Google Pixel 3 XL review: Tech’s worst kept secret is a super handset
A great handset, but ultimately too expensive for its own good
Officially, the Pixel 3 XL didn't exist until a week ago. But for a phone that didn't exist, it sure had a habit of showing up unannounced, from blackmarket sales in Hong Kong to the backseat of a Lyft.
It's tech's worst-kept secret, but fortunately discretion isn't necessary to develop a top-notch smartphone, as the Pixel 3 XL proves with aplomb. It's a fine handset which maintains that sense of Google magic while somehow being greater than the sum of its (widely-leaked) parts.
You pay a premium though and you can get a lot more bang for your buck elsewhere.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Design
The Pixel 3 XL is not a looker in the conventional sense, leading many to believe that the early leaks were an elaborate prank by Google designed to throw 1,000 tech bloggers off the scent. Sadly that wasn't to be the case: it really does have a giant notch and an even bigger chin at the bottom.
This doesn't look as offputting in the flesh as it does in press shots, you'll be pleased to hear, but it's still a bit disorienting. The iPhone X introduced a notch in order to create a display that covered the entire front of the phone here not only is there a big chunk cut out of the top, but a thick bar along the bottom. You can't help feeling Google would have been better off having a full black bar at the top for symmetry's sake if nothing else.
That questionable design decision aside, it's all good. The Pixel's two-tone calling card on the rear of the phone is back with a lightly reflective area around the camera turning to a matte finish below. The back of the handset where the fingerprint reader lives feels quite plasticky to the touch, despite its glass construction. That may seem disappointing in a handset that costs this much money, but all we can say is it's very comfortable in the hand despite its 6.2in frame.
That said, there are a number of design decisions that we're charitably going to call disappointing' for the price. First off, despite mocking Apple two years ago for removing the much-loved headphone jack, it's still MIA on the Pixel 3 XL. True, there are some headphones that look suspiciously like wired Pixel Buds in the box, as well as an adapter for your existing wired pair, but it's still a big anti-consumer move. Secondly, the built-in storage you get (64GB or 128GB depending on your budget) is all you're getting. There's no microSD slot. Still, Apple gets away without those features without much scrutiny, so why not Google as well?
On the bright side it has IP68 waterproofing and wireless charging. The latter is particularly interesting, given Google was an early adopter of the technology with the Nexus range, only to abandon it after the Nexus 6. Clearly the company now thinks it's ready for mass adoption and it probably helps that it's ready to sell its own 69 wireless charging stands too.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Display
The Pixel 3 XL's large 6.2in display is an OLED panel, which guarantees deep inky blacks and perfect contrast. Colours are also suitably bright and vibrant, but although it's a big improvement on last year's Pixel 2 XL, it's still not the best example of an OLED display out there.
For starters, the colour accuracy isn't great. According to our display colourometer, the Pixel 3 XL manages 90.5% of the sRGB colour gamut. That's high, but you'd expect higher for the price for comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S9 manages 99.3% while the iPhone Xs gets 96.1%. Likewise, screen brightness only hits 393cd/m2. That will be fine in all but the brightest sunshine, but is some distance behind the searing 668cd/m2 the iPhone Xs achieves.
It's not all doom and gloom: viewing angles are excellent, and the 1,440 x 2,960 resolution means a pixel density of 523PPI. In other words, everything you look at looks wonderfully sharp, just as it should.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Specs and performance
The specifications of the Pixel 3 are identical whether you get the standard version or the XL for that matter, they're identical to pretty much every flagship smartphone from the OnePlus 6 upwards. That means you're getting Qualcomm's latest 2.8GHz Snapdragon 845 processor backed by 4GB RAM and either 64 or 128GB storage.
And that means performance is pretty much as you'd expect. Superbly fast, but no more superbly fast than anything else with that setup and it's worth remembering at this point that the OnePlus 6 goes for 390.83 plus VAT
It's also worth remembering that the Snapdragon 845 is nearly a year old, and that most likely means that Qualcomm has an even faster chip just around the corner. If you want the latest and greatest, in other words, then it may be worth hanging on a few months to see what Samsung, LG and Sony have up their metaphorical sleeves.
That said, in a more practical sense, the Snapdragon 845 is plenty fast enough for most people's' needs, and it'd be surprising if you found it slugging over the duration of a standard two-year contract.
On top of this, there are advantages to buying Google that go beyond raw specifications. You get Android 9 Pie out of the box here, and will always be the first in line for new versions of Android, and all the security bonuses that implies. Pretty important if you're buying for business use.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Battery life
Like almost every phone released in the last five years, batteries that you can replace yourself have been sacrificed at the altar of a swish-looking unibody design. The Pixel 3 XL is no different here, and a 3,430mAh battery powers the show a fair bit bigger than the 2,915mAh cell in the smaller Pixel 3.
Unfortunately, in practice this presents results that aren't too inspiring. In our standard battery test a looped video running at a screen brightness of 170cd/m2 in airplane mode the Pixel 3 XL lasted just 13 hours, eight minutes and 16 seconds before powering down. That's a touch on the low side, though anecdotally you should still comfortably get through a day if you're not a super-heavy user.
Plus this is the first Pixel device to feature wireless charging. Any Qi charging panel will work with this, but the Pixel Stand is worth considering if you do buy the XL. It's a 69 stand that will not only charge your device, but turn it into a smart display, where it shows your photos, the weather and offers quick access to Google Assistant. If you want it to, it'll even slowly brighten your display to a warm yellow in line with your wake-up time to ensure you're (theoretically) better rested for the day ahead. A nice touch.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Camera
The camera isn't something we typically pay much attention to at IT Pro as its business uses are less clear than a long-lasting battery or an accurate screen, but reviewing a Pixel phone without touching on the camera is to do it a disservice. For years, Google has been the smartphone camera champions, and the Pixel XL's snapper continues in this fine heritage.
Initially, you may find yourself disappointed. While most flagship devices have a dual-camera array on the back (the Huawei P20 Pro even manages a triple-lens effort), Google has stuck resolutely to one: a 12.2-megapixel snapper with a f/1.8 aperture, dual-LED flash and optical image stabilisation. This means you won't be getting any hardware zooming or monochrome features, but you still manage to get snaps which are nothing short of spectacular.
The resulting pictures are sharp, with a natural colour balance and packed with detail. They are, for stills, as good as it gets in low light or in well-lit conditions, but it's important to note that the margins are getting smaller. There's not a great deal between this and the Huawei P20 Pro and that's a phone that offers three lenses for telephoto zoom and monochrome shots. Something the Pixel 3 XL doesn't offer.
For those that care, it also doesn't shoot 4K video at 60fps. For that, you might be better off looking at the iPhone Xs.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Features
So far, camera aside, you may be feeling a little underwhelmed by the Pixel 3 XL. All we can say is that as a package it feels greater than the sum of its parts, and a lot of that is down to the software, which Google has finetuned to be intuitive and useful. While lots of the features will likely either be cloned by other manufacturers, or rolled out in a future Android update, it's hard to argue that the Pixel 3 XL isn't anything but as user-friendly as Android gets.
We're not just talking about Android 9 Pie here, but the little software extras that Google has added to the mix. You can flip over your phone to silence all but urgent notifications to keep things quiet in a meeting, or check up on your digital wellbeing' where the phone will tell you how much time you spend in any apps, with options to help you cut back if you find the results troubling.
By far the cleverest is call screening. This lets Google Assistant pick up the phone for you. When it does, the phone will transcribe what's being said at the other end. It's typical that the one time we wanted scammers to phone us nobody did and even dialling our own phone from a withheld number didn't do the trick. Still, it's a very clever idea for those that are bombarded by nuisance calls, but have a nagging sense of worry when they ignore suspicious numbers.
A phone made by Google is unsurprisingly Google-centric. Email is from Gmail, the browser is Chrome, Storage is Google Drive and Google Photos is baked in too. Most people will see this as a pretty strong selling point, but if your business is all tied up with Microsoft, then you'll have to unpick this with Outlook, Teams and OneDrive via the Google Play store.
What is undoubtedly advantageous is that Pixel phones get the latest version of Android the fastest and that means security updates as well as software goodies. For some businesses, that may be worth the price of admission alone.
Google Pixel 3 XL: Verdict
The Pixel 3 XL is undoubtedly one of the best phones you can buy right now, but it's still a tough one to give a wholehearted recommendation to for two reasons.
The first is that as an October launch, it's likely the last of the big players to release a flagship this year. Despite this, it's no faster as it still has the same Snapdragon 845 processor its big rivals have been using for the last six months. Wait a little longer and new chips will be upon us, powering phones that leave the Pixel 3 XL in their dust.
In itself, that's not really a problem: phones have got fast enough that there's no need to get het up about speed bumps. The problem is the high price here isn't really warranted: 869 (724.17 exc VAT) is an awful lot for a phone which in most ways is merely a match for the OnePlus 6 (390.83 exc VAT). Even the Samsung Galaxy S9 has come down in price to the point that it can be had for around 500 exc VAT if you shop around.
The camera and the software make the Pixel 3 XL a very tempting option, but most businesses will be better looking at something a little cheaper, unless getting those OS updates as quickly as possible is worth paying a premium.
The Pixel 3 XL is one of the best phones around, with a spectacular camera and some great software under the hood. Unfortunately, it doesn't do enough to justify its high asking price - especially not in the face of such stiff competition from other brands.