Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL review: Much ado about notching
Overview & Design
Note: This article was first published on 16th October 2018 and it has been updated with new battery test results.
If I had to describe Google’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones with one word, it would be competent. They don’t dazzle with their exquisite design or wow you with a gaggle of four cameras, but that doesn't change the fact that they still deliver a lot of what you’d expect from a flagship smartphone today.
This means a great display, an excellent camera, and solid battery life. Couple that with Google’s AI smarts and computational photography tricks, and you end up with a phone that simply works very, very well.
This year’s model also comes with a faster Snapdragon 845 SoC, better speakers, dual front cameras, and support for Qi wireless charging, which amount to small, incremental feature upgrades over the Pixel 2.
However, those of you hoping for larger storage options or a memory bump will be disappointed. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL come with just 4GB of memory and either 64GB or 128GB of storage.
Here’s a spec comparison of the 64GB models:
Design: It looks a lot like the Pixel 2
The Pixel 3 phones may appear to be playing it safe in the design department, but the Pixel 3 XL already looks like it’s turning out to be fairly polarizing in its own right.
I’m talking of course about the notch. The notch on the Pixel 3 XL is narrow, but it’s also really tall and ends up sort of invading the screen in a way that some may consider bothersome. I’m personally not troubled by this, and I think the notch is a lot less offensive in person than in pictures, but I can see why some folks might be unwilling to put up with it.
The biggest problem is that there’s seemingly no clear reason for the notch to exist. The notch on the iPhone XS, and the iPhone X before it, housed the TrueDepth camera module, an integral component of Apple’s Face ID feature. If there wasn't a notch, as in the case of the iPhone 8, you didn't get Face ID.
Unfortunately, Google has proven that it doesn't actually need the notch to include the dual front cameras and speaker. The Pixel 3 has the exact same front camera setup, including the second wide-angle f/2.2 shooter, which makes it seem like the notch is there just because notches are trendy now.
To be fair, the notch allows Google to extend the display all the way up to the top of the screen, which gives a nice edge-to-edge look at the top of the phone. Of course, one of the main gripes about this approach is that the phone still has a “chin”, but so does every other Android phone (the Pixel 3 XL’s bottom bezel is thicker than on the Note9 though). I’d argue that just because you can’t eliminate all the bezels doesn’t mean that you shouldn't still try to reduce them where you can, and I do enjoy having my screen extend up to the edges at the top.
But that business about notches aside, the good news is that the Pixel 3 phones feel more premium in hand than their predecessors. I'm not a fan of all-glass backs, but now that Qi wireless charging has arrived on the Pixel 3, Google has finally ditched the metal body of the Pixel 2. However, instead of a single pane of glass that's slick and shiny from top to bottom, Google has somehow sanded the bottom three-quarters or so of the back to produce a lovely matte finish.
I dislike glass backs mainly because of how reflective they are and how easily they attract fingerprints, but Google's approach seems to have addressed these concerns. The matte surface also comes close to approximating the feel of metal, which is quite nice.
In another nice touch, the aluminum frame in both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL feature a shiny coating that blends in nicely with the Gorilla Glass 5 panels on the front and back of the phone. I'm reminded vaguely of the shiny frame surrounding the new iPhone XS, and while Google's approach isn't quite as eye-catching, it is an improvement over the dull aluminum frame on the Pixel 2.
Elsewhere, the contrasting power button is making a return on the Pixel 3, and the Clearly White and Not Pink colors come with mint and orange buttons respectively.
In addition, the Pixel 3 smartphones are more durable as well. They now sport an IP68 rating, compared to IP67 on the Pixel 2, which means they can be submerged up to 1.5m underwater for up to 30 minutes.
On top of that, the Pixel 3 now comes with a security chip custom-designed by Google called the Titan M. The chip protects your log-in credentials, disk encryption, app data, and the integrity of your OS code itself. It also works in tandem with Android and the Pixel’s hardware to verify important transactions like fund transfers and mobile banking.
But these small differences aside, you've probably already noticed how much the Pixel 3 looks like the Pixel 2. Save for the new Clearly White and Not Pink colors that the Pixel 3 now comes in, the backs of the Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 XL are nearly indistinguishable. The corners of the soft-touch glass at the back have been reshaped and are now more rounded, which softens the phone’s industrial look somewhat, but the overall design language remains the same.
Both generations of phones also share nearly identical dimensions, give or take a millimeter here and there. However, the Pixel 3 phones are slightly heavier. For instance, the Pixel 3 XL weighs 184g to the Pixel 2 XL’s 175g.
The similarity with the Pixel 2 opens Google up to accusations of stagnation and falling behind its competitors in the design department. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note9 and the iPhone XS do feel more refined and elegant, and the Pixel can feel a little rough around the edges in comparison. Part of that may be because Google is primarily still a software company at heart. It’s not touting super obvious hardware improvements like more cameras or a custom-designed chip called something like the A12 Bionic, but that’s because many of the upgrades are bundled into the software.
Finally, the 3.5mm headphone jack looks to be gone for good. At the bottom, the phones have the same USB-C port and SIM card slot. However, there's no support for dual-SIM capabilities. The Pixel 3 will ship with a pair of wired USB-C earbuds modeled after the Pixel Buds, complete with Google Assistant baked in. Along with the Google Translate app, you can use the earbuds to translate in real-time more than 40 languages. (Google has also announced that its real-time translation features would be coming to all Assistant-enabled headphones.)
When it comes to handling both phones, the Pixel 3 feels really compact and pocketable. It’s far easier to deal with, so if you’re not a fan of the current crop of jumbo-sized phones (or the notch), you’ll probably find the smaller Pixel more appealing. That said, the Pixel 3 XL isn’t ridiculously large either, and I’m able to use it fairly comfortably even though I have smaller hands.