Google Pixel 3 review

The Google Pixel 3 has the best smartphone camera you can buy today, and yet it comes in a one-hand-friendly size with a large enough screen to satisfy most people in 2018.

You don’t need a big, pocket-busting phone to get great photos (this one has a 5.5-inch screen), nor do you need a dual-lens rear camera (it has a single lens on back), nor the fastest aperture on a phone (f/1.8 has been beaten by the LG and Samsung’s speedier f/1.5 aperture). Google proves that its 12.2MP photos are better because of machine-learning camera software and consistency.

Note: Our Google Pixel 3 XL review is launching tomorrow to give us more time to test the battery life of the larger phone.

The Pixel 3 – and the larger Pixel 3 XL – makes lugging around a compact camera or even an entry-level DSLR redundant in some situations. It also has features you can’t get on a professional camera, unless you constantly change lenses. There are two front-facing 8MP cameras here, with the second lens designed for wide-angle selfies, enabling you to get groups photos without cutting people out of the picture. The LG V10 introduced us to this idea, and the LG V40 continues the trend. Google’s wide-angle photos are better, though they do exhibit noticeable barrel distortion around the edges.

To this day, the year-old Google Pixel 2 camera still amazes us, and the Pixel 3 builds off of that success with better photo detail and HDR. What’s more, the color-rich OLED screen is far superior due to its 18:9 aspect ratio. It’s not bezel-less by any means, but you do get more screen real estate than on the Pixel 2 – and keep the front-facing stereo speakers intact. It also avoids Pixel 3 XL’s awkward notch cut out that so many people hate on.

You’re not going to get everything in this small package. The battery falls short of bigger phones at 2,915mAh, offering all-day battery life with normal or conservative use in our tests. Snapping over 100 great photos in two hours was a real battery life drain. You’re also stuck with 64GB or 128GB – there’s no microSD card slot for expandable storage, and there’s no headphone jack to be found. And, as much as we laud the behind-the-scenes camera software, the app doesn’t have all of the neat camera tricks you can get from Samsung and LG's camera app.

The Google Pixel 3 is the ideal smartphone for anyone who cares about photo quality and isn’t satisfied with their phone’s picture-taking abilities today. It has the camera smarts and Android Pie-powered AI smarts of the Pixel 3 XL, without the awkward notch cut-out at the top. And, unlike the comparable, one-hand-friendly iPhone XS, it’s cheaper – at least by 2018 standards.

Watch our first impressions of the Google Pixel 3 in video form below...

Release date and price

The Google Pixel 3 release date is Thursday, October 18 in the US, and November 1 in the UK and Australia. Availability is also slated for Canada, France, Germany, Japan, India, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and Taiwan. Pre-orders began right after the October 9 launch event.

The Pixel 3 price is $799 (£739, AU$1,199) for the 64GB version, and $899 (£839, AU$1,349) for the 128GB version. We recommend more internal storage since you can’t upgrade later (there’s no microSD card slot on this phone).

It’s a price hike from the Google Pixel 2 (by $150), yet cheaper than an iPhone XS (by $200). You're paying for the more expansive screen and machine-learning camera, and the fact that almost all flagship smartphones cost more in 2018.

Design

The Pixel 3 retains Google's familiar two-tone design – the back has shiny glass at the top, while lower 80% has a matte finish. There's a more seamless transition between the two textures, but its look hasn't changed dramatically.

It easily fits in one hand, and, for the most part, you can operate it without resorting to using two hands. That's the best reason to choose the Pixel 3 over the Pixel 3 XL. It's screen size is big enough, yet the phone handfeel is manageable. That and it doesn't have notch cut out at the top. 

The Pixel 3 series does in fact use different materials this year. The entire back is made of soft-touch glass using Corning Gorilla Glass 5. It's the same strengthened glass that protects the front screen, and it's all sandwiching an aluminum frame that has a hybrid coating – that's the only bit of metal you'll find on the outside.

Sure, the all-glass design makes the Pixel 3 more susceptible to damage, but it also enables a better LTE connection and wireless charging. That's why we've seen a lack of aluminum-backed flagship phones in 2018. The Pixel 3 is the latest causality. 

Wireless charging is a new feature for the Pixel phones, and a welcome change now that Google is launching the Pixel Stand wireless charger alongside its new devices. We haven't had a wirelessly charging Google phone since the plastic Nexus 6.

More rounded edges are everywhere on the Pixel 3. Its frame is less boxy than previous Google phones, a trend we've seen from the iPhone and and others. Gone is the harsher silver bevel around the frame and rear fingerprint sensor. It's like Google put the Pixel 2 through a smoothing machine.

You'll still find dual front-facing speakers on the Google Pixel 3. No one else is really doing this anymore (except Razer with the Razer Phone 2), so it's nice to see. You'll also get Active Edge, which allows you to squeeze the sides of the phone to call up Google Assistant. We much prefer this as opposed to a dedicated AI button, like Samsung does with Bixby button (which we also confuse for the volume down button).

The Pixel 3 comes with USB-C earbuds in the box, so there's no standard 3.5mm headphone jack (just like last year's Pixel 2) and without that microSD card slot, you're stuck with 64GB and 128GB storage configurations. 

The Pixel 3 color Just Black is our favorite of the trio. Clearly White looks cheaper and Not Pink isn't for everyone. It's the color you want if you're looking to stand out, but we preferred last year's unique Mint color.  You will get a fresh Mint color on the white Google Pixel 3 power button, however.

Screen and bezels

The 5.5-inch OLED screen fits into modern times. It's big and expansive, and sits in a phone that's smaller than we had expected given the screen size rumors. The entire thing measures 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm and weighs 148g. It's roughly the same size as the Pixel 2, which had a smaller 5-inch display.

The Pixel 3 screen looks richer than last year's Pixel 2. The specs note that it has only a few more pixels per inch, but keep in mind the screen is much taller. There's noticeably less bezel thanks to it's 18:9 aspect ratio rather than the dated 16:9 look. Last year's oversized bezel, we felt, was the biggest disappointment design-wise about the Pixel 2XL.

Oh, it still has bezel. There's no hiding the two front-facing cameras and speaker at the top and chin at the bottom. But it's the best we've seen from a phone with dual front-facing speakers and without a deep (some would say ugly) notch cut out.

Three cameras

The Google Pixel 3 has the best smartphone camera in the world. It's not because the photos it takes are dramatically better — they're just marginally better. 

The bigger deal is that Google's 12.2MP camera is more consistent. We got more detailed, sharper, and slightly brighter photos from this Pixel 3 camera than the warmer iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 cameras. There less noise than the Pixel 2 and everything wasn't oversharpened like the Huawei Mate 20 camera.

A lot of this has to do with what's happening behind the scenes. The f/1.8 aperture isn't record-breaking, but Google's camera-dedicated Pixel Visual Core chip and its behind-the-scenes machine-learning software help deliver this single-lens rear camera its wow factor.

New software perks like Top Shot help avoid closed eyes by picking the right photo, while Night Sight give the Google Pixel 3 the edge in most nighttime pictures. There’s no telephoto lens here, but the ability to digitally zoom is enhanced by backend software. The fact that the camera captures larger 1.4 micron pixels and has optical image stabilization (OIS) is also a difference maker. 

The same general photo consistency comes to the front-facing 8MP cameras. They reliably took photos with better HDR and less noise. One camera had a normal 75 degree field of view and the other has a wider 97 degree field of view.

The wide-angle selfies are effective at telling more about who you're with and what you're posing in front of, so much so that Google refers to this secondary lens as it's Group Selfie Camera. The aperture drops to f/2.2 using this lens (vs f1.8 on the normal lens) but you won't notice a big difference. 

The bigger caveat to the Group Selfie Camera is barrel distortion around the edges. Holding the phone just right helps capture more of what's around you, whether you're posing in front of a tall building or taking a crowded selfie. Holding in the wrong way takes unflattering photos that make you look like you've been through a fun house mirror. Taking selfies is a skill, but taking wide selfies requires another merit badge.

The Pixel 3 shoots impressive 4K video with a mix of optical image stabilization and electronic (software) stabilization. Everything looks incredibly smooth, making the need for something like the DJI Osmo 2 gimbal less of a necessity. You won't, however, find the 4K to shoot 60 frames per second. Google has capped video at this max resolution at 30fps.

Battery life

The Pixel 3 has a 2,915mAh battery, which is slightly smaller than we had hoped (the Samsung Galaxy S9 has a 3,000mAh and we think that could stand to last longer), but it's still an improvement over last year's 5-inch Pixel, which had a 2,700mAh unit. 

The battery life is the biggest downside to opting for the smaller Pixel 3. Yes, you can get all-day battery life from this phone with conservative use, but even normal use had us reaching for the charger before the end of the night. That's a problem when you're capturing so many photos the great camera. The battery really takes a hit. 

Google's Android 9 Pie software does give it more juice, with adaptive battery settings that work behind the scenes. It essentially limits the power of apps you don't  use in the course of a day, and it's a perk that’s coming to all Android Pie phones.

The 18W charger returns for fastest charging speeds, but exclusive to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL (among Pixel phones, at least) is fast wireless charging. The new glass back gives this feature the ability to charge with any Qi charger. 

Google launched its minimalist-looking Pixel Stand wireless charger, which doubles as a way to see notifications as if this were a mini Google Home Hub.  The stand isn't ideal for traveling (it doesn't fold flat, sadly), but it's a nice option for slower charging on a night stand overnight. We were able to reach 80% battery capacity in 1 hour and 39 minutes using wireless charging.

Specs and performance

The Pixel 3 is a stable, fast-performing phone, though it isn't technically the fastest we've tested in 2018. That really shouldn't matter to most people.

It's powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset and 4GB of RAM, when rival phones are up to 6GB and even 8GB of RAM. Likewise, Apple's A12 chipset beats the Snapdragon 845 handedly.

Here's the good news, we didn't see slowdown from either the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL. And Google owning the hardware and software should prove beneficial for smooth performance going forward.

The Geekbench 4 benchmarking tests gives the Pixel 3 a multi-core score of 8336, finishing behind the Samsung Galaxy S9. Long-term, the 4GB of RAM may prove to be an issue, and it may drop frames compared to the next-level performance of  the new Razer Phone 2 when gaming in 3D. But right now, we see nothing to dissuade the average using from buying this handset.

Android Pie and apps

Android 9.0 Pie is now available for all Pixel phones, and the update comes out of the box with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. It's a bit of a switch from previous Android operating systems.

Namely, the onscreen home and back buttons have been visually downsized and comes with different gestures attached to them. Tapping the iPhone X-like bottom home button bar (no longer a circular button) sends you home, while swiping up on this bar opens the new recent menu to switch between apps. The back button still works as normal, but is smaller than before.

All of this is in an effort to give the Google Pixel 3 extra screen real estate. It’s effective and you’ll get used to the changes, even if it’s painstaking at first. The trade-off is worth it, though it’s not Earth-shattering. The same goes for the time and notification icons along the top, now fit for notched displays, even if this phone doesn’t have a screen cutout at the top.

The right-aligned volume slider (right next to the physical volume slider) makes it easier to wrap your head around, whether it’s for call volume or media volume (it’s now dedicated to media), with a button for smaller vibrate/ringer. We’ve also had less issues with misguided screen rotation thanks to the new software.

Behind-the-scenes tools are more groundbreaking. Adaptive battery life and adaptive brightness settings free you up from having to worry about closing apps to save battery life and adjusting the brightness in different surroundings. Google’s machine-learning software does the heavy lifting by learning your behaviors and taking into account your environment.

We haven’t seen App Slices and App Actions from the operating system, but they’re shortcuts to access app (and content within those apps) faster. We’ll update this review as more changes from the the Google Pixel 3 software over the next year.

Verdict

The Google Pixel 3 is offering a lot, and in a tighter package than the Google Pixel 3 XL. It has dual front-firing speakers, a promising 12.2MP camera backed by machine learning, and a much better display than the one we got last year. This is the one-hand-friendly version of the Pixel 3 XL that your grip might appreciate.

It costs less than an iPhone XS, and it runs pure Android Pie, with promise of the latest operating system updates straight from Google. It looks like a good value for what you're getting, even if it's a price increase over last year's phone. But we'll have to check out the battery life and camera more closely in the coming days.

Should I buy it?

Yes, if you’re seeking the best camera phone at a reasonable size and a reasonable (by 2018 standards) price. You’ll get the best photos from the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and the smaller phone is more one-hand-friendly than most flagship handsets. Power users may want to opt for the larger Pixel 3 XL given its larger battery capacity.

Who’s it for?

The 5.5-inch Google Pixel 3 is best in the hand (singular) of someone who wants the best phone camera without having to opt for a handset as big as the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 or iPhone XS Max. It’s priced competitively next to its rival phones, and delivers more consistently rich photos.

Competition

Samsung Galaxy S9

The Samsung Galaxy S9 is the chief rival to the Pixel 3, with a larger 5.8-inch screen and more elegantly curved design. Its 12MP camera is also incredible, though, in our tests, second best next to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Samsung’s camera software is a little more robust for selfie taking (triggering selfie photos is easier with your hand), smooth hyperlapses, and super slow motion footage.

iPhone XS

iPhone XS is great camera performer and has a 5.8-inch screens size. However, the operating systems are very different, so there’s some adjustment to make when entering or exiting Apple’s walled garden ecosystem. The colors are almost always warmer on the iPhone XS compared to the Pixel 3, and we found more detail in Google’s camera.



from TechRadar - Technology Reviews http://www.techradar.com/reviews/google-pixel-3-review