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Google Pixel 3 XL review: Brilliant, but Google is treading water

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
869
inc VAT

Bigger and better than before but Google is resting on its laurels with the Google Pixel 3 XL

Pros 
Fabulous camera
Superb performance
Android Pie goodness
Cons 
Mediocre battery life
No secondary rear camera
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Save £150 on Pixel 3 XL at John Lewis

Google's plus-sized flagship, the Pixel 3 XL, is currently on offer at John Lewis. For a limited time during the Easter period, the big-screened smartphone with 64GB of storage can be scooped up for only £719 – that's a whopping £150 off the original asking price. The 128GB model has also dropped in price to £819.
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If there’s one thing I wanted from the Google Pixel 3 XL, it’s that it didn’t make a repeat of last year. The Pixel 2 XL was an otherwise cracking phone but its flawed display held it back from greatness.

I’m happy to say that Google's latest offering has indeed sidestepped that particular pitfall. The problem, though, is that aside from fixing what needed to be fixed, the Pixel 3 XL is not that much of an improvement over last year’s phone. In many ways, it does feel like a repeat of last year, as if Google has resolved a few problems, upped the price and the screen size, installed new software and left it at that.

Google Pixel 3 XL: What you need to know

Before I get ahead of myself, here’s what’s what. The Google Pixel 3 XL is the big brother to the Google Pixel 3. It has a larger 6.3in display with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,960, and the price is higher, but in most other respects the Pixel 3 XL is identical to its smaller sibling.

It runs the latest Android 9 Pie software, uses the exact same 12.2-megapixel camera as the Pixel 3, the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and it looks almost identical, too. There are some tiny differences, both physical and performance related, but to all intents and purposes, the Pixel 3 XL is just a larger Pixel 3.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Price and competition

Indeed, the biggest dissimilarity between the two handsets is the price, with the Google Pixel 3 XL costing £869 to the Pixel 3’s £739. That might sound expensive, but compared to its major rivals, the Pixel 3 XL is not, in fact, overpriced. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is available now from around £899 (the S9+ is £869), the Apple iPhone Xs Max costs from £1,099 and the Huawei P20 Pro is £799. The modern large-screened flagship phone typically carries with it a price tag of around £800 or more, it would seem.

Lurking in the shadows, though, is the OnePlus 6, soon to be replaced by the upcoming OnePlus 6T. This is an exceptional smartphone with similar internals to the Google Pixel XL, but which costs a lot less at £469.

Best Google Pixel 3 XL contract and SIM-free deals:

Google Pixel 3 XL: Design and key features

So what’s new with the Pixel 3 XL? The biggest change is that the phone has a larger, 6.3in display compared to last year, now matching the OnePlus 6 for size. It’s one of the new breed of tall, narrow screens, so the phone doesn't feel quite as cumbersome as you might think, although you might want to budget for some jeans with deeper pockets.

As for how it looks, at first glance it would appear that not much has changed. The rear is still divided into matte and glass portions, with the top glossy part surrounding the single camera and flash. The bottom matte part, meanwhile, offers more grip that you’d normally get from a glass-backed phone.

Look closely though and you’ll see that both parts are now seamlessly joined. In fact, the rear panel is all one piece of glass. The fingerprint reader still resides in the centre of the rear of the device, though.

At the front, we have that larger 6.3in display which, like most of 2018’s flagship phones, has a rather unsightly notch eating away at it from the top edge. It’s an OLED display, as it was last year, and it’s an edge-to-edge screen, filling much of the front of the phone. The resolution is slightly higher than HD – 1,440 x 2,960 to be precise, and the screen is topped with Gorilla Glass 5 so it’s easy to clean, as well as being scratch and shatter resistant.

Other design features worth noting are a little less in your face. The coloured power button is a nice touch, but not unusual. I’m not sure about the lime green, though, on the white model. There’s IP68 waterproofing and 10W Qi wireless charging now and front-facing stereo speakers that sound pretty good for a phone. If you buy one, though, please, please don’t use them when you’re out in public to listen to Bruno Mars. From a few feet away on the bus, this phone sounds just as irritatingly tinny as any other.

One particularly nice feature is that the phone will transform into a mini Google Home Hub when you drop it in the £69 Pixel Stand charger. It will even patch through the video feed from your Nest Hello video doorbell (if you have one) when someone rings the doorbell.

Otherwise, the phone is pretty much as it was before. It still has “ActiveEdge” sensors built into the frame of the phone so you can activate Google Assistant with a squeeze (no-one uses this feature, though, let’s be honest). There’s still no microSD card expansion and the buttons are in roughly the same place: the power button sits above the volume rocker on the right edge of the phone, the tray for the nano SIM card is on the bottom edge next to the USB Type-C socket and there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. Bad Google. Bad, bad Google.

READ NEXT: What is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Show?

Google Pixel 3 XL: Performance and display quality

Inside, the Google Pixel 3 XL has a 2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 with 4GB of RAM to back it up and either 64GB or 128GB of storage. As with every other phone I’ve used with the Snapdragon 845 on board, this is a quick phone and I’ve had absolutely no issue with it whatsoever.

It’s a quick and responsive phone, in fact with Android 9 Pie on board the Pixel 3 XL is probably the slickest, most responsive phone I’ve ever used. And it benchmarks very well, too.

Battery life is somewhat less impressive, with the Pixel 3 XL lasting a rather underwhelming 13hrs 8mins in our video rundown test, which is longer than the smaller Pixel 3, but well behind all of its rivals.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the 3,430mAh battery, but it’s still far from ideal and even lags behind the iPhone Xs Max and Huawei P20 Pro.

READ NEXT: What is Google's new wireless-charging Stand?

Last, but by no means least, to the display, which is fantastic. Peak brightness isn’t the best – at 393cd/m2 you might struggle to read your messages on a bright sunny summer day – but colour accuracy is fantastic. Measured with the phone’s “Natural” colour profile enabled its average Delta E score is 1.21, which is as good as smartphones get, essentially.

The screen is HDR certified, too, so you can be sure Netflix movies and TV shows look their absolute best. If you prefer a more vivid or muted look, the Pixel 3 XL has three colour profiles to choose from: Natural is, effectively, sRGB; Boosted is sRGB “+10%”; and Adaptive is the most vivid and closest to the DCI-P3 colour gamut.

Google Pixel 3 XL review: Camera

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Google Pixel 3 XL is that it arrives with only a single camera at the rear with specifications that, to be brutal, don’t look to have changed a jot from last year. Resolution remains at 12.2 megapixels with 1.4um pixels and a 1/2.55in sensor, the aperture is still f/1.8, and the phone is equipped with OIS (optical image stabilisation) and dual pixel autofocus, just like the Pixel 2 XL.

There's a new spectral/flicker sensor which should allow for more precise white balance settings. Otherwise very little has changed. You still get Google's excellent HDR+ photo processing algorithm, which takes advantage of Google’s custom Visual Core ISP chip to capture eight frames every time the shutter button is pressed. Although the results are impressive, the competition is catching up. Apple’s Smart HDR algorithm also captures eight frames, although I still prefer the way the Pixel renders colours.

I’ll get onto image quality lower down. For now, though, I’m going to focus on the tools Google has added to the camera this time around. It’s a bit of a mix. First on the list is the new Top Shots mode. This works when Motion shots are enabled: the camera captures a series of shots before and after you hit the shutter button and, if the software thinks a better shot is available, it’ll suggest an alternative. Useful if your portrait subject blinks or moves just as you take your photograph. The automatic suggestions don’t always work, though, and it’s worth noting, too, that Top Shots doesn’t work in HDR+ enhanced mode, either.

Elsewhere, there’s a new mode called Night Sight, which illuminates low-light shots almost as if you'd used a flash. This feature, which started to roll out to Pixel 3 owners on Friday the 16th of November, uses clever software to analyse the scene, the amount your hand is shaking and if your subjects are moving to determine how many frames to capture and merge. The results, viewable here in the shared Night Sight Google gallery, demonstrate that it works pretty well though, at the time of writing, I was still waiting for the update to drop so I could try it out for myself and compare with rival phones. It's going to have to go some to beat the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

There’s also “Motion auto-focus”, which gives you object tracking. Keen photographers can now save images in RAW and JPEG while Playground adds AR capabilities to the camera, allowing you to add silly 3D figures and stickers to scenes.

The most seriously useful new feature, though, is Super Res Zoom. This aims to address the fact that the camera doesn’t have a second telephoto lens by using the natural motion of your hands as you capture extra images to fill in lost detail in zoomed shots. It seems to work well but it’s not quite a match for the optical 2x telephoto zoom on the iPhone Xs Max or the 3x and 5x zoom on the Huawei P20 Pro.

Nor is the video mode the best I’ve come across. It has a new “fused” stabilisation technique that combines OIS and EIS, which works well, but it doesn’t record 4K video at 60fps. Even the OnePlus 6 can do that.

The last new camera feature is the dual front camera. One is wide angle – allowing you to capture groups of friends or a broader view of the landscape behind you – the other captures at a regular angle for, um, regular selfies. Both front-facing camera capture at 8 megapixels: the wide-angle camera has an aperture of f/2.2 and is a fixed focus camera; the normal camera has an aperture of f/1.8 and uses phase detect autofocus.

The Pixel 3 XL's camera might have shortcomings when it comes to features and flexibility, but overall image quality is, in a word, stunning. The Pixel 3 XL’s camera’s still photographs are as good as any from its big rivals, especially in scenarios where HDR is required. Bright lights and sky are captured with frightening levels of accuracy and amazing depth of colour.

My only complaint, perhaps, is that occasionally the white balance in indoor shots is a little off-kilter – under office strip lights it errs a little too much on the cool side for my liking – but that really is the smallest of small complaints.

It’s a great camera. Its biggest problems are the ones I’ve highlighted already: a lack of optical zoom and 60fps 4K video capture, both features that the iPhone Xs Max and OnePlus 6 offer.

Google Pixel 3 XL review: Software

When it comes to software, once again, there's nothing surprising here. The Google Pixel 3 XL runs Android 9 Pie and it brings with it a hatful of new features, not least a dramatic rethink of the way the app drawer and recent apps screen is accessed.

I’m sure I’ll get used to this but a swipe up with the thumb no longer gets you right into the app drawer; instead it pulls up the Recent apps view. To get to the app drawer you have to now double swipe or keep your thumb applied to the screen and keep going.

Android 9 Pie also introduces a couple of other new navigational gestures, not all of which I’m sure I’m going to use. Swipe right on the home button and you’ll quickly get to the previous app. Swipe and hold the home button and the Pixel 3 XL will slowly scroll you through all your recent apps.

Other interesting new features include Google Duo video calling integration within the dialler and Gmail Smart Compose, which endeavours to make writing emails quicker and easier by suggesting common completed sentences.

Google Pixel 3 XL: Verdict

It probably shouldn’t surprise you to discover that the Google Pixel 3 XL is a great phone. It’s a wonderful thing to use, has a fabulous camera and looks utterly gorgeous. It’s the quickest, slickest phone I’ve ever used and is without a serious flaw. Considering how poor the Pixel 2 XL’s display was last year, that was never a given. Ultimately, the Pixel 3 XL is the phone the Pixel 2 XL should have been.

What's surprising about the Pixel 3 XL is how underwhelmed I feel about the hardware. Although there are plenty of new features to play around with, I’d like to have seen a bigger leap forward in battery life and in the camera hardware. I’d like to have seen Google stretch the lead it has in computational photography and not sit on its hands.

It leaves me with the feeling that Google could have done a whole lot more with the Pixel 3 XL and, while it’s surely a great smartphone, it isn’t quite as amazing as it should have been.

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