Google Pixel 3 XL Review: The Always-Beta Android Flagship

Having reviewed the standard sized Pixel 3 already here on AndroidBeat, you’d think that a review of the XL version would involve a lot of copy and pasting – but that’s not entirely true. The XL involves several design and spec decisions that are well worth talking about. Why the delay in looking at the Pixel 3’s larger variant? Because the Pixel 3 XL has been decidedly buggy until a day or so ago, when the December 2018 update hit from Google. At last we can review this properly.

As I mentioned with the ‘3’, 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 recognize 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 XL in hand

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 XL is a whopping £869 inc VAT for the 64GB version and £969 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, competing handsets with similar basic specification are dramatically cheaper. Not least those from Nokia that run Android One, effectively also as ‘stock Android’ as you can get, and yet with prices starting from a quarter the cost of the 3 XL. Gulp.

So the question then becomes how much you also value the various injections of Google secret sauce (security, through the Titan M chip; plus Camera, though this is usually available for side loading on Nokias), the years of free full resolution photo and video backup, the IP68 waterproofing, the tuned stereo speakers, the extra live wallpapers, (eventually) the Assistant Call Screening features, and so on.

There are so many factors to quote to try and justify the 2018 Pixel pricing, but I don’t think anyone will quite manage it – quite simply, Google is aiming at the premium phone market. But if you want the best of Google and a phone that will get better and better over the next year as Google (ahem) actually finishes its new Android version and all the applications that go with it, then £869 ( or similar, wherever you are) is the price of admission. Or (top tip), just pick up the Pixel 2 XL from last year – it’s readily available from third parties and second hand and can work out as little as a third the price of the 3 XL equivalent, yet it has 99% of the same features and functions.

But, assuming you go all in on Google and can afford the Pixel 3 XL then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. At least with the December 2018 firmware update behind us, the 3 XL flies, unencumbered by bloat or unnecessary UI elements (though see below with regards to navigation).

Pixel 3 XL notch

The screen’s excellent – yes, the bucket-shaped notch looks odd when the foreground application decides to fill out the ‘ears’ with a colour that’s not black, but bit by bit the OS and applications are doing more to reduce the visual impact by hiding the notch with white on black (or at least dark) background. And on the whole it works, it’s a nice large screen (larger than the 2 XL’s) with good colours and contrast.

Pixel 3 XL notch

The other design oddity is that the display doesn’t extend closer to the bottom of the 3 XL. Although the bezel is less than a centimetre, it still seems like Google could have gone ‘further’, but I’m going to give Google a pass for two reasons.

Firstly, when playing back video content (a common occurrence with a large-screened phone), the top notch is obviously excluded by default, instantly giving about a centimetre of top bezel and neatly matching the bottom – so you end up with a 16:9 video frame nicely centred, which was perhaps Google’s intention.

Secondly, the bottom/right speaker is really rather loud and with decent bass. Although the top/left one is just the earpiece and restricted in the frequencies it can push, the overall effect is impressive (tuned by a Grammy award winner, apparently) and I for one will forgive a few extra millimetres of bezel if it means that I get better sound from a larger speaker.

I’m sorry if you were looking for a smack-down of the Pixel 3 XL as the ugliest thing on the planet – it’s not pretty but it certainly works well and I forgot any design preconceptions within half an hour of using the phone for real.

Pixel 3 XL camera

Imaging notes

As with its smaller sister device, the 3 XL also excels in the imaging department, even more so now that the ‘Night Sight’ feature has been released (also for the older Pixel phones, mind you, this one wasn’t an exclusive) since our previous review.

As with the speaker insight, you can almost forgive the bucket notch when you see the performance from the twin selfie cameras, one of which is true wide angle. But it’s the rear camera that I’ve been testing the most, with identical results to those from the smaller Pixel 3, of course – it’s the same hardware (including the Visual Core Mk II chip) and software.

It has just the one lens (plus a somewhat mysterious ‘spectral and flicker sensor’), but the magic happens in the Google Camera application, especially when paired with the Qualcomm chipset and the Visual Core.  We’re talking 12.2 MP, f/1.8, 1/2.55″ sensor and OIS, with dual pixel focusing, so pretty high spec without being best in class. But, as usual, it’s Google’s software that makes sure results are up with (or exceeding) 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, I’m going to link here to the examples shot on the Pixel 3, because the UK is in the middle of winter and rain right now and I can’t match the range of tests. As I say, the photos will be identical, whichever Pixel 3 device you opt for.

The Pixel 3 Camera software goes further than providing pure, detailed shots, emulating optical zoom not with a high-resolution 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 XL on a tripod, so there’s no wobble, the OIS mechanism is slowly wobbled artificially for you, when zooming (you can see this with the naked eye, it’s surreal!), 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. 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.

‘Night Vision’ is the high profile multi-second, multi-exposure system that gets suggested when light levels are very low – so one tap and you’re in the mode, though you can trigger it manually whenever you like. Results are… cool, bringing out light and colours in the darkest of night scenes, but you’re limited to static subjects (so landscapes/scenes) and the results can often look artificial – which they are, by definition!

Night Sight example
Night Sight example, an easy one, with plenty of light to latch onto. Still, impressive detail and dynamic range.
Night Sight example
Night Sight example, this time in the pitch dark, the plane could almost not be seen with the naked eye. Yet there’s a photo here with detail and even some colour. Admittedly it’s all totally artificial – an accurate photo of the scene would show just black. But still, really cool!!

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.

Power, OS, Performance

Down the bottom of the Pixel 3 XL 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, as with last year’s Pixels, though Google makes up for this by including both Type C headphones and a high quality, low latency DAC/dongle in the box, for anyone wanting to plug in legacy 3.5mm headphones.

As with the smaller Pixel 3, 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, 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.

Interestingly, I experienced glitches with several third party applications which clearly hadn’t been updated yet to handle ‘notches’ on an Android phone and which exhibited ‘offset’ touch events. So your mileage may vary, but I’d expect most applications to get patched soon enough – in the meantime, geeks can toggle the notch off completely in developer settings temporarily, perhaps for a particular game, though I don’t expect normal users to know how to do this!

Main navigation UI
Main navigation UI, see the home ‘pill’ bottom left. Swipe up from this to see recent applications, effectively your running applications, then swipe a bit further to gradually reveal the applications list, as shown on the right here.

The Pixel 3 range marks the line in the sand where Google insists on its new gesture based navigation system, with no option to revert to ‘standard’ back/home/recents control icons. I’m torn on this – while the new system is trivial to learn and use (swipe up for recent apps, swipe up further for an application list, flick right to switch to the previous application) and arguably as fast as the older system, neither are as clean as simply swiping from the very bottom of the display, as implemented on the OnePlus phones, for example.

But then Google runs the risk of users getting confused and not knowing what to do – and at least with a visible ‘pill’ on the screen, a tap takes a user home and a long press launches Google Assistant. So, on balance, the new system is intuitive and functional – and I surprised myself with how quickly I got used to it.

Pixel 3 XL back

Battery life from the 3430mAh cell is a little disappointing, easily getting through a full day, but not much more than this. Given that the Pixel 2 XL under the exact same OS version now has stunning battery life, I’m expecting Google to improve the ‘3’ series with the Snapdragon 845 to hit the same longevity levels in a future update.

Charging is fast at 3A from the supplied Power Delivery charger, plus there are Qi top ups through the day if you feel the need, a very welcome return for wireless charging to the Google first party phone series.

Google’s decision to equip the Pixel 3 series with 4GB RAM (as on the Pixel 2) has been a bit controversial – and the launch firmware made a pig’s ear out of RAM management, especially on this XL model with QHD display (requiring more RAM per application), which is partly why we’ve waited so long to give a verdict. However, the issues are sorted out with the December 18 update and I can now recommend the Pixel 3 XL in terms of performance, at least – applications and games are far better at sticking around and not being closed by the OS.

Pixel 3 XL front

Verdict

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 rear cameras on a smartphone today (certainly the one that gives best results with a minimum of user effort), plus there are the two excellent front cameras, making wide angle selfies a reality and with the same good image processing.

Add in the flagship specifications in almost every regard. Water and dust proofing, great display, Qi charging, damn good speaker, and so on. So 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, then the Pixel 3 XL is a very valid way to go.

The two big caveats are the price (obviously) and the ‘always beta’ nature of Google – the 2 XL took three months to mature in terms of updates and the same will be true of the 3 XL. And then, once you’re finally sorted out and the glitches are gone, Google will announce the preview version of Android 10 in Spring 2019 and you’ll no doubt sign up to that too… Buying, owning and surviving with a Pixel device is a veritable white-water ride!

Like this post? Share it!