Re­views & Rat­ings

Google hasn’t just made a great An­droid phone, it’s made a whole new Pixel.

PCWorld (USA) - - Contents - BY MICHAEL SI­MON

Af­ter spend­ing nearly a week with the Pixel 3 XL, my three first im­pres­sions of Google’s new­est hand­set haven’t changed: It’s the fastest An­droid phone I’ve ever used. The cam­eras are awe­some. The notch is an eye­sore.

Thank­fully, the first two qual­i­ties make up for the third. Mostly. If the Pixel 3 XL didn’t have such an os­ten­ta­tious notch, it would still be an ugly phone, but af­ter a cou­ple days I wouldn’t have cared any­more. Six days later, the notch is still the first thing my eyes go to ev­ery time I un­lock my phone. It would be one thing if there was some next-gen­er­a­tion cam­era or sen­sor that de­manded such a large notch. But as it stands, there ap­pears to be a lot of un­nec­es­sary space around the twin cam­eras, am­bi­ent light sen­sor, and speaker that live in­side it.

But I don’t want to waste too many words de­bat­ing the mer­its of the Pixel 3 XL’S notch. Google has al­ready sig­naled that it will be adding a way to black it out via soft­ware— which may or may not im­prove things ( go.pc­world.com/3xln)— and it ba­si­cally comes down to pref­er­ence. If you can deal with it, get the Pixel 3 XL. If not, get the notch­less

Pixel 3. It’s that simple.

Be­cause oth­er­wise, the Pixel 3 is more than just another great An­droid phone. It’s the emer­gence of the Pixel as a bona fide smart­phone plat­form. There are fea­tures of other phones that may be bet­ter—the Galaxy S9’s de­sign ( go.pc­world.com/gs9r), the Huawei P20’s cam­era hard­ware ( go.pc­world.com/9v20), the Note 9’s bat­tery ( go. pc­world.com/n9bt)— but no sin­gle An­droid phone can top the end-to-end per­for­mance that Google de­liv­ers with the Pixel 3.

A NICE BACK, A GREAT SCREEN

The back of the Pixel has al­ways looked bet­ter than the front, but that stark jux­ta­po­si­tion is am­pli­fied to an ab­surd level on the Pixel 3. The all-glass back of Google’s new phone is one of the nicest I’ve ever used, even in Google’s rel­a­tively pedes­trian as­sort­ment of col­ors.

The new Pixel doesn’t need the reception-friendly glass win­dow any­more, but the Pixel 3 nonethe­less re­tains the trade­mark two-tone look of its pre­de­ces­sors. The cor­ners of the square are now curved to match the phone’s shape, giv­ing the de­sign a nat­u­ral flow it didn’t have be­fore.

To mimic the alu­minum look and feel of the first two Pix­els, the bot­tom of the Pixel 3 XL is made of frosted glass, and it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe how lux­u­ri­ous it feels. Back when it cre­ated the iphone 7’s ( go.pc­world.com/i7rv) “jet black” color, Ap­ple de­vel­oped a new manufacturing process that gave the alu­minum a glass-like feel. Google’s frosted glass has the op­po­site ef­fect: It makes the Pixel’s glass back feel like smooth alu­minum. The re­sult is a tex­ture that’s less slip­pery and fin­ger-print-prone than most other glass phones. I’ve picked up a cou­ple of scratches dur­ing my first case-less week with it, but they gen­er­ally wiped off and aren’t nearly as no­tice­able as

they are on other all-glass phones.

The sides of the Pixel 3 are alu­minum to match the back color, with the non-black mod­els once again fea­tur­ing a col­ored power but­ton to break up the monotony. And of course, there’s no head­phone jack, though Google is fi­nally bundling a pair of Google As­sis­tant and Trans­late-ca­pa­ble USB-C Pixel Buds in the box.

Flip the phone over, how­ever, and the re­fine­ment ends. Other than the de­servedly ma­ligned notch, it has rel­a­tively thick bezels around the top and sides, along with a chin that’s about as big as last year’s 2 XL ( go. pc­world.com/px2l). The front-fir­ing stereo speak­ers that sound great are present as well, which some­what breaks up the empty space be­low the screen. Another an­noy­ance: The cor­ners at the bot­tom of the screen don’t match the shape of the ones at the top of the screen, mak­ing the phone ap­pear even more un­bal­anced than it should. Even when you find an app that’s op­ti­mized for the tall notch, it just doesn’t look quite right.

What does look right is the dis­play it­self. While the Pixel 3 XL has ba­si­cally the same Quad HD 1440 P-OLED screen as the Pixel 2 XL (al­beit with a slightly lower 523 ppi), the dis­plays couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Where my Pixel 2 XL’S screen is dull and life­less, the Pixel 3 XL’S dis­play is as sharp, bright, and vi­brant as any

OLED I’ve used, with none of the an­noy­ing blue shift that plagued its pre­de­ces­sor. I didn’t even need to ad­just the color set­tings from Nat­u­ral like I didn’t with the 2 XL.

It also feels bet­ter to the touch. There was a cheap­ness to the Pixel 2 XL’S oleo­pho­bic coat­ing (the thing that’s sup­posed to pre­vent it from col­lect­ing un­sightly fin­ger­prints) that wore down over time and made the screen ap­pear even more muted. But the glass on the Pixel 3 XL feels much bet­ter to my fin­gers. And the speed and crisp­ness of an­i­ma­tions make it feel like it has a 120Hz re­fresh rate (it doesn’t).

We al­ready saw the re­sults of LG’S new dis­play process in the V40, and it’s even more ev­i­dent here. The clar­ity of the dis­play on the Pixel 2 XL was its big­gest weak­ness, but on the 3 XL Google has turned the dis­play into a strength, notch and all.

AV­ER­AGE SPECS, IN­CRED­I­BLE SPEEDS

On pa­per, the Pixel 3 XL isn’t all that im­pres­sive. It’s got a Snapdragon 845 pro­ces­sor with 4GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of stor­age, and a 3,430mah bat­tery. Nearly ev­ery one of its com­peti­tors of­fers at least 6GB of RAM, more in­ter­nal stor­age along with an SD card slot, and greater bat­tery ca­pac­ity. But the new Pixel does more with less.

Per­for­mance-wise, the Pixel 3 XL is in­sanely fast. And it needs to be, since An­droid 9’s new ges­ture nav­i­ga­tion isn’t just on by de­fault—it’s the only way to use the

Pixel 3. I’ve been us­ing it on the Pixel 2 XL for awhile, but on the Pixel 3, “Swipe up on Home but­ton” feels more nat­u­ral then ever. An­i­ma­tions fly, app switch­ing is but­tery smooth, and the new hap­tic feed­back en­gine gives the whole sys­tem a sub­tle tac­til­ity that makes it much eas­ier to grasp.

But it’s not just nav­i­ga­tion that’s faster. The Pixel 3 is so speedy and smooth, it feels like a new vari­a­tion of the Snapdragon 845 chip, like the 821 in the orig­i­nal Pixel. The Pixel 3 XL makes newer phones like the LG V40 and

Note 9 seem laggy by com­par­i­son and last year’s hand­sets (in­clud­ing the Pixel 2 XL) ba­si­cally ob­so­lete.

The bat­tery isn’t quite as im­pres­sive as the speed gains, but it’s still very good. The ca­pac­ity is a touch smaller than the Pixel 2 XL’S 3,520mah bat­tery with even more pix­els to push, so you’re not go­ing to see any ma­jor real-world gains. It’s about as good as the Pixel 2 XL, which is to say it’s good enough for most days, but heavy work­loads will re­quire a power boost be­fore the day’s up. It’s not quite in the league of the all-day-and-then-some Note 9 or the iphone XS ( go.pc­world.com/ixsm), but Google prom­ises that the Pixel’s adap­tive bat­tery will learn your habits and shut down bat­tery-killing apps and pro­cesses. It’s some­thing I’ll keep an eye on for sure, but dur­ing my first few days with the Pixel 3 XL, I got about 6 hours of screen-on time, which is ac­cept­able for a $900 phone but cer­tainly not mind-blow­ing.

Ba­si­cally, the new Pixel feels like the An­droid equiv­a­lent of a new iphone, with a su­per­speedy UI, ac­cept­able bat­tery, and bare-min­i­mum RAM. The Pixel 3 may run An­droid 9, but the plat­form is pure Google. The back-end op­ti­miza­tion and cus­tomiza­tions at play on the Pixel 3 breathe new life into An­droid, in a way that part­ners such as Sam­sung or Huawei just can’t du­pli­cate. It’s al­most like Google is mak­ing a state­ment with the Pixel 3: Specs alone don’t make the phone.

AN AS­SIS­TANT THAT AC­TU­ALLY AS­SISTS

With the Pixel 3, Google isn’t merely show­cas­ing the best An­droid has to of­fer. It’s build­ing an Ai-driven plat­form that no other smart­phone can match. There’s the bloat-free app drawer and prom­ise of reg­u­lar up­dates, of course, but even beyond that, the third-gen Pixel el­e­vates Google As­sis­tant to a sys­tem-level fea­ture like Do Not Dis­turb or the new Dig­i­tal Wellbeing.

We got a good look at Google’s Ai-cen­tric vi­sion with Lens and Ac­tive Edge on the Pixel 2, but the Pixel 3 el­e­vates As­sis­tant in real and prac­ti­cal ways. It’s most vis­i­ble in the Phone app. The some­what con­tro­ver­sial, some­what in­con­ceiv­able Du­plex chat bot will be able to make restau­rant reser­va­tions on your be­half.

When you re­ceive a call on your Pixel 3, a new Call Screen but­ton lets Google As­sis­tant answer the phone for you. You’ll be able to see a real-time trans­la­tion of what the per­son on the other end says, and you can ei­ther pick up the call or con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion us­ing As­sis­tant. It’s re­mark­able in both its abil­i­ties and accuracy, and I’m ac­tu­ally look­ing for­ward to the first time a tele­mar­keter calls.

But what’s truly as­ton­ish­ing is that this tech­nol­ogy ex­ists in a smart­phone. It’s the kind of fea­ture that sep­a­rates the Pixel from the rest of the field. And while these fea­tures are launch­ing on the Pixel 3, they won’t re­main ex­clu­sive to the new­est hand­sets. The en­tire Pixel plat­form—that is to say, all three gen­er­a­tions of the phone—will be gain­ing Call Screen, Du­plex, and a few other new AI fea­tures. These aren’t mere weather re­ports and alarms. We’re look­ing at real-world AI ap­pli­ca­tions that will ac­tu­ally en­rich our lives, and not just cut down on how of­ten we need to tap the screen.

AI MAKES A SIN­GLE CAM­ERA FEEL LIKE TWO

Since the first Pixel ar­rived, Google has

de­liv­ered spec­tac­u­lar re­sults from a rel­a­tively tame cam­era ar­ray thanks to its stel­lar AI and post-pro­cess­ing prow­ess.

And as ex­pected, the main cam­era on the Pixel 3 hasn’t changed at all (12.2 MP, f/1.8, 1.4μm, OIS), though Google says the sen­sor has been up­graded.

But even with­out a sec­ond lens or Dslr-style man­ual con­trols, Google has given the Pixel 3’s photo-tak­ing abil­i­ties quite an up­grade. There are sev­eral new modes and en­hance­ments that make cap­tur­ing the per­fect photo both fun and easy, thanks in large part to a new Pixel

Vis­ual Core im­age pro­cess­ing chip. Chief among them is a fea­ture called Top Shot that takes the gim­micky Live Pho­tos and makes it use­ful.

When the AI en­gine de­tects some­thing moved in the frame just as you were snap­ping the shut­ter, it’ll of­fer up a se­ries of im­age op­tions cap­tured be­fore and af­ter the shut­ter squeeze. This lets you grab a pic be­fore some­one blinked or af­ter some­thing blew into your shot. It’s a lit­tle tricky to find—you need to swipe up on the pic in Pho­tos to see the mul­ti­ple images avail­able—but it’s a fan­tas­tic fea­ture.

With­out a sec­ond lens, Google’s photo AI does all the heavy lift­ing on the Pixel 3, han­dling por­trait mode again, as well as two new fea­tures, Su­per Res Zoom and Night Sight. These AI tricks com­pen­sate for the Pixel’s un­der­whelm­ing hard­ware, and they mostly get the job done.

Por­trait mode has been im­proved over the al­ready-great Pixel 2’s im­ple­men­ta­tion, and you now have the abil­ity to change the spe­cific amount of bokeh ef­fect you want, as well as iso­late your sub­ject against a blackand-white background. Su­per Res Zoom, mean­while, does an ad­mirable job of

grab­bing de­tail and qui­et­ing the usual noise you get from dig­i­tal zoom. I didn’t get to test the low-light en­hancer Night Sight, as it wasn’t avail­able at the time of test­ing, but it works much the same way, us­ing AI to stitch to­gether a bunch of images with vary­ing ex­po­sures to cre­ate one that’s brighter and crisper than a reg­u­lar shot.

At this point, how­ever, the Pixel’s cam­era is ba­si­cally equal parts ar­ro­gance and hubris. No mat­ter how good the Pixel 3’s cam­era is—and trust me, it’s re­ally good—it would be that much bet­ter with op­ti­cal zoom, a wider aper­ture, or a sec­ond lens. Like EIS on the orig­i­nal Pixel (which was re­placed with

OIS on the Pixel 2), com­pu­ta­tional photography can only do so much. It’s truly im­pres­sive what Google can do with a sin­gle lens, and the Pixel’s all-ai method re­sults in some truly ex­cel­lent shots you can’t get on any other phone. Nonethe­less, I can’t help but won­der how much bet­ter the Vis­ual

Core would be with a cam­era sys­tem like the one in the Note 9 or LG V40.

TWO CAM­ERAS RE­ALLY ARE BET­TER THAN ONE

The front cam­era is a dif­fer­ent story. If you look in­side the XL’S notch (or in the left cor­ner of the bezels on the Pixel 3), you’ll see Google has ac­tu­ally up­graded the cam­era hard­ware, adding a sec­ond wide-an­gle lens for so-called groupies: Main cam­era: 8MP, f/1.8, 75-de­gree FOV Sec­ondary cam­era: 8MP, f/2.2, 97-de­gree FOV

That wide-an­gle front cam­era is about as wide as the main rear cam­era, and I’ll ad­mit it’s a cool fea­ture: With a swipe along the bot­tom slider you can dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the field of view to let more peo­ple or more scenery in. Also fun is the Pho­to­booth fea­ture that will snap a pic when the cam­era sees some­thing photo-wor­thy on your face, like a smile.

The Pixel 3’s front cam­era ar­ray shows how strong hard­ware can boost the re­sults of com­pu­ta­tional photography, but there’s a catch: The sec­ond lens on the front doesn’t help with bokeh-ef­fect por­traits, like it does on other phones with two front cam­eras. Por­traits have cer­tainly im­proved on the Pixel 3, but they’re more hit-or-miss com­pared to Google’s dual-cam­era peers. Again, it’s in­cred­i­ble to see Google’s AI suss out where the sub­ject ends and the background be­gins, but lever­ag­ing a sec­ond lens would surely re­sults in even bet­ter shots.

VER­DICT

You need to ask your­self three ques­tions be­fore de­cid­ing to spend $899 or $999 on the Pixel 3 XL:

• Does hard­ware de­sign mat­ter more than soft­ware?

• Does cam­era hard­ware mat­ter more than im­age pro­cess­ing?

• Do the best hard­ware specs mat­ter more than the lat­est soft­ware?

More than ever, that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Pixel 3 and ev­ery other An­droid phone: hard­ware ver­sus soft­ware. There’s the ridicu­lously good cam­era. The

sur­pris­ing and de­light­ful AI flour­ishes. The An­droid 9 op­ti­miza­tion. Out of the box, the Pixel 3 XL doesn’t feel like another great An­droid phone, it feels like a whole new plat­form. And as Google com­mits to bring­ing new fea­tures to old phones, the gulf be­tween the Pixel fam­ily and the rest of An­droid will only grow wider. Yes, it costs more than ever (in the case of the smaller model, nearly 25 per­cent more), but Google is es­tab­lish­ing a new level of pre­mium with the Pixel 3 XL.

Of course, if you al­ready own a Pixel 2 buy­ing the Pixel 3 may not make much sense, as so many killer fea­tures will trickle down to the en­tire Pixel fam­ily. But if you haven’t up­graded your phone in more than one or two years, the Pixel 3 has to be con­sid­ered—es­pe­cially if you value a locked-down soft­ware ex­pe­ri­ence above ev­ery­thing else.

And that’s the point of the Pixel 3: turn­ing Pixel into a plat­form. Like the iphone, Google is putting the user ex­pe­ri­ence ahead of the specs or fea­tures enthusiasts crave. It may be a tougher sell—es­pe­cially at pre­mium prices—but it also comes with a guar­an­tee few other phones can of­fer: This time next year, it’ll ac­tu­ally be bet­ter.

The green power but­ton is the Pixel 3’s most dis­tinc­tive de­sign fea­ture—other than the notch.

You’ll find two front cam­eras and a speaker in the notch. It sure looks like these com­po­nents have ex­ces­sive breath­ing room.

The dis­play on the Pixel 3 XL (left) is dra­mat­i­cally brighter, crisper, and more vi­brant than that of the Pixel 2 XL.

Would you like some chin to go with your notch?

The Pixel 3 XL’S 6.3-inch screen fits well in your hand.

With the Pixel 3 XL (left), Google has added more than a quar­ter­inch of screen in the same body as the Pixel 2 XL.

The Pixel 3 XL (top) is the ex­act same thick­ness as the Pixel 2 XL but it’s been im­proved in ev­ery way.

The Pixel 3’s Call Screen fea­ture lets As­sis­tant be your, well, as­sis­tant.

Por­traits from the Pixel 3 XL (left) are no­tice­ably im­proved over the Pixel 2 XL (cen­ter), but only a true dual-cam­era phone such as the Galaxy Note 9 (right) is able to con­sis­tently nail down the edge de­tails.

In op­ti­mal light­ing, the Pixel 3 XL (left) takes truly re­mark­able pic­tures, with bet­ter color accuracy, background de­tail, and ex­po­sure than ei­ther the Pixel 2 XL (cen­ter) or Galaxy Note 9 (right).

The Pixel 3 XL’S Su­per Res Zoom (left) does a stand-up job, but it can’t com­pete with the Note 9’s ac­tual op­ti­cal zoom lens.

The Group Selfie Cam makes a big dif­fer­ence when try­ing to cram peo­ple (and non-peo­ple) into a shot.

Yup, that’s clearly white.

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