Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL Review: All the small things

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL improve on their predecessors in all the ways that count

The Pros

  • Greatly improved displays on both phones
  • Best haptics on an Android handset
  • New software features make the Pixel 3's camera even better

The Cons

  • Pixel 3 XL's notch could be less intrusive
  • Pixel 3 is $100 more expensive than Pixel 2
  • Included USB-C headphones could be more comfortable

To say that an ocean of digital ink was spilled analyzing the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL long before Google shared any official information is an understatement. Certainly, I was among the many that made the mistake of judging the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL before I understood the vision behind them, and, worse yet, before I had the chance to spend time with them.

The funny thing is, after using both phones for several days, I feel the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are a major achievement in smartphone user experience and interface design.

What they lack in bleeding edge hardware, they more than make up with thoughtful and considered features and software. Rather than packing its new smartphones with unnecessary additions, Google has honed them to a fine edge, prioritizing meaningful enhancements that make the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL easy, powerful and enjoyable to use. The result is two of the best smartphones of 2018.

Some preamble before we get into the heart of this review: to make this piece more concise and easier to read, moving forward I often refer to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL using the singular ‘Pixel 3’. Where applicable, I note any differences between the two phones. Minor physical and internal differences asides, the two devices are nearly identical, and, as such, the experience of using them is, for the most part, the same.

The Pixel twins grow up

Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL side-by-side

At first glance, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL look nearly identical to their immediate predecessors; in fact, viewing them from behind, it’s easy to mistake the two pairs of smartphones for one another. Upon closer inspection though, subtle improvements abound.

The most notable difference between the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 2 is the former phone’s new finish. To facilitate wireless charging, Google has added what it describes as a “soft touch” back made of Corning Gorilla Glass 5. The new back gives the Pixel 3 an entirely different feel when compared to the original Pixel and the Pixel 2. The new device feels secure to hold without having that too sticky feel that’s common with glass smartphones.

Google has also updated the Pixel’s signature two-tone design by rounding the corners where different elements of the design meet. It’s a small change, to be sure, but for the first time, the Pixel lineup looks like a mature consumer electronic rather than a nerdy gadget.

The bottom of the Pixel 3, showing SIM tray's new location

Additionally, Google has moved the SIM tray — previously located on the right side of the device — to the bottom of the phone, next to the USB-C port. The result is that the right side of Pixel 3 is now completely seamless.

Together, these small changes lead to a device that’s more refined than Google’s past efforts. Not only does the Pixel 3 feel better to hold and use than past Pixel smartphones, it feels premium in a way that even some other high-end smartphones do not.

That said, despite its new, more mature design language, the Pixel 3 retains the same sense of playfulness that has defined the lineup since its inception. That’s thanks to the phone’s new colour lineup.

Both phones are available in three colours: ‘Just Black,’ ‘Clearly White’ and ‘Not Pink’. Just Black aside, which looks a bit too prosaic without the splash of colour offered by the accented power button on the other models, Clearly White and Not Pink look equal parts fun and sophisticated.

The Pixel 3’s new and improved haptics are another major positive change that influence the feel of Google’s latest smartphone.

Except for the iPhone, there’s likely no smartphone currently on the market that has better haptics than the Pixel 3.

Everything on the Pixel 3 — from typing, to unlocking the phone, to using Android 9 Pie’s gesture-based navigation — feels incredibly satisfying.

If there’s only one area other Android manufacturers draw inspiration from the Pixel 3 lineup, I hope they copy the smartphone’s haptics. This is one category where Android phones continue to lag in comparison to the iPhone.

All told, in terms of fit, finish and aesthetics, the new Pixel is a significant improvement over Google’s previous efforts, and in combination with the phone’s software, which we’ll get to in a moment, it’s an absolute joy to use.

Hardware that works

By the standards of 2018’s other high-end smartphones, the Pixel 3’s internals are a no-frills affair. Like every other Android flagship released this year, the Pixel 3 comes with a Snapdragon 845 processor. Beyond that, there aren’t many features that jump out.

That’s not to say, however, that the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL don’t have new hardware features.

The phone’s marquee hardware addition is its new Titan M security module. The new chip helps further secure the Pixel 3 against malicious hackers by storing passwords and other sensitive material away from the phone’s more easily accessible RAM.

Moreover, like with the Pixel Visual Core before it, Google plans to enhance the functionality of the Titan M security module. For example, one feature the company plans to add will allow Pixel 3 owners to use their smartphone in place of a hardware security key to authenticate their identity on websites and apps.

Between the new Titan M security module and the Pixel Visual Core, which makes a return with the Pixel 3, Google believes the two phones have more than enough computing power to keep them running smoothly for years to come.

Even after opening almost every app I’ve ever owned on the Pixel 3, I wasn’t able to get the phone to slow down. I do wonder how well the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will age with only 4GB of RAM. For the moment, however, both devices offer a smooth and snappy experience.

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are available in 64GB and 128GB storage variants. As with the Pixel 2, Google is offering free unlimited Google Photos storage at full size. For Pixel 3 owners, this promotion is available until January 31st, 2022.

Other enhancements include IP68-certified water and dust resistance, instead of IP67 like with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, front-facing stereo speakers that are 40 percent louder and support for Qi wireless charging.

On the subject of wireless charging, if you don’t already own an inductive charging mat, Google’s new Pixel Stand, which the company announced alongside the Pixel 3, is excellent.

Priced at $109 CAD (it’s also available for free if you pre-order the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL through Google’s online store or any of Canada’s major carriers), the best part of Pixel Stand is that it’s more than a simple charging mat. Placing the Pixel 3 upon it unlocks several nifty features. For instance, should you own a Nest Hello smart doorbell, anytime someone is at the door, the Pixel Stand will route the doorbell’s footage through to the Pixel 3’s screen.

However, one of the Pixel Stand’s best features is the ability to act as a digital picture frame. Pulling images from Google Photos, the Pixel 3 will display photos of your friends, family, pets and recent trips. The software that powers this functionality is smart enough to display only the best images from each category. So you won’t, for example, see a picture of a receipt or photos that are blurry.

The Pixel Stand helped make wireless charging click for me. When I wasn’t endurance testing the phone’s battery, I almost always had the Pixel 3 on the Pixel Stand. That way, I didn’t have to worry about the phone’s battery if I went out for a night out with friends. I also enjoyed that the Pixel Stand opened up new functionality, which isn’t something we’ve seen with other first-party charging mats.

On the battery front, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL feature 2,915 mAh and 3,430 mAh capacity batteries, respectively. In my experience, battery life on the Pixel 3 was excellent. With both phones, I’ve been able to get all-day battery life with six to seven hours of on-screen time.

Improved displays

Both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL feature much improved OLED displays

Between the Pixel 2’s ample bezels and the well-documented issues with the Pixel 2 XL’s POLED screen, if there was one area where the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were a disappointment, it was with their displays.

Like with their other hardware components, the displays on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 won’t win a spec sheet battle. That said, what’s here is a major improvement over what Google shipped last year.

The Pixel 3 features a 5.5-inch display with 2160 x 1080 pixel resolution and 18:9 aspect ratio, while the Pixel 3 XL is equipped with a 6.3-inch display with 2960 x 1440 pixel resolution and 18.5:9 aspect ratio.

This time around, Google’s smartphones feature flexible plastic organic light emitting diode displays (POLED). Moreover, both displays support HDR — though not HDR10 and Dolby Vision — and the DCI-P3 wide-colour gamut (a previous version of this review incorrectly stated the displays are limited to sRGB).

As I mentioned, from a technical perspective, neither phone features the most capable display.

That said, they’re still excellent screens. Text and icons are sharp on the screens of both phones, and colour reproduction is accurate. Additionally, MobileSyrup‘s two review units haven’t exhibited any of the issues that were a hallmark of the Pixel 2 XL’s OLED display.

However, I can’t talk about the Pixel 3’s screen without also addressing the XL’s display cutout.

Typically, I don’t mind notches, but the Pixel 3 XL’s notch feels especially intrusive and inelegant.

It’s particularly noticeable when watching videos on YouTube or Netflix. Using YouTube’s zoom-to-fill functionality to make a video fill the entirety of the Pixel 3 XL’s screen, the phone’s notch cuts so deeply into the side of the frame it’s impossible not to notice.

The notch would be fine if Google included a sensible way to hide it. Instead, with the Pixel 3 XL’s current software, hiding the display cut out involves enabling Android Pie’s developer settings — which is not a simple toggle — and then finding the relevant toggle — which is buried among a variety of other options.

If you choose to hide the Pixel 3 XL’s notch, be prepared then to lose a not insignificant amount of usable screen real-estate. The developer option that hides the display cutout pushes Android’s status bar below the notch.

Big picture, the Pixel 3 XL’s notch is a relatively minor issue. The fact the Pixel 3 XL has both front-facing speakers and two selfie cameras is well worth the unsightly notch. Google is also likely to address the issues I mention above in short order, but it does feel like a blemish on an otherwise great phone.

2018’s best small phone

As a quick aside, the Pixel 3 deserves special praise. For those who love smaller phones, the Pixel 3, with its 5.5-inch screen and 68.2mm x 145.6mm x 7.9mm body, feels perfect.

If you prefer the look and feel of the Pixel 3, don’t feel like you’re missing out going for the XL’s smaller sibling. A smaller screen and battery notwithstanding, the Pixel 3 is every bit as capable as the Pixel 3 XL.

This is a departure from the Pixel 2, which, between its inferior haptics and older display technology, was the lesser of the two Pixel 2s.

The camera king returns

Like the Pixel 2, the Pixel 3 features a single rear-facing camera with a 12.2-megapixel sensor and f/1.8 aperture lens. What’s new here is an additional front-facing camera with an 8-megapixel sensor and f/2.2 aperture and wide-angle lens, as well as a variety of new software tricks.

There are almost too many new camera-related software enhancements to count, so instead I’ll mention the ones that have been personal highlights.

From a photography perspective, what Google has been able to do with the Pixel 3’s wide-angle lens is an impressive technical achievement. Typically with lenses as wide as the one on the Pixel 3’s secondary camera, image distortion is a foregone conclusion. It’s this distortion that makes wide-angle less than ideal for portraiture since it exaggerates human features like ears, eyes and noses, making them look unattractive.

That’s not an issue with the Pixel 3’s wide-angle selfie camera. It’s almost magical to watch as the Pixel 3 eliminates that distortion in real-time when you go to preview an image shot with the wide-angle camera. The result is that not only is the wide-angle lens on the Pixel 3 useable for selfies, it actually takes pretty great shots.

Another highlight is Google’s new ‘Super Res Zoom’ functionality. Neither the Pixel 3 nor the Pixel 3 XL feature a telephoto lens like the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, and yet you almost wouldn’t know that with Super Res Zoom.

The sharpness of shots I’ve been able to achieve with Super Res Zoom is something I haven’t seen with other digital zoom solutions. Blown up, the results aren’t as great as what you would be able to achieve with a telephoto lens, but when viewing shots on the Pixel 3’s screen, as well as social media, it’s difficult to notice any notable differences.

Yet another great addition is ‘Motion Auto Focus.’ This feature allows you to tell the camera to track a moving subject. It’s especially great when shooting animals and other skittish subjects such as small children, as it will ensure that the Pixel 3’s camera keeps autofocus locked.

The one camera feature I wasn’t able to test, because it’s coming in an over-the-air update post-launch, is called ‘Night Sight.’ When speaking to the capabilities of the feature, Google said Pixel 3 owners won’t ever again need to use their phone’s LED flash to take night time photos. It’s a bold claim, but if Night Sight lives up to its promise, it has the potential to make an already great camera even better.

As with last year’s Pixel 2, image quality on the Pixel 3’s camera is fantastic. Thanks to Google’s HDR+ software, dynamic range — the camera’s ability to record both the darkest shadows and brightest highlights in a single image — is among the best I’ve seen on a smartphone. Backlighting situations, in which the source of light is behind the subject, are a non-issue with the Pixel 3, as the camera will always manage to pull detail out of a shot.

The Pixel 3’s ability to accurately reproduce colours, particularly skin tones, is similarly excellent. At the camera’s native ISO sensitivity, there’s a very life-like and pleasing quality to colours.

All in all, the Pixel 3 captures beautiful photos. Moreover, with the software features Google has built into the camera, some of which I haven’t mentioned in this review, it’s easier than ever to ensure you capture the shots you want.

Android at its best

By my estimation, Android 9 Pie is the most polished version of Android Google has shipped in recent memory. New features like Digital Wellbeing help round out an already mature mobile operating system and make it better. As I mentioned earlier, Android on the Pixel 3 is smooth and snappy, and the addition of improved haptics help make Google’s new gesture-based navigation click for me in a way that it hadn’t before.

Post-launch, the Pixel 3 is set to get two features that, at least in the immediate future, will be exclusive to the Pixel lineup.

The first of these is Duplex. Google showcased Duplex to a lot of fanfare and criticism at I/O 2018. The feature is an extension of Assistant. It allows Google’s voice-activated digital assistant to place calls on behalf of the user in order to make restaurant reservations and the like. At launch, Duplex will only be available in select U.S. cities.

The Pixel 3’s other exclusive feature is called ‘Call Screen.’ This feature allows Assistant to answer incoming phone calls to help screen for spam. When activated, Call Screen will transcribe conversations in real-time, allowing Pixel 3 owners to jump in at any time in case it turns out they want to talk to the person on the other side of the line. Call Screen is launching first in the U.S. as well.

Neither of these features were available for me to test, so I can’t comment on how well they work.

With the Pixel 3, Google is once again promising three years of software updates and three years of security updates. Despite the company’s best efforts, different Android OEMs have widely disparate policies related to software support.

As with the Pixel and Pixel 2, one of the most compelling reasons to get the Pixel 3 is the fact that it will be among the first Android smartphones to get all the company’s latest and greatest software.

2018's best Android smartphone

Forget whatever preconceived notions you may have about the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

Using the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL is a transformative experience that reframes and contextualizes the design decisions Google made to create these devices. Since the company sent MobileSyrup its review units, there's not been a moment where the Pixel 3 hasn't surprised or delighted with some aspect of its user experience. What's here is a masterclass in how to design a smartphone that puts usability at the forefront.

Is the Pixel 3 perfect?

No.

But it gets exceptionally close, and that makes not just for one of the best smartphones of 2018, but likely one of the best smartphones Canadians consumers will be able to buy over the next couple of months and perhaps even far into 2019.

"There's not been a moment where the Pixel 3 hasn't surprised or delighted with some aspect of its user experience

9/10

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