Pixel 3 XL review: Google’s phablet is a thing of beauty
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Yes, the Pixel 3 XL has a display notch. Yes, its display notch is suitably beefier than that on the iPhone Xs, Xs Max, Huawei P20 Pro and OnePlus 6. But, no, it’s not actually all that annoying.In fact, the best thing about the Pixel 3 XL is its display. Google has really knocked it out of the park this year as far as its display is concerned. Compared to last year’s Pixel 2 XL and it’s various screen tint issues, the Pixel 3 XL is a dream.
However, those of you hoping for some sort of radical new hardware direction may want to look elsewhere. As per Google’s mantra around its Pixel devices, hardware is just one part of the picture. This means that, while both fantastic phones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are simply hardware bump-ups rather than total innovation.
That’s no bad thing, though. But with the upped cost, those of you with Pixel 2 devices may want to hold off upgrading just yet.
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Google Pixel 3 XL review: Design and key features
As with previous iterations of Pixel phones, the Pixel 3 XL is practically identical to the Pixel 3 in every single way aside from size. Just like last year’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, however, the larger of the two phones has a different, larger display. Last year that meant an 18:9 curved-edged screen on the Pixel 2 XL, this year it means an iPhone X-style edge-to-edge display complete with camera notch.
I’ll come onto the Pixel 3 XL’s display a little later, but in regard to everything else about its design, it’s all subtle refinements on what came before. The two-tone gloss and matte back returns, except this time around Google has made it of textured glass, resulting in an immensely pleasurable feel in hand. It’s lightweight, cool to the touch and while it does feel a tad slippery, the textured back provides more than enough grip to ensure you won’t see it flying out of your hands with a squeeze.
In its centre resides the fingerprint recess, as before; and at the top you’ll find a single rear camera placed in the same spot as its predecessor.
Flip it over and you’ll be greeted by its staggering 6.3in, 18:9 edge-to-edge OLED display, coated with Gorilla Glass 5 and a polarising layer to reduce glare when in direct sunlight. The screen is bookended by two front-facing speakers, and the screen notch houses the Pixel 3 XL’s front-facing cameras – but more on those later.
Elsewhere you’ll find a little, coloured power button, on the white model, and Google has retained the Pixel’s IP68 water and dust resistivity rating. Curiously, Google has moved the Pixel 3 XL’s SIM tray to the bottom edge of the device, next to its USB Type-C port. Oh, and there’s also no return of the headphone jack – so you might want to give up on wishing for it to come back. With the Pixel 3 XL, Google has finally introduced 10W Qi charging and is offering a supplementary wireless charging stand for £69 to accompany your Pixel.
Known simply as Pixel Stand, this wireless charger keeps your phone upright when on charge and turns it into a mini Google Home Hub. It’ll patch though video feed from your Nest Hello video doorbell (if you have one) when someone rings, display photo albums if you want it to and work as your virtual assistant if you want it to play music or have it answer some questions.
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Google Pixel 3 XL review: Display and performance
Now, onto the Pixel 3 XL’s real party piece, the display. Aside from its notch that really isn’t as distracting as people seem to make notches out to be, the Pixel 3 XL’s display is fantastic. I’d almost go so far as to say it’s one of the best displays you’ll find on any smartphone out there today.
In our tests it’s peak brightness hit 393cd/m2, which is just a shade dimmer than the Pixel 3’s, but its colour accuracy is utterly fantastic. With the display set to its “Natural” colour profile, its average Delta E score was 1.21 – basically as good as phones get.
The screen is also HDR certified, meaning your Netflix or Prime Video TV shows and movies look their absolute best. If you want to go for a more vivid or a more muted look, the Pixel 3 XL also offers up “Boosted” and “Adaptive” modes alongside Natural. While Natural sits as sRGB, Boosted is sRGB “+10%” and Adaptive is the most vivid and closest to the DCI-P3 colour gamut.
If you’re wondering what that all means, Adaptive is largely closer to what you’d see if you went to the cinema or wanted to watch a movie in its intended colour space. Natural and Boosted, however, align more with the colour spaces you’re used to seeing in print or on your computer monitor.
In terms of the Pixel 3 XL’s performance, it’s equipped with the same 2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 as in the Pixel 3. That’s backed by 4GB of RAM and accompanied by 64GB or 128GB of storage. As expected of any phone running a Snapdragon 845, it’s very quick and Android 9 Pie certainly helps make everything feel even slicker still, performing wonderfully in all of our benchmarking tests.
Unfortunately, battery life is where the Pixel 3 XL lets itself down. In our tests, its 3,430mAh battery only lasted an underwhelming 13hs 8mins. This is longer than the Pixel 3, but it’s behind all of its rivals and even its predecessor.
Interestingly enough, in day-to-day usage, Google’s Adaptive Battery controls built into the Android 9 Pie does seem to help keep the Pixel 3 XL going for longer than you may expect, regularly lasting its way through a day of use. However, that’s anecdotal evidence and its benchmarks just don’t cut the mustard in the battery department.
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Google Pixel 3 XL review: Camera
With the Pixel 3 XL, Google is sticking to its guns in offering just a single rear camera in an age where almost all of the competition has opted for at least a dual-camera setup at the absolute minimum.
While it’d be nice to have the option for an optical zoom, how much of a dealbreaker having only a single camera is really rests upon the user. I, personally, couldn’t be less fussed but, in a time where even cheaper phones offer it, it’s certainly a blow against the Pixel’s phenomenal snapper.
Last year’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL had, easily, the best cameras you’d find in a smartphone. It’s so good that it even bests the current iPhone Xs and has only really been outdone by the triple-camera-threat that is the Huawei P20 Pro. With the Pixel 3 XL, Google has only improved upon that previous benchmark, even if it appears that the camera’s specs haven’t changed one bit.
On the rear you’ll find a 12.2-megapixel, f/1.8 camera equipped with optical image stabilisation (OIS) and a dual-pixel autofocus. It also looks as if Google has equipped it with a spectral/flicker sensor to help it produce more accurate white balance settings.
It’s clear that Google is placing even more faith in its HDR+ algorithm to help it take industry-leading photos. Using a custom Visual Core ISP chip to process eight frames every time the shutter button is pressed, it compiles an image that’s truly wonderful to behold. The iPhone Xs is also now capable of the same feat, but Google’s tech lends to more natural, clearer images.
Google is also betting on a slew of quality-of-life improvements to the camera experience. Top Shots captures frames from right before the shutter button is pressed and then helps you pick out the best shot, so you don’t end up missing the moment because of your slow trigger finger. There’s also a Night Sight mode coming after release which uses AI to illuminate low-light shots in the same way a flash would, without the actual glare or white glow a flash gives off. It was unavailable for testing at the time of our review, so we’ll just have to take Google’s word on it for now.
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You’ve also got “Motion auto-focus” for use in both still images and video to help you track objects and snap them. And you can now save images in both RAW and JPEG, and Google’s Lens technology is now available as a live AR overlay rather than as a process after you’ve snapped a photo.
The most interesting feature, however, is Super Res Zoom – helping abate most fears around a lack of a second camera. Super Rez Zoom uses the natural motion of your hand as you snap images to fill in the lost detail of zoomed-in shots. It’s not quite as good as a proper optical zoom, but it’s a reasonable substitute that will undoubtedly improve in time via software updates.
Google has also managed to improve the Pixel 3 XL’s video capture capabilities – as they were rather abysmal on the Pixel 2. Unfortunately, it’s still not the best you’ll come across. The new “fused” stabilisation technique of OIS and EIS means it can’t record 4K video at 60fps, something other phones on the market certainly can do.
The last new feature of the Pixel 3 XL’s camera is the addition of a new snapper to the front of the device. That’s right, Google has seen fit to equip the Pixel 3 XL with a second camera on the front. This means there are now two 8-megapixel f/2.2 aperture front-facing cameras, and one has a wide-angle lens. This is supposed to result in 184% more scene in the shot for selfies, making it perfect for groups or to take in gorgeous views.
All of these new features aside, the Pixel 3 XL is easily capable of taking truly stunning shots. Bright lights and sky are captured with frightening levels of accuracy and amazing depth of colour. In fact, my only complaint is that some indoor shots can come across a little on the cool side, but that’s really just a tiny complaint.
READ NEXT: Google Pixel (and XL) review
Google Pixel 3 XL review: Software
On the software side, Google likes to keep all of its Pixel phones with the same general capabilities. This means that even if you’re running the original Pixel, your phone will soon be able to do many of the things the Pixel 3 is capable of.
Part of the software update is the introduction of Android 9 Pie and its set of features. But Google is also introducing its Google Duplex call assistant to Pixel 3 XL owners. In the US this means you’ll be able to book tables and appointments, but in the UK it’ll become a call screening service that transcribes conversations live and means you don’t have to bother picking up the phone to a cold call.
Google Pixel 3 XL review: Verdict
It should really come as no surprise that the Google Pixel 3 XL is a great phone. It’s a truly wonderful thing to use that feels excellent to hold and comes with a brilliant screen and fantastic camera. In reality, the only real disappointment is that it’s let down somewhat by its battery life and the fact that, for the money, there are alternative phablet phones out there right now.
That said, just like it’s smaller sibling, the Pixel 3, Google has gone and made a thing of beauty with the Pixel 3 XL. It’s not just a smartphone, it’s a phone that really does slot into your life thanks to its smart assistant features. It’s a phone that will evolve and won’t be made obsolete by its successor. It’s a phone that, if you’re not simply upgrading to from the Pixel 2 XL, should stand the test of time well beyond the next iteration of smartphones in 2019.