Phones

Great cameras in a familiar package

 Pixel Stand wireless charger ($119, above, with the Pixel 3 XL).
Pixel Stand wireless charger ($119, above, with the Pixel 3 XL).

The Google Pixel 3 makes a strong case for having the best camera in the most helpful phone, as Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh put it during the official reveal last week.

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.

Despite persisting with a single rear camera when even mid-range smartphones are sporting two or more cameras, Google showed that its blend of software and artificial intelligence (AI) can still compete with the best smartphone cameras.

Photos taken with its single rear camera turn out sharp and clear with accurate and natural-looking colours.

Portrait mode, with the background blur effect, also known as bokeh, worked flawlessly in my testing.

And if you do not like how the AI created the bokeh effect, you can change the focus and adjust the amount of blur after taking the photo in this mode, like smartphones from Apple and Samsung.

Another AI-powered feature is Top Shot, which is useful for shots when there is motion in the scene. It automatically takes multiple shots and recommends a photo where everyone is smiling or has their eyes open.

  • 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

    MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

    REAR CAMERA: 12.2MP (f/1.8)

    FRONT CAMERA: 8MP telephoto (f/1.8) and 8MP wide-angle (f/2.2)

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,430mAh

    WEIGHT: 184g

  • 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

    MEMORY: 64GB/128GB, 4GB RAM

    REAR CAMERA: 12.2MP (f/1.8)

    FRONT CAMERA: 8MP telephoto (f/1.8) and 8MP wide-angle (f/2.2)

    BATTERY: Non-removable 2,915mAh

    WEIGHT: 148g

  • RATING (for both)

  • FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Its low-light performance is as good as its predecessor. And this is without the new Night Sight feature, which claims to take even better low-light photos. This feature will be rolled out to users later this month.

There is also a new Super Res Zoom feature, which improves on the typical digital zoom feature in smartphones. But while the photos passed a cursory inspection, I do not believe it quite rivals high-end smartphones with a proper telephoto camera lens.

Contrary to expectations, Google has put two cameras at the front, with a wide-angle secondary camera that enables more people to fit in a group selfie shot.

Besides taking better group selfies, the front cameras are used in a new and entertaining feature called Photobooth, which automatically takes shots when it detects a smile or a pose.

The fun continues in Playground, Google's rebranded augmented reality (AR) sticker feature that lets you place 3D animated stickers in your photos. My six-year-old daughter, in particular, is a fan of this feature, which suggests appropriate stickers for each scene.

The helpful part of the phone comes into play with the Google Assistant software and the updates introduced in the latest Android 9 Pie mobile operating system in the Pixel 3.

For instance, the Pixel 3 launcher shows frequently used apps that the software thinks you will use next. Gmail's Smart Compose feature, which is already available for the desktop version, is also available for the Pixel 3 - it suggests words and phrases that you might use while typing an e-mail.

But the Android 9 implementation on the Pixel 3 has a learning curve. This is because the new gesture-based navigation system introduced in Pie is now the de facto way of using the phone. Unlike stock Android Pie phones, the Pixel 3 does not offer the traditional three-button software keys.

In short, you better learn to swipe left and right, up and down, to get around the Pixel 3's user interface.

Both Pixel 3 models have similar Oled screens that are bright enough to be readable in direct sunlight.

The display is sandwiched by relatively chunky bezels at the top and bottom to accommodate dual front-firing speakers that are impressively loud.

More importantly, the bluish colour shift that affected the screen of the previous Pixel 2 XL is gone. The new screens are vibrant and support high dynamic range (HDR) videos from YouTube, with Netflix HDR support coming in the future.

However, the larger Pixel 3 XL has a display notch like many newer smartphones. It is deep, more like a trough, but it is not as wide as the one on the Apple iPhone X.

While I could get used to how it looks (it can be hidden via a developer option in the settings), I am reminded of it occasionally because certain incompatible apps are cut off at the top by the notch. Most apps, though, simply ignore it, which begs the question of why Google bothered with it.

If you cannot get past it, you might want to go for the smaller and notch-less Pixel 3, which is great to use with one hand.

Design-wise though, the Pixel 3 retains the two-tone look of its predecessor.

But the Pixel 2's metal back is gone, replaced by a glass back that apparently has become the sign of a premium flagship phone. This glass back also enables wireless charging, which Google is taking advantage of with a Pixel Stand wireless charger ($119, with the Pixel 3 XL).

This Pixel Stand also doubles as a smart display when the Pixel 3 is docked. It can show your photos and album art from a music app as well as shortcuts for the Google Assistant.

Google has also upgraded the IP67 water-and dust-resistance rating on the older Pixel to IP68 on the Pixel 3. The headphone jack from the original Pixel 1 is still gone. The Pixel 3 does not have dual-SIM support and lacks a microSD card slot.

With its flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, the Pixel 3 is competitive with other top phones. It does have slightly less memory (4GB) compared with other models, though you cannot really tell because the Pixel 3's user interface feels fluid and fast.

• Verdict: The latest Pixel 3 stays true to its roots. It once again excels at taking photos and offers a smooth, optimised user experience with three years of regular software updates.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2018, with the headline 'Great cameras in a familiar package'. Print Edition | Subscribe