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Google Pixel 3 XL Review: A Camera with a Phone Attached

Google definitely focused on the camera. The phone? Not so much.

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Since the end of the Nexus era, Google has released three versions of its Pixel phone. Back in 2016, the company proved with the Pixel and Pixel XL it wanted to compete directly with the iPhone thanks to clean software, a great camera, and flagship pricing. The next year brought complete design refreshes with the Pixel 2 and 2 XL which included the best smartphone cameras to date and new software features. Now, we’re up to the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, and Google is sticking with the same formula it’s been using over the Pixel’s lifespan.

Not too long ago, I spent a good amount of time with the smaller Pixel 3 while I was in Las Vegas for CES. I really liked that device, and since then, I’ve switched over to the larger Pixel 3 XL. Assuming I’d like it as I did the smaller one, I went into this review process with some pretty high expectations. That was a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, the Pixel 3 XL is a good phone. But it isn’t the best phone. And the more I think about it, it’s as if Google built a camera and realized it needed to attach a phone to it in order to sell it. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is what the Pixel 3 XL is, and here’s why.

If you’ve been following the Google Pixel’s life cycle for the past few years, you already know what to expect in the design department. Google includes a two-tone backplate with the Pixel 3 XL, with a frosted finish taking up around 75 percent and a glossy coating taking up 25 percent at the top. For this generation, the entire phone is made of glass with a metal side rail, so if you manage to drop your Pixel 3 or 3 XL, there’s a good chance your phone will shatter.

I noted this in my Pixel 3 review and I’ll repeat it here with the Pixel 3 XL. Many reviews have noted that because of the frosted finish on the back, the device is prone to scratching much more easy than a glossy backplate. I beg to differ as I’ve slid my Pixel across tables with crumbs on them and I have yet to get a scratch at all. I also constantly threw my Pixel 3 in my backpack during CES and never experienced any major damage. Of course, I wouldn’t dare drop this thing without a case on it, but in terms of scuffs and scratches, you’ll probably be fine.

On the back, there’s a fingerprint sensor that’s fast and reliable, while the right side houses the power and volume buttons. You won’t find anything on the left, and the bottom includes a charging port and SIM card tray. There are also microphones at the top of the phone.

I’m a fan of the Pixel 3 XL’s design. It’s clean, it’s minimal, and it’s nice to hold because of the frosted finish. It’s a bit on the wide side since the display doesn’t have that slim of an aspect ratio like the iPhone XS or OnePlus 6T, but it reminds me of phone surfboards of the past with its flat back and wide body. It’s not overbearing by any means, and it kind of feels nice to hold because of it.

I wanted to write in this review about how substantially better the Pixel 3 XL’s screen is over the Pixel 2 XL from 2017. The 6.4-inch 2960×1440 OLED 18.5:9 display Google uses is way better in terms of quality since it isn’t grainy, unresponsive, or dull like the 2 XL’s panel. It’s also brighter than the last generation, albeit still not at Apple or Samsung levels of brightness.

But where the Pixel 3 XL’s display shines, it also falls flat. That’s because of the gigantic, hideous, unconstitutional notch at the top.

I mean, just look at this thing. It’s obnoxious, rude, and gets in the way more often than not.

It’s mainly because of how far it cuts into the Pixel 3 XL’s screen. Whereas most notches are short but wide, the 3 XL’s cutout is slim but tall. That reduces the overall screen real estate you have access to and makes doing anything in full-screen mode unpleasant.

I would be okay with a notch of this size if Google justified it enough. but instead of including some advanced camera system for the most secure facial recognition on the planet. they just include two selfie cameras and an earpiece. This could’ve been done in a slim bezel above the screen as we saw with the Pixel 3. In other words, Google didn’t have to include a notch just for the sake of including a notch.

If other kids on the playground are smoking because it’s cool, that doesn’t mean you should join them.

Another thing that doesn’t require a ridiculous notch at the top of your phone: stereo speakers. Google achieved stereo front-firing speakers with slim bezels above and below the Pixel 3’s screen, and they could’ve done the same with the Pixel 3 XL and I’m sure no one would mind it. They sound great, mind you, with plenty of bass and clarity at high volumes. But to achieve this, Google didn’t need to sink so far into the Pixel 3 XL’s screen.

Unfortunately, the notch isn’t the only bad thing about the Pixel 3 XL. I said before I hate that I don’t love the device, and that’s largely because of its performance.

Under the hood, Google includes a Snapdragon 845 processor with 64GB of storage. These two specs I don’t have a problem with. It’s the 4GB of RAM that I think is causing a lot of my problems.

During my usage, I’ve experienced dropped frames in games, stutters when opening apps, failed attempts to trigger the recent apps menu, and way too much lag in the camera app. With phones that pack 6 or 8GB of RAM, I never run into problems like these. The OnePlus 6T is a prime example. It absolutely flies through everything you do on it. The Pixel 3 XL just doesn’t.

It’s important to note that I also had problems with the standard Pixel 3. Here’s a quote from my review where I state the issues I have with the device’s performance.

During my testing, I’ve noticed I’m unable to keep a certain amount of apps open in the background without them crashing or having to reload upon launch. It’s especially an issue when I’m playing music in Spotify since it operates in the background and constantly eats up RAM, leaving little random access memory for other apps to utilize. Meanwhile, the 6T, which comes with twice as much RAM, has no problems like this whatsoever.

It’s the exact same story with the Pixel 3 XL. Each day I use the device as my main phone. I’m tempted to switch back to my 6T just for the performance. That’s how bad the speed is with Google’s latest and greatest phone.

I find this not only disappointing but surprising as well. Google’s Pixel line and the Nexus series before it have been known as some of the best performing phones on the market, all due to the company’s tight integration between hardware and software. After all, the company has complete control over how well a device’s specs play with its operating system since it owns Android. But for whatever reason, whether it’s poor optimization or lack of better hardware, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are exceptions to this rule, and it saddens me greatly.

On the bright side, the Pixel 3 XL has great software. You get Android 9 Pie right out of the box with all of the little touches Google adds to make its lineup of phones one of the most appealing when it comes to software experience.

Here’s a rundown of some of the features you’ll find on the Pixel 3 XL that make it a delight to use on a day-to-day basis.

  • Call Screening: allows you to anser potentially spam phone calls using the Google Duplex robot
  • Digital Wellbeing: lets you track your phone usage
  • Squeezable sides: squeeze your phone to trigger the Google Assistant
  • Google Photos: free, original quality cloud backup for all photos taken on the Pixel 3 XL
  • Pixel Launcher: it is so clean
  • OTA updates: Pixel phones are first in line for software updates

Overall, there’s not a doubt in my mind you’ll love using the software on the Pixel 3 XL, even though the device isn’t as fast or responsive as it could be.

In terms of connectivity, I’ve had no issues with the Pixel 3 XL. I’ve constantly received fast data speeds with the device over Verizon’s network in South Jersey. I consistently had around three or four bars of service to mess with, rarely ever going down to two. So if you buy this phone, you shouldn’t have any problems with getting it activated.

(Side note: Verizon did provide us with the Pixel 3 XL unit for review, but this didn’t influence my review of their network in any way. Nonetheless, thanks for sending it our way, Verizon!)

Inside the Pixel 3 XL, Google includes a 3,430mAh battery. That should be enough to get you through at least a full day’s worth of usage, in theory. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The phone pumps out a good 14 hours worth of usage on a fulll charge which might be enough for you. But personally, I need something around 15 or 16 hours of usage considering the amount of work I do on my phone from the moment I get out of bed to the time I call it a night. You can get, like, four or five hours of screen-on time, but you probably won’t be impressed. I certainly wasn’t.

Luckily, if/when you need to top up during the day, Google packs in fast wired charging over USB-C. Much like the Pixel 3, you can get from zero to 50 percent in around 35 minutes or so with the Pixel 3 XL’s adapter and cable that come in the box. You also get wireless charging thanks to the glass back, but you’ll have to buy Google’s proprietary Pixel Stand for fast wireless charging. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with 5W charging speeds which, quite frankly is really slow.

As a final quibble I have with the Pixel 3 XL, it does not come with a headphone jack. I’m used to using Bluetooth, adapters, and the Pixel USB-C earbuds that come in the box, but I’m actually starting to miss the 3.5mm port. I have high-end headphones that require such a port and I need a dongle for them to work. That kind of sucks, but it’s the world we live in.

So yeah, there isn’t much to like about the Pixel 3 XL. But one of the biggest strengths of Pixel phones is the camera, and thank God it’s as good as it is on this device. Otherwise, I would advise not buying it at all. But in a sense, the camera situation on the phone might be its saving grace.

On the back of the device, Google includes a single 12.2MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture. Typically, on flagship smartphones, you’d find two or even three rear cameras. But for the Pixel 3 XL, Google is sticking with its single lens approach to photography, and yet again, the company crushes it.

I could tell you the Pixel 3 XL’s rear camera comes with OIS, dual pixel phase detection autofocus, and a 28mm wide sensor as reasons why the camera is good, but none of this matters. It’s all about the software tricks Google has been doing with Pixel cameras ever since the first phone back in 2016.

The company’s still utilizing its HDR+ technique by combining differently exposed photos into a single shot that strikes a balance between them all. This process is done using the Pixel Visual Core, a specialized chipset that handles AI tasks like these on Google’s smartphones. And obviously, this generation of the Visual Core and the HDR+ processing is the best yet.

Just look at these photos.

As you can see, almost everything about the photos are right. Colors are reproduced nicely, contrasts are accurate, brightness is great, and sharpness is fabulous. Admittedly, shadows can be a little crunched at times, but otherwise, the camera is just amazing.

Of course, Google also includes its portrait mode with the Pixel 3 XL that uses AI to detect a subject, cut it out from the background, and blur the surrounding area. It looks more artificial than what phones with dual cameras produce, but the Pixel is best at detecting hair and things like glasses which are typically blurred out by other phones.

New for this generation of Pixels are a handful of new features. Typically, when a manufacturer comes out a handful of new camera features, they’re either gimmicks or completely unuseful ideas some intern had in the break room. But not this time, no. Google actually put thought into these ideas, and they’re great.

For one, there’s a new feature called Super Res Zoom. Much like the company’s version of portrait mode, Super Res Zoom is aimed at eliminating the need for a secondary rear camera by allowing for lossless zoom without special hardware. It works by recording data of a scene when your hand shakes and blending it with the final image, allowing for a sharper and clearer image. It’s definitely better than a normal digital-zoom photo, but telephoto cameras still beat it when it comes to clarity.

There’s also a new feature called Top Shot. Essentially, it’s a feature that will automatically start a burst photo when it thinks is necessary and recommend you the best shot out of the ones captured. I noticed you kind of have to take the burst mode photo yourself in order for it to work due to unreliability, but it nonetheless does what it’s intended to do.

Finally, I want to bring up the biggest, most important new feature of the Pixel 3 XL’s camera, and that’s Night Sight.

With Night Sight, you can take some of the nighttime photographs you’ve ever seen. Somehow, through Google’s magical software processing, it’s able to pull out extra light to brighten up photos while still retaining their details and highlights. No other phone with a dedicated night mode has been able to pull this off before, and you’ll be simply amazed the first time you give it a try.

The mode is also not only good for night shots, but for everyday low-light situations as well such as in a room with the blinds shut.

This is one of my favorite features of any smartphone ever. It’s truly like magic how Google utilizes its HDR+ post-processing for results like this. Trust me, once you start using Night Sight, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. It is that good.

Also with the Pixel 3, you get motion auto focus to keep a moving subject in focus while you take pictures of it, portrait mode blur adjustments, Playground integration so you can place fun AR characters in your photos and videos, Google Lens integration for identifying things and copying text, and the ability to capture and save pictures as RAW files. All of these features make for a fun, intuitive, and useful camera experience.

The same can be said when it comes to selfies. Along with the standard 8MP f/1.8 selfie camera, you also get an additional 8MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens so you can fit more of a scene or all of your friends into a selfie. This, my friends, is how selfie cameras should be implemented. You should, by default, have the option to switch to a wide-angle lens in order to fit more of something into the frame. Once you use it, you’ll know what I mean.

While on the subject of selfies, there’s a new feature with the Pixel 3 XL called photo booth mode. Essentially, when enabled, it’ll automatically detect when it thinks it should take a selfie. You have to make silly face gestures and move around a bit to fill a progress bar which, when full, will trigger the shutter button. It’s actually pretty fun to use with friends and not so much the gimmick I thought it would be.

As far as video goes, the Pixel 3 can shoot up to 4K video at 30 frames per second. We’ve seen this capability for years at this point, and it’s a shame the phone didn’t adopt 4K 60 fps even though its chipset is perfectly capable. Nonetheless, the Pixel takes great video with good stabilization and overall quality. Audio pickup is also decent.

The Pixel 3 XL has an array of great cameras. There’s a good reason everyone swears by them and calls them the best phone cameras on the market. That’s why they’re the focal point of the device. And if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t really be any reason to buy this phone.

I know it sounds harsh, but it’s true. The Pixel 3 XL is kind of big, it has the worst notch ever, it’s not that fast, battery life is disappointing, there’s no headphone jack, and it’s made of glass which might not appeal to some people. That leaves the software and camera as the sole advantages to buying this phone.

If you’re going to buy a Pixel phone for the phone part, I would personally opt for the standard Pixel 3. It does all the phone stuff better than the Pixel 3 XL, in my opinion, and it has the same camera. But if you want a bigger screen to use that camera with, the Pixel 3 XL is worth considering.

At the end of the day, Google built a camera and attached it to two phones. One is better as a phone, and one is just bigger. But even if buy the Pixel 3 XL just for the camera, you’ll be happy. Just know it doesn’t have the best experience you can find on a phone.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rating: 7.5/10

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One Reply to “Google Pixel 3 XL Review: A Camera with a Phone Attached”

  1. […] Both are good phones with their own fair share of positives and negatives. But considering how I feel about the Pixel 3 XL, I thought I wasn’t being reasonable. That is, until I came to a conclusion that many of you […]

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