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Pixel 3 XL review: Vision for tomorrow

Google’s Pixel 3 XL has (officially) broken cover, and its plain interior hides some serious AI smarts

A flagship phone launch by Google would normally be an eagerly awaited event. In the case of the Pixel 3 and 3 XL however, the anticipation was dulled somewhat by the numerous leaks that all but exposed all the details of the phone, at least in the physical sense. While Google did its best to drum up interest with a few hilarious misdirects in the build-up to the launch, the phones themselves turned out to be exactly what we had all seen. As is always the case with Google, the true essence of the Pixel line is what is on the inside. On that front, there is still a lot to talk about.

Familiar build, Frankenstein forehead

To the casual eye, the Pixel 3 XL, which we reviewed, looks a lot like its predecessor, with a glass window and a single camera lens on the back. Turn it around, and if the display is on, it is hard to miss the massive notch that adorns the top of the Pixel 3 XL, and houses a dual front camera set-up and speaker grill. There is no fancy face-recognition tech in there, it’s just a big notch, and while you do sort of get used to it thanks to the software intelligently obscuring or working around it; when it does make its presence felt, it is jarring.

The Pixel 3 XL has a 6.3-inch display (the regular Pixel 3 makes do with 5.5 inches but omits the notch), a Snapdragon 845 SoC, 4GB RAM, a 12.2 MP rear camera and dual 8MP front-facing shooters, one of which is an ultra-wide angle lens. The power and volume buttons are on the right side of the device and the USB-C port sits flush on the bottom. Google’s ‘Active Edge’ to launch Google Assistant is present, and can be triggered by squeezing the lower sides of the phone. We found that this required us to awkwardly adjust our grip, and it requires a pretty firm squeeze to trigger Assistant.

There is no headphone jack on the phone, but Google bundles all the necessary accessories. Included in the box are a pair of wired USB-C earphones, which are a little fiddly but sound quite good, a USB-A to USB-C adapter, and a fast charger which uses Type-C at both ends of the cable. This is relevant because the Pixel allows users to migrate data from their old phone using a cable. The presence of a 3.5mm to USB-C adapter in the box earns Google a thumbs-up for thoughtful inclusion of accessories.

The daily stuff

The Pixel 3 XL runs like you would expect, fast and fluid. While some people raised concerns about the relatively low RAM on offer compared to modern phones in this tier, we found the Pixel to manage memory reasonably efficiently. Android 9 Pie also brings a redesigned notification tray, which can be accessed by swiping down on the fingerprint sensor, and intuitive touches like quick access to take a screenshot by long-pressing the power button, and displaying a toggle for the ringer profile when the volume is changed. The new Digital Wellbeing tab shows an overview of phone usage, and provides a wind down mode and the option of setting app usage restrictions.

What we were less impressed with was the gesture-based navigation that comes as standard here. A swipe up from the bottom on the Pixel shows the recent apps, which can be navigated by tap or using the slider at the bottom, which doubles as a home button too. Users can also directly touch and slide the ‘home’ button to start scrolling through recent apps. While this works well on paper, we found this implementation to be a roadblock in what is otherwise a very fluid navigation experience.

Snap with smarts

The Pixels have always been a showcase of Google’s progress with AI, and the 3 XL is no different. This is most apparent in the camera, which is loaded with AI smarts to ensure that the excellent sensor gets you the photo you want with minimal effort. The single rear camera continues to use its image-processing smarts to take some of the most detailed photos this side of a DSLR, and even portrait mode shots are vivid, with fine strands of hair accurately rendered. Google also took some pages from its Clips camera and now offers suggestions for the best shot if you click a lot of pictures of moving subjects, like someone having an animated conversation. The Photo Booth option analyses when the subject smiles, and clicks a photo. The camera also has a motion feature that records a short clip of the subject. Another area where AI is used is to enhance the optical zoom, with the camera snapping multiple images and using the data from them to render a better zoomed-in shot.

Google Lens is also integrated into the simple camera app, and can help read text and identify products. The front camera uses a handy slider to switch between normal and wide-angle lenses, so big group selfies are no longer a problem. Overall, image quality continues to be top-notch, with the Pixel 3 XL rendering plenty of solid detail and producing natural, but pleasing colours. Video recording tops out at 4K 30 FPS, and there is a slow-motion mode that can record at 240 fps. Google is also working on a night-sight mode, which will be part of a future update, and claims it will improve low-light photography performance significantly.

The other stuff

The Pixel 3 XL may have had a relatively low-key launch, but with great hardware supplemented by genuine AI smarts, it is a good phone. The notch is an occasional eyesore and the fiddly navigation can get annoying, but the great camera and excellent standby time (it has a 3,430 mAh battery) make good counterarguments. The presence of wireless charging is an added bonus. On an unrelated note, we also found the ‘Now Playing’ feature, which automatically identifies music playing in the background and displays it unobtrusively at the bottom of the lock screen and always-on display, to be surprisingly helpful.

Yay or nay?

At ₹83,000 and ₹92,000 for the 64 GB and 128 GB versions respectively, these features definitely come at a cost, and the minor niggles seem more glaring, seeing as many competent smartphones can do almost all that the Pixel does at half the price. If the best of Google is a priority however, look no further than the Pixel 3 XL. If cost is still a factor, sacrificing some screen real estate for the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 (starting at ₹71,000) may be the way to go.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:56:12 PM |

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