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Pixel 3 Review: Google Has Outdone Itself

by Brandon Russell | October 25, 2018October 25, 2018 1:00 pm PST

There has always been something different about Google’s Pixel series. When it debuted in 2016, it felt like Google was content to run its own race, slow and steady, forging a path away from everyone else. Rather than impress with glitzy hardware, Google played to its strengths by prioritizing powerful machine learning.

Two years later and the search giant is now in a full sprint, better and stronger than ever. With the Pixel 3, Google has created a device with the best software experience on the market, no question. But the device’s design is finally good, too, offering terrific speakers, wireless charging, and a best-in-class camera.

The Pixel 3 is the most focused smartphone we’ve ever seen from Google, and one of those rare devices that fulfills all of its promises. You want power? You want unique software features? You want a wonderful camera experience? The Pixel 3 does it all—and, in some cases, it does everything better than its rivals.

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What’s most compelling about the Pixel 3 is how seamlessly everything works together. The at-a-glance feature provides information before you want it, and now playing still feels like a small miracle. But it’s the Pixel 3’s Call Screen feature that represents the best of Google. You’ll never be bothered by a spam call again.

That feature alone makes the Pixel 3 worthwhile—but the device is more than just a clever caller ID.

Note: I tested the Pixel 3 and not the Pixel 3 XL. Check out Jon’s video review for his thoughts about the Pixel 3 XL’s battery life and display notch.

An evolving design

For the third year in a row, Google’s Pixel smartphone has stuck with the same two-tone design, something that’s become a signature of the Pixel line. But this year there’s one major difference.

Thanks to some thoughtful refinement, the Pixel 3 finally looks and feels like a high-end smartphone, like it belongs beside the iPhone XS and Galaxy S9. Gone is the coldness of aluminum for a more premium all-glass build. And the back is matted, making the device easier and more comfortable to hold. There’s often a criticism lobbed at all-glass phones that they’re slippery, but that’s not the case with the Pixel 3.

Compared to the Pixel 2, the sides are also more rounded, improving the ergonomics over the previous two models. What’s really impressive is how carefully Google engineered the Pixel 3’s seams. Although they’re visible, the seams feel non-existent; the rear glass melts perfectly into the frame. It’s a fit and finish we have yet to see from a Pixel smartphone.

We should note, however, that people have already begun to complain that the matte finish can easily be scratched off. I didn’t notice any issues while using the Pixel 3 for review. To be fair, I also used a fabric case for half of my review. We’ll have to keep an eye on the device’s durability over the next few months.

The Pixel 3 features a 5.5-inch OLED display, which looks bright and beautiful to my eyes. It doesn’t quite match the resolution of its bigger brother, but content is still plenty sharp and color reproduction is fantastic.

When the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were released last year, the larger version’s OLED display was criticized for a multitude of issues. So far as I can tell, Google has taken great care not to repeat the same mistakes twice. I can’t speak to the Pixel 3 XL’s display, but rest assured that the Pixel 3’s 5.5-inch panel, which is LG-made, looks terrific.

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The only concern I have about the screen is that it doesn’t have a feature similar to Apple’s True Tone technology, which adjusts the display to match the color temperature of ambient light. Google put a similar feature in its Home Hub but refrained from doing the same with its smartphone. Having used the iPhone X over the past year, I really missed the feature when using the Pixel 3.

Unlike the Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel 3 doesn’t feature a display notch. Instead, the device looks like a shrunken Pixel 2 XL, keeping the same forehead and chin bezels. I don’t mind the look. But, then again, I don’t mind devices that have a notch.

Because the device’s display isn’t quite as edge-to-edge, the Pixel 3’s overall footprint is around the size of the iPhone XS, despite having a smaller display (5.5 inches vs. 5.8 inches); the Pixel 3 is a little bit taller and a little bit narrower.

Found in the Pixel 3’s forehead and chin are front-facing speakers, which sound crisp and clean, with very little distortion when cranked to max volume (something I wouldn’t do anyway, since I rely on headphones).

On that note, you’ll either need an adapter for wired headphones or you’ll need to own a pair of Bluetooth headphones with the Pixel 3, because it doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Google also includes a pair of wired headphones that connects to the Pixel 3’s USB-C port—and they don’t sound half bad.

We got the white model from Google to review, which I think looks the best out of the three options; the other two being not pink and black. The white is bright and pops beautifully, with a sleek mint power button that accents the device nicely.

Overall, the Pixel 3 is easily Google’s most elegant smartphone design. We already knew the search giant was capable of creating beautiful hardware—the Pixelbook is a great example—and Google finally showed what it can do with the Pixel 3. It’s unique, too, which is a huge plus in a market of sameness.

Software the keeps getting better

Do yourself a favor and try out Google’s version of Android. There’s no bloat and the software feels incredibly smooth, to the point of rivaling Apple’s iOS. Animations are fast and everything runs wonderfully, whether you’d switching apps or swiping up to the app drawer.

By the way, that’s one of the new features with this year’s release of Android 9 Pie. Similar to the iPhone XS, Google’s software now prioritizes navigation gestures. It takes some getting used to, especially if you’re fond of Android’s traditional three-button layout.

Like I said when the first developer preview of Android 9 Pie was released earlier this year, Google’s navigation gestures are a little clunky compared to Apple’s. You’ll simply have to use the gestures a lot for them to become muscle memory.

That’s the only thing I can criticize regarding software on the Pixel 3. Everything else I really like, including Now Playing, At-a-Glance, and the always on display. I didn’t really use the device’s Active Edge features, something I feel is similar to Apple’s 3D Touch—unnecessary and forgettable.

There’s also Google’s Digital Wellbeing, which shows users how much time they’ve spent on their phone. You can do things like set app timers and also turn on Wind Down, a feature that will turn your display to Grayscale before you go to bed.

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But easily the most impressive new software feature is Call Screen. When a call comes in, Call Screen can determine if that call is spam. You can then press a “screen call” button, prompting an automated service to take the call for you.

The caller on the other end of the line will be warned that they’re talking to a call screening service from Google. As the conversation goes on, you can either mark it as spam or pick it up. Throughout the whole transaction, you’ll get to see a real time transcript of what’s being said.

The feature has already saved me from a handful of spam calls, which have become more frequent over the past several months for one reason or another. It’s so incredibly useful that I’d like to officially call on every company that makes a phone to create their own Call Screen, or use Google’s.

Honestly, that’s reason alone to consider the Pixel 3. There’s something very satisfying about forcing a spam caller to listen to a robot recording. Every time I used Call Screen, the caller either quickly gave up or I was able to gather enough information to make a decision about whether I wanted to take the call or not.

It sure beats getting the familiar spiel about lowering my credit rate blah blah blah.

The best camera in mobile

It should come as no surprise that the Pixel 3’s camera is where it really excels. The device comes equipped with a single 12.2MP dual-pixel camera with both optical and electronic image stabilization. Notice how Google has yet again stuck with a single sensor, which works in conjunction with its Visual Core chip.

From a hardware perspective, things are essentially the same as last year, with many of the new features and improvements a direct result of Google’s unrivaled machine learning and algorithms.

Like last year, Google is again making HDR+ the star of the show. Basically, the camera captures up to 8 frames and merge them together. The results are fantastic, as you can see in a camera comparison we did against the iPhone XS.

Google has also introduced several new camera features: Top Shot, Photobooth, Group Selfie, Playground, Night Sight, Motion Auto Focus, Super Res Zoom, and RAW. Portrait Mode also returns, now with a new feature that allows users to change focus intensity after the fact.

After spending quality time with the Pixel 3’s camera, we can confidently say Google’s camera is once again the best there is. Photos capture impressive detail while HDR+ applies just the right amount of highlight and shadow detail. And pictures remain sharp toward the edges, which is important.

The Pixel 3 also does a great job of producing accurate colors, with shots that are social media-ready right off the device. If you do like to perform a little post surgery, you can always save your photos in RAW and edit them later.

Speaking of which, Google’s new Top Shot feature encourages you to edit your photos, but now in the way you think. The feature uses on-device machine learning to find the best shot out of a series of shots. “It also detects blur, gaze, and focus to recommend great shots and save them in beautiful HDR+ and higher resolution.”

Basically, if you capture someone blinking in a photo, you can edit the photo to see other frames in that series. Google’s software will then point out images in that series it thinks are better than the one you captured. It’s a cool feature and is reminiscent of Apple’s Live Photos feature, where you can choose a different cover frame than the one you end up with.

Some of Google’s other new features are just as awesome. Group Selfie takes advantage of the Pixel 3’s dual front-facing cameras, making it much easier to capture more of the scene around you when snapping a selfie. Then there’s Super Res Zoom, a feature that attempts to make up for the lack of a telephoto lens. I would much prefer a longer optical lens, but it’s still impressive what Google is able to do without one.

I wasn’t able to test out Google’s Night Sight mode, so we’ll go more in-depth with that feature once it becomes available.

As for the Pixel 3’s Portrait Mode, it’s about as good as it was on the Pixel 2. There are times when it works but other times the results look like the subject and background are two separate images—almost as though the person was photoshopped into the scene. Put it this way, in certain scenarios it can be very apparent there’s software tricky happening—and it’s not quite as natural as portrait shots produced by the iPhone XS.

One final note: The camera app is now much more pleasant to use. Before, you had to dig through a menu to switch shooting modes, but thanks to a redesign, you simply swipe left or right to change shooting modes. It’s a more user-friendly approach and makes switching modes way faster than before.

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The best Android phone on the market?

As I said in the beginning, the primary goal of Google’s Pixel line isn’t to impress with lavish hardware; it’s all about the software. But there’s no denying the Pixel 3 gets both hardware and software right.

The device’s specs are by now pretty standard—Snapdragon 845 chip, 4GB of RAM, and up to 128GB of storage—but what’s important is that the device performs wonderfully and battery life is excellent. Even during a busier day of usage I was able to power through to the next morning without a problem.

The Pixel 3’s specs should really be the furthest thing from your mind, as they’re not all that important in the grand scheme of things. We’ve seen powerful Android phones come to a grinding halt after months of extended usage. What really matters is software, and the Pixel 3 features the best software you can find in the Android market.

Combine that with the best camera of any smartphone and you have arguably the best Android phone money can buy. It’s not the flashiest and doesn’t have a companion stylus, nor does it feature multiple rear-facing cameras or futuristic biometrics. But everything adds up to create an experience you won’t get from any other Android phone.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Pixel 3 and, as far as I’m concerned, think it’s a major contender for smartphone of the year.

The Pixel 3 retails for $799 while the Pixel 3 XL starts at $899.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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