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October 10, 2018

Google Pixel 3 XL hands-on review

by John_A


Research Center:

Google Pixel 3 XL

Notch.

That’s the first word that came to mind as we used the Google Pixel 3 XL. As the name suggests, it’s the larger model of the two phones Google unveiled at its hardware event in New York City. The Pixel 3 XL is a big phone with a design that’s attractive from many angles – but wow. That notch. It’s unlike the notch on the iPhone XS, and many other Android phones, because it’s big. Real big.

Once you get past the notch, however, you’ll find a phone with a great screen, fluid software, and a stunning camera.

Notched design, big OLED screen

The Pixel 3 XL has the same features as the Pixel 3, a strategy Google started with earlier Pixel phones and Apple copied for the iPhone XS and XS Max. That doesn’t mean they’re identical, however. The Pixel 3 XL has a larger 6.3-inch screen, offering space for more pixels and a bigger battery. The only design difference this year is the massive notch on the Pixel 3 XL, whereas the smaller Pixel 3 opts for chunky bezels around the screen.

The notch is ugly, plain and simple. It juts into the screen way and looks distracting. We don’t normally moan over the notch on a phone, but the Pixel 3 XL takes it a bit too far. If we were getting this big of a notch, it’d be nice if Google included a Face ID-esque unlocking method for the phone alongside its fingerprint sensor on the rear.

Turn the phone over, though, and it can pass for handsome. Google is sticking with the two-tone look, but instead of mixing glass and metal, it’s all glass on the rear. Google has managed to make the bottom glass matte, so it’s not as slippery as other phones and hides fingerprints better. However, the Pixel 3 XL is less alluring than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 or Apple’s iPhone XS.

The notch is ugly, plain and simple.

The 6.3-inch OLED screen offers 2,960 x 1,440 resolution, and it looks fantastic. It was bright enough to see with direct sunlight shining through windows, though we’ll need to take a better look outdoors. Colors are vibrant and paired with deep black levels in dark scenes. While the phone is large, it didn’t feel too unwieldy to hold during our short time with it.

Dual front-facing speakers return, which is why there’s a chin on the front. Google says the speakers are 40 percent louder than last year’s Pixel 2, and the difference is noticeable. We could hear Google Assistant even over the press event’s cacophony.  Speaking of Google Assistant, you can squeeze the phone to trigger Google’s helper, just like last year.

There’s no headphone jack, but Google wins some points for including USB Type-C earbuds in the box, as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter.

Strong performance, Android Pie, and modest battery

The Google Pixel 3 XL is powered by the common Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, paired with 4GB of RAM. Navigating Android 9 Pie felt fluid and responsive, with apps launching quickly, and multitasking posing no issue.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

While Android 9 Pie on the Pixel 2 XL allowed us to change the method of navigating the phone, we could not find an option to use the traditional Android navigation buttons. That means you’re stuck with using Google’s gesture navigation system, which isn’t as simple as the gesture navigation system on the iPhone XS.

There are a few software features exclusive to the Pixel 3 series that we haven’t been able to try yet. You can place the phone screen facing down to trigger “Shh” mode, which silences all your notifications; a new Call Screening option uses Google’s Duplex technology to let you see whether a call is from a telemarketer; and Gmail’s Smart Compose feature is coming to mobile — it automatically generates text it thinks you want to write in an email, and the launch is starting with the Pixel 3.

But the biggest advantage to owning a Google Pixel 3 is software updates. Google manages the Android operating system, so the Pixel 3 will always receive fast Android version and security updates as soon as Google pushes them out. The list of phone manufacturers that can make the claim of fast updates is growing — such as OnePlus, Essential, or HMD Global — but the Pixel series will still always get updates the fastest.

There’s a 3,430mAh battery inside, which is smaller than last year’s Google Pixel 2 XL. That’s disappointing. We’re not expecting more than a full day of use. Since the phone can wirelessly charge, Google is selling a separate 10-watt wireless charging stand for $79. The Pixel Stand juices up the phone, but there are a variety of other integrations, such as connecting with the Pixel’s Do Not Disturb mode, and doubling as a digital frame for your photos.

Google Pixel 3 XL Compared To

Sony Xperia XZ3

Huawei Mate 20 Lite

Honor Play

Pocophone F1 by Xiaomi

Moto Z3

Vivo Nex S

Moto Z3 Play

LG G7 ThinQ

Cat S61

OnePlus 6

Moto G6 Play

Honor 10

Nuu G3

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3

There’s no MicroSD card slot, but there are options for 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. Google is still offering free photo storage for Google Photos in their original resolution.

Another stellar camera

The Google Pixel 2’s is at the top of our list. The Pixel 3 XL improves on it while maintaining the single-lens camera system on the back. It’s a 12.2-megapixel lens with a f/1.8 aperture, and we experienced almost zero lag when snapping photos. The camera app feels smoother than ever before, and has several slick new features.

Google’s still has its impressive HDR+ technology in the Pixel 3 XL, which takes many photos when you tap the shutter icon and combines them all to create a perfect photo. A new feature called Top Shot now alerts you to when someone may have blinked in a photo. And you can peruse through all the photos it captured to choose something better. It’s much like choosing a key photo in Live Photos on the iPhone.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

More impressive is Super Res Zoom, which reduces the noise in photos captured by digitally zooming in. There’s no optical zoom, so zooming in to capture a photo on the Pixel 3 XL won’t look as good as using the 2x optical zoom on phones like the LG V40, Galaxy Note 9, or the iPhone XS, but the results are still impressive. We were able to make out details of buildings far away after zooming in. It works far better than expected.

Portrait Mode looks better than ever before — on the front and the back.

There’s now not one, but two front-facing cameras. Both are eight-megapixel cameras, with the main lens having a f/1.8 aperture, and a secondary wide-angle lens with a f/2.2 aperture. You can use the wide-angle lens for group shots, or to simply take in more of the scenery in your selfie. Switching between both cameras is incredibly fluid, and Portrait Mode works with both cameras, so photos can stand out even more. Playing around with both cameras is a lot of fun.

Portrait Mode also looks better than ever before — on the front and the back. It accurately identified the edges of a subject and applied a strong bokeh effect. Details here are incredibly sharp, and these photos often look like they came straight from a DSLR.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There’s even more to the camera, but we didn’t have chance to try every feature during our hands-on. What we saw, however, has us convinced the Pixel 3 XL will remain a favorite among smartphone photographers.

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 3 XL starts at $899, and pre-orders are open now. It officially goes on sale starting October 18. The phone is being sold through Google and Verizon, but if you buy it from the Google Store, you can use it on any major carrier network in the U.S.

It’s a steep price for a phone, but we like almost everything we see — except for the notch. It looks like the camera is going to be yet another winner, the screen looks great, the speakers get loud, the software is uncluttered and bloatware-free, and performance is strong.

If you can stomach the notch, the Pixel 3 XL might be the best Android phone yet.

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