Google Pixel 3 XL review: shoots drool-worthy images that will persuade you to make a switch

Google asks for regular security updates

If the sales figures are an indication, Google has barely made a dent in the market with its Pixel phones till now. But that’s beside the point because for Google, the Pixel range of smartphones is a not really a showcase of its hardware acumen. Instead, the Pixel is Google’s attempt at further augmenting its software supremacy.

Also read: Apple iPhone XS Max review: big, bold, and bloody expensive

I’ve used the Pixel 3 XL as my primary phone since announcement day and looking at all the improvements, I am convinced that Google is finally heading in the right direction as far as Pixel phones are concerned.  

Pixel 3 XL 9

Google Pixel 3 XL design: beauty lies in the hands of the phone holder

The Pixel 3 XL’s design is no head-turner. The two-tone finish has been carried forward from the previous phone but the differentiating factor is the use of glass — for the very first time — on the rear. This enables wireless charging, which is definitely a major advantage. In fact, Google has a new Pixel Stand accessory with wireless charging support. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to test it out. Although, I can confirm that wireless charging is present on the phone. I tried a Samsung wireless charger that was lying around with the Pixel 3 XL and it worked. 

The two-tone finish on our white unit feels soft and dreamy in the hand. Now the phone may not be a looker, but there is no denying that it feels undoubtedly premium, thanks mainly to the soft-touch matte finish. The smooth transition from the new matte finish on the rear to the actual glass is very clean and minimalistic. The glass on the front and the rear is protected by a metal railing with a glossy finish. At 7.9mm thickness, the phone feels fairly slim. Couple that with the 184g weight of the phone, you’ve got a comfortable big phone.

Pixel 3 XL 14

In fact, during my time with the phone, I had the iPhone XS Max in my other pocket, and whenever I took it out, it felt considerably bigger and chunkier. That said, Apple’s phone undoubtedly feels a lot more premium. Also, I saw more than a couple of reports which shows that the Black variant scratches easily and it is clearly visible too. I haven’t seen or used the Black variant, so I can’t corroborate that claim. Oh also, my favourite Pixel 3 XL colour has to be the new cheekily-named ‘Not Pink’. It does look very different and unique. 

On the rear, you also get the camera module that juts out slightly. The fingerprint scanner is at an easy-to-reach convenient location. And since there is no face unlock, no not even in Android’s Smart Unlock sub-setting, you will have to live with the fingerprint scanner. It is not necessarily a drawback, because this scanner is extremely fast to unlock your phone. I had no trouble whatsoever. Moreover, the fact that the Pixel 3 XL has IP68 certification for enhanced water-proofing should come in handy in situations where you drop the phone in water by mistake. The Pixel 3 XL has the same ‘Squeeze’ for Google Assistant feature from the Pixel 2 XL. I still think it is a gimmick. I didn’t use it once.

Pixel 3 XL 13

The new mint-coloured Power button definitely gives a distinctive, playful look thanks to the poppy colour. However, both – the volume rocker and the power button – feel plasticky and don’t feel very solid. I found the buttons to be mushy and soft. This is definitely not something, that I expect from a flagship phone. You get a Type-C port at the bottom along with a single SIM tray. The phone also supports Dual SIM mode via e-SIM in certain countries, but I don’t think it is available in India yet. 

Google Pixel 3 XL display: the first Pixel phone with a truly flagship display

That notch on the Pixel 3 XL is tall and ugly, no doubt, but…but…it smiles at you…

Jokes apart, the notch on the 6.3-inch display of the Pixel 3 XL is the tallest notch on a phone yet. The main reason for this notch to exist is the big earpiece that doubles up as a speaker, and you also have a new wide-angle camera. Google has promised an update in the future that will let you turn off the notch but you have a workaround for now. You can choose the ‘No Cutout’ option in Developer settings. With the notch turned off, the Pixel 3 XL basically looks like a Pixel 2 XL. I like the extra screen estate that you get with the notch, though. 

Pixel 3 XL 10

With the notch, the only content that you will lose is the extra notification icons, but to be entirely honest, it looks a lot cleaner now. And most content, including apps and games, cut out the notch entirely. So, I have no problem there really. 

Coming to the 6.3-inch OLED display, you now get a very good panel with the option to switch between Adaptive, Natural, and Boosted modes. The display is set to Adaptive by default. If you are a stickler for the most accurate colour reproduction, the Natural mode with an accurate representation of the RGB space will appeal to you. If you like boosted colours then the aptly-named boosted mode will work for you. I noticed little to no colour temperature shift. In fact, the iPhone XS Max is a bigger offender when it comes to bad colour shift. 

Pixel 3 XL 11

But yeah, the Pixel 3 XL cannot get as bright as the iPhone XS Max or the Galaxy Note 9. That’s a fact. Overall, I’d slot the Pixel 3 XL’s display in the third spot behind the Galaxy Note 9 and the iPhone XS. 

Also read: Poco F1 by Xiaomi review: don’t think it, just buy it

Google Pixel 3 XL software: Android Pie is great but there are some quirks

The Pixel 3 XL is the showcase hardware for Google’s latest Android Pie operating system. Let me break down what I like and don’t like about Android Pie and Pixel Launcher.

Pixel 3 XL 5

Stuff I like

  1. The Google Search bar is now placed at the bottom. That is definitely a great advantage. 
  2. The neatly rounded notification cards are a great design touch. 
  3. The app suggestions now show up in the Recents page, and that is definitely an advantage.
     
     

  4. Also, the little stubs of apps that show up in the app drawer called App Actions is a kickass feature. My very active WhatsApp group and my frequently contacted Telegram chat – my wife – keep coming up there. 
  5. I know this is not a software feature but the vibration feedback on the new Pixel 3 is stunning. The phone gives you a subtle feedback even when you put the earpiece on your ear on an incoming call. It is subtle touches like this that makes for a premium experience. You will notice a similar vibration feedback when pulling down the notifications shade or pulling up the Recents menu. It is a really classy implementation. 
  6. The new Digital Wellbeing feature, which is still in beta, is a hardass. It can force you to cut down on your usage of addictive apps and is far more stringent at relinquishing control when compared to Apple’s new Screen Time feature. It is like going cold turkey, to control a drug addiction. 

     

Stuff I don’t like

  1. I am just going to list one thing here – the gesture navigation. The new gesture-based navigation in Android Pie is super cumbersome. You have to either do one long swipe to bring up the app drawer or two short swipes. Because the first short swipe brings up the Recents page. That said, the pill based gesture navigation to switch between apps is cool. 

Also, I want to report a small bug I encountered during my time with the phone. Apparently, this was also a problem with previous Pixel phones. My screen would go completely black and unresponsive after a call. I found a fix online. I had to switch off camera permissions in the phone app. No idea what’s the connection there, but it worked.

Pixel 3 XL 7

I shouldn’t have to ideally go through this workaround. By the way, I could have sensationalised the whole thing by making this another #Gate – #proximitygate? But this issue can be fixed with a simple software update. Easy. Not a thing worth making a big hue and cry about *cough* Unbox Therapy *cough*

The new Call Screen feature that is being rolled out in phases, should also be a great, great feature once it hits the phone. Then there’s the crazy intelligent Duplex mode that’s coming soon as well! The manner in which Google is integrating artificial intelligence across many features of your phone is truly revolutionary when it comes to smartphone tech. 

Google Pixel 3 XL camera: undoubtedly the best smartphone cameras

I have a long video about the Pixel 3 XL’s camera and a comparison with the iPhone XS Max and the Pixel 2. Head over to the video to know more in detail. To cut the long story short, the Pixel 3 XL has the best overall camera performance on a smartphone yet. Let me give you a short summary, in case you don’t want to watch a video. 

  1. The redesigned camera app is super easy to use and now you have RAW support with the app. Unfortunately, you still don’t have a manual mode. It is a shame for a phone with the best camera performance yet. 
  2. The sensor and the algorithm offer improved details and clarity. The colour science, as usual, favours the brown and yellow tones making the overall image look warm. 

     

  3. The selfie camera offers stunning, stunning details. I am pretty sure that I haven’t seen such detailed selfies from any other phone this year. 
  4. The new wide-angle camera takes good selfies too, albeit with a fixed focus. And that means you can end up not getting the right focus on certain subjects when taking a group selfie. 
  5. The Portrait mode algorithm is great and it will get better over time, thanks to all the machine learning. That said, I still think the edge detection on the iPhone XS Max and the blur is a tad better. P.S. you can now change the depth effect in the edit feature in the Photos app. 
  6. The low light images look great, to say the least, but for some odd reason, the Pixel 3 XL tends to choose lower ISOs and therefore ends up underexposing the images. I can’t wait for the new Night Sight mode update to reach the camera soon. 


  7. The HDR performance is phenomenal as usual.
  8. The new Top Shot feature is pretty damn useful especially when you are shooting moving subjects. You can easily retrieve shots with the right focus if you miss it by mistake. In most cases, the Photos app generally recommends a great shot. 
  9. The newly-rebranded Playground mode is a fun way to add AR stickers to your photos and videos. It is a novel and fun idea that makes full use of the upgraded Pixel Core on the new Pixel 3 XL. 


  10. I am also a fan of the new Super Res Zoom mode. At close to 2x optical zoom distance, you really cannot tell the difference between the digital zoom on the Pixel 3 XL and the optical zoom on the iPhone XS Max. It is that good. I am sure I am going to use it more often. 
  11. The Photobooth mode is the only gimmicky addition in an otherwise great camera app.
  12. The Pixel 3 XL can now shoot crisp and stable 4K 30 fps video. However, the best part is that it can record stereo audio now. That said, the quality of the stereo audio is not as good as the iPhone XS Max, that’s for sure. The front camera has image stabilisation in videos as well, which is great for vlogging. 


    Super Res Zoom mode in action

Trust me, once you use the Pixel 3 XL’s cameras you cannot go back. The images from this phone can fool a lot of folks to believe you actually used a DSLR instead.

Find all the hi-res photo samples from the phone here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/Z57tPsgYZxyPStPf9

Also read: OnePlus 6 review: upholds its legacy of being the fastest phone on the planet

Google Pixel 3 XL performance: great but not the best

The Pixel 3 XL, like most flagships in 2018, has a Snapdragon 845 SoC. Although 4 gigs of RAM on the phone might seem too low for a flagship phone. Trust me, it doesn’t matter. The Pixel 3 XL is one of the fastest phones I’ve used in recent times. Be rest assured, you are going to get extremely smooth performance through and through. Having said that, Google’s RAM management is aggressive and it will reload big apps after a little while. Although, I don’t understand why anyone would want so many apps to be in memory for so long. 

Pixel 3 XL 6

I ran a few benchmark tests because it is fun to check the metrics out. I got an AnTuTu score of around the 2,48,000 mark. This is lower than what I achieved on the ZenFone 5Z, Poco F1, or the OnePlus 6. However, in the Gamebench test for PUBG, I achieved a peak of 60fps and an fps stability of 98%, which is higher than most phones out there. In fact, playing PUBG on the Pixel 3 XL was so much fun thanks to the stupendously good oleophobic coating. That said, the phone does warm up a bit. After a 23 min session inside a temperature-controlled room, the Pixel 3 XL reached 43-degrees. That is higher than phones like the Poco F1 or the OnePlus 6. 

The Pixel 3 XL’s 4G LTE performance on Airtel’s network was dependable and the speeds were decent too. The breakout finding, however, was the stupendously good call quality and earpiece performance. Google’s hardware team – apparently, it is not HTC this year – has done a sublime job with the earpiece and that truly matters when the primary purpose of a phone is to make phone calls. 

Pixel 3 XL 4

Google Pixel 3 XL multimedia: stunning speaker performance, subpar DAC

The Pixel 3 XL’s big display makes it great for multimedia performance, except for the notch of course. It is the speakers that add multiple dimensions to your video watching experience. I had a blast watching a couple of episodes of The Chef’s Table on the Pixel 3 XL while on my way to a meeting in a cab. Generally, I use headphones but the speakers could get so loud that I had no trouble using the Pixel 3 XL’s loudspeaker. As a matter of fact, I had to reduce the volume on many occasions lest it gets too loud. 

Pixel 3 XL 10

Having said that, the Pixel Buds inside the box with a lighting cable sound bad. As someone who wants a good sound from his headphones, I’d stash these back into the box and never get it out again. The bundled Type-C to 3.5mm dongle has a bad DAC too. I tried my FiiO FH5 and it didn’t even sound 60 percent as it actually would with a better DAC on a better phone. Honestly, Google really needs to fix the audio performance through headphones. It is a big letdown if you ask me. 

Google Pixel 3 XL battery: switch off always-on ambient display for better battery life

The Pixel 3 XL comes with a fairly big 3430mAh battery inside. This battery supports fast charging and the 18W charger in the box comes in handy. I managed to charge the phone from 0 to 100 percent in 2 hours and 14 minutes on one occasion, and 2 hours and 21 minutes on another. This is more like regular charging and not fast charging. 

Pixel 3 XL 3

I have a heavy phone usage pattern and the first time I decided to log in my battery usage details – I got 4 hours and 58 mins of screen-on-time. But this was with a Live wallpaper and always-on ambient display. I switched off the always-on ambient display setting to tap-to-wake and lift-to-wake, and the battery life improved drastically. I got a much higher screen-on-time this time!

The battery life, with Adaptive Battery on, should definitely get better over a period of time as well. I have no complaints about the battery life on the Pixel 3 XL. You can squeeze one full day of heavy usage from the phone before you have to hit the charger. 

Also read: Can the Huawei P20 Pro’s triple cameras beat the Sony Alpha 6300 – a mirrorless camera?

Should you buy the Google Pixel 3 XL?

Google has hit the ball out of the park with the Pixel 3 XL’s camera. And the cameras alone are enough to convince anyone to buy the Pixel 3 XL over any other flagship phone. I had no problems with performance either. I am also glad that Google has improved the display on the phone by leaps and bounds. 

However, the hardware – despite a great feel – doesn’t feel too premium. And that’s where phones like the Galaxy Note 9 and the iPhone XS Max take the lead in my opinion.

Here’s an interesting titbit as pointed out by the folks at 9to5Google. After reading the transcript of the entire event, they found out that Google didn’t use the word ‘Android’ even once in the whole presentation. Evidently, this signals a shift in Google’s hardware mindset where it is subconsciously dissociating itself from the Android branding. 

Pixel 3 XL 3

Why? Because Android phones are long known to be cheaper alternatives to the iPhones. Google doesn’t want to be known as a brand making “cheap” smartphones anymore. The question here is – can Google demand a premium standing for itself in the highly competitive smartphone space? Well, there’s still a long a way to go before we can find a concrete answer. 

And therefore, the Rs 83,000 pricing for the base variant of the Pixel 3 XL shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, this pricing makes it the most expensive Android phone in India. 

Should you spend that kind of moolah on a Google phone? If you want the best camera performance, then the answer is a resounding yes. If you are okay with compromising, slightly – mind you, very slightly on the camera performance, then every other flagship phone – including the Note 9 and the iPhone XS Max – look like better options. 

Do let us know in the comments section below what you think about the Google Pixel 3 XL. Are you planning on buying one?

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?