Review

Google Pixel 3 XL review: Greatness with a hideous notch

Google announced the third generation of its Pixel phones last week, once again with regular- and XL-sized variants. I was given the Pixel 3 XL to review, and I absolutely love it... except for the hideous notch.

Let's get one thing clear right now. I don't hate notches. I hate this notch, and we'll come back to that later.

The phone itself is just awesome. There don't seem to be any gimmicks, and everything it does seems to be well thought out. The interface is clean, and it just works.

Google stuck with a single-lens camera, once again showing the rest of the industry that it can do with one camera what it takes others two lenses to do. Camera improvements were a major focus too, with things like Night Shot and Top Shot.

Specs

CPU Octa-core Snapdragon 845 (quad-core 2.5GHz Kryo 385 Gold, quad-core 1.6GHz Kryo 385 Silver)
GPU Adreno 630
Display 6.3 inches, 1440x2960 (18.5:9), 523ppi, P-OLED
Body 158x76.7x7.9mm (6.22x3.02x0.31in), 184g (6.49oz)
Camera 12.2MP, Front - 8MP + 8MP
Video 4K - 30fps, Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture f/1.8, Front - f/1.8 + f/2.2
Sensor size 1/2.55"
Camera features OIS, dual pixel PDAF, Front - PDAF on primary sensor (fixed focus on wide-angle)
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB/128GB
Battery 3,430mAh
Colors Clearly White, Just Black, Not Pink
Price $899/$999


Design

Google stuck with its two-tone designs this time around, and the model I was given is Just Black. And no, I don't think that the color names are cute. The entire back panel is Corning Gorilla Glass 5, although the top portion is glossy black while the bottom is matte.

The glossy part of the back, which is the top inch or so, is where the camera is housed, alongside the flash. Below that on the matte portion of the back panel is the fingerprint sensor right in the center, and there's a Google logo in the center on the bottom.

The soft touch coating almost feels like it's made of metal. Of course, if that was the case then the device wouldn't support wireless charging, and as we'll talk about with the Pixel Stand, wireless charging is a big part of the feature set.

The right side of the device is where you'll find both the power button and the volume rocker. The power button is placed above the volume rocker though, which just feels weird to me, although I guess I can chalk that up to personal preference, or muscle memory from other devices that I've used.

You'll find the USB Type-C port on the bottom of the device, and as usual, there's no 3.5mm headphone jack. Oddly, the bottom is also where the nano-SIM slot is located. Of course, this doesn't make a difference to the end user, but I don't think I've seen another device with the SIM slot on the bottom like that.

Let's talk about the front of the phone. I'd normally cover this under the display section, but there are some odd design choices here as well. We all know about the notch, which I despise. The strange thing is that the device's chin is the same height as the notch. I'd really like to see just one Android OEM have an even bezel around the screen with the exception of a notch, like the iPhone Xs Max has.

The notch is there to house two front-facing camera sensors, one of which is standard and one of which is wide-angle. There's some irony there, as Google is the only major OEM left that doesn't use at least two rear camera sensors, often showing that it can do with one sensor what other companies need two sensors to do. Apparently, though, it can't do that on the front camera.

Display

First thing I'll note about the display is that you can turn off the notch through the developer options. You need to turn that on by finding the Android build number in settings and pressing it seven times. Once you unlock developer settings, find "display cutout" and go to "hide".

These are developer settings though, meant to simulate an experience for developers, the experience of a device that doesn't have a notch. That means that the screen real estate won't be used for anything.

Usually, I don't mind notches, as there's no reason that I'd want to use my valuable screen real estate for things like notification badges. This notch is just so ugly and intrusive though.

Google went for an OLED display again this year. OLED stands for organic light emitting diodes. This works differently from an LCD (liquid crystal display), in that an LCD is entirely backlit and an OLED display is not. With an OLED screen, some pixels can be turned off, meaning that you can get true blacks.

Colors also tend to be more vibrant on OLED panels, because the colors are rendered on top of that true black. Rendering colors on top of a backlight can cause them to look more washed out.

The display on the Pixel 3 XL looks great, and it's probably too soon to know for sure if it will have the same issues as the Pixel 2 XL had last year.

There's also an always-on display, an ambient screen that shows the time while the device is asleep. It's actually kind of awesome. It doesn't just show the time, as it also shows your notification badges. My favorite bit, however, is that if there's music playing, it automatically tells you on the ambient display what song is on. Naturally, that means that the device is always listening, but you should probably be comfortable with that in exchange for better features if you're buying this phone.

Camera

A big focus of this device is the camera, and Google added a number of features. One of those is Night Sight, which isn't yet available, but it's meant to provide better low light performance. We've all taken a photo in which the light is coming from behind the subject, and the subject looks dark. Night Sight is meant to solve that.

The only device that I've seen truly solve that is the Huawei P20 Pro with its night mode. That can take up to four seconds to get the shot you want. I do wonder how well this will work.

Another feature is Top Shot, which takes multiple pictures and selects the best one. The idea is to not end up capturing someone while they're blinking or something. There's also Photobooth, which will snap a picture when it detects someone smiling, similar to Google's Clips camera.

One thing I'll point out is that this is all a complete mess when trying to organize photos. Sure, Google Photos is meant to organize your photos for you, but we might not all want to use Google Photos. We might want to easily export some photos to something else. For example, for the purposes of this review, I uploaded the photos to OneDrive so I can easily work with them on my PC.

All of the portrait mode images go into their own separate folders. No, I don't mean one folder for portrait mode. I mean one folder for literally each portrait mode image, where it saves an original and a portrait mode version. Motion images are saved with different names than standard images, and so on. There's no chronological way to just view and manage your photos.

Now, let's see what the Pixel 3 XL camera can do.


For the portrait mode shots, I included the portrait shot, the original that gets saved, and a regular image. The portrait mode zooms in on the subject by a bit. If this were an iPhone, I'd blame it on the 2X zoom lens, but the Pixel 3 XL doesn't have a second lens. It also works much better than an iPhone. The iPhone switches to that second lens for portrait mode and you get this messy jumble of messages like move further away, move closer, and there's not enough light. This just works.

I do prefer the natural bokeh of the camera over the artificial blue of portrait mode. I'm really happy to see that the phone saves both.

One thing that really impressed me is low light performance. Notice that one shot, taken in my car, that came out terrible. I had to dig it up through the mess of photo storage on this device, but it actually saved a much better and clearer copy. I also tried to catch it in some pretty tricky lighting conditions, and it did quite well. Most of the lights don't look blown out at all.

Finally, let's not forget about Playgrounds. Playgrounds is a sort of AR camera that lets you place 3D objects on the real world. Google is adding Marvel characters to this, although the only one there right now is Iron Man. I also got some great shots of a Demogorgon from Stranger Things. My friends are really good sports.

My only real complaint with the camera is that there aren't proper frame rate settings for video capture. You can choose between auto and 30fps, and that's it. You can't get a good solid 1080p 60fps video capture. 4K 60fps isn't there at all, which is a bummer as the Snapdragon 845 does support it, as we've seen from Samsung and HTC.

Performance

I say this every time I review a device with hardware like this, but a Snapdragon 845 is really more powerful than most people need. Remember that while the prices of flagship phones are getting higher and higher, most people are fine with a $249 Moto G6.

With that being said, the performance of the device is fast and smooth. Some might be critical of Google's choice to include 4GB RAM while competitors are using 6GB or even 8GB, but I didn't run into any issues at all.

One issue I had is poor cellular performance at times. I used my Project Fi SIM in the Pixel 3 XL, which typically gets better performance than my regular T-Mobile SIM, especially in an official Fi device. In many cases though, I'd have a few bars of 4G LTE on my iPhone Xs Max with T-Mobile, while I'd only have 3G on the Pixel 3 XL.

For benchmarks, I typically use Geekbench 4, AnTuTu, and GFXBench. Unfortunately, the latter two weren't to be found in the Play Store, and when I found their listings, they said they weren't compatible with the device. I'm guessing that this is something that will be changed after the Pixel is released. In short, I could only run benchmarks with Geekbench 4, which tests the CPU.

The score is a bit lower than we've seen from other Snapdragon 845 devices, which is still fine. You can assume that AnTuTu and GFXBench scores will also be similar.

Pixel Stand

For $79, I'd say that the Pixel Stand is a must-have accessory. I'd say this even if it was just a wireless charger, as it's just so fast. You get 10W charging with the accessory, which is much better than other Qi chargers. You can charge other Qi-enabled phones with it, although they'll only get 5W.

But of course, it does much more. If you've got a Nest Hello video doorbell, you can set it so that while the Pixel 3 is on the Stand, it will automatically show you who is at the door.

Another thing, which is awesome, is the digital wellbeing feature. You can set it so that your phone is automatically on do not disturb while it's on the Stand, and to keep the screen dark while you're sleeping. This is great if you're one of those people that can get distracted by their phone in the middle of the night.

It also can serve as a sort of mini Home Hub. You can use the Pixel 3 XL as a digital picture frame while it's on the Stand, or you can use it to call Google Assistant. Assistant can also give you a "good morning" routine that will tell you what you have scheduled for the day, and there's a bedtime routine for setting your alarm.

One more little thing is that when your alarm goes off, you can set it so that the display brightens gradually, which is meant to ease your wakeup.

Pie UI

I do want to spend a brief time talking about the UI changes in Android 9.0 Pie, because you can't turn them off. Android now uses gesture-based navigation like the iPhone X, so your normal navigation buttons are gone. Other companies like Huawei and Motorola have done similar things with one-button navigation.

Here's how it works: there's a line on the bottom of the screen, and that's your button for navigation. Tapping it will bring you home, and swiping up will bring you to the multitasking screen. Swiping up again, or a long slide up from anywhere, will bring you to the app drawer. You can also swipe back and forth to move between current and previously used apps.

Yes, it does take a bit of getting used to, especially if you're used to the growing number of other gesture-based interfaces that we're seeing. Muscle memory catches up though, and if you're like most people and you only carry one phone around, you'll catch on quick.

One thing that it keeps around is the back button, which is nice. After all, many Android apps don't have back buttons built into them, relying on the UI that's been around since day one.

Conclusion

The Google Pixel 3 XL is an excellent device. My biggest issues with it are the hideous notch and the cellular connectivity issues that I had, and I assume that my connectivity issues are either device-specific or will be fixed in a firmware update. Other than that, everything just works, and it's just a really pleasant device to use.

$899 isn't cheap, although the smaller Pixel 3 comes in at a hundred dollars cheaper. I did play with one at the Made By Google event, and it's very comfortable to hold, and it feels light. It also doesn't have a notch, and both devices have feature parity. The one thing that you get with the larger one is the larger battery.

I love the camera on the Pixel 3 XL too, as it takes very little effort to get the shot that you want. This seems to be a feature that gets overseen in smartphone cameras, with many OEMs focusing on "pro" features, while the average person that just wants to capture memories with their friends getting somewhat left behind.

To be honest, with most Android phones that I've used, there's at least one thing about it that makes me want to smash it with a brick, so I always praise the ones that don't give me that impulse. The Pixel 3 XL is one that I do not want to smash with a brick, because everything just works as you'd expect it to, from the intuitive UI gestures down to autocorrect on the keyboard.

I think that unless you're a special interest case that really wants the best of one specific feature, you're going to love the Pixel 3 XL. This phone is a solid buy, although you might end up turning off the notch.

 

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