The Google Pixel 3 XL is Google’s latest flagship smartphone. It promises to bring everything we have come to expect with the Pixel brand, including a clean build of Android, fast performance, quality camera and some cool software tricks that only Google can come up with.
Google Pixel 3 XL
This year’s launch has been mired in controversy. While the Pixel devices are no strangers to controversy, the Pixel 3 XL got its fair share even before the device was launched. Much of it had to do with the design of the phone, which, admittedly, isn’t Google’s finest work.
Google Pixel 3 XL specs:
- Design: Aluminum frame, Gorilla Glass 5 front and back, IP68-rating
- Display: 6.3-inch, 2960×1440, 18.5:9, OLED, HDR-10
- Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, octa-core (4×2.5 GHz Kryo 385 Gold & 4×1.6 GHz Kryo 385 Silver) CPU, Adreno 630 GPU, Pixel Visual Core, Titan M security module
- Memory: 4GB LPDDR4x RAM, 64/128GB storage
- Connectivity: 4G-LTE, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS/GLONASS/Galileo/BeiDou, NFC, USB-C 3.1 Gen 1
- Rear Camera: 12.2MP f1.8 dual-pixel PDAF, OIS, dual LED flash, 720p240/1080p120/4K30 video
- Front Camera: 8MP f1.8 telephoto, 8MP f2.2 wide-angle, 1080p30 video
- Battery: 3430mAh, 18W charger, Qi wireless charging support
- OS: Android 9 Pie
- Misc: Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, front facing stereo speakers, Active Edge squeeze sensors
Apart from that, we don’t see a lot to complain about. On paper, the Pixel 3 XL comes across as a proper flagship smartphone. There are a few things that bother us, such as the 4GB memory and storage options that max out at 128GB, but we will have to wait and see if those present any issues later.
Overall, though, we are looking forward to diving into this phone. Pixel phones are always exciting, as they are a lot more than just hardware specifications, and Google is big on using software to work smarter, not harder. But, it’s 2018, and you need both good software and hardware if you need to stand out. And considering the price Google charges for these things, we hope the Pixel 3 XL blows us away on both fronts.
Anyway, enough introductions. It’s time to take it up a notch (sorry, we had to).
The Pixel 3 XL packaging comes with all the essentials, and a few extras. Apart from the phone, you get an 18W fast charger that supports USB Power Delivery standard. The cable uses a USB-C connector on both ends, so you might need to buy a separate cable for connecting to a computer. In fact, we recommend you do so, as the cable Google provides is only USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 cable will let you get the highest file transfer speeds that the phone is capable of.
Apart from those, the phone also comes with a pair of USB-C earbuds, and Google also throws in a USB-to-3.5mm audio adapter, considering there isn’t a headphone jack on the phone. You also get a USB-C to USB-A adapter, which is primarily meant to plug in other phones into the Pixel to transfer files but can also be used as an OTG adapter for other accessories.
Lastly, there are Google and #teampixel stickers also in the package, along with the usual set of manuals.
Disclaimer: You might notice that this review is shorter than usual and doesn’t include some of our proprietary tests. The reason is it has been prepared and written far away from our office and test lab. Still, we think we’ve captured the essence of the phone in the same precise, informative and detailed way that’s become our trademark. Enjoy the good read!
The Pixel 3 XL has a modern design for a 2018 smartphone, although Google has taken a few liberties with it, much to the disapproval of people.
Unlike the smaller Pixel 3, the Pixel 3 XL has a notch at the top of the display, which is dramatically taller than on most phones and takes two lines worth of space on the display. Below the display is a thick bezel that is roughly the same thickness as the notch above.
The double whammy of a notch and a thick chin seems to be the reason for displeasure in most people and we have to agree, at first glance, it doesn’t look pretty. To be fair, at second glance it doesn’t get any better either.
Having said that, after having used the phone for several weeks, not only did we get used to the design, we don’t even notice it anymore. Once you start using the phone, your attention is on the display itself and you’ll hardly even notice the notch, let alone the chin at the bottom.
Besides, the notch is deeper for a reason, and that’s due to the presence of dual cameras, a large loudspeaker, ambient light sensor and the proximity sensor being crammed in. The chin could have been thinner but we believe Google wanted it to be roughly the same height as the notch so content placed between the two would look equidistant from the sides.
Overall, it’s not a pretty phone and it doesn’t necessarily grow on you, either. But you stop noticing it after a while so it’s really okay.
Moving on from the front of the phone, the Pixel 3 XL has aluminum sides that are painted on in a glossy finish. The paint hides any antenna lines and the glossy finish matches the glass on the front and the back.
On the right are the power and the volume buttons. As usual, Google places the power button above the volume buttons, which is the exact opposite of how most other Android manufacturers do it. We prefer it the other way around as we use the power button a lot more often and would thus like to have it below where it is more easily accessible. It also makes taking screenshots easier, as you can pretty much do it with one thumb.
The white and pink versions of the phone also have a colored power button. The white model has a mint green button while the pink version has a darker pink button. The black model comes with just a black button. We like the colored power button but preferred the bright orange from last year’s white Pixel 2 XL over the green on this year’s model, as that stood out more.
The other sides of the phone don’t have much happening. The left side is left blank and the top only has a microphone. On the bottom is the USB-C connector along with a tray for a single nano SIM. The SIM tray does not sit flush with the body and sticks out ever so slightly even when pushed all the way in, which can both be seen and felt. We really wish Google had tighter tolerances for these things considering the price of these phones. We don’t suspect it will cause any issues with water ingress but it is an eyesore.
The back of the phone is its best side, and not just when compared to the front. This year, instead of having a dual glass and metal back, Google has ditched the metal altogether and gone with a single large sheet of glass. However, to keep the signature two tone finish of the previous models, the lower part of the glass that would have previously been metal is etched, which gives it a different look and texture that is reminiscent of aluminum.
The effect this creates is stunning. First, it feels incredible to touch, with a silky-smooth texture, unlike any other glass back phone. Second, the way the glass seamlessly flows from the etched finish in the lower two thirds to the glossy finish at the top is brilliant.
Unfortunately, as with all things matte, this lovely texture comes at a price. It’s very easy to scuff the back of the Pixel 3 XL and the marks show up readily. They are extremely obvious on the black model but the white and pink models hide them better. Still, they are easy to spot from certain angles and become more prominent with the help of grease from your hands.
We have tried some of the techniques we saw on YouTube that supposedly let you get rid of these marks, including scrubbing the phone under running water. The marks reappeared in our case even after washing. Even if this method did work, we don’t think it’s a practical solution and no one should have to wash their phone every week.
Our solution is to consider getting one of the two light colors or if you must go with black then put it inside a case.
As the name suggests, the Pixel 3 XL is a big phone. It really does feel like holding a giant slab of glass in your hand, which shouldn’t be new to anyone using a Samsung Note device or a Plus sized iPhone but for most people this is going to be a rather large phone. The glossy sides don’t help much either and are very slippery. We recommend some caution when handling this phone.
Fortunately, the phone is very well built and finished, aside from the aforementioned SIM tray issue. It is also IP68 rated for dust and water resistance, which should come in handy when you are doing your weekly under the sink scrubbing sessions to remove the scuffs from the back.
Overall, the design could have been better but it’s not nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be. What is, however, is the glass back that is relatively easy to scuff, and for us that’s a bigger issue. Still, overall the Pixel 3 XL is a reasonably well-designed and well-built phone that you can learn to live with after a while.
The Pixel 3 XL has a 6.3-inch, 2960×1440, 18.5:9 OLED display. The display panel is manufactured by Samsung.
The display on the Pixel 3 XL is significantly improved from the one on the Pixel 2 XL. The colors are very accurate, especially in the Natural profile. Alternately, you can switch to the Boosted profile for a 10% saturation boost.
We also didn’t notice any burn-in during our usage, nor was there any dirty screen effect observed.
However, the display does have some issues. Viewing angles are acceptable but not great. When viewed off axis, the display has a noticeable cool tone to it. This cannot be seen when using the phone normally but hard to miss when you look at the display while the phone is lying on a desk.
Secondly, the display doesn’t get particularly bright. You need to absolutely max out the brightness when using the phone outdoors, and even then, sometimes it’s not ideal.
We also noticed issues with reproducing darker grays. Dark gray takes on a distinct green appearance, to an extent where you would think it is dark green rather than dark gray. This issue is also present on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the OnePlus 6 to some extent, so it could be an issue with Samsung panels in general.
Google supports DCI-P3 color with color management built-in to the OS. However, none of the apps on Android take advantage of this. In comparison, Apple has full support for wide color in software and hardware, as well in many third-party apps.
The Pixel 3 XL also supports HDR. However, as of this writing, only the YouTube app supports displaying HDR content on this phone, with neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime Video showing HDR content. Additionally, neither Netflix nor Prime Video even support HD playback on the phone as of yet.
Speaking of video, videos played on the phone are not centered correctly. Instead of placing the video between the physical edges of the phone, the video is centered between the physical edges of the display. Since the phone has a sizable chin on one side, this pushes the center of the display away from the center of the phone, which means videos end up looking closer to the left edge of the display.
Google generally handles the notch better than other OEMs. All apps can access the area around the notch in fullscreen mode or avoid it altogether. However, should you choose to hide the notch visually, the option can only be found buried under the Developer options, inside the Display cutout setting. Toggling it on causes the entire screen to shift down and the pixels next to the notch are completely disabled. This results in a massive waste of screen space, due to which we cannot recommend using it.
Lastly, the touchscreen has zero palm rejection. Using the phone without triggering the touchscreen accidentally is impossible. You can’t hold the phone near the top edge without triggering the touchscreen. This is especially noticeable when holding it sideways and you place your hand around the edge with the notch. Because the display goes all the way to the corners, bringing your hand anywhere near them will trigger the touchscreen.
All that said, the display is a massive improvement over last year but Google still has a lot of work to do if it intends to catch up with companies like Apple.
The Pixel 3 XL comes with Android 9 Pie out of the box. As of this writing, our device is still on the September security patch, which is disappointing as it’s now November and some phones like the OnePlus 6T have the November patch already.
The Pixel 3 XL comes with what some would describe as “stock Android”, although it’s anything but. The Pixel phones have always come with a heavily customized version of Android and it just looks like stock Android on the surface.
Starting with the launcher, Google has done some improvements with Pie. You no longer need to set a dark wallpaper to make the app drawer and notification shade appear dark and you can just manually set the color for those from the theme setting.
Speaking of wallpapers, the Pixel 3 XL comes with a whole bunch of new ones, including some more live wallpapers that have moving objects within and also themselves move when you interact with the homescreen.
Android 9 brings with it a significant change in navigation. The familiar back, home and overview buttons are replaced in favor of just the first two and some gestures.
Swiping up from anywhere in the UI will now open the overview mode, where open apps are arranged side by side. If you swipe again, you get into the app drawer. Alternately, you can just do a long swipe up from the bottom to go directly into the app drawer from anywhere in the UI. While this does place the app drawer within reach in more places than before, a two swipe or long swipe gesture makes it harder to access the app drawer than before from the place you usually access it from, that is, the homescreen.
The back button remains, as does the home button. You can slide the home button right to quickly go back to the previous app or press and hold and slide it around to move back and forth in overview mode.
Occasionally, a third button will appear on the right. If you have the rotation lock enabled and tilt the phone sideways, the phone will show a rotation icon, which temporarily lets you rotate the display and then turn it back when you’re done without having to mess around with the rotation lock setting.
Overall, the new navigation options don’t seem like an improvement, and more of a step sideways. A true gesture-based UI, such as the one in iOS, would have been the logical step forward. It would have also done away with the navigation bar once and for all, which continues to take up valuable space at the bottom of every Android phone. However, Google’s glacial pace in adopting a fully gesture-based UI only muddies the water, resulting in a UI that has one foot in the future and one foot in the past.
Because this is a Pixel phone, we do get treated to some niceties you won’t find elsewhere. Call Screen is the Pixel 3’s biggest party trick. The feature allows you to have the phone pick up the call on your behalf and let the other person say why they are calling. You will see a live transcript of the conversation on your screen and you can choose to pick up the call, end it or mark it as spam if it’s a telemarketer. The feature is currently available only in the US.
Another great feature that will be coming later first to the Pixel phones is being able to ask the Google Assistant to make reservations on your behalf. This uses the Duplex feature we saw earlier this year at I/O and will be rolling out to Pixel phones in the US next month.
Apart from that, there are also some features carried over from last year. The Now Playing feature will pick up songs playing around you and discreetly display the title on the lockscreen, even if the phone is offline. There’s Active Edge, which lets you squeeze your phone to bring up Google Assistant or to silence calls or alarms. (Okay, so this isn’t an exclusive feature but outside of HTC, which is partially owned by Google, no one else is using it.)
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with the Digital Wellbeing feature, which is currently in beta. This tracks your phone usage and then gives options to limit yourself. You can set a timer for individual app to limit your daily usage to that time. You can use the Wind Down feature that sets a bed time schedule and prevents your phone from ringing or showing any notifications when it’s time for bed. The Grayscale feature removes all color from the display to make it less appealing for further use.
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with Google’s legendary unlimited cloud backup for all your photos and videos shot on the phone. You can backup and save all your photos and videos on Google Drive in full quality for the next three years.
There’s also the Google Camera, which has a whole host of features exclusive to Pixel devices, which we will discuss in detail later.
Google has also built-in always-on display functionality. Once enabled, you can have the display constantly show a clock, along with the date and the weather. If you get a notification, it is briefly shown and then turned into an icon that stays on the screen. You can also see the battery percentage at the bottom of the screen and if the phone is charging, you see the time remaining to full charge here. Google’s always-on display is not as customizable as Samsung’s but it’s still very functional and definitely better than nothing.
Google also has an excellent implementation of haptics on the Pixel 3 XL. Like the iPhone 7 and newer models, the Pixel 3 XL can make subtle vibrations across the UI. This isn’t just limited to the vibration you feel when you press one of the navigation keys or the keyboard but also for things such as toggling a switch, pressing and holding on an app icon for shortcuts, bringing up the overview menu, swiping down the notifications, changing the mode in the camera, pressing and holding on a link in the browser, etc. Also, the feedback you get is a lot subtle and more precise than the vague vibration you get on most Android phones. It’s not as uncanny as the Taptic Engine on iPhones nor as pervasive as it is in iOS but it’s a huge leap forward compared to anything we have seen before on Android.
With all that said, we did miss one feature on the Pixel 3 XL, and that’s face unlock. It may be the case that Google would like to build a proper and, more importantly, secure version of the face unlock on future Pixel devices but the convenience of even a basic face unlock is undeniable and we did miss it on the Pixel 3 XL. That said, the fingerprint sensor on the back works really well and you can also swipe down on it to bring down notification shade from anywhere.
Overall, Google’s version of Android has come a long way from the barebones days of the Nexus phones. While the underlying OS is no doubt much better and more functional that it was in the past, Google also includes clever and useful features that only it can. We appreciate the fine balance Google has struck here, where we don’t feel like we are wanting for more functionality or customizability and at the same time there isn’t an overabundance of pointless features, either.
The Pixel 3 XL has a set of stereo speakers that is at least partially responsible for the big notch and chin on the phone.
The speakers on the Pixel 3 XL sound good and get loud, but there are a couple of issues. First of all, the speakers are unbalanced, with the speaker inside the notch outputting noticeably less sound than the one inside the chin. When you hold the phone sideways it sounds like the left speaker is blocked or damaged as the difference in volume levels is quite severe.
Secondly, the speakers cause the entire body of the phone to vibrate. The issue is that the phone vibrates way too much and this makes it very tiring to hold the phone with the audio playing. Even if it’s someone talking in a YouTube video, the vibrations from the phone get fatiguing very quickly and makes you want to put the phone down as soon as possible. And the phone vibrates at all volume levels, so turning down the sound is not an option.
The audio quality from the speakers is good but not the best we have heard. The vocals are very upfront, which makes them sound a bit harsh and the sound isn’t as balanced as that from the 2018 iPhones. It does get very, very loud, though, and although it doesn’t sound particularly good at maximum volume, you have the option, if you really want to annoy people around you.
As for headphone audio, the phone has no headphone jack but comes with a USB-C adapter. The sound from the adapter is good enough and we appreciate Google providing it at all but it’s just one more thing to carry around with you or remember where you kept. You also don’t want to lose it as finding a replacement may not be easy, or cheap.
The phone does come with a pair of wired USB-C earphones. The speaker design is similar to the EarPods but the cable can be made to move through the ear buds and adjust fit so they don’t fall off. Unfortunately, the audio quality is almost laughably bad. The audio quality is far worse than what you get on the EarPods and way behind the bundled earphones offered by Samsung, LG and HTC. We honestly feel Google should have left them out entirely.
The Pixel 3 XL has a 12MP f/1.8 camera on the back with dual pixel phase detection autofocus and optical image stabilization. The camera is also capable of recording 4K video at 30fps.
The default Camera app sees some definite improvements over the initial version from last year. The different camera modes are now laid out at the bottom, similar to the iOS camera app, and can be switched between by swiping sideways on the display. You only see some modes by default and the rest are inside the More option at the right.
At the top are the controls for timer, motion mode (Google’s version of Apple’s Live View), white balance and flash settings. You can choose to show HDR+ controls here, which lets you choose from HDR+ off, HDR+ On, and HDR+ Advanced. If you hide this option, the camera will use HDR+ On at all times.
One new feature this year is the ability to capture RAW images. The phone will save both JPEG and RAW files together, when the option is enabled.
The good thing this year is that the Camera app remembers your settings when you close the app. The HDR+ or RAW settings remain where you left them. Unfortunately, the white balance settings do reset, which is probably for the best for most people but can be annoying if you use this control often.
As with previous Pixel phones, the Camera app still doesn’t have any manual mode. Google relies heavily on computational photography that is entirely automated and controlled by the software. Even the RAW files you capture are not data from a single RAW frame but a file made from stacked RAW images. Google really wants to ensure you get the kind of images it wants you to have, and there is little scope for manual adjustments outside of adjusting the white balance and exposure.
One cool new feature this year is focus tracking. When you tap on an object in the frame, the focus isn’t locked at a particular point in the frame but on the subject itself. This means if the subject moves around in the frame or if you move the camera around while keeping the subject in frame, the focus will keep track and stay locked on the subject. This is extremely useful, especially for video but also for taking pictures of moving subjects such as pets or children.
Like the previous Pixel phones, the Pixel 3 XL captures images constantly in the background when the camera is open. When the shutter is pressed, it stacks the last several images and creates a composite after correcting hand and subject movements. The images are captured underexposed, which allows the camera to capture the details in highlights and raise the shadows in post. Because it is capturing multiple images, the noise can be zeroed out after stacking, which allows it to push harder while raising the shadow detail. This is basically what happens when you take a picture on this phone with HDR+ On.
The image quality was lauded on the previous two Pixels and is obviously also very good this year. There isn’t a dramatic difference from last year but you can still see some refinements, especially in the overall look of the images, which now looks a bit less processed and more like what a single shot, naturally wide dynamic range image would look.
The Pixel 3 XL images still do have that characteristically Pixel look, though. As before, the images are always a bit underexposed, which creates a darker appearance that favors highlight detail over shadows. The images are very contrasty, with vibrant colors and a cooler white balance. It’s fairly easy to spot a Pixel image in the crowd after you’ve seen a few.
Lowlight image quality is decent but there is a fair bit of noise in the shadows. The results are still usable for sharing online or for viewing on the phone itself but viewing them on a big screen makes the noise quite apparent. It also makes it difficult to edit these photos as the noise can get extreme when you start tinkering with the images.
There is also a major issue with image flicker under fluorescent lighting. This is due to the camera not being able to match its refresh rate with the frequency of the lighting. The Pixel 3 XL camera struggles with lighting that refreshes at 50Hz and can have severe flicker and banding in images. In some shots that won’t be easily noticeable but in others it’s hard to miss.
Previous years’ Pixel phones had an issue where the HDR+ processing was only limited to the main Camera app. This year, other apps such as Instagram and Snapchat can also take advantage of the HDR+ processing. The image doesn’t look quite as good as it does in the main Camera app still but it’s a lot better than having no HDR+ processing at all.
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with a feature called Super Res Zoom, which uses a technique found on some high-end cameras to create high resolution images. The technique originally involves shifting the sensor one pixel along each axis so each pixel can capture red, green and blue information independently but on the Pixel 3 XL, Google achieves this by shifting the OIS system. Using additional computational techniques on top, Google can create a fairly high resolution digitally zoomed image within the 2x-5x range.
In our testing, the 2x digital zoomed images from the Pixel 3 XL were some of the sharpest we have seen from any phone. Most of the time, the 2x digital zoom images on the Pixel 3 XL display look very similar to optically 2x zoomed images on other phones. For casual viewing and sharing online, these images are perfectly acceptable.
Google has also introduced a new feature called Top Shot. This feature works automatically and doesn’t require any user intervention. When the camera detects a moment when someone in the frame is blinking at the time when the shutter is pressed or has an awkward expression, it will suggest one of the previous frames from its buffer instead. Only the picture you actually captured will be saved in the full resolution and the suggested frame will be in a lower resolution but it’s still better than having a bad picture or no picture at all.
Portrait mode is back once again and works pretty much the same way it did last year. The Pixel 3 XL camera uses the depth information from the two photo sites on each pixel on the sensor to capture different perspectives, which creates a rough depth map. The camera then uses AI and machine learning to further refine the edges of the subject and separate it from the background.
The quality of portrait mode images is two part. The first is the separation of the subject, which Google does really well, better even than some phones that have two cameras on the back. Most of the Pixel 3 XL Portrait mode images have well-defined subject edges separating them from the background. As a bonus, it also works on most objects, unlike the Portrait mode on the iPhone XR that only works with people.
The other part is the quality of the background blur, which is okay on the Pixel 3 XL. The default strength of the background blur is a bit aggressive and looks somewhat unrealistic. You can adjust this but only after the image has been captured. Google also doesn’t make any special effort to make the point light sources in the background look like natural bokeh balls like some phones do. The blur also flows less smoothly as you go from foreground to background compared to something like the iPhone XS, which has a much finer stepping up of the blur as it moves into the distance, mimicking a real camera. Lastly, Google does not show a live preview of the background blur and you only see it once the image has been captured.
Every time you capture a Portrait mode image, the camera saves two images, one with and one without the effect. There is no setting to change this behavior, so you always end up with two images regardless of whether you want them or not.
To reduce the clutter, they take one slot in the Google Photos app gallery. However, things do get messy in every other image gallery app. You see, Google saves the set of two images – one with and the other without the effect – in its own separate folder on the phone’s storage for every single Portrait mode photo you take. Each of those shots gets its own folder on the phone. This becomes an absolute nightmare if you choose to use any other image gallery app that sorts using folders. It’s also a nightmare if you plug the phone into a computer and are trying to find that one particular Portrait mode photo and then having to go through dozens upon dozens of individual folders on the phone’s storage.
Google also has a feature called Night Sight, which is supposed to make pictures taken in extremely dark situations look bright and usable. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, this feature had still not rolled out officially and we are still waiting on Google to push the update.
In terms of video, the Pixel 3 XL can capture video in 720p, 1080p and 4K in 30fps. You can choose to record in 60fps in 720p or 1080p but not in 4K. However, it’s not a fixed 60fps; you get an option of fixed 30fps or Auto in 720p and 1080p. Auto will use 60fps when there is plenty of light or fall back to 30fps in low light situations. There’s no way to force it to always use 60fps.
The camera can also record videos in 720p at 240fps or 1080p at 120fps for slow motion. You can choose to save the files in H.264 for maximum compatibility or HEVC to reduce file sizes without sacrificing quality.
The 4K video quality is really good, with good detail, excellent dynamic range and superb stabilization. The electronic stabilization can still be confused with a sideways pan as it struggles with natural shake and deliberate motion, which results in some jerk, but by and large it works out well. We would like to have 60fps option at 4K for those who want to capture smoother videos or create slow motion movies like we have on the recent iPhones and some other devices, such as the OnePlus 6T.
Slow motion videos also look pretty good. Google doesn’t give you resolution options but just has a 1/4x and 1/8x toggles in slow motion mode, which switches between 1080p120 and 720p240 respectively. Again, Apple has an advantage here in the form of 1080p240 slow motion but Apple also designs its own processors so it can pretty much do anything it wants at this point.
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