Google Pixel 3 Review: a Pure Android Experience and Super Camera, but what a price!

The new Google Pixel 3 is, in theory, a well balanced phone that provides just about everything the discerning Android user needs, in a surprisingly small form factor. And it gets extra kudos for this, in today’s phablet-dominated world. However, despite the use of pure Android, Google-style, a great camera system, and blazing performance, it’s not easy to fall in love with. The blame for this? At least one unambitious component choice and a marketing-driven price that’s patently crazy.

But don’t let that put you off – there’s a significant market for Android phones with no manufacturer skin, no bloat, no add-on services to push. Anyone who has used a Sony, Samsung, LG, or Huawei/Honor phone in the last decade will recognise all of this and there’s a massive ‘breath of fresh air’ factor with Google’s first party phones. You build up your software load out almost from scratch, with just the stuff you want included, just the online services you choose.

Pixel 3 review

Pricing

Now, without bundled software and services to help subsidise the phone, you’d expect to pay more for it, and you’d be right. In the UK, the Pixel 3 is a whopping £739 inc VAT for the 64GB version and £839 for the 128GB variant. Given the ubiquity of a glass sandwich form factor, genuinely off the shelf components, including a Snapdragon 845 chipset and 4GB of RAM, an AMOLED 1080p display without notch, and so on, competing handsets with similar basic specification are dramatically cheaper.

Not pink
The review Pixel 3 was in the new colour ‘Not pink’. Which is shown off quite well here, though it appears white in other lighting and photos!!

Making the real question, how much do you value having pure Android and how much do you value having high specs – including IP68 waterproofing – in a ‘compact’ form that’s trivial to slip into the smallest pockets? If you’re OK with a £200+ premium – and that’s a big ‘if’ – for these factors then the Pixel 3 is possibly your best option, with some nice surprises included, not least an astonishingly good camera set-up.

Pixel 3 oblique angle

Hardware

The Google Pixel hardware has been improving year on year and the Pixel 3 nails it in most regards. The glass back is mostly frosted, making it much grippier, to the extent that you could consider keeping the phone ‘naked’, i.e. uncased, since it’s unlikely you’d drop it from your grip alone. The top section is the unadorned glass and is oleophobic, letting you appreciate that Google specced most of the back to be the high-grip finish!

Rear and finishes
The two tone finish is hard to make out in photos, but it’s definitely there and the grippy matt majority feels great!

The front’s also oleophobic, of course, nicely so, for a very slick finger touch experience. The top and bottom bezels are significant by 2018 standards but still a better look than for last year’s Pixel 2. They match too, unlike on the larger Pixel 3 XL, of which more in the next review.

Pixel 3 bezels

The top bezel contains a pair of chunky front cameras (also explaining the 3 XL’s notch), plus there’s enough bezel surrounding the top and bottom speaker grilles that a visual inspection leads to an impression that Google might indeed have improved on last year’s Pixel 2 speakers – “40% louder” is the claim. However, and disappointingly for yours truly, last year’s true stereo speaker pair (in the 2 and the 2 XL) has been ditched for an imbalanced ‘tweeter’ for the left channel (i.e. the usual earpiece) and a full size speaker at the bottom, for the right channel. Commonly referred to as ‘faux stereo’, this arrangement isn’t terrible, but it’s a downgrade from what we had in last year’s Pixels, whatever Google might claim. Yes, there’s a ‘bit’ more bass and top end, but the main speaker sounds over-driven to achieve this, and is prone to distortion. Sorry Google, chalk this change down as a failure.

Pixel 3 bottom

Down the bottom is the solitary port, USB Type C with Power Delivery compatibility, up to 3A, i.e. 15W, anyway, plus a single nano-SIM pop-out tray. There’s no audio jack, just as with last year’s Pixels, though Google makes up for this by including both Type C headphones and a high quality DAC/dongle in the box, for anyone wanting to plug in legacy 3.5mm headphones.

The button arrangement on the right side is kept from the older devices, so a (in this case orange!) power button and twin volume buttons below.

Imaging

But it’s on the Pixel 3’s back that its biggest Unique Selling Point lies. The rear camera has just the one lens (plus a somewhat mysterious ‘spectral and flicker sensor’), but the magic happens in software.

The base camera is nigh on identical to that in the Pixel 2 series, i.e. 12.2 MP, f/1.8, 1/2.55″ sensor and OIS, with dual pixel focussing, so pretty high spec without being best in class. But, as usual, it’s Google’s software that makes sure results are up with the best in the world – up to 15 frames are now shot for every single photo, with the HDR+ software, completely revamped for the Pixel 3 range, combining all the exposures intelligently to minimise noise, and maximise detail and dynamic range.

And results are superb, as you can see below. Right up with the iPhone Xs range and the best of Samsung. Yes, they have a certain HDR, high contrast character rather than an absolute purity, but they also usually have a certain ‘wow’ about them, and that’s what users like.

Example photo
Example photo, an easy sunny landscape, other than the mass of fine detail in the tree.
1: 1 crop
1: 1 crop, showing pretty good detail – there’s sharpening but it’s usually under control.
Example photo
A typical wow photo – I pointed the Pixel 3 into the sun as a HDR test, thinking there was no way the phone camera would get a good shot. How wrong I was….
1: 1 crop
1:1 crop, even this is dramatic and useful. And remember that I was shooting straight into the sun. Wow.
Example photo
This was shot in a very gloomy church, yet the HDR+ software has found colour and detail… and drama and character. Very impressive.
1: 1 crop
At 1:1, the details are astonishingly good – remember this was an unlit and gloomy church interior!
Example photo
One of my standard night shots. The church is floodlit, but the light levels are still quite low.
1: 1 crop
At 1:1, there’s some evidence of noise reduction, but there’s still reasonable detail, all under savage lighting challenges.
Example Portrait mode photo
The single lens, AI-assisted Portrait mode works superbly – even with unusual layouts, here with a horse too!
Example unzoomed photo
A sunny shot, for me to test the Super Res Zoom on…
Example zoomed photo
And here’s a photo, zoomed in by at least 2x using Super Res Zoom tech…
1: 1 crop
At 1:1, you can see some digital zoom artefacts, but the detail still isn’t terrible. And I suspect Google will improve all this in further updates.
Example photo
A distant tower. Another, more extreme zoom test example…
Example zoomed photo
Zoomed by about 3x, though there’s no readout in the UI, so it’s hard to tell what the exact zoom factor is!
1: 1 crop
1:1 crop of the zoomed photo, again there are artefacts, but they’re not too ugly and the shot is far better than a traditionally digitally zoomed image. Go back up and look at the unzoomed shot, then look how far we’ve come ‘in’. On a single lens phone camera!

As shown in examples above, the Pixel 3 Camera software goes further, emulating optical zoom not with a high resolution PureView sensor or by using an extra telephoto lens, but by using natural hand wobble during those aforementioned 15 fast-taken photos to do sub-pixel rendering and allowing genuinely lossless zoom. And if you mount the Pixel 3 on a tripod, so there’s no wobble, the OIS mechanism is wobbled artificially for you, when zooming, to make sure that enough pixel detail is gathered to do the zoom calculations.

It’s a clever idea that we’ve seen attempted in the past by the likes of OPPO, but implemented better here. See the results above, though note that zoomed photos aren’t quite as good as those from a dedicated 2x or 3x telephoto lens, such as on the Mate 20 Pro or Galaxy S9. But they’re impressive for a single lensed device.

Plus you get a Top Shot feature that, in theory, intelligently captures and saves multiple frames when shooting people and presents the one in which eyes, smile, etc. are perfect. It didn’t work at all for me (and yes, I had ‘Motion’ set to ‘auto’) but Google are still actively fiddling with the Camera app on the Pixel 3, so updates should get this working reliably.

Ditto ‘Night Vision’, which has yet to arrive as I write this, with Google again (in theory) taking loads of frames and combining and aligning them auto-magically to create night shots that almost look like they were shot in daylight. We’ve seen this from Huawei and OnePlus before, and I’m sure Google’s version will be just as good when it arrives.

Video capture is up to 4K has the usual excellent Google software stabilisation, though it’s marred by loud hiss on the audio soundtrack. It’s not clear what causes this, but it’s a fair bet that something can be done with a software update, if Google cares enough to listen.

The two front cameras provide regular and ‘wide angle’ selfies, at f/1.8 and f/2.2 respectively, both decent size optics and with the regular front camera even having auto-focus. Add in Google’s excellent usual HDR+ software and selfies have never looked so good or been so flexible. Here are some examples (sorry for the unglamorous subject!)

Trad selfie
Traditional selfie. Ignore the good lighting from the HDR+ software, it was raining, as you can see on my glasses if you look closely, and I was – literally – sheltering under a big tree!
Wide angle selfie using the second FFC, accessed by zooming ‘out’ in the UI – you can see the software switch to this fixed focus wide angle camera.

Android

In terms of OS and software, this is the easiest phone series to review in the world. You know exactly what you’re getting already. Stock Android, with all the latest Google applications and services, tying into each other for authentication and generally playing well, and with ZERO bloat and ZERO need to go through the interface fiddling with things out of the box.

True, as mentioned at the outset, you’re paying for this in terms of the asking price for the Pixel 3 series, partly because there are no commercial deals behind the scene, to reduce the price through subsidisation. The high cost does also include three years of full resolution, full quality backups of all your photos and videos – and that has to be worth something. Plus there are various deals around the world, including bundled Chromecasts, Pixel stands, and so on.

Performance

Battery life is great, Android 9 is a huge step forwards, in my view –  I was able to get through a full day with consummate ease. It’s clear that nothing non-essential happens when the phones are on the desk or in your pocket, saving fast amounts of battery power, then all that non-essential catching up takes place when the screen’s on and you’re using the phone again. But the screen-off standby is excellent.

Google’s decision to equip the Pixel 3 with 4GB RAM (as on the Pixel 2) has been a bit controversial but it works on this smaller Pixel. With a 1080p display and perhaps a lighter computing workload, the Pixel 3 has been fine, I loaded up a dozen big applications and all were kept in RAM for 24 hours without anything being closed down. I watched free RAM during all this and it was right down to the wire at times, but that 4GB RAM was always enough.

Of course, the QHD display and potentially higher workload on the Pixel 3 XL are a different story – for another review!

For completeness, capacity is 2915mAh – charging is fast at 3A from the supplied Power Delivery charger, plus there’s Qi top ups through the day if you feel the need, a welcome return for wireless charging to the Google first party phone series.

Pixel 3 back view

Verdict

Overall, there’s a lot to recommend here. Set in an imperfect Android world where security vulnerabilities, malware and other issues are weekly news events, and where even major manufacturers have flawed update records, the pure Google ‘monthly updates’, only days behind the OS code itself being fixed, take some beating. And are worth paying for.

And if you need further convincing then take comfort from the fact that you’re getting (hardware and software combined) one of the best cameras on a smartphone today (certainly the one that gives best results with a minimum of user effort), plus you’re also getting flagship specifications in almost every regard. Water and dust proofing, great display, Qi charging, and so on.

Sceptics will point to the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack or the imbalanced, over-driven speaker arrangement, but these can be overlooked if you want all Google all the time – and it helping you day after day, month after month, with no carrier or other sponsor messages or spam to impede your experience.

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