The Google Pixel 3 XL has been out for over three months now; our original review went up on October 15. In typical Pixel fashion, there has been a good bit of angst and controversy in the months since. Every issue and complaint has been picked apart, and considerable improvements and bugfixes have been addressed with monthly software updates. Google has since taken Digital Wellbeing out of beta, rolled out Call Screen, and launched Night Sight.
Needless to say, the experience of using a Pixel 3 XL today is considerably different than in October 2018. Now with over three months of experience using the Pixel 3 XL every day, I'm better equipped than ever to give it an in-depth review and reflect on all of the things I've enjoyed — and disliked — in that time.
Google Pixel 3 XL What I still like
Yes, I've been using the Pixel 3 XL every day for over three months. I got it set up for my review period back at the start of October, and haven't stopped using it since. With all of the phones I have available to me, that says something about how much I enjoy the thing. Google's software experience is what really keeps me around. It's simple, smooth and consistent. It works just how I expect it to, and doesn't throw me around with odd changes or hidden settings — nor do I feel the need to tweak or mess with things on a regular basis. Pixels have always been great "set it and forget it" experiences for me, which I perhaps appreciate more considering how often I'm expected to switch phones.
Pixels have always been great 'set it and forget it' experiences, and it's one of their greatest features.
I take advantage of the Digital Wellbeing features and use Call Screen whenever the phone identifies spam, but I wouldn't say any Pixel-exclusive features are particularly large draws for me. The biggest thing keeping me on the Pixel 3 XL really is the simplicity and consistency of the software that requires such little thought. I never have to worry that I won't get a monthly security patch. I don't have to think about whether my Google account and Google apps will have the latest features and work properly on my phone. I'm heavily integrated into Google apps and services, and that comes back around twice as strong when I use my Pixel.
Performance has, of course, been exceptional as well. Yes, there are the well-publicized bugs and issues, but they either haven't been an issue for me or were addressed in the December update. Daily use is smooth with nary a dropped frame, and I'm never sitting there waiting for something to happen. The only exception, of course, is camera performance — but I'll get to that below.
Delaying any judgement on camera speed, the camera quality is just out-of-this-world amazing. I was impressed from the first time I shot with the Pixel 3 XL the day I got it, and I'm consistently amazed by its capabilities every time I take a photo. Pixel photos just have a certain level of personality to them that makes them feel unique, while being built on great fundamentals of colors and clarity. Sure I still tweak them in Google Photos now and then, but I never have to make changes to "fix" a photo — it's an extremely rare occurrence when I take a photo I'm not happy with.
Night Sight, in particular, has been a real game changer. My girlfriend, who uses an iPhone XR, regularly asks that we take a photo with my phone and calls out Night Sight by name whenever we're in less-than-ideal conditions. It just grabs light that even your eyes can't discern, and makes lovely photos with considerably better quality than the auto mode. Night Sight takes a little work to make the most of its capabilities, but the end result is photos that you just can't get from any other phone.
The beautiful and well-made hardware is arguably just as big of a draw as the clean software.
I don't feel Google gets enough credit for the hardware quality of the latest generation Pixels. Sure I've had my phone in a leather case for a majority of my time with the phone, but I can still appreciate the sleek and efficient design — paired with great fit-and-finish — every time it's outside of its case. The Pixel 3 XL has gorgeous minimalism in any color (mine's white), and if there's any reason to not use a case it's to hold that sweet etched glass back. Some think it's boring, but I disagree — there's enough visual flair here to distinguish it from a crowd, while staying simple and beautiful.
After months of use, other aspects of the hardware deserve just as much praise as the design. The Pixel 3 XL offers the best haptics and vibrations of any Android phone, and (unfortunately) nothing else really comes close. The stereo speakers are loud enough that I never have them turned up to 100% for media or speaker calls. And the buttons are nicely clicky. Then there's the screen, which is just a half-step below the quality of Samsung's latest phones — merely lacking some peak brightness — but otherwise fantastic.
For as much as I gush over Google's software, the beautiful and well-made hardware is arguably just as big of a reason to buy the Pixel 3 XL as its software experience.
Google Pixel 3 XL What I don't like
There's a reason why I'm doing a three-month review of the 3 XL in particular: battery life. I would actually prefer to use the smaller Pixel 3, because I'm willing to sacrifice some screen space to have an easier-to-hold phone, but the battery is so weak I'd rather deal with the 3 XL's size rather than worry about charging most days. Even still, the Pixel 3 XL doesn't give me battery life confidence like the Galaxy Note 9 or OnePlus 6T do.
The battery handles a normal day just fine, but doesn't give me the confidence to handle times where I hit the phone hard.
On a normal day, I don't worry about battery life in the least. I can easily have three to four hours of screen time, and 16 hours of total battery, and still have about 25% left in the tank. The most intensive thing I do in any given day is a handful of hours of Bluetooth playback from YouTube Music and Pocket Casts, plus a good amount of app use, photos and lots of message and email notifications; nothing seriously taxing. The problem comes when I hit the device harder — the battery simply doesn't hold up. If I have a day when I use Google Maps navigation for more than perhaps 30 minutes, or I need to hotspot for an hour, or spend a little time watching YouTube when I have some time to kill, I'm all of a sudden worried about my battery lasting to the end of the day.
If I pair any amount of "heavy" usage with a day that I expect to be out of the house for a late dinner or some other event after, I'm absolutely going to put it on a wireless charger in the afternoon or plug it in while I'm in the car. Even though most days are totally fine battery-wise, I lack confidence in the battery lasting through a heavy or longer-than-usual day. There isn't enough of a battery safety net for me to trust the phone's longevity on a tough day — and I just have more faith in the Note 9 or OnePlus 6T's abilities to handle the same situations.
Now, back to the camera performance I mentioned above. I'll make it clear in a single sentence: all of my love for the Pixel's fluid and consistent software goes down the drain as soon as I use the camera. I've written about this issue before, and it continues to be my largest issue with the Pixel 3 XL: the camera isn't as fast or consistent as any of the competition. Yes, the December update improved the consistency a bit, and instances of the camera not saving photos have reduced, but all of my day one issues are still here in some capacity.
It's fine if your camera is a little slower than the competition — but it's the massive inconsistency that's truly unacceptable.
When you're doing absolutely nothing else with your phone, the camera is pretty quick. Opening and capturing still isn't Note 9 fast — it still takes a few seconds — but it's good enough. The problem, at its core, is consistency. Sometimes the camera opens up as you expect and you can jump right into shooting; other times, you wait three seconds for the camera to open and another three to capture. Most of the time burst mode shots are so slow that you capture 5 frames when you thought you'd captured 15; other times it rattles off 30 in a row without issue.
Then there's the issue of multitasking and trying to use the camera. If you're listening to music or a podcast in the background, get ready for that camera app to be a time machine back to 2013 — it's slow as molasses. Sometimes it gets to the point of force closing your background media app, or fails to capture when you press the shutter, or just locks up and doesn't do anything for a few seconds. This is unacceptable for a $900 flagship phone. For as much engineering time Google has clearly put into the photographic qualities of the Pixel 3 XL, it feels like camera performance was a complete afterthought.
I've been burned by the Pixel 3 XL's slow camera enough that I start to expect that it will be slow every time I open it. I plan ahead, opening the camera earlier and less spontaneously than I normally would, because I'm worried about missing a shot. I'm all for being purposeful and mindful when taking photos, but sometimes I just need to pull out the camera quickly and capture something — I'm tired of being forced to wait every time I do so.
Google Pixel 3 XL Three months on
I love using my Pixel 3 XL. It's been a steady and consistent companion, with the best possible software experience for the way I need to use a phone. Despite my frustrations with having just average battery life and a camera that can be frustratingly slow at times, those are honestly small problems in the grand scheme. And perhaps it says even more about how much I like the rest of the phone that I'm willing to put up with those issues and keep using the Pixel 3 XL since I first reviewed it over three months ago.
With this much time using the Pixel 3 XL, my conclusion hasn't particularly changed: "I will have no hesitation in recommending the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL to anyone who asks me what the best Android phone is." No phone available today is perfect. And no phone ever can be perfect for even a majority of people — let alone everyone. But the Pixel lineup is approaching perfection; Google just needs that final bit of polish and execution to make its ideas really shine as a cohesive unit. But even as it stands, flaws and all, the Pixel 3 XL is fantastic.
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