Tuesday 13 November 2018

Tech Review: Google Pixel 3 XL

Price: €999 (64 GB) and €1099 (128GB)

Google Pixel 3 XL
Google Pixel 3 XL

GOOGLE'S new Pixel 3 XL 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.

This review judges this handset by its €999 price tag, not as a plucky contender to the established flagship phones.

This is one reason why we do wonder about its '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.

To be clear, other phones have notches. But Apple, which was first to introduce a 'notch', put it 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?

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.

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, which is on the rear of the handset, is a good distance from the camera lens. That means I never confuse the two when reaching around to unlock the phone.

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

As you might expect from a high-end phone of this ilk, the 6.3-inch Oled display is 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.)

The camera on Google Pixel phones are a primary, 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 good job of 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 fuelled by artificial intelligence that are being brought to bear. These include '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, so far I haven't noticed the Pixel 3 XL being any better than the Galaxy S9 or the P20 Pro in this regard.

There's a decent portrait mode, though it's not quite as clean as the iPhone XS's version.

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 in, not a cheap digital version of it. For me, this is important. I regularly take photos from the zoom lens. Not to have it feels like a backwards step to me, something akin 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.

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 physica - expandable storage. As useful as it is, I don't really count Google Photos as a like-for-like substitute.

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 plenty to make a phone perform very quickly and efficiently (the top iPhones don't have any more than this). But over time, it's not so clear.

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 Pixel XL is priced at €999 (64 GB) and €1099 (128GB).

It comes in 'Just Black' and 'Clearly White', while a 'Not Pink' colour is available from the Google Store.

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