Google’s new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are among the most anticipated smartphones of 2018, but if you simply look at their specs and design, I’d hard to know why. Compared to most other high-end Android smartphones, the two Pixel 3 devices are underpowered and seemingly unremarkable. But maybe that’s exactly the point.
Specs & Design
Below the notchless 5.5-inch display of the Pixel 3, you’ll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip with a mere 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 2,915 mAh battery. This year, Google decided to add wireless charging which was made possible by the new glass panel on the back of the phone. But these specs aren’t anything special. In fact, the Pixel 3’s spec sheet could be deemed disappointing if you’d had your eye on other fall releases like the LG V40, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 9 or the OnePlus 6T. All those phones offer better internals than Google’s Pixel devices without too much of a price bump.
So, if the story of the new Pixel phones isn’t about specs, is it about design? Looking at the Pixel 3, there’s really not much of a difference when comparing it to last year’s Pixel 2. The basic size and shape of the phones are almost identical, allowing the newer device to fit into cases built for last year’s model. It actually used my Pixel 2 cases for the phone for about a week while I was waiting for my Pixel 3 fabric case to show up. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing. While I usually don’t use cases on phones during my review period, the glass back panel of the Pixel 3 made me paranoid. With hours of the first Pixel 3 unboxings hitting the web, multiple reports had surfaced that the frosted portion of the glass back panel was extremely susceptible to scratches. I’m typically very careful with how I handle smartphones and have never cracked a screen, but I have managed to crack the glass on multiple smartphones in the past 18 months – something I’m not very proud of.
On a positive note, the display of the Pixel 3 is far better this time around. The OLED panels used on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL do not have any of the same issues at last year’s models which were the source of many complaints. Google has even included a new “adaptive” color mode which delivers higher contrast and a bit more saturation, making colors on the display pop just a bit more. I found that switching to the “Natural” color profile produces a better image when watching video at night, but it’s definitely not a big issue since changing the setting only takes a few seconds.
The new displays also improve outdoor visibility significantly. With last year’s Pixel 2, I struggled to see anything on the display when looking at the phone in direct sunlight. With the Pixel 3, I can easily view the display, even without bumping the brightness up to its max.
Software & Performance
While the specs and design of the Pixel 3 don’t really have much to offer, the phone’s software is really what sets the phone apart from the competition. Unlike 95% of the Android devices out there, the Pixel 3 runs stock Android. This means there’s no bloatware to speak of, the device receives Android updates directly from Google and you shouldn’t have to worry about performance. Now, I say “shouldn’t” because previous Pixel devices have performed quite well, but that’s not really the case with the Pixel 3.
Thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, the Pixel 3 is more than capable of keeping up with you throughout the day. The UI is smooth, apps load quickly and the phone can keep up with any game that you throw at it. But there is one issue – the Pixel 3 struggles to keep apps open. In fact, the phone will sometimes close apps ever while they’re being used. This happens on a daily basis. The Pixel 3 will kill the app that’s playing music in the background, close out of Android Auto while I’m using it for directions and it’s even closed Twitter a few times while scrolling through my feed.
Google has acknowledged that the pixel 3’s aggressive RAM management isn’t what users should be experiencing and that a fix is in the works, but it’s surprising that something like this made it past Google’s quality control before the phone was shipped out into the world.
As for Android Pie, I really don’t have any complaints. The new gesture navigation system works well and I have to admit that I love swiping the pill to the right to switch back to the most recent app. I enjoy the other small visual tweaks and improvements that Android Pie has sprinkled throughout the UI like the notification toggle that appears when you press the volume button, the screen rotation icon that shows up when you have Auto-rotate turned off and the integration of Gmail’s Smart Compose feature into Android itself which will predict what you want to type.
That being said, Android Pie has also introduced a lot of features that are hidden too deep to be useful or are completely useless even though they’re right in your face. The App Actions which are suggested right at the top of the App Drawer are ridiculously annoying. The Adaptive Battery feature doesn’t seem to do much to improve battery life, but it does a great job at delaying notifications that I actually need. While new versions of Android typically include a lot of new changes, it doesn’t feel like the changes that were introduced with Android Pie aren’t as substantial as those that we’ve seen in the past.
One feature which has gotten a lot of attention is the new call screening capability of the Pixel 3. If you’re not in the mood to answer the phone and talk to someone from a number you’re not familiar with, you can have the Google Assistant screen the call for you while showing a real-time transcript of the conversation on the screen. It’s an ingenious new used of the Google Assistant which can come in quite handy if you get a lot of spam calls.
If you’re an Android purist, you’re probably already made up your mind about the pixel 3, but if you’re still wondering why you should choose this phone over any other smartphone, we have an answer for you — the cameras. The hardware on the Pixel 3’s main 12.2MP sensor isn’t anything special. It’s paired with a 28mm f/1.8 lens which features laser and dual-pixel autofocus, optical image stabilization and also uses electronic image stabilization while recording video. But while the hardware isn’t any different than what you’d find on competing devices, the special sauce lies hidden in the software. Like Google has done in the past, the Pixel 3 uses computational photography to deliver images which are absolutely phenomenal. Google’s stepped things up on the software side when compared to the Pixel 2, but the concept is the same. The phone continually captures multiple exposures and then uses multiple frames to create a single image.
To put it simply, the Pixel 3 captures better images than 99% of the smartphones which were released this year. The images offer better dynamic range, more accurate white balance, great color reproduction while also keeping the images crisp and sharp. Despite only having a single lens on the back, the Pixel 3 can also capture portrait-style photos which blur out the background. Take a look at a few shots that we’ve captured with the Pixel 3.
But what really sets the Pixel 3’s camera experience apart from last year’s Pixel 2 is the dual-sensor camera on the front of the phone. While Google’s late to the game on this one, it’s actually one of the first to include an ultra-wide angle lens on the front of the phone. With the 19mm lens you can now fit an extra friend or two in your selfies or simply get a wider view of the scenery around you. If Google were to include optical image stabilization as well, it would be the perfect device for vlogging. Well… maybe not, since the audio captured by the Pixel 3 while recording video is absolutely atrocious. The ambient noise cancellation that Google has implemented does a great job of eliminating background noise, but it also takes a serious degrades the tone of the audio that you want to record. It’s likely that Google can fix this with a future update, but this is an issue that the Pixel 2 struggled with as well.
Battery Life & Wireless Charging
When it comes to battery life, the story of the Pixel 3 is pretty much the same as it was last year — it’s OK, but it could be much better. In my two weeks with the phone, the 2,915 mAh battery inside the Pixel 3 is able to keep the phone running for about 14 hours on a single charge with a mix of web browsing, a few hours of Spotify, an hour or two of video through YouTube or Netflix, a few short gaming sessions, random Twitter scrolling and a few other things mixed in there. The number is more than enough for most people to get through a full day, but it’s quite disappointing when similar devices are packed with 3,500 mAh batteries which allow them to last much longer. The larger Pixel 3 XL does come with a 3430 mAh battery, but due to its larger display, its battery life is only marginally better. The included 18w fast charger which can charge the phone from 0 to 100% in less than 90 minutes, so it’s not like you’ll be glued to the wall socket if all day if you just need a quick 20% boost.
As mentioned before, I’m not really a fan of smartphones with glass on the back, so it’s nice to see that Google didn’t just add a glass back to the phone and simply call it a day. The Pixel 3 is the first device in Google’s lineup to feature wireless charging. In fact, Google added a new interface to the Pixel 3 when the phone recognizes that it’s on the Pixel Stand wireless charger — giving you quick access to your music, notifications, Google Assistant and more. It actually gives you many of the same features that you get with the Google Home Hub, even switching over to a live video feed from your Nest Hello doorbell if someone’s at your door. The only downside is that the $79 Pixel Stand is ridiculously expensive when compared to other Qi wireless chargers and stands.
I have to admit that I was pretty excited for the Pixel 3. I’d been using the Pixel 2 as my main device since it came out last year and had high expectations for the Pixel 3. The phone does deliver a better camera experience and slightly better performance thanks to the newer Snapdragon 845, but it honestly doesn’t have the same appeal as last year’s device did. The Pixel 3 is still an incredible smartphone, but it seems to be lacking the “it” factor which makes it a “must buy” smartphone when matching it up to the competition.
My feelings about the Pixel 3 might be different if it was the same price as last year’s model, but apart from the camera experience and the fact that it runs stock Android (if that’s important to you), there’s no real reason to pick u the Pixel 3 over any of its competitors.
Google Pixel 3 Rating: star_emptystar_25star_50star_75star_full (X.X / 5)
Incredible main camera
Awesome front-facing speakers
Mediocre battery life
No headphone jack
Poor RAM management
The Bottom Line
The Pixel 3 is the perfect device if you’ve been waiting for a flagship smartphone with an incredible camera running stock Android.