GOOGLE’S HARDWARE has served as a platform for the best example of its software for devices like the Nexus 7 tablet through to the Pixel phones.
With the Pixel 3 XL, the search giant’s new flagship phone, this trend continues. But at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the new Pixel XL is but an iterative upgrade over its predecessor. And you be right, in part, as it’s full of little changes,
Yet those all add up to make the Pixel 3 XL one of the most accomplished phones Google has made, with a few caveats. Onwards, dear reader.
Evolution not revolution is the name of the game with the Pixel 3 XL’s design. It’s pretty much the same size as the Pixel 2 XL, but this time it has a more rounded chassis and a smooth glass back rather than a textured metal rear.
This has a lovely silky feel and makes the handset nicer to hold if a tad is more slippery than its older sibling. The glass also equips the Pixel 3 XL with support for wireless charging, which can be done using the Pixel Stand that also turns the phone into a pseudo smart speaker with the Google Assistant listening out for commands.
Speaking of speakers, the stereo audio blowers are present and correct, with the top speaker squeezed into the Pixel 3 XL’s slightly controversial notch; more on that later. Even with the speakers, the Pixel 3 XL rocks IP68 certification, so can survive a drop in the bog or a swim in someone’s pint.
Those speakers kick out a solid amount of volume with decent sound quality when turned up. They aren’t perfect, though, as at lower volumes and using less than broadcast-quality audio sources, say YouTube over BBC Radio, some higher-end frequencies seem to fuzz and distort a little.
The back also vibrates at any audio level, which is ok if you’re happy with Google using the chassis as an amplifier, but it could annoy sensitive types and is arguably not up to scratch for an Android phone that starts at £869.
Then again, you’re more likely to be doing any serious listening through headphones.
But a reminder: Google has stuck to its guns in shunning the 3.5mm headphone jack, and while you do get a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box, you’ll most likely want to opt for a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Alongside the USB-C port sits a SIM card slot and on the phone’s right-hand side – both the lower sides of the handset are still squeezable to activate the Google Assistant, by the way – you’ll find a volume rocker and a colored power switch.
On our Clearly White review unit, the button was a fetching neon apple green; on the Not Pink handset it’s orange, and it’s black on the Just Black model.
It’s a neat touch and helps elevate the looks of the Pixel 3 XL above its predecessor. The phone is not as striking as the Note 9 or the Mirror Black OnePlus 6, or indeed the iPhone XS, but it’s pleasant enough to look at and fondle… until you get to the notch.
Google has upped the Pixel 3 XL’s screen size to 6.3in, a tad larger than the Pixel 2 XL’s 6in the display. To do this it has had to opt for a screen notch.
We’re ok with notches, especially slimmed down ones found in the likes of the OnePlus 6, one of our daily-driver phones, and Huawei’s current crop of handsets. But on the Pixel 3 XL it’s a chunky notch that’s rather ugly – everyone we’ve shown the handset to immediately comments on the notch and not favorably.
It doesn’t help that by holding one of the aforementioned speakers and the front-facing dual-camera array, it looks a bit like a small robot face is ogling you.
You can hide it by having a virtual bezel put in place but then you’d be wasting the extra screen space having it provides.
Not that Google does much with the real-estate given it doesn’t exactly pack in extra notifications on either side of the notch.
Nor do the extra 0.3in of screen space allow you to see more while web browsing and the notch eats into the side of videos when they’re made to fill the entire display.
Even with the notch, the Pixel 3 XL still has a decent-sized bottom bezel that holds the other stereo speaker, so this is not a leader in screen-to-body ratio. The display does run pretty much to the edges of the handset’s sides, but it doesn’t curve into the body like the pOLED panel of its predecessor.
Thankfully, Google has done away with that panel, which had strange color shifting when viewed off-axis and had a fairly muted color pallet. Instead, Google has opted for a straightforward AMOLED display.
Sporting an 18:9 aspect ratio, the Pixel 3 XL rocks a resolution of 1440×2960. Everything you’ll ogle on the display will look sharp and clear, with accurate colors, decent contrast, and solid brightness.
The display doesn’t quite wow like Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Infinity Display does in terms of color saturation, nor can it beat the iPhone XS for peak brightness.
Nevertheless, the panel supports HDR and has three color modes to choose from: Natural, Boosted (for folks who like more saturation), and Adaptive (which is the mode we went for as everything looks very presentable in that setting).
All in all, the Pixel 3 XL’s display is rather nice if not leading the pack for flagship phones.
Performance, battery life, and software
Like most other Android flagships, the Pixel 3 XL comes with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, an upgrade over the Pixel 2 XL’s Snapdragon 835, which was no slouch. The Snapdragon 845 is due a refresh, likely at the start of 2019, but it’s still the top chip in Qualcomm’s repertoire.
Said SoC is paired with 4GB of RAM, which is fine albeit somewhat behind the curve when it comes to other flagships; the OnePlus 6 has 6GB as standard, and the Note 9 rocks 8GB at the high-end.
In Geekbench 4 tests the Pixel 3 XL hit 8,393 in the multi-core test and raked in 2,376 for its single-core score. Those are perfectly acceptable figures but it can’t compete with the might of the iPhone XS’ A12 Bionic, and even the much cheaper OnePlus 6 will outpace it as well.
But such benchmarks are pretty arbitrary. In real-world use the optimization Google has done with Android on the Pixel 3 XL means it slides through apps and menus like we imagine a greased snake would through the hands of that one person we know who always has sweaty palms.
It’s pretty much the smoothest running Android phone out there, though we’d say the OnePlus 6 is pretty much on par with its lightly customized take on Android.
Everything loads fast with the Pixel 3 XL and even with a slew of apps open there’s no hint of slowdown. But then we’d expect nothing less of Google given how slick previous Pixels have been.
Of course, it helps that Google has pretty much the best take of Android 9 Pie running out of the box here, with the Pixel Launcher added on top.
There’s a whole range of nips and tucks made to Android, though it’s not a dramatic departure from Android 8 Oreo.
Gesture control seems to have crept more into the default interface of Android. A single swipe up on the home button now presents recently used app icons, a search bar, and the panel of the most recently active apps; a double swipe up is now needed to access the app tray, while a single swipe and hold allow open apps to be navigated in a fashion similar to iOS 12.
It doesn’t take long to get used to and gives Android Pie a more modern touch. And while iOS still feels superbly intuitive to use and looks good at the same time, Android has pretty much caught up these days, though it still offers a slightly different experience given its more open nature.
What the Pixel 3 XL does showcase well is how neatly all of Google’s services and apps integrate. Getting stuff done in Gmail and attaching files from Drive is wonderfully simple while backing up pics to the Photos app with all its intelligent tagging and management tools is likely to remain much appreciated by snap-happy folks.
Android Pie also has plenty of smart features under the surface like improved Adaptive Brightness and bolstered security, and App Actions which serve up shortcuts to the most used functions in your apps, say your most visited Slack channel, within the app tray.
Google has also introduced Digital Wellbeing, a suite of features that lets you know how long you’ve spent looking at your phone and apps. The idea is to effectively nudge you to take a digital detox if needed, by setting time limits on how long you can use such apps. We ignored this because screw it, tech is part of our lives.
There’s also an incoming semi-integration of Google Duplex, a human-on-the-phone mimicking AI system. On the new Pixels, it can effectively answer phone calls on the recipient’s behalf from non-whitelisted numbers, explain itself to the caller and ask a few questions while transcribing the answers given by the caller and serve them up to the Pixel 3 user. From the transcription, the user can then decide whether to accept the call or not.
This feature wasn’t available in the UK at the time of writing but it could be the panacea to nuisance calls we’ve been waiting for: bravo Google, if you can really pull it off.
And then there’s the Adaptive Battery feature which uses Google’s deep learning smarts to work out the apps you’re most likely to use and limit the electrical juice going to those you don’t use as much.
Perhaps we’ve not been using the Pixel 3 XL for long enough, as we found that the 3,430mAh battery pack didn’t really yield much more than a day’s worth of medium use. Fondle the phone a fair bit with the display brightness cranked and you’ll need to charge the battery come the evening time.
So battery life isn’t bad but it’s not class-leading by any measure. Neither is storage, which comes in either 64GB or 128GB options, both of which are perfectly fine unless you go mad on apps and massive files. It’s not expandable, but then Google’s cloud is so well integrated into Android that storage isn’t really a problem. Want masses of onboard storage? The Note 9 is the better bet.
Now we hit the Pixel 3 XL’s party piece. The camera in the Pixel 2 phones was one of the best smartphone snappers around, despite the use of a single lens.
The Pixel 3 XL sticks with a single rear camera setup, unlike almost every other flagship phone. Hardware-wise, the camera is pretty much unchanged from its predecessor; it has a 12.2MP sensor and a lens offering an aperture of f/1.8.
Optical image stabilization is present and correct but there’s no telephoto lens for analog zooming. So on paper, the camera prompts a shrug.
But then Google’s strength here is only partly in its hardware – the real photo wizardry comes with the smarts it applies it photography.
Using the custom Visual Core image signal processor chip in conjunction with the search giant’s artificial intelligence (AI) smarts, the camera will once again snap multiple pics at a tap of the shutter button, analyze them and stick together the best pic the camera can conjure up.
Despite this arguably synthetic process, the results are fantastic. There’s plenty of detail, accurate colors, and contrast.
That being said, we reckon you’d be hard-pressed to spot the significant difference between photos snapped on the Pixel 3 XL and those on the Pixel 2 handsets. Equally, the difference in quality between comparison photos we’ve seen snapped on the iPhone XS isn’t particularly noticeable.
When it comes to the very best phones from Google, Samsung, Apple, and Huawei, what separates their photography chops will mostly come down to a matter of preference – Apple tends to err on the neutral side, for example, while Samsung tends to push for more color saturation.
Compared to the OnePlus 6 which offers a flagship-bothering camera array at a mid-range price, the Pixel 3 XL trump’s it with slightly more accurate colors and more detail. But for causal smartphone photography, the difference isn’t night and day, unlike the price tags.
Nevertheless, the Pixel 3 XL shows what a single-lens camera setup can do with some clever software and image processing behind it. And we reckon it’s one of the best smartphone cameras around.
Video is offered up to 4K at 30fps. While a smart mix of optical and electrical stabilization is on offer here to smooth out footage if your hands shake as much as a defecating dog, the frame rate is a tad lacking given other phones can capture 4K at 60fps. But other than that captured video was perfectly fine.
But there’s more to the story here, namely all the smart features Google has added into the new Pixels and of course the dual front-facing cameras.
Starting with the former, the camera now has a Top Shot option which snaps a slew of shots before and after the shutter button is hit, then serves up the best shot if it thinks you’ve missed the moment by say snapping a pic of you blinking rather than beaming a smile.
Talking of smiling, there’s a mode called Photo Booth that will, through the power of smart computer vision, detect when you smile to supposedly snap your best selfie without relying on you to hit the shutter button. These two features are a tad gimmicky but do showcase Google’s smart tech.
Another less-than-useful feature is the Playground mode which allows the augmented reality things, like an animated Iron Man, to be added into a scene and then snapped… not our cup of tea, but it might be for some.
A more significant feature is the Night Sight mode, which Google has touted adds more illumination to low-light shots. But it wasn’t available in time for testing, though low-light shots with the camera in its current state were fine.
Our favorite smart feature is the Super-Res Zoom, which gets around the lack of a second telephoto lens by tracking the natural motion of a user’s hands to collect extra image data and essentially fill in the gaps of lost detail when digitally zoomed in.
It’s a pretty cool example of how smart software can really be put to beneficial use, but the results aren’t as good as shots captured by smartphones with a telephoto lens.
Then again, the feature adds a good deal of flexibility into the images the Pixel 3 XL can capture and we doubt people not obsessed with photography will bemoan the digital zoom not standing up to optical equivalents; people who really care about detailed macro and zoomed shots will likely have DSLR cameras anyway.
And finally we the front-facing dual-camera array. Both have 8MP lenses, but one has a fixed focus with an f/1.8 aperture while the other uses a wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/2.2.
The idea behind the dual array is to deliver better portrait shots and allow for more people to be snapped in selfies. It works well, but we’re not convinced it’s a worthwhile feature unless you’re crazy for features; it certainly doesn’t justify the screen notch.
To be honest, we’d rather the rear camera had a dual-lens setup to allow for some optical zooming.
Without a doubt, the Pixel 3 XL has the smartest camera out of all the smartphones and is one of the best overall mobile snappers around. But then you’d expect that given how good the Pixel 2’s camera was and Google’s efforts in smart tech.
And that’s what the Pixel 3 XL is all about: smart tech neatly presented. It’s a fabulous showcase for what Android really should be like and it feels like a genuinely smart smartphone.
But should you get one? This is where things get tricky. If you want a pure-play best-of-Android phone no matter the cost, then fill your boots. If you’re a die-hard Pixel fan then you’ll have already pre-ordered.
However, for £869 for the base model and £969 for the 128GB version, the Pixel 3 XL is expensive, though not excessively so – looking at your iPhone XS Max.
While its software delivers, the hardware just isn’t as good as other phones in the same price bracket. The Galaxy S9 is a better-looking smartphone; the Note 9 has a better display at the ‘phablet’ end, and Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro is stupidly feature-packed.
Then, to once again labor the point, the OnePlus 6 offers a lot of flagship-level features, a very good camera array, has just received Android Pie, runs like a dream, and has plenty of storage, all with a price tag of £469. And that’s to say nothing of the upcoming OnePlus 6T.
So the Pixel 3 XL is up against some strong competition, including itself. Our hands-on with the Pixel 3, which we’ll review shortly, offers all the features of its larger sibling only with a slightly smaller and lower-resolution display. And it has no ugly notch, feels better in the hand to use, and starts at £739.
Still, if you buy the Pixel 3 XL and can live with the notch then we don’t reckon you’ll be disappointed; it’s a fantastic phone and sports lots of little changes that add up to make it one of the best Android gadgets around.
We just hope that next year Google will pull out the stops and present us with something that’s even more impressive and at least a little surprising.