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Review

Google Pixel 3 XL Review: Still the pinnacle of Android?

The Pixel range has traditionally presented superior camera capabilities, but can the Pixel 3 XL take things a step further?

Google Pixel 3 XL (6)

Google Pixel 3 XL 4 5
BGR Rating :
4/5

Highlights

  • The Google Pixel 3 XL is priced from Rs 83,000 in India; not an affordable price tag by any means.

  • The Google Pixel launches with the latest version of Android, version 9 Pie, along with flagship hardware.

  • Backed by Google's impressive image algorithms, the camera on the Pixel 3 XL is now among the best on a smartphone.

The world of smartphone users has pretty much divided itself into two types: iOS and Android. And while the iOS segment is typically represents premium buyers largely based in the United States and Europe, Android has a stronger hold on the rest of the world; this is particularly true in China and India, which are the world’s largest smartphone markets by user size. However, Android has typically been associated with affordability, given its open-source nature and wide range of associated manufacturers.

That’s where the Pixel range from Google hopes to change things. Premium and high-end devices on Android have always existed, but in 2016, Google decided to take the fight straight to iOS. The Google-branded devices are exactly what Android was meant to represent, according to Google’s original vision for its operating system, and also provides the Android equivalent of the premium smartphones that Apple builds. The latest in this range are the Google Pixel 3 and Google Pixel 3 XL, which were launched earlier this month.

Today, we’re reviewing the larger and more expensive of the two, the Rs 83,000 (onwards) Google Pixel 3 XL. Featuring Google’s first attempt at a notched display, glass build and full-fledged stock Android 9 Pie, the Pixel 3 XL is a promising device. But in a world where devices with similar hardware retail at under Rs 25,000, is the ‘Made by Google’ tag worth its weight anymore? And is the fabled Google Pixel camera everything it’s made out to be? We find out in our review.

WATCH: Google Pixel 3 XL Hands-On

Google Pixel 3 XL Design and Display

I’m going to start off talking about the Pixel 3 XL’s design telling you that I don’t love it. From the moment I saw the first pictures to the point where I actually unboxed our review unit, I was entirely unimpressed by the way the phone looks. At a time when every other premium smartphone maker is focusing on design and styling, the Google Pixel 3 XL looks, well, doofy.

Let’s start at the back. While the dual-textured back has appealed in the past, it’s starting to look a bit silly now. That said, the move to glass has improved the styling to a small extent. However, it isn’t a unibody construction, so despite the metal frame, the phone looks oddly ‘cheap’ from some angles. That said, it’s something you’ll get used to quickly enough. And while the ‘Just Black’ and ‘Not Pink’ color options have their own appeal, I quite liked the ‘Clearly White’ option for looking different from anything else today.

Like the Pixel 2 range, the Google Pixel 3 XL doesn’t have a 3.5mm jack for legacy headphones and speakers. The single SIM tray is at the bottom alongside the USB Type-C port, while the right has the power and volume buttons. The white option has an oddly-colored green power button, which either looks artsy or tacky depending on your sensibilities. At the back, you have the fingerprint sensor, Google logo and single camera setup with flash.

The rest of the frame follows the typical minimalism and simplicity that the Pixel range has typically been known for. And while it’s probably time to re-imagine the aesthetic of the Pixel series, the Pixel 3 XL unfortunately sticks to a now two-year-old style.

Moving to the front is where things get even more doofy. While other Android smartphone makers are looking to make the notch smaller and eliminate the chin altogether, the Pixel 3 XL sports chunky iterations of both. Given that the notch is a compromise by its very nature, you’d think that Google would want to make it smaller and less noticeable. However, it’s deep, strangely-shaped and makes the phone look weird. Below the screen is an equally wide chin.

Both of these aspects are the way they are because of the hardware on them; the notch sports the Pixel’s front dual-camera setup, sensors and earpiece / top speaker, while the chin sports a large speaker grille. Therefore, these odd design cues aren’t for nothing, if these are features that you actually intend to use. And given the quality of both these features, you’re likely to find them very useful, whether it’s for better selfies or improved audio from the phone’s stereo speaker setup.

The Google Pixel 3 XL sports a Samsung-made 6.3-inch AMOLED display, with an aspect ratio of 18.5:9 and a resolution of 1440×2960-pixels, with Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on top for added protection. Given the complaints for the LG-made P-OLED screens on the Pixel 2 XL, Google has taken a good call going with this option for the Pixel 3 XL.

From resolution to colors, there’s very little to complain of, beyond the typical tendency of Samsung-made AMOLED screens to slightly over-saturate colors. That considered, it helps the phone achieve the strong, bright colors that appeal to many users. The size helps as well, making the Pixel a great big slab of capable screen that helps with gaming, watching videos and more. The use of AMOLED tech also lets Google continue using its excellent always-on display technology.

Google Pixel 3 XL Specifications and Battery

As is usually the case with Google Pixel devices, the Pixel 3 XL is powered by a flagship chipset. Under the hood, you get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, currently considered the world’s most advanced mobile chipset for Android devices. However, the Pixel’s annual October launch timing means that it’s only a few months before Qualcomm announces a successor and smartphone makers implement it in their newer devices. For now though, the Pixel 3 XL sports the best chipset available, if only for a few months.

The rest of the specifications are anything but confidence inspiring. The device comes with a standard 4GB of RAM, with either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage and no scope for storage expansion. Typical Pixel users may not be heavily affected by the lack of storage expansion given Google’s excellent cloud services, but even 128GB of storage may fall short if you like to have a lot of apps and the associated data with those apps. What’s missing here is more RAM, more storage and perhaps starting the storage options from 128GB this time around.

After using the Pixel 3 XL for a while, I’ll admit that 4GB of RAM may be enough to keep things running at flagship levels for most tasks. While other smartphones may struggle to push performance with this much RAM, the stock Android UI and pure Android framework devoid of manufacturer additions means that if any flagship smartphone can make 4GB of RAM work, it’s the Pixel 3 XL.

However, as I’ve said before, I have long-term concerns about the usability of 4GB of RAM. You’re unlikely to face any trouble for at least a year, but beyond that, 4GB of RAM could fall short. And when devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and OnePlus 6 offer up to 8GB of RAM, Google’s insistence on making do with what’s needed rather than offering a safety net to buyers comes across as unnecessary. A bump up to 6GB of RAM would have been nice. This is particularly relevant given that I did have certain issues with performance, but more on that later.

The phone sports a 3,430mAh battery, and comes with a bundled 18W fast charger. You can get a full charge in about 80 minutes with the bundled charger, while using most other options will charge the phone rather slowly. Depending on your use, you can get a day’s worth of run from the Pixel 3 XL. But keep in mind, the more you use the large, high-resolution screen, the more you’re eating away at that possibility of a full day. I averaged a screen-on time of about 3.5 to 4 hours with the phone; average at best given that most Snapdragon 845 devices get to 5.5 or 6 hours on good days.

Another small thing worth mentioning here: the lack of the 3.5mm jack means that Google now bundles its Pixel Type-C headphones in the box. These are plastic, light, and feel somewhat cheap. The fit isn’t quite as secure and noise-isolating either, which really put me off them. While they sound alright, I wasn’t entirely impressed and often found that I got a better audio experience from a wireless headset, or using the Type-C to 3.5mm adapter to plug in better wired headphones.

Google Pixel 3 XL Software and Performance

Google Pixel devices are the always the first to receive the latest versions of Android, and the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL duly launch with Android 9 Pie out of the box. Released in August, a handful of smartphone makers (including Google for its older Pixel devices) have already started rolling out updates, but the Pixels usually aren’t beaten to the distinction of being the first phones to launch with the new OS version.  And with Android 9 Pie come various improvements.

Some of these biggest improvements come in the form of security; the Google Pixel 3 XL, thanks to its Titan M security chip, is among the most secure smartphones made, with many of these security features built into Android Pie. Apart from this, a new gesture navigation system, adaptive battery and brightness, AI-based app actions, easier screen rotation and digital well-being are part of the range of impressive new features.

Worth specifically mentioning here is the integration of machine learning into the software, both in the adaptive functions as well as in the app actions. With continuous usage, the Google Pixel 3 XL learns your usage patterns to offer you suggestions in the app drawer, and also works towards limiting battery and tweaking brightness based on the apps you use more or less often. In practice, this works well enough; suggestions such as quick access to the BGR India Slack channel or WhatsApp chat with my wife tended to pop up exactly when I needed them to.

Another great feature is the Digital Wellbeing tool, which comes in the form of an option in the settings menu as well as a standalone app. This tool is built into the framework of Android 9 Pie, and will be available to all smartphone makers to integrate into their software roll-outs. It gives you interesting insights into how you’re using your phone, the amount of time the screen is on, how often you unlock the phone, and more. You can also tweak it to set limits on usage, but this wasn’t something I wanted to do.

On the whole, stock Android software is performance oriented, and largely does its job well. For most things, you’ll find the performance of the Google Pixel 3 XL to be top-tier. From running multiple tabs on Google Chrome to high-performance games, to most social media apps, to even the occasional video and image editing on the phone, the Pixel 3 XL worked well. Even high-performance games such as PUBG Mobile worked fairly well, but I could perceive a difference in the phone’s handling of the game on the OnePlus 6, which was just a bit better.

And that’s essentially down to the RAM. I noticed that all of these tasks worked best when I kept clearing active apps, keeping only one or two apps running in the background. Pushing it with too many apps running in the background would often lead to slight app management issues, where the Google Pixel 3 XL would have to relegate certain functions to the background.

Switching back to the apps would show a noticeable reload delay, although I personally didn’t experience any app management issues where the phone would shut off a background function that was actively in use. Essentially, it’s here that Google should have gone a step further. 4GB of RAM on a flagship smartphone today – particularly one that costs Rs 83,000 or more – has to be called out for what it is. You can learn and adapt your usage to make the phone work well even with 4GB of RAM, but why should you?

And beyond that, there are other issues to the software as well, some of which may get ironed out with updates; Google Pixel devices tend to suffer a bit from early software before things are eventually sorted out. However, other issues are fundamental flaws of stock Android, and you’d perhaps be better served by manufacturer software that adds touches that could work for you.

That is my biggest complaint with the very idea of stock Android today: it’s too bare-bones. The focus on simplicity, minimalism and generally not overloading the phone with things it doesn’t need can get bothersome beyond a point. There are many software-based applications missing from the Google Pixel 3 XL that you would expect as basics on smartphones that cost a fraction of the price.

There is no face unlock, do-not-disturb mode can’t specifically adapt for functions such as gaming, and gesture controls on the Pixel 3 XL are limited to one way to navigate only. While too much customizability could be a bad thing, perhaps too little ability to set the phone up the way you like it is also an equally bad thing.

And what’s definitely worth pointing out here is that the Google Pixel 3 XL has definite mobile network issues. The antenna simply isn’t as capable as other devices, dropping to 3G where other phones are holding onto LTE with ease. Some of these issues have existed since the Google Pixel 2 series, and still haven’t been fixed. Perhaps Google’s software isn’t all it’s made out to be, and manufacturer UIs may be an advantage in many cases.

Google Pixel 3 XL Camera

Now we come to what has to stand as the Google Pixel 3 XL’s signature feature – its photography. As has been the case from 2016 when the Pixel was first launched, the Pixel 3 XL sports what is, in my opinion, the smartphone camera in the world. And while other smartphone makers are adding dual and triple-camera setups to add abilities, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL do everything with just one 12-megapixel sensor (at the rear, that is). That sensor does everything from taking regular pictures in all kinds of lighting conditions, portrait shots, as well as zoomed-in pictures using Google’s new Super Res Zoom, which essentially pulls off optical zoom-quality shots with regular digital zoom.

However, despite spending a long time insisting that dual-camera setups were gimmicks, the Pixel 3 XL gets one at the front, of all places. The awkward notch features this dual-camera setup, which Google has implemented in the form of two 8-megapixel sensors. One is a standard wide-angle shooter with phase detection autofocus (a relative rarity among smartphones that typically use fixed-focus front cameras), while the second is an ultra-wide angle shooter. The phone also uses its dual-camera setup to give you portrait shots with the front camera.

In regular daylight, as well as in dusk lighting, the images are fantastic to say the least. From getting the details right to capturing the colors accurately, the Google Pixel 3 XL does a superior job to any other smartphone I’ve used. With the exception of the slight exaggeration as a result of using HDR (which can be turned off), pictures are largely accurate to the reality your eyes can see. Accuracy is the keyword here, without losing out on the natural ‘drama’ that exists in every frame.

Switch to close-ups, and you continue to see the detail in everything. Even without using portrait mode, the camera does a great job of focusing on the subject and offering a natural DSLR-like blur to the background. It does all of this even when there are a multitude of colors and textures in the frame, showing just how well the fabled algorithms of the Google camera are working. Having access to millions of pictures as reference makes the Google Pixel 3 XL’s cameras among the most capable today.

Low light shots are usually where most smartphones let their users down, but not the Google Pixel 3 XL. I was able to capture detail, with minimal noise and grain even at night. Although you will notice bright lights oversaturating, the focus areas remain properly captured, and dimmer lights retain their natural color and texture. At the time of this review, we didn’t have the Night Sight mode activated, but with that now in place, you can further boost the quality of low-light photography and brighten up dark shots even more.

Also take a look at the ‘Super Res’ digital zoom in action. Zoomed in to about 5X, the image below retains its quality without any of the artefacts of compensation that most digital zoom cameras tend to have. It’s possible to see individual details and textures in the walls of the Taj hotel in Mumbai, and phones with proper optical zoom wouldn’t be able to capture this level of detail.

And finally, we take a look at portrait shots and selfies. Portraits taken with the rear camera are excellent, retaining detail and textures capably. The blur effect is great as well, and it can even be tweaked after you take the image. However, I found that the best results came in letting the camera do its own thing; tweaking the background blur didn’t really help the images.

Although you’ll see that there are issues with the background and foreground detection in the front portrait shot below, the quality of the selfie is, once again, superior to anything else on the market today. From the details in the individual hairs on my face to the hints of sweat on my forehead, there’s very little to fault in this image beyond the iffy background detection.

The image below that shows the ultra-wide angle sensor in action. Simply pull the bar on the phone’s screen all the way out, and the front camera gains the ability to magically add more people into your selfie. There’s very little warping (as is commonly seen at the edges of wide-angle shots), and shadows and colors remain accurate and true to the scene.

Simply put, there’s nothing to complain about here. The Google Pixel 3 XL has, without a doubt, the best camera on any smartphone I’ve used thus far. Its features are meaningful, useful and work as advertised, with the core functionality of taking good pictures with the rear camera being better than ever before.

Verdict

I really wanted to love the Google Pixel 3 XL. Having been an Android user for some years now, I’ve always rooted for the Google Pixel range. And while I may have had a shaky start to my affair with this phone, I grew to like it eventually. But I never grew to love it. Beyond the camera, there was little else to justify the huge price tag that couldn’t be achieved from less expensive phones.

The Google Pixel 3 XL is, undoubtedly, the best camera phone you can buy today. So if that’s your primary purpose, you’ll probably love the phone while forgiving its few flaws. However, I couldn’t bring myself to look past those. The software is good, but isn’t without its flaws, and perhaps the idea of simplicity and minimalism is too abstract an idea for today’s day and age. Performance is good, but you do need to adapt the way you use it to get the best out of it. The screen is good, but that weird notch and chin design take away from what is otherwise an excellent display. And 4GB of RAM with 64GB of storage belongs on a budget device, not a very expensive flagship smartphone.

Of course, all of these flaws are made even more unforgivable by that price tag. At Rs 83,000 onwards, the Google Pixel 3 XL is an expensive smartphone that doesn’t convincingly justify its value. You’d achieve similar levels of capability from smartphones half the price of the Pixel 3 XL, and if you choose right, you can even capable levels of the very software support that Google touts as one of its USPs. But if Google-brand minimalism and an unbeatable camera are for you, the Google Pixel 3 XL could be your next smartphone.

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  • Published Date: November 1, 2018 3:28 PM IST