Are the Google Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL the smartphones to get you to end your longstanding romance with Apple or Samsung?
The third time might, indeed, be the charm for these seductive new Pixels. After using the phones just shy of a week, I can say, without hesitation, that these handsets represent Google’s strongest attempt yet to woo you away from the market leaders.
Sure, these Pixels have their blemishes, too – what phone doesn’t? But as smartphone suitors go, you’d be proud to be seen with and (more importantly) use these latest handsets, which start at $799.
Here’s why you should consider the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL and what should still give you pause:
The case for the Pixel
Look no further than the camera. Last year’s Pixel 2 shooters were arguably the best smartphone shooters around – and the truth is, you will get an argument because making such a claim is entirely subjective.
Nitpicking aside, what is obvious here is that the cameras on the new phones are excellent, too, with Google adding a few new welcome tricks. For one thing, there’s now a wide-angle selfie camera that lets you capture the entire varsity starting lineup in a single shot, without everyone having to contort themselves to cram into the frame. If we’re passing around credit, let me also call out LG and Samsung for having the same feature on their new V40 ThinQ phone and Note9, respectively.
There’s also a machine-learning driven Top Shot feature on the new Pixels that attempts to live up to its name by surfacing the best pic among a burst of images automatically captured – in theory, an image where everyone’s smiling or otherwise properly posing. A Top Shot image option doesn’t appear on every shot – in fact, most times in my tests, it didn’t. But I suspect you’ll appreciate when it does.
Google is promising a new camera feature that its meant to improve nighttime photography without a flash. It wasn’t available for testing yet; still, many of the pictures I took in dim light were first rate.
Shifting away from the camera, my favorite new feature can turn the table on the telemarketers and scammers that drive all of us nuts. When you receive such a call on the Pixel, you can tap a “Screen call” button that lets the caller know by voice that you’re using an automated screening service from Google and that you the person being called will get a copy of whatever they’re telling you in (more or less) real time.
In practice, the transcription is less than perfect (“talking into the bottom” was translated, yikes, as “talking to the bomber.”) Still, you can quickly determine whether the caller is trying to pull one over on you or trying to peddle a product you have no interest in.
You, as the recipient of such a call, can tap buttons on the screen to ask Google’s automated voice to tell the caller to reveal more, or to let you know if there is some urgency here.
And, of course, if the call does turn out to be legit, you can pick up the phone to talk to the person at any time.
Other reasons to buy the phone: At $799 and $899 on up, the new Pixels are expensive, but they're still less than Apple’s iPhone XS and XS Max or Samsung’s Galaxy Note9, the rival clamoring for your affection.
Google’s new phones are also the first to offer you the premium and pure Android experience through Pie, if that is important to you.
Meanwhile, most of the other table-stakes features you expect in these premium devices are here, too: all-day battery life, water-resistance, fingerprint reader on the back, wireless charging, support for speedy LTE. And, oh yes, the presence of the Google Assistant.
The large handsome OLED displays on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3XL – they measure 5.5-inch and 6.3-inch displays, compared to 5 inches and 6 inches on last year’s models –are packed into handsets that are roughly the same size as the Pixel 2 devices. Google managed to do it by reducing but not entirely eliminating the borders or bezels that frame the screen.
And fortunately, there appear to be no early signs of the “burn-in” and qualms about color accuracy that plagued the Pixel 2 a year ago.
Leaving the Pixel a notch behind
While on the topic of the screen, there is this an ugly notch at the top of the XL model, which covers the selfie-cameras and stereo speakers.
I dinged Apple for the notch that appeared last year on the iPhone X and by now have gotten used to it. I’m confident I’ll get used to it on the Pixel 3 XL as well, so I wouldn’t not buy the phone because of it. Still, stare at the notch long enough and you’ll think there’s a creepy face looking right back at you.
You can make this notch disappear, but you’ll have to dig deep inside the developer settings of the phone to do it. The likelihood is that most of you won’t bother.
Perhaps more bothersome to me, though this is again more quibble than anything else, is that there is no facial recognition for unlocking the screen. You’ll have to stick with tried and true methods for unlocking the screen instead: conventional passcode, fingerprint sensor or drawing a designated pattern on the screen.
Another reason to knock the Pixel – and yes, Apple is in the crosshairs on this one as well – is the absence of a standard headphone jack. Kudos for Samsung keeping a feature that makes it simpler for those of us who still rely on corded headphones.
If you’re an iPhone user, there are a couple more important considerations to think about before you might defect: Are you fully invested in Apple’s ecosystem of apps and such? And do you in fact favor iOS over Android? If that's indeed where your loyalties lie, then breaking up will be hard do.
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