Phone

Google Pixel 3 XL Review: It’s All About The Software

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

Google has launched the new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL for Singapore market, and will be available for retail purchase from 1 November 2018, with pre-orders from 10 October. It comes in 2 sizes and 3 colours – Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink.

  • Pixel 3 64GB – S$1249
  • Pixel 3 128GB – S$1399
  • Pixel 3 XL 64GB – S$1399
  • Pixel 3 XL 128GB – S$1549

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

Design

The good thing about Pixel 3 series is that all of them have the same internal hardware, including RAM and camera specs. The only differences are the physical dimensions, storage space, and screen display size (Pixel 3 does not have a notch!). The new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL retain the signature design from the previous Pixel models, but what’s improved is the use of Gorilla Glass 5 on the rear which is more scratch resistant. I also like the silky feel of the matt area. Having said that, the premium knitted fabric Pixel Cases with interior microfibre liner provides comfort when handling the phone. In addition, these cases work with wireless chargers and NFC contactless payments.¬†With IP68 water rating, the phone can easily withstand water and dust.

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

Also remained unchanged is the single rear camera in 12.2MP dual pixel f/1.8 with OIS, achieving similar image quality but boosted with software magic. There are now 2 front cameras, one for wide angle f/2.2 107-degree capture and the standard f/1.8 camera. Because of this, the Pixel 3 XL notch turns out unusually thick, in fact, it’s the thickest among the smartphones.

In terms of display, the Pixel 3 XL is less of an issue compared to the Pixel 2 XL. It still exhibits slight colour shift at an angle, a usual OLED characteristic, but the shift is consistent across the entire panel instead of irregular patches. The Pixel 3 XL exhibits warmer tonality which is more pleasing to the eye. I do not feel fatigue when using the phone, and the adaptive display seems to do quite well in that aspect.

A Showcase of Android

What Google wants to showcase with the Pixel 3 is not just about the hardware capabilities, but rather, the software, as what Google is known for. While the phone is running on the latest Android 9 Pie, the Pixel 3 has its list of features unique to the phone model. There are a long list, so let me run through some of them.

New Gesture Navigation

With Android’s new OS, the navigation alters with a hybrid of navigation bar and swipe gestures. While I like the idea of a completely hidden nav bar, it proves to be uncertain for new users. So I’m glad that Android 9 retains 2 of the nav buttons, rear and home. At the same time, the home button works to open recent apps (swipe right, swipe up halfway), app drawer (swipe up all the way), and Google Assistant (press and hold).

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

At A Glance

On the top of the home screen, you will notice the date and weather displayed. Unlike other phones, this “At A Glance” widget is an integrated feature that shows you important updates for the day, like next appointment. This widget was one of my favourites when I reviewed the Pixel 2 last year.

Bluetooth 5.0 and Hi-Def Audio Codec

Pixel 3 supports HD codec like LDAC to deliver high quality wireless audio. The dropdown icon tiles can also display the battery life of the connected Bluetooth device.

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

Camera

Camera is always one of the biggest features in new smartphones. While Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL retains a single camera setup, it makes up for it with all the “camera tricks” it can gather. Some are existing functions from other smartphones, while a few are truly refreshing.

HDR+

The camera HDR+ performance remains impressive and works better than Huawei P20 Pro, although P20 Pro is slightly brighter. Pixel 3 XL captures up to 8 frames to merge them for the optimal effect without appearing too exaggerated.

Compare Google Pixel 3 XL HDR+ with Huawei P20 Pro

Top Shot

The Pixel 3 camera can capture multiple images prior to the actual shutter trigger, when the Motion is set to “On” or “Auto” at the top of the camera app. During preview, you can see the series of photos and the recommended shots that the camera suggests. Be warned, though, that all the other motion shots are in lower resolution.

Google Pixel 3 XL Motion photo mode with Top Shots

Portrait

Pixel 3 is capable of achieving background blur with just a single lens, and even though we know having more lenses will achieve better depth perception, the outcome from the Pixel 3 camera remains impressive, achieving the subtle background separation that makes a photo more impressive.

Google Pixel 3 XL Portrait Mode

Low Light (Not Night Sight)

As you can see above, the low light performance is impressive. And below, while tucking my daughter to bed, the scene is lit with a single Philips Hue LED bulb.

Google Pixel 3 XL Low Light

Here’s another test shot in the same room, but now the front display turns bright to function as a light source. The process takes about 2 seconds.

Google Pixel 3 XL Low Light

Super Res Zoom

Google claims to be able to deliver equally sharp and clear images even if you apply digital zoom. My recommendation is to go easy on them. As you zoom more, the digital artifacts come more apparent.

Google Pixel 3 XL Super Res Zoom

Wide Angle Selfie

You can capture 107-degree shots to include more people in the photo. I hope the wide angle mode can be set as default so that I do not need to always toggle everytime I switch to selfie mode. Tip: to switch front and back camera, just do a quick-twist gesture with the phone, like Moto smartphones.

Google Pixel 3 XL Group Selfie

Photobooth Mode

This mode will auto-detect photo-worthy moments and trigger the shutter automatically. The cue for the camera is the smile on your face, so it does not work if you are trying to do poses without smiles.

Playground

This mode is basically showcasing AR capabilities, where you can apply “Playmoji” or animated stickers on real environments. The stickers is AR-aware so as you move the camera, the stickers will stay at the exact position. You can also throw in Marvel and Star Wars characters and take a selfie with them without actually meeting them in person. I can also attach text labels on each person, just like what you do on Instagram Stories. It’s impressive how a single lens can achieve such effects. It’s not new, as Sony Xperia has this feature for years.

Google Pixel 3 XL Playground mode

Motion Auto Focus

This feature is not unfamiliar to DSLR users, where you can select an object to lock-focus, and the camera will continue to track this object as it moves around the frame. This makes photoshoot easier as you do not need to re-focus when the object moves.

Lens Suggestions

Even without you doing anything, the camera may suggest some actions when you point your camera on some objects with text, like name card. The suggestion will appear near the shutter and you can choose to tap on it to be redirected. If there are too many items on the screen, just tap the item that you want, and the link will be presented. No longer do you need to manually type out the context.

Edit Photo Depth Effect

Pixel 3 now can allow user to edit the depth effect and select focusing points, among other things like light and colour adjustments. It’s not as straightforward as other smartphones like Huawei, but at least you can do post-processing if you find the out-of-the-cam result too excessive.

Google Pixel 3 XL Photo Edit mode

 

Digital Wellbeing

The new Android 9 comes with a “beta” feature to present a Dashboard and track your app usage. If you choose to, you can also set timers to restrict the time for each app. You can also set a “Wind Down” period where the phone will change the screen to Grayscale and activate “Do Not Disturb”.

Google Pixel 3 XL Digital Wellbeing app

While this feature has good intentions, I find myself getting irritated more than inspired. I tried using the App Timer but when I got blocked, I just went to the Digital Wellbeing Dashboard to disable the timer. Similarly for the Grayscale mode. The intention is certainly good, but I would very much prefer to receive timer reminders rather than complete blockages. Similarly, while the Dashboard offers good insights to my usages, it does not generate any guilt from my part.

Google Pixel 3 XL Wind Down

Google Intelligence

The machine learning aspects has become more prevalent in the Pixel 3, so much so that if you do not fully use the Google Assistant, you are missing out a big chunk of the features. Here’s a few interesting A.I. capabilities.

Active Edge

To activate Google Assistant, you can either say “OK Google”, or you can squeeze the sides of the phone. Of course, you can also long-press the home button. Tip: do you know you can ask Google “What’s on my screen?” and it will analyse all the data on the screen to display search results.

Google Pixel 3 XL What's On My Screen

Google Lens

Google Lens is activated simply by long-press the screen when camera is on. Then the camera will analyse the scene to provide some suggestions. If you point at an object, it will identify and then inform you what it knows, be it a fashion item, or an animal, or translation, or picking up the text as website address. This is really helpful, especially on the text recognition, so that there is no need for me to manually copy the text to the search bar or to dial the phone number manually.

Driving Mode

Android Auto is pre-installed in Pixel 3, and when you enable Driving Mode under Settings -> Connected Devices -> Connection Preferences, it will be smart enough to detect you are in a car and auto-start Android Auto. It works on my Volkswagen Jetta.

Google Pixel 3 XL Driving Mode

Now Playing

This feature is already available in Pixel 2, but I just want to highlight this interesting feature again. Pixel 3 is able to listen to the songs currently played over the air and show the song title and artist. Google claims this feature work offline.

Google Pixel 3 XL Now Playing

Pixel Stand

The new wireless charger from Google is a standard Qi 10W with well-thought design. Its orange rubber base keeps the stand rooted on the surface to prevent it from slipping. A rounded plate is carefully dimensioned so that the fingerprint sensor remains exposed for ease of unlock (too bad Pixel 3 does not support facial unlock). A charger and detachable USB-C cable is included in the package, which makes this product a little more worthwhile, at S$119.

Google Pixel Stand

But instead of buying a generic wireless charger, the Pixel Stand has the ability to activate special interactive features on the Pixel 3.

Photo Frame – you can trigger photos from selected Google Photo albums to display when docked.

Sunrise Alarm – the screen will slowly brighten up in warm colours before the morning alarm goes off. It’s kind of a gimmick except if you are very sensitive to room lighting. Even my Philips Hue morning scene timer couldn’t get me up.

Integrated Google Assistant – the shortcut button will appear on the standby screen and you can then interact with it. When listening to songs, the standby screen also displays the album cover. When someone rings the Nest Hello video doorbell, the screen will show the live feed. During night time, the display will turn to dark mode. Basically, having the Pixel 3 with Pixel Stand transforms it into a Google Home with display.

Google Pixel Stand

To modify the Pixel Stand features, go to Settings -> Connected Devices.

Google Pixel Stand app

Pixel USB-C Earbuds

The inclusion of the earphones means users can now enjoy the same wireless Pixel Buds experience, including real-time translation through Google Translate: just press the button on the earbuds and speak, then Google Translate will play the translated passage over the Pixel 3 speaker. When the other party responds through the Pixel 3 mic, the translated message will be read over the earbuds. Being an open-canal earbuds, the audio quality is not as detailed, where the extreme lows and highs are lacking in details. Placement is important to ensure the ears get fed with the drivers directly, or else you may lose the impact. Also, without any silicone eartips in place, there is this fear that the earbuds may drop out.

Google Pixel USB-C Earbuds

Not So Good

After sharing dozens of features on the Pixel 3, here are some of the less-impressive findings.

Battery

The Pixel 3 XL battery performance is about 17 hours, which is average for my kind of usage. If I happen to use more, the battery will drop dangerously to single digit, especially when I have evening activities. For normal work-day routine, it is almost sufficient till I go to bed.

Fortunately, the original 18W fast charger will add 7 hours of usage life in 15 minutes of charging. So if you do buy the Pixel Stand for home, you can bring the other charger to the work place to get charged up.

Dual Speaker

The dual front-facing speaker is loud, but lacks musical quality. The treble is prominent but the bass is lacking. I also detect some rattles, but was unable to determine if it was audio distortion or just some loose parts. Interestingly, the rear part of the phone vibrates when music is played, but it does not resonate like LG G7+, so when I place the phone on the surface, there is no extra bass effect.

Single Nano SIM Slot, No MicroSD Slot

According to the specs, the Pixel 3 supports ESIM, but since it’s not available in Singapore yet, the phone can only support a single nano SIM for the time being. Without the ability to expand the storage with microSD slot, no wonder the Pixel 3 XL 128GB pre-order is sold out. Having said that, Pixel 3 enjoys unlimited upload to Google Photos at original resolution till 31 Jan 2022.

Google Pixel 3 XL review by musicphotolife.com, smartphone gadget blog in Singapore

Bugs

The phone did exhibit slightly above average bugs during the review period, but at the tail end of the review, I have encountered none. Your experience may vary, but with a promise of firmware updates over 3 years, the phone will remain relevant for a long time, especially when it is Made By Google themselves.

Verdict

How does the Pixel 3 XL differ from other premium smartphones? To me, it’s how the Pixel 3 XL interacts with the user, offering recommendations and assistance through learning of usage patterns, complete with a more immersive Google Assistant. On the whole, the Pixel 3 XL delivers a more complete Android experience, more than just merely “stock Android”. Clearly, the built-in smart camera, behavioural learning, intelligent listening, and companion accessories provide compelling reasons to embrace the Pixel ecosystem. I enjoy using the phone and the camera where the image quality at low light is fantastic and natural, albeit conservative exposure. There was no bloatware to worry about, since Google provides for everything. The Pixel 3 XL certainly demonstrates a level of intelligence and usage learning that feels more useful than other phones. The UI does not sprint around like OnePlus 6, but it does not feel sluggish or laggy.

Google Pixel 3 XL Case

If you find all the AI engagement intrusive, then the phone is not for you. Most of the “wow” features rely on the AI, and while the camera delivers one of the more natural images, I do not find them exceptionally stunning, other than feeling impressed at how a single camera could accomplish things that other phone brands requires two or more cameras. On top of that, the Pixel 3 starts from S$1249, not exactly a mass-consumer price point. Nonetheless, it is an iconic phone with great software features. And just like iPhone owners, only those who believe in the Pixel way of things will want the experience enough to pay for it.

Google Pixel 3 XL Specs

  • Operating System: Android 9 Pie
  • Display: 6.3-inch QHD+ OLED
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz + 1.6GHz)
  • Memory: 4GB RAM
  • Storage: 64GB/128GB
  • Rear Camera: 12.2 MP dual-pixel 1.4um f/1.8
  • Front Cameras: 8MP Wide angle f/2.2 + 8MP Telephoto f/1.8
  • Speakers: Dual front-firing stereo
  • Dimension: 158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 184g
  • Battery: 3430 mAh with 18W/2A fast charging,

Official product website

Summary
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Google Pixel 3 XL
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