One of the things that happens when you review a lot of phones, is that you’re constantly moving devices, often returning to one phone when others are recalled. The Pixel 3 XL had that lure and not without good reason.
But over the course of nearly a year, what has this experience been like?
Wear and tear: A reflection on design
The Pixel is a quality phone, well-built and able to withstand the normal rough and tumble. One of the early questions raised was how well the rear frosting finish would survive. It’s one of the Pixel’s defining design features – although rumour suggests its being dropped on the Pixel 4.
In reality, that finish will scratch, just like a metal, glass or plastic. It also seems to hang on to oils slightly more than the rest of the device and having just come back from a summer vacation, it was noticeable that the rear looked pretty bad because of oils from sunscreen.
That’s not permanent, however – unlike some of the deeper scratches. We’d not say these were any different to other devices, but in some cases they are more noticeable because of the change in texture. If you’re buying a premium device, a case or cover is always recommended, but for those who like their phones naked, this is the result.
The Pixel 3 XL has also been dropped a number of times too. From falling off the arm of the couch onto the wooden floor, to a couple of concrete drops, it’s lasted well. But one unfortunate drop right on the corner getting out of a car cracked the screen. That can happen to any device, again a reminder that a case is always the way to go if you want to keep your device pristine.
Let’s return to the notch
But of all the design features, it was the notch that drew the most attention. It’s rather cartoony, offering a curved symmetry that might have made sense on the designer’s sketches, but which seems excessive in real life.
Of course it contains a wide-angle selfie lens – more on the cameras in a second – but with following devices using waterdrop notches or screen cut-outs, it’s notable for its excessive size.
Use a dark wallpaper and you probably won’t really notice, so it’s not been a problem for us, but it is a design that quickly dated.
But that camera though
A lot can be forgiven when the camera is as good as the Pixel 3 XL. It was in 2017 that Sundar Pichai said that phones wouldn’t be defined by the hardware (paraphrased) going forward, but instead that AI would play the bigger role.
That’s really come to fruition in the Pixel, as updates have boosted performance not just on the Pixel 3 devices, but on older phones too. It’s not just about the capture hardware, it’s about the software that examines the picture and determines how that picture should look.
The Pixel 3 XL pulls off portraits both front and back that are generally better than rivals – despite those rivals claiming to use more lenses for more data. The Pixel also delivers HDR shots and an evenness that embarrasses some others. Shots can be a little cool and it will get the white balance confused under artificial lighting on occasion – but it’s generally a leading smartphone experience.
Night Sight has changed the game, and while Huawei has really changed gear to offer a better camera experience, the Pixel 3 XL laughs at the efforts of the iPhone and Samsung – market leaders who have been wrong-footed.
The notch also houses that wide-angle selfie camera and that’s a good thing. While others offer wide-selfie options, none actually delivers it as well as the dedicated lens on the front of the Pixel 3.
It might not have a wide-angle camera on the rear, but it can reproduce those things: Google’s Photo Sphere is a powerful tool for capturing wide-angle scenes while AI cleans it up nicely, the picture below stitched together from about 12 images.
This is one of the main reasons we return or the Pixel, or select it before travelling – because it’s going to take photos easily without the fuss and with excellent quality – and that’s important.
The old RAM debate
When the Pixel 3 XL was announced, people immediately criticised the 4GB of RAM. This was then appended to the Pixel’s aggressive background closing of apps. This demonstrated itself when opening the camera: you’ll be playing Pokemon Go, you see a man with a duck on a lead – a photo you have to take – you take the photo and return to Pokemon Go, at which point the game has to completely relaunch.
There’s an increasing trend of smartphone fans pointing to bigger numbers and saying they are better: more RAM is better, faster memory is better, higher resolution is better. In reality it’s not that simple: that’s not a reflection of the entirety of a device or how it performs. You can build a great benchmark phone, but it might be a complete pig in daily use.
There are plenty of 4GB phones that don’t exhibit this background app closing behaviour that defines the Pixel 3 experience. We’ve switched from Pokemon Go to camera and back on Moto G devices without this problem.
Instead, it’s a conscious decision as to how the device runs. Many apps don’t mind being suspended in the background, but some do – music or gaming apps – where the lack of continuity delivers a bad user experience. And that’s what it is – a bad user experience.
Despite some flaws, the Pixel has been a great companion. The display is great (unlike the Pixel 2 XL), we’ve had great successes on this phone when playing PUBG Mobile because it’s nice and slim easy to handle with great speakers, even if that means the battery life isn’t so competitive.
But Google really found its success with the Pixel 3a. While the larger 3a XL looks a little expensive for its positioning, the smaller 3a is actually very attractive – same great camera experience at a price point that’s hard to ignore.
Where something like the iPhone or Galaxy S incrementally changes from year to year – leaving older devices with a lot of appeal – the Pixel doesn’t quite feel like it follows the same path. The Pixel seems to jump from year to year.
The best part of this phone is now available for half the price and the Pixel 4 looks like it’s going to jump in a slightly different direction again. Certainly there are things that can be done to improve the experience in the Pixel 4 compared to the 3 XL, but this Pixel does now feel like it’s ready to be replaced.
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