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Google Pixel 3 XL review: Constant surprise and delight

Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributor

Google Pixel 3 XL

9.2 / 5

pros and cons

  • Crisp, clear display
  • Software
  • Camera
  • Carrier exclusive is misleading
  • Editors' review
  • Specs

Google announced its latest smartphones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, on Oct. 9 at an event in New York City. The pair of phones are identical in nearly every way, save for the display size.

Also: 10 reasons the Galaxy Note 9 is better than the Google Pixel 3

As soon as the event ended, Google began taking pre-orders for the phones, with deliveries and retail availability set for Oct. 18. I've had both devices on hand for just over a week, and have been using the Pixel 3 XL as my main phone since it arrived.

In short, the Pixel 3 XL is the Android device to beat right now. Plain and simple.

Read on for a more nuanced look at Google's latest smartphone.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Design

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Google's Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL now feature an all-glass back, moving away from the metal housing Google used in previous generation devices. But instead of giving up the Pixel's two-tone look, Google used two different treatments on the back glass, giving the bottom portion a matte finish.

The glass back not only looks and feels nice in my hand, but it was also necessary in order for Google to add wireless charging to the Pixel line. Any Qi-compatible wireless charging pad will work with the Pixel 3.

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The Pixel 3 now has a 5.5-inch display, while the Pixel 3 XL has a 6.3-inch display... and a notch. I don't mind the cutout at the top of the display, but should you want the larger phone and don't like the notch, keep in mind you can hide it via a toggle in the Settings app.

Also: Pixel 3 vs. Pixel 2 vs. Pixel: Every spec, compared CNET

The Pixel 3 XL is roughly the same size as the iPhone XS Max and is comfortable to use and hold. On the bottom of the phone is where the SIM card slot is, next to the USB-C charging port. The headphone jack isn't making a comeback on Google's devices, but this year Google included a pair of USB-C headphones with the Pixel 3 XL.

The sleep/wake button and volume buttons are found on the right side of the phone, leaving the left side free of any buttons. The Pixel 3 XL comes in white, black, and "not pink" which, at least in photos, looks like a really light pink.https://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/Google+Pixel+3+XL+Teardown/113656

According to iFixit, Google switched to Samsung for the Pixel 3 XL's OLED display -- and it shows. The Pixel 2 XL's screen was something a lot of users took issue due to muted colors.

The Pixel 3 lineup looks very much like a Google device, only slightly more refined. The all-glass back has a soft feel to it. I've seen reports that the glass is easily scratched, but if that's indeed the case, the white version does a good job of hiding those scratches. Other than being a fingerprint magnet, I can't easily find a scratch on my review unit.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Camera

Indeed, the Pixel 3's camera is downright impressive. I've seen headlines proclaiming the Pixel 3 as the best camera in a smartphone your money can buy. And for the most part, it's true.

The camera on the Pixel 3 is reliable, time after time, capturing the photo I want without feeling like I have to work for it.

Google's ability to continue to push the limits of what can be done with a single camera, when nearly every other smartphone maker is relying on two, still boggles my mind.

Portrait photos, where the entire idea is to take a photo where the subject is in focus, while the background is blurry, is something that's normally reserved for dedicated cameras and expensive lenses. Over the past few years, portrait mode has been added to almost all smartphones, but the ability to accurately identify the edges of the subject and blur only what's behind it, using a single camera to capture the photo and collect depth information as Google does, remains incredibly impressive.

I took a number of portrait photos with the Pixel 3 XL, but I think the photos my colleague Matthew Miller included in his gallery are prime examples of just how good the Pixel 3's camera is.

Also: A weekend with the Pixel 3 XL: The camera proved its worth

In particular, this slide, where his daughter's hair is similar in color to the yellow line in the background. I've seen phones that have completely botched a similar shot.

Google added a lot of new modes and features to the Pixel 3 XL's camera this year, but the one I'm looking forward to the most, Night Sight, isn't available quite yet. The feature is designed to take photos in low-light environments and using AI, recreate the scene with proper exposure and colors without requiring the use of a flash. I cannot wait to test out this feature.

Other modes, including Photobooth and Top Shot are nice additions, but not something I can see myself using often.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Android Pie

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

I think the most intriguing aspect of the Pixel line isn't the camera. It's the software as a whole. From being able to identify real-world objects via Google Lens to Google Assistant's ease of creating morning routines.

During my time with the Pixel 3 XL, I've used a "Good Morning" routine that I set up in about two minutes. After waking my phone and telling Google Assistant, the personal assistant begins by telling me the current time, the day's weather forecast, my agenda for the day, and then plays a short NPR new update.

The contrast of Apple's approach to a similar process requires me to download and install another app, Shortcuts, and learn how to piece together actions through trial and error.

As powerful as Shortcuts is for iOS users, it still requires users to work way too hard to achieve something that's easily done on Android. Yes, Android, because the scenario I just outlined is possible on all Android devices that have Google Assistant.

Also: Google Pixel 3: Cheat sheet TechRepublic

I only began using it on the Pixel 3 XL because during the setup process for the Pixel Stand, a morning routine was used as an example.

The morning routine feature is just one small piece of a puzzle that Google has been building with Android. Other pieces include the Pixel's Now Playing feature, where the phone displays the song and artist of music that's playing around you on the lock screen, or the new Call Screen feature, or Smart Compose in Gmail, and the ability to turn the Pixel 3 into a smart display when placed on a Pixel Stand.

Those features, along with something as subtle as remembering that I open the Nest app each morning after I wake up to adjust the temperature in my office and placing it in my morning's app suggestions, all combine to create an experience that's at times surprisingly delightful.

Android is a platform full of tailored experiences, determined by the company who produces the phone and the proprietary skin that goes atop Google's mobile OS. Samsung's skin has come a long way from the TouchWiz days, and OnePlus has always done a good job of adding just enough to differentiate without getting in the way of Android as a whole.

But there's something about the experience that the Pixel provides -- and it's not "pure" or "vanilla" Android -- but instead Google's own proprietary experience on top of Android, that's downright fun to use.

Battery life and performance

Powering the Pixel 3 XL is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 processor, 4GB of memory, 64GB or 128GB of storage, and a 3,430mAh battery. The Pixel 3 XL is IP68 rated, meaning it can withstand a casual dunk the pool or a glass of beer.

Also: Pixel 3 XL vs. iPhone XS Max vs. Note 9 vs. LG V40: Specs showdown CNET

All those components combine for a smooth experience overall, with the exception of Snapchat. After mentioning sluggish performance in a few apps in my first impressions post earlier this week, I did some research and found that Snapchat is to blame. And that makes sense, as I've yet to experience the same issues outside of that app.

Battery life on the Pixel 3 XL has been more than enough to get through a full day of use, which for me typically starts at 6:15am and ends around 10 pm. Out of the handful of days I've used the Pixel 3 XL, it's yet to completely drain the phone's battery.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Pixel Stand

Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

While the Pixel 3 XL will work with any Qi-compatible wireless charging pad, Google developed one of its own and is selling it for $79. If you buy a Pixel 3, the Pixel Stand is a must.

What makes the Pixel Stand different from other chargers is that, when your Pixel 3 is placed on the stand, the phone turns into a small Google Home Hub of sorts. A Google Assistant screen opens and offers up some commands to try. If you'd rather use your phone as a digital photo frame, you can set it to use photos from your Google Photos account.

Also: Google's Pixel Stand charges your phone and wakes you CNET

After seeing my Pixel light up with photos from a vacation with my kids a few years ago, I immediately felt like I should have Pixel Stands everywhere. The experience is just too much fun.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Conclusion

With amazing software and solid hardware, the one question I can't seem to answer is why Google continues to enter into an exclusive partnership with Verizon Wireless as the only carrier to offer the Pixel line in the US.

Nearly every commercial or advertisement that I've seen over the past few years detailing the Pixel all feature a Verizon logo at some point. The impression it leaves potential customers with is that you need to be a Verizon customer in order to buy one.

Of course, that's just not the case. Anyone can buy an unlocked Pixel 3 or 3 XL directly from Google and use it on any carrier. I've been using the Pixel 3 XL on AT&T -- with Wi-Fi calling, no less -- during my testing.

As I stated at the top of this review, the Pixel 3 XL is the Android phone to beat. Google delivers a complete experience with the Pixel 3 XL. Battery life, performance, the camera, and the small software customizations are currently unmatched.

Google Pixel 3 event: All the key moments from the show

Previous and related coverage:

Google Pixel 2 XL review: It doesn't get any more Google than this

The Pixel 2 XL has an improved camera, new design, and new software tricks.

Google Pixel XL Review: Nexus is dead, long live the Pixel

Google's push into becoming a hardware company by creating its own smartphone is off to a fantastic start.

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