(Pocket-lint) - For Android purists, nothing quite hits the spot like a Google Pixel phone. In years previous to the first generation, the itch was scratched by partnering with other manufacturers on the Nexus line, but in 2016, Google took it in-house. The first Pixel earned rave reviews for its no-nonsense performance, great build and camera. The second generation, it's safe to say, had mixed responses.
The challenge for the Pixel 3 however, is seemingly the perception of value. At more than £700, the small, powerful phone has been undercut by so many Chinese smartphone makers that offered similar performance, and in some ways, better specs. And of course, then came the Pixel 3a, Google's own offering that seemed to be giving us no real downsides for a lot less money than the full fat version.
Now, with the Pixel 3a on the market and the Pixel 4 fast approaching, does the Pixel 3 still maintain its position the best phone for the stock Android fan, or is it worth waiting it out?
Sumptuous looks and feel
- 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm; 148g
- IP68 water/dust resistant
- All-glass back
Gone are the squared-off edges and corners and cold metal of the second-gen model, replaced by a stunning use of glass with some metal framing. Combined, they create a phone that's among the best for pure in-hand comfort.
On the back, Google has used a combination of two different glass finishes to create that classic two-tone Pixel look (like it's been dipped in chocolate). So it still looks like a Pixel, but it just feels that bit better. The mostly flat glass curves towards rounded edges, making it feel both solid and ergonomic. Plus this frosted glass isn't as prone to slipping off furniture in the same way that some purely glossy smartphones might.
The fact that the Pixel 3 is relatively narrow - and smaller than its 'XL' sibling, as the name suggests - also means it's one of the few phones left on the Android market that's easy to use in one hand. There's no need to over-stretch or readjust your grip constantly, which has become commonplace with so many phones.
We've seen reports elsewhere that the frosted glass is easier to scratch than most glossy finishes, but we've not experienced any scratching whatsoever on our test unit. However, as with all smartphones, our advice would be not to put it in the same pocket/bag compartment as your keys or any other hard objects.
One of the other design choices we really like is the slimmer bezel around the screen. Granted, compared to the recent crop of high-end edge-to-edge smartphones, the Pixel 3's bezels are still quite big, but they're much smaller than last year's Pixel 2. It may still look a little like a 2017 flagship, but the top and bottom bezel never really get in the way of use. Besides, there's space for some really powerful front-firing speakers.
Media, games and any other sounds blast through those speakers so loudly that we had to turn the volume down. There may be a slight difference in bass response between the speaker near the earpiece and the one near the bottom edge, but it still makes for great output that's pretty well balanced as far as phone loudspeakers go.
Top all of that off with a sealed chassis that's resistant to water and dust, and you have a truly great all-round design. Yes, the frame looks a little dated, but given the choice between that and a really big notch we think this approach is certainly better for media consumption.
- 5.5-inch fullHD+ display
- P-OLED HDR panel
- 18:9 ratio
The one biggest criticism of the Pixel 2 was the display. Well, initially, as Google changed how it presented its images through software. It might not have been as badly received as the panel on the bigger Pixel 2 XL, but Google's colour profile of choice meant a screen that looked washed-out in a lot of ways, even if it was great for natural skin tones in photos and video.
With the Pixel 3, that approach to creating a "natural" look has gone. In its place is a really dynamic, sharp and colourful panel that's fantastic to look at. App icons and general user interface elements are vivid and bright, while the OLED technology also ensures that blacks are deep and inky.
Being an 18:9 aspect ratio panel this year also means that it's the ideal platform for keeping up with your favourite Netflix shows. The video fills the screen from edge to edge, and is contrasty, rich and colourful.
If you want to go back to those more natural colours that media professionals often desire, there is the option within the settings app. It's set to 'Adaptive' by default, but 'Natural' and 'Boosted' are available too.
Another small positive is the viewing angle: even when viewing mostly white interfaces, changing the angle doesn't massively impact on the colour or quality of the image. There's no green or pink shift.
Tasty, delicious Android Pie
- Android 9.0 Pie
- Gesture navigation
- Public beta of Android Q available too
Android 9 Pie - in its enhanced, pure, Pixel-fied form - is a great software experience that's full of beautiful animations, sensible notifications, and useful changes compared to previous iterations. It also benefits from some new battery and screen-time management features.
There's also a gesture-based navigation system, similar to the iPhone X/XS. Except that in the Pixel it doesn't feel quite as intuitive to master, at least not initially. One swipe up reveals the multitasking recent apps screen, while another swipe brings up the app drawer. Or, you can just do one long swipe to bring up the app drawer. It takes a little learning, and feels a tiny bit cumbersome to begin with, but you'll soon get used to it.
One feature within this gesture system we really like is the quick app switching. Dragging the onscreen home button to the right quickly brings up an app switching view that lets you get straight to any app in your phone's recent apps list. So all you have to do is hold the home button after dragging it right until you get to the app you want, then let go to launch straight into the app. It's really speedy and convenient.
Notifications are clustered by app, so you don't get a screen full of individual messages, which is really handy. What's more, as time goes on, the phone learns which apps you regularly dismiss notifications from and then suggests you turn those ones off if it notices a pattern.
Digital Wellbeing is currently in beta, but can be useful if you're trying to keep an eye on how much time you spend staring at your screen. It's similar to Apple's Screentime. You get a breakdown, including a list of your most used app types, and the ability to add timers to restrict access times.
There are, of course, many other new features. Handy little ones like the small rotation suggestion button that appears when you turn the phone landscape (rather than just automatically rotate) saves the phone from rotating content too eagerly. There's also the redesigned Quick Settings toggles in the dropdown menu that indicate more clearly when something is active.
Other features are only activated when paired with the Pixel Stand accessory. Resting it on Google's own wireless charger enables features like the ability to automatically scroll through Photos albums in the day time, or going into bedtime/sunrise mode at night. With the latter, the screen goes dark, until it's approaching your morning alarm time, when it gradually goes from orange to yellow in the hopes of gently waking you.
We say this every year it seems, but the latest version of Android is far more refined, speedy, fluid and just all-round better. It's the best version of Google's OS so far.
Looking forward, Android Q is coming soon, and being Google's own product, that means it'll be among the first devices to get the software when it lands. What's more, you can install the public beta right now, as long as you're prepared to live with a few pre-release inconsistencies and non-final features.
Speedy, smooth performance
- Snapdragon 845 processor, 4GB RAM
- 64GB/128GB storage options
On the whole - as you'd expect from a phone running a pure, optimised version of Android Pie with no extra bloat - the Pixel 3's performance is virtually flawless. Even a few months after first booting it up, it's quick, responsive and all the animations are smooth. It just feels like it's not having to make much of an effort at anything. Launching apps is quick, while swiping through pages and menus is just effortless. Considering it's boasting the top flagship processor from Qualcomm's 2018 arsenal, that's not surprising. It's not the fastest processor anymore, but that's not really important.
But it's not entirely perfect. When it first launched, there was some kind of issue with the camera, and memory. We're not entirely sure what it was, and it's not something that happened every single time, but every now and then when the camera launched and a pic was shot, it killed whatever it is that's working in the background. Maybe more than 4GB RAM wouldn't go amiss, eh?
Once or twice in our testing, it'd kill Spotify music playing right as we pressed the shutter button. This was maybe one time out of 10, but we noticed and tested it with running Netflix in a picture-in-picture window on screen. Again, once every now and then, snapping a photo would kill the app. And it's not just pausing. It wiped it from memory, so when you reload it, the music or video doesn't resume, you have to start whatever song/episode/movie again from the beginning. We experienced this on both our Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.
Thankfully, Google addressed this bug with a software update, and since then the issue didn't seem to be there anymore. Everything else, from cellular and Wi-fi to Bluetooth, works brilliantly. Keeping solid connections for reliable downloads through all of our working week. Here's hoping that killswitch bug gets fixed in an over-the-air update soon.
Just about all-day battery
- 2,915mAh battery capacity
- 18W wired fast-charging
- Wireless charging (Qi)
With any small Android phone, there's always the worry that the smaller battery will mean worse performance. In the Pixel 3's case, we found that it didn't blow us away, but it's more than capable of lasting a full working day. Unless we were absolutely hammering it, testing camera features, playing games or tracking fitness sessions, it made it to bed time - just about.
It never got to the point where we would even consider trying to take it into a second day, but most nights at around 11-11:30pm it'd have around 20 per cent battery remaining. On more moderate/quiet days without some social networking, and a little reading or gaming, it could have around 30 per cent left over. Not terrible, but we were expecting more.
With the Pixel Stand (sold separately) by our bedside, it quickly became habit to just pop it on there every night, launching the aforementioned night sequence. However, we're not tremendously pleased with was the Stand's charging time, which takes around two hours. Despite activating the 'charging rapidly' text on screen, it doesn't come close to charging as quickly as using a powerful wired charger. Using a non-Pixel Stand wireless charger took far longer though.
Playground fun and easy shooting
- 12MP rear camera
- 8MP dual front camera
- AR Playgrounds mode
- Night Sight
One of Google's strongest hardware features from the last two years has actually been more of a software feature. Thanks to its awesome image processing algorithms, its cameras have been able to take some of the best-looking quick-shot photographs in most light conditions. Similarly for the third-gen model, using either the single rear camera or the front-facing camera, you'll get great photos and selfies.
Part of what makes this so great is how easy it is to get the results. There's no overcrowding of icons on screen, nor plethora of options and controls. Just point at the scene, tap where you want to focus and - even if you move the phone or your subject moves - it'll keep focus on that area. It's fantastic. Then, press the shutter and it'll instantly take the photo with sharp, colourful and dynamic results.
What's perhaps more surprising from a camera point of view - if you've never used a Pixel befor - is how good the portrait mode photos come out, despite the fact that it only has the one camera on the back (a bit like the iPhone XR). It just goes to show, with some smart engineering and software nouse, you can create really nice background blur. You don't necessarily need two, three or even four cameras on the back to get good portrait photos.
There was the odd occasion when some background detail was seen as foreground, because it was showing through some hair, but on the whole the Pixel 3 does a great job of separating subject from background. This was much the same when we took the photo with the front camera too. In fact, this is one of the best selfie cameras we've used, again no doubt partly down to Google's image processing.
Another really fun feature that makes use of Google's AI/AR knowledge is Playground. Using it, you can place animated characters within scenes. And since Google partnered with Disney and Netflix, you can even get Marvel, Star Wars and Stranger Things characters in your shots. It's so enjoyable to play with, and the results are pretty good. Things have moved a long way in the AR world, to the point where most of the time the AR characters actually look like they're standing on the surfaces within the photos.
There's the odd occasion when the AR characters don't play ball and can be fiddly to move around and adjust though. Especially with big characters like The Hulk. In those instances, the trick is often to ensure your scene is wide enough to incorporate a giant super-sized monster. Regardless of those infrequent challenges, you can spend a lot of time playing around (draining the battery), especially if you have kids with lots of imagination.
Perhaps more important than any of these fun features is Night Sight. Like Huawei's night mode shooting, you can shoot a long exposure shot completely handheld, and with the help of some AI magic, the end result is blur free and sharp. It's pretty impressive.
There's an argument to be had about whether it draws in too much light, making night time look like day at times. But there's no doubting it's an awesome feature that's made even better by the fact that it works on the front facing cameras too. You can see the results for yourself in our big camera comparison between this, the iPhone XS Max, Galaxy Note 9 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro.
The Pixel 3 had to show the world yet again what Google hardware and software can do in harmony. And it is truly great. In almost every way this phone performs like a true flagship, and in a body that's smaller and more comfortable to use one-handed that most. It holds its own, even months after it first launched.
With its killer camera features and sumptuous rear glass design, the Pixel 3 makes up for what the Pixel 2 should have been. The screen has great depth and colour, too, ensuring there are no qualms in that department this time around.
However, with its 18:9 aspect ratio screen and fairly chunky bezels (by flagship standards anyway) the Pixel 3 looks a little more dated than some competitors. The only other thing really missing is a night shot camera mode, similar to Huawei's, but we already know that's coming. And better battery life would be handy.
For those who want the killer camera and don't want to spend the money on the Pixel 3, Google released the Pixel 3a, which has a plastic build and mid-range specs, but takes photos just as well as the all-glass model. And this is perhaps the only thing going against the Pixel 3 really - you can spend a lot less, and take the same photos with a cheaper phone.
First published on 9 October 2018.
Apple iPhone XS
Apple's latest flagship phone is probably the most direct non-Android competition to the Pixel 3. It's sleek, beautiful, has an awesome edge-to-edge display and a great camera. What's more, with iOS, you know you'll get software updates for years to come.
Samsung Galaxy S10
If the iPhone XS is the most direct non-Android competitor to the Pixel 3, Samsung's Galaxy S10 is currently the most direct Android competition. Samsung's flagship is gorgeous, fits in a palm nicely, has great camera features and a stunning notch-less display. Battery life isn't the best, but you won't have to look at chunky bezels all day.
Google Pixel 3a
As we've mentioned a couple of times already, Google followed up its flagship Pixel range with a more budget-friendly series. The Pixel 3a offers the same clean software experience, fluid animations, a decent display and has the same awesome camera as the Pixel 3. If that's what matters most to you, save some cash, and get the 3a.