Google has unleashed the Pixel 3, but is it the true Android standard-bearer?
- Faultless screen
- Superb camera
- Excellent performance
- Slightly-weaker battery life
- Price hike
Say it quietly but, on the face of it, there’s nothing all that special about the Pixel 3. It might be Google’s flagship smartphone for 2018, but it doesn’t really offer anything that its rival manufacturers haven’t offered countless times already.
When it was unveiled, the Pixel 3 was precisely as expected. On the back of perhaps the leakiest of leaky tech launches – a Pixel 3 was left in the back of a taxi, no less – we pretty much knew what was coming. There certainly weren’t any surprised gasps in the audience when the Silicon Valley firm pulled back the curtains.
The end result may not be a surprise, and certainly no major departure for smartphone technology, but the Pixel 3 is a quietly excellent handset. With a host of clever AI features and a phenomenal camera, Google’s third-generation Pixel has a lot going for it.
And it wasn’t the only brand-new product to appear on stage under the Google umbrella. We also caught a glimpse of the Pixel Slate, a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid powered by Chrome OS, a new and improved Chromecast media streamer and the Home Hub smart speaker. The next few months are going to be filled to the brim with Google-branded tech, it seems.
Google Pixel 3 review: What you need to know
Google wants you to think that the Pixel 3 is THE Android smartphone. Answering Apple’s call to arms, Google’s latest flagship is much the same as last year, except it’s seen a healthy internal spec upgrade and a slightly tweaked design.
It’s all about photography too, and Google says the Pixel 3 provides the best smartphone camera experience in 2018. More on that later, but rest assured that the new smartphone lives up to its predecessor – the Pixel 2 – when it comes to taking eye-catching pictures.
Google Pixel 3 review: Price and competition
That’s all sounding rather good so far, isn’t it? Well, you might be disheartened to hear that the Pixel 3 has seen a slight price hike when compared with last year’s model. Launching in phone shops up and down the country on 1 November, the Pixel 3 starts at £739 for the 64GB model – that’s £110 more than the Pixel 2.
That’s certainly not an inconsequential price jump, and I expect Google might have a little bit of difficulty persuading phone aficionados to make the upgrade.
Because at that price, well, you can expect the Pixel 3 to face competition from all corners of the flagship arena. Apple’s recently-launched iPhone Xs is your Apollo Creed to Google’s Rocky Balboa, which starts at £999, and there’s the Samsung Galaxy S9, which has recently dropped to a mere £500. Huawei’s upcoming Mate 20 Pro will make a last-minute appearance, too, although we don’t know how much that will cost quite yet.
Google Pixel 3 review: Design and key features
Acting as a double act (sort of like Laurel and Hardy, but in phone form), there are two Pixel handsets launching this year. Both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL don’t differ too much, though, and are near-identical in terms of specifications and design, aside from one obvious difference.
That is, the normal Pixel 3 doesn’t include a chunky notch creeping into the top of the screen. Instead, the Pixel 3’s all-screen frontage looks more like the Galaxy S9 and Xperia XZ3, with forehead and chin bezels sitting above and below the display, surrounding the pair of front-facing speakers.
Flip the phone over, and we’re treated to a similar-looking mash-up of matte and glossy glass. The solitary rear camera unit has also shifted slightly more to the left, and the top glass panel is ever-so-slightly thinner this time around, but the differences end there.
The circular fingerprint reader is still on the back of the phone for secure-unlocking. The USB Type-C charging port and SIM tray are found on the bottom edge and the power button and volume rocker are on the right. The Pixel 3 is also IP68 dust- and water-resistant and supports Qi wireless charging for the very first time.
What good is wireless charging capabilities without a charger to put it on? That’s where the Pixel Stand comes in. Launching for £69, it charges your phone and, much like the Show Dock for Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet, it also turns the Pixel 3 into a smart screen. Basically, your Pixel 3 is transformed into a smaller, and more expensive, Home Hub. It will display the time, notifications, pictures from Google Photos and even show who’s at the door if you have a Nest Hello fitted to the front of your house.
Like its predecessor, the Pixel 3 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, you’ll have to invest in a good pair of Bluetooth headphones if you haven’t already or, alternatively, get familiar with the supplied wired USB Type-C Pixel earbuds or dongle adapter.
Google’s “Active Edge” feature reappears again, which activates Google Assistant simply by squeezing the sides of the phone. Think of it as the same as HTC’s efforts, except you can’t assign it to perform other actions. It does, however, benefit from machine learning algorithms which know the difference between an actual squeeze and an accidental one.
Google Pixel 3 review: Display
The Pixel 3’s screen specifications are precisely as expected. It’s fitted with a 5.5in, 18:9 aspect ratio, OLED panel with a screen resolution of 2,160 x 1,080. It’s an edge-to-edge effort this time around. That means we have much more screen to work with than ever before, without the need for an increase in the phone’s size.
Now that I’ve had a chance to finally test the Pixel 3’s screen with our in-house display colourimeter, I can confidently say that this is Google’s best-looking phone yet.
On the Pixel 3’s “natural” display profile – “adaptive” and “boosted” modes are a touch too oversaturated for my tastes – our X-Rite calibrator recorded a total sRGB coverage of 94%. Colours are practically faultless, too, with an average Delta E of 1.25 (0 is perfect).
A perfect contrast ratio of infinity:1 helps make text look pin-sharp, and movies and photos benefit from plenty of pop. The screen is also capable of reaching a maximum brightness of 398cd/m2 with the auto-brightness setting engaged, which isn’t quite good enough for watching Doctor Who in the autumn sun. A circular polarising layer also helps reduce screen glare.
Crucially, however, the Pixel 3 doesn’t suffer from the same blue-tinted screen-flickering issues that afflicted last year’s Pixel 2 XL. Advantage: Pixel 3.
Google Pixel 3 review: Performance and battery life
Surprise, surprise, the Pixel 3 is powered by Qualcomm’s latest top-end mobile processor, the Snapdragon 845. This octa-core, 10nm chip is clocked at 2.8GHz, powers the majority of 2018’s fleet of flagships, and it’s certainly no slouch in the performance department.
Working in tandem with 4GB of RAM, the Pixel 3 reached scores of 2,430 and 8,007 in Geekbench 4’s demanding duo of single- and multi-core CPU tests. In comparison, the Pixel 3 is capable of providing roughly 27% faster processing speeds than last year’s Pixel 2.
On the gaming front, the Pixel 3 is an equally notable performer. GFXBench GL’s Manhattan 3 onscreen and offscreen GPU tests recorded faultless average frame rates of 60fps and 79fps respectively. In layman’s terms, you shouldn’t encounter any problems running the latest graphically-intensive games on the Google Play Store, at least for a couple of years.
An area where the Pixel 3 doesn’t outperform its predecessor, though, is in its battery life. Sadly, it looks like the more demanding chipset has taken its toll on the Pixel 3’s stamina, which was only able to reach 12hrs 22mins on a single charge during our in-house battery-rundown test. That’s certainly not an abysmal score by any means, but you will be topping up your Pixel 3’s battery much more often than last year’s flagship.
Google Pixel 3 review: Android Pie
The Pixel 3 also launches with the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 9 Pie, straight out of the box. No surprises there.
Except, this isn’t a stock Android experience as you’d expect. Instead, Google’s own Pixel Launcher makes another appearance, which slightly tweaks the UI and brings with it a handful of Pixel-specific features.
The way the app drawer works has changed slightly. Now, if you swipe up on the home screen, you’re presented with a scrollable list of your recently-used apps, as well as a selection of five of your most-used applications. Swipe up a little further, and all of your apps are visible.
Call Screen is another handy new feature. Using Google Assistant, the phone notifies you of an incoming call and allows you to have Google’s AI butler pick up on your behalf. You receive a transcript while the conversation is going on, and can also choose from a list of responses – just like with the recent Gmail update on desktop.
Speaking of which, Gmail’s Smart Compose feature has arrived on Android. Limited to the Pixel 3 at the moment, simply start typing an email and Google will try to finish the sentence for you. It’s creepy, but effective.
Elsewhere, you can flip the phone on its front to silence any sounds and notifications. Google Duplex, although not available in the UK just yet, also allows Google Assistant to make restaurant reservations on your behalf – perfect for avoiding any awkward social encounters.
Google Pixel 3 review: Camera
While other manufacturers are pushing out phones with dual-camera arrangements, and in some cases four, the Pixel 3 launches with only a single 12.2-megapixel rear camera. This might seem decidedly old hat, but Google has suggested that its HDR+ algorithms have improved, thanks to the slightly-better image signal processor working on things behind the scenes.
There is, however, a dual-camera arrangement on the front of the phone. One is a regular 8-megapixel RGB-capturing unit, while the other is a wide-angle lens, which offers 184% more of the scene when compared with the iPhone Xs. It’s very good at Bokeh-like portrait photography too, offering better-defined portrait shots than Apple’s equivalent.
Back to the rear camera. Results, rather predictably, are phenomenal. In my side-by-side comparison test shots with the iPhone Xs, the Pixel 3 captured images with superb dynamic range and colour saturation. The HDR+ algorithms worked as well as ever, effectively capturing tricky areas such as cloud layers and tree foliage, while lighting up darker, shadowy areas.
Low-light performance is just as good. The relatively-wide f/1.8 aperture camera managed to brighten up the image nicely, capturing pictures with oodles of detail. Objects looked crisp and detailed, and colour reproduction was slightly more accurate than images captured on the iPhone Xs.
The Pixel 3’s camera is a cut above everything else, although it’s not quite as wide of a gap as I was hoping. The lack of a secondary telephoto lens really dampens the Pixel 3’s photographic versatility, and no support for 4K video recording at 60fps is a real shame. Nevertheless, Google’s algorithms make this a fantastic piece of kit for taking pictures.
Google Pixel 3 review: Verdict
So, is the Pixel 3 precisely as expected? In short, yes it is, but even without the long list of leaks ahead of the launch, I would have reached a similar conclusion. Google is sticking to the same tried-and-tested release formula it’s conducted for the previous two years: slightly tweaking the core DNA, while offering a handful of mini-improvements without radically altering the blueprint.
Is that a bad thing? No, I don’t think it is. The Pixel 3 is still waving the flag for Android, delivering a further knockout blow to Apple, and it will be rocketing to the top of our smartphone hierarchy very soon.