Google Pixel 3 XL: One year later

The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL have been out for almost a year and it’s time to take a look back at how the devices have performed and if they’re still a good buy.

A device developed and sold by Google is always going to have higher expectations than others on the market because the Pixel is supposed to be Google’s vision for Android but the devices have never really taken on larger manufacturers like Samsung for the Android crown.

We’ve been using the Pixel 3 XL on and off throughout the year while focusing on the device a little bit more in the past month gearing up for this review. Let’s start with what the Pixels are known for, the cameras.

Still crispy

Close your eyes, clear your mind and ponder this: if you were going to buy one phone with a focus on taking pictures, which would it be? I bet for most of this year, you’d have said the Google Pixel 3.

Yes, the Pixels are famous for their amazing pictures, software suite, and ease of use for a good reason. A year in, the Pixel is actually better at taking pictures due to some software updates and squashed bugs that were crawling around in the system.

The single rear 12 MP wide-angle lens is the star of the show. In a time when two lenses are the minimum on flagships and many 2019 phones come with three, the Pixel 3 XL only has a single lens. Through the wizardry of computational photography, Google pulls amazing shots and the best portrait mode out of this camera. You do miss out on a zoom lens or wide-angle lens like on other devices. This is a pretty big bummer and I definitely miss shooting wide-angle when using the Pixel.

The impact of the portrait mode on the Pixel is massive. It takes what would otherwise been some pretty good pictures and makes them great. Whether you’re striking a pose for your new profile picture or just hanging out with friends, the Pixel is able to expertly separate the subject from the background.

Both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 lineups have the Pixel Visual Core, a dedicated chip to help the device process pictures. And it shows.

HDR+ images look great and are full of life and even though it’s an extremely complex process to capture these pictures, it’s done in the background without sucking up system resources. Dynamic range and exposure are always on point and detail is second to none.
Night mode is also a revelation.

I don’t know how Google does it but the phone constantly pulls a ton of light out of low-light situations to salvage what would otherwise be unusable shots. This feature is becoming more and more popular, but one thing that sets Google’s shots apart is the lack of digital noise and the amount of detail its able to get while in Night mode. This, again, is an incredibly challenging thing to do and Google nails it.

One last thing I’ve really enjoyed is the front-facing camera. Now, I hate taking pictures of myself unless I’m really in one of those moments that I want to look back on in the future. It has to be special. A lot of those situations are shared with friends and family and it can be challenging to get everyone in the same shot.

That’s why I’m going to miss the wide-angle front-facing camera on the Pixel 4. The dual front-facing camera on the Pixel 3 XL was pretty helpful in these situations so we’re going to have to wait and see how Google addresses the loss of it in its next flagship. Hopefully, that Soli radar module is worth it.

A face only a mother could love

Before the Pixel 3 XL was launched, it was maybe the most leaked phone of all time. We saw leaks of the device 9+ months in advance of its release with full specs and design hitting the tech blogs something like six months before it came out. Every time I saw it, I laughed at the design and how bad it was.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m no hater. I don’t mind bezels, I like phones of all shapes and sizes. With almost no space left these in small devices, there’s never something done without a good reason. The huge bezels, for instance, hide the dual front-face speakers. That’s a good trade-off, in my opinion. Those speakers are great and have fantastic separation and overall volume.

But that notch. I ranted. I raved. I shook my head every new leak.

But then I used it for more than about five minutes and I stopped seeing it. Look, it’s still terrible and looks awful. I’m not going to deny that. But I just don’t see it when I use the phone so it’s not a huge deal for me. If you’re a person that cares about what others think about your phone, don’t buy it. If you just want a phone with a really nice display (1440p OLED) that happens to have a huge chunk taken out of it for the excellent front-facing camera, this is fine.

The materials on the Pixel 3 XL just feel nice. Flipping it over, the back has a glass top and a soft-touch lower half that looks okay but feels nice in the hand. The soft-touch provides a bit of grip while the glass is a nice accent and provides plenty of space for the antennas to do their thing. This isn’t a phone that’s going to stand out in the crowd (minus that notch maybe) but it’s fine. It should hold up for a few years of use and look pretty good, even without a case.

One of the underrated and lesser talked about features of the Pixel 3 XL is the fingerprint scanner. Almost every phone has one these days with the trend to move them under the display is in full swing. But for those of us who prefer the rear-mounted scanner, it doesn’t get better than the Pixel’s. It’s extremely accurate and still the fastest on the market. The swipe down gesture enabled in software allows you to drop the notification shade by swiping down on the scanner, which is made all the more easier by its perfect placement on the back of the phone.

Google got a lot of the little touches right, even down to the power button. The green button on the white Pixel is great, but it’s also textured so it’s easier to press and find without looking. It’s that kind of attention to detail on the little things that makes the software experience so frustrating.

Better, but still not great

The Pixel 3 XL’s launch and first few months were… not great. I’m not sure I’d call it a disaster, but it was a buggy mess that left a bad taste in quite a few people’s mouths. It ruined a lot of the goodwill that Google had with the community and probably hurt its sales numbers over the life of the phone.

When the phone launched, there were issues with an extra notch showing up on the side of the phone, pretty bad audio playback through the front-facing speakers, and awful RAM management. That RAM management issue would straight up kill in-use apps that weren’t in the foreground (think Spotify playing in the background) and in a few instances, killed my camera while I was trying to use it. A lot of people who complained that the Pixel 3 and 3 XL only had 4 GB of RAM felt pretty vindicated.

Well, it’s been almost a year and things have changed dramatically. But they’re still not good enough, in my opinion.

Timely updates to help fix things

Google has had 10 monthly updates to work on the Pixel 3 XL and it has done so dutifully. Almost all of the major bugs are gone and the phone runs rather smooth at this point. I do still have issues with random slowdowns, choppy animations, and the phone heating up for seemingly no reason still to this day, but they’re fewer and far between than they ever have been. It’s better, but not great.

The inclusion of pure Android has always been the biggest draw of the Pixel. A build of Android that’s simple and without a ton of needless features really appeals to the masses. There’s another train of thought that says “if I’m paying $1,000 for a smartphone, I want it to have every feature possible” and that’s a fair argument. If that’s where you’re at, don’t buy this phone.

The Pixel 3 XL is a canvas there for you to create your perfect picture. It comes with a few fantastic features like Call Screening (a savior in the era of spam calls) and squeezes to activate Google Assistant that feel like second nature after a day or two of use. These are definitely two features I miss when I’m using another device.

But I’ve always appreciated Google’s vision. And it seems like they’re starting to appreciate ours too with things like the inclusion of dark mode (FINALLY!!) in Android 10. There’s a lot to love about Android right now and it keeps getting better on the Pixel 3 XL. It’s just a shame that it has taken almost a year for it to catch up to phones released before it. How should it expect to compete with those released in 2019?

I’d like to see Google do something about standby time. Charging the phone to 100% and leaving it to sit overnight saw a drop of between 15-20% consistently. That’s pretty terrible and makes me wonder how it’s squeezing the five hours of screen-on-time that I normally get out of this device when it’s draining so much while I’m not touching it.

Battery life is standard for a flagship phone and I appreciate that. The Pixel’s don’t have the largest batteries in the world, but they do go toe-to-toe with phones that have much larger batteries. Plus we’ve got fast charging and fast wireless charging included here. As far as I know, fast wireless charging still only works with the Pixel Stand which a huge bummer and something I hope Google does not lock with the Pixel 4.

If the Pixels didn’t get Android the day it was available and a promised three-years of software updates, I’m left to wonder if I could recommend this phone at all. Almost every Android device manufacture is terrible about software updates (shout out to Essential, Nokie, and OnePlus for killing it) but you know when you buy a Pixel you’re getting day one updates. Every new feature that’s coming to Android will be on your phone before any of your friends.

The Android 10 update just dropped for Pixel and Essential devices (OnePlus has an open beta for the 7 Pro available). Before that, Google had a developer beta out for months that let pretty much anyone try the software out. I’m not sure with all that lead time it takes a massive company like Samsung or LG almost a year to push an update to its flagship phones, but until they can get their act together, the Pixels are the only phones you should consider if ultra-quick updates and a long life-span is at the top of your wishlist.

Updates and new releases bring features like Now Playing, a nice little reminder of what songs are playing around you, and an excellent Always-on-Display, but they’re not always filled with good stuff. More bugs have been introduced throughout the Pixel lifespan and some unwelcome features like the new gesture-based navigation.

I’ve never been big on the redesigned swiping gestures that don’t reveal your app drawer when swiping up from the bottom of the phone and make it harder to access recent apps and the new gestures in Android 10 feel like a further step back.

I know Google wants to compete with Apple here and give people more of a reason to switch over, but the gestures don’t feel fluid like the do on iOS and that’s a huge hurdle for people actually using them.

Google has a reputation of putting an idea up on the drawing board, thinking its great, telling its team to implement it and then just rolling with it, no matter how good it is.

That’s why we have 77 Google messaging apps right now, none of which are really that good. That’s how the gestures in Android 10 are a thing too. While they sound good in practice, it breaks functionality in third-party launchers and using them while in apps can be a chore due to the issue with slide-out menus.

Android really needs its own Scott Forstall or Craig Federighi. A single voice at the top of Android with a vision and the ability to unify all of the teams working under it. Right now, it just seems like a mess and the users who put their faith in Google in the form of almost $1,000 for a phone are the ones paying the price.

That’s a wrap

The Google Pixel 3 XL is a good phone.

You might think my opinion of the device is quite low after reading this review, but the Pixel 3s are a complicated set of devices. While it does some things incredibly well, namely the camera, display, and audio experiences, others are a bit more complicated.

Even software, which can be quite a mess, can be a huge advantage. Digital Wellbeing, which has now rolled out to other devices, is a huge win. It came to Pixel first and gives you a great view of what you’re actually using your device for. It’s really eye-opening to see you’ve spent two hours on Reddit and an hour on Twitter in a 24 hour day. It makes you stop and take stock of how you’re using your time.

And even the great stuff still has a drawback. The camera experience on Pixel 3 is fantastic, but it’s limited to a single lens on the rear of the phone. There’s no telephoto or super wide-angle lens to get fun shots with. While those aren’t a requirement if you’re going to get this phone to keep for a few years, do you want to lock yourself into a single lens?

Then you get into some really puzzling decisions like design and RAM. When you hold the Pixel 3 XL up to 2019 phones it just looks bad. On it’s own, yeah it’s fine and doesn’t really stand out, but when you’re looking at a wall of phones in a carrier store, it becomes very obvious, very quickly that this phone looks really dates.

And speaking of dated, 4 GB of RAM? C’mon Google. You know you should’ve put at least 6 GB of RAM in this phone. I don’t know if it was ego or cust-savings on the part of Google execs to only put 4 GB of RAM in this phone but it was dumb. The OnePlus 7 Pro recently launched with a 12 GB of RAM version that cost less than the base Pixel 3 XL. You may not need more than 4 GB of RAM to run Android right now (which is honestly debatable) but you will in the future as feature creep continues to be a thing.

In a vacuum, the Google Pixel 3 XL is a good phone. It does enough things well to get my seal of approval on the device.

BUT.

We don’t live in a vacuum. The Pixel 3 XL has to compete with the OnePlus 7 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+, Huawei P30 Pro, and others. There are several options that cost less than the Pixel 3 XL and do more. Their software might be just as good and their cameras may be better. And they all have more than 4 GB of RAM and are in a far better position to stay relevant for longer periods of time.

I can’t recommend the Pixel 3 XL right now based on its price. There are too many options that are simply better phones for close to the price. Google seemingly can’t drop the price either due to the recent release of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. Those phones do 90% of what the 3 and 3 XL do but at half the cost. If I were going to recommend a Pixel device to pick up right now, it would be one of those.