When Google reimagined its strategy for its hardware lineup, it certainly came up with one of the best smartphones that we see today – the Pixel. The Pixel was born to carry the legacy of a software company, which probably doesn’t need an introduction today, in the form of hardware into the hands of more and more people. Unfortunately, the same hardware has been off-putting for many potential buyers in the past who come to taste Google’s highly acclaimed software and, of course, the cameras. Over time, Pixel smartphones have seen a fair share of highs and lows that have ultimately resulted in their lacklustre sales when pitted against the high-end smartphones from two rival companies, Apple and Samsung.
With Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Google is trying to come down on all the pesky hardware with the same old approach of fine-tuning the software that can overshadow most downsides. But this doesn’t mean everything is the same – Google has tried to make sure everything is in the right place, at least enough to subdue any new complaints, whatsoever. With flagship specifications and an audacity to break into the Indian premium market to dethrone stalwarts, does Pixel 3 XL prove its worth? Let’s find out.
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When you enter the premium segment, the expectations you have, blow out of proportion because, obviously, of the price tag. Google’s approach to the build quality of Pixel 3 XL is clear-headed and simplistic. It’s a smartphone that, when placed next to the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone Xs Max, will barely grab your eyeballs, largely because of the minimalist tinge that saves it from getting frumpier. It’s isn’t extremely gaudy yet delivers a subtle flair of ‘premium-ness’. Unlike the last year’s Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 3 XL sports a glass back, two-thirds of which is etched with the matte finish while the rest is plain, reflective glass. The Pixel 3 XL feels sturdy and well-built when you hold in hands.
While the idea of etching is laudable, it is something that some people may not like at first. Also, the matte finish portion is highly prone to fingerprints, dirt, sweaty palm prints, and moreover, metal scuffs. Keeping the Pixel 3 XL in the same pocket as for your coins is no less than a nightmare, especially when the device is bare. You may need a mobile case to avoid that. Despite having a glass surface, the handset is hardly slippery, which is good.
Google has used a Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on either side of the phone with the 2.5D curved contour. An aluminium metal chassis is sandwiched between the two glass slabs and houses all the physical buttons – the power button and the volume rockers on the right and nothing on the left. The power button is tactile while the volume buttons are a little loose and require a bit more pressure than you would expect.
The unit we received is Just Black, a cheeky name given by Google to the colour variants of Pixel 3 XL, besides two others – Clearly White and an all-new Not Pink. The Not Pink is clearly pink, just with a toned-down tint, and has a Mint Green-coloured power button. The ‘G’ logo is emblazoned towards the bottom of the rear. There is a fingerprint sensor on the upper-mid portion of the matte finish area. At the top-left is a single camera accompanied by an LED flash and a spectral and flicker sensor.
Coming to the fascia of the Pixel 3 XL, you will see everything exciting happening on a reasonably large footprint. We will certainly talk about the undeniably important elephant in the room – the notch but first, let’s go through other things first. The most conspicuous are the speakers located at the top and the bottom display chins, which are so thick they make us feel like we are holding a smartphone from last year – Wait! Actually, we are, since the design is common to both Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 2 XL. The speaker at the bottom is horizontally lengthy, but the service area is a portion within its entirety. The earpiece speaker is also the second front-firing speaker. There is a USB Type-C port on the bottom and no 3.5mm headphone jack, which we, particularly, are not a fan of.
Google’s Rick Osterloh said that the speakers on Pixel 3 XL are 40 per cent louder than the ones on the predecessor. Well, they indeed are. There is a little distortion when you listen to music on full volume but it’s not very intense. In our time with the Pixel 3 XL, we loved the sound output on Pixel 3 XL. The speakers are louder than the dual speakers on Galaxy Note 9.
Well, hello notch! The notches on display are not very old but it already seems like a relatively long time since the notch was first born on an iPhone. The companies that embarked the journey of borrowing the bizarrely famous notch from iPhone were also the ones that are seemingly contemplating to put them to rest.
For example, Vivo narrowed the notch to give it the shape of a ‘water drop’ on the latest Vivo V11 Pro, as opposed to the Vivo V9 that had a notch very similar to that of iPhone X’s. Another example is OnePlus, which has a rather unusual approach to releasing successive flagship models. From the wide notch on OnePlus 6 to the very curvy water drop notch on OnePlus 6T, we have witnessed the dynamism of achieving a true full-screen display. And how can we forget the outlaws that include Oppo and even Vivo for killing the notch on the Find X and Nex smartphones, respectively?
The reason we have made an attempt to remind you of why the notch exists is plain and simple. At this point in time, Google is doing what is deemed fit for early 2018 smartphones. The large notch is odd, not ugly because it’s there so that two front cameras find someplace to be mounted. You say cameras are present on other phones as well but in a nicer-looking notch, why a deep-going notch on Pixel 3 XL then? We think the answer to this is the wide-angle selfie camera that requires a little more area of vision. While you will get used to not noticing the notch in some time, you will notice one more trade-off though. The notification icons will not be as many as you would expect. They will be hidden until you bring down the notification drawer. Of course, you can choose what notifications should be a priority to make their icons visible.
The Pixel 3 XL has a far better display than its predecessor’s. The 6.3-inch OLED display maxes out a resolution of 1440×2960 pixels and has its edges curved on all four sides. The OLED display brings a lot of easiness to what a manufacturer can do with the screens but Google didn’t heed one important purpose – the flexibility. Had the Pixel 3 XL’s display been folded into the bottom chin, its unruly thickness would have been avoided. Google has ensured everything that went horribly wrong last year on the Pixel 2 ticks the right boxes. There is HDR support, Quad-HD+ resolution, and moreover a large real estate, which is basically one of the reasons you will spend that much money for.
The display produces rich and punchy colours that look nice at all viewing angles. The vibrancy of the colours is on par and the blacks are adequately deep. The HDR videos on YouTube and Netflix play smoothly on the Pixel 3 XL and you can notice how infinitely deep the black range goes. However, it is a little less bright than the Samsung Galaxy Note 9’s display that produces more dramatic levels black and dark tones. The outdoor legibility of the display is decent, however, you may, sometimes, end up squinting your eyes under direct sunlight to read texts.
Before we jump to the judgement where Google will surely take the trophy away for putting the best cameras into the Pixel 3 XL, let us take a moment to acknowledge the hardware manipulations the handset has in correspondence to the iPhone Xs Max and Samsung Galaxy Note 9. There are no dual cameras on the Pixel 3 XL – there have never been even on the prequels. But despite that, Google has single-handedly beaten the rivals with on par results, give or take a few.
There is a single 12.2-megapixel sensor with an aperture of f/1.8 on the rear. The cameras are backed by a separate Pixel Visual Core that has been updated this year. However, there is one new element added to the cameras – the flicker sensor sitting right next to the camera island. Also, the other major change we are seeing on the Pixel 3 XL is the arrival of a secondary 8-megapixel wide-angle lens on the front – so there are now two 8-megapixel sensors on the front and a single sensor on the rear.
The predecessor Pixel 2 XL had the best camera on a smartphone last year and this year, the coveted title is passed on to the Pixel 3 XL. With almost the same camera hardware, Pixel 3 XL is still way ahead of its competitors – and with the addition of some new features such as Top Shot, Super Res Zoom, and Night Shot, it has grown even better. If you have used a Pixel device earlier, you will know how its software is at the helm of creating that one shot your friends would wish their phone camera produced.
The photographs taken by in the regular mode from the rear camera are extremely detailed. With HDR on, the photos improve by a huge margin as it involves the camera taking multiple photos and combining them to build a single photo. The images with HDR+ mode on are marginally better than the ones taken by Pixel 2 XL. The colours in the photo look incredibly natural. The Portrait Mode is what gets us excited about the Pixel devices each year. The level of precision at handling the process of blurring the background to make the subject look protruding is laudable. However, the Portrait Mode struggles to find the actual edges of the subject when shooting against tricky backgrounds. Often, the empty spaces, filled with the elements in the background, between the loose and fluffy hair strands come into focus while sometimes, we found things like your earphone wires will be blurred on its parts where they are dangling in the air against the background, below your earlobes.
In comparison with iPhone Xs Max, the Pixel 3 XL, however, fails to determine the level of depths in the background. It treats the subject and background as the only two elements that need to be focused and defocused or vice versa. This is an extension to the tricky shooting conditions that we talked about above. If the background is barren, meaning occupied with rather fewer objects, the Portrait Mode shots are beautiful but otherwise, it’s a hit or miss.
Coming to the new features, the first one is Top Shot that essentially clicks multiple HDR shots when you tap the click button and then finds if there’s a shot in the buffer memory that is better than the one you just clicked. The Super Res Zoom is a feature that uses the jitters your hand may perform while taking a photo to capture the necessary details other than those you are capturing in the shot to create a photo that has far more resolution than the lens is physically capable of. The third one is Night Shot, which improves, we’d rather say adds the Midas touch, to the photos taken during the night.
Of the three new features, we’d like to talk about one feature in particular – the Night Shot. The engineers behind this crazy feature need a standing ovation for doing what perhaps wasn’t addressed by any of the top-level companies making smartphone cameras. The Night Shot images are so dramatic with all the sharp tones and light filled in the background, they could actually be mistaken for the ones taken in the daylight – which is also the downside of this feature. A nightscape is supposed to look that way – with dim lights and objects looking as much dark as they are. It’s preferential though – we love it, you might not.
The Top Shot is helpful when you are not sure you will click a good photograph so you let your phone decide. The Super Res Zoom is essentially a feature that pretends to be a fulltime substitute for a telephoto lens. If it were for shooting an object in the macro mode, Super Res Zoom is impressive but the same cannot be said for the object situated farther to your position. The images that were taken with maximum Super Res Zoom lack details. But then you cannot expect more from digitally-zoomed photos.
The selfies are as good as the photos taken from the rear camera. The Portrait Mode works greatly on the front camera as well. The selfies taken in the daylight have marginally accurate colours than the selfies taken by the iPhone Xs Max. They also have a little tinge of warmness, which is not really an issue. The secondary 8-megapixel ultra-wide sensor is what makes the selfies have a larger area of vision. The sensor covers a large area both to your left and right. However, we hardly found ourselves clicking group photos.
The Pixel 3 XL supports 4K videos up to 30fps, which is a downside for a phone that costs more than twice as much as the OnePlus 6 that offers 4K 60fps videos. Other than this gripe, the videos preserve details to good levels while ensuring stability for the videos taken with a shaky hand. Google has renamed the AR Stickers to Playgrounds and it’s a fun thing to play around for pastimes.
Here are the camera samples:
The Google Pixel 3 XL is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and two storage options that cannot be expanded. There is an Adreno 630 GPU for graphics performance. For all it’s worth, the Pixel 3 XL gives you the top-end processor, which competes with the rivals in the same category. But, the amount of RAM feels way less for a powerhouse such as this one.
We are saying so because of the unbearably disappointing memory handling the Pixel 3 XL has. Only the last two apps that were opened recently stay in the background memory while all the other apps, including the ones that have a text field active, just reboot each time you launch them. It’s not a one-off issue as several people took to various platforms to complain against this annoyance. As far as we believe, the RAM is sufficient but how the device manages it is botched up. Hopefully, Google will fix the issue in an update soon.
As hard as it is to forget the RAM mismanagement, the Pixel 3 XL ships Android 9 Pie out-of-the-box. It, of course, offers a pure Android experience without any customisations at all. For the purists, this could be the culmination for Android-ness in a phone. With Android 9 Pie, the need for touch buttons has partly gone because gestures are becoming more ubiquitous across platforms. The most notable addition to Android 9 Pie that’s exclusively available on the Pixel devices is the Digital Wellbeing app that monitors how much time you spend on gadgets and if that time needs to be cut short.
The Digital Wellbeing is still in beta mode, largely because of the minuscule adoption rate at present. It has two major elements – a Dashboard that shows the statistics of the time you spend on different apps throughout the day and a list of Ways to disconnect from your phone. You can set timers for individual apps so that you don’t use them beyond the limit you set for a day. Other than this, there is the Wind Down mode that comprises a whole set of functions that help you get off your phone.
The Wind Down mode lets you set Do Not Disturb mode on your phone in addition to doing a full makeover of the interface with a feature called Grayscale. Grayscale makes the colours vanish from your screen, reminding you to put your phone (and yourself) to sleep. We particularly ended up deactivating all of them eventually, which is a sad reality of how much glued we are to our screens. Dystopia is not far!
Google has also introduced a new AI-driven feature called Call Screening that essentially picks up calls for you and talk to the caller on your behalf asking them the reason for the call. It simultaneously keeps transcribing the conversation on the screen. Unfortunately, this feature is not available in India as yet, which is why we were unable to test it out.
The haptic feedback on the Google Pixel 3 XL is subtle. We love how the phone vibrates with just the right amount of intensity on certain actions, such as typing, scrolling through the recent apps list with gestures, and sliding the Search bar up to open the Overview or the app drawer.
We played some really intensive games on the Pixel 3 XL and boy did it deliver. The Asphalt 9: Legends runs buttery smooth on the device without any lags of frame drops. Similarly, we found no cases of frames being dropped on PUBG, Fortnite, and Injustice. The device tends to heat after about 40 minutes of running games but it’s not uncomfortably hot. The notch, however, ruins the experience sometimes. We often ended up missing a button due to positioning in accordance with the notch. The notch can be hidden by going into the Developer options but that will leave you with a relatively less display real estate.
There is a 3430mAh battery integrated under the hood. With the new Adaptive Battery feature, the phone learns to distribute the battery resources to those apps you most likely end up launching a lot throughout a day. We found that Pixel 3 XL battery lasts around 18-19 hours on a single charge and usage that includes accessing social media and chat apps for more than four hours, clicking photos for about half an hour, playing games for an hour, and watching an hour-long movie on Netflix. The battery life is, albeit, marginally better than the that of its predecessor. The fast charging is okay – nothing worthy about it.
The Google Pixel 3 XL is the most Android phone you can get today in the market. It has got an impressive display if you don’t mind the notch and a design which although is similar to the last year’s model probably because Google thought “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”. The cameras are undoubtedly the superstar for the phone. The Pixel 3 XL vies for the top spot in the market that is already full of OnePlus, Samsung, and Apple devices. It also tries to collect and bind the shards of mirror Pixel 2 XL broke after the monumental embarrassment across various facets last year.
But, should you buy it? That depends on what device you are using right now. If you have the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, it’s better holding out because the mettle of Pixel 3 XL is its software and your device will eventually get it. If you have a Samsung Galaxy S or Note device, you may as well skip this phone as there is hardly anything different other than the marginally better cameras on the latter. The iPhone users will need to make a hard choice of abandoning a platform only to be wooed by the Pixel 3 XL’s cameras.
At a price tag of Rs 83,000, the Pixel 3 XL seems overpriced. Although everything the Pixel 3 XL offers is top-class, it doesn’t carry the ‘luxury’ branding of Apple on it that most Indian customers spend as much money for. Even Samsung has priced its premium models considerably cheaper than the Pixel 3 XL. But if the cameras are really something you crave in your smartphone, Pixel 3 XL is a good choice.