Google Pixel 3 Review: Pure Compact Delight

Since the end of the Nexus era, Google has released three versions of its Pixel phone. Back in 2016, the company proved with the Pixel and Pixel XL it wanted to compete directly with the iPhone thanks to clean software, a great camera, and flagship pricing. The next year brought complete design refreshes with the Pixel 2 and 2 XL which included the best smartphone cameras to date and new software features. Now, we’re up to the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, and Google is sticking with the same formula it’s been using over the Pixel’s lifespan.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you. The new Pixels are great phones. I’ve been spending a ton of time with the standard Pixel 3, and I’m glad it’s in my possession. It checks a lot of boxes and makes for a truly delightful experience, all wrapped up in a compact form factor that’s easy to manage.

Oh, and that camera. That camera is THE BOMB.

I always (well, almost always) start my reviews with the design of the product I’m reviewing, and that’s not changing with the Pixel 3. The design of the Pixel 3 is very similar to that of the Pixel 2 and the original Pixel, but we’re not talking iPhone 6, 7, and 8 levels of similarity. More, this phone is a refined version of last year’s in which it offers a glass back and a larger screen in a similarly sized body. I love it.

Some people get annoyed when you talk about how phones feel in your hand since most of them feel fine, but the Pixel 3 is definitely one of my favorites to handle on a day to day basis. It’s so small and compact that it’s blatantly easy to hold in just one hand and operate. The taller 5.5-inch 18:9 screen certainly helps since you get a larger canvas for reading content and a manageable footprint all in one. For perspective, this phone was perfect for walking around CES since I could just hold it with one hand and snap a quick picture without worrying I might drop it.

Speaking of which, it’s probably not a good idea to drop this thing. A ton of people who have tested the Pixel 3 in the past have reported some serious scratch issues thanks to the frosted back plate that gives the Pixel 3 Google’s iconic two-tone appearance. Not only that, it’s made of glass, and glass can shattered if dropped at the right angle.

This is just a warning, not a statement that I physically had issues with the Pixel 3’s build quality. In fact, I was surprised by how well it held up in my testing. Like I said, I took it to CES, and I had to throw it in my backpack and into TSA security bins a ton of times. And surprisingly, there isn’t a scuff or crack anywhere on the body. Maybe I’m just lucky or something, but I had no problems with durability during my review period.

As previously mentioned, the Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch display, and this is where you’ll find the most striking change compared to the Pixel 2. Google decided to opt for much slimmer bezels in this case alongside a skinnier 18:9 aspect ratio and curved corners. With this formula, you get a screen that’s easy to manage with just your thumb and is big enough so you can still enjoy content. Its resolution sits at 2160×1080 which is plenty for a screen this size. What’s more, it boasts an OLED panel which looks great. Colors are bright and vibrant, contrasts are on point, and viewing angles are excellent. Admittedly, the screen’s a bit too dim to see easily in bright Las Vegas sunshine, but otherwise, it’s a great panel.

Also, there’s no big silly notch on the Pixel 3. This might be the best feature of the phone. I haven’t decided yet.

I did say “much slimmer bezels” when describing the display, but you may be looking at these images of the Pixel 3 and wonder where I’m getting at. At least compared to the Pixel 2, the 3 looks much more modern despite holding onto pretty sizeable bezels.

Luckily, the bezels aren’t for nothing as Google includes dual front-firing speakers embedded in the top and bottom borders of the screen. I’m always a fan of stereo speakers, and Google doesn’t disappoint. In fact, they’re some of my favorite speakers I’ve ever tried on a smartphone with enough bass for hip hop lovers to really enjoy their playlists. You’ll definitely be impressed by what this somewhat tiny smartphone is capable of when it comes to media playback.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said when it comes to headphones. Like the Pixel 2, the Pixel 3 doesn’t come with a headphone jack. Luckily, Google does supply an adapter in the box for standard wired headphones alongside a pair of their USB-C-equipped Pixel Buds. Personally, I don’t really care about the headphone jack anymore since I’ve converted to Bluetooth for most of my listening time, but I feel the need to address it with every phone that omits it because, chances are, you may still be hung up on the departure of the world’s favorite 3.5mm plug.

Around the back, Google includes a fingerprint scanner for securely logging into your Pixel 3. I’ve always been a fan of the sensors the company includes on its phones due to their accuracy, speed, and reliability. This sensor is no different. It’s also in a perfect spot where you can pull your phone out of your pocket and instantly reach for the sensor with your index finger. Sure, we’ve seen hardware fingerprint scanners in the past, and with new technologies such as facial recognition and in-display fingerprint readers, Google’s implementation may seem a little boring. But as the old saying goes, don’t fix what isn’t broken.

When it comes to performance, Google’s Pixel phones are always an interesting subject. On one hand, companies are throwing insane specs into their phones in hopes of catching the consumer’s attention and convincing them to buy a phone. Meanwhile, Google relies on a more conservative approach to specifications while specializing in well-optimized software. In the Pixel 3’s case, it’s the same, familiar story.

Under the hood, Google includes the same Snapdragon 845 processor every other 2018 flagship comes with. But unlike many manufacturers last year, Google stuck with just 4GB of RAM. In the age of 6, 8, 10, and even 12GB of RAM being shoved into phones, Google decided to stick with the basics and include the same amount of it has for years at this point.

As you might’ve expected, I do have issues with the company’s decision. With previous Pixels, many have claimed it’s the fastest and most responsive Android phone on the market. This is thanks to Google having much more granular control over how its software plays with the hardware of its devices. In other words, the company can make better optimizations that other companies simply can’t, allowing the search giant to stick with specs such as 4GB of RAM. But with the latest generation of Google phones, I don’t think this is enough.

Don’t get me wrong, the Pixel 3 is well equipped for a flagship-level experience, and that’s what you get with the device. But it isn’t the best that’s on the market today.

After I reviewed the OnePlus 6T, I decided to make it my main phone. Why? Because it had the best performance of any Android phone I’ve ever tested. Not only did it have a Snapdragon 845, it had 8GB of RAM to utilize. This allows for faster app load times, more apps to stay in the background without being forcefully stopped, and improved overall speed since there’s a ton of room for programs and services to temporarily store information.

This is a problem with the Pixel 3. During my testing, I’ve noticed I’m unable to keep a certain amount of apps open in the background without them crashing or having to reload upon launch. It’s especially an issue when I’m playing music in Spotify since it operates in the background and constantly eats up RAM, leaving little random access memory for other apps to utilize. Meanwhile, the 6T, which comes with twice as much RAM, has no problems like this whatsoever.

Personally, I think Google should’ve included at least 6GB of RAM with the Pixel 3. The device performs fine with 4GB, but if it wanted to be the top dog like it was a year ago, more RAM would’ve been the way to go.

None of this is to say the Pixel 3 is a poor performer. On the contrary, you still get smooth and fluid performance while using the Pixel 3, and things liek gaming are handled well with little to no dropped frames. But it isn’t the best performance you can get out of an Android phone, and that’s a shame considering Google’s reputation.

On the flip side, the software experience you get out of the Pixel 3 is still one of the best on the market. It comes straight from Google, and while it’s not exactly stock Android, the company makes plenty of improvements to ensure a great experience overall.

The Pixel 3 runs the latest version of Android, Android 9.0 Pie. It’s first in line for software updates, so when Android Q begins rolling out this year, it’ll be among the first to get the OTA. That’s a promise Google makes with every one of their phones, and that’s reason enough to love the software on any of its devices.

But the buck doesn’t stop there, of course. With Android Pie on the Pixel 3, you get a clean and minimalist experience with Google’s Pixel Launcher set as the home screen and your Google feed to the left. You also get Google’s new gesture system which I’m not a fan of, but you get used to it.

Then there’s all the little things Pixel owners are treated to like Now Playing for identifying music, Digital Wellbeing to track your phone usage and habits, the ability to squeeze the sides of the device to trigger the Google Assistant, the ability to back up all of your photos in their original quality in Google Photos, and Call Screening to answer phone calls using the Assistant. It’s all of these little touches that make actually using the Pixel 3 a pure delight.

You know what else is a delight to use? The Pixel 3’s camera.

On the back of the device, Google includes a single 12.2MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture. Typically, on flagship smartphones, you’d find two or even three rear cameras. But for the Pixel 3, Google is sticking with its single lens approach to photography, and yet again, the company crushes it.

I could tell you the Pixel 3’s rear camera comes with OIS, dual pixel phase detection autofocus, and a 28mm wide sensor as reasons why the camera is good, but none of this matters. It’s all about the software tricks Google has been doing with Pixel cameras ever since the first phone back in 2016.

The company’s still utilizing its HDR+ technique by combining differently exposed photos into a single shot that strikes a balance between them all. This process is done using the Pixel Visual Core, a specialized chipset that handles AI tasks like these on Google’s smartphones. And obviously, this generation of the Visual Core and the HDR+ processing is the best yet.

Just look at these photos.

As you can see, almost everything about the photos are right. Colors are reproduced nicely, contrasts are accurate, brightness is great, and sharpness is fabulous. Admittedly, shadows can be a little crunched at times, but otherwise, the camera is just amazing.

Of course, Google also includes its portrait mode with the Pixel 3 that uses AI to detect a subject, cut it out from the background, and blur the surrounding area. It looks more artificial than what phones with dual cameras produce, but the Pixel is best at detecting hair and things like glasses which are typically blurred out by other phones.

New for this generation of Pixels are a handful of new features. Typically, when a manufacturer comes out a handful of new camera features, they’re either gimmicks or completely unuseful ideas some intern had in the break room. But not this time, no. Google actually put thought into these ideas, and they’re great.

For one, there’s a new feature called Super Res Zoom. Much like the company’s version of portrait mode, Super Res Zoom is aimed at eliminating the need for a secondary rear camera by allowing for lossless zoom without special hardware. It works by recording data of a scene when your hand shakes and blending it with the final image, allowing for a sharper and clearer image. It’s definitely better than a normal digital-zoom photo, but telephoto cameras still beat it when it comes to clarity.

There’s also a new feature called Top Shot. Essentially, it’s a feature that will automatically start a burst photo when it thinks is necessary and recommend you the best shot out of the ones captured. I noticed you kind of have to take the burst mode photo yourself in order for it to work due to unreliability, but it nonetheless does what it’s intended to do.

Finally, I want to bring up the biggest, most important new feature of the Pixel 3’s camera, and that’s Night Sight.

With Night Sight, you can take some of the nighttime photographs you’ve ever seen. Somehow, through Google’s magical software processing, it’s able to pull out extra light to brighten up photos while still retaining their details and highlights. No other phone with a dedicated night mode has been able to pull this off before, and you’ll be simply amazed the first time you give it a try.

The mode is also not only good for night shots, but for everyday low-light situations as well such as in a room with the blinds shut.

This is one of my favorite features of any smartphone ever. It’s truly like magic how Google utilizes its HDR+ post-processing for results like this. Trust me, once you start using Night Sight, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. It is that good.

Also with the Pixel 3, you get motion auto focus to keep a moving subject in focus while you take pictures of it, portrait mode blur adjustments, Playground integration so you can place fun AR characters in your photos and videos, Google Lens integration for identifying things and copying text, and the ability to capture and save pictures as RAW files. All of these features make for a fun, intuitive, and useful camera experience.

The same can be said when it comes to selfies. Along with the standard 8MP f/1.8 selfie camera, you also get an additional 8MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens so you can fit more of a scene or all of your friends into a selfie. This, my friends, is how selfie cameras should be implemented. You should, by default, have the option to switch to a wide-angle lens in order to fit more of something into the frame. Once you use it, you’ll know what I mean.

While on the subject of selfies, there’s a new feature with the Pixel 3 called photo booth mode. Essentially, when enabled, it’ll automatically detect when it thinks it should take a selfie. You have to make silly face gestures and move around a bit to fill a progress bar which, when full, will trigger the shutter button. It’s actually pretty fun to use with friends and not so much the gimmick I thought it would be.

As far as video goes, the Pixel 3 can shoot up to 4K video at 30 frames per second. We’ve seen this capability for years at this point, and it’s a shame the phone didn’t adopt 4K 60 fps even though its chipset is perfectly capable. Nonetheless, the Pixel takes great video with good stabilization and overall quality. Audio pickup is also decent.

Undoubtedly, one of the Pixel 3’s biggest strengths is its camera and the vast array of things you can do with it. If you don’t buy this phone for any other reason than the camera, you’ll still be satisfied with the decision you made. It’s just that good.

On the other hand, one of the unfortunate downsides of the Pixel 3 is its battery life. Inside, Google includes a 2,915mAh battery. Not only does this sound like a wimpy battery on paper, but it is also in real-world testing. I’m only able to get around three to three and a half hours of screen-on time which translates to around 13 hours of usage. I typically have 15- to 16-hour days so I find myself having to top up more often than I anticipated. I’m sure if Google’s optimizations weren’t in place, battery life would be even worse. But nonetheless, don’t expect this phone to last you all day because it probably won’t.

Luckily, recharging the Pixel 3 is a speedy process. Google includes a 9V fast charger in the box which allows the phone to reach 50 percent from zero in around 35 minutes. You also have Qi wireless charging, the first time on a Google Pixel. Although, this is a much slower method of charging your device. Regardless, even you need to top up (and you certainly will), the charging options are sufficient.

Finally, let’s talk connectivity. I’ve been testing the Pixel 3 on Verizon’s network in and around South Jersey along with in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Las Vegas during CES. in my testing, I experienced great network speeds with at least three bars of service at all times.

(Side note: Verizon did provide us with the Pixel 3 unit for review, but this didn’t influence my review of their network in any way. Nonetheless, thanks for sending it our way, Verizon!)

I said it at the top of this review, and I’ll say it again: the Pixel 3 is a delightful little phone. It has a fantastic camera, a great software experience, a pretty screen with no notch, a perfect one-handed form factor, and decent performance. Sure, the phone doesn’t come with the best battery life and there are plenty of other phones that are faster than this one, but at the end of the day, you’ll be really pleased if you pick this guy up.

Of course, if you want to pick up the phone, it’s gonna cost you at least $799. That gets you 64GB of storage. For 128GB, you’ll have to fork over $899. Both of these prices are high, and considering you don’t get a big screen or battery, some people may be appauled by what Google’s charging. But personally, I think I would spend the $800. It’s such a simple, elegant, and delightful package. Plus, you get that killer camera.

If you’re tempted at all to buy the Google Pixel 3, by all means, buy it. You won’t regret it.

Rating: 8.5/10