2018 has been a hell of a year for Android. The year isn’t over yet and we have seen some stellar devices for the platform. It speaks volumes about how far Android has come along from its shaky beginnings. With the launch of the Pixel 3 in particular, Google has much to feel proud about.
This review has been a month in the making with good reason, I find that any review that hinges on getting opinions there “first” tend to lose out on a lot of the finer points about a product. For a device as personal as a phone, it is hard to see how anyone could give an objective view without having used it extensively for at least a week or two.
For those that don’t like long worded reviews here’s the skinny version: the Pixel 3 has the worlds best mobile camera wrapped around an excellent phone.
A little background before we begin however. I consider myself platform agnostic having actively used both android and iOS devices in equal measure for the last 5 years or so. The last year alone had me frequently switching between the Pixel 2 and iPhone 6S depending on which country I was in. I am also atypical in the fact that I hardly ever use the camera, I’m not a picture person by any means. That said, apart from making calls and the occasional text, here is what I do use my phone for:
Audio books and podcasts
Any phone that does those things well will be good enough for my use. Any phone that does those the best is likely going to become my default device. Before going through the list however, lets talk hardware. The Pixel 3 (I’m using an XL) sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 under the hood along with 4 gigs of RAM. The RAM seems low for a premier device especially when some of the competition has been rocking 6 gigs and above for a while. Still, it should be more than enough for the vast majority of users. Technically speaking, it comes down to optimization, even 32 gig of RAM wont be enough for a device that is prone to memory leaks for example. For those so inclined, here are some benchmarks (Geekbench and 3D Mark):
As you can see, these are very respectable numbers.
Build quality is excellent and it has just the right amount of heft to make the device feel good in one’s hand. The new matte finish at the back deserves special mention. It has a nice texture and is quite resistant to fingerprints and smudges. The fingerprint scanner is in an intuitive position and the buttons feel nice and “clicky”. Design wise, this is more of an iteration of the Pixel 2 rather than something new. So much so that a case for the Pixel 2 will work just as well for the Pixel 3. Speaking of design, lets get to elephant in the room. The infamous “bathtub” notch as some are calling it, is an eyesore, at least at first. It seemed like a real head scratcher until I used the speakers. The sound coming out of these tiny things is ridiculously good. They might just be the best phone speakers period. Loud and crisp with no distortion even at the high end. As far as standard you tube videos and podcasts go, this is good enough to make an external speaker unnecessary. It’s not going to give you any thumping bass but lets be honest, no phone will anytime soon. It is also worth noting that the notch isn’t as big on the standard Pixel as it is on the XL version. But as expected, the audio output on the smaller phone is not as impressive.
Assuming that ugly notch exists just to give the speakers room to do their thing, it can be seen as a fair compromise. Besides, after a a few days of use, I doubt the average person will even notice it. “Looks” being as subjective as they are, I will refrain from going further detail. Being more of a “function over form” sort of guy, so as long as it does what it is supposed to, I can live with a visual quirk or too. Anyone insisting that slim bezels are the end all and be all of good design will be disappointed but to me, the Pixel 3 looks just fine. Lets see how it performs.
Right out of the gate, the phone feels “snappy”. Apps open instantly and switching between tabs and screens is smooth and lag free. Web pages open quickly and the vibrant screen is a joy to use. There are a couple of exceptions to this. Using the camera while listening to music will mute any audio (which it should) but once you leave the camera app, the music does not resume the way it does in virtually every phone since 2015. I’ve also encountered an annoying bug wherein my wireless Jaybird Run earphones will cause audio apps to freeze. I’m not sure if it is the amount of RAM that is to blame or Jaybird’s infamously poor optimization. Apart from those two issues, I’ve had no complaints with the phones performance. As far as battery life goes, it is fair to expect the Pixel 3 to survive the day on one charge. Heavy usage of the screen at full brightness might cut down on your daily mileage (as would heavy gaming) but the average user should be able to clock 15 hours at least.
Audiophiles will be happy with the sound processing on the Pixel 3. Compared to my old iPhone 6s, it is a huge improvement. Though I still think Sony and LG lead the pack when it comes to pure sound quality, the Pixel is now a contender. There is no earphone jack however. Not that I’m complaining, if anything, I believe we are finally seeing some decent products on the wireless front precisely because most high end phones are eschewing the old jack . Another plus: the type C earphones included in the box are excellent. That is, if you can get them to fit in your ears. They are odd shaped to be sure.
If you decide to plop down the cash for the Google Stand you will also get the best wireless charger on the market right now. Or to be precise, the best wireless charger for the Pixel 3, as most of the bells and whistles here are reserved for Google’s flagship device. I’ve always been vary of wireless charging as they tend to be too slow. Not this one. The ability to use it as an intelligent alarm or picture frame is icing on the cake. The Stand also enables certain nifty Google Assistant features. If, like me, you were apprehensive about wireless charging in the past, this is likely going to change your mind. I highly recommend expanding your budget to grab one of them. Even if most of the features on the stand are tailored towards the Pixel 3, it is still a stupid fast charger for any compatible Qi device.
The way Google has integrated some of its software features into the Pixel 3 make it clear just what it expects to do as a device. The early years of Android were defined by tinkering. It was open source for a reason, serving as a vast unrestricted playground of sorts which lead to some amazing but unrefined ideas. In 2018, the spirit of the platform seems to be defined by an increasing tendency to automate. The idea is to make the devices do away with a lot of the user’s input. A good example of this is how empowered Google Assistant feels on the Pixel 3. We now have a phone that can actually answer the phone for you (though this feature has yet to roll out in India). Take that spammers! How is one not supposed to find that impressive? The sheer amount of AI integration on the Pixel 3 runs the gamut from geeky to freaky. Make no mistake, this is just the beginning.
The best example of how AI and software has changed things is exhibited by the Pixel 3’s use of its camera. And what a camera it is! Google has always been able to hold top spot in this department and the Pixel 3 is no exception. If anything, they have upped their game with the slew of new software features. Whatever AI voodoo has gone into tweaking the way the phone takes pictures has certainly worked. Low light conditions? No problemo. The Pixel 3 will make it look as bright as day. As mentioned earlier, I’m not a photo person. I’ve never taken a selfie in my life and doubt I ever will. But if selfies are your thing, the wide-angle selfies this thing can take with its dual front facing lenses is a godsend. Also worth mentioning is the “focus tracking” feature, something that is sure to help out with shaky hands and moving subjects. Suffice it to say, you wont get a better smartphone camera today. If camera photography ranks high on your priority list, the Pixel 3 is hands down the best on the market.
Now for the bad news. There is one area where the Android space has constantly been trying to play catch up with iOS and has been failing constantly. Health tracking. Don’t get me wrong, the standard health app on android might be adequate but thats just it. It is adequate and nothing more. I had high hopes for Android Wear when it was first announced and till date, nothing there is even remotely exciting. Meanwhile Apple continues to improve on the wearables front. From the laughably useless first Apple watch to the now excellent series 4, its clear that Apple has learned what works in the health tracking game. Meanwhile even the most popular training apps on android are woefully lackluster. Unless you are a runner or cyclist, nothing in the Google play store is going to be nearly as impressive as the offerings on iOS. Anyone serious about strength training and functional work will still find it best to stay with Apple. I really want too see Google woo some of the better developers out there in the training space (though to be fair there are some good cross-fit ones on Android now). Better curation of existing apps on the Play store would be nice too. It might seem like this criticism has nothing to do with the Pixel 3 per se. However, the fact is that one of the biggest draws of the Pixel family is its tight integration with the Android platform. We now live in a world where the lines between software and hardware are getting very blurry. As such, a criticism of one can easily boil over to the other. Furthermore, in talking about the Pixel 3 one needs to understand that this is vying for the position of the “best” phone on the planet right now. Considering how good the competition is at the top, it is only fair to have high expectations. In a product this good, any omissions, no matter how small, tend to stand out.
Which brings me to my last complaint. Google’s insistence on not providing a memory expansion slot is just downright silly. Why manufacturers want to limit the user experience this way is beyond me. When the competition is happy to provide something so basic, it only hurts the “bang for buck” value of the product. In fact, as of writing this review, on a “dollar per GB” scale, it makes the 128 GB version of the iPhone XS actually cheaper than the Pixel 3 XL. Like I said, silly. And no, unlimited on line storage for photos on Google Drive, while appealing, is not enough to make up for this oversight. For one thing, there are many times when a decent wifi network isn’t available. For another, there are folk like me who have zero access to even basic cellular signals for weeks at a time. This can become a deal breaker for many.
Still, it is worth reiterating that save for those two gripes, there is little I can fault the Pixel 3 for. Unless you happen to be nit-picky about the quality of health tracking/training apps or someone that likes storing a ton of data on your phone, there is little to complain about. After using it for month and putting it through its paces, the Pixel 3 has now become my primary phone. This is definitely one of the best devices on the market right now. And considering just how good that market is at the moment, that is saying something.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10