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Google Pixel 3 review: Excellent camera, pocketable form factor, and Google software are compelling

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Written by Matthew Miller on
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8.9

Google Pixel 3

Outstanding
$280.95 at eBay$160.5 at Amazon
Like
  • Excellent photo quality
  • Small form factor easily slips in your pocket and fits in your hand
  • Outstanding RF performance
  • Loud stereo speakers
  • Wireless charging support
  • First to get updated
Don't Like
  • Average battery life
  • Basic stock Android experiences
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Size, the final frontier. In an age of large phones, packing everything from the titans into a smaller form factor is often a better choice for many. The Google Pixel 3 confirms what the iPhone also showed and that is a smaller phone can be a more desirable companion.

For years I have always selected bigger phones since I have big hands, and being over six feet tall and 250 pounds, I have big pockets on my pants, so larger phones were not really an inconvenience. However, I discovered pure joy earlier this year after using the small Apple iPhone X for four months, and the small form factor phone is extremely appealing to me now. But a small phone also compromises in areas that I just may not be able to accept. Let's take a closer look at the Pixel 3 and see if it really is a device for me.

Also: Google Pixel 3 XL review: Constant surprise and delight

The Google Pixel 3 is slightly taller -- by 2mm -- than the Apple iPhone X/XS, but it is also 2.7mm narrower. Narrow phones are much easier to hold in your hand, and as much as I love holding the Apple iPhone X/XS, the Google Pixel 3 feels even better. If I could get the same long battery life that I see in the Note 9 and Huawei P20 Pro in the Pixel 3, I wouldn't hesitate to make it my daily driver. Physics just doesn't currently allow this with our existing battery technology.

Google Pixel 3 Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 2.5 GHz quad-core
  • Display: 5.5 inch, 2160x1080-pixel resolution OLED (443 ppi)
  • Operating system: Android 9 Pie
  • RAM: 4GB LPDDR4
  • Storage: 64GB/128GB internal
  • Cameras: 12.2-megapixel rear f/1.8 dual-pixel camera with OIS. Dual 8-megapixel f/2.2 wide-angle (97 degrees) and f/1.8 standard front-facing cameras
  • Water resistance: IP68 water and dust rating
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0 BLE, GPS/Galileo/Glonass, and NFC
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Fingerprint Sensor, Gyrometer, Magnetometer, Proximity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, Active Edge Sensor
  • Battery: 2,915mAh non-removable with 18W wired and Qi wireless charging
  • Audio: Dual front-facing stereo speakers and included wired Pixel earbuds
  • Dimensions: 145.6mm x 68.2mm x 7.9mm and 148 grams
  • Colors: Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink

Compared to the small Pixel 2 from last year, we see a 0.5-inch larger display, dual front-facing cameras, bump up to the Snapdragon 845 processor, 215 more mAh in the battery, and wireless charging.

Google Pixel 3 review: in pictures

Hardware

The Google Pixel 3 has a nearly perfect form factor for a "smaller" modern smartphone with a width that makes it easy to hold in one hand and a smooth glass design that easily slips into your front pants pocket. It disappears in my hand and can easily be held while running around town.

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The display is an OLED variant with colors that look great and a brightness that satisfies my needs. There is no notch on the Pixel 3, but there are top and bottom bezels where we find the stereo speakers and dual front-facing cameras. There are small side bezels with a display that has curved corners to match the Pixel 3.

Also: 17 ways to recycle or sell your smartphone TechRepublic

The power button and volume button are on thethe right, with the Clearly White model having a mint power button. The USB-C port and SIM card slot are found on the bottom with a mic opening on the top.

The aluminum edges are glossy white with the back glass being primarily frosted white glass (actually glass that has been etched with a fine texture) that looks and feels much like the white OnePlus 6. The frosted part of the glass starts just about the central rear fingerprint scanner and helps provide some grip to the phone. Glossy white glass is found above this around the single rear camera and flash assembly.

You can also squeeze the sides to launch Google Assistant or double-tap on the display to see your notifications. A double press of the power button launches the camera, too.

Given that I have never been that pleased with Apple cellular reception in weak signal areas, I like to test out phones along my Sounder commuter rail route. I was extremely pleased to see that the Google Pixel 3 kept giving me nearly identical dBm readings as the Note 9, which has been my best performer all year.

The hardware isn't that special or unique, but it is well constructed and a very clean and serious design.

Software

The Google Pixel 3 is powered by Android 9 Pie and has the Sept. 5 security update. The camera app is currently missing the Night Shot feature that should be coming in a November update. This was shown during the announcement and looks quite impressive.

While the camera hardware is nothing special (most others have two or more rear cameras on flagships today), the camera software yields fantastic results. Check out my weekend with the Pixel 3 XL to see just a sample of my photos. I've not captured hundreds of shots with the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3 and have yet to be disappointed.

A weekend with the Pixel 3 XL: in pictures

Improved HDR+, Super Res Zoom, and Top Shot are a few ways Google is using software to help you get arguably the best photos from a smartphone. The Top Shot function required me to do a bit of research to figure out to turn on Motion Photos and then swipe up on a photo to access the filmstrip of shots to choose from. I would love to see Google add the cool long exposure trick that Apple provides with its Live Photos feature and given that Google is capturing this motion I know it could do it if it wanted to.

Also: The first Android phone was an ugly thing, and I loved it CNET

Since I travel quite a bit for business, my family appreciates it when I take selfies and include the things I am seeing. I personally don't care to take selfies, but when it is quick and easy with good results then I am more apt to do it. Selfies on the Pixel 3 are actually pretty awesome, especially using the wide-angle camera to include the full family. I didn't consciously try to take family selfies on our recent East Coast trip, until the last couple of days when I realized the great experience had me doing it often. Thanks to the wide-angle selfie camera, we have a collage of our entire family in each of the states we traveled to last week.

Portrait mode is interesting since you do not see the results in the viewfinder so it is a surprise when you look at the image to see both the portrait manipulated shot along with the photo without the portrait mode applied. Other cameras do pretty well, but I personally find the portrait/bokeh shots from the Google Pixel 3 XL to be the best of any phone I have tested.

The Google Pixel 3 is extremely responsive, and overall, I have enjoyed the software experience. I do miss some of the Samsung enhancements that are designed to improve my efficiency though. These include a dedicated email app that gives me an excellent work email experience, widespread pinch to zoom support, Edge Sense access, and more.

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

There have been some reports of disappearing photos, audio issues when recording video, and Android Auto issues, but I, personally, have not experienced any of these while using the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3 over the past two weeks. It sounds like these may be addressed with software updates from Google, but I thought readers should be aware that the phone may not yet be perfect at launch.

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 3 is available now for $799 for the 64GB model and $899 for the 128GB model. I purchased and tested the Clearly White 128GB model.

Comparing similarly sized flagship smartphones, we have the Apple iPhone XS priced at $999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), and $1,349 (512GB). As you can see, the Pixel 3 XL is $200 less than the comparable capacity iPhone XS.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 is also very close in size to the Pixel 3 (slightly taller and thicker) with prices of $719.99 (64GB), $769.99 (128GB), and $839.99 (256GB). The Galaxy S9 is the lowest price competitor in this smaller size flagship category and you can also inexpensively add microSD cards for even more storage capacity.

CNET: Google Pixel 3 review: Google pairs an amazing camera with serious AI smarts

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

I love the form factor of the Google Pixel 3. It gives me what I like in the Apple iPhone X while providing a stock Android experience and I really should just embrace it and keep it in my pocket. However, I have an extremely powerful Samsung Galaxy Note 9 that offers more.

The Note 9 S Pen is fantastic, the 4,000 mAh battery gets me through a full day, and Samsung has some excellent software enhancements even though it is not running Android 9 Pie yet. The camera on the Note 9 is good, but not as good as what we have on the Google Pixel 3 so that is one thing I would give up.

Also: Top-notch phones: 8 phones with display cut-outs

The Google Pixel 3 has all the goodness of a Google-designed phone, which includes advanced software processing for the camera, the latest firmware and security updates, and some handy tricks (Now Playing on the lock screen and Digital Wellbeing monitoring).

If you are looking for one of the best flagship Android phones today, it is tough to beat the Google Pixel 3. It is not inexpensive though and there are still a few software updates needed to smooth things out and provide promised features, but Google is good about releasing those updates too.

I used the Google Pixel 3 on Project Fi (eSim works well for this too) and T-Mobile. My last Project Fi phone was the Nexus 6P, so it's time for me to upgrade, and I think the Pixel 3 is a great choice for Fi. With the small size, I can carry the Pixel 3 everywhere, even during the summer when I'm just wearing shorts around. While the battery life is not superb, having wireless charging helps considerably since I have wireless charging docks all over my home and office. Jason mentioned the Pixel Stand in his Pixel 3 XL review and that is a great option, too.

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

Previous and related coverage:

10 reasons the Galaxy Note 9 is better than the Google Pixel 3 XL for business

Google revealed the Pixel 3 XL yesterday and while it is the best from Google, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 offers more for the enterprise.

Chrome OS grows from underdog to attack dog

Today, the slate. Tomorrow, the world? Knocking Android out of phones may be the ultimate prize for what has been an OS with little acceptance beyond education.

Google+ lives on as an enterprise collaboration tool in G Suite

Google's social network will now aim to bridge information silos in enterprises after being sunsetted as a consumer product.

Senators demand Google hand over internal memo urging Google+ cover-up

Republican senators start inquiry in Google's handling of Google+ security breach.

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