technology

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL Review: Software Is Eating Your Phone


I’ve been using the Google Pixel 3 over the past week, and the number one question people have asked me about it is whether they should ditch their iPhone for one. Running a close second is the question that’s come from existing Pixel users—a much smaller but still enthusiastic group of people. They want to know whether to upgrade.

I’ll start by answering the second question: Yes. If you’re currently using a first-generation Pixel phone or a Pixel 2, you’ll want to upgrade. The $799 Pixel 3 is a joy to use. It has an improved camera, a better processor, and a new mobile security chip, the effects of which can’t really be felt in any discernible way except as added peace of mind. Google’s Assistant is scarily good. The new phone also supports wireless charging, which improves the whole experience in a significant way despite removing such a small barrier. The act of simply digging out and plugging in a cable, it turns out, is a drag.

The answer to the first question—whether it’s worth switching from an iPhone to a Pixel 3—is more complicated. For a many, that answer is no. The Pixel 3 is not an iPhone killer. I wish I could say it was, because stronger competition in the phone market is an excellent thing. (That’s not to say Android as an operating system needs any help; the number of devices in the world running Android far surpasses the number of those running iOS. However, Google-made Pixel phones are loaded with the most optimized version of Android out there.)

But current iPhone users still might not feel Google’s extensive software smarts can outweigh the benefits and conveniences that come with iOS. Maybe all of their friends and family are using iMessage on iPhones, and they’re wary of losing cross-device message syncing, missing out on iMessage’s embedded apps, or becoming the “green bubble” contact. Maybe they have an extensive collection of iCloud Photo Sharing albums. Maybe they have an Apple Watch, which only works with the iPhone’s software. Or maybe they just appreciate Apple’s commitment to keeping its users’ data private, which is a very legitimate thing to care about.

It turns out, as we spend each autumn examining and comparing specs on these new rectangular pieces of hardware, the thing that matters most is the software running on them. And that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Modern Home

Sure, there are hardware components that matter. The Pixel 3 now has a glass back. The larger portion of the back is now a matte glass, while the top remains glossy. Its dual-tone construction is what makes it undeniably a Pixel phone. This glass back is also what enables wireless charging.

The Pixel 3’s display, an OLED panel that’s noticeably brighter than the one on last year’s Pixel 2, is improved. The 6.5-inch display on the larger Pixel, the Pixel 3 XL, now has a “notch.” This is a cutout at the top of the display where the front-facing camera sensors are housed. It also has a “chin” at the bottom. Some people make a big deal about these aesthetic attributes; personally, they don’t bother me.

The phone’s colors make a statement. Are you a Just Black kind of phone person? Clearly White? Or are you into Not Pink, my personal favorite, which is neutral-toned with just the slightest hint of a flush, like the white Pixel just walked up a flight of stairs? Color tones matter. I’ve been using the Clearly White phone for the past five days, and it smudges easily without a case.

The phone’s internals matter, too. Things like battery: The Pixel 3’s battery life has been excellent, lasting me more than a day, and my editor Michael Calore, who has been using the Pixel 3 XL, says battery life is on par with the previous Pixel XL phones he’s used. The bump up in processing power from last year’s Pixel 2 phones makes the new handset feel a little faster. It also ran without a hitch—except when the camera app froze a couple times as I tried to switch apps. On the downside, things like a lack of 5G modem and no front-facing depth sensors mean the Pixel 3 isn’t truly future-proof.

Snap Judgement

Finally, camera hardware matters—somewhat. The Pixel 3 now has two front-facing camera lenses, which means you can take an extra-wide-angle selfie by opening up the field of view with a sliding tool. This is one of my new favorite camera features on the Pixel 3. Samsung’s newer flagship phones also have a “Wide Selfie” mode. But the Pixel 3’s selfies came out better than the ones I shot on a Galaxy S9, with less distortion and none of the image bleeding that was present on the Samsung’s shots. Selfies taken on the Pixel 3 appear smoothed, or, as one Twitter user described it after I shared a selfie of my WIRED colleagues, make our faces look as though we’ve never frowned a day in our lives.

It’s nice to be able to just open the camera, select Photobooth, then raise your phone and not have to press the shutter button. The phone’s software does the work for you.

Some of the Pixel 3’s other camera features rely on hardware elements, namely the more advanced image-processing chip Google put into this phone. But to consider the Pixel 3 is to consider its software above anything else. A feature like Photobooth, borrowed from the Google Clips camera, auto-captures a series of selfies for you. It recognizes when you’ve made some sort of facial expression and then starts taking pictures. I’ve found that it’s really biased towards smiles more than any other expression. But it’s nice to be able to just open the camera, select Photobooth, then raise your phone and not have to press the shutter button. The phone’s software does the work for you.

Night Sight, the feature Google recently previewed that improves Pixel 3 photos captured in dark settings, won’t show up on Pixel phones until later this year, so I wasn’t able to test that. Top Shot is another another AI-powered tool, one that more than one Google worker told me was the most significant feature of the new camera. But it hasn’t yet worked as advertised on any of the dozen motion photos I’ve snapped so far with the Pixel 3. Top Shot is supposed to select the best shot of all of the frames captured in a motion photo—the shot where everyone is smiling and looking at the camera with their eyes are open, and where nobody has walked into the frame. But every time I took a motion photo, I went to the “film strip” of stills below the photo and there were no Top Shot suggestions in sight.

With Super Res Zoom on the new Pixel 3, you can zoom in on objects far away and expect a crisper image.

Lauren Goode

Pixel 2 doesn’t have “Super Res Zoom,” but here’s a similar photo captured with the Pixel 2.

Lauren Goode

Other aspects of the new camera showed notable improvements. Even without the Night Sight feature onboard, low-light photos looked better in general than those captured on the Pixel 2. In some cases, the Pixel 3’s night shots looked better than those captured on the iPhone XS. Super Res Zoom is baked directly into the camera, so it’s hard to do a comparison with or without it on the Pixel 3 itself. But I compared shots taken of a faraway street sign on the Pixel 3 versus last year’s Pixel 2, and the zoomed-in photo captured on the Pixel 3 was more crisp.

You can now adjust the background depth on Portrait photos captured on Pixel 3, despite the fact that the phone’s rear camera still uses a single lens. This is something you can do on iPhone XS and newer Samsung Galaxy phones, too. Google says the segmentation of Portrait photos, that mapping of the blurred background and in-focus subject, is better, too—although in my testing, the background blur still wiped out my colleague Kayla’s earrings. (You can see this in the included photos.)

The AR effects on the new Pixel have been upgraded as well. Just a few years ago, Google’s AR experience required a hefty hardware module to be attached to the back of its phones. Now the company is doing pretty remarkable AR tricks on standard phone hardware, something Apple has also achieved. The Pixel’s AR app is now called Playground, and it includes AR characters that actually react to your expressions as you’re placing them in the app. Google Lens, the company’s visual search tool, is also baked directly into the Pixel 3’s camera.

Talk It Over

Camera aside, Google’s predictive and helpful Assistant is what really steals the show on the Pixel 3. It’s fast, it’s responsive, and it always seems to know what information you want, and when you want it. On the Pixel 3, it exposes more information on the phone’s lock screen, like what’s next on your calendar, or notifications about news and TV shows it knows you like.

The Assistant feature that most clearly points toward our ambient smartphone future is Google’s new Call Screen mechanism. This dispatches a version of the Google Assistant to answer incoming phone calls in your place. A friendly robotic voice asks the caller to describe what they’re calling about, which the Assistant then transcribes for you and displays on your screen. Then it keeps them on hold to give you time to make a decision about whether to answer the call. I had initially thought this feature was just there for unrecognized numbers, but while I was testing the Pixel 3, the Assistant screened even my known contacts when they called.

Some people are rightfully concerned that dispatching robots to answer phone calls for us is the next step toward a cold, unfeeling future. However, I also found it vastly satisfying when an unknown number called my Pixel 3 and, after the Google Assistant asked the caller to state their business, the caller promptly hung up. Good riddance to spam callers! I, for one, welcome this particular robot overlord.

Call Screen will eventually come to Pixel 2. So will the AR app Playground and Google’s Digital Wellness dashboard (the app that tracks your app usage which, like Screen Time on iOS, I quickly grew bored of, because I am a smartphone-addicted monster.) Most of the camera features I’ve described above are specific to Pixel 3. And of course, the wireless charging is specific to Pixel 3, which means the Pixel 2 phone won’t turn into a nifty, mini smart display the way the Pixel 3 does if you pair it with Google’s $79 Pixel Stand charger.

The Pixel 3 phone, more than any other Google-designed phone before it, is an example of what sophisticated software can do when the hardware it runs on is incrementally improved. It’s not perfect, but that’s the thing about a phone that’s driven by its software: it will change and get better over time, even as the glass-slab-and-guts part of it stays the same.



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