Google Pixel 3 XL Review: Google nails it, even with the notch

Where the affordable Nexus phones were made with tech enthusiasts in mind, the advent of the Pixel and Pixel XL in 2016 saw Google develop a handset aimed at the average consumer combining the power of stock Android with premium design and a higher price tag. In 2017 the search giant took another step forward with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and despite the larger model somewhat tainted by display issues, the camera experience is still one of the best around.

This brings us to 2018’s Pixel 3 XL which features three cameras and a controversial notched display. The Pixel 3 XL doesn’t sport any old notch either, it has to be the most significant notch seen on a smartphone (so far), and it’s imminently noticeable. The Pixel 3 XL also gets a price bump to $900 which means it’s edging towards Galaxy Note 9 territory. We’ve spent a couple of weeks with Google’s new big-screened phone, so join us after the break for our review of the Pixel 3 XL.

Design

While Google didn’t tear up the playbook when it designed the Pixel 3 XL, there are differences to be experienced over its predecessor. It’s an all-glass design this time around with Google giving the rear panel a two-tone effect. The lower section below the rear camera is a frosted or matte finish that adds a bit of extra grip and resists fingerprint smudges. There is no Panda in sight this time around with the Pixel 3 XL only available in Not Pink, Just Black, and Clearly White. Google sent us the Clearly White color to take a closer look at, and I have to say, despite my bias against white handsets, I love the white finish on the Pixel 3 XL; it doesn’t show fingerprints, and it looks really fresh.

The power button is accentuated in mint and stands out nicely from where it sits above the volume rocker.

The SIM tray sits on the bottom edge to the left of the USB Type-C charging port, and as you should expect from Google by now, there is no audio jack to be seen.

There is a speaker located on the top and bottom of the display, with the top speaker sitting between the dual selfie cameras in the gargantuan notch. It’s challenging to unsee the notch, even after you’ve used the frankly lame option to hide the cutout that Google has hidden away in the Developer Options. You do, for the most part, stop seeing the notch the longer you use the Pixel 3 XL though. It just becomes normal, if such a word can be applied in this instance.

Hardware

Announced October 9, 2018
SoftwareAndroid 9 Pie
Display6.3-Inch OLED, Fullscreen QHD+ (2960 x 1440), 18:5:9 aspect ratio, 523ppi, Gorilla Glass 5, HDR, Always-on-display
NotchYes
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 845 Octa-core, Adreno 630 GPU, Pixel Visual Core, Titan M Security module
RAM4GB LPDDR4x RAM
Storage64/128GB
Expandable StorageNo
Rear Camera12.2MP Dual-Pixel, 1.4μm, Autofocus with dual-pixel phase detection, OIS, EIS, Spectral + flicker sensor, 76-degree field of focus
Front Camera8MP wide-angle lens, 97-degree field of view, F/2.2 aperture, Fixed Focus + 8MP F/1,8 aperture, 75-degree field of view, Autofocus with Phase Detection
SensorsActive Edge, Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor, Proximity/Ambient Light sensor, Accelerometer, Magnetometer, Barometer, Android Sensor Hub, advanced x-axis haptics
ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO (2.4GHz + 5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, Google Cast
AudioDual Front-firing stereo speakers, 3 Mics, Noise Suppression
Audio SocketNo
Battery3,430mAh
Charging18W Fast Charging, USB Type-C 18W adapter with USB PD 2.0,
Wireless Charging (Qi certified)
ProtectionIP68 Water and Dust Resistant
Dimensions76.7 x 158 x 7.9mm
Weight184g
ColorsJust Black, Clearly White, Not Pink
In the BoxHandset, Quick Switch Adapter, USB-C to USB-C power cable, USB-C 18W Power Adapter, Pixel USB-C Earbuds, USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter, SIM tool, Quick Start guide
Pricing$899/£869 (64GB), $999/£969 (128GB)

Performance

Unlike the LG-sourced OLED panel that blighted initial Pixel 2 XL shipments with muted colors and a blue tint, the Samsung-sourced OLED panel on the Pixel 3 XL is excellent. The colors are vibrant; you don’t need to resort to digging in Display Settings to toggle the Saturated option, although on rare occasions there is a hint of blue tint at extreme viewing angles. You’ll have to be obsessed with the blue tint to find it though, for 99% of users the OLED panel is pretty much perfect with the display getting plenty bright enough to see what you are doing when outdoors.

Powered by the Snapdragon 845 processor that we’ve seen provide the grunt for so many flagship smartphones in 2018, the Pixel 3 XL is as powerful as it should be although there are a couple of performance issues that Google is currently developing a fix for. Thanks to a bug in the software, the Pixel 3 XL has the nasty habit of killing background apps such as Spotify when the camera is used to take photos. Google says it is developing a fix for the issue, and we aren’t terribly concerned about the problem seeing how well optimized the rest of the software feels. Still, for $900 I would have liked Google to have bumped the memory up to 6GB in the view that we are already seeing affordable smartphones such as the Honor 8X launching with 4GB RAM.

The fingerprint reader on the rear panel feels a little slicker than it does on the Pixel 2 XL, and while it isn’t the absolute quickest sensor we’ve used it’s fast enough and accurate enough in general usage. It is a shame that Google didn’t launch with facial recognition out of the box to make better use of the dual front cameras.

We’ve run the Pixel 3 XL through the GeekBench, Antutu, and 3D Mark benchmarking apps with the results below.

Battery

With its 3,450mAh the Pixel 3 XL makes it through the average day with normal usage such as streaming music, browsing, taking a few pics, and checking social media and emails. Just. With heavy use, you’ll be reaching for a charger before the end of the business day after achieving a little over 4 hours of screen time. Google has done wonders with its optimization of the camera software, but it would seem that the search giant still has a lot to learn when it comes to making the most of the battery. The Pixel 3 XL lags behind in terms of battery capacity when you compare it to other 2018 flagships such as the Galaxy Note 9 (4,000mAh) and Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro (4,200mAh) although it does beat LG’s V40 ThinQ (3,300mAh). Google’s adaptive battery feature helps by prioritizing power for essential apps and services, but it’s not quite as efficient or aggressive as the Ultra Power-Saving feature seen on Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro.

Google has bumped up the charging options this time around with the 10W Qi wireless charging, and the wall charger has been upgraded to 18W fast charging output. Don’t forget that you can also turn your Pixel 3 or 3 XL into a kind of Google Home Mini with the $70 Pixel Stand wireless charger.

Software

With Google promising three years of software updates for the Pixel 3 XL that should bring the phone up to Android S, you can be assured that the phone will stay current with the necessary security updates. The Pixel 3 XL runs a clean version of Android Pie out of the box with a sprinkling of Google magic with features such as Call Screen that lets Google Assistant inform the caller that they are being screened and ask them to state why they have called, giving the recipient a real-time transcript of the conversation. It’s a neat feature that you’ll appreciate time and time again when dealing with cold callers.

Other features include Flip to Shhh that lets you flip the phone face down to stop the sound of incoming calls or notifications, Gmail’s Smart Compose helps to finish your sentences for you when composing emails and is surprisingly intuitive. The new rotation controls let you switch Auto-Rotate off and still have the option of switching to landscape mode via the icon that appears on the right of the home button that allows you to manually override the phone’s orientation.

Speaking of navigation, Google introduced brand new iPhone-esque gestures with the home button reduced to a slim dash and recent apps appearing when you swipe up with the app drawer appearing when you swipe up a second time. It takes some adjustment, especially when you’ve become used to the usual on-screen buttons, but it does become second nature with use, and you can still bring up Google Assistant by long-pressing the home button.

Active Edge is still present, and despite it working well when used, I found that it was virtually ignored for the majority of my time spent using the Pixel 3 XL, as it is with my Pixel 2 XL. It’s really a solution to a problem no one cared about.

The dual front speakers are really loud and really clear, although the bottom speaker is much stronger than the top one. If you inadvertently cover the bottom speaker the sound becomes muffled, undoubtedly so. Google has said that the speaker imbalance is ‘by design,’ so there isn’t a fix in the works for this issue/feature. By comparison, the speaker imbalance is much less noticeable on the smaller Pixel 3. Make of that what you will.

Camera

While other brands are busy putting dual and triple rear cameras on their flagships, Google decided to stick with a single 12.2MP sensor with the Pixel 3 XL, which made some of us question the search giant’s strategy. We shouldn’t have, because the Pixel 3 XL is capable of taking some of the best shots you’ll ever see taken on a smartphone. Google’s software magic turns the impossible into possible despite making do with the singular rear camera sensor, and it is, quite frankly, the best camera experience you can get on a smartphone. The app features additions such as Photobooth that takes a picture when you smile and the fun PlayGround AR app that lets you add Marvel characters and more into photos and videos.

The camera app is quick to open, and so long as you don’t choose to enable HDR+ Enhanced, the camera shutter is capable of taking multiple shots on the spin without skipping a beat. Bear in mind that when you enable HDR+ Enhanced, there’s roughly a 1-second delay before you can take a second shot. Night Shot is unfortunately not live at the moment, officially, but I’ve installed the ported Pixel Camera app on the Pixel 3 XL, and you can see the results below. Even without the Night Shot feature, the phone is competent in low-light conditions.

The camera app does have a frustrating quirk in that it sometimes forgets to save the photo you’ve just taken, which can be very frustrating when you’ve taken great pains to catch a one-off moment. Once again, Google has stated that it will roll out a fix for this issue in the coming weeks.

Google is still killing it with the camera apps processing ability, and the move to dual front cameras with a wide-angle lens was a good one. The ease of use, without having to dig around in Settings to choose the best mode for the current conditions is something that can’t be overstated. If Google can produce this kind of results from a single 12.2MP sensor, imagine what it could do with a dual or even triple rear camera setup?

The front camera setup consists of dual 8MP sensors, one with a 97-degree wide-angle lens and FF/2.2 aperture and the other with F/1.8 aperture. Portrait mode works a treat, and the wide-angle lens certainly comes in useful for fitting in more people extra background scenery into the shot.

Closing

Android is the world’s most popular mobile operating system with many smartphone makers putting their own spin on things with custom overlays such as Samsung’s Experience launcher and Huawei’s EMUI. Google’s Pixel lineup is supposed to spearhead the Android experience, and boy, the Pixel 3 XL does so with aplomb in almost every category. That isn’t to say that there aren’t a few annoyances such as the massive, underutilized cutout and the distinctly average battery life. Also, would it have killed Google to give the Pixel 3 XL, and the smaller Pixel 3 for that matter, an extra 2GB of RAM? I think not.

Battery life is good enough without achieving excellence, but the overly big notch is bound to be a deal breaker for some, as is the $900 price tag when there are phones such as the OnePlus 6T around. Also, there is little point upgrading to the new model from its predecessor other than the awesome new OLED display because Google is bringing most of the AI features over to the older models.

Should you buy the Pixel 3 XL?

Yes, if you like timely updates and want a phone that is guaranteed to get Android S with the best software and the most incredible camera experience you can get on an Android phone. And most definitely yes if you want a phone with a gorgeous display, wireless charging and a sprinkling of Google magic.

If you have $900 to spend on buying a new smartphone, and can forgive the notch, then the refined Pixel 3 XL is the best Android phone you can buy.

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About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Pixel 2 XL, Huawei P20 Pro, and a Huawei MediaPad M5 (8.4) in his pockets and thinks nothing of lugging a 17-inch laptop around in his backpack. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).