Google's flagship smartphone, the Pixel 3, touts the camera as one of the leading features of its device. I reviewed it in October, and it's absolutely the best smartphone camera on the market today — but there's a serious issue affecting hundreds of users that Google is quietly pretending doesn't exist.
Those affected by this see erratic camera behavior, largely preventing them from using it reliably and requiring reboots throughout the day to get a usable device.
Here's how it works: those affected are able to use the official camera app, but if a third-party app is authorized to access the camera it becomes unusable until a reboot of the device is completed. The camera will pop up a number of errors including "could not connect to camera," "camera encountered fatal error" or "The camera device encountered a fatal error."
Any app attempting to access the camera will crash or complain about hardware errors — and some apps like Instagram require camera access to function. It's unclear what causes the issue, as the hardware functions fine, but when affected there is no fix.
A factory reset, restore, or system re-image doesn't fix it, and the camera will continue to lock up as soon as a third-party app is opened again. If the device is rebooted, it'll work until an app tries to access the camera again.
For many, including myself, this bug has been happening for weeks and in most cases Google refuses to service or replace devices that are affected, instead insisting that users should wait over a month for a software patch that 'may' fix it.
I dug into this for quite a while, siphoning through logs and poking around in the camera API, and it appears to be related to the system not correctly releasing a lock on the camera device, causing other apps to assume that it's in use, and crash. Usually, this is forced to release, however in this case it appears that a firmware flag or other change causes the system to be unable to release the lock at all.
Sometimes, when pressed, Google support agents will note that it's a known issue, but some pressing reveals that's not really the case, and there's no ETA for a fix.
Just got off the phone with Google for the 3rd time, and this time I made a little leeway! He told me that this is indeed a known issue and their developers are on it. They're working to get an update out as soon as possible.
I've been trying to get a warranty service since October 25th for my Pixel 3 but have been rebuffed by support like everyone else, with multiple conversations ending with the agent saying that I must "wait for a fix" rather than get a new device.
What's bizarre is that initially, many support tickets start with trying to troubleshoot or even initiate the device replacement process, but quickly end in canned responses about waiting when explaining further details about the bug. Some users are able to get a replacement when pressing agents harder, others are forced to wait.
For a flagship smartphone that focuses on the camera, it's a ridiculous ask to tell buyers to wait around for a month or longer with a key selling point broken. Pixel owners in the thread I'm active in are starting to get pissed:
This morning they told me to be patient because they are working hard, and an "update might be coming" - seriously. Might be. Less than a month old device doesn't work as it should and they seem incapable or unwilling to deal with the issue.
Wow, I can't believe so many people are getting replacements! I had this issue pop up last week, before the November updates. Chatted with Google tech support after trying all the usual fixes and they're flat-out refusing to send me a replacement.
I also have this exact same problem, and have talked to two google support reps with no solution in sight. They say they have engineers working through the bug reports I've sent and an update is on the way, but they could not give a timeline.
I personally know three people affected by the issue, so it's not just a random occurrence, but an incredibly frustrating one. One of the people I know, BuzzFeed's Mat Honan, has rescinded his recommendation of the device after Google had him wait for a fix too:
"Nearly a month after publishing this review, I purchased a new Pixel 3. Unlike the loaner review device I used, this one has a bug that affects the camera. Any time I try to use an app other than the built-in Camera app to take a photo — such as Instagram, Google Authenticator, or Twitter — it causes the camera to stop working completely until I restart the device. I am far from alone in seeing this, and it is, very much, a deal killer for a phone that leans heavily on the camera as a selling point."
I've reached out to Google multiple times about this, but it either doesn't respond or won't make a comment on the record about this bug, whether it'll be fixed, or what the issue actually is. I then discovered that hundreds of Pixel 2 owners are reporting the same thing, with vague responses and ever-moving timelines for a fix, which is not reassuring.
If you're spending $700 or more on a flagship phone, you expect it to work. If there's an issue, you expect to receive a replacement while it's under warranty, rather than be told to wait around. Google's silence on this implies there's a widespread problem that it's trying to downplay, rather than just straight up publicly acknowledging it.
I'm largely writing this in the hope of seeing how widely affected people really are: the Pixel 3 is absolutely the best phone I've owned, but this is a frustrating situation to be stuck in. Given there are multiple threads with a few hundred replies, I'm willing to bet many more people aren't going to go to the effort to create a community account to report it, and are as stuck as the rest of us.
Fire away in the comments if you've seen this, fixed it, or otherwise!
Update #1, November 18: Here's a collection of threads with people experiencing the same issue:
- Pixel 3 XL : Camera crashes after being accessed by any third party apps
- Pixel 3 camera hardware is crashing when used by any app other than the "Camera" app
- Camera fatal error after updating to Pie
- Pixel 3 XL: Fatal camera error
- Camera fatal error
- Fatal camera error, no fix
- Very frustrating camera problem with Pixel 3
Update #2, November 19: Some people have noted that this is not reproducible, and that's the point of this piece! This issue happens at complete random, but once you're affected, it's not possible to resolve it from there.
Once this bug is observed, opening a single third-party app will cripple the camera API until the device reboots. It feels like a software issue, but behaves like a hardware problem.
Here's the things I've done to troubleshoot this to date:
- Factory reset with a different user account and zero updates, without restoring from backup (I had a feeling that maybe an update was causing this). Does not fix.
- Factory system image restore from the blueline factory image that was available in September. Does not fix.
- Factory system image restore from the blueline factory image that was available as the November update. Does not fix.
- Unlock bootloader, root phone, override the camera lock API/change build.prop to a different device. Does not fix.
- Fresh install with my official account from the November system image, updated apps, etc, without a restore. Does not fix.
- Flash back to the September update, then set up phone with no SIM card and no wi-fi connection so it can't install updates in the background, given that this build used to work fine. Does not fix.
- Flash the latest image, remove the updates to system apps and reset all app caches/etc. Does not fix.
Update #3, November 20: Google still hasn't responded to me directly, but did tell Android Police that it had "identified a fix" that users will need to wait for. I'm not convinced this is a good enough response for such high-end hardware, and it's pretty... vauge, but it's something at least. So, maybe a usable camera in December?