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October 25, 2018

The Pixel 3 is quickly becoming my favorite phone ever

by John_A

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I take for granted that people pay the same attention to the Pixel line as I do. I mean, I’ve been looking for something like the Pixel 3 since I began reviewing phones almost 10 years ago. A product that doesn’t wear its specs on its sleeves but instead focuses on optimizing the experience for the way I actually use a phone throughout the day.

In my time using the Pixel 3, I’ve returned to one thought again and again: I don’t need anything else. What the Pixel 2 lacked, its successor possesses. And while that doesn’t quite mean my search for the perfect phone is over, it’s certainly slowed down for the moment.

If you live in a country where you can buy the Pixel 3, you should absolutely consider it as your next phone.

Perfectly composed

Google Pixel 3

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$799 at Google Store

The perfect size, weight, and feature set for most people

The Google Pixel 3 manages to get almost everything right, including the way it gets out of your way when you don’t need it. An Amazing display, camera, and performance mixes well with awesome sound, water resistance, stereo speakers, and a lovely, minimal design. Plus the best of Android before anyone else.

Pros

  • Great minimal design and lovely build quality
  • Incredible performance
  • Best-in-class camera
  • Fastest Android updates out there
  • Amazing haptics

Cons

  • Not quite all-day battery life (but close)
  • Wireless charging support is a mess
  • No headphone jack
  • A few memory-related issues
  • Expensive

I value a few things in a phone, and they all have to be present for me to consider the product a success:

A reliable camera

I need my phone camera to work. That means it needs to open quickly and be able to take a photo that comes out pretty well to great almost all the time. Only three companies right now check that box, and they’re Google, Apple, and Samsung. I don’t want my photos overwhelmed by AI or effects, and I don’t need a bevy of manual controls (though they’re certainly appreciated). I just want to press the shutter button and get a nice photo, preferably in focus.

I have a dog and a child, notoriously difficult subjects to capture without blur. The Pixel 3 does a pretty good job almost all of the time.

Great haptics

I know, this is a weird one, but in the last few years — ever since the iPhone 6S shipped with the Taptic Engine — I’ve become obsessed with good haptics in phones. Actually, to be more precise, I’ve become obsessed with bad haptics, to the point where I can barely use a phone with a mushy, buzzy, dissonant vibration motor.

Intuitive software

There’s something about being able to pick up a phone and understand how it works. Some of that comes down to hardware design, sure — the position of the buttons, or the presence or absence of hardware navigation keys — but it’s mainly how the software works with the hardware where intuition kicks in.

One example is gestures, like the ability to swipe down on the rear fingerprint sensor to check notifications. Another is a useful ambient display, found on devices from Motorola and Samsung — so, so useful. A hardware mute button, like on OnePlus phones. A shortcut to the camera app by, say, double-tapping the power button.

Great display and sound

I’m increasingly doing actual work on my phone, so the better the screen and the clearer the audio, the more easily I can get stuff done (or sit and watch YouTube videos and pretend to get work done, let’s be honest). Fantastic sound is definitely additive — you can tell when a phone blasts a tune or projects a podcast. With the screen it’s different; sure, you can tell that a Samsung phone has an incredible screen, but it’s a lot easier to identify a poor display. Like on last year’s Pixel 2 XL.

One-handed use

I’m not against big phones, but I prefer ones that I can easily use in one hand. Samsung does a great job making its bigger phones feel smaller with an awesome one-handed mode, but I’ll take, say, a Galaxy S9 on its own over an S9+ in one-handed mode any day of the week. Similarly, the Pixel 3 (which is nearly the same size as the Galaxy S9) is easily used in one hand but has a screen big enough that I don’t feel short-changed by its diminutive stature.

Everything else is gravy

I never feel battery anxiety because I’m constantly near a charger, portable or otherwise. If a phone can get me through the day, that’s good enough; I don’t need two. Similarly, I appreciate fantastic data speeds and headphone jacks and styluses and all the other amenities, but they either improve or mask what is already, to me, a good or bad product.

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Which brings us to the Pixel 3

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology 101 course, you’ll know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this pyramid of requirements that humans need for basic satisfaction, success, and ultimately fulfillment. At the bottom of the pyramid are the body’s needs: food, water, shelter. Security. Safety. Those are required to climb to the next tier, like intimacy, friendship, relationships. Those still must be satisfied to reach the top of the pyramid: self-actualization and the fulfillment of one’s true purpose.

A smartphone is just an object, a bunch of metal and glass and circuitry. The materials are important, and must be constructed in a way to be solid, reliable. The screen must be sharp enough to see clearly; the responsiveness close to real-time. As we move up the pyramid, the software must be intuitive, fast, reliable. It must get out of the user’s way. The top of the pyramid is a bit abstract, this notion of satisfaction, of completeness.

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I’m not saying the Pixel 3 is perfect, but it’s close. The issues that I’ve experienced are surmountable. Solvable. The phone’s software gets out of my way so I can do the things I want to do with my phone: communicate with my friends and family.

Take photos of my daughter. Pick it up at 7pm and not feel battery anxiety. Put it next to the sink while I’m doing dishes and not worry about water damage. Place it on a wireless charger to top it up. And, ultimately, feel confident that it’s receiving everything Android is and will be for years to come.

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There’s an evangelical quality to smartphone brands; just look at Apple. Within the Android space, doubly so. One can’t merely praise a phone or its manufacturer without inviting a mob of criticism — it doesn’t matter the company, nor the phone model. There will be haters.

But what I appreciate about using the Pixel 3 is that the decisions Google made about it, from the things made it in, to the glaring omissions, make sense in the context of what it’s trying to accomplish. And while that invariably downplays specs and suppresses a fair number of features, there is no bloat. And by bloat, I don’t mean “bloatware” but actual excess. In this case, there is virtue in Google’s restraint.

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I’ll also point to some of the most promising improvements over previous models:

  • The haptics are outstanding. These are some of the best haptics I’ve used in an Android phone, though admittedly they pale in comparison to Apple’s Taptic Engine in the newer iPhones. I spoke to Mario Queiroz, Google’s VP of Product Management, and he told me that the company not only sources bigger, more powerful vibration motors, but works with the creator to gain low-level access to its drivers. That means being able to more finely manipulate the way the vibration motor responds to events, which is why you feel small, deliberate haptic feedback — such as swiping down on the notification shade — all over the OS.

The phone’s camera is stupefyingly reliable, and the photos it captures are better than anything else out there.

  • Camera quality is better in surprising ways. Everyone acknowledges (or should acknowledge) that the Pixel’s cameras are just better, but what’s often overlooked is the variety of difficult-to-shoot photos that the Pixels get right. For example, the common situation of shooting a candid photo of people inside using artificial lighting. So many phones can’t, due to small sensors or poor IQ, keep shutter speeds high enough to prevent blur. The Pixel 3 nails these kinds of photos almost every time.

  • Wireless charging is now a must-have. I’ve all but removed wired chargers from my office desk and bedside table. Every phone I use on a regular basis has wireless charging; the ones that don’t never last longer than a few days in my pocket. The reality is that by early next year, every major phone release from every manufacturer of note will have integrated wireless charging — except for OnePlus, but we know how they do. On the Pixel 3, it means slumping into bed and not worrying about finding my cord in the dark (because silence and darkness are essential when you have a newborn).

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  • The size is right. Yes, the physical size is more or less identical to the Pixel 2, but its larger screen makes it a better use of space, and the new frosted glass back is more comfortable to hold when the phone isn’t in a case. While holding the phone, it’s easy to reach up to the top of the screen, and that’s really all I need. The 5.5-inch OLED display is beautiful — much better than its predecessor’s — and there’s more than enough room to watch video comfortably.

  • Battery life is great. This one has been hotly contested, but I’ve found battery life on the smaller Pixel 3 to be more than good enough for my use. I consider myself a pretty average user — no long gaming sessions, between three and four hours of screen-on time a day — and my phone lasts well into the evening, if not the entire day, with no top-ups. That means I can safely take it off the charger around 7 am and not place it on a wireless pad for topping up at all and still have around 10% left when I go to bed at 11:30 or midnight. That’s pretty good.

  • The software is a joy to use. I’m not going to argue about which Android “skin” is better — you do you. But what I will suggest is that, objectively, the team that builds the Pixel has a more nuanced understanding of how the latest version of Android should fit with its hardware. That’s especially true this year, since Google designed and built the two Pixel phones on its own, sans LG or HTC. That’s a first for the company since the inception of the Nexus program in 2010.

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It’s not all perfect

Like all Pixels (and Nexuses before them), the Pixel 3 is not without its issues. Of course, the biggest and most notable issue to date is its memory management, which seems to be either hampered by the 4GB of RAM inside the phone (not an inherent problem, but it appears to be approaching one) or a major bug left unsolved before shipping. Either way, its symptoms are deleterious to the overall experience. These include apps being purged from memory while they’re running — most notably, music apps like Spotify and Pocket Casts just stop playing in the background when performing memory-intensive tasks like using the camera.

Worse is the fact that in certain situations, photos don’t save once they’re taken. I was taking photos for this very article only to discover when checking Google Photos that two of them didn’t exist. But because I was taking comparison photos on an iPhone XS and Pixel 2, I knew I’d taken them. (Redundancy=not thinking you’re crazy.)

I have faith that these issues will be resolved in software and, like so many early-days Pixel issues (there have been so many) it’ll quickly be forgotten.

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I’m also not thrilled with the fact that Google’s implementation of wireless charging is an utter mess. Google has implemented its own proprietary 10W wireless charging standard; its Qi support is limited to 5W. Google is working with third-party accessory manufacturers to certify new products for its new phones, but that won’t appease many people who went out and bought 10W wireless chargers hoping they’d work.

Nearly everything about the Pixel 3 delights me.

There are other issues that others have experienced, like rattling speakers at high volumes, and crackly sound when recording video, that I can’t reproduce. Doesn’t mean they’re not issues for some people, and that’s certainly a problem for Google, which has a reputation for releasing unfinished products.

Finally, I don’t love how expensive the baby Pixel is this year. At $800, it’s certainly worth the high price, but it’s still a lot of money and $150 more than last year’s entry point. Google is clearly attempting to narrow the delta between big and small phone — with comparable displays, identical cameras, and all-day battery life — and in my view, the small phone is the better proposition this year. But that doesn’t diminish the considerable price bump.

Not falling into the trap

It’s always easy to get caught up in the relentless controversies surrounding the release of a product early in its cycle. The “-gates.” Thanks to Google’s predilection for buggy shipping software and being opaque about their inevitable fixes, many people just write off the company, and its phones, completely. I think that’s a mistake.

Nothing I’ve experienced on the Pixel 3 so far is even close to a dealbreaker. I take photos and listen to music all day, every day, and I can count on a single hand the number of lost photos or purged music players. I’m not going to pretend the issues aren’t there, but I’m willing to live with them (and remain optimistic they’ll be fixed) because practically everything else has been unabashedly positive. Trash me in the comments if you want (and you will), but that’s my experience and I’m owning it.

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The best phone for people who just want a phone

So many people refer to the Pixel series as the Android version of the iPhone. (Our frenemies at Android Authority actually titled their Pixel 3 review “The Android iPhone”.) They say it as a pejorative, but to me that its biggest selling feature. Why is the iPhone so impressive? Because the phone largely gets out of its own way and lets the features speak for it. The iPhone is only as good as its experiences, and the fact that Apple controls the interaction between hardware and software ensures that everything from touch response to camera quality to haptics are as good as they can be.

4.5
out of 5


Google does the same. While Android is a different beast entirely to iOS, it’s the areas Google makes Android more like iOS — and I’m not talking about copying the aesthetic like Huawei or Xiaomi, but actually finding ways to make the experience more complete — where it excels. Monthly security patches. Regular platform updates. A camera that’s damn near magic. Touch response that’s practically unrivaled on the platform. These are thing things I want from a smartphone. These are the things that matter to me.

But these are the things I believe, with a bit of education, will matter to others, too.

See at Google Store

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