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Google Pixel 3 XL

The Google Pixel 3 XL is the big-screen, best-camera phone combination of 2018, a one-two punch when it comes to offering an expansive, color-rich display and photos your friends won’t believe came from a smartphone.

The 12.2MP rear-facing camera is the first reason to consider this Android Pie-touting handset, and the two front-facing cameras – the extra lens is for group selfies – are the second and third reasons. Google’s phone has an edge in picture-taking over everything we’ve tested so far.

It has the same cameras, dual front-facing speakers, Snapdragon 845 chipset, and 4GB of RAM as the one-hand-friendly Google Pixel 3, but the XL version is the one to consider for its larger 6.3-inch bezel-reduced OLED screen and higher-capacity 3,430mAh battery.

Normally, we prefer the bigger screens outright, but the Pixel 3 XL has a hard-to-ignore notch cut out at the top of the display, deeper than the iPhone XS Max notch. It’s a design quirk – controversial among Pixel fans – that’s meant to offer a little more room for notification icons, the time, and the battery life percentage, all flanking the selfie cameras and top speaker cut out.

It does give you more screen, sure, but not to the extent that the 6.3-inch diagonally measured spec suggests. To us, the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and 6.4-inch Note 9 screens feel a bigger and more immersive. Google’s design approach is more functional than fashionable, favoring its selfie twin cameras with a bit of asymmetrical screen distraction.

The Google Pixel 3 XL ends up being the best option for people who want photos as flawless as they come on a smartphone, and are already used to a wiedling sizable handset. It’s hard to downsize, even if the tighter dimensions of the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 are a better fit for most people. It doesn’t have everything – there’s no microSD card slot or headphone jack – but if you’re willing to embrace the notch design, you’ll get consistently great photos paired with a fairly big screen.

Watch our first impressions of the Google Pixel 3 in video form below…

Release date and price

The Google Pixel 3 XL release date was Thursday, October 18 in the US, and November 1 in the UK and Australia. The phone is launching in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, India, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and Taiwan. Pre-orders started on October 9, right after the New York launch event.

The Pixel 3 XL price is $899 (£869, AU$1,349) SIM-free for the 64GB storage variant, and $999 (£969, AU$1,499) for the maxed-out 128GB configuration. If you want more space, you’ll have to turn to cloud storage because there’s no microSD card on Pixel phones.

This is a small price hike from the Google Pixel 2 XL by $50 (£70, AU$50), yet cheaper than the iPhone XS Max by $250 (£230, AU$450). It’s still a better value than most flagships out there.

Design

The Google Pixel 3 XL doesn’t push smartphone design in a revolutionary new direction, but it does see some satisfying change over last year’s Pixel 2 XL. Gone is the glass-and-aluminum back in favor of an all-glass two-tone look. It’s made of shiny glass at the top and a textured matte glass finish for the lower 80%. 

You get a more seamless transition between the two textures with the soft-touch glass back made of the same Corning Gorilla Glass 5 that protects the front screen. There’s an aluminum frame that binds the front and back pieces of glass together – the only bit of metal you’ll see.

The Pixel 3 XL fits into one hand, but takes two hands to operate and it’s a little more slippery to hold than the Pixel 2 XL. The difference isn’t Earth (or phone) shattering, though we did end up preferring the tighter dimensions of the standard Google Pixel 3 for this reason.

The all-glass design has two benefits. First, LTE signals travel more easily through a glass phone than an aluminum-backed smartphone. That’s going to become important as phone makers and carriers try to claim superior 5G speeds in 2019. Second, wireless charging is a part of Google’s hardware ecosystem again, something we haven’t seen since the plastic Nexus 6. 

You’ll find smoother corners on the Google Pixel 3 XL – everything has been rounded off and flattened, giving Google’s Material Design software ethos a foothold within real life hardware. The frame edges are polished and the rear fingerprint sensor is flatter.

The smoother design won’t be enough to wow you next to other big phones. This doesn’t have an elegantly curved screen like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and the bottom chin stands out next to the iPhone XS Max. Notch or no notch, Google’s design isn’t winning any awards.

But the Pixel 3 XL is more functional: It has two selfie cameras, dual front-facing speakers, and Active Edge, allowing you to squeeze the sides of the frame to trigger Google Assistant. We prefer this over a dedicated AI button, something that annoys us about Samsung and LG’s new phones with dedicated, often-mispressed AI buttons.

Just know that the Pixel 3 XL doesn’t have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (exactly like the Pixel 2 XL), though it does come with USB-C earbuds in the box this year. You’re also not going to find a microSD card slot anywhere within the design. The 64GB and 128GB internal storage sizes are set in stone once you order them.

There are three muted Pixel 3 XL colors: Clearly White, Just Black and a pinkish Not Pink. We got two reactions from our Clearly White review unit: that it was the most sophisticated hue or that is looked a little cheap and plasticy. Everyone liked the hint of fresh mint color on the power button, a pleasing dab of color that’s exclusive to the Clearly White version.

Screen, notch and bezel

The Google Pixel 3 XL has a sizable 6.3-inch OLED screen with a 18.5:9 aspect ratio, a QHD+ resolution, and HDR Support with true black levels. It’s a higher-quality screen compared to the problematic P-OLED Pixel 2 XL screen we found to be desaturated and leave ghosting burn-in.

There’s also more display here and less bezel, with an 83% screen-to-body ratio (up from 76%), thanks to a 6.3-inch screen (up from 6 inches). The bigger screen fits in basically the same dimensions of 158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm. That’s some nice progress from the engineers at Google.

It’s two steps forward and one step back when you see the notch cut out at the top, however. No one we talked to liked it. A few people said they didn’t mind it too much. That’s as positive as things got. For us, when testing it day-to-day, we found it harder to ignore the deep notch when browsing websites and watching videos. It’s not as easy to overlook as the iPhone X notch.

But wait, we found some software tricks to fix this issue: Google’s hidden developer tools menu offers the ability to hide the notch, though the notification icons, time, and battery life percentage are pushed further down. A third-party app, Nacho Notch, is better. It puts all of that information within the blackened notch space. Why this isn’t a part of the phone by default is perplexing.

The notch cut out shouldn’t be a dealbreaker if you want the best-in-class Pixel 3 camera and desire your phone at the biggest size possible. The software tricks certainly help.

Three cameras

The Google Pixel 3 XL captures the best photos of any smartphone we tested to date – tied with the smaller, spec-matching Google Pixel 3. Its photos were often marginally better than those from other flagship phones. And, occasionally, our side-by-side tests showed big differences. 

What sets Google’s 12.2MP rear camera apart is consistency. We got sharper, slightly brighter photos from the Pixel 3 XL camera, while the iPhone XS Max we used at the same time showed overly warm color tones. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 didn’t always have the best HDR, ending up being second best, while the hit-or-miss Huawei P20 Pro camera frequently oversharpened everything as if its goal was to create a 3D painting that pops out at you.

What’s remarkable is that the Google Pixel 3 XL doesn’t even have the best camera hardware on paper. Its f/1.8 aperture isn’t record-breaking (Samsung and LG are faster at an f/1.5 aperture) and 12.2MP is rather low compared to the 16MP to 40MP camera phones out there.

Behind-the-scenes, Google’s dedicated Pixel Visual Core chip and machine-learning software are the magic that recognize what photos should look like and which shots you’ll actually want. If there’s one thing Google knows how to do, it’s process data and perfect algorithms. That’s pretty much what’s happening here.

Selfie cameras – plural

The two 8MP front-facing cameras share the rear camera’s machine-learning perks, and for the most part, offer a strong case for the best selfie camera. The primary selfie camera offers a tighter frame at a normal 75 degree field of view, while the secondary selfie camera has a wider 97 degree field of view.

We found that both normal and wide selfies (enabled with an on-screen slider bar) exhibited better HDR and less noise than Google’s competitors. Of course, sometimes you want detail in selfies. And sometimes you really don’t. In some situations, the iPhone XS Max we used at the same time provided tighter, more intimate shots and a bit more natural skin smoothing.

Wider-angle ‘Group Selfies’ have their place, telling more about who you’re with or what you’re posing in front of. Whether it’s with a bunch of friends or in front of a famous tall building, we loved being able fit more into a photo, even if the aperture dropped from f/1.8 to f/2.2 between the two cameras. 

Be warned: wielding a wide selfie camera takes work if you want flattering photos. At the wrong angle – usually at lower angles – it will make you and your selfie partners’ shirts and upper bodies flare out with barrel distortion at the edges. If you’re taking photos as a couple, you will get in trouble for this. It’s great when it works, and we’re glad it’s here, but unlike the rest of the camera perks, this one doesn’t give you automatic perfection with each shot.

Machine-learning camera app

There’s a lot of helpful post-processing going on here, and not the kind we’re used to seeing from China-sourced smartphones that overly rely on Beauty Mode after-effects. When the Pixel 3 XL cleans up photos, it’s to reduce grain from low-light shots, amp up brightness without adding noise, and select the best shot even if you’ve only tapped the shutter button once.

A lot of this post-processing happens automatically, but Google does give you some in-app options.

We might have missed this photobomb had it not been for Top Shot.

Top Shot, for example, is a new feature that allows you to select a new key photo when Motion Photos is turned on. The camera is taking photos before and after you hit the shutter button, so you have access to fleeting moments in which you weren’t blinking or a car didn’t just pass in front of your subject. This ends up being the Pixel 3 XL’s answer to Apple’s Live Photos with the ability to scrub through a small timeline to select a new keyframe. It’s helpful, though, everything but the original photo is in lower resolution, so you may have some tough choices to make.

Super Res Zoom is surprisingly clear for digital zoom, and the science behind it is fairly deep. It takes advantage of hand-motion in order to capture many frames in order to built a higher resolution (or super resolution) photo. And if you happen to use a smartphone tripod in which the handset is completely still? The camera simulates natural hand motion by intentionally ‘jiggling’, forcing the OIS module to move between frames, explains Google.

We found Super Res Zoom is be on par and sometimes better than the IPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 telephoto lenses. Only the Huawei P20 Pro and its 3x zoom could rival what the Google Pixel 3 XL camera was capable of digitally. It’s all a testament to Google’s insistence on a single-lens rear camera. You’re not missing out, despite what the specs say.

There’s more. Adjustable Portrait Blur allows you to change the amount of bokeh in post, and there’s a new color pop mode that isolates the background in black-and-white while leaving you in color. Night Sight – coming soon – is meant to amp up brightness of low-light photos so you don’t need to use that aggressive, photo-ruining flash. And Photobooth uses AI to automatically snap photos, incorporating the idea behind Google Clips right into your smartphone.

The Google Pixel 3 XL camera app doesn’t have everything we want. The simplistic app isn’t as robust as Samsung and LG’s default camera apps. Triggering the selfie camera timer with your hand is missing here, and so is flipping between the front and back cameras with simple swipe gestures. You’re also still not going to find a Hyperlapse mode within this camera app. When it has a truly out there mode like Playground for AR stickers, that’s a bit disappointing.

Battery life

The larger Pixel 3 XL is the one to get if you’re worried about battery life. Power users will have all-day battery life, and everyone else will get closer to a day and a half from this phone.

We found its 3,430 battery capacity to be solid enough for our daily needs, even if it’s not as big as the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 battery at 4,000mAh. It’s closer to the 3,500mAh battery of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, and Google has some smart power-saving modes in play here.

Adaptive battery, the new Android Pie feature to turn off power-hungry apps you don’t use, will get you more battery life, and so will downgrading the pixel count to Full HD+ instead of QHD+. You won’t notice the difference. For us, the Pixel 3 XL lasted about a dozen hours more than the smaller Google Pixel 3 with its 2,915mAh battery in real life tests.

There’s an 18W charger in the Google Pixel 3 XL box that offers faster charging speeds than a conventional USB charger, and the phone supports fast wireless charging. All Qi chargers worked fine in our testing (though slower than wired charging), and Google i selling a new Pixel Stand if you don’t have a wireless charger yet.

The minimalist-looking Pixel Stand doubles as a way to see notifications, making your Pixel 3 XL a mini Google Home Hub of sorts. But we found this stand doesn’t collapse and it’s a bit overpriced at $79. We found Mophie and Samsung’s wireless chargers cheap and easy to travel with.

Specs and performance

The Google Pixel 3 XL has been built to offer stable everyday performance, though you won’t find record-breaking speeds from its chipset and RAM configuration.

It uses the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM at a time when Google’s rivals are making phones with 6GB and 8GB of RAM. Meanwhile, Apple’s A12 chipset and even the year-older A11 chipset beat the Snapdragon 845 chip handsdown.

Benchmarks, primarily using Geekbench 4 to test overall performance, back up what the specs suggest. The Pixel 3 XL had a multi-core score of 8,350, behind the Samsung Galaxy S9, and further behind phones like the Note 9, OnePlus 6 and iPhone XS Max

That’s okay for two important reasons. First, we didn’t find any lag from the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL in our extensive daily testing of both phones. Second, this is Google-made hardware that runs pure Android software. We therefore got snappy performance on day one and expect it to be just as good when the next operating system update rolls out, likely in August 2019.

You’re not going to notice a drop in performance now, though this phone isn’t as future-proofed as the iPhone XS, Razer Phone 2, and Asus ROG Phone. Gamers may want to look elsewhere if they’re primary focus is the best gaming phone and not the best camera phone.

Android 9.0 Pie and apps

The Google Pixel 3 XL is the best way to enjoy the Android 9.0 Pie interface changes, with a great big screen to soak in the further refined Material Design and battery life-saving benefits.

It comes with stock Android software, which contrasts with the look and feel provided by other Android smartphone makers that liberally alter Google’s software to their liking (and the disliking of ‘pure Android’ fans). Everything here is how Google has intended it.

You are in for a bit of a change, though. Google’s on-screen navigation buttons along the bottom of the handset have been downsized and require learning new gestures. The home button, for example, has been flattened-out iPhone X-style and tapping it sends you home. Swiping it up from the bottom opens up the new recent menu, and swiping all the way up reveals the new app drawer location. The back button is similar, but is a bit smaller than before.

Google’s changed UI also makes room for the Pixel 3 XL notch. The time and notification icons reside on the left side of the screen, while icons for LTE, signal strength, and battery life are flush right. The on-screen volume slider is now right-aligned, adjacent to the physical volume slider. This slider is now dedicated to media playback volume, while a small toggle button at the top of the slide dictates whether you’re in ring/vibrate/silent mode.

More than anything, you’ll get more benefit from the new behind-the-scenes effects of the Adaptive Battery Life and Adaptive Brightness settings. Adaptive Battery Life uses Google’s machine-learning smarts to figure out which apps you won’t be using in the future and then reduces their needless energy drain. Adaptive brightness takes into account your surroundings to save you some juice whenever possible. 

There’s more coming to Android Pie, too. App Slices and App Actions were shown off at Google IO, and they enable shortcuts to app (and content within those apps). We’re planning to update this review when these features go live on the Google Pixel 3 XL.

Final verdict

The Google Pixel 3 XL marries the best camera phone we’ve ever tested with a sizable, albeit controversial color-rich 6.3-inch OLED screen. It’s the right fit for people who don’t mind the notch cut out at the top and have already adjusted their grip for bigger smartphones in the past.

Its 12.2MP rear single-lens camera outperforms dual- and triple-lens smartphone cameras. We found its photos more consistently usable than photos from Samsung, Apple and LG’s camera phones. Even digitally zoomed-in pictures looked better, thanks to Google’s machine-learning camera software. 

We’re not sure what we’re more impressed with: the science that happens behind-the-scenes every time we snap a photo, or the actual Google Pixel 3 XL pictures. We were similarly pleased with the twin 8MP cameras, and felt the wide Group Selfie lens came in handy to capture more moments with friends. We just wish the default camera tricks were fleshed out when it came to triggering the selfie camera timer, and that Google had its own take on hyperlapse videos.

The Pixel 3 XL is the phone for power users who want an edge in daily picture-taking, and want it with a bigger screen and extra battery life. That said, for most people, we would recommend the smaller 5.5-inch Google Pixel 3. It has tighter dimensions for easy one-hand use, and it’s cheaper. Use that saved money for the 128GB of storage version, unless you really need the extended battery life.

Google’s wide selfie camera in action

Should I buy it?

Yes, if you’re a power user who wants a big screen with the best camera. When testing a whole series of camera phones, more times than not, we preferred the Google Pixel 3 XL photos. Google’s backend camera software is superior and there are actually more features to come. Just know that the bigger size does come with the notch cut out that you can’t ignore.

Who’s it for?

The Pixel 3 XL is meant for people with big hands and slightly bigger budgets than the preferred Google Pixel 3. It has the same great camera and snappy performance, but in a bigger size. If your current smartphone has a larger screen, you may not want to downsize. That makes the Google Pixel 3 your top choice if you want to reap the benefits of its top-notch camera.

Competition

Samsung Galaxy S9

With similar screen sizes, camera specs, and performance, the 6.3-inch Galaxy S9 Plus is the chief rival of the Google Pixel 3 XL. However, there are some key differences. You won’t find a notch cut out on Samsung’s phone and its screen is slightly curved at the sides for a more elegant look and feel. We also liked using Samsung’s phone triggering gesture-controlled camera timer, and recording hyperlapse and super slow motion videos. But when it comes to more meaningful photo quality Google’s rear-and-front-facing cameras shine.

Full review: Samsung Galaxy S9

iPhone XS

The iPhone XS Max has a slightly smaller notch and bigger screen at 6.5 inches, and while its camera is the best on an iPhone, we found many of its photos exhibit warmer tones. The real reason to choose Apple’s flagship smartphone is because you might already full invested in the iOS 12 ecosystem, be beholden to iMessages, and own an iPad and Mac. 

Full review: iPhone XS Max

LG V40

The LG V40 isn’t a bad smartphone thanks to its 6.4-inch OLED, but it’s certainly not the best value at its launch price. The rear triple-lens camera provides normal, wide, optically zoomed angles, but we consistently found the Google Pixel 3 XL to be sharper – often by a long shot. While LG’s camera app is more full-featured next to Google’s somewhat thin camera modes, there’s no one big reason to choose the LG V40 over the Google Pixel 3 XL.

Full review: LG V40

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