Google Pixel 3 review: improving on incredible

It feels like I just switched to the Pixel 2, but a year’s already flown by: Google unveiled its Pixel 3 in New York City last week, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to care much about this year’s devices.

This is an incremental year at best, and I figured there wouldn’t be much to tempt me to upgrade — but I was utterly wrong, Pixel 3 is worth looking closely at.

After trying the Pixel 3 for a week, I’m genuinely taken aback by how much Google has refined the device in just a year, buffing out the rough edges and taking its in-house industrial design game to new heights. 

Google has taken its hardware efforts from geek-focused experiments to a powerhouse of innovative design, and high-quality smartphones, in just three years.

Not only does Pixel 3 look and feel better, there are also meaningful improvements that make the upgrade worth considering. I started out writing this review thinking it would be simple but wound up realizing there’s so much going on beyond the surface that Pixel 3 matters in a more significant way than I’d assume.

On a year that seemed like there wouldn't be much to say, I'm flabbergasted by just how many things there are to cover, and excited that even over my humble Pixel 2 XL, I could be tempted to make the upgrade. Pixel 3, for an incremental upgrade, is a monumental step forward for Google's smartphone efforts.

I don't think a week is enough time to tell you every possible thing about a phone, but I've done the best to unpack just how much is going on with this new device, and plan to update this post going forward as I discover new features, quirks or surprises.

A couple of warnings before we go on: the Pixel 3 I have is final software, with some preview builds of the applications that'll land on the production devices come October 18. There are more app updates to add missing features on the way, such as Night Shot, which I'll discuss where relevant, so I couldn't review those bits at the time of writing. 

For an experimental, shorter way to read this review, try my new Story format here to tap through the key points, otherwise read on.

Big or small

Pixel 3 compared to the Pixel 2 XL up close

I do notch want to talk about it at length, but this year’s Pixel 3 lineup is defined by that absolute unit of a notch on the XL model this year. It's thicc at best, and confusing at worst: why does it exist?

It’s a design decision that allows Google to stretch the screen to the upper edge of the phone, but inexplicably retains the chin on the display and fails to add much value to the experience, unlike the TrueDepth sensor in the iPhone responsible for its notch.

The truly bizarre part about that notch isn’t that it’s there at all, but that Google could have implemented it in a way that made the operating system embrace it. Instead, it’s just entirely in the way, all the time, bumping content and the status bar all over the place rather than adding value.

I can accept that Google wanted to make this compromise, but I struggle to understand how it didn’t leverage software to better handle how outrageously oversized the notch on this thing really is.

Unsurprisingly, the community stepped up and designed a decent solution: make the upper corners of the display dark and tucks away the notifications there, disguising the notch and making it look seamless, which feels better than any of the first-party notch makers have done to date.

In my mind, this wrote off the Pixel 3 XL immediately as something I’d purchase, even though I already used the bigger model last year. The notch is one factor, but what drove me to the smaller model this year is that it’s received the best features of the Pixel 2 XL, without any of the drawbacks.

This year, the smaller model of Pixel 3 got the rounded screen, which stretches it to be larger inside the same frame while stopping short of adding a notch. It feels balanced, and most of all, comfortable in hand -- the 2 XL was giving me hand cramp as it was, so the smaller model was a welcome change for me. Using the larger device, by comparison, feels like holding a surfboard now.

I spent a bunch of time with the 3 XL in New York, but was only able to use the smaller device for an extended amount of time. This review largely focuses on the smaller device, which is much more interesting to me as a result.

Refinement everywhere you look

Glass back of the Pixel 3 (Black)

I watched the Pixel keynote, saw all the leaks, and found myself wondering if this was a device I wanted. Maybe I’d wait out 2019, and see what Pixel 4 looked like? Then I picked up the Pixel 3, and that went out the window: it’s lovely.

The nuance is in just how well Google has refined the hardware. It seems minor in photos... then you hold a Pixel 3: it’s weightier, better proportioned, and the display is out of this world. Everything about the hardware design has been considered, refined, and improved upon over 2017. It’s lovely!

Adding a glass back and the glossy rounded edges makes Pixel 3 feel as close to an iPhone than ever before, and that’s a compliment: Apple’s hardware design is stellar, and Google has designed hardware that’s on-par without being a clone. 

It’s the most premium non-iPhone flagship out there, and it’s a feat that no other manufacturer has pulled off -- but Google did it after just three years. It feels great in the hand, especially next to the Pixel 2, which feels like a plastic knockoff after you've held both at once. 

Notably unlike the iPhone 8, which is made of the slipperiest materials known to humanity, the Pixel 3 has a bit more grip thanks to the textured glass that sits nicely in your hand.

Adding a glass back comes with many benefits and compromises. It looks and feels great while allowing for wireless charging for the first time. On the downside, it’ll be so much easier to shatter the back than previously, driving the cost (and likeliness) of repair up, and it can get gooped up with fingerprints every now and then.

I always enjoyed the aluminum-backed Pixel 2 XL, because it was light and felt far less fragile. But, I do prefer how the Pixel 3 feels in your hand. If anything, I’m sad that switching to a glass back means saying farewell to the lovely ‘panda’ color combination from 2017, a design that wasn’t possible with the Pixel 3 being made from a sheet of glass, rather than two distinct materials.

Pixel 3 color options

That means new colors, too: there's Just Black (which I tested), Not Pink, and Clearly White. Quirky naming aside, the pink phone is absolutely the one to get this year, it's beautiful, and none of the photos out there do it justice! It's such a quirky, pastel set of colors that I adore it, because it's set apart so distinctly from Apple's metallic colors in its new lineup.

The display is another improvement I noticed almost immediately: it’s beautiful. Compared with the boxed-in square of the smaller Pixel 2 last year, it feels like it should’ve been this way all along; I have a soft spot for rounded corners, which look lovely on this phone. It’s brighter, with a better contrast ratio, and damn it’s one of the most vibrant screens I’ve ever seen on a smartphone.

It’s worth noting that Pixel 2 XL’s display was reportedly fraught with issues, but I had no such problems with mine. It looked great, and produced good color, but Pixel 3’s display is next level across the board. It’s also one of only a few devices that’s high dynamic range (HDR) ready so that you can enjoy HDR video from YouTube and Netflix on day one.

Pixel Stand has to be one of my favorite new things that makes the Pixel 3 worth upgrading for, which was a total surprise. I didn’t really ‘get’ wireless charging in the past, particularly given that fast charging allowed the device to get a full charge in less than an hour.

Oh my god, I was so wrong: wireless charging is magical, and Pixel Stand transforms the phone into the perfect nightstand, while still offering the quick charging experience.

There’s an array of wireless chargers out there, and Pixel 3 is Qi compliant, so it’ll work with basically everything you can find. 

Pixel 3 charging wirelessly on Google's wireless charger

What makes Pixel Stand unique is that it holds the phone upright, pointed toward you, rather than flat, and modifies the interface to work better in this mode.

When it’s wirelessly charging in the stand, it’ll show an ambient clock on the display, with big buttons suggesting what you might want to do with assistant. Tap one of these, and they’re presented in a stand-friendly way, with big fonts and images.

My immediate thought here was that this seemed like it would be annoying at night, but Google considered that: a setting makes the phone’s display turn off when it’s dark and enables do not disturb mode automatically. This is so cool if you happen to read at night before heading to sleep; the screen fades out once you turn out the lights.

There’s a bunch of other great little stuff, too, such as a mode that subtly displays your favorite photos, and a sunrise alarm clock, which wakes you up gradually by fading the screen to full brightness before your alarm clock goes off (I was surprised to find that this worked really well for me, and actually woke me up).

I’m obsessed with having the Pixel Stand everywhere, the only limiting factor being the price. I want one on my desk, by my bed, and anywhere else I sit for an extended amount of time. It’s such a fantastic way to interact with your phone, and I hope Google continues to add new modes to it in the future. I’ll buy a bunch of these, for sure.

On this note, the battery on the Pixel 3 is next-level good: it’s an actual struggle to drain it to empty even if you’re using it constantly, all day. I’ve only spent a week with the phone, but despite using the smaller model, I’m able to squeeze out beyond a day of use without even thinking about it.

Even on exceptional days of usage, it still delivers: I went out with friends at around 8 AM, flew a drone for an hour with my phone, used Google Maps, took a bunch of photos, and got home at 6PM with around 27 percent battery left. That’s impressive!

I’ll share more data once I have it, but I was able to get 5 - 6 hours of screen on time, consistently, without thinking about it much. Goodbye, battery anxiety, and for everything else, I have this battery pack.

One last thing that’s a dramatic improvement over any Android phone, including the last generation Pixel: the haptic vibrations are so much better now. I don’t know if this is a thing anyone cares about outside of technology enthusiasts, but previous generations vibration motors created a ‘hollow’ vibration feeling, especially when compared to the iPhone.

Pixel 3 fixes that, and they’re on par with what you’d expect from a high-end phone. I noticed them immediately after unboxing, simply because they finally felt right.


Pixel 3 with the camera app open

When I switched to Pixel 2 XL, my DSLR started gathering dust. Now, I think it'll rarely get picked up ever again.

Pixel 2 was the first smartphone I’d ever used that built up my trust enough to know it would nail every shot, and it quickly became my go-to camera. I stopped taking my DSLR on vacation, out and about, as well as to events. It turned out that the best camera was the one in my pocket all along.

Pixel 2 came out a year ago, and it’s no question that it still held the title as best smartphone camera, even after Apple refreshed the iPhone X in 2018. That alone is an admirable feat, and it was hard to imagine Pixel 3 pushing those boundaries much further, given that we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns on the hardware front now.

Google did it anyway. Pixel 3’s rear camera specifications are primarily the same on paper as last generation's, but thanks to software improvements and new AI-enabled features, it’s able to do much more. The front-facing camera, however, is where the majority of the notable hardware upgrades are: there’s now a wide-angle camera, alongside the traditional one.

This is wild to experience and is worth raving about: Google essentially built a selfie stick into a phone, but it’s better than that. The experience is magic: if you’re taking a selfie, and need more space for the background or something else; drag the slider to the left and boom it’s wide-angle. It’s seamless, and feels like magic because you can see so much more that it’s actually surprising!

I underestimated how much wide-angle cameras on the front would matter, but they’re magic. It makes taking selfies, or group selfies, fun all over again, and I have a feeling that this alone will drive many people toward the Pixel 3, particularly because the quality it outputs is so high.

The subtlety with Pixel 3, however, is that the age of ‘computational photography’ is here. The Pixel 3 uses machine learning across the board to create results that previously weren’t possible with sensors alone, and blowing every other camera out of the water at the same time.

Every time I’ve taken a photo on this device, it’s blown my mind. Every single shot, regardless of the situation, seems to come out fantastic. Overall, I’ve found that Pixel 3 is better at lighting the photo, faster to grab the shot, and reliably reproduces color without tapping all over the screen to get things right. 

A nice addition here, 'Top Shot' mode, reduces any anxiety further by buffering a few seconds before and after the photo so you can grab the moment later, should you miss it.

In the galleries that follow, all photos are untouched, directly out of the Google Pixel 3. To view the high-resolution, uncompressed photo tap or click on anything you see!

A Pixel 3 sample photo of coffee
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a person in a cafe
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a cafe
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a bike lane
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a concert at night
Mvimg 20181010 154840
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a canal
A Pixel 3 sample photo of Brooklyn, New York
A Pixel 3 sample photo of Barcade, Brooklyn, New York
A Pixel 3 sample photo using portrait mode, of a cat
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a canal in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
A Pixel 3 sample photo of Skydio R1
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a canal at dusk
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a concert
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a canal on an overcast day
A Pixel 3 sample photo of food outdoors
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a plane landing
A Pixel 3 sample photo of Barcade in Brooklyn, New York
A Pixel 3 sample photo of the view from an apartment in Williamsburg, New York
A Pixel 3 sample photo of Owen Williams
A Pixel 3 sample photo of a canal in Amsterdam

There’s lots of new features that use those advanced AI techniques, such as Super Res Zoom, which allows you to zoom in without the need for a second lens on the back. The Pixel uses burst photography to take tens of photos in a split second, using the optical image stabilization system combined with your hand’s movements to obtain more detail, then aligns it in the software to create incredible results beyond the capability of the sensor itself.

While this might not always live up to the iPhone Xs’ dual-lens arrangement, the reality is that it’s going to be so close that you probably won’t even notice. That’s what Google’s going for, and it shows (there's an example below, and I'll add more over time).

A Pixel 3 sample photo of how zoom appears to the eye
Img 20181015 134859
Img 20181015 134901

A new RAW camera mode uses the same techniques to output DNG files, which are minimally processed files, containing a blob of information such as sensor data, white balance, and so on, allowing manual editing later in a professional tool like Adobe Lightroom. The RAW support is also AI-backed, merging multiple frames on a sub-pixel basis, without processing or ghosting.

Portrait mode has come a long way since its debut, and in my limited time with the device seems to have improved significantly over previous iterations, nailing the bokeh and background blur much more reliably than in the past, particularly in challenging scenarios like cat fur. 

Sometimes it still trips up, as can be seen in the final photo in the gallery below, where the portrait mode eats the edge of the Kindle or my cat's whiskers. It's pretty tricky to trigger, but high complexity in shapes seen in the background can cause issues like this at random, and I suspect it'll improve with time.

These enhancements to portrait mode seem like a software improvement that could roll out to older Pixel devices, but we don’t know whether that’s the case yet. Either way, it's an exciting time for emulated bokeh, and I'm addicted to playing with it.

A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode with long grass
A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode with colorful plants
A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode with a cat
A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode with a Scottish Fold cat
A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode not working correctly with a Kindle
A Pixel 3 sample photo of portrait mode using the selfie lense

Night Sight is one example of this, which Google claims will make the camera usable in those night-time scenarios where you wouldn’t pull it out at all. It isn’t enabled today but should be in just a few weeks, and if it looks anything like what we saw at the keynote, might utterly change the way people think about using their phone camera at night.

Many of these improvements are software-based, and I question whether or not they need to remain exclusive to the Pixel 3. Google has remained cagey on whether or not Pixel 2 and down will receive Night Sight, Top Shot or any of the other new modes, despite theoretically not requiring new hardware to pull them off.

Overall, however, the Pixel 3 is a monumental leap ahead for the camera, into a whole new paradigm: what does photography look like when everything is based on computational intelligence?

Camera die-hards are quick to rebuke such techniques, but they’re inevitable, and Google’s pursuing one goal: make Pixel’s camera so reliable you don’t want to carry anything else. Computational photography is not going away, and it’s increasingly clear that Google is light years ahead of the competition here.

Areas for improvement

Pixel 3 photo of the apps in the app drawer on a red table

I’ve been using Android full-time for a year now, and there’s a number of areas that I hoped Google would improve on that haven’t been addressed at all despite a major OS update to Pie in September.

These are my top annoyances, largely relating to software, in brief, today:

1) Photo file management is a mess despite photography being the flagship reason this phone exists. The files app on Android is a disgrace, making life way too complicated for the average user, and you’re going to run into it constantly when you use any third-party app to upload a photo.

On iOS, when you tap to upload from your camera roll, it’s your camera roll! On a Pixel, you end up in this dizzying array of menus, a “recent” stream which includes every image anyone else sent you via WhatsApp or whatever, and no way to access the albums you’ve curated in Google Photos.

This seems like an easy fix, and it sucks, still.

2) Notifications are on by default for everything, and it’s infuriating. Android has the best notification system, period, but notifications are not opt-in, they’re just enabled regardless.

I spend an annoying amount of time disabling stuff I don’t want, which works fine, but why not ask for permission first? In Pie, Google started asking if you want to disable notifications if you swipe them away more than 2-3 times without interacting, but a prompt before assuming I want them, would be welcome.

3) Dual-SIM is here, but only sort-of. Google was one of the first device makers out the gate with a physical SIM card as well as an eSIM in the same device. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the ability to hot swap to my Project Fi eSIM for roaming, without the need to pop my Dutch SIM card for a local one.

The iPhone Xs, however, has a one-up here: it can connect to both at the same time, so your SMS/calls come in from both. Pixel 3 has the physical hardware to do this, including support for dual-active VoLTE,  and a number of improvements that hint that it’s possible to connect to both at once.

The software, however, doesn’t support it, and it’s unclear if it will. Google wasn’t able to answer my questions about this, but I’m hopeful that it’ll be activated in a future software update, especially given how quickly carriers will support eSIM once the iPhone’s dual-mode rolls out later this year.

4) There’s no Pixel Watch. I still miss my Apple Watch, and so many friends have expressed that they’ll switch to the Pixel if they’d just release a high-end watch that I genuinely believe this is a miss.

Maybe next year? I’ll wait, but I would love to see this happen, particularly given that Google Fit got a big refresh recently.

Should you upgrade? 

The Pixel 3's helpful suggestions

It’s complicated, and really depends what phone you’re using today. If you’re on a Pixel 2 like I was, there are fewer reasons to upgrade compared with previous years, but there are serious quality of life improvements, particularly on the hardware design front, that make Pixel 3 worth considering.

For any generation of device older than the last year, like the original Pixel or even an iPhone 7 / 8, this will feel light-years ahead. If Pixel 2 felt like an enormous upgrade over the first-generation Pixel, Pixel 3 is Google’s hardware team’s prowess on display: it’s an incredible device that can finally compete with the iPhone’s level of polish.

What’s worth considering are a few, simple things: do you care about wireless charging, and are you tired of all those cables everywhere? Absolutely upgrade! Do you like taking selfies, and do you want more selfie game than any other device on the market? This is the device for you.

It’s just getting harder to justify doing so over a device that’s just a year old every time any major manufacturer releases something new. Pixel 2 is still a kick-ass phone, even after using it for 12 months straight, and it’s getting many of the features discussed here today, which makes it a great buy at a lower price.

Pixel 3 is essentially Google honing in on what makes Pixel great, and it’s an incredible display of how hardware and software can come together to make a whole new category of device. On paper, it seems like there’s little that’s changed, but when it’s in your hand, you can feel it. 

The Pixel 3 camera app in selfie mode lying on the ground

I haven't spent enough time with it to conclude decisively, but Pixel 3 XL feels like a slip on a strong year. 

Perhaps I’m wrong about whether or not anyone will care, but I think that the smaller Pixel 3 is so good that it doesn’t matter at all. I've barely talked about the XL because of this, and I struggle to recommend it in the state it's in today, even if it's a great phone. If the notch doesn't bother you, it's a great device, and that's the only difference.

Even if you don’t grab the Pixel 3, there’s a feeling that Google is on the precipice of something big with Pixel. It’s iterated on every piece of the device that made it so good, and isn’t giving up on building a flagship that tempts the masses away from Apple and Samsung, improving on it year over year in meaningful ways.

For the first time, it truly feels like Pixel can pull that feat off. At first, Pixel felt like an experiment, then Pixel 2 iterated on it and showed how serious Google was about sticking with that idea. 

Pixel 3 is the fulfillment of everything Google set out to do with hardware design, combined with the sheer usefulness of its software, making it better than ever.

Alongside this, the narrative, and coherency, of the Google ecosystem is the strongest in the industry today, pushing forward faster than even Apple’s own. I didn’t even have the space to talk about this, but seeing Google’s tight integration across the home, laptop, and phone, and the narrative that everything works better together, is something that was hard to imagine a few years ago.

The time is right, and I think that consumers are looking more than ever before at what’s out there, as hardware innovation has slowed and Apple stumbled, raising prices across the board and making the iPhone lineup the most confusing its been in a decade.

Phones are getting boring, but on a year that feels iterative at best for everyone in the industry, I think Pixel 3 is a home-run. I went into this review expecting to be underwhelmed and honestly came out the other end thinking that the Pixel 3 is the phone the Pixel name deserved, finally.

More than anything else, I’m excited that Google understood and played to its strengths, and I’m absolutely going to continue using Pixel as my go-to phone, no questions asked.

Too long, didn't read: Google Pixel 3: hardware and software combine to great effect, with premium hardware, great selfies, boosted camera AI, but an incremental upgrade on Pixel 2

The good
  • 👍 Improved camera over last generation
  • 👍 Enhanced hardware design
  • 👍 Wide-angle selfies are impressive
The bad
  • 👎 Notch on the Pixel 3 XL unjustified
  • 👎 Incremental upgrade for Pixel 2 owners
  • 👎 Lack of hardware ecosystem, e.g Watch

Our score

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By Owen Williams

Owen is an independent technology journalist with a background in software development and helping people understand the industry. Based in the Netherlands, Owen writes a weekly column for Medium's OneZero, and was previously Editor at The Next Web and Digital Director at VanMoof. 

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