Google Pixel 3 review: Fewer features make for incredible phones

Pixel 3 XL
(Image: © Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

It's true: Google's new Pixel phones aren't all that different from its last Pixel phones. Specs, features, design and overall philosophy are effectively constant between generations, particularly when you take into account that last year's Pixels have been updated to Android 9 Pie and will thankfully be receiving many of the Pixel 3's new camera features.

But to dismiss the Pixel 3 for its similarity to the Pixel 2 would be to miss out on what is a great phone. Google has never been interested in adding or changing features just for the sake of doing something, and the Pixel 3 doesn't change the parts of the experience that already worked. But the Pixel 3 and 3 XL do fix much-discussed problems with the last generation, and add a few extras that enhance Google's vision for what an Android phone should be.

The result is a fantastic pair of phones.

Pros:

  • Simple, intuitive software
  • Great photo quality
  • Excellent selfies
  • Sleek, solid hardware
  • Loud stereo speakers
  • Wireless charging
  • Longterm software support

Cons:

  • No headphone jack
  • Occasional camera app stutters
  • Pixel 3 has subpar battery life
  • 4GB RAM could limit future performance

Ed. note: Due to the extreme similarities between the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, this review should be viewed as applicable to both phones. Specific areas, such as size and camera comments, will note in particular whenever there is a difference between the two.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Evolution

Google Pixel 3 Hardware

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 and, ultimately, much improved.

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 means smaller bezels, which make the phone look and feel more modern. It brings the screen size up to a point where it feels like less of a trade off than previous small Pixels; I don't feel restricted by the screen size, but it's still a compact enough phone to grasp in one hand and slip into a pocket without issue.

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

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. Everyone is focused on the notch here, but it just doesn't bother me that much. Phones just have notches now, and the number of options without them are only decreasing. After a couple days, you forget it's there. Really.

But it's the improvement to the quality of the screens that's far more important than the sizes and shapes — and potentially the most important change to these phones over their predecessors in any respect. Google spent an inordinate amount of time making the displays as great as possible, and it shows. Speaking with Seang Chau (VP Engineering) and Raj Singh (Sr Director, Tech Engineering) from the Google hardware team ahead of the Pixel 3 launch, I immediately understood just how seriously Google took the displays this year, and how proud both were of the end result.

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

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 their best. DisplayMate's testing gave the Pixel 3 XL an A+ rating and ranked it among the best phone displays it's ever seen.

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. Both screens look great, and look near-identical to one another — and importantly, they're dramatically better than any previous Pixel. Everything you see on the screen is crisp and pleasing. Colors stand out, but aren't obnoxious or overblown — and they don't shift dramatically when you tilt the phone. (And true display nerds can always drop it to "Natural" for a 100% RGB look.)

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

I'm extremely impressed with every aspect of this display, except for one: brightness. Unlike Samsung's latest displays and the newest panel from LG in the V40, the Pixel 3 just doesn't reach a high enough peak brightness to be clearly visible at all times outdoors. It's dramatically better than the Pixel 2, and is good enough in sunlight, but I still found myself shading the phone with my other hand or turning away from the sun to see the screen more often than I should with a phone in this top-end category. Adaptive Brightness does a great job adjusting on its own throughout the day, but these phones could really benefit from an extra-high-brightness mode in sunlight like the competition offers.

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. I typically walk around the house in the morning listening to a podcast on my phone and have to max out the speakers to hear it clearly — with the Pixel 3, I don't. It's not going to obviate the need for a Bluetooth speaker for group listening, but these phones get way louder than you'll likely need in a phone — even on the smaller Pixel 3, which is perhaps 10% quieter than the larger version.

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 provide more grip than the previous painted metal (your fingers "stick" to the gloss). The backs look the same as the Pixel 2, but are made of Gorilla Glass 5 instead. Roughly two-thirds of the glass surface is etched with a fine texture that mimics the painted metal of before, which isn't particularly grippy but feels fantastic and dramatically cuts down on 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 capability of glass. And yes, this means these phones will be more fragile than the Pixel or Pixel 2 — that just comes with the territory.

Some have panned the Pixel 3 design for being boring, but I enjoy the understated look. From phones to accessories and smart home gadgets, Google's current design aesthetic isn't flashy — the Pixel 3 fits right in with the rest of its product line in that respect. You can choose to step up the texture or color with one of its awesome knit cases, if you wish — or just stare at the contrast-colored power buttons on the white and Not Pink phones.

Google Pixel 3

Carrying the torch

Google Pixel 3 Cameras

Google's Pixel 2 is well-regarded as having one of 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 Google says it's a new version with better dynamic range — with the same f/1.8 aperture and OIS. What's different is the supporting cast of sensors, backed up by new processing.

Every photo benefits from improved HDR+ processing thanks to the Pixel Visual Core. This dedicated image chip, which is also in the Pixel 2, now handles all HDR+ photos — and you'll notice up to 40% faster processing because of it. 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.

The result? Photos that look a whole heck of a lot like they were taken on a Pixel 2. That's a good thing, and not too surprising given the hardware similarities — but I suppose I was expecting some sort of revolution in photo quality for some reason. In reality, when you're at the top of the heap already it's tough to make a dramatic improvement. Photos from the Pixel 3 perfectly walk the line between having eye-catching colors and being accurate. They're a great representation of what you want the scene to look like, but without going overboard with a typical "HDR" look.

Photos aren't notably better than the Pixel 2 — then again that still makes this the best camera available today.

Like the Pixel 2 you can notice some grain and texture when you zoom in and check out the details — but that's part of what makes the photos look so lifelike and realistic when viewed at full size. They don't look artificially smoothed, fake or synthetically enhanced; so although it may not create impressively tack-sharp details, I don't at all feel that takes away from the quality of the images when viewed at normal sizes.

The Pixel 3 is astonishingly good in a variety of lighting situations, somehow retaining detail and colors without much light to work with. It once again isn't as sharp and smooth in low light as the Galaxy Note 9, but it isn't particularly noisy either — there's just enough texture here so that flat surfaces and edges look real rather than artificially constructed. In other words, low-light shots on the Pixel 3 have the same characteristics, qualities and colors as daylight shots — which is an impressive bit of consistency. And this evaluation comes before Google's new "Night Sight" feature is available, which is coming a few weeks after launch and promises to be able to bring out tons of light in dark scenes without a quality drop.

I had to use tap-to-focus to increase the exposure on photos with a wide range of brightness across the scene, because the HDR+ processing just didn't always pull out the kind of brightness I wanted when I just point and shoot. Now and then you get a shot that's downright bland — but you don't ever get a bad photo that's blurry or grainy beyond use. The quality floor is just so high on this camera that even the subpar shots are of above-average quality for a smartphone.