Possibly one of the most leaked smartphones of all time is here, so it might not come as a surprise but Google’s latest flagship handsets are official. Tech Advisor attended the London launch and we’ve spent solid time with the Pixel 3 since so here’s our full review.
It’s a shame that almost nothing about the 2018 Pixel phones was a secret, making the big launch a bit of an anti-climax. However, most were for the larger Pixel 3 XL model and Google did announce some other new devices including the Google Home Hub and, quietly, the Chromecast 3.
Pixel 3: Price and where to buy
This year the Pixel 3 starts at $799 and will be available on 18 October. In the UK, it’s available a little later on 1 November starting at £739.
At this price, the Pixel 3 is a fairly affordable flagship, with others being closer to a grand. That said, there are still cheaper options around such as the OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and even the Sony Xperia XZ3.
Pixel 3: Design and build
There’s not a huge design change when it comes to this year’s Pixel phone as on the whole, Google is sticking to the same style and look.
The Pixel 3 has a distinctive style at the back with its two-tone effect which not everyone will like. The iconic glossy section at the top houses the camera with the lower part containing the fingerprint scanner.
This time around it’s a fully glass design with the lower section offering a matt finish which both looks and feels luxurious. It’s not quite as grippy compared to a typical glass back but feels nicer and won’t show fingerprint marks as much. It’s worth bearing in mind that reports suggest the black model shows up scratches on the back.
Importantly, this change also enables wireless charging for the first time on a Pixel. We’ll talk about that more later.
It’s the front that looks even more different this year due to a change in display aspect ratio – an industry-wide trend. Smaller bezels not only look better but mean you get a larger screen in a body that’s essentially the same.
Whatever side of the fence you’re on, the regular Pixel 3 is the model without a notch. The Pixel 3 XL, for the first time on a Google phone, has the divisive feature. Both have a camera bump but it’s small and not a big deal.
Much of the elements we’re used to are the same so you get a USB-C port, no headphone jack and waterproofing. The latter is now IP68 instead of IP67 so the water side of things has gone up. Our main worry is dirt collecting in the speakers on the front as they are slightly recessed.
Colour options are once again Clearly White, Just Black and the new Not Pink (which has a peach tone in real life) – each with a difference accent colour on the side button apart from the black model.
Pixel 3: Specs and features
Like the design, there’s not huge overhaul when it comes to the specs and features. This is more of a refinement sort of product. Similar to how Apple brings out an ‘S’ model of the iPhone.
The most obvious change is the display which as we mentioned is now using an on-trend tall aspect ratio. It’s 18:9 to be precise and sticks with a Full HD+ resolution (1080 x 2280) and AMOLED tech. Many might be Quad HD but 443ppi is plenty.
On the spec sheet it’s listed as ‘flexible’ but this doesn’t mean it has curved sides like a Galaxy S9. We believe it’s to achieve smaller bezels.
Jumping from 5- to 5.5in give you more real estate to play with. If you want even more, then the XL has a 6.3in display albeit with a larger than average notch. Either way you’ll need to get used to the new gestures of Android Pie, which we’ll talk about later.
The display has an always-on feature so it can give you handy information such at the time, date and weather without having to switch it on. You can also opt to have notifications appear as well and switch on Now Playing to see the track and artist when music is playing nearby – no need to Shazam it.
We find the display looks great in the default adaptive mode, but you can head into the settings menu and try other colour modes. There’s also natural and boosted.
Processor, memory and storage
When it comes to the core specs, there’s a predictable upgrade to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 – the firm’s flagship processor for 2018. Memory remains at just 4GB (despite rumours of a 50 percent increase)
Once again need to choose from 64- or 128GB of storage. Pick wisely as there’s no microSD card slot as per usual.
The Pixel 3 might not be setting any records in our benchmark tests, although 61fps in T-Rex appears to have gone beyond the limit, but the phone is super smooth in real life so you needn’t worry on this front.
We’ve not found any noticeable lag, partly thanks to the high-end components and the pure Android software. We’ve compared it to the Pixel 2 and a selection of rivals but don’t read into the figures too much – after all, they are synthetic tests.
Where other manufacturers force you to buy the large model out of two phones to get enhanced photography, normally an extra camera, the Pixel 3s have the same setup.
Interestingly, neither phone has dual cameras at the rear. Google is confident that it can offer excellent photography and video capture with just a single rear lens. The specs look the same as last year at 12.2Mp, an f/1.8 aperture, OIS and dual autofocus (phase detection and laser).
Google’s software, namely HDR+, is the reason why it only needs one lens. A new feature called Top Shot will take multiple shots so you can choose the best, rather then end up missing that key moment. Night Sight is also new and aims to help you get great results in low light without using a flash with machine learning. It’s launching in November, though.
Overall, we’re very impressed with the results from the camera which simply takes great photos with minimal fuss. The portrait mode is particularly impressive and lets you control both background and foreground blur after you’ve taken the shot.
There are plenty of other modes to check out including the usual selection of Panorama, Photo Sphere, Google Lens and Slow Motion. Playground which is similar to Sony’s AR effect plonking characters, including Marvel and Stranger Things, onto your desk or wherever you want them.
Oddly, then, the new tech is at the front where there are two cameras. Both are 8Mp with an f/1.8 or f/2.2 aperture and like the LG V40, one is a standard focal length while the other is wide-angle (107 degrees instead of 75) so you can fit more people into the frame.
The quality is good and you can easily switch between the two cameras almost seamlessly with a slider within the camera app.
Connectivity and Audio
There’s plenty more about the Pixel 3 that essentially remains the same as before with similar connectivity (dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC and the like) and the rear fingerprint scanner.
That means there’s no fingerprint scanner embedded in the screen (or face unlock either), which is a shame as it’s set to arrive on the OnePlus 6T which will be a cheaper rival. But that tech may come with teething problems and the Pixel’s scanner works well, plus you can use it pull the notification bar down if you switch this gesture on – this is a bit temperamental, though.
Google boasts of excellent audio, despite the lack of a headphone jack. This means you’ll have to make use of the USB-C Pixel earbuds or the included adapter. We’d recommend the latter since the supplied headphones are, like the Pixel Buds, uncomfortable.
The main audio feature is the front facing stereo speakers and they’re good but not flawless. They’re certainly capable of going louder than most but when you get to the upper third of the volume things get pretty distorted and there’s not too much bass to speak of. At around 50 percent is a nice sweet spot of velocity and clarity.
It’s a small thing but we like how Google has decided to make the volume rocker default to media volume rather than ringtone, since this is something you’re going to adjust far more often.
A new feature, although it’s nothing new in the grand scheme, is wireless charging. It works with any Qi charger.
It’s a welcome addition and the battery capacity is a little larger, too, at 2915mAh. That’s a little below the average for a phone this size and although the battery life is ok, it’s nothing special really. Like so many smartphones, you’ll need to charge it regularly.
Fast charging will help that, as will the new Pixel Stand if you choose to buy one.
Get the new Pixel Stand and the phone will turn into a sort of smart display where you can control it with your voice or handy on-screen icons. It will also do clever things like connect to your Nest doorbell to automatically show you who’s at the door, be a digital photo frame and the Sunrise Alarm slowly brightens the screen to help wake you up gently. It costs £69/$79.
Pixel 3: Software and Apps
The main change here is that you’ll have to get used to gestures for navigation that are akin to the iPhone XS. The usual three button navigation bar is now just a single icon.
Swipe up a long way and you’ll open the app draw which at the top offers suggestions for both apps and actions. Do a shorter swipe and you’ll get the new recent apps screen, which still offers the same app suggestions at the bottom along with the Google bar.
Recent apps are now displayed in a horizontal list rather than the older vertical rolodex style. You can fling apps off the top of the screen to close them or swipe down (or tap) to open one.
An easier way to switch between apps is by using the navigation bar at the bottom. It works like the iPhone X/XS so swiping to the right will switch to the previously used app. Swipe and hold and you can scroll between all your apps, then simply let go when you’ve found the one you want.
It’s all very different, especially if you’ve become accustomed to the old way of doing things on Android. You will get used to it, and you’ll have to as there’s no option to switch the old navigation buttons on.
Otherwise, it appears that you get generally get the same pure Google experience with the Google Assistant a swipe away from the home screen and, of course, no bloatware.
There are a number of new (sometimes hidden) elements though, including the ‘At-a-Glance’ section at the top of the homescreen which provides handy info such as upcoming calendar events and more. Tap on any to get more detail.
Android Pie also monitors how you respond to notifications. If you clear certain ones a lot then it will suggest to turn them off.
Active Edge remains, too, so you can squeeze the phone to trigger different things. It’s a sort of hidden feature since the design of the phone doesn’t indicate it’s there.
As we’ve found on other phones with this feature (and others like Apple’s 3D Touch), you’ll either use it all the time or completely forget it’s there. You can set how sensitive it is to stop it happening by accident.
The problem here is that you can’t customise it, so it only summons the Assistant or silences alarms, incoming calls and the like. It would be far more useful if you could choose to use it for other things like launching the camera, as you can on HTC phones with Edge Sense. You can launch the camera by double tapping the power key but that’s more awkward.
Something we’re still trying out over a longer period is the Digital Wellbeing feature hidden in the settings. This which shows you how much screen time you’re giving to different apps and does various thing to help you disconnect with your phone including setting app timers and a wind down mode combines the Night Light, Grayscale and Do Not Disturb to help you with your bedtime routine.
Google once again sets the standard for Android phones with the Pixel 3. It’s an unassuming device, partly due to its similarity with the Pixel 2 and the overwhelming amount of leaks.
It gets the basics right, rather than trying to add a load of new features people don’t actually need. The Pixel 3 offers excellent and compact design with solid core specs and smooth performance.
While you can buy cheaper Android rivals that have things like a headphone jack and microSD card slot, the Pixel 3 is likely to win you over with it’s amazing cameras and the handy features within Android Pie.
If you’re looking for a no-nonsense Android smartphone that you can rely on then the Pixel 3 is a top choice. It’s worth bearing in mind the the XL model offers a very similar experience, but with a larger screen (including a notch) and bigger battery.