Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL hands-on: Screens worth staring at

By | 9th October 2018

Google isn't looking for volume, it wants to focus on quality and simplicity.

If you showed up here looking for details on a pair of all-new Pixel phones that push the envelope and bring tons of new specs and features, you're about to be disappointed. (You also probably didn't follow the bevy of leaks in the last month.) But I encourage you to stick around, because I'll tell you right from the start that the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are worth your attention.

Google has never played the spec game. It has never focused on the raw quantity of features. Pixels have always been about creating an experience that's greater than the sum of their parts. The new Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are the best-ever expression of these values.

The latest phones focus on just a few main pillars: evolving the hardware design, improving an already wonderful camera, and giving users a display befitting the price tag. That is, of course, while holding on to what made their predecessors so great: a sleek software experience, powerful performance and the promise of Google's security and software support.

Evolution

Google Pixel 3 Hardware changes

This is a case of evolution, not revolution. The new phones are effectively unchanged in size from their predecessors, but the finishes and materials have been tweaked. Let's address the sizes first: they are so close in size to their predecessors you can squeeze one into a case designed for the other. (Though there are enough subtle differences to make this inadvisable.)

Same sized phone, but with a larger screen — while keeping stereo speakers.

The Pixel 3 is actually smaller than the Pixel 2, but now has a 5.5-inch 18:9 display for roughly 10% more screen space — that of course means smaller bezels, which make the phone feel properly modern. The Pixel 3 XL jumps to a 6.3-inch 18.5:9 display, but the number is a bit of a misnomer as its large notch and taller aspect ratio don't give it dramatically more room than the 2 XL.

But it's the changes to other aspects of the displays that are far more important — and potentially the most important change to these phones over their predecessors in any respect. Google spent an inordinate amount of time making these displays as great as possible, and in my time with the phones it absolutely showed. The OLED screens are clearly higher quality panels than before, which is a great starting point. Then Google went to work calibrating them: there was a huge focus on base-level accuracy at the panel level, and then further calibration in software to make them perform as well as possible.

Google says that the displays, when set to "Natural" mode, are purely 100% RGB compliant and "visually indistinguishable from perfect" — the exact sort of wording we hear bandied about with Samsung's stellar displays.

Google spent an inordinate amount of time making these displays as good as possible.

But not everyone wants accuracy, they want eye candy — that's why the phones ship in "Adaptive" display mode by default, which bumps up colors and saturation but has been tuned to limit the over-saturation of skin tones and reds in particular. Google also worked on the other important factors in judging a quality display, like reducing off-axis color shifting and increasing the brightness for a full-screen image to a minimum of 400 nits. It all looked wonderful indoors — the question now is how well it all works outside.

These displays blow away the Pixel 2 and 2 XL — it isn't even close.

And yes, Google wanted to address the worries of burn-in and image retention — another big talking point of the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. Google says it has reduced the burn-in potential by half compared to last year. It has also applied additional mitigations in the software to address particular problem areas like the navigation bar and ambient display. The displays will exhibit some sort of burn-in and image retention like any other OLED screen, but Google's confident its phones won't perform worse than the industry averages in either respect.

It's important to note that all of these great changes are applicable to both displays. Making the Pixel 3 and 3 XL displays look and perform identically was a goal, and to my eyes it was achieved. Speaking with Seang Chau (VP Engineering) and Raj Singh (Sr Director, Tech Engineering) from the Google hardware team, I immediately understood just how seriously Google took the displays this year, and how proud both were of the end result. I can see why — these look like a pair of screens that can compete with the best.

Even with the stretched screens, Google's retained its front-facing stereo speakers, and put extra time into both hardware and software so that they're even louder and clearer than before.

This comes even though the top speakers on the Pixel 3 XL is rather small, living between the two cameras in the display notch — you can tell the sound isn't perfectly even top to bottom (or left to right, I suppose), but it sounds good regardless.

This is a solid and simple design, refined and improved on ever so slightly.

Picking them up, both phones feel amazing; just the right balance of heft and usability. The frames are entirely glossy now, which counter-intuitively provides more grip than the previous painted metal (your fingers "stick" to the gloss). The backs look the same as before, but are of course glass now (Gorilla Glass 5, in fact). Roughly two-thirds of the glass surface is etched with a fine texture that mimics the painted metal of before, providing a little grip and dramatically reducing fingerprint accumulation.

The etching only covers the flat portion of the glass as well, letting the smooth part help transition more seamlessly into the metal on the sides. For me, this is the best of both worlds. You get the solid feel and texture that you'd normally associate with metal, but the wireless charging capabilities of glass. And yes, this means these phones will be more fragile than the Pixel or Pixel 2 — that just comes with the territory.

Both phones are available in a stealthy "Just Black," classy "Very White" and altogether new "Not Pink" colors, with no exclusivity between sizes or storage options. Black and white are just as you'd expect — though to my hands the black's back had a bit more grit to its texture. Not Pink is an interesting one because you just have to see it in person in order to make a real decision on it. In some lighting it's very faint, almost just off-white, while in darker lighting it looks like an intense blush pink color. It also has a salmon-colored power button, and the white one has a mint-colored button — I'm glad Google keeps tossing in these little pops of color.

Carrying the torch

It's all about the cameras

Google's Pixel 2 is well-regarded as having one of the best — if not the best — cameras in the smartphone world. Google knows it's onto something good, and it's going even further with the Pixel 3. And it's doing so with the exact same formula: leaning on software processing, not hardware.

Google didn't add more rear cameras because it frankly didn't need to — it thinks software is king.

Google didn't add a second (or third) rear camera to the Pixel 3, nor did it substantially update the hardware itself. This is still a single 12.2MP sensor — albeit a new version with better dynamic range capture — behind the same f/1.8 aperture and OIS. What's different is the supporting cast of sensors, backed up by new processing.

For standard photos, everyone will benefit from improved HDR+ processing thanks to the Pixel Visual Core. This dedicated image chip, which was present in the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, now handles all HDR+ processing — and you'll be able to notice the 40% speed increase, particularly with burst photos. There's also a new spectral sensor to interpret various spectra to aid in color accuracy, and a new flicker sensor to help reduce banding and visual issues when shooting in bad lighting. Google's extremely confident that it's improved image quality, and I can't wait to try it out for myself.

Google added amazing new features purely in software — and let it all run 40% faster on the Pixel Visual Core.

When lighting conditions aren't great, Google's now leveraging its HDR+ processing and the PVC for a new mode called "Night Sight." When you swap to Night Sight, the camera adjusts its capture and processing to make the most out of any available light to process multiple frames while focusing on brightness rather than pure dynamic range as HDR+ normally does.

The results I saw (two of which are below) were astounding, but there was a clear trade-off of increased grain and loss of detail — but we're talking about the difference between a photo that's actually bright versus unrecognizably dark, so this is a huge feature.

Night Sight sample images provided by Google.

Google's also overcoming its lack of a secondary telephoto camera with enhancements to digital zoom. Pixels already had more advanced digital zooming capabilities that smoothed artifacts, but this new system is several steps better. Now, when you're zooming in the viewfinder the camera will take several frames sequentially, and stitch them together using sensor and OIS data to follow your hand shake — the result is multiple frames that overlap ever so slightly and are processed to dramatically increase detail.

Samples I saw made 8X zooming look more akin to what 2X zooming is like on the Pixel 2. So, what if you're zooming while the phone is stationary, perhaps on a tripod? Google thought of that: the camera can shake the OIS manually to create the exact same effect, generating even sharper zoomed images. Too cool.

The best selfie shooter in the industry just got a companion to take even better front-facing shots.

Motion Photos make their return on the Pixel 3, and a new feature called "Top Shot" is a good reason to turn them back on. With Motion Photos enabled, the Pixel 3's camera will now look at the buffer of frames before and after the moment you hit the shutter button to find alternate photos that may actually look better.

Think about taking a portrait on a windy day, or a shot of a group where it's tough to get everyone smiling at the same time — the Pixel 3 will look at the entire buffer and find the best of the group, similar to a burst shot today. The difference now is that once you select the Top Shot selection, that frame gets sent through the same HDR+ processing as the main photo so you don't lose any quality in the process.

Unlike the rear camera, Google changed quite a bit about the selfie experience — despite the fact that the Pixel 2 was already excellent. The main camera is a new 8MP sensor with auto focus and an f/1.8 lens, which in itself is already an upgrade. And it's supported by a second 8MP sensor behind an f/2.2 wide-angle lens — that gives you options for group selfies and also improved portrait mode shots. Google's also applying really good lens distortion fixes for the wide-angle shots so you don't look like you have a super-wide face.

Subtle tweaks

Google Pixel 3 Software changes

Google once again preempted itself with the launch of Android 9 Pie weeks before its new phones were announced. Pie on the Pixel 3 XL hasn't changed much from what you can use today on the Pixel and Pixel 2, but there are a couple subtle tweaks and two new features.

The biggest addition Google is likely to promote and advertise is a new "call screen" feature built into the dialer. When a call comes in, you now have the option to "screen" the call with a single touch. The caller receives an automated response from a digital voice asking them for more information about why they're calling. That response is automatically transcribed (locally, not online) to text and shown on your screen.

You can choose to pick up the call at any time, prompt the caller for even more information, or reject it and mark the call as spam. That's a neat feature, particularly as spam calls seem to be a problem everyone's dealing with and aren't going away any time soon.

The whole suite of Digital Wellbeing features are also leaving beta with the launch of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. They've been put to use by plenty of people on the previous Pixels at this point, so it isn't surprising Google is ready to make it all official. It isn't making any announcement of altogether new features or changes, though — this is just what we've seen before, placed into a stable release channel.

This may not be a super exciting launch when it comes to software, but that shouldn't be surprising. Pie itself is an interesting and feature-filled update — we've just seen it already. If you haven't, you'll enjoy a sleek, smooth and powerful version of Android that's enjoyable to use.

More to come

Google Pixel 3 Preview

Some will decry Google's hubris in launching the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL with mostly unchanged internals, design and features compared to last year's lineup. I'm not one of those people. A common thread throughout our coverage of flagship phones for the past two years (or so) has been the stagnation and homogeneity of the entire market — the fact that phones are all standardizing on similar specs, features and designs with less room than ever for differentiation. If you take this as a given, and add in Google's general desire to have a simple frill-free phone, you get phones exactly like the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL in late 2018.

Google's last two pixels weren't at the forefront of specs or features, either — yet they were fantastic phones.

Google's last two Pixel releases weren't at the forefront of design, specs, features or pricing, either — and yet, they were some of the best-reviewed phones of their generations. They were also among my all-time favorites. After using both previous generations, I'm not going to underestimate just how good the Pixel 3 and 3 XL can be using the same formula. The hardware looks and feels fantastic, the displays are dramatically improved, the camera once again looks like a world-beater, and the software will likely be as strong as ever.

One trend Google's happy to follow is pricing; yes the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are incredibly expensive, making the proposition of "less is more" even tougher to swallow. The Pixel 3 has taken a $150 jump from last year, starting at $799 for what's historically referred to as the "small" phone. $899 gets you into the large Pixel 3 XL, and $100 extra on either one bumps up to 128GB of storage. That's right at the top end of what an Android phone costs nowadays, and Google thinks these phones are worth it.

Right now, I'm inclined to agree. How it all comes together in the real world after several days of intense use will have to wait for my full review, which will be coming in short order.

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