Google Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3 review: Amazing cameras and top-notch user experience

The new Pixel Stand wireless charger turns the Pixel 3 (when docked) into a personalised smart display with quick access to Google Assistant. It will show your photos and also display album art if a music app, like Spotify is playing a song on the phone.
The new Pixel Stand wireless charger turns the Pixel 3 (when docked) into a personalised smart display with quick access to Google Assistant. It will show your photos and also display album art if a music app, like Spotify is playing a song on the phone. PHOTO: GOOGLE
The Pixel 3 smartphones come in three colours - black, white and a pale pink hue that is close to white.
The Pixel 3 smartphones come in three colours - black, white and a pale pink hue that is close to white. PHOTO: GOOGLE
Only a single rear camera on the Pixel 3, but it still remains competitive, thanks to Google's AI and software capabilities.
Only a single rear camera on the Pixel 3, but it still remains competitive, thanks to Google's AI and software capabilities. PHOTO: GOOGLE

The Google Pixel 3 smartphones have the best camera in the most helpful phone, according to Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh.

As taglines go, it is probably not the most catchy. But it says everything about how Google designed its latest Android smartphones - focusing on the camera and its Google Assistant voice-controlled smart butler.

Google is offering both variants of the Pixel 3 smartphones - the Pixel 3 XL (with a 6.3-inch screen) and the Pixel 3 (with a 5.5-inch display) - in Singapore. Except for the screen, both devices are identical in features and performance. Hence, this review will refer to them as Pixel 3, except when discussing the display.

CAMERA

Last year's Pixel 2 boasted one of the best smartphone cameras in the business, leaning heavily on software to enhance photo quality and create effects such as bokeh, where the background of a subject is artistically blurred while the subject stays in focus.

And despite multiple cameras becoming the norm in smartphones this year, Google has remained steadfast in having just a single rear camera on the Pixel 3.

In fact, looking at the specifications, the Pixel 3's rear camera appears identical to its predecessor. It is still a 12.2-megapixel camera with a 1.4μm sensor and a F1.8 aperture. It also has optical and electronic image stabilisation features to compensate for camera shake.

Google has instead added a second camera to the front selfie camera unit. This new wide-angle camera lets you adjust the camera's field of view from 75 degrees to 97 degrees, which means you can fit more people into a selfie shot.

Another new feature - Photobooth - involves the primary front camera, but is enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). Once you start Photobooth, the front camera automatically take a photo when you smile or make a funny face, as the built-in AI recognises when you are posing for the camera.

Building on its AI chops is Top Shot, which recommends a "best shot" based on machine learning. Google says Top Shot tries to find photos where subjects are smiling, with their eyes open and gazing at the camera. It works for both the front and rear cameras and is ideal for scenes involving plenty of motion, when you are likely to miss the perfect moment.

In my testing, Top Shot worked on a few occasions. But I do not always agree with its picks - I had a recommended photo where the subject had a finger up the nose.

Playground is the new name for the augmented reality (AR) stickers feature on the Pixel 3. Based on what the front or rear cameras are currently looking at, Playground helpfully suggests 3-D animated stickers to fit the scene. These stickers will definitely appeal to the younger crowd with characters from Star Wars and Marvel's Iron Man.

These new features are fun to try with friends and family and will probably make the greatest impression on mainstream users.

For those who are more into photography, the Pixel 3's rear camera continues to produce great crisp-looking photos with accurate and natural colours. There is little shutter lag and it is quick to focus.

If you view your photo immediately after taking it, there is a slight lag as the phone HDR+ (High Dynamic Range) feature stitches multiple shots (up to 9) to create the final image.

Like its predecessor, the Pixel 3 uses dual split pixels in its rear camera, together with machine learning to produce the bokeh effect in Portrait mode. It looks even more impressive this time round, with none of the artifacts that I had experienced in last year's Pixel 2 XL.

However, some may find the default bokeh effect a tad too dramatic at times. With the Pixel 3, these users can now change the focus and adjust the intensity of the blurring after taking the portrait photo, unlike the Pixel 2.

The new Super Res Zoom feature improves on the typical digital zoom feature available on smartphone cameras, by taking advantage of our less-than-steady hands to capture multiple images that are slightly offset from each other. These images are then combined using software to create a higher-resolution version of the image that is then used for the zoom magnification.

It certainly produced better photos of distant objects than the typical smartphone, but I am not sure if it can rival high-end smartphones with telephoto lens, especially at further distances.

Low-light photography was one of the strengths of the Pixel 2 smartphones. The Pixel 3 is just as good at night photography.

But Google has a new trick called Night Sight to further improve the camera's low-light performance. This feature reportedly merges up to 15 frames taken with low shutter speed to produce usable photos in the dark. Users have to hold the camera in place - like taking a long exposure shot - even after pressing the shutter button.

Night Sight was not ready in time for this review, with Google expected to roll it out later this month. It is also one of the few new camera tricks that Google says will be available for older Pixel smartphones via a future update.

DISPLAY

A common issue with the Pixel 2 XL was its Oled screen, which exhibited a bluish tint when viewed even slightly off-centre.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case with the Pixel 3. Both models have excellent displays that only show slight colour shifts when viewed at more extreme angles. They are readable even when viewed under bright sunlight.

The displays can show HDR videos that look more life-like than standard videos. This is evident from YouTube HDR videos, which look brighter than usual. Google says it is working on making Netflix HDR videos available, too.

The smaller Pixel 3 has a more handy 5.5-inch screen, though its lower screen resolution results in a lower pixel density than the Pixel 3 XL.

However, some of the extra pixels on the Pixel 3 XL are wasted, because the Pixel 3 XL comes with a display notch that is large and deep, closer to being a trough than the smaller notches on other smartphones.

The good news is that the notch can be hidden via a developer option in the settings. Doing so makes the Pixel 3 XL look like the Pixel 2 XL, but with a slightly bigger screen.

I soon got used to the notch, simply because most apps choose to ignore it entirely. For instance, the camera app does not use any of the areas - or ears - next to the notch. Neither do Spotify or Netflix. Even Google's own apps simply reskin the ears to match their colour schemes. The only app I tried that uses the notch is YouTube.

The downside is that some apps are adversely affected by the notch. For instance, part of the search bar at the top of the Lazada shopping app is obscured by the notch.

DESIGN

The Pixel 3 has a similar two-tone design as its predecessors. But it switches from a metal body to one with a glass back that enables wireless charging. This may not seem obvious initially, as Google has given a matte finish to the lower half of the glass back that contrasts nicely with the glossy finish of the upper half.

Size-wise, the Pixel 3 XL is close enough to the Pixel 2 XL that you can probably reuse a Pixel 2 XL case with the new model. Especially as the placement of the rear camera and rear fingerprint scanner are the same.

Google has kept the dual front-firing speakers of the previous Pixel. They sound very loud compared to most smartphones and did not exhibit any distortion at maximum volume. At the higher volume settings, I could feel the phone vibrating, even with a case.

  • TECH SPECS: Google Pixel 3 XL

  • PRICE: $1,399 (64GB), $1,549 (128GB)

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (Quad-core 2.5GHz, quad-core 1.6GHz)

    DISPLAY: 6.3-inch, Oled, 2,960 x 1,440 pixels, 523 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 9.0

    MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

    CAMERAS: 12.2MP (f/1.8) rear camera, 8MP telephoto (f/1.8) and 8MP wide-angle (f/2.2) front cameras

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,430mAh

    WEIGHT: 184g

  • TECH SPECS: Google Pixel 3

  • PRICE: $1,249 (64GB), $1,399 (128GB)

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (Quad-core 2.5GHz, quad-core 1.6GHz)

    DISPLAY: 5.5-inch, Oled, 2,160 x 1,080 pixels, 443 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 9.0

    MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

    CAMERAS: 12.2MP (f/1.8) rear camera, 8MP telephoto (f/1.8) and 8MP wide-angle (f/2.2) front cameras

    BATTERY: Non-removable 2,915mAh

    WEIGHT: 148g

  • RATING (for both models)

  • FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

FEATURES

As mentioned earlier, the Pixel 3 now supports wireless charging. Google has created a wireless charging stand, dubbed the Pixel Stand ($119) that charges the Pixel 3 at a relatively fast speed by pumping 10W of power.

It uses the Qi charging standard so it will work with other devices, including smartphones from Apple and Samsung.

Pixel 3 owners, however, are able to enjoy a personalised Google Assistant experience by placing their phones on the Pixel Stand. It turns into a smart display with shortcuts to access the Google Assistant.

It can also act as a photo frame to show your photos while album art will be displayed if you are listening to music apps like Spotify.

What impressed me about it is that the Pixel 3's display changes its contents according to its surroundings when docked on the stand. The screen could be cycling through my photos, but the moment I turn off the lights, it instantly changes to the usual ambient display  to show the time, notification icons and the Google Assistant shortcuts.

And if you have set a morning alarm on the Pixel 3, the phone's screen will slowly brighten in warm yellow and orange before the alarm goes off, which Google says, will help you wake up more naturally.

Google has bumped up the Pixel 3's water and dust resistance rating slightly to IP68 from IP67 on the previous version. This basically means the Pixel 3 can survive a short dunk in water of 1.5m deep compared to 1m for the Pixel 2.

Like its predecessor, the Pixel 3 lacks a headphone jack, though Google now bundles a pair of wired USB Type-C earbuds. Priced at $42, this earphones can trigger Google Assistant via a button press and supports real-time translation via the Google Translate app.

The Pixel 3 itself lacks dual-SIM support and does not have a microSD card slot.

PERFORMANCE

I am a fan of the haptic vibration feedback engine in the Pixel 3. It is one of the best I have tried. It feels tight and precise and is not as overpowering as some smartphones. The feedback it produces when I pull down the notification shade or swipe up to view all the apps is very good.

The Pixel 3 is powered by Qualcomm's top Snapdragon 845 processor. It feels very smooth and responsive, like previous Pixel phones. This is despite it having just 4GB of system memory compared to 6GB or 8GB found in flagship Android devices.

Apps open promptly enough, but the question is whether it can maintain the fluid experience after a year or two of usage. Given its premium price tag, I am probably not the only one who expected it to have more memory, even if it is for future-proofing.

Both Pixel 3 models have no problems lasting a normal work day for me. They usually end up with a battery level of around 30 to 40 per cent by the evening.

In the video-loop battery test, the Pixel 3 lasted 10hr 14 mins while the Pixel 3 XL lasted 11hr 45mins.

SOFTWARE

The Pixel 3 runs on the latest Android 9 Pie mobile operating system and is loaded with Google's apps like Gmail, Chrome, YouTube and Photos.

Android 9 Pie introduced a new gesture navigation system. On phones with stock Android 9, this is optional and you can continue to use Android's traditional three-button navigation soft keys at the bottom of the screen.

There is no such option for the Pixel 3. It only has gesture navigation, centred on swiping a pill-shaped Home button for tasks like switching between apps and viewing all the installed apps.

In short, Android users have to re-learn how they use the phone. For instance, you can still run two apps together in split screen mode, but it is triggered differently.

Android 9 also comes with Digital Wellbeing features that help you monitor and rein in your smartphone usage.

I like the Flip to Shhh feature that puts the Pixel 3 to Do No Disturb mode that mutes all notifications and non-essential calls when you place the phone with the screen face-down on a table.

Some of the new features introduced with the Pixel 3, such as an automated call screening feature to answer telemarketers, are unavailable outside the United States.

PRICING AND AVAILABILITY

The Pixel 3 smartphones can be pre-ordered at the online Google Store, as well as from Singtel and StarHub, and will be available from Nov 1. The Pixel 3 costs $1,249 (64GB) and $1,399 (128GB) while the Pixel 3 XL costs $1,399 (64GB) and $1,549 (128GB).

They come in three colours - black, white and a pale pink hue (dubbed Not Pink). The Not Pink version is available only from Singtel (with a contract) and Google (no contract required).

FINAL WORDS

The Google Pixel 3 smartphones continue on the same trajectory set by its predecessors. It focuses on what mainstream users want, an excellent camera and a top-notch user experience.

It is not targeted at enthusiasts looking at spec sheets, or those who like to try out innovative new hardware features.

Despite the excellent performance of its software and AI-powered camera, I cannot help but wonder what Google can do if those software tricks are used with dual or even triple cameras.

If you already have the Pixel 2 XL, chances are you will eventually enjoy some of the new features via a software update. Wait for the Pixel 4, hopefully with additional cameras.

If you own a recent flagship smartphone, the Pixel 3's camera is very good, but probably not drastically better than your existing phone.

Finally, if you have to choose between the two, I would say that the smaller Pixel 3 is handy and usable with just one hand. But the larger screen of the Pixel 3 XL is my pick for a better viewing experience.

Verdict: Definitely the best Pixel smartphones made by Google. It is amazing what Google can do with its AI and software, but one wonders how much better it might have done with even better hardware, especially with two or more cameras like competing smartphones.