by Craig Lloyd on
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Google is on its third generation of Pixel phones, after years of making the best Android-powered devices around. The Pixel 3 maintains its commitment to software and hardware quality, but tough competition and poor value make it hard to recommend.
The Pixel 3 is still the best Android device you can buy, assuming you want a “pure” software experience and you’re not impressed by some of the more flashy features from the likes of Samsung. That’s especially true if you’re looking for an excellent camera: despite the single rear sensor, Google’s optics and image processing are second to none.
But the $800 entry price—a full $150 greater than last year—is a huge bummer, especially if you’re an old-school Nexus fan used to at least some semblance of value. And if you’re platform agnostic, then Apple’s latest iPhone X models (including one that’s a bit cheaper) make a compelling argument against Google’s latest flagship.
Note that we’re reviewing the smaller Pixel 3, with its 5.5-inch screen. The larger Pixel 3 XL has almost identical software with a larger 6.3-inch screen, including an unsightly “notch” that allows its corners to rub right against the phone frame.
The Pixel 3 looks a lot like the Pixel 2 from last year, with a few small but crucial differences. On the front the phone’s screen has been stretched on the top and bottom, employing the popular curved corners to minimize bezels, a la Samsung’s Galaxy S and Note series. Luckily, this doesn’t mean the stereo speakers are out, as they’re present and louder than ever. The combination is appealing, even without using and any tricks to curve the glass or the screen.
Speaking of glass, the rear panel now uses it instead of metal on the original Pixel and Pixel 2. That’s good news if you’re a fan of wireless charging (which Google itself pioneered, then abandoned a few years ago, allowing Apple to make it into a headline feature). The Pixel 3 and its bigger brother are all compatible with standard Qi chargers, though the fast charging feature seen on Samsung devices for years is unaccountably reserved for Google’s own Pixel Stand and similarly licensed (and expensive) chargers. Google made a big deal out of highlighting the frosted glass on the bottom portion of the rear panel, keeping the Pixel’s two-tone rear aesthetics intact, but it’s impossible to deny that the phone is more fragile now.
Aside from the cheeky colored power button—mint green on my white-backed phone—the rest of the device is quite understated. A curvy, 7.9mm-thin body (if you trust yourself to handle an all-glass phone without a case) makes it easy to hold, and my average hands can easily reach every part of the screen. The Pixel 3 won’t turn any heads, but neither will it turn them away…which might be more than you can say for the notch-packing Pixel 3 XL.
Google seems oddly hesitant to talk about pure hardware, perhaps because most of the flagship Android phones have nearly-identical internals at this point. But for the record, the Pixel 3 is using a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 processor and a 2160×1080 OLED screen. That’s a bit wider than standard 16:9, so videos can either display with black bars or be slightly zoomed in. The onboard storage is 64GB for the entry model, sadly lacking the option to extend it with a MicroSD card.
There’s one specification that’s strangely low: the RAM. At only 4GB, it’s rocking only half of the memory of the latest Galaxy Note phone. That being said, I haven’t seen the dramatic drop in performance that others have. While it can’t keep as many programs in running memory as my Note 8, those that do need to reload do so in about a quarter-second. It’s the kind of performance hit you probably won’t notice unless you’re looking for it—or you’re hoping to play the latest high-end games on your phone.
The Pixel phones are sticking with a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner, and why not? It’s still amazingly fast and accurate, not to mention easy to find on the smaller phone’s frame. Google hasn’t augmented this with any face or iris scanning tech, but after trying both Apple and Samsung’s implementations, I can’t say I miss either. They did borrow one element of competitors’ design: the headphone jack is missing for the second year in a row. At least Google includes a USB-C-to-headphone jack adapter in the box, and this year you get some dedicated USB-C headphones, too.
The Pixel 3’s radio should work with any GSM carrier, and both of the major CDMA carriers in the US, Verizon and Sprint. In fact, Verizon is the only place aside from Google that will sell you a phone directly—but there’s no reason to go through that hassle when you can get the same device, unlocked, with the same interest-free month-to-month payments.
Google’s phones are the first to get Google’s software, thanks to priorities. That would be Google’s Android priorities and its competition’s lack thereof—most smartphone makers are barely even willing to admit that they’re still using someone else’s operating system, hidden as it is under a cake’s worth of interface layers. With a couple of happy exceptions, most new Android devices are still running the year-old Oreo.
Android 9 “Pie” is amazingly fast on the new phones, and Google’s understated user interface is easy to get used to, if a little bland. One thing I didn’t like was the switch from Android’s familiar three-button control scheme to two, replacing the app switching button with a swipe-up or swipe-to-the-side gesture. Technically it could save a few fractions of a second, but I found the finicky switching between apps to be less precise than was probably intended. (It’s possible to reverse this behavior by disabling Google’s Pixel launcher with ADB, but I tried to stay as close to a “stock” experience” as I could for the review.) Between this, and a less-than-intuitive method of using dual-screen apps, this new implementation needs work.
The Pixel phones also have an odd leftover from their HTC design DNA: a squeeze-to-launch function. Squeeze the bottom of the phone to a varying degree and you can launch the Google Assistant. But this is awkward at best, and accidental at worst. I was frustrated that I couldn’t bind this function to something like the phone’s flashlight, too—it’s Assistant or nothing. I turned it off after a day.
One of the features that’s exclusive to the Pixel series is built-in call screening, which uses Google’s speech-to-text magic to block unknown numbers, answer with a robot voice, and show you a live readout of what the person (or robot) on the other end is saying. It’s neat, and tempting if you’re getting a dozen spam calls a day. But the feature still demands your attention when a call comes in, so the only annoyance it’s really saving you is the mechanical act of answering. A neat trick, but not a game-changer.
Android 9.0 includes a few more features that you may or may not find on other phones, if you can find any that run it yet. The adaptive battery is a highlight, automatically adjusting the amount of system resources given to specific apps based on how often you use them. It’s an exciting option in theory, but not very user-facing: it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s actually benefiting you. The Digital Wellbeing suite is more interesting. It lets you know when you’ve used a certain app too much, and you can put in timers and alerts that tell you to cool it. If you’re interested in weaning yourself off of “device addiction,” Pie is happy to oblige.
But overall, the clean interface and fast performance is the best reason to choose a Pixel 3 over a Galaxy S9 or similar is the cleanliness of the interface and the assurance of near-instant updates from Google. Every Android competitor is still falling short.
The Pixel 3 packs a 2915mah battery, which doesn’t sound like much. But considering that this is the smaller of the two Pixel phones on offer, and it’s under 8mm thick, it really is a pretty impressive bit of engineering. Unfortunately, it looks like the hardware is plenty power-hungry anyway: I struggled to get a full day’s use out of the phone without reaching for a charger. That may improve with the Adaptive Battery software feature, but it seems to be pretty consistent after a week or so. I’m skeptical.
At least getting your juice back isn’t difficult. The phone supports super-fast 18w charging via its USB-C port, which can go from “oh God I’m dying” to “I can make it to last call” in about 20 minutes. But as someone who’s been used to wireless charging for years, I can’t help but feel miffed that Google restricted fast wireless charging to those chargers for which it gets a cut. Part of the appeal of Android over iOS is that it can be used with a bunch of stuff you don’t necessarily have to get from the manufacturer. Google trying to make its Pixel brand more exclusive feels like a betrayal.
The third-gen Pixels have only a 12.2 megapixel camera on the rear, even on the larger XL model. That’s surprising, since there’s something of an arms race going on right now, and multiple rear sensors and lenses are the weapon of choice. Amazingly, the Pixels manage to meet or beat the latest Galaxy and iPhone models despite this apparent handicap.
Google’s camera software can catch clear, sharp photos with excellent depth of color. And it does this with auto-focus that’s incredibly fast, whether you’re shooting landscape or something only a few inches away. The photos from the rear camera are so good that you won’t miss a zoom or wide-angle option. The single lens means that some of the more popular features, like a “bokeh” background blur, are technically cheating with software processing. But the results are so dramatic you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
The “Night Sight” function, which brightens low-light photos immediately and to an astonishing degree, technically isn’t released yet. But I got a chance to play with it thanks to a leaked APK. It’s impressive, to be sure: with a steady hand, you can get a shot that’s practically Photoshop magic in about a second. It’s nothing you couldn’t do your own with the right tools, but seeing it done automatically and almost instantly is another highlight. It’ll be a big plus for people who take tons of photos in every possible environment.
Oddly, the Pixels use two cameras on the front: one standard, and one wide-angle, both using 8MP sensors. These aren’t quite as amazing as the rear camera, but they’re still among the best available. The ability to zoom in and out, switching dynamically between the available lenses, is particularly handy. Selfie-lovers will appreciate it. The bottom line is that, if you want the best cameras around on any phone platform (and you’re willing to pay for them), the Pixel phones are the ones to get.
The Pixel 3 is a good-looking upgrade over its predecessor and an undeniable leader in the field of high-end Android phones under six inches. But it’s also eight hundred bucks. The improvements versus the Pixel 2, namely a bigger screen, wireless charging, and some other creature comforts like wireless charging and louder speakers, don’t justify a $150 increase in price. The fact that other phones are also coming with astronomical price tags doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.
If you’re looking for clean Android software with fast updates or the best possible cameras you can get in a phone, it might be worth the expense. But if you’re still using an Android phone from last year (and especially one that has cameras that are still brilliant), there’s very little here that compels an upgrade.
Android die-hards on the fence can wait another year for a Pixel 4, or perhaps investigate some interesting alternatives, like the upcoming OnePlus 6T or the Razer Phone 2. iPhone lovers won’t have an undeniable reason to swap over, as cool as the camera and call waiting features are. Anyone else probably won’t have a reason to give these phones a second look, unless they happen to step into a Verizon store.
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