Following the demise of the Nexus family of phones, Google’s Pixel line has become the true reference point for the company’s vision for its Android OS; these devices get the latest versions of the operating system before any other, and usually showcase hardware and software innovations that then trickle down to other Android-based phones. It’s easy to see why the launch of new Pixel handsets is such a big deal in the eyes of Google’s most devoted fans, and this year the reveal was ruined somewhat by the fact that both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL were subject to leaks which basically told us everything we needed to know about both phones before they were even officially announced.
Despite this, the arrival of the Pixel 3 is a major event in the world of smartphones – but how does the standard model compare to its rivals, the most obvious of which is the similarly-priced iPhone XR?
Pixel 3 Review: Design
In a world where the average smartphone has at least a 6-inch screen, the Pixel 3 is something of an anomaly. It’s one of the smallest handsets we’ve seen in quite some time, but that’s a positive rather than a negative. With Apple ‘going big’ in 2018, there are now even fewer options for those of us who don’t want a gargantuan ‘phablet’ in our pocket, so it’s nice to see Google cater for this sector of the market with a phone that is perfectly pocket-sized.
In keeping with the common theme of most 2018 flagship phones, the Pixel 3 has a metal frame sandwiched between delicate glass (a case is a must, as if you needed telling). The rear panel of the device has a unique two-tone texture to it; the majority of the rear is covered by a matte-feel coating which aids grip, while the upper section – which houses the camera – is shiny glass. We’ve seen reports that the matte texture scratches too easily but in reality, you can simply rub away the marks with your finger. You’ll also find the fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, and it’s super-fast and incredibly reliable; we haven’t had a failed unlock attempt yet.
On the right-hand side of the phone you’ve got the power button and volume rocker, while the left-hand edge is entirely clean. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, and the Nano SIM tray – which only has space for a single SIM – is on the bottom edge of the Pixel 3, next to the USB Type-C port. The phone boasts IP68 protection against water and dust, so it will happily survive an unplanned drop into a body of water.
The Pixel 3 is available in three colours: black, white and what Google is calling “Not Pink”, even though it kind of is. We’ve only had chance to see the black version in the flesh, and we’re a little jealous of the coloured buttons on the other models. It’s also a shame that Google didn’t bring back the cool ‘Stormtrooper’ black and white scheme it used for 2017’s Pixel 2 XL, but ultimately, this is one handsome phone.
Pixel 3 Review: Display
The Pixel 3 sports a 5.5-inch, 1080×2160 pixel OLED display which is has large bezels at the top and bottom. After the ones seen on the Pixel 2 it was initially a bit of a disappointment to see them return – albeit smaller – on the 2018 model, but we got used to them quickly. The upshot of such large bezels is a set of powerful stereo speakers, which are great when you’re watching movies on your phone. The screen itself is bright, punchy and colourful, and while we’ve seen higher pixel counts on other 2018 flagships, 1080p is the perfect resolution for a display which is under 6-inches. Another big first for this year’s Pixels is that they both support HDR content, which looks utterly stunning.
There’s on big problem with this display though, and it’s a repeat of the issue Google had last year with its Pixel devices – well, almost. In 2017, LG produced the OLED panel in the Pixel 2 XL while Samsung – arguably the master of this particular screen tech – handled the display of the smaller Pixel 2. LG simply isn’t as good at making this kind of screen, and as a result, many Pixel 2 XL owners ended up complaining because their phones exhibited ‘colour shift’ – a situation where parts of the display appeared to have a different colour to the others, with pink being the most common colour.
The bad news is that Google hasn’t learnt its lesson in 2018 and has once again divided screen supply duties between Samsung and LG, the key difference is that their roles are reversed – LG is handling the smaller Pixel while Samsung makes the display for the XL edition. Very early reports appear to indicate that LG’s production process hasn’t improved in the past 12 months, as we’ve seen plenty of examples of pink gradients on Pixel 3 panels – our own review unit suffered from this issue, as you can see in the comparison photo below (that’s a Galaxy S9+ on the right, by the way). Both of these phones are displaying the same white JPEG image with night mode enabled and brightness set to minimum; you can clearly see the pink gradient at the top of the screen.
It seems to be very much the luck of draw when it comes to this issue, but it’s worrying that so many of these phones are passing Google’s QA checks when there’s clearly colour shift on part of the screen. It’s worth stressing that the vast majority of Pixel 3 handsets will have perfect screens, but the large volume of problem devices coming to light this soon after release is worrying nonetheless.
Pixel 3 Review: Software & Performance
Thankfully, things are a lot more positive when it comes to the Pixel 3’s software. Android P is smooth, slick and genuinely refreshing; while there are some who dislike the new multitasking mode (you slide your finger up from the bottom of the screen, iOS-style), we really liked the more natural, gesture-based navigation. After using the iPhone XR for a while we’ve come to the conclusion that gesture-based controls are far superior to fixed on-screen buttons, so hopefully, Google will choose to factor in more swipe-based commands as Android continues to mature.
As you expect from a Pixel phone, this handset comes light on pre-installed software, with only Google’s core apps making the cut – there’s no needless duplication of functionality as you often get on phones from Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi. “Stock” Android has also come on leaps and bounds in the past few years and while it might be a little too basic for some in terms of design, it looks clean and feels incredibly snappy and responsive. There’s the temptation to say this every year, but this is effortlessly the best version of pure Android we’ve seen so far, and features like the ability to screen (and automatically reject) spam phone calls and make note of your screen time are very welcome.
Much of the Pixel 3’s slickness comes from the fact that it’s using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chipset – which has been seen in pretty much every Android flagship phone this year. It’s a fine piece of silicon and it’s uncommon to see the device struggle or stutter; the only fly in the ointment is that Google opted for 4GB of RAM, which means that apps don’t stay open in memory for very long. The company has noted that the phone is bad at retaining active apps and has said it will issue a fix later this year, but when you consider that some 2018 phones have 8GB of RAM inside, it seems rather short-sighted of Google to include such a small amount. Now, you could argue that 4GB of RAM is more than enough for a smartphone (the silky-smooth iPhone XR has 3GB) but Android is famously hungry when it comes to RAM, and with Google promising to supply OS updates to the device until 2021, we dread to think how it will cope in three years time, when the average flagship device may even come with three times that much memory. Eek.
Pixel 3 Review: Battery & Memory
With some phones boasting batteries that are 4000 mAh in capacity, the Pixel 3’s 2900 mAh cell seems a bit weedy. Even when you take into account that the device has a smaller screen than some of its rivals, it still feels like the Pixel 3 is a bit of a letdown when it comes to pure stamina. It’s perfectly capable of getting you through an entire day if you’re careful with what you do, but there were a few times when we walked through the door at the close of a busy day to find that it was down to its last 10 percent of juice. The fact that it supports quick-charging mitigates this problem, but those of you planning to take the wireless charging route will need to invest £70 in the Pixel Stand, which is currently the only wireless charger that will quick-charge the device (we tried using the Samsung charging stand we use on our Galaxy S9+ and it would only top up at 5W, despite the phone saying it was ‘charging rapidly’).
Our review unit came with 64GB of storage, which is starting to feel like too little these days; 128GB appears to be the ‘entry level’ amount in 2018, and Xiaomi has just announced that its Mi 8 Pro will hit the UK with 128GB of storage (and will cost more than £200 less than the Pixel 3). You can’t add more memory on the Pixel 3 as there’s no MicroSD card slot, but on the plus side, any photos taken can be automatically uploaded to Google Photos where they don’t count against your storage quota.
Pixel 3 Review: Camera
Google has always made a big deal about the cameras on its Pixel phones and this year’s model is no exception; the company has included a raft of new features that maintain the Pixel’s status as the number one handset for people who want to take the best snaps possible with their smartphone.
Amazingly, Google has achieved all of this without entering the tiresome ‘camera battle’ that seems to be raging elsewhere in the industry. There’s still only a single sensor on the back of the phone – a 12.2-megapixel variant with a f/1.8 aperture – and it’s the software side of things where the magic happens. The Pixel 3 takes natural and detailed shots which, while looking a little dark when compared to photos taken by the Galaxy S9+ and iPhone XR, are a better recreation of the real-world scene, with colours appearing convincing rather than overblown.
Dynamic range is also excellent, and the inclusion of the ‘Top Shot’ really makes a difference; with this feature, the phone takes shots before and after you’ve pressed the button, and then uses machine learning to select the best image. If you’re forever cursing the fact that family portraits are ruined by someone not smiling or closing their eyes at the wrong moment, this is a real godsend.
The Pixel 3’s camera is also excellent at low-light shooting, capturing the difference between light and dark areas without making things look unnatural. The best thing about this is that Google hasn’t even enabled the phone’s ‘Night Sight’ mode yet, which will improve this aspect even more.
On the front of the phone there are two selfie cams, one of which offers a wide-angle view so you can cram more people into a group shot. We can’t say this will be essential but it’s a nice feature to have nonetheless.
Pixel 3 Review: Conclusion
In terms of pure specs, you might take one look at the Pixel 3 and wonder exactly what the fuss is about. It arguably doesn’t challenge the best Android phones of 2018 in any way when it comes to pure technology or features, and with those large bezels, it feels like a phone from last year, despite boasting an admittedly appealing overall design.
However, numbers on a page don’t tell the whole story with this phone. With pure Android, it’s one of the most pleasurable experiences you can have with Google’s mobile OS; there’s no annoying bloat to slow things down or befuddle you with multiple sign-ins to services which ultimately do the same thing – this is much closer to the Apple way of doing things. You only need your Google account, and once you’ve signed into that, everything is pretty much seamless. And it goes without saying that the Pixel 3 will be getting the latest updates to Android before the vast majority of rival devices, so if you like being up-to-date, then it’s a solid choice.
Add to this an industry-leading camera and you’ve got one hell of a smartphone; the photos and video captured by this device are incredible. Waterproofing, fast charging and support for HDR video content are the icing on the cake.
However, the elephant in the room remains Google’s reliance on LG to produce displays. The Korean firm is still playing catch-up with Samsung, and as a result, the screen on the smaller Pixel 3 can be inconsistent when it comes to colour balance. Our unit had a pink gradient running from the top of the screen to about a third of the way down, and there are numerous reports of other Pixel 3 owners having the same issue. If this sounds like it’s going to bother you, then you may want to avoid this smaller version and instead pony up the additional cash for the Pixel 3 XL, which boasts a Samsung-made OLED screen.
That aside, this is a real beauty of a handset which dials back the gimmicks and presents a slick experience which is backed up by some powerful photographic talents.