Google Pixel 3 & Pixel 3 XL Review - Style Over Substance

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By Nick Sutrich October 18, 2018, 10:00am
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Google Pixel 3 series takes two steps back for every forward one.

Google’s Pixel line is no stranger to controversy, and this year is no exception. Each year it seems the Pixel faces some big criticism for design decisions; the original release looked too much like an iPhone, with big bezels and all. Last year's Pixel 2 removed the headphone jack, despite Google criticizing other manufacturers for doing it just a year prior, and had a bevy of quality control issues from day one. This year Google is adding in a notch, something many people have been negatively outspoken against, and has made a large number of polarizing design changes, both in Android and their commonly used apps. The Pixel 3 with Android 9 Pie in 2018 represents a very different experience from the Pixel 2 with Android 8 Oreo from last year, but is that a good thing? Let’s check out Google’s latest models and see how they turned out.

Google Pixel 3 Video Review

Google Pixel 3 Specs and Unboxing

Google is once again offering two models that feature identical specs with different sizes. Both models are available in Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink colors. The smaller Pixel 3 retails for $799 with 64GB of storage, and $899 with 128GB. Neither phone supports expandable storage. The larger Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 for 64GB of storage, and is also available with 128GB of storage for $999.  Just like last year, the larger Pixel 3 XL sports a taller aspect ratio, with a large 6.3-inch Quad-HD 18.5:9 HDR OLED display (523 PPI) and a deep notch up top. The smaller Pixel 3 features an 5.5-inch 1080p 18:9 HDR OLED display (443 PPI) with no notch. The Active Edge feature that Google debuted on last year's devices is still here on both of these models as well, and you'll also find Gorilla Glass 5 covers the front and back of each. There's no horsepower difference between the phones, with each powered by the same Snapdragon 845 processor and 4GB of RAM, and both sport the Pixel Visual Core along with the new Titan M security module inside. The smaller Pixel 3 sports a 2,915mAh battery, while the larger ups that to 3,430mAh to make up for the screen size difference.

As expected the USB Type-C port is the only one available on the phone, but Google has made up for a big misstep from last year by providing wireless charging on both of these devices. That USB Type-C port sports USB 3.1 speeds and USB Power Delivery 2.0. Both devices are more or less the same size as last year's, which is a good thing given the screen size increase on both. The smaller Pixel 3 measures in at 145.6mm tall, 68.2mm wide and 7.9mm thin, with a weight of 148g. The larger Pixel 3 XL is 158mm tall, 76.7mm wide, 7.9mm thin and weighs 184g. On the front is a pair of 8-megapixel cameras with 1.4um pixels and a 1/3.2 size sensor. The main one has an f/1.8 75-degree FoV lens with PDAF, while the secondary is behind an f/2.2 97-degree FoV wide-angle lens. The back of the phone only sports a single camera, despite most phones using at least 2 cameras on the back nowadays, with many competitors moving to 3 or more for different angles and effects. This single camera is the same 12.2-MP sensor from previous years, sporting 1.4um pixels, an f/1.8 76-degree FoV lens, dual pixel PDAF, as well as OIS support.

Google is including a brand new pair of Google-branded Pixel USB Type-C earbuds, which visually resemble the Pixel Buds in every way, except for the fact that they are wired instead of wireless headphones. In addition to this, you’ll also find a higher quality USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter (compared with last year), a USB Type-C to Type-A dongle for USB OTG and easy phone switching functionality, a USB Type-C to Type-C cable, and an 18W power adapter as well.

Google Pixel 3 Display

Last year we had a big dichotomy in display size, shape and even the manufacturer of each. This year both devices utilize a taller display, although the Pixel 3 XL's notch has forced Google to make that display a slightly taller 18.5:9 aspect ratio, while the smaller Pixel 3 is an 18:9 ratio. The Pixel 3 XL features a Samsung-made OLED display, while the smaller Pixel 3 sports an OLED manufactured by LG. Both of these displays are considerably better than what was put on the Pixel 2 XL last year. While that device didn't have a bad screen, there were plenty of traits that were less than ideal, including weird color shifting and an overall “dirty” looking display because of OLED pixel inconsistencies. This year that's all gone, replaced with a significantly better panel in every way, including even better brightness levels than last year too. This includes perfect white balance, perfect black levels, and a 100,000:1 contrast ratio.

The display still falters on the Pixel 3 XL, where a cool color shift appears when tilting the phone at any angle. There’s an immediate shift as the device is tilted, and a very blue hue makes its way across the screen when viewed even slightly from the side. This is certainly disappointing, but it's not as extreme as last year's Pixel 2 XL, and in the end, it's not an experience-breaking effect. Color purists will definitely be annoyed, especially since it shows up most on white backgrounds, which Google has switched to almost exclusively across its updated app portfolio with the new Material Theme design language. Dark mode in supported apps will make this less noticeable, but it’s definitely still there.

Another issue with the Pixel 3 XL’s display is, unsurprisingly, the notch cut out of the top middle of the screen. Google has effectively brought the display to the edge on 3 out of 4 sides, sporting some of the smallest bezels on the market, but the oversized notch up top is a very polarizing way to achieve this. Part of the issue is that it’s very tall, and Google was actually forced to make the status bar twice as tall as on other Android phones. This makes the extra display area feel less effective than other phones with notches, and to make things worse, Google has allowed content to traverse into this display area with the notch cut out.

This looks worst when watching content in YouTube, where videos can be zoomed to fit the panel, leaving a giant piece of the video removed on the left side. Video is not centered on the screen because of the way YouTube handles different aspect ratios, but this is not present on any other Android phones we’ve tested this year. Zooming into full screen makes things worse, as it’s now fully left-aligned, with a giant notch cut out of the video itself. Why Google has allowed content to traverse the notch is a bit odd, considering how much it impedes on content, and just genuinely looks terrible all around. Google has stated they will be issuing an update that solves some of these issues, but for now, are still a problem.

Google has slightly enhanced the always-on display screen in Android 9 Pie, but this is not a Pixel 3-exclusive feature. When the phone is locked, the always-on Ambient Display feature shows the current time, the next upcoming calendar event, and icons for any notifications that are awaiting you. At the bottom you'll also find the Now Playing featured, which debuted with the Pixel 2, and will show the artist and track name for any music playing that the phone can hear. This feature does not use data in real-time, rather, it references a database of songs stored deep in the phone. There's no customization for these features at all though, so unlike other manufacturers who allow you to fully customize this screen, Google's is simply something you enable or disable with no additional options.

While it's not something that ships with the phone, Google's new Pixel Stand wireless charger unlocks a whole host of new features related to the improved screen, including an always-on clock, and the option to use it as a digital photo frame while the phone is charging. It can also act as a sunrise alarm clock, in which the screen slowly brightens a warm color as music plays, providing a more gentle way to wake up over a period of time rather than using a loud, stark alarm noise.

Google Pixel 3 Hardware and Build

While Google has certainly minimized bezels over last year's phones for both models, neither phone can claim to have small bezels compared to so many other phones released in 2018, particularly in the latter half of the year. Both devices sport some pretty large bezels for a 2018 device, but this is all due to Google's use of stereo front-facing speakers on both devices, as well as the new dual camera setup up top. This results in a large chin on both phones, and an equal size forehead on the smaller Pixel 3 as well. Google’s use of a notch cut out on the Pixel 3 XL’s display will surely draw the ire of more than a few folks, particularly because it’s such a tall notch. Most devices keep the notch visually as tall as the status bar up top, but Google had more to cram into this notch than most OEMs do, opting for a taller notch rather than a wider one. As it stands only a few icons can be displayed on either side of this notch, and extending its size would have only made this worse. Allegedly, the smaller Pixel 3 was originally set to have a notch as well but was canceled due to design issues because of the smaller physical footprint of that phone.

Unlike last year, both devices feature flat OLED screens on the front, and a nearly identical aspect ratio as well. Stylistically, these phones look almost identical to last years Pixel 2 XL, sans the curved glass, which is to say they look wholly unique from most other smartphones. The first two generation Pixel devices featured a glass panel on the back of the phone, taking up the top 1/5th of the back, while the rest of the phone was metal. This year, the back is all Gorilla Glass 5 on both devices, with a similar look and feel to what we saw last year. That top 1/5th of the back is still shiny glass, but this time has an oleophobic fingerprint-resistant coating to keep it shiny and clean looking, while the bottom 4/5ths of the phone sports a fogged glass texture. This texture is smooth to the touch, more like a ceramic or powered metal feel than anything, and allows Google to finally have wireless charging support in its Pixel lineup. Wireless charging is something we haven’t seen since the Nexus 6, as that was the last Google-designed phone to feature plastic construction since metal phones cannot currently be wirelessly charged.

This fogged glass texture features curved edges that align with the curved edges of the frame of the phone, and look elegant and beautiful in a way the metal designs didn’t. This coating also pads the back a bit, making it sound dampened when placing on a hard surface, rather than fragile as a plain glass phone sounds. The downside to using this sort of material on the back is that it’s a bit on the slippery side, especially in colder or dry weather. Last year’s phones featured a nice, rough textured metal that was ultra-easy to hold, even in cold or dry weather. The sides are also a shiny, rounded metal now too, furthering the difficulty of holding the phone in colder or drier weather.

What is sure to be universally lauded as one of the best new features of both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are the new vibration motors that Google has sourced for its phones. These new tactile vibration motors feature an additional x-axis vibration for advanced feedback of UI elements, giving the feel of physical interaction with virtual elements. Touching parts of the UI now delivers a physical feedback that wasn’t there before, creating a layer of connection to virtual elements that really needs to be felt to be understood. A touch at the top of the status bar to drag down the notification shade now feels more like pulling down a small cover over the screen, somewhat similar to how it would feel to pull down the shade on an old roll-top desk. Typing on the keyboard now feels similar to physical keys, as each key delivers the distinct clicky feel that only a keyboard has. Pressing and dragging on the spacebar to move between letters also delivers a similar feel, providing a very distinct swiping-click as the cursor moves through each letter.

Google Pixel 3 Security

Most phones have sported fingerprint scanners for years now, and many are moving towards more advanced facial recognition as well, but Google isn’t changing the outer security layer with the Pixel 3; this time they’re changing things from the inside. Just a few months ago, Google launched its first USB two-step security key, the Google Titan, and they're following up that big security announcement citing that a similar key is now included within the Google Pixel 3. Titan M is essentially identical to what users can purchase for their PCs, with the exception that it cannot be removed from the Pixel 3 since it’s embedded in the circuitry of the phone. Titan acts as a hardware encryption and decryption chip for security keys, ensuring that your data is fully protected as it makes its way to and from Google’s backup servers.

Data is then stored on Google’s servers, fully encrypted, and can only be decrypted by the Titan M key on the Pixel 3. Google themselves does not have this key, and there’s no way to obtain it in any other way, meaning personal backed up data is totally secure from the moment it leaves your phone. It also means that no one else can get to your data, even in the event of a data breach to Google’s servers, and helps deliver peace of mind for consumers. We’re actively discussing future possibilities with Google on the implications of the Titan M chip, and how it relates to any possible security enhancements, both on the local system authentication level, as well as through applications and other server-related authentication tasks. To our knowledge, this chip has nothing to do with the bootloader or the ability to root the phone

Google Pixel 3 Performance, Multitasking, and Battery Life

One of the most puzzling decisions on the spec list this year is the use of only 4GB of RAM. With rare exception, every other flagship phone in 2018 has debuted with at least 6GB of RAM, and many with up to 8GB, expanding with the resolution increase in displays and the complexity of modern apps. Leaving the Pixel 3 at 4GB was definitely a mistake, and that’s not just to say for spec list reasons, as these phones are notably worse multitasking devices than other Android flagships in 2018. The Pixel 3 XL is worse than the Pixel 3 simply because of the sheer resolution difference between the two phones, and you’ll find that even the most recently used app will reload itself around 50% of the time when switching back and forth between two apps. This could be a bug or an issue with the new battery saving features in Android Pie, but these issues don’t seem to be present on other devices that have been updated with Android Pie thus far.

Despite the issues we had with apps reloading on subsequent launches, battery life on the Pixel 3 XL is good, while the Pixel 3 verges on stellar. While unexpected, given the battery size differences, the smaller Pixel 3 fared better in our usage than the Pixel 3 XL. We regularly got around 3-4 hours of screen on time (SoT) with the Pixel 3 XL in daily use, while the Pixel 3 managed 5-7 hours of SoT on most days. These were full days with around 18 hours off the charger, typically ending off in the teens for battery left at the end of a day, with Android Pie’s battery stats estimating a 21-hour battery life in total for both devices. Standby time is a definite improvement over previous generations, and light users will find the battery will easily last into the second day, with a slight top-up needed through the mid-afternoon on that second day. The Pixel 3 supports USB PowerDelivery 2.0, as well as 18W charging through the power adapter included in the box. This is certainly fast charging, but nowhere near the ultra-fast charging that many companies now include with their phones, which can range from 25-50W.

Google has made some seriously questionable navigation changes for that navigation bar at the bottom of the screen in Android. By default, Google's new navigation style is force enabled on both Pixel 3 phones and, as of this writing, there is no simple way to revert to the simple press-style buttons. These buttons feature a unique visual and navigation style that's sure to cause lots of continued conversation as to its design effectiveness. Much of the purpose of navigation gestures, as a whole, is to remove the navigation bar that takes up the bottom of the screen. Removing the bar would both increase screen real estate and help remove elements that have been known to cause image retention on screens. Google's design solves neither problem and instead attempts to “simplify” navigation by removing that square overview button completely.

The back button is also removed when on the home screen. The home button is now a wide pill icon, which can be tapped or slid to the right. This latter functionality is reserved for quickly switching back and forth between the foreground app and the most recently used one. In reality, this gesture is no quicker or easier to perform than double-tapping the square overview button, and in fact takes nearly a full second to switch between apps due to the gesture necessary to perform it, as well as the animation. This animation, at least, ties in nicely with the redesigned Overview multitasking screen, as it swipes the apps over like tiles.

Google’s new Overview screen redesign has been heralded by Google as being more useful because the new, larger tiles are “live” tiles, meaning they aren’t just scrolling screenshots, rather they are the actual app itself, scaled down into a scrollable row of tiles. The problem with this declaration is that it doesn’t actually seem to be true, as apps will frequently have to reload or refresh when clicking on them to open the app again. This newly designed Overview screen is truly a mix of good and bad, but either way you see it, it’s going to drastically change the way you navigate between apps on the phone. Google's redesign seems to be focused most prominently on cutting down the need to navigate home to launch apps that aren't found quickly in the list of recently opened apps. This is achieved by placing the app drawer at the bottom of Overview at all times. Swiping up on the pill will bring up overview, and a second swipe up on the bottom of the screen will open up the same app drawer you'll find on the home screen.

This is super handy for launching any app installed on the phone without having to navigate home first to do it. It doesn't quite have the same functionality as the home tray though, in that apps can't be placed into folders for easier logical placement, but thankfully the tray is alphabetically sorted. We critiqued this design heavily in our Android 9 Pie review, and in the several months we’ve been able to use Android 9 Pie and its overhauled Overview screen, we’ve come to the conclusion that people will generally fall into two groups, depending on how often they use multiple apps at once on a phone. Power users, who find themselves juggling more than 5 apps at a time, or folks who prefer to house two apps on the screen at the same time, will more than likely dislike this new change, as it makes it more difficult to quickly switch between that many apps without stopping to think about what needs to be clicked.

Having three different methods for launching apps also makes this screen confusing, as you’ve got a horizontal row of scrolling tiles, a row of 5 icons at the bottom that will change depending on how Google’s built-in AI determines you use apps, and a vertical app drawer at the bottom. As someone who frequently uses 10 or more apps at any given time, I found myself completely ignoring the horizontal tiles and instead only using that bottom row of icons, if I noticed the one I wanted was there, or just jumping straight into the app drawer. Folks who prefer split screen will have to now take several steps just to get to this feature, and it’s likely that most people will never know it exists at all, as the icon above the tile within the Overview window has to be long-pressed, and then the option for running said app in split-screen appears. Confused yet? It’s definitely not great design.

On a positive note, folks who use less than 5 apps commonly may just find this new design to be better, as the 5 most commonly used apps are typically found on the row at the bottom of the new screen. This allows for a quick swipe-up and single click to switch back and forth between apps found in this row. This new design also allows copying and pasting straight from the Overview screen without having to actually navigate back and forth between apps. This is a cool feature, no doubt, but seems to be a very niche reason for completely redesigning what was already a very successful way of multitasking between apps. As it stands, the combination of this Overview redesign, the forced gesture system that doesn’t solve any real problems, and overly aggressive background task management on the Pixel 3 XL, in particular, make this a phone that’s not super friendly toward users who enjoy multitasking.

Google Pixel 3 Wireless Connectivity, and Sound

Google is once again partnering with Verizon to offer a “carrier-exclusive” deal for Big Red, however, this really only applies to carriers in the traditional sense. As such, Google is offering the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL for purchase unlocked from the Google Store, as well as through its own Project Fi cellular carrier too. The unlocked version will work on any carrier in the US though, as it supports all the bands needed for all of them, and should work in most international markets too. Check Google’s official page to make sure it works in your country and on your carrier of choice before purchasing though. Signal strength is absolutely superb, and the radios used in these phones are the fastest you’ll find on any phone out there. It also supports all the expected wireless standards elsewhere too, including Bluetooth 5.0, dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds, and NFC.

Call Screening Feature

Aside from the usual connectivity options and the like, Google is introducing what could be the most revolutionary call-related feature in years: Call Screening. Call Screening is effectively the little brother to Google Duplex, the service that Google announced at I/O 2018 that can place entire phone calls for you in order to make appointments, reservations and other similar tasks. While that service is coming to Pixel phones in the near future, Google is starting by giving users a way to screen telemarketers and other unwanted calls with the touch of a button. When a call comes in you’ll find the usual green accept or red reject buttons, but in the middle is a new blue Call Screen button. This will launch a Google Assistant interface where Google Assistant talks to the caller, with it and the caller’s dialog in a transcript in the window. You can then help drive Assistant with the press of a few buttons, asking why the caller is phoning you, as well as asking to unsubscribe from their calling list, or politely hanging up. It’s sheer brilliance in software, and it adds a level of “magic” that can only happen with an AI-driven company like Google.

On the audio side, Google isn’t putting the 3.5mm audio jack back on the Pixel 3, but it is providing a higher quality 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter this year, one that’s not likely to break as easily as what was included in the initial batch of Pixel 2’s last year. In addition to this, Google is partly solving the whole “can’t charge while listening” debacle by providing wireless charging on the phone through the new glass back. While it’s not a 100% replacement for the ultra-fast charging and ultra-high quality audio that wired experiences can bring, these experiences can be far more convenient for the consumer, and at least are both available in a form, unlike with last year’s Pixel 2 devices.

Google is also packing a high-quality pair of USB Type-C earbuds in each and every Pixel 3 box, with a design that’s incredibly similar to last year’s wireless Pixel Buds. While the Pixel Buds were indeed wireless, they were a separate purchase, and as they were wireless in nature, needed to be charged before use. These USB Type-C earbuds feature high-quality drivers with deep bass, wide frequency response, and loud volume to hear even on an airplane without maxing them out. They also feature the ingenious loop design to better hold them in ears, as this loop is fully adjustable and will fit inside, essentially, anyone’s ear out there. While the wire might get in the way sometimes and is nothing special itself, just the typical headphone wire rubbery material, they offer a true alternative to requiring an additional purchase while not sacrificing on audio quality or comfort.

Google has been utilizing front-facing stereo speakers on its devices since the Nexus 6 launched, and it’s sticking by this design once again with the Pixel 3. We’ve seen improvements in speaker quality over the years, but these provide the largest gap in quality from one generation to another we’ve yet seen. These speakers will absolutely replace a cheap Bluetooth speaker for many folks, as they provide an incredible range of sound, with fully realized lows that sound deep and satisfying. The upper range of sound is lacking a bit, and, as a result, complex sounds tend to get a bit muddled on these speakers. They are unbelievably loud though, and will easily fill a room, audible in even a room with a fair amount of ambient noise.

Comparing them to other flagships, the Sony Xperia XZ3 may have slightly better speakers, but this is more because of their wider range and ability to reproduce highs better, as well as handle complex audio without losing parts of the sound. Compared to phones like the Galaxy Note 9, which features stereo speakers in a different configuration (small tweeter in the earpiece, full bottom-firing speaker), you’ll definitely notice a difference in quality immediately. Other, more novelty speaker configurations, like LG’s BoomBox speakers, don’t hold a candle to these in any way.

Sound design is really something special. Google has created all sorts of new sounds for system functions like plugging in to charge, making a knock-knock sound when putting the phone into the Daydream VR headset for the first time (signaling the need for setup on the phone), really pleasant typing noises, and plenty of other UI sounds that are often overlooked. It’s these sorts of little details that make the experience feel like a complete package rather than one being repackaged to fit a certain image.

Google Pixel 3 Software

Google's devices have always shipped with a stock version of Android, and while the Pixel line has added a few customizations here and there, it's still mostly a stock experience. Android 9 Pie has been the most polarizing Android release since the history of the OS, but this is mainly down to a few navigational and design decisions that may or may not bother folks individually. The quick toggles, located in the pulldown notification shade up top, feature a different visual design with reduced functionality. In previous versions of Android, users were able to click a drop-down arrow next to each icon to quickly change WiFi hotspots or swap Bluetooth devices without having to go into settings. This time around, each quick settings icon needs to be long-pressed to jump into that individual setting, navigating away from the currently active app and negating the purpose of the quick toggle buttons. The quick settings button has also been further hidden, now requiring two swipes down on the notification shade. These and many other design decisions throughout Pie are bizarre decisions that remove or reduce functionality and are certainly negative ones for users.

Many visual changes throughout Pie, and particularly the Pixel customizations of Pie, feel overly designed to look similar to an iPhone. This year we've seen Android's unique and excellent multitasking UI, a once-vertical carousel of many app tiles that was easily usable with one hand, transition to a confusing interface with a horizontally scrolling row of tiles that looks like an old iPhone design, showing only one full sized tile at a time. Much of the UI has either been whited out to fit with Google’s characterless Material Theme design language, removing so much of the color that made apps immediately unique and recognizable. Even the dialer has received this treatment, and is now devoid of any color at all, instead remaining a boring slate of white across the screen. Pie’s look and feel has turned further sterile on the Pixel 3 thanks to many of these changes, and represents an overly simplified look and feel.

SomePie features are welcome changes though, including some incredible new animations for screen transitions, a brand new animation for when notifications arrive, and lots of little nuances here and there. The biggest positive feature of Pie has to be the Digital Wellbeing dashboard, which works hand-in-hand with the new Adaptive Battery features of the OS, helping you to monitor and limit your use of apps as you so desire. Find yourself surfing social media too much throughout the day? You can see just how many hours you’ve spent on each of your favorite sites, and even put a hard limit in on the amount of time spent in each app. Timers can be set for any interval of time desired, and the app’s notifications can be silenced, or the app completely put to sleep so that it’s not wasting battery life in the background. None of this is Pixel exclusive, but this may be the first phone that you’ve used it on, so it’s well worth noting.

Google Pixel 3 Camera Hardware and Software

Since the launch of HDR+ on the Nexus 5 so many years ago, we’ve seen Google turn their camera software into the leading photography engine for their phones. Last year’s Pixel 2 was a mind-blowing update to the already excellent original Pixel, and this year promises to keep the quality high by adding in a few necessary modes. The first of these new modes is Top Shot, which received a lot of applause at the announcement event. Top Shot requires motion photos to be on, which, thankfully is a setting enabled by default. Last year this motion setting was used for the motion photos option, but this year it’s a far more useful design. When a photo is taken and motion is detected, you’ll get the automatic motion addition to the photo, which can be switched off at will in the gallery. Navigating to the hidden option of “Select Shots” in the top right menu brings up an awesome new interface that looks similar to slow motion, but lets you choose a moment out of the motion timeline to extract a picture from.

This is an awesome way to make sure the shot is always taken, no matter what’s happening, as it’ll grab 2-3 seconds worth of image data and allow you to choose from anywhere in this timeline. The downside is that the extracted photos are a paltry 1024x768 resolution or approximately 1-megapixel resolution. Every now and then the software will identify a particular frame that it marks as "recommended," which increases the resolution to 3-megapixels (2048x1536) instead of the regular 1-megapixel resolution. It’s certainly better than missing the shot, but the quality degradation on these photos is ultimately incredibly obvious, no matter how you view them. Sony’s implementation of this is definitely better in quality, as it will present several full-frame shots when motion is detected, but Google’s grants more control to the user, despite the significant loss in quality. Sony's implementation also auto-focuses between each burst shot, while most of the shots in the Top Shot timeline end up looking blurry or out of focus. 

Another awesome new mode is Super Res Zoom, which attempts to use machine learning to make up for the fact that there’s no optical zoom secondary camera on the back of either the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL. Last year Google proved many wrong by introducing portrait mode with a single camera, and despite the fact that it was only one camera, bested basically everyone in the business in its quality. Super Res Zoom doesn’t work quite as well, consistently, as that portrait mode does, but it’s an incredible alternative for a second camera without a doubt. This works through Google’s already existing HDR+ algorithm, which takes several shots at a time and combines them for added detail and dynamic range. Zooming in through the viewfinder will automatically activate this mode, with presets for 2x, 3x, 4x and 5x zoom in the zoom slider. Since there’s natural hand-shake introduced when zooming in like this, Google gets all the metadata it needs during this motion, and can intelligently combine them with that Pixel Visual Core processor inside the phone.

Results are definitely much better than the usual digital crop that takes place on other phones without a secondary camera, but for the most part, it’s not the increased quality that comes from a secondary camera with a telephoto lens. There were a surprising number of times where it was close in quality to some secondary telephoto cameras though. At night you’ll find the difference between Google’s implementation and phones with multiple cameras shrinks considerably, as many phones don’t use the smaller telephoto sensors in very dark conditions. There are exceptions, depending on the lighting conditions, where the Huawei P20 Pro typically has the best zoom detail of any phone, but the Pixel 3 regularly keeps up with most of them in the darkest of conditions when zooming. You won’t find quite the same quality difference while recording video, but the overall dynamic range, stabilization, and general image quality in video mode are fair trade-offs in most cases. A secondary camera with this tech would have been better, but this is impressive for what is available, hardware wise.

Google has given its camera software a facelift, matching up to the iPhone style interface that so many manufacturers have settled on. Positives of this are that the four most used modes are front and center and can be easily clicked on to jump to them. You can also swipe between modes, but this is a bit on the slow side, and really I only found it usable for swiping between photo and video modes. Many modes are hidden in the "more" section, which makes for a confusing lineup of mode locations. This is unfortunate, as they could have all been located in one easy-to-reach place, but instead Google seems to have gone with what many in the industry are using instead of coming up with their own, unique design that works better.

That new Photobooth mode is located in this more section, as well as the renamed Playground mode. Photobooth mode is an automated group selfie mode that will automatically take pictures when it detects smiles and other expressions, which is a pretty fun way to get group shots, especially with that new 97-degree wide-angle selfie camera up front. Playground is a rebranded version of the AR stickers mode that was in the previous Google Camera design, and works similarly as well, allowing you to put AR characters into the viewfinder to add some fun to your photos. These are all shaded realistically with the scene, and scale rather nicely too, and can be used on the front or rear cameras. You can even record a video with them, similarly to what LG implemented on the V40, and really is just a cool new feature. There’s still no manual mode for photos or videos, but the camera can save pictures in RAW format finally, so folks who prefer to post-process should be pretty happy.

Hardware wise, cameras are identical on both Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. That single rear-facing camera is the same 12.2-megapixel sensor from last year, with 1.4-micron pixels and an f/1.8 76-degree angle lens. It uses dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, and also has optical image stabilization. A new duo of cameras is up front, both using an 8-megapixel sensor with 1.4-micron pixels and a 1/3.2-inch size sensor. The main camera uses an f/1.8 75-degree angle lens with phase detection autofocus, while the secondary is a wide-angle 97-degree f/2.2 lens with fixed focus.

Google Pixel 3 Camera Results

As a result of using the same hardware as last year, we’re seeing results that are really no different from that phone. While photos taken from the Pixel 2 were mind-blowing last year, the increase in quality from competing phone manufacturers overshadows much of what Google has brought to the table. During the day the Pixel 3 excels at capturing fast-moving imagery thanks to a combination of the Top Shot mode, as well as Google’s excellent HDR+ processing, which constantly takes photos when the viewfinder is open and combines them for one super photo when the shutter button is pressed. This results in really tight imagery, even with movement, and you’ll find no ghosting on objects, even when they move quickly. This can be further enhanced by clicking to auto-track, which then follows an object in the viewfinder with incredible accuracy, ensuring it always stays in focus and is exposure-prioritized. An interesting new artifact occurs during some movement though, one that makes objects look slightly transparent when viewed up close. This is certainly a better alternative versus the double-image ghosting that other HDR methods can produce, but it’s definitely something that’ll look a bit strange the first time it’s noticed.

Surprisingly, dynamic range seems to have taken a back seat to some other flagships this year, and Google’s algorithms seem to have taken a turn towards underexposure more often than not. This results in a bit of black crush in very dark shadows, and even a bit more noise than I expected. Despite many in the industry crying for noiseless shots, noise can actually help make a photo look more natural or sharp, depending on how it is utilized. While the noise found in the Pixel 3’s photos isn’t bad by any means, it’s certainly surprising to see moments when other phones had zero noise in a shot and still retained detail, while the Pixel 3 ended up being a tad dark and noisy. Crop detail remains high in most shots, an area where Google has excelled for generations now and is typically the sharpest or second-sharpest in comparisons.

Color accuracy is really something special though, especially in low light, where the Pixel 3’s colors and contrast remain consistently excellent no matter the light. Outside of this though, low light was less impressive than previous years, and it seems that the hardware on this phone is likely holding back Google’s software from being as good as it can be. The detail loss in many scenes is pretty surprising, and quite a few photos end up looking softer than we remember happening last year. The general rule of thumb in low light seems to go like this: If you’re looking for sheer detail and amount of available light, the Huawei P20 Pro is typically the phone you want. Color accuracy almost always favors the Google Pixel, while the Galaxy Note 9 is the most solid overall low light performer after this latest camera update. Samsung definitely improved quite a few things with that update, improving detail and color accuracy in photos. It’s not able to keep up with the P20 Pro when it comes to producing inordinate amounts of light in what would otherwise look like a very dark photo, however, Huawei’s color accuracy definitely takes a turn for the worse in most of these types of situations because it uses the monochrome sensor to gather more light data in lower light.

Overall, the Pixel 3’s single rear camera is not nearly as impressive this year as it has been in previous generations. While it’s still excellent and is arguably the best when it comes to delivering solid performance when movement is happening, it seems to have taken a step back in dynamic range and low light performance as well. It’s surprising to see Google still use only a single camera around back, especially when two now reside up front. Many phones now ship with various tricks to help make up for small sensor size on phones, including ideas like dual aperture, much lower aperture ratings on lenses, and many OEMs now use multiple cameras to stitch together a composite image as well. Google performs some incredible composite imaging through a combination of camera software and that Pixel Visual Core, but that has its limits when only a single 12-megapixel sensor is providing the image data. What’s important to note though, especially in the low light photos, is that Night Shot mode isn’t available yet, and judging on Google’s sample photos, could completely change the game once it’s available. This is coming to the Pixel 1 and 2 though, so owners of those phones should also see a significant uptake in their low light shots when that lands.

Video recording is definitely fantastic and ranks among the best in the market as a whole. Video stabilization is done in a very similar, if not identical way, to the OnePlus 6. You'll notice the Pixel 3 looks slightly more zoomed in than the other phones, and that's done because the video is slightly cropped to give the software room to move it around when needed to avoid shakiness. The downside to this is that there's the distinct possibility that the video won't be quite as razor sharp as other phones with 4k recording, however, as we saw on the OnePlus 6, it's video so smooth it looks like the camera is sitting on a handheld gimbal instead of being carried around. When comparing daytime recording to the Galaxy Note 9, the Pixel 3 tends to slightly underexpose when many bright objects litter a scene, while exposure generally favors higher values at any other time, which tends to wash out colors and give the impression of low contrast. Colors are not as saturated as Samsung’s settings though, which at times looks better, but the overall washed out look of the Pixel 3’s video just isn’t as impressive as what the Galaxy Note 9 can deliver. When comparing to the HTC U12+ you’ll find the stabilization on the Pixel is far better than HTC’s in 4K, with more natural colors as well. The HTC U12+ tends to favor similar exposure values to the Pixel 3 but seems to get the colors just a wrong more often.

When comparing more high-contrast, lower light scenarios, you’ll find that, yet again colors are just better and richer on the Galaxy Note 9. The higher exposure values of the Pixel 3 bring out more shadow detail, all without blowing out highlights. In darker conditions, this heightened exposure bias tends to pull out more shadow detail and make videos look brighter than the competition. There were a few points where the Note 9 pulled out more detail in these scenes, but it’s likely the brighter picture of the Pixel 3 is preferable in these conditions. You’ll also notice how much cleaner Google’s stabilization is while walking, where small vibrations in the frame can be seen on the Note 9, but are not as visible on the Pixel 3. Stabilization next to the P20 Pro shows the night and day difference a good hybrid stabilization will grant, as the P20 Pro only uses hardware stabilization.

The Pixel 3 lacks 4K 60FPS recording though, meaning you won’t be getting both the highest resolution and smoothest frame rate, but that extra stabilization will likely make up for anything 4K60 could bring to the table for most people. Google is also quite a bit behind in the slow motion video department, and the Pixel 3 is only capable of 240FPS slow-motion video recording at 720p quality. The bare minimum in 2018 for a flagship is 1080p at 240FPS, and many can now record 1080p at 480FPS, or even up to 1080P at 960FPS in Sony’s case. The general lack of extra quality options matches up with much of the Pixel 3 experience in many ways though, so while it’s certainly disappointing, it’s not outside of the bounds of what we’ve now come to expect.

Google did surprise us with a second camera on the front though, something that a few folks initially thought puzzling. While the rear camera isn’t always the most impressive in the world, the front-facing cameras are absolutely the best in the industry, no matter the lighting condition or photography mode chosen. These cameras are sharper than any other flagship phone on the market, despite having the same resolution sensor as many other phones, and it usually has considerably better dynamic range as well. Colors are deeper and everything typically just looks better during the day. That new wide-angle sensor pulls in a considerably wider range of imagery than ever before, which can be toggled by simply pinching out in the viewfinder, or using the on-screen magnification options. Quality degrades with light, as expected, but colors remain generally excellent, even though blacks start to get crushed at lower light levels. This is similar to what we see on the rear camera and is probably a result of contrast being pulled too high during processing. Folks are sure to be super pleased with that new wide-angle camera, which features identical quality to the main sensor, but provides a 97-degree wide-angle view of the world, while the main front-facing camera is a 75-degree angle lens.

As we expected from last year, portrait shots from the front and rear cameras are still the best in the business. These results are particularly impressive this year considering how many companies are pushing multiple cameras for many reasons, not just portrait mode, yet Google still pulls in the wins with a single camera on the back. Ironically enough, portraits from the rear camera seem to be even better than the front, despite Google having a second camera on the front now. This is likely all down to the megapixel difference between front and rear cameras, as Google’s processing works on a per-pixel basis. The more pixels you’ve got to work with, the better the likelihood that processing is going to be more accurate.

Edge detection isn’t the only thing that’s better on the rear camera though, that bokeh effect is deeper, giving more blurred backgrounds and just looking particularly stunning in many cases. You can also use portrait mode on the new wide-angle camera, which makes group selfies all the more feasible. While it’s definitely a better front-facing camera than others out there, that doesn’t mean edge detection or depth perception is perfect. In fact, you’ll find that many phones show the same exact error spots in edge detection, no matter if they’ve got one or two cameras to use for portrait mode. Bottom line though: if you take a lot of selfies or are particularly in love with bokeh-style shots, this is the phone for you.

The Good

Much improved display over last year

Sleek and polished new body design

IP68 water and dust resistance (improved from IP67 last year)

Stereo front-facing speakers are quite possibly the best on any phone

New vibration motors are the best in the business and feel sublime

Call screening is a brilliant feature

Wireless charging

Included USB Type-C earbuds are fantastic

Point-and-shoot camera quality is phenomenal

Best portrait mode in the business, front or back cameras

Buttery smooth stabilized 4K video

Titan M chip is a big step toward a more secure ecosystem

Highly-rated support from Google

The Bad

Overview redesign in Pie is a step back in functionality

Gesture navigation doesn’t solve any problems

Options to use button-style navigation have been removed

Many design changes feel like the "iPhone-ification" of Android for no real reason

Some other options have been removed (quick toggles for WiFi and Bluetooth, etc.)

Poor multitasking performance, particularly on the Pixel 3 XL

Overly large notch on the Pixel 3 XL impedes on content

Fast wireless charging requires "certified" chargers

No 4k60 video recording options

Poor audio quality when recording videos

Slow motion recording is lacking quality and features

No 3.5mm audio jack

No support for expandable storage

High price for what it offers compared to the competition

Conclusion

If you want a no-nonsense phone that just works, this is what you buy. It truly has become the iPhone of Android, and will likely appeal most to users who aren’t interested in lots of options, tweaking the interface, or making the phone feel like a one-of-a-kind device that no-one else has. It’s the most solid hardware design we’ve seen from a Pixel phone yet, including a gorgeous new finish on the all-glass body, and ultra high-quality vibration motors that provide a deeper interaction with virtual elements than ever before. But is the Pixel experience worth $800 at a minimum, and $1000 on the high end? This price is even higher if you’re in Europe, especially, and considering the “no frills” nature of the Pixel, it’s becoming more and more difficult to recommend Google’s devices as a whole. For a long time, the Nexus and Pixel devices have been lauded for timely updates, including monthly security updates over the past few years, but we’ve seen those patches break things quite often, to say the least.

While there’s no telling if there will be quality control issues with these devices yet, there’s not exactly a great history of that, especially when taking last year into effect. It’s also hard to say that it makes more sense to pay more for an experience that restricts things so much when you can get a phone from OnePlus with more features for less money. We’ve also seen the smallest gap ever in the camera department, an area where Google lead for years but seems to now be stymied by their lack of truly new hardware or innovative use of multiple cameras like other OEMs provide. There’s very little here that makes sense to get over just about every other flagship phone that has been released this year, especially if features or options are what you’re looking for. This is a simple phone, and while it doesn’t quite fit in with the “no frills added” moniker, it definitely fits a vision that doesn’t match up with the Google we once knew.

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October 18, 2018, 10:00am
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