There’s a new leak king in town. The Google Pixel 3 XL is the worst kept smartphone secret of recent years but that’s no reason not to be excited now it’s finally official.
The larger of two new Pixel 3 phones (we take a look at the smaller Pixel 3 here) announced at events in New York and London has a remarkably large notch at the top of its tall 6.3in display – odd at first given that the smaller Pixel 3 has no notch and the same dual cameras as the XL.
It’s a little unremarkable to look at but that’s not what Google is going for here. It’s all about the software and what it can do.
We went hands-on at the launch event to see why Google made such design decisions and to see if its somehow improved the excellent – still single – rear facing camera.
When does the Pixel 3 XL go on sale?
You can pre-order the Pixel 3 XL in the UK from today and it will be available in stores, along with the Pixel 3, on Thursday 1 November in the UK.
For the first time, Google has partnerships with all the UK operators.
How much does the Pixel 3 XL cost?
Notch ado about nothing
So yes, there’s a big notch. It’s deep and narrow as opposed to the shallow narrow notch of the Huawei P20 Pro or the shallow and wide notch of the iPhone XS.
Whether a notch irks you is a personal thing but it’s not a big deal to us. It’s there to house the earpiece and dual cameras while keeping the phone as small as possible, that’s what notches are for. The 3 XL is virtually the same size as the 2 XL but manages a larger display and an extra camera. On paper, this is not a regression.
The rear of the phone is similar to previous generations yet for the first time supports wireless charging despite being matte – it’s all glass though. It still feels hefty and premium though and the finish is awesome. Fewer fingerprints, but it’s glass so it’s still at the peril of the ground.
The top section is smooth glass and houses a single rear camera and flash. The phone comes in three colours, Just Black, Clearly White and Not Pink – there is no contrast ‘panda’ edition like we got last year.
White and pink models have contrasting green and orange power buttons respectively while the black stays all-black stealthy.
That notch also allows the phone to retain dual front facing speakers like the last generation Pixel, with a wider speaker at the bottom of the phone. Google said they are 40% louder and richer than on Pixel 2.
There’s also a G logo and fingerprint sensor, but no headphone jack. There’s a dongle in the box though.
Display of affection
This is quite a playful feeling phone. Google is continuing its design language in a light way, melding the hardware it sees fit to complement the Material Design concept its software is modelled around. The block colours of the phones are a world away from the austere designs pushed out by Apple, Huawei and even OnePlus now.
After the problems the Pixel 2 XL had with its display (or at least how it was calibrated for colour hungry eyes) the 3 XL’s display hits the ground running. It looks brilliant, with good colour calibration and viewing angles.
There’s a new adaptive colour profile loaded on to ensure this. It’s all in a phone that is run by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip. In our short time with the 3 XL we found the phone zippy and responsive, with a notable improvement to the haptics and vibration motor.
The Pixel 2 phones are widely regarded to have the best rear facing cameras of any smartphone despite only having one lens. The Pixel 3 XL will try to one-up it with Google’s miraculous post-processing.
While two or three lens phones try to capture more detail during shooting, the Pixel elects to capture several layers of image information with one lens and then use software to process the best possible image after the fact. And it works stupendously well.
A new feature called Top Shot automatically helps you select the best photo from a burst of photos so you don’t get a photo where people have their eyes closed and are smiling properly.
Along with this is Super Res Zoom where an algorithm selects a zoom frame on a photo you’ve taken, and Night Sight, where machine learning boosts light in low light. The latter is coming to the older Pixel phones too.
The dual front facing cameras are an interesting choice, allowing for wide angle selfies and multi-face detection to keep everyone in focus. Aside from this there is no immediate advantage to having two lenses – and you get them both on the regular Pixel 3 without the notch, if the notch bothers you.
You’ll also find autofocus, the ability to change focal point of portrait mode photos and unlimited Google Photos storage.
Another slice of Pie
Older Pixels and the Sony Xperia XZ3 already have Android 9 Pie but of course the Pixel 3 XL ships with it installed. Google makes you use the new gesture-based navigation system as default and it does take a bit of getting used to after years with Android’s three navigation buttons.
And you can’t change back to the old way. It’s gestures or nothing on the Pixel 3 XL.
A feature that is built-in that until now has only been available as beta versions on older Pixels is Digital Wellbeing. This is the ability to set app limits to help you use certain services less, and to actually spend time away from your phone rather than use it more.
Google made a big deal at launch about how the software ecosystem continues to improve over time. This is in the cloud-based services such as Google Translate but of course other phones can run Google apps and services. It’s true that on the 3 XL though, it’s most closely intertwined in the OS given it’s a Google phone.
Google also said that Pixels would be the first to get the Duplex feature it teased earlier in the year that can call businesses for you to book restaurants and the like.
How does it XL?
Aside from the larger battery and display, there is not a lot different in the XL. Nor does it have a feature that the smaller Pixel 3 lacks to force you to pay more; it has the same software and cameras. It’s even available in the same three colours.
Also announced was a Pixel Stand that docks and charges the Pixel 3 and 3 XL while turning the phone into a more convenient Google Assistant style device.
It’s early days of course but we are excited by the Pixel 3 XL despite the big old notch. It’s a much more premium feeling phone in person than in images, and some of the camera improvements should cement its place as the best smartphone snapper ever.
The design isn’t for everyone, but you have the smaller Pixel 3 if you object. What Google is doing with the 3 XL, its newest most expensive phone, is show you its exact preference of how Android software and hardware should work together.
You might get more features on other phones like headphone jacks and expandable storage but if you want the purest Android phone going, this is it.