This device picks up where last year’s version left off, with smooth performance, excellent camera and fantastic screen
Google’s iPhone XS Max competitor brings a big screen, a big notch and a big glass body, but is the Pixel 3 XL good enough to beat the phablet kings?
The smaller of Google’s new Pixel smartphones is arguably the best small Android phone going, and the Pixel 3 XL shares many of its best traits.
The backs of the devices are a spitting image of each other – two-tone glass, part polished, part etched. The glossy coated metal sides and glass back have a luxurious, smooth feel in the hand.
The etched surface hides the mess of fingerprints usually associated with glass-backed phones, but is slightly more slippery than the polished section. After a couple of weeks it became a little less slippery, but at 76.7mm wide the Pixel 3 XL is not a small phone.
The 6.3in screen is beautiful. Crisp, colourful and improved over last year. It’s not quite as eye-popping as Samsung or Apple’s best, but it is very close, and the difference is now down to a matter of taste.
There is, however, a massive notch containing the dual selfie camera and speaker. Aesthetic debates aside, it’s important to note that because the notch is so tall it takes up a big chunk of the screen at the top, with the area either side exclusively being used for the status bar.
As such, despite being 0.3in bigger on the diagonal than the Pixel 2 XL, the Pixel 3 XL has essentially only gained a status-bar’s height on the screen compared with last year’s phone. The usable screen area therefore works out about 0.3mm taller than the Pixel 2 XL, as Android ignores the space either side of the notch in most full-screen apps such as Netflix, Amazon or most other video apps. YouTube and Google Photos are the most obvious exceptions.
There isn’t enough room either side of the notch for most of the status bar icons either. If you have the battery percentage visible, the phone connected to wifi and set to vibrate, if you connect a set of Bluetooth headphones you end up with a dot in the right side of the status bar indicating there are more icons needed than can fit.
The same goes for notification icons on the left, which have to fit in the small area between the time and the notch. Google is not alone in having this problem, but it is very pronounced on the Pixel 3 XL.
- Screen: 6.3in QHD+ OLED (523ppi)
- 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: 158 x 76.7 x 7.9 mm
- Weight: 184g
A day’s battery
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 simply buttery-smooth in operation, with top-notch gaming performance too.
I noticed some aggressive background app handling. If you shoot 14 photos in rapid concession while listening to Spotify, the Pixel 3 XL will terminate Spotify in the background, stopping the music. I only encountered this behaviour when actively looking for it, however.
Battery life was similar to the smaller Pixel 3, managing just over 24 hours between charges. Used as my primary device, sending and receiving hundreds of emails, messages and push notifications, listening to five hours of music with Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, watching 30 minutes of Netflix, and shooting about 10 photos a day, the Pixel 3 XL made it from my 7am alarm to about 7.30am the next morning.
Lighter usage saw another couple of hours of battery life. Charging is fast via the included USB-C cable, and via the Pixel Stand wireless charger, but limited to only 5W via current third-party wireless chargers.
Android 9 Pie
The Pixel 3 XL runs the latest version of Android 9 Pie with Google’s new mandatory gesture controls replacing the traditional back, home and overview navigation buttons, and Gmail’s new Smart Compose on mobile, which makes writing dull emails less laborious.
Google hasn’t made any alterations specifically for the larger 6.3in screen on the Pixel 3 XL, but Gboard supports one-handed typing mode and the gesture button is easy to reach with your thumb.
There are digital wellbeing tools, including time trackers and Google’s Wind Down, which activates do not disturb and sets the screen to monochrome to dissuade you from using it.
Overall this is the smoothest, most refined version of Android available on any smartphone, rivalling Apple’s iOS on the iPhone XS for slickness.
The Pixel 3 XL has the exact same camera as fitted to its smaller sibling, and as such as genuinely brilliant, capturing richly detailed and vibrant images in practically any lighting condition with little to no photographic skill required.
New for the Pixel 3 is Google’s Super Res Zoom, which is an enhanced digital zoom that works very well, but can’t quite beat rivals with telescopic cameras at maximum magnification. The on-device AI-powered Top Shot advisor captures multiple frames before and after you hit the shutter button and flags when it thinks it’s got a better image than you managed manually.
The portrait mode is also great, despite the lack of another camera on the back. On the front there’s a dual selfie camera system, one standard and one ultra wide-angle camera, which means you can squeeze more people into a shot.
For more detail on the camera performance, please see the Pixel 3 review.
The Pixel Stand is an optional £69 wireless-charging stand that has two unique features for the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. The first is the ability to wirelessly charge the new Google smartphones at 10W. Third-party Qi wireless chargers can currently only charge the Pixel 3 and 3 XL at 5W, although certified Made for Google wireless chargers will be available at the later date that can charge the phones at the full 10W.
The second is it turns the smartphone into a portrait Google Assistant smart display, a little like the Google Home Hub. When you put the phone on the stand with the screen off it launches Google Assistant mode, which either lights an ambient display with time, date and notifications like normal, with an added Google Assistant box at the bottom, or displays a selection of your Google Photos.
It also activates the smart-speaker-like always-listening mode that waits for the wake words “Hey Google”, firing up Google Assistant barking out answers using the speakers and displaying results on the screen.
It can also act as a sunrise alarm, lighting up the screen 15 minutes before your morning alarm goes off in warm red to yellow tones, and lights up with a live feed from the front door if someone rings the Nest Hello doorbell you might have.
It works well enough, but is expensive for a wireless charger and I suspect few will deem it an essential purchase.
- You get a set of USB-C earphones and a USB-C to 3.5mm converter in the box
- The speakers are really quite loud and clear with pretty good stereo separation (although the bottom speaker is louder than the top one)
- You can turn the screen face down to switch on do not disturb
- Haptics are good and punchy
- The phone also has an eSim, 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
The Pixel 3 XL is a great smartphone, but unlike last year’s XL offering, it isn’t necessarily the best Google phone – the smaller, cheaper Pixel 3 is in many ways a better phone.
The Pixel 3 XL is a slick, attractive and lovely-feeling device, but it’s also pretty big and relatively slippery, making it more difficult to handle than last year’s Pixel 2 XL. Its lighter weight is an advantage against rivals in reducing the potential hand pain caused by its size though.
It’s got a cracking camera, and a beautiful screen, but the notch might put some off. I didn’t generally notice its presence except when it blocked status bar icons, which I found annoying.
While £869 is definitely not cheap, it does undercut the top-end, big-screen rivals such as the Note 9 and iPhone XS Max by a little or a lot. So if you want a big screen and a super-refined Android experience, the Pixel 3 XL is the one to buy.
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: massive notch, no expandable storage or removable battery, no headphone jack, no face recognition, quite big and slippery
- Google Pixel 3 review: raising the bar for the Android experience
- Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: the do-everything phone
- iPhone XS Max review: Apple’s supersized smartphone
- Apple iPhone XS review: two steps forward, one step back
- 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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