Google Pixel 3 XL hands on: A lot of phone, a lot of notch, and a lot of money

It is what we thought it was.

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Let’s just get this out of the way: The Pixel 3 XL is not a pretty phone. It’s got a canyon for a notch, a val­ley for a chin, and thick bezels around its screen. Put it in a Pepsi chal­lenge with any 2018 phone—and even some 2017 mod­els— and nearly ev­ery­one will pick the other hand­set based on looks alone. The smaller Pixel 3 may look slightly less homely, with a smaller Pixel 2 XL aes­thetic, but you can pretty much throw a rock and hit a bet­ter-look­ing An­droid phone.

But while it might not be much to look at, the Pixel 3 XL is a joy to hold, with an

in­cred­i­ble matte-glass back that feels like me­tal to the touch and won’t pick up nearly as many fin­ger­prints as other phones. Se­ri­ously, you’re not go­ing to want to put this phone in a case—it feels that good. Some­one else will have to test the dura­bil­ity com­pared to other glass-backed phones, be­cause I don’t want to get a scratch on mine.

The three col­ors of the Pixel 3 are fine, though I miss the two-tone “tuxedo” op­tion of the 2 XL. The new Not Pink color is neu­tral to the point of be­ing san­i­tized, and it looks more beige than pink to my eyes. My fa­vorite of the three is white, which has a nice mint­green ac­cent on the power but­ton.

Be­fore we go any fur­ther, let’s talk about the notch. I don’t know why Google didn’t put one on the 5.5-inch model, but it only makes the 3 XL stand out more. And not in a good way. It’s big. And deep. Where other phone mak­ers are try­ing to shrink and hide their notch be­hind soft­ware tricks, Google seems to be very proud of the “ex­tra use­ful space at the top” of its phone (se­ri­ously, the com­pany said that.)

I don’t know how use­ful it is, but the space around it is def­i­nitely no­tice­able. Whether you’re watch­ing full-screen videos or just us­ing an app, the depth of the notch pushes the screen down way lower than on other phones. Peo­ple are go­ing to have feel­ings about it, I can tell you that much.

PRETTY ON THE IN­SIDE

But the beauty of the Pixel 3, as they say, isn’t skin-deep. It’s about what’s in­side the notch, un­der the bezels, be­hind the screen. Google has loaded the Pixel with a ton of help­ful AI and cam­era tricks, along with some of the best specs you can get in an An­droid phone.

Like al­ways, both phones have the same pro­ces­sor (Snap­dragon 845), RAM (4GB), and stor­age (64GB or 128GB), as well as the same front (dual 8MP) and rear (12.2MP) cam­eras. De­spite hav­ing a larger screen, the Pixel 3 XL is re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the 2 XL, with the 3 XL adding just a tenth of a mil­lime­ter to the height. That means old cases should work

fine. The Pixel 3, on the other hand, is much smaller than the 2, mostly due to a se­ri­ous trim­ming of the lat­ter’s bezels. The 5.5-inch Pixel 3 feels down­right tiny com­pared to the sea of 6-inch-plus phones out there.

The head­phone jack hasn’t made a re­turn, though this time around Google is bundling a pair of USB-C Pixel Buds in the box along with a Usb-c-to-3.5mm adapter, so your non-blue­tooth needs are cov­ered. Both phones still have front-fir­ing speak­ers as well, which Google says are 40 per­cent louder than be­fore. To test them out, all Pixel buy­ers get a free six-month sub­scrip­tion to Youtube Mu­sic. Both phones ob­vi­ously run An­droid Pie with ges­ture nav­i­ga­tion turned on by de­fault and guess what—you can’t turn it off. It’s pos­si­ble that Google re­lents and adds a switch in a later up­date (the Pixel 3 XL I used was run­ning the same 9.0 ver­sion as the older Pix­els), but for now it’s ges­ture nav­i­ga­tion or bust.

With an all-glass back, both phones now have wire­less charg­ing, so Google is sell­ing a $79 Pixel Stand that props your phone up while it’s charg­ing. The de­sign is ba­sic but it works—i had a much harder time miss­ing the sweet spot when I put the Pixel 3 on its stand than I do with tra­di­tional charg­ing mats.

The Pixel Stand is more than just an up­right Qi charger with Pixel-style curves. Set your Pixel on the charger, and Google As­sis­tant will take over your lock screen and turn your phone into a mini smart dis­play, with a unique in­ter­face that pro­vides in­for­ma­tion at a glance, song lyrics, sug­ges­tions, and OK Google sup­port. And if you set an alarm, it will grad­u­ally il­lu­mi­nate to wake you up nice and slow, rather than blare “The Big Ad­ven­ture” when the alarm strikes.

That’s what re­ally sets the Pixel 3 apart from the field: lit­tle touches meant to sur­prise and de­light you. Flip it over when you’re at din­ner, and your no­ti­fi­ca­tions will stop both­er­ing you. Want to make reser­va­tions?

Google is im­ple­ment­ing its new Du­plex fea­ture first on the Pixel 3, so As­sis­tant will be able to call restau­rants for your next meal.

But the big­gest wow mo­ment is a fea­ture called Call Screen. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, and there wasn’t even a canned demo in the hands-on area. But the way it works is Google As­sis­tant will of­fer to an­swer a call from a sus­pected spam num­ber. You’ll get a tran­scrip­tion of its con­ver­sa­tion in real time, and you can choose ei­ther to pick it up or let As­sis­tant han­dle it. Both Du­plex fea­tures will be com­ing to the Pixel 3 first, fol­lowed by all other Pix­els next month.

ALL-SEE­ING CAM­ERAS

The front cam­era on the Pixel is now a du­alar­ray rather than a sin­gle one, but it’s not for por­traits or stu­dio light­ing ef­fects. It’s a wide-an­gle lens, so you can vary the field of view us­ing a new slider at the bot­tom of the screen. Or you can turn on Pho­to­booth to trig­ger the selfie cam with a funny face or a smile rather than a timer or an awk­ward fum­ble for the shut­ter but­ton. It works—it sim­ply re­fused to snap a pic if I was frown­ing.

Around the back, the cam­era is still pow­ered by the su­perb Pixel Vis­ual Core image pro­ces­sor, and Google is us­ing it to its full po­ten­tial in the Pixel 3. The coolest fea­ture is what Google calls Top Shot. When you shoot with Mo­tion Pho­tos on the Pixel 3, the cam­era doesn’t just cre­ate mini GIFS. It also ex­trap­o­lates those pics into a series of im­ages both be­fore and af­ter the shot, so if you miss what you wanted to shoot, you can choose the one you meant

to take. It worked in­cred­i­bly well in my ini­tial test­ing, and it should prove to be a killer fea­ture for photo-happy par­ents.

Also new to the Pixel is Su­per Res Zoom, which uses Google’s ma­chine-learn­ing magic to sim­u­late op­ti­cal zoom us­ing the Pixel’s dig­i­tal zoom. I’d still rather have a real-deal zoom lens, but even when zoomed all the way out, the pics I snapped were less noisy than on other phones. There’s also a new low-light mode called Night Sight, as well as some fun AR stick­ers as part of the new Play­ground fea­ture. Both of those fea­tures will be avail­able on all old Pixel phones as well.

Buy­ing an old Pixel might be what most peo­ple do this year. That’s be­cause the Pixel 3 costs more than ever. The smaller model starts at $799, $150 more than the Pixel 2, and the XL is $899, also more than last year’s model, but only by $50. Google re­cently slashed the price of the Pixel 2 XL to $699, a full $300 less than the 3 XL.

Dur­ing its pre­sen­ta­tion, Google said the Pixel 3 is all about “do­ing more with your day and less with your tech.” That may be true.

But if you’re spend­ing a small for­tune on a phone, you prob­a­bly want to get your money’s worth.

The white Pixel 3 has a sub­tle shot of color on the power but­ton.

The back of the Pixel 3 XL is nice to look at but even nicer to touch.

Yup, that’s a notch all right.

Sorry, there’s still no head­phone jack. But there is a pair of USB-C Pixel Buds in the box.

With Top Shot on the Pixel 3, you lit­er­ally can’t miss the mo­ment.

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