Circa 2010. The Nexus One was launched. It was the first-ever Google-branded smartphone, made in partnership with HTC. Since then Google’s vision of how it can pave the path for its open source mobile OS christened Android has constantly evolved. From acquiring (and later, selling) Motorola, to introducing initiatives like Android One and Android Go, and from launching smartphones in the Nexus series to diving into hardware properly with the Pixel lineup – there’s no doubt that the internet behemoth has come a long way.
Yet, for all the technological prowess, it’s hard to say what Google is trying to achieve with the third generation of Pixel handsets, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL (first impressions). If the company is aiming for volumes, then the sales of the previous two generations of Pixels haven’t really set the cash registers ringing (as per IDC). If it’s about showcasing its AI prowess, then it’d have made more sense if the company licensed its computational photography algorithms to other phonemakers. So my assumption is that the Big G is aiming to showcase its software prowess, and highlight the true power of Android, aided by AI and machine learning. But with a starting price of Rs 71,000 and 83,000 for the Pixel 3 and 3 XL respectively – prices that many would balk upon – can the phones do justice? The following review throws some light.
I’ve been using the larger sibling of the third-gen Pixel, the Pixel 3 XL for the better part of a week, but the review will apply equally to the smaller Pixel 3, except for the display and battery. Specs-wise, the phone might not seem to be able to match up to similarly-priced rivals, but I can tell you that there’s more to the Google handset when you scratch the surface. The best part is that the brand has worked on the critique, and this year’s smartphone doesn’t seem to be facing any display-related issues. The phone offers smooth performance, incredible cameras (that won’t disappoint in any situation), long-lasting battery and of course, the taste of useful features with Android 9.0 Pie. All in all, you’ll love the Pixel 3 XL in the day-to-day use. Well, that’s the TLDR version of the individual aspects, and if you don’t want to dive into the details, then simply skip towards the end to read the comparison with rivals and the verdict. Others can stick around till the end to see what exactly the Google Pixel 3 XL brings to the table.
Specs at a glance
|Resolution||1440 x 2960 pixels|
|CPU||Quad core, 2.5 GHz + Quad core, 1.6 GHz, Snapdragon 845|
|Internal memory||64 GB|
|Capacity||3430 mAH, Li-ion, Non removable|
|Primary camera||12.2 MP|
|Secondary camera||8 MP|
|Network support||Single SIM 4G|
|Other options||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS|
|Operating system||Android 9.0 Pie|
Design: ‘not’ch the best-looking smartphone out there
Dimensions: 158 x 76.7 x 7.9 mm
Weight: 184 grams
Last week’s announcement of the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL came as a relief… as it put an end to all the leaks swirling around the interwebs. The launch event also put a lid on the conspiracy theories that suggested that Google would be surprising us with the launch of something that hasn’t been leaked. Well, that also means that the reactions you’d have had when you saw those renders and hands-on images before the launch, would basically remain the same.
Of course, the display notch is the first thing you’ll notice on the Google Pixel 3 XL. And not because the notch is gorgeous. It’s really deep and wide in fact – deeper than any other notch-toting handset I’ve ever come across – which is quite odd as we’re seeing more and more phones trying to ditch the cut-out altogether or at least taking the small waterdrop-shaped cut-out route. That’s not to say that the brand has just followed the trend blindly without making the notch useful. That cut-out does house two front snappers and an earpiece that doubles up as a speaker along with a few sensors. Yet, there’s no fancy tech to offer face unlock capability. In fact, the phone doesn’t even feature the ability to unlock the phone with your face. The notch also cuts through a lot of content, be it while seeing Instagram stories or watching videos.
If it feels like a simple rant, it isn’t. It’s just that you wouldn’t expect this from a device that costs an arm and a leg. Moreover, you’ll also see a design incongruency. The top and bottom edges of the display aren’t symmetrical in terms of the curves of the rounded corners. And I haven’t yet pointed out the wide chin on the bottom, though it’s not completely a waste as it features a speaker.
Thankfully though, you do get an option to hide the notch. Getting rid of the notch isn’t as easy as tapping on a toggle unlike other phones, and you need to find the appropriate setting after enabling the developer options. Once enabled, you get various options such as Hide (which removes the cut-out altogether and offers symmetrical corners, unlike mentioned above), Corner cutout (which just cuts off just the top-right corner), Double cutout (creates a fake cut-out at the bottom as well).
In terms of the overall design, the Pixel 3 XL won’t seem much different from its previous iteration, the Pixel 2 XL (review). The front is dominated by the display, while the rear uses a unique two-tone material. However, unlike its predecessor, the latest offering features a glass finish at the bottom portion as well (unlike metal on the Pixel 2 / 2 XL). But it does feel like metal because it has been frosted, giving it a matte finish. However, the smartphone still remains quite slippery. My review unit came in white, but you can also opt for the black or the ‘not pink’ options. While many have started reporting scratches on the Pixel 3 XL’s back panel, I haven’t faced that issue yet. However, it does seem odd since the rear gets a layer of Gorilla Glass 5, which should ideally keep scratches and minor nicks at bay. The rear panel also features a fingerprint scanner, which works flawlessly to unlock the handset quickly and accurately.
Similar to last year’s Pixel 2 XL, both the volume buttons and the power switch are located on the right spine. However, unlike the original Pixel which had a ridged power button, the one on the new smartphone doesn’t have any sort of texture, which makes it difficult to identify the key by feel. That said, the mint colour of the power button (on the white unit) does give it a certain character and the keys are tactile. Interestingly, the SIM card slot has moved to the bottom just beside the Type-C socket. You also get the Active Edge functionality to trigger Google Assistant, which was available on the handset’s previous avatar as well. You can adjust the squeeze intensity for Active Edge or disable it altogether if you don’t like it.
Thanks to the use of the glass as a primary construction material and an aluminium frame, the Google Pixel 3 XL is a tad heavier than its predecessor as the new handset tips the scales at 184g (vs 175g). However, that also inspires certain confidence about its robustness when the phone is held in the hand. The thickness however, remains at 7.8mm. The smartphone also gets IP68 protection, making it resilient to dust and water.
Display: shows the big picture
Size: 6.3 Inch
Resolution: 1440 x 2960 pixels
Display Type: OLED
Pixel Density: 522 ppi
The 6.3-inch notch-toting screen of the Google Pixel 3 XL is a 1,440p affair. With a pixel density of 523ppi and an aspect ratio of 18.5:9, the OLED panel offers impressive sharpness levels and reproduces accurate colours. A layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 5 protects the display against scratches and minor knocks. But I’m sure you must be wondering if the handset suffers from the colour bleed issue seen on some units of its predecessor. Well, the answer to that is no. That said, the viewing angles aren’t the best as you’ll notice the colour shift towards a cooler blue hue when you view the screen from a certain angle. You can also use colour modes such as Natural and Boosted to tweak the display output, instead of the default Adaptive mode.
I don’t have any complaints about the brightness levels though, as the display is legible in harsh outdoors and in dim settings too. The night light mode also comes in handy to ensure that your eyes don’t get strained in low-light conditions. Similar to other flagships, the smartphone also comes with HDR playback support thanks to the UHDA certification, offering better contrast while viewing compatible content. The always-on display allows you to see missed notifications along with date and time without turning on the screen.
Software: tasty and intelligent
Operating System: Android
OS Version: 9.0, Pie
The Pixel 3 XL isn’t the first smartphone to ship with the latest iteration of Android 9.0 Pie, but it does come with a number of useful features (with some of them being exclusive to the handset). In terms of the interface, there isn’t much difference from the previous iteration of Google’s mobile OS. There’s a dedicated screen on the left of the homescreen to access the Google feed, while the search bar on the main screen has moved to the bottom making it easier to reach. The date and time widget doubles up as an at-a-glance view for your appointments and meetings, which is quite handy. The quick settings menu also remain the same.
The app drawer is still there, providing access to all installed apps. However, it’s not exactly a seamless access to the app menu. That’s because, unlike earlier builds where swiping upwards brought up the app drawer directly, on Android Pie, the same gesture brings up the recent apps, and have to swipe up again to see all your apps. You can also use the upward swipe and hold your finger for slightly longer, and then swipe up to access the app menu, but it just seems an additional layer of friction where it wasn’t required.
You can also see the new feature dubbed App Actions in the app menu. It offers two of the frequently-used actions such as the contact with whom you WhatsApp a lot or certain actions such booking an Uber to your saved place. There’s Slices too, which works similarly, when you search for an app and it’ll show the options of the respective app directly. Sadly though, the feature doesn’t seem to be enabled for India yet. Google also demoed the Call Screen feature, which is a godsend for those who are pestered with telemarketing calls, but it remains to be seen if and when this functionality will be introduced in India.
Since the recent apps can be opened in the manner mentioned above, Android Pie only features two software-based keys for navigation. There’s the back button and home key, which can be long-pressed to activate the Google Assistant. That also means that using split screen now involves three steps: access the recent apps, click on the app icon and then enable split screen (will only work with compatible apps). If you want to access the previous app quickly, then you simply need to swipe towards the right from the home button. Another oddity I noticed is that these software buttons support gestures and hence have a larger actionable area, which means that if your palm is touching the smartphone at the bottom left, then the phone will inadvertently go to the previous screen.
Android 9.0 Pie also brings a lot of goodies. For example, you can now get a dark theme, irrespective of the wallpaper (earlier the dark theme was enabled if you use a dark wallpaper). I also liked the ability to get the autorotate button in the navigation bar in case you are using a compatible app like YouTube. Considering I always keep autorotate turned off, this is quite handy.
One thing which is worth highlighting – and can be attributed to the hardware as well as software – is the fact that the Pixel 3 XL has the best haptic feedback I’ve ever used. Personally, one of the first things that I do on any new smartphone is disabling vibrations, but I never needed to do that with Google’s offering since the typing experience with the haptic feedback is so satisfying.
Among the biggest features of Android 9.0 Pie is Digital Wellbeing, which not only displays how much time you’ve been using your smartphone, but also things like how many times you’ve unlocked it and notifications you’ve received. With this info, you can also take action such as setting up a timer for using a particular app during the day, enable the DND mode to disable notification sounds as well as visual notifications. You can also activate the mode by simply putting the handset face down. There’s a Wind Down mode as well, which turns the screen to greyscale and switches on the DND mode at night.
While all these features are quite interesting, the OS on the Pixel 3 XL does have a few bugs. When you bring up the multitasking bar, the search bar is supposed to be above the frequently-used apps, but there are times when it’s overlaid on top. Similarly, while other phones handle the notch well to ensure that notification icons don’t overlap with it, you can see that on the Pixel 3 XL, the icon is cut off by the display cut-out. Hopefully, these issues will be solved via a software update, with the search titan already confirming that the next update will bring features like Driving mode, Fast Pair 2.0 (allowing you to connect via Bluetooth faster) and Night Sight. As the name suggests, the mode will let you capture well-detailed images in low light, which brings us to the next section…
Imaging: the best camera phone, yet again
Primary camera: 12.2 MP
Flash: Dual LED Flash
Secondary camera: 8 MP
When Google launched the first-gen Pixel, nobody would have thought that the search giant will change the face of mobile photography. With machine learning and AI, the brand has shown us that imaging is more than the sensor, aperture, etc. The Pixel 3 XL is clearly pushing the envelope further. Hardware-wise, the phone continues to utilise a 12.2-megapixel sensor, though it offers a wider aperture of f/1.8 this time around. Interestingly enough, while the phone continues with a single shooter at the back, it features a pair of 8MP shooters on the fascia.
Google has also reworked the camera interface and unlike the ultra-simplistic UI seen earlier (which was also confusing at times), this time, the Pixel 3 XL’s viewfinder has all the options laid out up front. You get the ability to switch between stills, video, portrait, panorama or access other modes like slow motion, Photo Sphere, etc. That’s not all, the smartphone also comes with a slew of features such as Top shot (uses on-device machine learning to detect blurred shots or when eyes are closed along with recommending the best shot as it clicks before and after you press the shutter button), Photobooth (automatically captures images when it detects smiles) and Playground (a revamped version of AR Stickers, which lets you bring say, Iron Man into the actual photo or selfie). My favourite is the Super Res Zoom, which ensures that quality doesn’t degrade even when you’re digitally zooming in (and thus, giving optical zoom-like functionality without the need of a telephoto lens). The device also gets numerous modes for videos such as Fused Video Stabilization, which offers smoother results and Motion Auto Focus to lock focus onto the moving subject. Photographers will also appreciate the fact that the Pixel 3 XL can shoot stills in the RAW format. The camera app also comes with Lens integration, and you can also scan QR codes, get links to web URLs or simply identify an object by opening the viewfinder and long-pressing the screen.
But how does all that translate to image quality? In a word – exceedingly well. I had high hopes from the Pixel 3 XL because of its legacy, and the smartphone didn’t disappoint. The handset captures impressive images across situations, which are full of details and offer natural colours too. The landscape images offer good sharpness levels and great contrast between various objects in the scene. Close-ups are also stunning, and offer bokeh effect which makes them all the more pleasing. Google’s HDR Auto mode can be credited for this, since it utilises computational skills to offer the best shots. The portrait mode is simply amazing, and it’s commendable how the brand has achieved this with a single camera, which many other phones haven’t been to get perfectly even with the use of dual shooters. Shots taken in poorly-lit conditions however, aren’t that impressive. You’ll notice that the phone isn’t able to control the exposure around the light source well, and there’s some amount of noise as well which creeps in. Having said that, the image captures colours quite well. Take a dekko at the camera samples captured from the Google Pixel 3 XL.
The Super Res Zoom is quite impressive too and it does try to keep noise to the minimum, though it’s better to use this mode in certain situations, and not zoom in too much (the app offers multiple levels of zoom, and my experience suggests that till level 3, details aren’t lost much).
With regards to selfies, the 8-megapixel f/1.8 shooter ensures that there’s ample amount of detail and the colours are accurate. And if you use the wide-angle shooter which also has an 8MP resolution (but comes with an aperture of f/2.2), then you can get a much wider frame in the image. This allows you to capture some creative shots, as you can click group selfies easily and ensure that the monument in the background isn’t cut-off. The phone is able to capture the depth-of-field effect in normal as well as the wide-angle mode with proper separation between the subject and the background. For videos, the smartphone can record 4K videos at 30fps, while the selfie shooter can shoot in 1080p. You can also click slow-mo videos at 120fps. Quality-wise, the fused video stabilisation is quite effective as the results are quite smooth.
Of course, you must be wondering if the Pixel 3 XL has any noticeable improvement over the Pixel 2 XL since the handsets share the same resolution for their primary snappers. Well, I’ll let the pictures below do the talking.
In a nutshell, the Google Pixel 3 XL, deservedly, gets the crown of the best camera phone out there.
Performance: smooth as a butter
CPU: Quad core, 2.5 GHz + Quad core, 1.6 GHz, Snapdragon 845
GPU: Adreno 630
RAM: 4 GB
Memory: 64 GB
SIM Slots: Single SIM , GSM
Not that it’s any surprise, but the Snapdragon 845 SoC coupled with 4GB RAM ensures that the Pixel 3 XL is able to deliver smooth performance. During my use, there was nary an instance when the smartphone stuttered or showed any lag while navigation, jumping between apps, or using split-screen multitasking. Thanks to the excellent OS optimisation, the phone usually had around a GB of RAM to spare, which is quite good.
With the Adreno 630 GPU accompanying the SD845 processor, gaming on the Google Pixel 3 XL is a delightful affair. I often lost track of time while playing the battle royale game PUBG Mobile or going on a zombie-killing spree in Unkilled as the smartphone offers realistic graphics without any frame drops whatsoever. Couple that with the stereo speakers which aren’t muted because of the placement of hands, and the phone becomes a great option for gaming on the go.
Talking about the sound quality, the handset is fairly loud and delivers rich output. You can easily hear the Pixel 3 XL’s ringtone in a loud metro and the good thing is that the sound doesn’t shriek at the full volume.
It’s worth mentioning that the Pixel 3 XL comes bundled with the Type-C earbuds, which aren’t just any other earphones. Google has added some smarts to the earphones as well, as they can read notifications whenever you get them, offer the ability to trigger Google Assistant and get real-time translation à la Pixel Buds. Thanks to 24-bit playback support, the audio output is impressive with ample bass, though it isn’t the loudest. Sadly though, the pair isn’t the most comfortable to wear for long sessions, which considering the price point of the handset becomes hard to fathom. You do get a Type-C to 3.5mm adapter that lets you use your standard pair of earphones with the smartphone.
Storage-wise, the base variant of the Google Pixel 3 XL ships with 64GB of memory onboard. After accounting for the OS and various resources, users will be able to access around 47.5GB. If you wish, you can also opt for the higher-end 128GB model, though it’s worth noting that you won’t be able to expand the memory, so choose wisely.
In terms of the connectivity, the Pixel 3 XL supports the usual options – 4G VoLTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS and NFC. What’s strange though is that the handset is among the few flagships that don’t offer dual-SIM capability. Considering the iPhones have also jumped on this bandwagon, it’s a huge disadvantage for the Google phone, especially in a country like India.
Battery: delivers a day’s worth of backup
Capacity: 3430 mAH, Li-ion, Non removable
In the battery department, the Pixel 3 XL is fuelled by a 3,430mAh pack, which is a shade less powerful than the 3,520mAh cell inside its predecessor. However, you don’t have to worry about carrying the charger everywhere as the new smartphone is able to offer good battery life. Charged fully in the morning, it was able to last through the evening till I reached home even with heavy usage, which included streaming podcasts, watching YouTube via Bluetooth, using GPS, being connected to the internet via 4G / Wi-Fi, a few calls and a little bit of gaming. That said, the phone won’t be able to last till the next day, although the adaptive battery feature should ensure that the device is able to deliver the best backup according to your usage behaviour. Our battery test shows similar results as well, for the Pixel 3 XL was able to playback an HD video on loop for about 12 hours, which is lower than 17 hours achieved by the 4,000mAh battery-laden Note9.
Google’s Pixel 3 XL also supports fast wireless charging, and I’ve to admit that just placing the handset on the charging mat to juice it up in comparison to fiddling with the charging cable is much more convenient. The brand has also introduced its own wireless charger in the form of the Pixel Stand, which is perhaps the best implementation of a wire-free charger I’ve come across as it acts as a dock and offers the ability to trigger Google Assistant, Smart Home integration, etc. The accessory is set to launch by the end of the month, and I’ll surely test it out to see how it adds to the experience. With the bundled adapter, the phone can go from 0 to 100 in about 60 to 70 minutes.
Lay of the land in terms of the competition
With a starting price of Rs 71,000 for the Google Pixel 3 and Rs 83,000 for the Pixel 3 XL, the duo goes up against stiff competition. And if you are wondering how they stack up against the rivals, here’s what you need to know.
Apple iPhone XS and XS Max (review)
The Cupertino giant’s latest offerings feature gorgeous OLED panels measuring 5.8-inches and 6.5-inches respectively with almost an edge-to-edge display minus the notch up top. Unlike previous years, both siblings sport dual rear cameras, offering features like portrait mode with the ability to adjust depth real-time or during post-editing. With the A12 Bionic chips under the hood, there’s little doubt that the devices will be the new benchmark in the performance department. In comparison, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are able to match up well, and offer wide-angle selfies in addition. However, Google’s offerings fall short when it comes to flaunt-worthy design and performance. But the new Pixel smartphones have an edge in terms of pricing, considering Apple handsets’ starting price is around the Rs 1 lakh mark.
Apple iPhone XR (upcoming)
Somehow I believe that the iPhone XR would be more suited as an alternative to the Pixel 3 duo than the iPhone XS and XS Max. That’s because, similar to Google’s offerings, the upcoming XR features a single rear camera that’s capable of offering software-based bokeh. The XR is also priced lower at Rs 76,990 for the base variant, which brings it smack in the middle of the asking price of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
In the Android world, Samsung’s latest and greatest, the Note9, will pose a solid challenge to the Pixel 3 flagships. Not only is the Samsung handset priced lower at Rs 67,900 for its base model, the phone is also more versatile and better suited for power users, with features like a 3.5mm headset socket, hybrid SIM slots (supporting either dual SIM or memory expansion, both of which the Pixel 3 and 3XL lack), 6GB RAM, S Pen and a beefy 4,000mAh battery. The Note9’s dual cameras are also quite impressive, though they might not be able to stand up against Google’s computational photography. The Pixels also come up ahead in the software department with their neat-and-clean Android experience and promise of monthly security patches and regular updates.
While Huawei was missing in on the action in India’s flagship smartphone space till last year, its triple camera-toting P20 Pro has certainly made this category more competitive. The P20 Pro also comes equipped with the latest features, be it a 6.1-inch notch-bearing screen, powerful processor, dual-SIM support or waterproof construction. Similar to the Note9 however, the P20 Pro won’t be able to match the image quality offered by the Pixel 3 phones and falls behind in terms of the OS too. That said, the Mate 20 and 20 Pro are unveiling tomorrow, and might launch in the coming months in India, which could present a strong competition to the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
However, in my opinion, the biggest competition to the Google Pixel 3 siblings won’t be similarly-priced rivals, but affordable flagships like the OnePlus 6 and the upcoming OnePlus 6T. If you discount the camera prowess and software experience, then most of these handsets should be able to offer everything the Pixel 3 and 3XL pack in.
So where does that leave us?
I wish the answer was binary. Don’t get me wrong, I want to love the Pixel 3 XL, considering I used the first-gen Pixel as my daily driver and always considered the Pixel 2 XL as the phone to beat when it comes to cameras and software fluidity (though the device had serious issues with regards to the display). However, Rs 83,000 for Google’s latest is a huge ask, especially when you take into account the rivals. It’s also hard to justify more than 10 percent jump in price, since the Pixel 2 XL started at Rs 73,000 and its successor is an iterative upgrade.
Everything considered, if you absolutely need a no-nonsense smartphone with the best shooter that can serve your needs in all sorts of situations, then the smaller sibling, the Google Pixel 3 could make better sense, as it offers everything the Pixel 3 XL brings. And in theory, you could even go with the Pixel 2 XL as it’s available around Rs 45,000 now, and you won’t be missing out on much. For most others, the Samsung Galaxy Note9 could prove to be a more practical buy, since it comes across as a more well-rounded option. And then there are the new Apple iPhones to consider too, though that involves making a choice of ecosystem. It’s a tricky choice to make, especially given the outlay involved.
All said and done, if you do choose to spend the kind of money Google wants you to on a brand-new Pixel 3 XL, you’ll be rewarded with a phone that delivers the best photos in almost all conditions, works well as a daily driver, and most importantly, adapts and learns over time… keeping you on the cutting edge of smartphone tech, at least till the time the Pixel 4 appears.
Editor’s rating: 4 / 5
- A stunning always-on display
- IP68 protection against dust and water
- Still the best camera around
- The secondary selfie sensor enables versatile shooting modes
- Flagship internals ensure smooth performance
- Interesting software capabilities
- A powerful battery with wireless charging support
- The deep-and-wide notch is hard to ignore
- The software isn’t free of bugs
- 4GB RAM might pose problems in long-term use
- Steep pricing
Photos by Raj Rout