(Pocket-lint) - The Google Pixel is the panacea of Android phones, designed to show what you can do with pure Android software, tuned to the Google-designed hardware. Its pièce de résistance is the camera, where Google's aim is to showcase what artificial intelligence (AI) can really do. It's fair to say, it's an approach that's turning heads.
For Android fans, the XL is a phone you'll always consider for its merits, while surveying the incredibly aggressive options from the wider ecosystem. Compared to Apple, Google has created a rod for its own back: it encourages and supports the development of increasingly sophisticated technologies, against which it then has to compete with its own hardware.
So, can Google be top dog in the Android pack?
Premium design embraces the notch
- Aluminium frame with hybrid glass rear
- IP68 water/dust resistance
- Corning Gorilla Glass 5
- 158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm; 184g
- Display notch
Looking to evolve the Pixel 3 XL over the Pixel 2 XL, the entire rear of the handset is now glass - allowing wireless charging - but sticking to the two-tone feel of the phones from the previous generation. Yep, the "dipped in chocolate" design is back, something that Google moved away from for the Pixel 4 XL in 2019.
It is Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and the back to avoid scratches. That rear coating is described as "soft touch" and you really wouldn't think you're holding glass - just as we said in our review of the smaller Pixel 3, it feels like holding a smooth pebble. That's something that flows into the whole phone design, as Google has smoothed away edges and ridges for a finish that makes this one of the nicest phones we've seen, or rather, held.
Some might raise an eyebrow at the finish, but after months of use, the Pixel 3 XL hasn't scratched any more than we'd expect - that finish on the rear will damage if you're carrying this phone with a pocket full of keys and coins, but so will any phone. The XL carries an IP67 waterproof rating, too, ensuring it's happy in the rain, snow and everywhere else.
Thanks to the adoption of a notch design - that black-out dip to the top of the phone where the front-facing cameras and sensors are houses - there's more display and less bezel. However, other manufacturers have done more to reduce bezel and fill more of the front of the phone with display. Some have called out the notch as ridiculous lazy design; for us the size doesn't matter so much, but as we moved through 2019, it became surprisingly dated, surprisingly quickly.
The notch is that size so that there's symmetry in top and bottom bezel when holding the phone in landscape - then the (filled) notch area is the same width as the bottom bezel. What doesn't stack up in terms of symmetry is how content is then handled: watch a Netflix video and the notch end is flat, while the bottom bezel end adopts the curves, so it's a bit of a mess.
Yes, that bottom bezel could be slimmer - as it seems to be that size to accommodate the speaker - and Samsung proved with the Galaxy S10+ that you can have great sound without it taking up great space. But those speakers do deliver, adding full sound to your viewing experience and there's less chance of covering them, which is a real problem on phones with speakers on the bottom frame.
Let's talk about that display
- 6.3-inch, 18.5:9 OLED display
- 2960 x 1440 pixels (523ppi)
- HDR (high dynamic range)
The Google Pixel 3 XL offers up a 6.3-inch display, making it the clearly larger phone of the Pixel 3 pair. In the XL it's actually a Samsung display and unlike the Pixel 2 XL it seems to be colour tuned more in line with expectations.
It pulls off Samsung's trick of making things look great, especially photos which look rich and vibrant. Punchy colours and great viewing angles are par for the course; there's a night light option to cut out blue light in the evenings, but you can't help but enjoy how the display can drop to deep blacks.
Pick a dark wallpaper and the notch just vanishes into it, something that cheaper devices fail to achieve (certainly LCD ones). The XL's always-on display joins the party, too, which is precise, with great contrast and is very... Samsung-y.
Google is rivalling the top phones out there in terms of resolution, sticking to a sharp 2960 x 1440 pixel display. That's the sort of resolution to compete with the Samsung Galaxy S10+ and sharper than Apple's XS Max launched around the same time. Unlike a lot of rival devices there's no option to switch it down in resolution to save battery life - it's Quad HD all the way.
Best of all, it works really well with Android 10's dark option. And as the Pixel 3 is on Netflix's list of HDR devices, you'll find HDR content to view too.
Pixel camera returns
- 12.2-megapixel, 1.4µm, f/1.8 rear camera
- 8-megapixel dual front cameras
- Night Sight is leagues ahead of competition
The Pixel camera has a reputation and it's a reputation that has been gained without splurging on dual or triple camera lenses. It's just a single camera that works hard, boosted by some very clever AI and consistently giving you great photos without the need to do too much. That much remains true in the Pixel 3 XL, which puts in a stellar camera performance with very little fuss.
The Pixel camera takes good shots in all conditions, but it does so with consistency. The camera also seems to have dealt with some of the problems it had with slightly cold HDR processing on the Pixel 2, but the white balance issues in lower-light conditions under artificial lighting still seem to be there at times - so if your photo looks yellow, trying metering elsewhere.
Portrait mode - which blurs the background behind the subject using software - is available on any of the cameras. It works pretty well, too, but like all these things, if it can't tell what's in the foreground and what's in the background there will be some bleed between the two. It's still not like using a DSLR, no matter what the marketing material tells you. The advantage that Google offers here is it's using its best camera for everything (because there is only one), whereas some rivals flip to the zoom camera for portrait mode, and the photos get worse.
What the Pixel doesn't offer is extra cameras on the rear - so there's no optical zoom, there's no ultra-wide lens or any of that. You still have pinch zooming (and it's still usable), so if anything, that's probably the biggest feature that Google doesn't offer. Notably Apple, Samsung and Huawei all do - and those tele lenses are useful for maintaining quality for farther away subjects.
As for the XL's front camera system, there's a hardware change with the inclusion of a second camera with a wide-angle lens. This gives you a 107-degree view, so you can fit in a lot more people in selfie shots. It's designed for fun group shots and the trade-off is quality. The wider selfie cam struggles a little more with image noise and detail, probably because it has a smaller aperture so can capture less light. You can apply portrait mode on the wide camera - but then it struggles to create its AI bokeh blurring with any real accuracy. The best approach is to go simple with your groufies (yes, we used that word).
Stick to the main selfie camera and things are a lot better. You can get some brutally detailed selfies from it and the portrait mode is great at picking you out from the background.
There's a beauty mode too, if you want it, adding consumer appeal - but to our eyes, on the time-weathered face of a 40-year-old, it does more harm than good. We'd imagine on the smooth skin of a 20-year-old it might hide some of those signs of decay that will inevitably strip you of your youthful vigour. Father Time is coming for you, beauty mode or not.
Following launch, Google added Night Sight to the Pixel phones - not just the 3, but the original and Pixel 2 as well. This low light mode again hammers home how much AI matters, as it's rolling out a feature for both front and back cameras, and not just those with the latest hardware.
Night Sight uses AI to detect motion and then decide what type of exposure you need for your shot. It might be a longer exposure or lots of short exposures combined (if there's movement) and it will give you low light photos that are leagues ahead of most competitors. Huawei has a similar system and both easily better the likes of Apple or Samsung.
Night Sight is a great feature: it automatically detects low light and suggests that you use it - and can give you a sharp night shot that's relatively free from noise. It's a great credit to the phone and certainly a lot of fun.
The perfect smartphone camera then? We'd certainly say that in practical terms, the Google Pixel 3 XL delivers a lot and even as a 2018 device, it will delivers compared to some newer rivals. Some will want the fuss of more lenses and more options, but for many, dependable quality and less fiddling makes this a juicy proposition. Point, shoot, share, smile at just how good it is.
It's 2018's hardware
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, 4GB RAM
- 64GB or 128GB storage
- 3430mAh battery, fast Qi wireless charging
On the hardware front the Pixel 3 XL gets itself flagship internals in the form of the Snapdragon 845 with 4GB RAM and the option of 64GB or 128GB of storage. There's no microSD option. The late launch window in the year sees the Pixel sitting on the same hardware as phones that are 6 months older and now being replaced, with the first run of Snapdragon 855 devices starting to appear.
Is that a problem? In reality no, but you're sure to hear it as a downside in the numbers game. Considering this phone in 2020 means you're a couple of generations behind, but it still has plenty of power.
What's really impressive about the Pixel 3 XL is how smooth and fast it feels in use. It feels faster than other Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 handsets we've used - and a lot of that comes down to software (which we'll talk about in more detail later). It's fast to start, quick to open apps, although it does currently have the bad habit of closing apps you might want in the background.
This was highlighted as a memory bug and something that software has tried to change, to make the experience more palatable. In its early guises, you'd find (for example) that if you were playing Pokemon Go and you stopped to take a photo, you'd return to the game and find it had to reboot again. That's been corrected through software updates, but some people are still reporting performance issues that come down to management of the hardware. For us, the Pixel 3 XL is smooth, powerful and free from such frustrations.
There's a 3,430mAh battery sitting in the Pixel 3 XL, which is middle of the pack these days. Again, companies like Huawei are stuffing huge batteries into phones that last a lot longer, thus there's no competing with some of those models. Indeed, the Pixel 3 XL will pretty much get you through a day of use, but it isn't the best performer out there in these stakes and power users might be better looking elsewhere.
The wireless charging might resolve that - with the Pixel Stand (sold separately) being a compelling option - but there's fast wired charging too, which will see you ready to go again with a full battery in about an hour.
One of the nice things that the Pixel Stand offers is that it can turn your phone in to a mini Nest Hub, offering access to Google Assistant and changing the display to suit the conditions through the evening. It makes for a great bedside stand, but it is expensive for a wireless charger at $79 or £69. Still, this is currently unique to the Pixel and Pixel Stand, so you'll have to pay for the price for this sort of excitement.
Android 10 software skills
- Visual refinement
- Latest Android and first to update
- Has some weird UI elements
The Pixel 3 XL launched on the Android 9 Pie and updated to Android 10 as one of the first devices to get the latest Google mobile software. That remains one of the big factors in getting a Pixel - for the few years you own that phone, you'll get the updates first and gloriously bloat free.
Google isn't alone in offering this bloatware-free software, thanks to the adoption of Android One by companies like Nokia. What Google does offer is tweaks to add consumer appeal to the phone, through things like the camera experience and the home screen environment. One of our favourite additions is appointments at the top of the home screen as a timely reminder - and much nicer than a notification.
Pure, secure and up-to-date is the mantra of the Pixel (and Android One) and that's certainly appealing as those with older Pixel devices will attest. The lack of pre-installed clutter is appealing too and it's here that the Pixel gives you a clean experience compared to Samsung (which is options overload) and Huawei (which is bloatware central).
Arguably, the latest Samsung phone does more out of the box, but it's hard to think of anything you'll actually miss when it's not there. And unlike Samsung, Google's sentient AI - Google Assistant - is actually worth using. Let's go further than that and say that Google Assistant is the smartest of the lot, uniquely placed to deliver across more devices and platforms than anyone else. It's a much smarter and accurate than Siri and its position on phones make it more advantageous and dynamic than Amazon's Alexa.
While AI is the mantra of companies like Huawei and LG (especially in the camera), Google's AI does what it's supposed to do: it sits in the background until you call it forward. Point the camera at a sign or a business card and it will offer to email or call the number (or retrieve that contact) thanks to AI through Google Lens. It does this without selecting a mode or tapping a setting, it just happens. AI will also power the Call Screen option (only available in the US), which will answer your calls for you and help you determine whether you actually want to speak to the caller.
The biggest change that came with Android 9 Pie when the Pixel 3 XL launched was navigation - doing away with navigation icons and moving to a gesture based system. That wasn't great, but it's been refined in Android 10; such is the way, getting this phone is now a better experience than when it first launched thanks to software improvements.
While the Pixel 2 XL launched under a cloud of screen-based woe, the Pixel 3 XL is a much better piece of hardware. People will moan about the notch, but if you've used the phone, it's really not an issue. Aside from the notch, the display is one of the best out there: it's wonderful to look at and sitting in a phone that feels great to use. It's now outdated by the Pixel 4 XL, but you can get the Pixel 3 much cheaper than the 2019 model.
A stellar camera experience meets great performance in this phone, with a wonderfully clean and clutter-free Android user interface that's loaded with refinements, even if there are a few oddities. Google's camera also keeps more complex systems at bay and its dependability over months of use remains true. It's still class leading in many ways.
In many ways the experience of the Pixel 3 XL is enough to keep its rivals at bay; in the flagship space there are a lack of uncluttered Android phones that are this easy to recommend. Step forward, then, the Pixel 3 XL: the mean, clean Android dream.
First published October 2018; updated January 2020.
Alternatives to consider
Samsung Galaxy S10+
If you're after the latest and the greatest, then the Samsung Galaxy S10+ outclasses the Pixel 3 XL in many areas. The design is better, with the Infinity-O display better than Google's massive notch. It has next-generation power, a microSD card slot as well as 3.5mm headphone socket and a fun ultra wide-angle camera to give you great photos. The battery also lasts a lot longer, while the software gives you many more options and functions.
Google Pixel 4 XL
Updated for 2019, the Pixel 4 XL removes the notch, but rolls in with a radar-based gesture system you can largely ignore. You still get a great camera experience, now boosted with a second telephoto lens, the latest Android software and a wonderful display.