It’s one thing to soak up every leak about Google’s new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL Android phones and knock the larger device’s thick notch from afar, but another to actually hold them in your hands and try to make some sense of the design choices and features that are the result of them.
These are clearly the hot phones of the moment, and from my brief time with them, they certainly feel good in the hand. But is there anything compelling about the Pixel 3 phones beyond their glass surfaces? Yes… if you’re really into taking photos.
Google spent barely a minute talking about the design and exactly zero seconds on the Pixel 3’s specs. Instead, it used the entirety of the phone portion of its #MadeByGoogle event to focus on the phones’ new camera capabilities.
And boy are there many.
Camera feature overload
So let’s talk about the cameras. Both the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 and the 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL have the same set of cameras: a 12.2-megapixel rear camera and dual 8-megapixel selfie cameras on the front.
Google proved with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL that it could compete on mobile photography without pushing hard on hardware (with, say, a dual-camera system or optical telephoto lens) and instead rely on software, via AI and machine learning, to do what the camera lens and sensor couldn’t do on their own.
While the demo area at Google’s event was far from a good place to test cameras, shots with the Pixel 3 looked good. I mean, they didn’t look worse than on Pixel 2.
Google says there’s better dynamic range for photos taken with the Pixel 3 thanks to its third iteration on HDR+. With the Night Sight feature (I didn’t get to test this because it was daytime), the phones use on-device machine learning to analyze low-light shots and boost details by injecting more luminance into areas like shadows. All without using flash.
It sounds impressive and Google even took a shot at the the iPhone XS‘s cameras with a comparison:
How well it works in practice and really compares to the iPhone XS’s Smart HDR feature, which I found to be a huge improvement over the iPhone X’s regular HDR feature, however, is something I will have to test more thoroughly when I get the phones for review.
There’s a new “Super Res Zoom” feature that essentially crops a photo and and sharpens the details — a clear way to make up for not having a secondary 2x telephoto lens like on other phones.
A “Top Shot” feature is supposed to ensure you get only the best shots. You know, the ones without closed eyes or photobombers or blurriness.
Photobooth captures photos when it detects subjects have smiled or made a silly face. There’s another mode for video that tracks moving subjects. And the Pixel 3 phones also boast more realistic AR stickers (is that really a thing people care about?).
Perhaps the most useful new camera features besides Night Sight are the improved portrait mode and the generically named “group selfie cam.”
Portrait mode now lets you adjust the depth of the background blur just like on flagship Samsung phones and the iPhone XS and XS Max. It even lets you adjust the subject focus so you can make the foreground blurry and the background sharp or desaturate the background to really make them pop. The feature seemed to work quite well from what I could tell.
The group selfie cam lets you adjust a zoom slider to switch between the regular wide-angle camera and the even wider secondary camera for a larger field of view — good for, well, group selfies. LG’s used this dual-camera selfie trick on some of its phones in the past, but on Pixel 3, it appears to work better.
The majority of these camera features are designed to help users “get the shot,” but besides Night Sight, the improved portrait mode, and the group selfies, most of these feel gimmicky. Which brings us full circle back to the question of what do people really want from their phone cameras? The answer: Just sharper and better-exposed photos.
When you litter a phone with too many fluffy features, people will ignore them. Just look at all the junk within Samsung’s camera app. But who knows? Maybe these new camera features will grow on me.
The hardware is… okay
Google might have ignored the hardware during its keynote, but consumers surely won’t. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL have good designs. They’re not necessarily the prettiest premium phones, but they at least feel good.
The smaller Pixel 3 is far more usable with one hand than the Pixel 3 XL. Both are a bit slippery thanks to their glossy sides. I love the orange power buttons — they just give the phones a nice pop of color.
There’s a fingerprint sensor on the back, no headphone jack, a USB-C port, and louder dual-front facing stereo speakers.
Both phones are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip and 4GB of RAM, and you have the option of either 64GB or 128GB of storage (no insane 256GB of 512GB on these babies). And if you must ask, there’s no expandable microSD card slot. Womp-womp!
Android 9 Pie is fast and snappy on the phones as they should be. New is wireless charging and there’s a neat $80 Pixel Stand wireless charging dock that also does fast charging (at 10 watts), essentially turning phones within it into a Google Home.
Bottom line: The Pixel 3’s appear to be well-built phones. I found myself liking the smaller Pixel 3 more than the 3 XL just because it doesn’t have a deep notch and it’s easier to use with one hand. But that’s a matter of personal preference.
Competition has never been greater
Starting at $799 for the Pixel 3 and $899 for the 3 XL, Google’s new phones certainly are more affordable than the $1,000+ iPhone XS and XS Max.
The pricing is more than a Samsung Galaxy S9, but Apple’s kinda got a secret weapon with the iPhone XR, which starts at $749 and comes with a larger 6.1-inch screen, an arguably sleeker design in punchier colors, and a more powerful (in practice) A12 Bionic chip.
I’ll have to put the Pixel 3 phones through the wringer to see if the cameras are really worth the ticket. If your allegiance is to Android, these are probably the best phones to consider getting. They have no bloatware and will definitely be the first Android phones to get new updates.
But even then I’d wait until the end of the month before pre-ordering. The OnePlus 6T, which will almost definitely cost less than the Pixel 3, could be a better value, and that’s coming just in time for Halloween.