During its annual developers conference this year, Google announced the Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL -- two budget phones that kick off the company's new endeavor to make cheaper, more affordable phones. The devices are essentially reworked versions of the Pixel 3 and the larger 3 XL, which originally debuted in October 2018.
Seven months after its launch, the Pixel 3 was the best Android phone of 2018 and remains one of the top phones you can get nowadays. It truly is awesome, and along with the Night Sight update, it includes the best camera you can currently get in a phone.With only a single rear camera, the Pixel 3 pulled off photo tricks that its competition at the time, including the OnePlus 6T, iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9 needed two cameras (or at times, even more) to pull off. And with Night Sight, it can brighten up even the darkest of scenes without a flash so well that I'm not entirely convinced it isn't witchcraft.
The Pixel 3 (left) and larger Pixel 3 XL.Sarah Tew/CNET
But the other half of the Pixel's draw is Google's software and the entire ecosystem it's ingrained with. Google wants you to use Assistant and it wants you to integrate it with other Google services like Gmail and Calendar. At times it's useful -- particularly Assistant's new ability to answer calls on your behalf. (Yes, it's as bonkers as it sounds, but it does help to combat the scourge of spam calls in my life.) The constant notifications and tips and prompts get annoying, but fortunately you can turn these functions off.
So is an outstanding camera (which takes better photos than the iPhone XS), wireless charging, water resistance and Google's user experience worth the $799 (£739, AU$1,199) starting price for the 64GB Pixel 3? If you don't care about expandable storage, I say yes. At face value, the phone costs as much as the Galaxy S9 and it's cheaper compared to the iPhone XS' $1,000 (£999, AU$1,629) baseline price. The identically priced 128GB iPhone XR is a tempting alternative, but its camera just doesn't measure up to the Pixel 3.
If you do want extra storage though, things get more complicated. The S9 ends up being the better value since it can hold up to 400GB of extra data, and the 256GB iPhone is actually cheaper than the Pixel 3 at any capacity in terms of price per gig. At any rate, if all these phones are out of your budget, but you love the Pixel 3's camera, consider the Pixel 3A instead.
But if you are willing to pay up, the Pixel 3 is outstanding. It may not look as luxurious as the iPhone XS or Galaxy S9, but it enjoys the extra perks that come from being a Google phone, which include unlimited cloud storage and timely software updates. And with its superlative, easy-to-use camera, the Pixel 3 is top-notch.
Keep in mind, too, that the Pixel 3 is available in a larger 6.3-inch model (compared with this model's 5.5-inch display). The Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 (£869, AU$1,349) and offers a bit more battery life and a hideable notch on its display. But features, including the cameras, are otherwise the same.
Originally published Oct. 15, 2018
Update, Nov. 15: Adds final camera testing and additional impressions. The overall rating has moved from 8.7 to 8.8 and the phone has been awarded a CNET Editors' Choice; May 21, 2019: Adds Pixel 3A and Pixel 3 A XL information
Pixel's exceptional camera delivers again
If the Pixel 2 ($460 at Walmart)'s camera was excellent, the Pixel 3 is exceptional. The Pixel 3 takes impressive low-light photos, records steady video and pulls off solid portrait photos with only one rear lens compared to phones that use two cameras for the same effect. Its wide dynamic range handles varying lighting and exposures particularly well, at times producing images that look better than in real life.
The Pixel 3 has a single 12.2-megapixel rear camera.Sarah Tew/CNET
New camera software also aims to improve photo quality. Google improved the camera's low-light capabilities with a feature known as Night Sight. It works extremely well, brightening up even the darkest of scenes and keeping objects in focus. Top Shot, which works when you take "Motion" pictures, looks for smiles and open eyes to recommend the best image in a series. To improve its digital zoom, the Pixel combines several photos together and processes super detailed, zoomed-in shots.
In general, the Pixel 3 takes brilliant photos, capturing images that are detailed and clear. The colors are a tad more intense than you'd see on the iPhone XS, but not to a level that's unrealistic or exaggerated. The Pixel also handled white-balance and its skin tones were more true to life than the Galaxy S9 and Note 9 at times. It also retained more details with darker shadows than the Galaxy phones.
There were times when the OnePlus 6T had a wider dynamic range than the Pixel 3 XL in its default mode, brightening and punching up colors more. But when I switched to the 3 XL's HDR+ enhanced mode, it outperformed the OnePlus 6T. And while the 6T's Nightscape retained the same, if not slightly more, details than the Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel's Night Sight feature is far better at lighting up dim scenes.
The Pixel 3's camera is skillful at taking portrait photos too. They take a few seconds to render, but the falloff between the fore- and background looks natural and not overly smooth. When I took a photo of a dog, I noticed a patchy-looking stray hair or two, but the effect was minimal. And the Pixel gives you the option to tweak the blurriness and focus of these portraits after you fire the shutter, similar to the iPhone XS and other Android phones. The editing process is precise and easy to use. (For a deeper dive, check out CNET's Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS camera comparison.)
Taking a picture with Portrait Mode on (left) and off (right).Lynn La/CNET
In this indoor photo, the fish and clams all look detailed and crisp.Lynn La/CNET
Taking a photo in near darkness with the camera's default mode (left) and with Night Sight on (right).Patrick Holland/CNET
Zooming in max at this building near Madison Square Park. The Pixel combines several photos together to process these detailed, zoomed-in shots.Lynn La/CNET
In this low-light image, the camera still captured details of people's faces and the bar in the back.Lynn La/CNET
The Pixel 3's expert handling of different lighting sources and exposures captured this vibrant shot.Lynn La/CNET
In this closeup shot taken outdoors, you can see how each phone captured its own great image, but all of them handled color differently.Lynn La/CNET
The varying ways these four phones handle a low-light setting.Lynn La/CNET
With the second selfie camera, you can include more content in your selfies so you don't have to stretch out to make all your friends fit in the photo. This can warp angles on the side. Some "groupie" photos stretched out my arm and my friend's faces, giving us wonky, fun-house-mirror proportions. LG's earlier phones with wide-angle cameras had the same issue, but it eventually fixed them. Hopefully Google can tweak this as well.
There'll be tons more camera deep dives and comparison testing with the Pixel 3 in the coming days, so stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, click through the slideshow below to see more photos taken by the Pixel 3.
Taking a standard selfie (left) and taking a wide-angle selfie (right).Lynn La/CNET
Additional camera features
- Motion autofocus keeps moving objects in focus. When I tried it at a dog park, the tool worked only some of the time. There were incidents when dogs moved either too fast or too slow and the tracking dropped off.
- The tools that adjust the blurriness and focal depth of portrait pictures is buried. Find the portrait in Photos and tap the three toggle bars at the bottom. Adjust the Depth slider or tap on it again to bring up sliders for changing the blur.
- Google Lens uses your phone's camera to identify objects and then gives you information about those objects. Read more about Google Lens.
- You can take photos with AR stickers and animated 3D characters (called "Playmoji") as they're "placed" in the real world through the camera.
Pixel 3 design: Not refreshed, but refined
While this year's Pixels look similar to last year's, subtle design tweaks add more polish to the phones this time around. There are slimmer bezels, especially on the smaller Pixel, and a smooth matte texture on all the color variants including the black one. The phones are surrounded by a glossy lining around the phone and the signature glass shade on the back dips down on the bottom corners all help to elevate the aesthetics.
The phones are lighter than their iPhone and Galaxy counterparts, too -- so much so that CNET editor Iyaz Akhtar said they feel almost like fake "dummy" phones. But they're sturdy and comfortable to hold. I accidentally dropped the Pixel 3 from about waist-high onto a tiled floor. The phone was left with a small chip on its top corner, but otherwise remained unscathed. (We'll do more deliberate drop tests in the coming weeks.) Overall, these phones still look less extravagant than their rivals. But they don't feel as cheap as before and I've come to like their understated simplicity.
Though Google made phones with wireless charging before, the Pixel 3 is the first Pixel phone to have it.Sarah Tew/CNET
Other design takeaways
- Google brought back wireless charging. New to the Pixel line (but not to older Google phones like the Nexus 5 ($195 at Amazon)) is wireless charging. Instead of plugging in a cord, the phone can juice up on any Qi-compatible charging mat. Google's selling its own Pixel Stand wireless charger too. When it charges on that cradle, the Pixel's lockscreen switches to simplified interface that emphasizes hands-free voice commands. This mode gives you quick access to Assistant, music players and notifications, and you can set up a screensaver with photos.
- It comes bundled with earbuds. Though Google still left off the headphone jack, the company did include wired USB Type-C earbuds with the Pixel 3 for the first time ever. They're meatier than Apple's earbuds, but they're quite comfortable and fit snugly in my ears. And unlike Apple, Google is including an adapter for standard 3.5mm headphones in the box.
- It's water resistant. The Pixel 3 is rated IPX8, meaning it can survive in about 3 feet underwater (1 meter) for 30 minutes. In my dunk tests, the phone kept on ticking after I placed it in a 3-gallon bucket for 28 minutes, twice.
- Active Edge still mainly does one thing. Like its predecessor and the HTC U11 ($561 at Walmart) before it, squeezing the Pixel 3's sides launches a specific action. In this case, it opens Google Assistant and it can silence an incoming call. But that's pretty much it. Annoyingly, you can't reprogram the gesture to do anything else. Squeezing the U11, for example, could turn on the flashlight or Wi-Fi.
- Fingerprint sensor remains on the back. The center-rear placement of the fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone is on the back of the phone. That location is ultimately better than Samsung's, which is still too close to the rear camera. But Google missed a chance to embed the sensor in the screen, like the upcoming OnePlus 6T, or add an iPhone-like Face ID method.
The USB-C wired Pixel Buds.Sarah Tew/CNET
Pixel 3 software: So helpful it's almost creepy
Running Android 9.0 Pie out of the box, the Pixel 3 uses gesture navigation to get around. For recent apps you'll need to flick up at the bottom of the screen and slide apps upwards to quit. A quick flick used to take you to the app drawer, but now that requires either a second flick or one long swipe upward. This is the hardest gesture to unlearn and I still need more time to get used to it. At least there's still a small home and back button.
Google Assistant, the company's voice-activated majordomo, is embedded throughout the Pixel's user experience. There are myriad ways to access it: Active Edge, saying "OK, Google" or long-pressing the home screen. Even if you don't consciously launch it, you'll inevitable interact it with it somehow. The phone gave me additional prompts when I was walking somewhere and using Maps, and it brought up the details of a hotel I just happened to walk into. So it's clear that the Pixel -- and by extension Google -- is closely tuned to my whereabouts.
Call Screen transcribing a conversation with a robo caller in real time (left) and Digital Wellbeing (right).Screenshots by Lynn La/CNET
But that's what you get with a phone so deeply integrated with Google's ecosystem. Fortunately you can turn off notifications or opt out of Assistant altogether if it all starts to get too much.
One compelling new Assistant feature is Call Screen, which answers calls on your behalf using the Duplex technology that the company unveiled earlier this year. As the conversation unfolds between Assistant and the other line, you can read a transcript of the conversation in real time. From there you can decide to block the call or answer it. Call Screen is totally freaky, especially when I think about genuine friends (whose numbers I haven't saved) having to sit through a robot to get to me. But it's admittedly useful and has saved me from having to speak to telemarketers or sit through another spammy voicemail in Mandarin.
Video: 10 tips and tricks for the Pixel 3
More Pixel software tidbits
- As part of Google's Digital Wellbeing initiative, the Pixel gives you info about how you're spending your time on the phone. It lets you limit app usage and switches the screen to grayscale around bedtime to reduce eye strain.
- The Pixel 3 and 3 XL come with a free YouTube Music subscription for six months.
- You'll get unlimited cloud storage for photos, saved at full resolution.
- The phones are usually the first to receive software updates as they roll out from Google. If you bought your phone through a carrier though, you may experience some delay.
- The phone is available on Google's own Wi-Fi first network, Project Fi. For a limited time, if you buy two Pixel 3/3XL phones you can receive service credit.
If you choose to enable access, expect a big dose of Assistant with your overall Pixel experience.Sarah Tew/CNET
Processing speed and battery life
The Pixel 3's Snapdragon 845 chipset keeps it as snappy and responsive as I'd expect. Some camera tools do take a beat though, like portrait mode and the flash on the front-facing camera (which takes some time to process). But overall the phone runs smoothly and I didn't run into any issues with day-to-day tasks such as launching the camera, scrolling through webpages or pecking out text messages.
As you can see from benchmark scores, the Pixel 3 is on par with other top Androids that are equipped with the 845 chipset, too, including the Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6T and LG G7 ThinQ. The iPhone XS's A12 Bionic CPU, however, scored the best out of all five phones we tested.
3DMark Slingshot Unlimited
Note:Longer bars indicate better performance
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Note:Longer bars indicate better performance
Geekbench v.4.0 single-core
Note:Longer bars indicate better performance
Geekbench v.4.0 multicore
Note:Longer bars indicate better performance
Battery testing for continuous video playback on airplane mode clocked in an average of 15 hours. That's a pretty solid time, and falls slightly below the Galaxy S9's 15.5 time and the OnePlus 6T, which clocked an average of over 16 hours. It's also much better than the G7's 12.5-hour time and the Phone XS, which hovered at a little over 13 hours.
During my day-to-day observation, battery life was satisfactory. With mild to heavy usage, including surfing the internet, taking tons of photos and using Maps and Gmail, the phone lasted the work day without a charge.
Video: Unboxed: Google Pixel 3, 3 XL and the Pixel Stand
How does the Pixel 3 compare to other phones?
From left to right: the Galaxy S9, Pixel 3 and iPhone XS.Sarah Tew/CNET
- Pixel 3 vs. Pixel 2: If you're holding on to last year's Pixel, know that you still have a great phone and a powerful camera in your pocket. The Pixel 2 will also be in line to get some of the updates that the Pixel 3 has, such as Call Screen. And while I consider the Pixel 3 a bit more than an "incremental" update, it's safe to hold onto your Pixel 2 and wait for the next update.
- Pixel 3 vs. Galaxy S9: Though I like the Pixel 3's camera over the Galaxy S9, Samsung's phone has a slightly longer battery life, a headphone jack and expandable memory. If the latter two are especially important to you, go for the Galaxy S9.
- Pixel 3 vs. OnePlus 6T: If you can afford the Pixel 3, you'll get a superior camera and prompt updates as they roll out from Google. But the 6T is a superb, more affordable, alternative given that both phones come with the same processor and a barely skinned version of Android Pie out of the box.
- Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS: The iPhone XS doesn't have expandable storage or a headphone jack like the Pixel 3. But it does offer FaceID for unlocking the screen and digital payments. Plus, the 256GB model of the iPhone XS costs $1,149 (£1,149 and AU$1,629) and is actually "cheaper" than the Pixel 3 in terms of storage. However, it's not that closely integrated with Google's ecosystem and I prefer the Pixel 3's camera and the way it punches up colors.
- Pixel 3 vs. LG G7: Again, if you want a built-in headphone port, external memory, plus a little more cash in your pocket, the G7 is a good bet. But keep in mind that the Pixel 3's camera outshines the G7 and its battery lasts a notably longer time than the G7. If it came down to these two and I had more room in my budget, I'd get the Pixel 3.
Google Pixel 3 spec comparison
|Pixel 3||Galaxy S9||OnePlus 6T||iPhone XS||LG G7 ThinQ|
|Display size, resolution||5.5-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels||5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||6.41-inch AMOLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels||5.8-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,436x1,125 pixels||6.1-inch LCD; 3,120x1,440 pixels|
|Pixel density||443 ppi||570 ppi||402 ppi||458 ppi||563 ppi|
|Dimensions (Inches)||5.7x2.7x0.3 in||5.81x2.70x0.33 in||6.20x2.94x0.32 in||5.7x2.8x0.3 in||6x2.8x0.31 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||145.6x68.2x7.9 mm||147.7x68.7x8.5 mm||157.5x74.8x8.2 mm||143.6x70.9x7.7 mm||153.2x71.9x7.9 mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||5.2oz; 148g||5.75 oz; 163g||6.53 oz; 185g||6.2 oz; 177g||5.7 oz; 162g|
|Mobile software||Android 9 Pie||Android 8.0 Oreo||Android 9 Pie||iOS 12||Android 8.0 Oreo|
|Camera||12.2-megapixel||12-megapixel||16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto||12-megapixel standard, 12-megapixel telephoto||16-megapixel standard, 16-megapixel wide-angle|
|Front-facing camera||8-megapixel standard, 8-megapixel wide-angle||8-megapixel||16-megapixel||7-megapixel with Face ID||8-megapixel (f/1.9)|
|Processor||2.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845||Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz octa-core), or Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz octa-core)||2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845||Apple A12 Bionic||2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845|
|Storage||64GB, 128GB||64GB, 128GB, 256GB||128GB, 256GB||64GB, 256GB, 512GB||64GB|
|RAM||4GB||4GB||6GB, 8GB||Not disclosed||4GB|
|Expandable storage||None||400GB||None||None||Up to 2TB|
|Battery||2,915 mAh||3,000 mAh||3,700 mAh||Not disclosed||3,000mAh|
|Fingerprint sensor||Back cover||Back||Underneath display||None (Face ID)||Back|
|Special features||Water resistant (IPX8); wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box||Water resistant (IP68); dual-aperture camera; super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning||In-display fingerprint sensor; dual-SIM; Dash Charging; notifications toggle||Water resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID; Memoji||Water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; DTS:X 3D Surround; Quad DAC|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$799 (64GB), $899 (128GB)||$720 (64GB), $770 (128GB), $840 (256GB)||$549 (6GB RAM/128GB), $579 (8GB RAM/128GB), $629 (8GB RAM/256GB)||$999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), $1,349 (512GB)||Varies depending on carrier: $750-$792|
|Price (GBP)||£739 (64GB), £839 (128GB)||£739 (64GB)||£499 (6GB RAM/128GB), £529 (8GB RAM/128GB), £579 (8GB RAM/256GB)||£999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB), £1,349 (512GB)||£599|
|Price (AUD)||AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (128GB)||AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB)||Converted: AU$774 (6GB RAM/128GB), AU$817 (8GB RAM/128GB), AU$887 (8GB RAM/256GB)||AU$1,629 (64GB), AU$1,879 (256GB), AU$2,199 (512GB)||AU$1,099|