While even the EarPods don't fit properly in my ears, they still fit better than the Pixel USB-C earbuds.
Fit aside, there is a mode you activate on the Pixel earbuds which will give you updates about notifications by voice, reducing the need to pull out your smartphone. This, at least, I liked.
The two front-facing speakers are definitely louder than those on the Pixel 2 XL, but they do not deliver that rich stereo sound quality that I expected, because most of the audio comes from the bottom speaker. In short, they are not as immersive as the ones on the iPhone XS Max and I have to again question Google's decision to go with that massive notch.
As for call quality, the audio was crystal clear and there no hissing sounds like on the earlier Pixel devices.
The Pixel 3 XL gets a bit of an upgrade with new cameras on the front and the rear. The primary camera at the back is a 12 MP, f/1.8 aperture unit while the front-facing cameras get a big upgrade to a dual camera setup with two 8 MP cameras, complete with a wide and a ultra wide-angle lens.
While I was amazed by the Pixel 2 and 2 XL in my review, Google engineers went bonkers this time around and have come up with some rather interesting techniques, just so that you can capture the perfect photo (and not miss it). It is possibly the only camera to offer a well-thought-of burst mode called Top Shot, that will click quality pictures in HDR and save them in the camera buffer, and then decide if it managed to capture a better frame instead of the one you managed. It's that smart!
Pixel engineers went to extreme lengths using the same old capture techniques but with a crazy twist, that will change the way you perceive photography. And with this, it's easy to conclude that the images are nothing short of stunning and showcase a crazy amount of detail with an unbeatable Portrait mode that shoots almost DSLR-like photographs.
But like every other smartphone camera out there, it is not perfect and here are some of the minor details that I noticed that may not necessarily be of concern to the average consumer.
One detail that I did not like about the camera is that it warms up the smartphone rather quickly even if you use it for a short time. Pull out the 3 XL from your pocket to compose your shot, click 3 odd photos and you will notice the back of the phone warming up. Indeed, this could be down to all the number crunching performed by that updated Pixel Visual Core chip, but capturing video makes the phone too hot to handle. Despite getting uncomfortably hot, at no point in time did the camera app shut down.
The Pixel 3 XL’s camera does of lot of number crunching to deliver photos that are noticeably better than last year’s Pixel 2 XL. The processing, thanks to the improved HDR+ algorithms has become a bit aggressive and you can tell this clearly when you compare the image samples with those from the iPhone XS Max, which seems to deliver the better dynamic range of the two.
In the photo above, there are plenty of dark areas in the shadows on a sunny day that have absolutely no detail. Despite that, photographs look vibrant, contrasty and visually pleasing compared to shots from the XS Max and Note 9. In short, daylight and indoor photography are still top-notch and you can retain the title of the “official photographer” no matter what party, event or reunion you are attending if you have the Pixel 3 XL on you.
While the Apple XS Max kept up with Google’s computational photography smarts by delivering more natural and less vibrant colours, the Galaxy Note 9 (which was a pretty good offering until the former two were announced) could not even come close!
Shooting in the evening just before sunset saw the luminance noise levels creep up, but the details were still present so the photos looked good considering the dim lighting.
You can click on the image gallery below to scroll through the image samples or click here to visit the gallery on Flickr.
In low light or street-lit scenarios after sunset, the Pixel 3 XL does a fine job at retaining details and colours, all thanks to its computational photography and machine learning bits. But the aggressive HDR kicks in and kind of reduces the dynamic range in the dark areas, again showcasing blobs of black.
Super Res Zoom is a new feature with the Pixel 3 camera, and while it sounds really fancy, the actual results are either incredible or not much better than a traditional digital zoom. Super Res Zoom essentially takes advantage of your shaky hands to capture more image data, theoretically resulting in an image that's at a much higher resolution than the sensor is originally capable of capturing. Just take a look at the images below.
— Tech2 (@tech2eets) October 12, 2018
The results are decent in broad daylight, but in most cases, the feature cannot replace a telephoto lens. Maybe the combination of a telephoto lens with Google’s Super Res Zoom will make a lot more sense and result in cleaner imagery, but in its current form, it's only useful up to a certain point. Zooming beyond that results in images that look like paintings, with objects sometimes taking on a Prisma-like style-transfer tone. The spire of the Rajabai Clock Tower seen below, looks almost like a painting with no details of the texture of the construction. It is a good example of the limitations of the digital zoom.
The Panorama mode delivered pretty low quality and blurry imagery as compared to the results I captured the iPhone XS Max. The 3 XL definitely does not even come close when it comes to taking Panorama shots both indoors and outdoors.
The Pixel 3 XL is indeed the selfie king! Selfies are unbeatable in comparison to any smartphone out there, more in part due to Google’s synthetic lighting techniques that will expose the face accurately no matter what the lighting conditions. This works brilliantly using both Portrait and standard selfie mode in the dim and low light. The same can be said about the wide angle mode that now reduces the need to carry a selfie stick. Edge detection in the wide-angle selfie mode does need a bit of tuning, though.
Video capture has not changed much since the Pixel 2 XL.
There is improved stabilisation and a new auto fps feature that will increase the frame rate (from 30 fps to 60 fps) if the camera detects fast motion, such as a quick pan. The Motion autofocus feature also works brilliantly. Once you tap to lock focus on your fast-moving subject (which could be kids, pets or even birds) the camera does a brilliant job of keeping it in focus, provided you are able to catch up and keep the subject in the frame.
While the video quality seemed decent at 1080p in daylight, the quality deteriorated in low light. There’s a lot of noise in FHD stabilised footage and the 4K 30 fps footage is almost unusable. To add to the problems, there’s also sub-par audio quality in the recorded videos, especially when you compare it to an iPhone XS Max.
Battery Life: 7.5/10
While the Pixel 3 XL delivered above 5 hours of screen-on time. I found that its 3,430 mAh battery runs out of juice a bit too quickly, especially on days when I did not play any games or stream video.
While adaptive battery does wonders on the older Pixel devices, on the Pixel 3 XL, it somehow cannot squeeze out enough juice, forcing me to reach out to a charging point in case I’m heading out after a workday.
Unplugging the smartphone at about 8.00 am often saw the battery drop by about 40-50 percent by noon, and then drop even further by the time I leave work for home.
To make things worse, the fast charging did not really work as advertised.
The Pixel 3 XL’s 18 W fast charger takes about 25 minutes to reach 30 percent from a dead battery and then about 1 and half hours to get to 100 percent, which is a bit too slow compared to the OnePlus 6 that retails at half the price and offers a similar capacity battery that charges to 100 percent in a little over an hour using its proprietary charging tech.
Verdict and Price in India
The Pixel 3 XL stands tall in terms of innovation, but it's also a reminder of how “synthetic” mobile photography is expected to become if other manufacturers follow suit. While the photographs it clicks are pleasing to the eye, I believe the photographs are just shy of looking too fake, something that I hope does not happen in the coming years.
With its scientific approach to mobile photography, Google with the Pixel is leading the pack right now, with the iPhone XS Max in second place and the Samsung Note 9 sitting in an uncomfortable third place. Comparing the camera samples of these ultra-premium smartphones (3 XL and the XS Max) to the premium segment (Note 9 et al) tells a good story about why consumers will continue to see value in such high priced devices.
The biggest problem with the Pixel 3 XL is its price. At Rs 83,000 for the 64 GB model, it's competing neck and neck with Apple's overpriced iPhones. Apple, for its part, at least offers brand value and a luxury product, Google is offering a stellar camera and display and an unmatched Android software experience, but, its battery falls far short of expectations and its design is anything but luxurious. Phones from Huawei, Oppo and OnePlus have nailed aspects of design and battery life that Google doesn't even seem to be able to grasp. These are details a geek like me just cannot ignore.
Tim Cook in an interview claimed that the new iPhones were worth their sky-high price because they replaced so many other gadgets you would otherwise carry with you. In a way, he was right, provided you appreciate and understand the quality that these smartphones deliver in terms of audio, video and photography.
In the case of the Pixel 3 XL, the only thing it really replaces is your DSLR. Is that enough to justify the premium that Google is demanding for it? If you can answer that question honestly, you'll know whether the Pixel 3 XL is worth your money or not.
If it's a great deal you're looking for, I'd suggest the Pixel 2 XL instead. It's selling for half the price of the Pixel 3 XL and will soon be getting the bulk of the latter's camera features.