Google's Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are quite possibly the most leaked smartphones ever, so when the company finally got around to officially announcing them earlier today, it had few surprises up its sleeve. Top Shot and some camera features such as Playground (the new AR Stickers) look really neat but generally speaking, the launch was a bit underwhelming for tech enthusiasts, despite the fact that the Pixel 3 line utilizes the best consumer-grade artificial intelligence Google ever created.
And while the only major visual difference compared to last year's Pixel 2 series is highly polarizing, coming in the form of a sizable display notch on the Pixel 3 XL, the new handsets handle much differently by virtue of the fact that they ditch the metal rear plate for an all-glass design with aluminum edges. As a result, Qi-based fast (10W) wireless charging is part of the package but the smartphones are slightly more slippery than their predecessors and it stands to reason they will break much more easily. In other words, only the bravest users will avoid slapping a case on their Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL units and probably regret doing so. On the bright side, the back panels of the newly unveiled handsets do look rather nice, even if Not Pink is the only interesting color this time around, and it's actually impressive how the all-glass build is actually less slippery than something like the Galaxy S9 and can even feel like the powdered metal finish of last year's phones.
The rear-mounted fingerprint scanner remains super-easy to reach, as was the case with the Pixel 2, and Android 9 Pie gestures work as well as they do on all previous additions to the Pixel family. Multitasking didn't appear to be an issue during our limited time with the two handsets but it remains to be seen how the phablets will handle switching between a variety of demanding tools in the near future when apps become even more power-hungry because as things stand right now, asking $1,000 for a phone with 4GB of RAM is a tough ask from tech enthusiasts, though those don't appear to be Google's target demographic anyway. Still, the Pixel 3 RAM management is extremely aggressive as our limited testing suggested opening the Camera app kills pretty much everything else running in the background, most likely due to the fact that Google's high-tech AI needs all the computational power it can get.
Speaking of imaging, the rear camera still produces excellent results with natural colors that are akin to those generated by the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL but our first impression is that Huawei's P20 Pro still has it beat and even the Galaxy Note 9 may be doing a better job in low-light conditions (which we weren't able to test). All things considered, it's hard to shake away the feeling that despite Google's AI magic, the company's philosophy of blending hardware and software appears to have left the former rather crippled. While the lack of the 3.5mm headphone jack is last year's news, the display notch on the Pixel 3 XL is truly hard to ignore, especially given how it results in a laughably oversized status bar that'll hardly ever be used to its full potential. So, while the Pixel 3 XL certainly delivers more screen in a similar form factor, it pretty much wastes most of that extra space created around its front-facing sensors.
Back to the good stuff: the dual front-facing stereo speakers are now much louder, the display is possibly the best we've ever seen (and scientists agree), and the vibration motors are now close to LG levels of stellar, with all of those positives being massive improvements compared to last year. In overall, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are the only smartphones offering a truly premium experience of the latest Android build and the only HMD may eventually deliver a Nokia-branded alternative to them. That should be enough to make them a popular choice among all Google fans, though the average consumer and tech enthusiasts who don't feel a particular affection for Alphabet's subsidiary may not be as convinced.
While there's no doubt Google delivered its best mobile devices yet, it's hard to think of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL as serious contenders for the title of the best smartphone of the year, which is something their predecessors certainly were, especially if you ask us. Even in this largely iterative year for handsets, other OEMs such as Samsung and Huawei have been doing more innovative stuff and while their software may not be as good as Google's, it's not far behind, and the same can't be said for Google's hardware relative to what the market already has to offer.