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Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL review: the best camera gets a better phone

Taking it up a notch

When Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh introduced the Pixel 3 last week, he didn’t utter the word “Android” a single time. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are Google phones. They swim in a sea of Google data and promise to use Google’s machine learning to make everything better: photos, annoying spam calls, even your “digital wellbeing.”

Google’s hardware division isn’t three years old yet, but the Pixel 3 is the third revision of its own smartphone. Google making its own hardware is no longer a novelty, and at this point, there’s been enough time for us to get a sense of its priorities and design.

But very few people buy a phone because it’s a physical manifestation of a software company’s vision of the future. They buy a phone because they want a good phone — something with a nice screen, an excellent camera, good battery life. You know, “phone stuff.”

More than anything else, that’s what I think Google focused on this year: improving the “phone stuff.” The Pixel 3 and 3 XL are superb phones that attempt to address nearly all of the complaints people had about last year’s Pixels.

For three years now, the Pixel phones have claimed the mantle of “best Android phone,” but they’ve always done so with asterisks. Those asterisks involved bezels, screen quality, or some other thing. This year, Google aims to claim the mantle again with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, minus the asterisks.

8.5 Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Larger, better screen
  • Beautiful design
  • Excellent camera and wide angle selfie cam

Bad Stuff

  • Largish top and bottom bezels
  • Easily scratched rear finish
  • Limited availability from US carriers and internationally
8.5 Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Radically improved screen
  • Loud, clear front-facing speakers
  • Excellent camera and wide angle selfie cam

Bad Stuff

  • Doofy notch
  • Easily scratched rear finish
  • Limited availability from US carriers and internationally

Screens

I will talk about the notch on the Pixel 3 XL, I promise. But not yet, because it’s not the most important part of looking at this phone. Instead, the single biggest improvement this year on both sizes is the quality of the screens. The screens are great.

Both phone sizes use OLED displays, which gets you all the usual benefits of that screen technology: deep blacks, lower power consumption, and curved corners. But as we learned last year with the Pixel 2 XL, it’s all too easy to make an OLED screen that looks bad. The Pixel 2 XL screen was muddy, reds looked more like browns, and it felt like there was a layer of parchment paper making everything hazy. There was also a burn-in scare at launch that caused a whole lot of drama.

I obviously can’t speak to burn-in yet, but the color problems are 100 percent gone this year. The Pixel 3 XL’s screen is vibrant and bright with colors that pop at any viewing angle. Google says that it spent a lot of time ensuring the quality of these screens this year from every perspective, including longevity, color accuracy, and brightness.

Google is defaulting to a new color mode called “adaptive,” which significantly increases the vibrancy of most colors without making human skin tones look surreal. It doesn’t quite take the colors to Samsung levels of garishness, but it can feel a little dramatic in the purples and the reds. I’ve decided to leave it on, but if you prefer a more muted look, there are also profiles for “Natural” (sRGB calibrated) and “Boosted” (sRGB + 10 percent saturation).

I also can’t detect a significant difference in screen quality between the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL. Both are excellent, and though they don’t quite match the brightness and color gamut of the iPhone XS or Galaxy S9, they’re finally worthy of the high prices that Pixel phones command.

I also like that the screens are bigger on both phones without making the bodies bigger, thanks to reduced bezels and taller aspect ratios. It makes the smaller Pixel 3 finally feel like a top-tier device and much less of a compromise. On the larger Pixel 3 XL, the screen is bigger primarily because it’s been extended to the top corners, resulting in a chin and a notch.

Oh, the notch.

The notch is there because Google wanted to give you a bigger screen, front-facing stereo speakers, and a wide angle selfie camera. So the only question that really matters is: do those features justify the notch?

The screen is, in fact, bigger. And pushing the status and notification icons up there means that the main content area can be a little bit larger. But while it makes things bigger, the Pixel 3 doesn’t offer more information than the Pixel 2 did. By default, I see the same number of emails and lines of text on a webpage that I did before. Still, for a ton of people, bigger is simply better. And if you want to, you can crank up the information density by cranking down the font size and display scaling.

The front-facing speakers are, indeed, wonderful. Google claims they’re 40 percent louder, but I didn’t hear that much extra volume (although, I didn’t take a decibel meter to it). What I did hear was sound that is significantly better. Turning the volume up to the max results in much less distortion than I expected.

I’ll talk much more about the camera below, but the wide angle selfie camera is not my bag. However, I say that knowing it very much will be something a lot of people will adore. Most people I’ve shown the phone to are really into it.

That’s everything you get, but here’s what you lose. The notch offends the sensibilities. It looks worse on the Pixel 3 XL than it does on the iPhone XS or most other Android phones. The best word I can come up with to describe it is “doofy.” The Pixel 3 XL notch is doofy. It looks like a grimace emoji face staring at you from the top of your phone. It means the radii on the curved corners of the screen are different on the top and bottom. You need to turn off the battery percentage if you want to see all of your status icons, and you can only see up to three notification icons.

But all of these smartphone notches become kind of invisible to the naked eye when you actually use the phone for a while, and the Pixel 3 XL is no exception. I stopped seeing it after just an hour. It looks way worse in photos and videos than it does in person.

So, did Google justify the notch? Sure, I suppose. But maybe not its huge size. Face ID on the iPhone seems like a better trade-off to me, but I’m not mad about the notch; the notch is fine. (It actually is, and not in a This Is Fine kind of way.) If you truly hate the notch, you can turn it off in developer settings, and Google has suggested a less-complicated setting may come in the future.

If you want a bigger phone, I don’t think the notch should stop you from getting it.

Hardware

For the first time, Pixel phones feel like a thousand bucks — which is good because the top-tier model with max storage actually does cost a thousand bucks. Last year’s Pixel 2 had a sort of faux-humility about its design, covering its aluminum shell with a finish that made it feel very nearly like plastic. This year, the rear panel is glass, but, more importantly, the overall fit and finish the phones is much, much better.

It’s a combination of a lot of little things that make these phones feel premium, but they add up. The seams between the glass and the aluminum rail are tight, and the corners of the screens are curved, as are both sides of the glass blending into the sides.

This premium feel is especially apparent on the smaller Pixel 3, which finally looks and feels like the flagship device it’s supposed to be. Phones that start at $799 should feel this good, and even though Google hasn’t reached Samsung or Apple levels of fit and finish, I’m just glad the Pixels are a little less dowdy.

The phones come in three colors (with typically cheeky names): “just black,” “clearly white,” and “not pink.” The pink color is the most fun. It’s a subtle hue, and it has an orange power button for an accent. I think all three look great, and I’m happy to see that the only logo on the whole thing is a single G on the back.

Most of the “niceness” on these phones is due to the glass back. It has been etched with a matte finish, leaving the top portion glossy to maintain that classic Pixel look. I love the way the glass feels, and for me, it does make it feel a little more secure in my hand than a purely glossy phone.

Both glass panels are Gorilla Glass 5, and Google says they should be as scratch resistant as any other modern smartphone. But, well, that matte finish on the back is not as scratch-resistant as it should be. Several Verge staffers did a basic test: we tossed the phones in our pockets with keys and walked around. The results were subtle scratches and scuffs in the matte finish that won’t go away.

Now, there’s already been some talk about this, so let’s get into it. Most of the initial marks we saw wiped right off, leaving a pristine finish. That was 9to5Google’s finding. But our very normal keys-the-pocket situation resulted in some permanent marks that won’t go away.

Here’s Google’s statement about the scratches:

We have designed Pixel 3 to look and feel great in your hand. We engineered the front and back with Gorilla Glass 5 for strength and protection. On the back, we added a special texture to make your Pixel 3 comfortable to hold, less slippery, and much less prone to fingerprints than other glass-back phones. We added an extra strengthening step to the manufacturing process of the textured back glass for greater resistance to marks and scratches. We put every element of our phones through extensive reliability testing.

Google also says, “The glass on Pixel 3 performs comparable with other premium smartphones and according to industry standards.” But I have a very difficult time believing that the scratches we got on two different Pixel 3 phones (the white one and the black one) are in line with “industry standards.” But the good news is that I’ve only seen these marks on the matte finish, not the glossy parts.

If there’s going to be a “gate” for the Pixel 3 (there’s always a “gate”), it will probably be this. You could argue that this is just the glass equivalent of weathering leather, giving it an aged look. But what you should really do instead is just get a case.

Camera

The Pixel 2, released last year, was the best camera you could get on a smartphone right on through the iPhone XS that was released last month. I won’t beat around the bush: the Pixel 3 camera is better.

But it also makes aesthetic choices that are worth talking about. I don’t think Google made bad choices here, but it is moving the photos that the Pixel 3 produces a little closer to where Apple is going and where Samsung has always been.

First, the basics: Google hasn’t significantly changed the traditional camera specs you’re used to looking at. There is still just one camera on the back, with a 12.2-megapixel sensor behind an image-stabilized f/1.8 lens and tied to a (slightly updated) Pixel Visual Core chip for image processing. The biggest hardware changes here are the second wide angle selfie camera on the front and a flicker sensor on the rear.

This means that the most significant changes to the Pixel 3’s camera results come from the software. The Pixel 3 is still doing the same HDR+ trick we saw last year: taking multiple photos and combining them with software into a single image. But Google has simply gotten better at doing that, and it’s created a bunch of software features to take advantage of those multiple images.

When Google presented all the features it was adding to the Pixel 3 camera, I got a sinking feeling. Usually when a smartphone has a ton of features, they’re gimmicks you’ll try once (at most) and then never use again. And too often, they’re also distractions from the main camera mode.

Luckily, that’s not the case with most of the Pixel 3’s features. Several of them are just built right into the camera app or the photo editor. Of these, I’m most impressed with “Top Shot,” which will suggest a better photo from an automatically captured burst. Top Shot didn’t trigger every time I thought it should, but when it worked, it was a lifesaver.

Super Res Zoom is Google’s answer to the second telephoto lens you’ll find on other smartphones. From a technical perspective, it’s impressive: Google uses the extra data it can gather from your hand shaking to create a zoomed image that’s better than merely cropping in digitally. It absolutely works, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as a dedicated second lens.

iPhone XS left; Pixel 3 right

Portrait mode works marginally better than last year — which is to say: it’s good but sometimes unreliable. I am still impressed with how well Google handles hair, for example, and that it can do as much as it can with a single lens. You can adjust the amount of blur in the background, but it’s not quite as good at recognizing multiple levels of depth as the iPhone XS. One place where the iPhone XS tends to do better is in tricky portrait photos where there isn’t as much obvious depth and the background is really busy.

The wide angle selfie camera is a nice addition, but I find that the quality isn’t quite as good as the main, regular selfie camera. Most of that comes down to just aesthetically disliking how much lens distortion it adds. That said, it will get you shots you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s easy to be snooty about quality and lens distortion, but selfies are fun and getting more people into them is also fun. For a lot of people, it will probably get more use than a telephoto lens on the back of the phone.

But the most important thing is its quality of regular photos, and I’m really pleased with it. Before we get into it, I want to repeat the sentiment Nilay Patel expressed in our iPhone XS review. All of the cameras in this top tier of smartphones — the iPhone XS, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Note 9, and the Pixel 3 — are great. They have the sort of cameras that will give you good shots and be huge upgrades over what you could get a couple years ago. This is as much about personal preference as anything else.

Let’s just look at the photos.

You can see that the Pixel 3 is pulling more detail out of the shadows than the Pixel 2. It’s also going for a slightly warmer tone, especially with faces. In fact, I think it’s moved a little closer to the iPhone in terms of the image it’s trying to produce — but only a little bit. The iPhone XS is applying HDR effects too aggressively and overly brightening the shadows, as though it wants everything to be evenly lit. To me, it just looks off.

iPhone XS left; Pixel 3 right

Here’s the default selfie camera, zoomed in a bit to show you some detail. Again, the Pixel 3 has much more detail while the iPhone XS feels a little bit over-smoothed. I’m not saying I’m a “Beautygate” truther here, but I definitely prefer the Pixel 3. It’s much more willing to let the light be what it’s going to be and not aggressively trying to flatten everything to the same level.

Aesthetically, this is another place where I think Google has tried to address complaints with the Pixel 2. It’s subtle, but the Pixel 3’s photos are comparatively a little less harsh and contrasty than the Pixel 2’s. That means the photos are a little less dramatic than last year’s phone, but the trade-off is photos that more people are likely to enjoy — especially when viewed on phone displays, which is what people actually use. For the most part, I prefer the Pixel 3 to the Pixel 2. But every now and then, I prefer the Pixel 2.

Here’s one more shot in low light. The thing to look at here, again, is how Apple aggressively works to bring out the shadows at the expense of detail. Just take a look at the fur on the stuffed animal. The Pixel 3 beats both phones when it comes to preserving color.

In any given photo, you might prefer another phone, but on the whole, I’m finding that the Pixel 3 is just more consistent. It gets confused by complicated lighting less often and puts more detail into the shot without overdoing it on HDR effects. Most of all: I trust the Pixel 3 more. The Pixel 2 was the best phone camera for all of last year, and it seems like the Pixel 3 will be the best camera for all of this year.

Everything Else

As far as hardware specs go, the Pixel 3 is pretty standard. It has a Snapdragon 845 processor, which is fast but not as fast as the A12 in the iPhone XS. You can choose between 64GB or 128GB of storage, and there’s 4GB of RAM. Android phones with high numbers attached to their various specs exist already and will continue to be released, but specs aren’t the whole story for the Pixel 3.

What matters more is the software. Google has tuned the Pixel 3 and 3 XL to a remarkable degree. I haven’t had any complaints about performance at all. Battery life is alright but not notably better than anything else out there. Both phones will last all day with moderate use, but the XL model does a little better, thanks to its larger battery. Both performance and battery life on the 3 XL are a bit better than what I’m getting today on my Pixel 2 XL.

There is no 3.5mm headphone jack. You know this, you know that it’s the standard for a lot of phones now, and you know — in your heart — that it’s annoying. The trade-off is made a little easier now because Google is finally including USB-C headphones in the box. Vlad Savov will review them separately soon, but the TL;DR is that they’re pretty darn good for included earbuds. I wish they were more noise-isolating, but the integration of Google Assistant features is nice.

The Pixel 3 is the first phone to ship with Google’s Digital Wellbeing features built-in, though they still have the “beta” tag in settings. Tracking your app use can be helpful (I’ve cut down on Twitter), but it’s up to you to look at your stats and act on them.

There are other parts of the Digital Wellbeing suite I like more. The wind-down feature turns on the phone’s grayscale and sets Do Not Disturb. It’s a very prominent reminder to turn the thing off and go to bed. I also love that there’s a quick settings toggle to turn on grayscale from anywhere. I’ve used it more than I expected to.

Google has also added some custom software features for the Pixel Stand wireless charger. Putting your phone on the charger opens an interface powered by Google Assistant that gives you quick buttons to do Google Assistant things. But what’s more important to me is that it serves as a little photo frame for albums from Google Photos. It all works — and the Pixel Stand can do faster charging with the Pixel than standard Qi stands — but none of it is a reason to buy the phone.

By far, the coolest software feature on the Pixel 3 (which is also coming to the Pixel 2) is Call Screening. When a phone call comes in, you can tap a button to screen it. When you do, a semi-robotic voice will speak to your caller and ask them why they’re calling. You watch this happen via text in real time on your screen, and the caller’s response is similarly transcribed for you as they speak.

When the call is active, you can tap a few pre-canned buttons to ask follow-up questions, hit a button to answer, or hit a button to hang up. It’s seriously useful and seriously impressive. Like everybody else, I get a ton of spam calls, and I sometimes feel like those unknown numbers might actually be real. It’s richly, darkly satisfying to know that I’m forcing a robocall to talk to a Google robot.

We only have three years of Google-made phones to look at, so it’s too early to tell if the company is going to fall into an Apple-esque pattern of alternating between big, flashy phones one year and “S-year” updates the next. But to me, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are quite a bit like the S-year iPhones.

I really do think Google made a concerted effort to look at every deficiency the Pixel 2 had and fix them without radically changing its overall design or approach. Where the Pixel 2 XL had a crappy screen, the Pixel 3 XL has a great one. Where the smaller Pixel 2 had big, dopey bezels, the Pixel 3 has smaller ones. Where overall build quality of the Pixel 2 felt kind of dowdy, the look and feel of both phones are now top-notch (except, perhaps, the notch). Where the camera was a little too crunchy and blue, the new one is more willing to bring up shadow detail.

I only have two complaints: the matte finish scratches too easily and its carrier exclusivity to Verizon in the US. Google has made what I think are the best Android phones you can get today, but because they won’t be in most carrier stores, they’re just not going to be in that many pockets.

A lot of people sleep on S-year upgrades, finding them boring. But I think that’s a mistake with the iPhone and a mistake here. It’s better to be on the S-cycle: you get a faster phone, better camera, and the fixes that come after a year with the original design. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL are huge improvements on last year’s phones in almost every appreciable way.

Should you upgrade? That depends on what you have now. If you have a Pixel 2, a lot of these features will come to you via a software update so you’re probably good to hold out. And if you have an iPhone, take a long look at your blue iMessage bubbles and iCloud photo groups and think about whether you can really quit them.

But if you want the best Android experience and the best camera you can get on a phone today, the Pixel 3 is it.

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