With the launch of Google’s Pixel-branded phones three years ago, Android pivoted from relying primarily on OEMs like Samsung or Motorola, to having a premium first-party flagship positioned against the iPhone. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, released this month, are intended to compete with Apple’s newest models, the iPhone Xs and Xs Max.
This review focuses on how professionals, including executives, developers, and remote workers benefit from the Pixel 3. For general-purpose reviews, check out ZDNet’s reviews of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.
While the Pixel 3 XL has received extensive criticism for the industry-leading height of the display notch, the standard-size Pixel 3 sidesteps the questionable design cues, which flagship Android phones have adopted en masse since the release of the iPhone X. The design of the Pixel 3 is essentially utilitarian, it feels like a normal phone, for normal people, with normal hands who do not derive their identity from the model of phone they use. The 2:1 display ratio is a welcome change from the 16:9 display used in the Pixel 2 (and most other Android phones), giving it a good balance between usable screen space, and a functional shape for hands and pockets.
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Pure, unadulterated Android software
The primary benefit of Pixel phones is that Android is allowed to be Android, without bloated, unremovable themes or apps installed by the manufacturer or mobile network operator. The budget-friendly phones sold as part of the Android One program also have Google-approved stock-like software configurations. In terms of price and performance, these more closely resemble the Nexus device series, which ended in 2015.
The Pixel 3 and 3 XL, like all Pixel devices, are part of Google’s Android Enterprise Partners initiative, allowing for enterprise deployment with QR codes and zero-touch enrollment. All of the Android Enterprise labeled phones have guaranteed security updates (within 90 days) for three years, and at least one major version upgrade in that time as well. The Pixel 3 and 3 XL go several steps further, guaranteeing monthly security updates and version updates for three years, in this case ending in October 2021. Practically speaking, this is the most generous and timely update guarantee for any Android phone.
Similarly, it’s difficult to forecast the availability of developer preview images for the next version of Android. While previews of Android Pie (9.0) were available on the OnePlus 6, Essential PH-1, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Sony Xperia XZ2, Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo R15 Pro, and Vivo X21/UD, in addition to Google’s own Pixel devices, it seems unlikely that those exact third-party phones will receive preview images when the next development cycle begins. Because of this, developers requiring access to preview images of Android are best served with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
Of note, the card view for apps, as well the new touch navigation and changes to the default launcher for the Pixel 3 and Android 9, combined with Google’s Pixel Stand wireless charger, give the new generation of phones more than a passing resemblance to the Palm/HP webOS series of devices.
A really wonderful smartphone camera
Google’s focus on improving the performance of smartphone cameras, with their proprietary HDR+ post-processing, fused video stabilization, and motion auto focus, is one of the few aspects of Pixel phones, which are not (by official means) found to any degree in Android phones from other manufacturers.
To quote an overused aphorism, the best camera you have is the one you have with you. This rings particularly true with the Pixel 3. While the camera is well suited to portrait and outdoor (landscape) shots, the contrast available from the camera is suitable for use cases where imperfections need to be highlighted (such as insurance adjusters needing to document physical damage to cars or structures), and where photographs may need to be taken in adverse conditions.
Of note, Google has continued their offer of free photo storage at original quality in Google Drive for the Pixel 3, through January 31st, 2022.
It’s the ecosystem
The Pixel 3 and 3 XL are the newest devices to officially support Google’s Project Fi, which combines the Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Three mobile networks on a flat $20/month plan for unlimited calls and text messages, with data at (a prorated) $10 per GB, for the first 6GB. While there is no corporate plan for Project Fi, the service is useful for the cost-conscious, particularly freelancers who are prone to working either from a wired home connection, or from coffee shop Wi-Fi. Google Fi only works with Pixel phones, the Moto G6 and X4 (Android One Edition) and the LG G7 and V35 ThinQ, as well as the discontinued Nexus 5X, 6, and 6P.
Feeling, experience, and all the downsides
Google’s official Pixel 3 fabric case, which matches the same product design language as the Google Home smart speakers and Daydream View, is a trifle concerning as a case. While this is unlikely to be particularly noticeable on the black variant, natural oils and dirt on hands seem likely to significantly discolor the case, as is the case with the Alcantara-covered keyboards in Microsoft’s Surface line of devices.
The Pixel 3 and 3 XL lack 3.5mm headphone jacks for arbitrary reasons. Google includes USB-C earbuds and a USB-C to 3.5mm converter, though the use of either prevents charging while listening to music.
While the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are the first Google phones in years to support wireless charging, the Pixel Stand, for unknown reasons, is limited to 10W charging, while other phones can charge at 15W. To further complicate issues, Google limits wireless charging on unapproved docks to 5W, making the (comparatively expensive) $69 Pixel Stand the fastest wireless charger available at present. Google apparently intends to open faster wireless charging for devices which go through the Made for Google certification program.
Pricing of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are still $200 behind Apple for the iPhone Xs and Xs Max, though at $799 and $899 respectively for the 64GB SKU, the duo have received a significant price increase from their predecessors. The Pixel 3 is $150 more, while the 3 XL is $50 more, than the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, though the changes between the two are modest at best. Likewise, with the (characteristic) lack of expandable storage, the $100 premium for the 128GB SKU is unreasonable. For comparison, Apple doesn’t offer a 128GB SKU for the iPhone Xs, though the 256GB type is a $150 premium over the baseline 64GB model.
If you are in dire need of an upgrade, the Pixel 3 is an easily justifiable purchase. If you’re coming from a Pixel 2 (or, likely, even an original Pixel), the improvements are likely too incremental for the purchase to be sensible. The upfront price stings a bit less when paired with Google’s affordable Project Fi service, though absent some sort of deal, the price makes it difficult to justify.
Price aside, the Pixel 3 is every bit a quality phone, with a longer guaranteed lifespan than you’ll find from most other Android phones.
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 2.5 GHz quad-core
- Display: 5.5 inch, 2160×1080-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