The Google Pixel 3 XL, and indeed the smaller Google Pixel 3, are in many ways less about hardware and more about Google’s vision of smartphone software and the way artificial intelligence integrates into it all. Not once has the company touted any of the hardware inside the new Pixel phones, and instead talks about how the battery life is expected to be better, the improvements to the image processing and even how the phone will now be able to monitor your voice calls to identify spam callers. That in itself poses a big challenge, considering how flagship Android battles are still usually perceived by how much RAM a phone has or if it is running the newest processor or the megapixels in the camera. In none of the previous two editions of the Pixel phones has Google gone down the hardware path, and that status quo remains as is with the latest Pixel phones.
Unless you have the Not Pink version of the Pixel 3 XL, your Clearly White or Just Black phone may be mistaken for the Pixel 2 XL—that is how similar the new phones look when placed next to last year’s phones. Not necessarily a bad thing, because these phones are genuinely very good to look at. The understated design, the subtle elements and the all-round sophistication work very well. As it turns out, we have even come to like the dual tone finish on the back. What has changed the in-hand feel of the Pixel 3 XL however is the completely new set of materials in use. Out of the window goes what was there thus far, and in comes the new mix of glass and metal. That lends the phone a nice weighted feel, a sharp contrast to the slightly lightweight feel that the Pixel 2 XL offered in comparison—the extra 9 grams weight seems to be responsible for a world of improvement.
There are a lot of things that add to the premium feeling that the Pixel 3 XL exudes, better than its predecessors. The screen is slightly curved on either side, and cascades ever so gently into the side spines. Then there is the added colour touch on the power button—the Not Pink phone has an orange power button while the Clearly White phone gets a Mint colored power button. The glass on the front and the back is the Gorilla Glass 5, which should be quite resistant to scratches. You’ll not notice this all the time, but the shifting of the SIM tray to the bottom (adjacent to the charging port) means the left side spine is now completely clean—and the fingers just find that continuity of metal better. Apart from all this, what makes the most difference is how grippy the back panel feels when you hold up this large phone.
We have seen a lot of good-looking Android phones over the past few months, including the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the Huawei P20 Pro, and while all of them also use metal and glass as a great combination—none have the sort of humility about the design as the Google Pixel 3 XL manages to conjure up. Despite being a large screen phone, the footprint has been kept well in check.
Perhaps, the only piece of hardware that Google would want you to notice is the new display. The wounds of last year’s fairly muted display on the Pixel 2 XL have now been well and truly healed. The 6.3-inch OLED screen looks absolutely great. This is rich with accurate colours, text looks sharp and very readable and the reflections don’t really bother much either (unless you keep the brightness really low—guilty as charged). The brightness levels of the screen are great for most usage scenarios, though one does wish it was a tad brighter when the sun is belting down at noon, and you are squinting to see a small element in an image a friend just shared. Colours look rich and great, and the distinction between different shades of the same colour is quite visible too. That said, it is still too early to say if the “burn-in” issues have been completely eliminated—certain units of last year’s phones suffered from that problem.
By default, Google sets the Pixel 3 XL to what is the “Adaptive” mode in the display setting—and we believe this will be ideal for most usage scenarios including media viewing. However, if you prefer something that tones down the colour vibrancy a tad, you can choose between the “Natural” mode (this is sRGB calibrated) or the “Boosted” mode (this is sRGB but a bit more saturation dialed in).
Then there is the small matter of the not-so-small notch. Yes, pretty much every Android phone now has a notch to offer, in different styles, shapes and sizes. However, there really is no getting around the fact that the notch cut-out on the Pixel 3 XL’s display is large. We have to clarify that we got used to it beyond a point and it didn’t really intrude on any of the apps while we were using the phone. However, a lot of potential buyers and general observers on the virtual shop floors may need a bit more convincing.
There is no 3.5mm headphone jack and the charging port is the USB Type-C. Google will be bundling the fast charger with the phone, a trick Apple missed out on with the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max.
In the modern-day Android flagship battles, specification sheets are the first to get any sort of attention. Not with the Pixel 3 XL though, and we truly appreciate Google’s focus on the performance and experience, and not just the specs. Which is why the Pixel 3 XL rocks the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor with 4GB of RAM. Yes, 4GB of RAM. We have to say that at the time of writing this, the Pixel 3 XL which has now been loaded with a fair amount of apps, feels fast to use without any stutters or delays, and the Android 9 Pie interface is fluid to navigate around. We have no reason to suspect that it won’t stay this way, when more data fills up the Pixel 3 XL. This is perhaps the best exhibition of how keeping it simple with the software and the customizations in a smartphone can mean that even 4GB of RAM is more than enough for high-end smartphones. You don’t necessarily need to pack in 6GB or 8GB of RAM to make things tick along. But the way things have been wired in the consumers’ minds, you’ll have a hard time justifying this to your friends who have a phone with 6GB or 8GB of RAM. But remember, the proof is in your hands—not theirs.
Then there is the 12.2-megapixel camera, which has been touted as the best among all smartphones. Specific potshots have been taken at the iPhone XS Max. In terms of the specifics, this has a f/1.8 lens, 1.4-micron pixel size, optical and electronic stabilization as well as improvements to focus, digital zoom and low light photos. The Pixel Visual Core chip has been updated, while a new flicker sensor has been added for the rear camera. That said, most of the Pixel 3 XL’s camera improvements are actually derived from the software. Everything has been improved, in varying degrees. For instance, the HDR+ mode still takes multiple photos and merges the best elements of each together into one image—but it has become better at that. The Super Res Zoom uses any hand shaking to capture extra data that is then added to the final photo. Portrait mode is more consistent than the Pixel 2 XL, and can actually trump even the iPhone XS Max in many instances.
Sadly however, despite visual brilliance in most photos, the Pixel 3 XL doesn’t walk the talk all through. Yes, it captures great detailing and accurate colours. But in the end, it comes down to physical limitations. In a dual camera setup, two pieces of optical hardware pulling in a certain amount of data for a photograph and for the image processing engines to munch on, will always have an advantage over a single camera trying to do the same job. Artificial intelligence, I often like to say, can only take you that far, before the proverbial ceiling is reached. And it has. For instance, in a few photos, we noticed that the image processing actually introduced new elements into a photo, which weren’t there in the real world—such as a ceiling next to a bright spotlight was also identified as an extension of the spotlight. We also noticed that in close-up photos, the background was often completely lost.
In fact, it is hard to shrug off the feeling that the Pixel 3 XL is actually shooting images with warmer tones, which brings it ever closer to an iPhone. It pulls in a similar amount of detail, and surely has a slightly warmer colour tone that the Pixel 2 XL, or even the Samsung Galaxy S9+ or the Huawei P20 Pro.
I have to say that the Google Pixel 3 XL is a truly likeable phone. I quite like how it sits in the hand and has a weighted assurance about it. The fact that the display effectively erases the disappointment of last year is a bonus. The camera is better in many ways, including the fact that it is more willing to pull out details from shadows. However, the phone isn’t without its faults. The camera, for instance, is still quite inconsistent at times tends to burn out some details in the pursuit for extra detailing elsewhere. Some may still criticize the choice of the Not Pink colour—though I quite like it. But show me a phone without any faults? To have faults is human, and that makes the Google Pixel 3 XL more human than any smartphone thus far. The Google Pixel 3 XL (64GB) is priced at Rs83,000 while the 128GB variant costs Rs92,000.
The big question—should you buy one? We would tackle this question for two different demographics of users here. First, if you own a Pixel or Pixel XL from 2016, you might want to count the pennies, look for the change that may have fallen into the gaps in the couch, and head off to the nearest store to buy the latest Pixel phone. If you already have a Pixel 2 XL, you really don’t need to go anywhere just yet. A lot of the Pixel 3 XL’s features, particularly the camera, will eventually roll out for you as software updates. For anyone else looking to buy a flagship Android phone now, this is totally worth the price tag—yes, we know it is a lot. But truly great things don’t come cheap, do they? For us, the Pixel 3 XL can be classified as a great. Important to remember though, greatness don’t come without its own set of shortcomings.