Google Pixel 3XL review: Pure Google in a big package

Alex Kidman 22 October 2018 NEWS

Google's updated Pixel phone shows how far it can push software to provide a smooth smartphone experience, but it's ultimately a smartphone for the Google faithful.

Quick Verdict
Google's Pixel 3 XL is a good smartphone, but it's up against a pack of truly great smartphones. If you're truly keen on staying with the Google brand or just want an uncluttered experience, it's a very worthwhile phone, but it's not as superb as Google thinks it is – or at least not yet.

The good

  • Great battery life
  • Single lens works better than you might expect
  • Android Pie runs smoothly
  • Neatly integrates with Google services

The bad

  • Some camera features not available at launch
  • Single lens struggles against competitors
  • Blue tint on OLED
  • Active Edge only works to wake Google Assistant


Google continues its Pixel journey with the Google Pixel 3 XL, a premium smartphone that pushes Google's particular information mania to the hilt. Where once it tried to show other manufacturers how to make affordable Android flagships with its Nexus line, it's now firmly into the business of making premium-priced flagship phones.


Google Pixel 3XL review

Google Pixel 3XL: Design

  • Three colour choices
  • Still no headphone jack or microSD expansion
  • Blue tint on OLED

Google has only lightly modified its design ideas from last year's Pixel 2 XL with the Pixel 3 XL, which ships in "Clearly White", "Just Black" and "Not Pink" finishes.

The latter is new this year, and it's basically just a soft pink colour that's quite pleasant to the eye if you like the hue in the first place. The overall design isn't a complex one, which does rather suit the Pixel 3 XL's unfussy motif.

As with previous Pixel generations, there's no sign of a 3.5mm headphone jack or any kind of microSD storage expansion. Google provides an in-box USB C headphone adaptor to deal with the former, while unlimited Google Photos online storage provides for the latter.

The introduction of Qi wireless charging to the Pixel line means the use of a glass back, but here Google's opted for a unique approach with glass that has two distinct textures. Most of the phone back is standard slippery glass, and while it's Gorilla Glass 5, a case is highly advised. The top area around the rear camera module has a more polished finish, but it's one with just a little more grip to it. It's rather cool engineering, which is what you get out of a company of engineers, I guess.

The Pixel 3XL is the larger member of the Pixel 3 family, featuring a 6.3-inch 2960x1440 OLED display. There's a noticeable notch at the front, along with relatively slender bezels, which is very much in line with 2018 smartphone design trends. On the Clearly White model I tested with, there's also a bright green power button. I can't quite decide if it's a "fun" design element or one that jars against the clean white lines of the Pixel 3XL.

Sadly, the blue-tint issue that was present in 2017's Pixel 2 line is still present for the Google Pixel 3XL. If you're viewing content with a white background and you tilt the Google Pixel 3XL, it'll shift to a noticeably cold blue tint. There's nothing here that stops you reading or enjoying content, but it's a distinct problem for the type of flexible OLED that Google uses for these phones and not exactly what you want out of a supposedly premium-priced phone.

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Google Pixel 3XL review

Google Pixel 3XL: Camera

  • Single lens shoots very well with AI assist
  • Top shot helps to capture action
  • Digital zoom is better than most
  • Low-light performance might improve, but now it's not great

Google is having something of an each-way bet with the cameras on the Google Pixel 3 XL. On the back, it's much the same story as last year's Pixel phones, with only a single (specs) lens available for taking pictures. At the front, the notched display hides two cameras to provide both wide-angle selfies and portrait-style selfies at will. It's almost as though Google can't quite decide whether it wants to play in the dual-camera space.


Not even the AI behind Google can make jet-lagged me look good in a selfie, but it did try.

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.

It's a much more mixed affair around the back, however. Google's position is that it doesn't need multiple lenses because it can provide solid camera performance with software optimisations and AI alone. For a single camera lens, it's easily the best you can get by a wide margin, but the reality here is that every single one of its premium 2018 Android camera competitors has gone to at least dual lenses, so that's also a competition it wins by default.

Which isn't to say that you can't shoot nice photos with the Pixel 3XL. The focus is very much on guided photography in very much the same style as Apple's approach on the Apple iPhone XS Max, so for more pro-focused shooters, you may find the lack of manual controls jarring. However, for the everyday shooter, there is something relaxing in just letting the Pixel 3 XL get on with it.

Pixel 3XL review

Aside from general scene selection, the Pixel 3XL offers some new features in its camera array. Top Shot automatically takes a burst of photos if it detects motion in the scene, and then picks what it thinks is the best shot to keep. You can swipe upwards to see the full set of pictures and pick alternates if you like, with the full set uploaded to your unlimited Google Photos storage each time. It's not quite flawless. I did try a few shot setups with deliberate motion and found that it didn't opt to fire each time, but this is something that Google should be able to tweak over time.

Pixel 3XL Review

Giving Google time to optimise its software is very much something of a theme with the Google Pixel 3XL. At the launch, Google was quick to jump on Apple's back with claims of superior night shooting on the Pixel 3 XL, but this is a feature still in development at launch. Right now, you get performance on par with the Pixel 2XL, which lags far behind the best low-light shooting we've seen on 2018's flagship handsets.

Google is committed to improving its camera software over time, which is admirable. That same night-shooting feature will come to existing Pixel phone owners once it's available, which does point to the value proposition in Google's own handsets, but I can only review the features available to me, not award value based on features that may be months away from completion. Right now, for low-light photography, the Pixel 3XL fails to impress.

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Google Pixel 3XL review

Google Pixel 3XL: Performance

  • Snapdragon 845 runs a touch slower than the competition
  • Android Pie gives the Pixel 3XL an edge for now
  • Memory management on early software can be too aggressive
  • Active Edge feels like wasted potential

Update: The Pixel 3XL 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. We'll have to wait and see, but it's an issue well worth being aware of if you're keen on the Pixel 3XL.

Google's whole pitch for Pixel phones is that hardware is a commodity item. It's almost as if it's a software-centric company or something.

The Pixel 3XL runs on a moderate, almost low, set of specifications for a 2018 flagship phone, with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 matched up with just 4GB of RAM. Given competitor flagships are running on 6GB or 8GB of RAM, 4GB feels a little tight, although you won't really notice that in day-to-day usage.

That 4GB of RAM does impact the Pixel 3 XL's benchmarks, which tend to lag behind the best we've seen. Apple's A12 Bionic is still the performance king, followed by the A11 Bionic, but even against other Snapdragon 845-based phones, the Pixel 3 XL only gives moderate results. Here's how it compares using Geekbench 4's CPU test:

However, benchmarks aren't the whole story, and the use of Android 9 ("Pie") provides a slick user experience that easily matches, and in many cases bests, those of competing handsets when it comes to responsiveness. Naturally, Google's own services run well and are integrated closely into every aspect of the Pixel 3 XL's software packages, but the reality here is that you'll rarely be left wanting.

It's much the same story for 3D performance, where again the Pixel 3XL doesn't wow with benchmark scores. Here's how it compares using 3DMark Slingshot Extreme:

Like its predecessor, the Google Pixel 3XL features an "active edge" squeezable side, something Google's adopted from HTC's own approach – and no doubt a consequence of Google's buyout of a whole host of HTC engineers and patents.

However, once again, Google limits its use to just invoking the Google Assistant and nothing else. Grab the HTC U12+ and you can use squeezing to manage your choice of activities, but Google's only interested in pushing its own services. It's not like you can't access Google Assistant easily on the Pixel 3 XL anyway.

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Google Pixel 3XL review

Google Pixel 3XL: Battery life

  • Battery life is solid
  • Fast charging with supplied adaptor
  • Pixel Stand adds wireless charging and extra features

The Pixel 3XL gains an advantage over the smaller Pixel 3 – as so many larger phones do – by dint of being able to pack more battery capacity behind its display, with a 3430mAh battery providing juice for your everyday phone activities.

Using Geekbench 4's battery test, the Pixel 3XL shows decent battery stamina, although it's rather predictably outclassed by the impressive performance of Samsung's Galaxy Note9 handset. Here's how the Pixel 3 XL compares:


However, that's a very linear battery test, and while it gives us a comparative measure against other handsets, the reality is that you're not likely to do the exact same thing on your phone endlessly each day. In more anecdotal testing, the Pixel 3 XL can easily last a full day, and the supplied charger can quickly top it up.

The Pixel 3 XL is the first phone in the Pixel family to support wireless charging, with Google also debuting its first wireless charger, the Pixel Stand to support it. That'll cost you an extra $119, but if you already have a Qi-compatible charger, it can also be used to top up the Pixel 3 XL's battery. The Pixel Stand adds a range of fun additional features, such as picture frame, notification and alarm alerts to the whole package though, and it's easily one of the best wireless chargers you can buy right now.

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Google Pixel 3XL: Should you buy it?

The Google Pixel 3 XL presents a clean and slick view into Google's particular mindset when it comes to smartphones. It's guaranteed to see Android updates well before competing handsets, and there's solid scope for other updates to features beyond just the operating system and security updates. If you're heavily invested in the Google ecosystem and the more customised approach of makers such as Samsung, Sony or LG leaves you cold, it's a very compelling handset.

That being said, it's not the king of the hill that Google seems to think it is. Google's approach to computational photography is impressive, but it's still not up to the standards set by phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note9 or Huawei P20 Pro. In 2018, you've got such a wide variety of premium smartphone choices that providing a plain wrapper phone like the Pixel 3XL at flagship prices was always going to be a hard sell.

Google Pixel 3XL: Alternatives

In the large screen Android space, the obvious early competitor is the Samsung Galaxy Note9, which bests the Pixel 3XL in battery life and overall camera performance pretty handily, although Samsung's track record in Android version upgrades isn't the best.

Samsung Galaxy Note9

Samsung's productivity phone returns

The Samsung Galaxy Note9 features exceptional performance, top-notch battery life and the exclusive features of Samsung's S-Pen in a phone like no other.

Promoted

I've just started testing out the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, which sells at a similar price and will launch on the same day as the Pixel 3 XL in Australia. It runs on Android 9 like the Pixel 3XL, although you do have to like Huawei's EMUI wrapper on top.

If you're after something a little more affordable, you could consider the smaller Google Pixel 3, or for that matter last year's Google Pixel 2XL. With Google promising features like the night-shooting modes and further software upgrades for the Pixel 2 family, that would be one very low-cost way to get on board with Google's take on Android flagships.

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Google Pixel 3XL: Pricing and availability

The Google Pixel 3XL is available for pre-order now, and will go on general sale in Australia from 1 November 2018. It sells for $1,349 with 64GB of onboard memory or $1,499 for the 128GB model.

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

Google Pixel 3XL

Google's bigger Pixel 3 handset

The Google Pixel 3XL is a pure Google device, with plenty of hooks into Google's handy online services and an astonishing AI-assisted camera.

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Specifications

Google Pixel 3XL Specifications

OS Android 9
Display size (inches) 6.3
Display resolution (pixels) 1440x2960
Pixels per inch (PPI) 523
Processor Snapdragon 845
Height (mm) 158
Width (mm) 76.7
Depth (mm) 7.9
Weight (g) 184
Battery size (mAh) 3,430
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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