Tuesday 15 October 2019

Could the flagship smartphone market be a four-horse race? Google Pixel 3 XL - a review

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Most people thinking about a top-end phone will go for either an iPhone, Samsung or Huawei.

But Google wants you to consider its latest offering, the Pixel 3 XL.

Google Pixel phones have been available in the US for a couple of years, but have only now become available in Ireland.

The handsets come fairly highly-rated from most experts who have tested them since their launch.

But does the latest model stack up to the best on offer from the existing phone giants?

Is the Pixel’s much-vaunted camera a match for the leaps taken by Apple and, in particular, Huawei?

I’ve had a few days to use and assess the Pixel 3 XL and the following is what I’ve found so far. (Bear in mind that these are initial thoughts: a more thorough review will follow a little later.)

If you want to skip to the conclusion, scroll down to the end. But here’s a basic primer: this phone is clearly a flagship contender with some excellent features and a very good camera. But it may not have a killer distinct feature to make it stand out from its immediate rivals. And the fact that it is stuck with a single rear camera lens will count against it for those who depend on their phone’s camera for lots of photos and video.

1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS AND DESIGN

Your first impression of the phone is probably going to be good, if not overwhelming. At first, the Pixel doesn’t appear to quite match a Samsung S9 or an iPhone in exterior aesthetic.

But it grows steadily on you. Probably the design highlight is its black frosted glass rear casing, which feels a bit like a matte metallic finish. It’s very, very nice.

It also ensures that the phone doesn’t slip off surfaces that have tiny inclines, as some handsets do. (Although the sides of the phone are fairly slippy)

Over time, one begins to appreciate other elements of the design. For example, its high gloss screen does a remarkable job at avoiding being a fingerprint magnet.

In hand, the phone is fairly comfortable, too, with no angular edges.

The handset features an ‘almost all’ front side display, but keeps a small ‘chin’ bezel.

The one design feature on the Pixel 3 XL that is questionable is its ‘notch’. I’ve gone into this in some detail below. But suffice to say that it may not have been needed (it’s not there for facial recognition, like the iPhone’s notch) and some will regard it as a flaw.

It also doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone port, but that’s becoming the norm these days for high-end smartphones. (The phone’s box includes USB-C wired earphones and a connector-dongle for regular 3.5mm headphones.)

The fingerprint sensor is on the rear of the handset and is a good distance from the camera lens, meaning I never confuse the two when reaching around to unlock the phone.

2. THE SCREEN

As you might expect from a high-end phone of this ilk, the 6.3-inch Oled display is quite excellent. There appears to be almost no latency or lag when scrolling and colours are really vivid. As mentioned, it does an incredible job of being relatively fingerprint proof.

It also now has an IP68 water resistance rating. That means that it can stay up to 1.5m under water for up to 30 minutes and still work fine. (The recently-released iPhone Xs has a similar rating.)

3. THE CAMERA

The camera on Google Pixel phones are always characterised as a main, if not the main, premium feature. I’ve done some testing of the Pixel 3 XL’s main camera and early results appear to justify its reputation: the camera does a very, very good job in processing images so that there’s attractive colour and a good balance between light and dark. A lot of this is down to HDR, which all the phones are now leaning on heavily to bring the quality and usability of phone shots on.

In particular, I like that it has kept its main camera to 12 megapixels, which is easily enough resolution to illuminate 99pc of photos satisfactorily while allowing the sensor to breathe in low light. (High megapixel sensors find it harder to produce smooth, clean shots in low light.)

There are also a number of features fueled by artificial intelligence that are being brought to bear, such as ‘night sight’, which controls the camera to maximise any available light and, hence, show you things that a conventional phone camera wouldn’t manage. (Samsung and Huawei are also very good at this, however: I haven’t so far noticed the Pixel 3 XL being any better than the Galaxy S9 or the P20 Pro in this regard.)

And there’s a decent portrait mode, though it’s not quite as clean as the iPhone Xs’s portrait mode.

There are some other interesting features for photographers. You can now shoot in a raw-plus-jpeg mode, meaning you’ll get more flexibility when you go to edit the files with software like Photoshop or Lightroom. (Watch out for the large files sizes when doing this, though - you’ll fill up your camera’s storage much quicker.)

Rounding off the camera positives, it has two cameras on the front-facing camera and these are used to great effect, with a wide-angle selfie feature letting you get way more into a selfie-shot than the usual 28mm field of view on most smartphones. This wide angle option also makes for an excellent video selfie camera.

But there’s one big camera feature missing: a second rear lens. Most other flagship models, from the top iPhones to Huawei to Samsung, have at least two rear lenses. That second lens can be critical: it’s an optical telephoto lens that means you don’t get pixelation or blurriness when you ‘zoom’ in on a shot. On those phones, you’re getting the full photo resolution when you zoom, not a cheap digital version of it. For me, this is important: I regularly take photos at from the zoom lens. Not to have it feels like a step back to me, something asking to reintroducing bezels on all-screen phones.

Google itself understands the utility of a second lens - it put an extra one on the front for a variety of selfie shots.

I know that this may not bother most people. But it counts as a drawback to me. For this reason, I can’t recommend the Pixel 3 XL as the ‘ultimate’ cameraphone, unless you only want wide shots.

As an aside, I can’t imagine that Google’s next top phone won’t have a second rear camera: it’s now a fairly standard flagship feature.

4. USING THE PHONE AND ITS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Google’s ‘pure’ Android has now matured into a really decent smartphone interface that is choc full of features. It makes a compelling case as to why you don’t need the operating system overlays that the likes of Samsung, Huawei or Sony provide.

One of the reasons for this is that Google is arguably starting to pull away with some of its AI-based features.

A good example of this is its Google Assistant. It can already do some fairly useful things. For example, if you say ‘tell me about my day’, the default response will be to tell you the time, weather and give you calendar information followed by a few short news clips from local stations. (In my case, the phone jumped right into the latest news bulletins from RTE and Newstalk.)

With the Pixel 3 XL, Google’s Assistant gives you a real glimpse of how far thingsare going.

For example, the Assistant can now effectively answer your calls and show you a transcript as it’s happening live.

I’ve always been a little underwhelmed by phones’ AI performances, but it’s genuinely starting to warm up now. And this is one area where the Pixel is a better bet than Samsung or Huawei, neither of which have proprietary AI systems that are in any way as good as Google’s. Apple’s Siri is evolving in a slightly different way, but also isn’t as fully developed as Google’s.

The reason I include this in the review is that I do believe it’s now one of the reasons that people might consider a Pixel over a more established smartphone brand.

5. THE NOTCH: WHY, GOOGLE?

One immediate question I had about the Pixel 3XL phone is: why does it have a notch? The smaller Pixel 3 doesn’t have it and there’s no question that it disrupts the flow of some elements of the phone’s use, such as certain apps and video playback.

Sure, other phones have them. But Apple, which was first to introduce a ‘notch’, put it there in the iPhone X because of the large array of sensors and cameras which combine to accurately identify your face as a means of operating (and unlocking) the device. But no such function exists here. Instead, it’s just two selfie-cameras and an enhanced audio speaker.

Granted, the speaker improves the audio a lot, which those who want to use this without headphones will definitely appreciate. And the second camera on the front is an impressive wide-angle lens, which lets you get way more into a selfie photo or video than is normally possible.

But are these worth disrupting the entire look of the phone?

In the case of the iPhone X range, the answer is probably yes: Face ID works really well. Here, I’m not so sure. However, the reality is that we’re now used to notches in high end phones, meaning it’s not quite as annoying as it otherwise might be.

5. DOES IT HAVE ENOUGH POWER AND STORAGE?

My model came with 64GB of storage. These days, that’s the minimum you would accept in a flagship phone. Given that this handset is marketed partly on the strength of its camera, I’d be more comfortable with 128GB, especially as there’s no expandable storage.

Unusually for an Android flagship device of this calibre, the Pixel 3XL only comes with 4GB of Ram. To be clear, organised properly, that’s absolutely plenty to make a phone perform very quickly and efficiently (the top iPhones, for example, don’t have any more than this). But over time, it’s not so clear: we know that applications and features develop substantially, even over 12 months. So it’s going to be interesting to see whether the Pixel 3XL will keep up.

The processor is the Snapdragon 845 which, again, is easily fast enough for today’s applications.

6. BATTERY LIFE

From my usage so far, I’d describe the Pixel 3 XL’s battery life as decent, but not outstanding. It will match the iPhone Xs Max (which has a smaller battery) and Samsung’s Note 9, but doesn’t compare to Huawei’s P20 Pro, which has a battery that’s 20pc larger. The actual size of the batter is 3,415mAh.

7. EARLY CONCLUSION

Maybe I’ve simply been spoiled with access to too many high end phones in recent months, but I can’t find a reason why the Pixel 3 XL is a must-buy over immediate rivals such as Huawei’s P20 Pro, Samsung’s S9 Plus or Apple’s iPhone XS Max (or Xr, which goes on sale later this month).

True, it’s cheaper than the Samsung S9 Plus and considerably cheaper than the iPhone Xs Max, so that’s an important factor. However, it comes in at a little more expensive than the P20 Pro.

However, I am possibly more strongly influuenced by the absence of a second rear camera lens than many readers will be. To be clear, there was no significant flaw in this phone — it’s an excellent device in almost every way. I’m just not sure what its killer calling card is.

Over the next few weeks, I might get a better idea, presuming there is one.

8. PRICING AND COLOURS

The Pixel 3 (5.5” screen) will be €899 (64GB) and €959 (128GB) while the Pixel 3 XL (6.3” screen) is priced at €999 (64 GB) and €1099 (128GB).

They’re available for pre-order now and on sale and in store on 1st November from the Google Store and Vodafone Ireland.

Both sizes come in Just Black and Clearly White, and an additional Not Pink colour is available from the Google Store exclusively. Pixel USB-C earbuds come included with all models.

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