Google Pixel 3 XL review: Android's new hotshot phone

The Google Pixel is the panacea of Android phones, designed to show what you can do with pure Android software, tuned to the Google-designed hardware. Its pièce de résistance is the camera, where Google’s aim is to showcase what artificial intelligence (AI) can really do. It’s fair to say, it’s an approach that’s turning heads.

For Android fans, the XL is a phone you’ll always consider for its merits, while surveying the incredibly aggressive options from the wider ecosystem. Compared to Apple, Google has created a rod for its own back: it encourages and supports the development of increasingly sophisticated technologies, against which it then has to compete with its own hardware.

So, can Google be top dog in the Android pack?

Best Pixel 3 XL deals Premium design embraces the notch
Aluminium frame with hybrid glass rear
IP68 water/dust resistance
Corning Gorilla Glass 5
158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm; 184g
Display notch

Looking to evolve the Pixel 3 XL over the Pixel 2 XL, the entire rear of the handset is now glass – allowing wireless charging – but sticking to the two-tone feel of the phones from the previous generation. Yep, the ‘dipped in chocolate’ design is back.

It’s Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and the back to avoid scratches. That rear coating is described as ‘soft touch’ and you really wouldn’t think you’re holding glass – just as we said in our review of the smaller Pixel 3, it feels like holding a smooth pebble. That’s something that flows into the whole phone design, as Google has smoothed away edges and ridges for a finish that makes this one of the nicest phones we’ve seen, or rather, held.

Some might raise an eyebrow at the finish, but after two weeks of use, the Pixel 3 XL hasn’t scratched any more than we’d expect – that finish on the rear will damage if you’re carrying this phone with a pocket full of keys and coins, but so will any phone. The XL carries an IP67 waterproof rating, too, ensuring it’s happy in the rain, snow and everywhere else.

Thanks to the adoption of a notch design – that black-out dip to the top of the phone where the front-facing cameras and sensors are houses – there’s more display and less bezel. However, other manufacturers have done more to reduce bezel and fill more of the front of the phone with display. Some have called out the notch as ridiculous lazy design, but for us the size doesn’t matter.

pixel 3 xl

The notch is that size so that there’s symmetry in top and bottom bezel when holding the phone in landscape – then the (filled) notch area is the same width as the bottom bezel. What doesn’t stack up in terms of symmetry is how content is then handled: watch a Netflix video and the notch end is flat, while the bottom bezel end adopts the curves, so it’s a bit of a mess. 

Yes, that bottom bezel could be slimmer – as it seems to be that size to accommodate the speaker – and Samsung proved with the Galaxy S9+ that you can have great sound without it taking up great space. But those speakers do deliver, adding full sound to your viewing experience and there’s less chance of covering them, which is a real problem on phones with speakers on the bottom.

Let’s talk about that display
6.3-inch, 18.5:9 OLED display
2960 x 1440 pixels (523ppi)
HDR (high dynamic range)

The Google Pixel 3 XL offers up a 6.3-inch display, making it the clearly larger phone of the Pixel 3 pair. In the XL it’s actually a Samsung display and unlike the Pixel 2 XL it seems to be colour tuned more in line with expectations.

It pulls off Samsung’s trick of making things look great, especially photos which look rich and vibrant. Punchy colours and great viewing angles are par for the course; there’s a night light option to cut out blue light in the evenings, but you can’t help but enjoy how the display can drop to deep blacks.

Pick a dark wallpaper and the notch just vanishes into it, something that cheaper devices fail to achieve (certainly LCD ones). The XL’s always-on display joins the party, too, which is precise, with great contrast and is very… Samsung-y.

Google is rivalling the top phones out there in terms of resolution, sticking to a sharp 2960 x 1440 pixel display. That’s the sort of resolution to compete with Samsung’s Note 9 and sharper than Apple’s new big phone. Unlike a lot of rival devices, such as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, there’s no option to switch it down to save battery life – it’s Quad HD all the way.

Best of all, it works really well with Android Pie’s dark theme option – something you can select to switch on when you choose a dark wallpaper.

Pixel camera returns 
12.2-megapixel, 1.4µm, f/1.8 rear camera
8-megapixel dual front cameras

The Pixel camera has a reputation and it’s a reputation that has been gained without splurging on dual or triple camera lenses. It’s just a single camera that works hard, boosted by some very clever AI and consistently giving you great photos without the need to do too much. That much remains true in the Pixel 3 XL, which puts in a stellar camera performance with very little fuss.

Smartphone cameras are in a tailspin and it needs to stop

The Pixel camera takes good shots in all conditions, but it does so with consistency. The camera also seems to have dealt with some of the problems it had with slightly cold HDR processing on the Pixel 2, but the white balance issues in lower-light conditions under artificial lighting still seem to be there at times – so if your photo looks yellow, trying metering elsewhere.

Portrait mode – which blurs the background behind the subject using software – is available on any of the cameras. It works pretty well, too, but like all these things, if it can’t tell what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background there will be some bleed between the two. It’s still not like using a DSLR, no matter what the marketing material tells you.

Google Pixel 3 vs Pixel 2 vs Pixel: How have the Pixel smartphones changed?

Missing from the current Pixel offering is the night camera option: this has been teased, leaked and promised and will arrive in an update – and if it delivers on its promise, it should offer parity to Huawei’s night mode (which is very good indeed, the holy grail of smartphone photography) and offer low-light photo opportunities the likes of which you won’t have seen before.

What the Pixel doesn’t offer is extra cameras on the rear – so there’s no optical zoom, there’s no ultra-wide lens or any of that. You still have pinch zooming (and it’s still usable), so if anything, that’s probably the biggest feature that Google doesn’t offer. Notably Apple, Samsung and Huawei all do – and those tele lenses are useful for maintaining quality for farther away subjects.

As for the XL’s front camera system, there’s a hardware change with the inclusion of a second camera with a wide-angle lens. This gives you a 107-degree view, so you can fit in a lot more people in selfie shots. It’s designed for fun group shots and the trade-off is quality. The wider selfie cam struggles a little more with image noise and detail, probably because it has a smaller aperture so can capture less light. You can apply portrait mode on the wide camera – but then it struggles to create its AI bokeh blurring with any real accuracy. The best approach is to go simple with your groufies (yes, we used that word).

Stick to the main selfie camera and things are a lot better. You can get some brutally detailed selfies from it and the portrait mode is great at picking you out from the background.

There’s a beauty mode too, if you want it, adding consumer appeal – but to our eyes, on the time-weathered face of a 40-year-old, it does more harm than good. We’d imagine on the smooth skin of a 20-year-old it might hide some of those signs of decay that will inevitably strip you of your youthful vigour. Father Time is coming for you, beauty mode or not.

pixel 3 xl photos

The perfect smartphone camera then? We’d certainly say that in practical terms, the Google Pixel 3 XL delivers a lot. Some will want the fuss of more lenses and more options, but for many, dependable quality and less fiddling makes this a juicy proposition. Point, shoot, share, smile with just how good it is.

It’s 2018’s hardware 
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 4GB RAM
64GB or 128GB storage
3430mAh battery, fast Qi wireless charging

On the hardware front the Pixel 3 XL gets itself flagship internals in the form of the Snapdragon 845 with 4GB RAM and the option of 64GB or 128GB of storage. There’s no microSD option. The late launch window in the year sees the Pixel sitting on the same hardware as phones that are now six months old – and soon to be updated in 2019. Is that a problem? In reality no, but you’re sure to hear it as a downside in the numbers game.

This is where some of Google’s partners are starting to streak away: the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has just launched on newer generation hardware (albeit Huawei’s own silicon rather than Qualcomm). For tech fans this might be a consideration, but in real-world performance, it probably doesn’t make a jot of difference.

pixel 3 xl

What’s really impressive about the Pixel 3 XL is how smooth and fast it feels in use. It feels faster than other Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 handsets we’ve used – and a lot of that comes down to software (which we’ll talk about in more detail later). It’s fast to start, quick to open apps, although it does currently have the bad habit of closing apps you might want in the background.. 

This is being highlighted as a memory bug (some saying it needs more RAM, but we disagree) and it doesn’t really matter unless you move from doing one thing, like playing a game, to another thing, like taking a photo. Currently, if you open PUBG Mobile and then switch to the camera to take a photo, you’ll find that Pokemon Go that was runing in the background won’t be any more – and needs to restart completely. For some things this doesn’t matter at all, but if you jump in and out of games, it does.

We suspect this is a software problem rather than hardware, because we’ve been doing that on many phones for many years without a problem, and we wonder if it’s designed to optimise background battery use in power-hungry apps. We’re sure there will be an update to this position and we’ll update this review when there is.

There’s a 3,430mAh battery sitting in the Pixel 3 XL, which is middle of the pack these days. Again, companies like Huawei are stuffing huge batteries into phones that last a lot longer, thus there’s no competing with some of those models. Indeed, the Pixel 3 XL will pretty much get you through a day of use, but it isn’t the best performer out there in these stakes and power users might be better looking elsewhere.

The wireless charging might resolve that – with the Pixel Stand (sold separately) being a compelling option – but there’s fast wired charging too, which will see you ready to go again with a full battery in about an hour.

One of the nice things that the Pixel Stand offers is that it can turn your phone in to a mini Home Hub, offering access to Google Assistant and changing the display to suit the conditions through the evening. It makes for a great bedside stand, but it is expensive for a wireless charger at $79 or £69. Still, this is currently unique to the Pixel and Pixel Stand, so you’ll have to pay for the price for this sort of excitement.

Android Pie is both sweet and sour
Visual refinement
Latest Android and first to update
Has some weird UI elements

Android 9 Pie sees the platform offer more refinement than ever before, although Google isn’t alone in offering this bloatware-free software, thanks to the adoption of Android One by companies like Nokia. What Google does offer is tweaks to add consumer appeal to the phone, through things like the camera experience and the home screen environment. One of our favourite additions is appointments at the top of the home screen as a timely reminder – and much nicer than a notification.

Pure, secure and up-to-date is the mantra of the Pixel (and Android One) and that’s certainly appealing as those with older Pixel devices will already have Android Pie, because they are first on the update list. That’s slowly changing as Android gets more aggressive with updates, but the lack of pre-installed clutter is appealing too. It’s here that the Pixel gives you a clean experience compared to Samsung (which is options overload) and Huawei (which is bloatware central).

Arguably, the latest Samsung phone does more out of the box, but it’s hard to think of anything you’ll actually miss when it’s not there. And unlike Samsung, Google’s sentient AI – Google Assistant – is actually worth using. Let’s go further than that and say that Google Assistant is the smartest of the lot, uniquely placed to deliver across more devices and platforms than anyone else. It’s a much smarter and accurate than Siri and its position on phones make it more advantageous and dynamic than Amazon’s Alexa.

While AI is the mantra of companies like Huawei and LG (especially in the camera), Google’s AI does what it’s supposed to do: it sits in the background until you call it forward. Point the camera at a sign of a business card and it will offer to email or call the number (or retrieve that contact) thanks to AI through Google Lens. It does this without selecting a mode or tapping a setting, it just happens. AI will also power the Call Screen option (when it rolls out in the UK), which will answer your calls for you and help you determine whether you actually want to speak to the caller.

But the biggest change in Android Pie is the bit that leaves the bitter taste. Navigation has changed to allow swiping to access recent apps or quickly switch apps. It’s a change that sees your apps tray accessed via the same mechanics as accessing your recent apps – with an upwards swipe. Although you can do one with a short swipe and the other with a long swipe, it’s a behaviour change and we don’t really understand the need for another recent apps scrolling mechanism accessed by swiping the home button.

Yes, it replaces the quick switch mechanism that fired with a double-tap on the recent apps button of old, but there’s now two different presentations of recent apps – and accessing the apps tray is a little less straightforward. It all seems like there was some great goal to be achieved and Android never quite made it. We wouldn’t be surprised if the likes of Samsung did something entirely different – as Huawei has already done on the Mate 20 (which also launched on Android Pie).

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