New phone reaches Apple-level of polish, with top-notch performance, fantastic camera and attractive design
The Pixel 3 is Google’s third stab at making its own top-end phone, attempting to outshine the likes of Apple and Samsung with a terrific camera and a highly polished experience.
The Pixel 3 is the smaller of the two new Google phones, with a 5.5in FHD+ OLED screen that is bright, crisp and vibrant. It is a beautiful display that is a significant step up from last year’s Pixel 2, with wide viewing angles with minimal colour shift.
The Pixel 3 mirrors the design of last year’s Pixel 2 XL with a relatively large chin and forehead containing stereo speakers and various cameras. It’s fairly small by modern standards, making it easy to handle and pocket, similar to the Pixel 2, Apple’s iPhone XS and the Samsung Galaxy S9. It’s also light at 148g compared to the 177g iPhone XS and 168g Galaxy S9, both of which have slightly larger 5.8in screens.
Gone is last year’s coated aluminium back, replaced with two-tone glass. The frosted bit is etched glass, which is super smooth, but is surrounded by polished glass and coated metal sides that aid your grip. The combination feels wonderfully smooth and luxurious in the hand. This is a phone you will want to fondle.
In the centre of the back below the glossy panel is a fingerprint scanner as good last year’s. There are no other biometric security options, such as face unlock, despite the Pixel 3 having two front-facing cameras.
The bottom of the phone has a USB-C port and a sim tray, while the right side volume button is joined by a mint green power button. There’s no headphone socket to be seen, but the camera only sticks out the back less than 1mm.
- Screen: 5.5in FHD+ OLED (443ppi)
- Processor: octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
- RAM: 4GB of RAM
- Storage: 64 or 128GB
- Operating system: Android 9.0 Pie
- Camera: 12.2MP rear camera with OIS, dual 8MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, wifi, NFC, esim, Bluetooth 5 and GPS
- Dimensions: 145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9 mm
- Weight: 148g
Smooth as silk
The Pixel 3 has Qualcomm’s current top-of-the-line processor, the Snapdragon 845, as used in the OnePlus 6 and most other current flagship smartphones, with the exception of the UK versions of Samsung’s S9 and Note 9 and Huawei’s phones, both of which use their own-brand chips.
The Pixel 3 only has 4GB of RAM, compared with 6GB or even 8GB in some top-end Android competitors. While it might lose in a game of Top Trumps, it’s not noticeable in daily use because the Pixel 3 is so buttery smooth in operation, with top-notch gaming performance too.
The whole system, from switching apps to pulling up the camera, has a level of polish only matched by Apple’s iOS on the iPhone XS. It’s not quite as brutally rapid as the OnePlus 6 in operation, simply because the animations play out for longer, but it’s easily faster and slicker than any other Android device.
Battery life for the Pixel 3 is a moving target. Normally smartphones stabilise to a fairly consistent level after a couple of days of first starting them up.
The Pixel 3, however, has been gaining around 10% of battery life each day over the last week, starting with poor 15-hour battery life that wouldn’t get through to bedtime. A couple of days later it scrapes through 24 hours, meaning it would make it from one morning alarm to the next without charging after a week of testing – the bare minimum that is acceptable in 2018.
That was with consistent use as my primary device sending and receiving hundreds of emails, messages and push notifications, listening to five hours of music with Spotify on Bluetooth headphones, watching 30 minutes of Netflix and shooting about 10 photos a day.
Part of that is undoubtedly down to the Adaptive Battery technology in Android 9 Pie that learns your usage pattern and limits power to apps you don’t really use. It’s possible that over the next couple of weeks battery life may continue to improve, although it is unlikely to be by vast amounts.
A full charge via the included 18w fast charger took 101 minutes. The Pixel 3 can also charge wirelessly at up to 10w, which is a little slower than via cable but still faster than some phones charge from their bundled chargers.
Android 9 Pie
The Pixel 3 runs the latest version of Android 9 Pie, which makes it one of only handful of phones to do so.
The main advantages of Pie over previous versions are better notification handling, particularly around do not disturb (DND) modes, wellbeing tool integration for tracking usage and modes to deter usage, such as Wind Down, and great integration of AI systems.
Exclusive to the Pixel 3 is Google’s smart compose for Gmail, which takes the advanced autocomplete you might have used in Gmail in the browser on desktop to the Gmail app on the phone. It’s scarily good at writing emails.
Google has also removed the traditional home and overview navigation buttons, replacing them by a pill-shaped gesture button in the middle and a small back arrow to the left.
The back button still does what you’d expect, but the gesture button does a number of things. Tap it to go home, tap and hold to invoke Google Assistant, flick it upwards once to get to the app switcher or twice to get to the app drawer (you can also go straight to the app drawer by dragging it further up the screen).
Dragging the gesture button to the right turns it into a slider flicking between recently used apps as you move your finger across the bar. Flicking the button to the right switches straight to the last used app in the same way a double-tap on the overview button used to.
It works fine, but there is a bit of getting used to and I don’t think it’s actually faster than the previous navigation buttons. It also isn’t as smooth and intuitive as Apple’s gesture bar system introduced with the iPhone X, or some other gesture systems used by the likes of OnePlus or Huawei.
It is safe to say the Pixel 3 has one of the best, if not the best cameras available today.
The rear 12-megapixel camera is capable of capturing stunning images, rich in detail, vibrancy and dynamic range. It is better than any other at bringing out detail and colour from high-contrast scenes where there are a mix of bright lights and dark corners thanks to Google’s HDR+ algorithms.
Low light performance is also fantastic, and that’s before the promised Night Sight mode that will come in a software update soon, which Google says will be able to produce dramatically better night-time shots.
What sets the Pixel 3 apart from the competition is that it can do all this with practically no user skill whatsoever – this is the point-and-shoot that will make you look like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t.
Google’s Top Shot works as advertised, using on-device AI to discern if one of the many frames it captures before and after you hit the shutter button is better than your attempt, for when someone blinks or cuts across your field of view.
Likewise, Super Res Zoom is far better than standard digital zoom, but can’t quite match the clarity of Apple’s hybrid zoom using the iPhone XS’s 2x telephoto lens at extended zooms.
Two selfie cameras adorn the front: a standard 8-megapixel camera joined but a wide-angle fixed focus camera allowing you to zoom out one step. At normal zoom levels the camera captures a stunning amount of detail even in crummy lighting conditions – if you have flaws in your skin this camera will capture them in all their glory.
The wide-angle selfie helps you fit more people in, but the images it captured aren’t quite as good.
Portrait mode for both front and rear cameras has been improved, particularly around hair, and now with the ability adjust blur both in the background and foreground after the fact. The motion autofocus is also magic, making macro shots a lot easier – tap on an object and the focus follows it around.
- In the box you get a set of USB-C earphones, which behave much like Google’s PixelBuds, and a USB-C to 3.5mm converter for your own headphones
- The speakers are really quite loud and clear with no noticeable distortion even at maximum volume and pretty good stereo separation
- You can turn the screen face down to switch on do not disturb
- Haptic feedback is the best yet on an Android phone, with short, sharp and punchy vibrations, although still not quite on-par with Apple’s brilliant Taptic Engine in its devices
- The phone has an e-sim, which will be activated through a software update later this year with EE confirmed to support it
- You can squeeze the sides to trigger Google Assistant
- Google sells a wireless charging stand called the Pixel Stand that turns the phone into a Google Assistant smart display
The Pixel 3 can be summed up in one word: refinement.
Every element of Android 9 Pie is slick and responsive. It’s simple to use but powerful in its execution. From the simply brilliant camera to the auto-complete in Gmail, on-device AI proves truly useful. Plus you get at least three years of software updates, which is still a rarity outside of Apple’s iPhone.
The outside of the phone feels luxurious, but in a different way to the iPhone XS. The way the etched glass blends into the polished glass and body looks and feels beautiful.
Inside and out the Pixel 3 is more polished than any other Android smartphone, fully justifying Google’s entry into the big leagues.
It’s not perfect, of course; the battery life could certainly do with being longer, and a glass back will be less durable than metal. There’s also no face unlocking and the relatively large chin and forehead will look dated in a year or so.
But there’s absolutely no doubt that if you don’t want a £999 iPhone XS, the Pixel 3 is the best small smartphone going.
Pros: super smooth and fluid performance, great screen, squeezable sides, Android 9 Pie and 3 years of updates, water resistant, fantastic camera, wireless charging
Cons: relatively large chin and forehead, no expandable storage or removable battery, no headphone jack, battery life could be better, no face recognition
- Apple iPhone XS review: two steps forward, one step back
- Samsung Galaxy S9+ review: the best big-screen smartphone by miles
- Huawei P20 Pro review – the three-camera iPhone killer
- OnePlus 6 review: top-end smartphone for half cost of iPhone X
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