Google Pixel 3 review: Smaller is better

Alex Kidman 22 October 2018 NEWS

Google's smaller phone in the Pixel 3 family is more affordable and a rare example of a small and powerful handset.

Quick Verdict
If you want a smaller handset with a lot of power, you have relatively few choices. Google's Pixel 3 is powerful and uncluttered compared to its competition, which makes it a great choice for those who don't like larger phablet-style phones, although it shares many of the same issues as the larger Pixel 3XL.

The good

  • Good battery life
  • Camera works well
  • Powerful for a small phone
  • Android Pie onboard with updates to come

The bad

  • Camera needs software upgrades to meet its full potential
  • Single lens is less flexible than competing handsets
  • Active Edge only works for Google Assistant


Most manufacturers that offer a larger and smaller handset within the same line deliberately discriminate in favour of the larger handset, not just in battery terms but in overall features and processing power. That's not Google's way, which is why the Google Pixel 3 is near identical to the Google Pixel 3XL in terms of features, just in a smaller container.


Google Pixel 3: Design

  • Choice of colours
  • Lacks headphone jack
  • Notch-free zone
  • Fingerprint sensor easier to hit on smaller phone

Google hasn't taken radical steps to change the key Pixel design motif with the Pixel 3, outside of introducing a new colour option. Alongside the "Just Black" I tested with, there's a "Clearly White" and "Not Pink" variant to choose from. Google's being cute here, of course, because the "Not Pink" phone is, indeed, pink, although only lightly so.

The basic build of the Pixel 3 is very good and conveys the premium quality of the brand. The introduction of wireless charging to the Pixel line means that the Pixel 3 has a glass back, but you might not pick that up right away.

The lower 80% of the back almost feels metallic, while the upper part has a more glass-like finish. Google's used some fascinating engineering to give the Pixel 3 family's glass back a two-tone finish that really makes it stand out. A case is still a good idea on protective grounds as well as because of the fact it can be something of a fingerprint magnet.

Google being Google, you're driven strongly towards the cloud with no capability for microSD storage expansion, although you do get unlimited upload of your photos at full resolution to Google Photos.

Another feature carried over from previous Pixels is the lack of a headphone jack. You're given a USB C to 3.5mm headphone adaptor for wired headphones as well as a set of almost-but-not-quite Pixelbud-style wired USB C headphones in the box.

The Pixel 3 is the smaller member of the Pixel family this year, and it features a 5.5-inch, 2160x1080 pixel display. Like the larger Pixel 3XL, there's something of a blue-tint issue with Google's OLEDs, although this isn't a critical issue and it's much less noticeable on the Pixel 3's smaller display screen.

It's notable in that while the larger Pixel 3XL has a notable notch – a divisive element depending on your tastes – the Pixel 3 has a flat display screen with no notch. There are solid top and bottom bezels to accommodate the twin speakers on the Pixel 3, but nothing that stands out too poorly against the 2018 premium smartphone pack.

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Google Pixel 3: Camera

  • Still a single lens camera
  • AI-assisted photography can work well
  • Smaller phone body makes it easier to take snapshots
  • Low-light performance needs a boost

Google's contention is that hardware isn't where the smartphone story is going to evolve, and that it can achieve the same kind of quality out of just a single rear lens and a lot of AI wizardry. Mind you, at the front of the Pixel 3, Google's quite happy to delve into the dual-camera world. It's almost as though Google can't quite decide whether it wants to play in the dual-camera space.

On the selfie front, the Google Pixel 3 XL shoots well, with easy access to wide-angle shooting if you want group selfies. There's a tiny judder as it switches lenses, but actual pictures provide pleasing details. The same is true for portrait-mode selfies, where the combination of dual lenses and Google's own AI optimisations provide excellent edge detection and bokeh.

For a single-lens camera, what Google can do is very impressive, but the reality here is that its competitors, both in Android and iOS, have largely shifted to dual-lens arrays, giving them just a little more photographic flexibility than a single lens that uses AI to predict scene parameters.

Google's default camera app offers a clean and easy-to-understand interface that's all about guided photography. If you want precise control over your photographic parameters, you'll want to look elsewhere, but if you just want a little more pop in your photos, it's a mostly good approach. Just like everyone else's AI-driven approach, it sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong, although rarely to a level that's truly annoying.

Google offers up a few new camera features for the Pixel 3 phones, although not all of them will be available at launch. The new "top shot" feature engages a burst mode and takes multiple shots if it detects motion in the frame, allowing you to capture just the right moment.

Burst mode itself isn't anything new, but not having to engage it could save you if you're grabbing quick shots... as long as it engages. I did have a few instances during testing where I assumed it would fire up, only to find it didn't. Google consistently tinkers with its camera app for Pixel phones, so hopefully top shot will get smarter over time.

Google also uses AI and multiple shots to make its digital zoom better. Again, that's a limitation of only having a single lens, so instead it fires up multiple times when you're zoomed in to then adjust for your natural hand movements. As an example, this flag shot was taken at a distance where I'd typically expect both the natural movement of my hand and the fluttering of the flag to result in a terrible image:

Pixel 3 review

For digital zoom, it's very good, although I'd still prefer a proper optically stabilised secondary telephoto lens.

Low-light performance on the Pixel 3 isn't spectacular and is largely in line with last year's Pixel 2 phones for now. Google has promised that a new low-light night-sight shooting mode is coming that should outpace solid low-light cameras like those found on the Apple iPhone XS Max, but it's not going to be present at launch.

Google Pixel 3 review

What you're left with, as above, are images that all too often lose detail, if they can find it at all.

There's no set time frame for when the night-sight mode will arrive, although Google is stating that older Pixel generations will get the new low-light camera features at the same time. It's great that Google provides value even for older Pixel phones, but right now, if low-light quality is key for your needs, the Pixel 3 isn't the camera phone to buy.

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Pixel 3 review

Google Pixel 3: Performance

  • Snapdragon 845 provides enough power, but RAM is low
  • Memory management is very aggressive for background apps
  • Android Pie gives the Pixel 3 optimised performance
  • Active Edge isn't all that active

Update: The Pixel 3 as tested -- which was on early firmware provided by Google -- has some noticeable quirks around memory management. Specifically, if you load too many apps at once, it aggressively dials back or closes apps to keep its memory usage at optimal levels. The issue here is that it all too often closes background apps you might want, like keeping music playing in the background.

When I originally wrote the review, I noted the issue from time to time, but was unsure if it was just the early code. What remains to be seen is how Google treats the problem. 4GB of RAM isn't much to play with, so it needs to manage its memory carefully, but dialling that management back could affect quite how smoothly Android Pie runs.

The Pixel 3 runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, which means it's in lock step with the majority (but not quite all) of 2018's flagship Android phones. That's quite deliberate because Google's all about software development, with hardware very much seen as a commodity.

The Pixel 3 only has 4GB of RAM onboard, which is on the lower side for a premium flagship, and like the Pixel 3XL, this means its comparative benchmark scores do suffer a touch. Here's how it compares running Geekbench 4's CPU test:

And here's how it compares with 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:

Most "smaller" variant handsets drop the processor and memory, and sometimes both, but the Pixel 3 keeps pace with its bigger sibling, which is a nice touch if you're not a fan of the growing size of handsets.

Benchmarks can give us a comparative view of a phone, but they're never the whole story. The Pixel 3 will launch with Android 9 ("Pie") onboard and a clean uncluttered interface as well, which means there's little of the overhead from secondary launchers that you find on some other handsets. Google's services are of course present, but this is Android as a swift, blank slate, open to how you'd like to use it.

The "Active Edge" feature found on last year's Pixel phones is once again present, and once again it's an utter gimmick. Not that squeezable sides can't work well, as HTC shows on the HTC U12+, where you can set specific apps to launch with different squeeze styles.

Here, all you can do is squeeze once to start up Google Assistant. It's not like Google Assistant is hard to kick into life on the Pixel 3 regardless. Google's keen for you to make the Pixel 3 your own in so many ways except this one.

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Google Pixel 3XL: Battery life

  • Battery life is good for a small handset
  • Rapid charging with supplied adaptor
  • Wireless charging, and it's even better with Pixel Stand

Aside from screen size, the one area where the smaller Pixel 3 lags behind the Pixel 3 XL is in battery capacity. That's a natural consequence of its smaller size, with a 2915mAh battery. A smaller phone's screen will use less power overall, and the Pixel 3 acquits itself pretty well in Geekbench 4's battery test:

Outside the world of linear benchmarks, the Pixel 3 should be able to last you a day's usage with moderate usage quite handily.

Google's supplied charger can quickly top it up via USB C. It's also wireless charging compatible with any Qi charger, including Google's new Pixel Stand charger. Drop the Pixel 3 onto the Pixel stand and you gain a few extra features, including notifications, alarm lighting and digital photo frame capabilities.

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Google Pixel 3XL: Should you buy it?

The Pixel 3 is a very good phone if you like your handsets smaller, and that's because so many phone makers ignore this part of the market in favour of larger handsets. It's got an uncluttered and easy to understand Google interface, the promise of future Android updates and a price point that makes it far more competitive than the Google Pixel 3XL in its price bracket. If you're heavily into Google's services online and want a smaller phone, this is easily your best option.

Google Pixel 3XL: Alternatives

You really don't have too many choices if you want power and a smaller phone, with Sony's Xperia XZ2 Compact being the most evident 2018 competitor. That's a phone you should be able to pick up a little cheaper than the Pixel 3 if you're on a tight budget, but it's only an Android 8 handset.

You could try to track down one of Google's Pixel 2 phones if you wanted a discount and at least another year's worth of OS upgrades at a discount, although that's a phone with an older CPU and no onboard wireless charging.

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Google Pixel 3: Pricing and availability

The Google Pixel 3 is available for pre-order now, and will go on general sale in Australia from 1 November 2018. It sells for $1,199 with 64GB of onboard memory or $1,349 for the 128GB model.

Where Telstra once had the exclusive on Pixel phones, Google has now opened them up to rivals Vodafone and Optus as well. You can compare Telstra, Optus and Vodafone Pixel 3XL plans below:


Specifications

Google Pixel 3XL Specifications

OS Android 9
Display size (inches) 5.5
Display resolution (pixels) 2160 x 1080
Pixels per inch (PPI) 440
Processor Snapdragon 845
Height (mm) 145.6
Width (mm) 68.2
Depth (mm) 7.9
Weight (g) 148
Battery size (mAh) 2,915
Wireless charging Qi
Internal storage 64GB
128GB
MicroSD expansion N/A
Fingerprint scanner Yes
RAM 4GB
Water resistance IP68
Rear camera (1) resolution 12.2
Rear camera (1) aperture f/1.8
Rear camera (2) resolution
Rear camera (2) aperture
Rear camera (3) resolution
Rear camera (3) aperture
Front camera (1) resolution 8
Front camera (1) aperture f/2.2
Front camera (2) resolution 8
Front camera (2) aperture f/1.8
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Network category speed Category 16
NFC support Yes
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