Hands on: Google Pixel 3 XL review

Google's answer to the iPhone XS Max is here

What is a hands on review?
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For

  • Big, bright, sharp display
  • Apparently improved audio
  • Cheaper than the iPhone XS Max

Against

  • Limited storage options

While the Amazon Echo Show-like Google Home Hub and Microsoft Surface-like Slate might be grabbing the column inches for their genuine newness, the most important product (in terms of sales, anyway) announced during Google’s 9th October event was undoubtedly the Pixel 3.

Available in standard and XL sizes, the Pixel 3 is designed to give the iPhone XS a run for its money. Actually, a run for quite a lot less money.

But does the Pixel 3 XL really have what it takes to defeat the iPhone XS Max, recent winner of our Best Smartphone Award? We went hands-on at the event to find out.

Design

Google Pixel 3 XL design

While the rear of the new Pixel 3 XL looks very similar to it's predecessor, the Pixel 2 XL, it actually uses a single piece of glass that’s been finished in two different ways to give the two-tone effect that was previously achieved using a metal and glass combination.

Also on the back you’ll find the single-lens camera to the top-left, flanked by a dinky flash, plus fingerprint sensor and a small Google logo.

Google Pixel 3 XL features

Flip the phone over and its most notable new feature, particularly for the likes of us, is the new, 6.3in, mostly edge-to-edge screen. We say “mostly” because while the screen runs to the left, right and top edges (the latter with an iPhone XS-like notch), the bottom edge has a fair bit of bezel to it.

The bottom bezel and notch each house a front facing speaker, whereas the iPhone XS relocates its bottom speaker to the bottom edge to make room for more screen.

Held next to one another, the Pixel 3 XL, which has the same dimensions at the Pixel 2 XL, is a tiny bit taller, narrower and thinner than the iPhone XS Max, but we really are talking tiny margins. In the hand the two phones feel exceptionally similar, and the 24g weight saving of the Pixel 3 XL isn’t really noticeable.

What is noticeable is Google’s markedly different approach to colours. The pure white and pure black finishes may not be exactly revolutionary, but their simplicity is fairly refreshing in the face of fancy metal finishes of the new iPhones. Google even seems to be having a dig at Apple with the names it's using for these finishes, calling them “Just Black” and “Clearly White”.

The third available finish is “Not Pink”, which is really a very, very light pink that’s rather nice in the flesh. The white and pink phones have power buttons in strongly contrasting colours - green for the former, orange for the latter. The overall look is just a bit more fun and a little less serious than that of the iPhone XS Max.

Picture quality

Google Pixel 3 XL picture quality

It’s obviously the 6.3in OLED display that we’re most excited about. Not only has it got a slightly higher resolution than that of the iPhone XS Max (2960x1440 compared to 2688x1242), its slightly smaller size (the iPhone is 6.5in) presents a higher pixel density (522ppi to 458ppi).

In theory, then, it should be sharper, but that’s an extremely hard thing to judge during a brief hands-on at a crowded event. What we can say is that the Pixel 3 XL is clearly very sharp and detailed in its own right, not to mention bright and vibrant with the very limited content available.

Sound quality

Google Pixel 3 XL sound quality

If screen quality is hard to judge at a hands-on event, sound quality is more or less impossible thanks to the combination of loud music and chattering journalists in the background.

That we could hear anything at all from the Pixel 3 XL is sort of impressive, and perhaps testament to Google’s claims that the speakers are 40 per cent louder and richer than those of the Pixel 2, but making a judgement call would be silly. That’s something that really will have to wait for the full review.

Unlike the Pixel 2 phones, the Pixel 3s get headphones in the box. They connect to the phone via USB-C (there’s no standard headphone socket) and essentially look like a wired version of the company’s existing Pixel Buds, with an inline mic/controller. Hopefully they’ll sound better than the wireless version - we weren’t able to listen to them at the event.

Features

Google Pixel 3 XL features

Under the skin is a Snapdragon 845 processor and 4GB of RAM, which should be plenty for a slick, stock Android 9 ‘Pie’ experience. Remember that Pixel phones give you the vanilla Android experience, and it includes some exclusive feature such as Active Edge, which allows you to squeeze the phone to invoke the Google Assistant.

There’s no microSD card slot, so you’re stuck with the 64GB or 128GB of built-in storage that you select at the point that you purchase the phone.

It’s interesting that Google doesn’t offer 256BG or 512GB variants of the Pixel 3, as Apple does of its iPhone XS, and it might be of some concern to those people who like to store lots of video or audio on the device itself.

Google Pixel 3 XL hands on review

The 2915mAh battery isn’t the largest out there, but it should be more than capable of giving you at least a day’s worth of life before needing a charge.

And charging can now be done wirelessly, using either Google’s own Pixel Stand, which the phone can lean against, or any other Qi-compatible wireless charger.

Google Pixel 3 XL

While cameras aren’t of primary concern to us, they’re important to many smartphone buyers and those of the Pixel 2 phones are highly regarded.

The 12.2MP lens of the Pixel 3 XL is just one ingredient of the recipe, with a dedicated chip - the Pixel Visual Core - designed to improve photos through machine learning. It brings with it advanced features such as Top Shot, which takes a number of shots before and after you press the shutter button and automatically selects the best based on factors such as how your subjects look and whether there’s blur or noise. Night Sight, meanwhile, is designed to produce better low-light shots.

In some ways it’s the front-facing camera that’s most impressive, in that it features a wide-angle option that allows for the taking of selfies that include not just you, but a whole group of people and the surrounding scenery.

No, not everyone is into selfies, but in action the mode works really well, and it will be a big hit with those who want to be in their own holiday snaps.

Release date and price

Google Pixel 3 XL release date and price

The Google Pixel 3 XL has a 1st November release date and is available to pre-order right now.

It commands a premium of £130 over the standard model, coming in at £869 in 64GB form and £969 for 128GB. Needless to say, that makes it easier on your wallet than the iPhone XS Max, which starts at £1099.

Initial verdict

Google Pixel 3 XL initial verdict

Those prices make the Pixel 3 XL quite a lot more expensive than the Pixel 2 was at launch, but by offering an edge-to-edge screen nearly as big as that of the iPhone XS Max and a little bit sharper - and for a fair whack less money - it’s going to have plenty of prospective buyers.

For us the fairly limited storage capacity is a bit of a concern, but the star rating will be mostly dictated by the picture and sound quality, which we just can’t make a call on at this early stage.

Rest assured we’ll be publishing a full review just as soon as we can lay our hands on a proper sample.

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What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view.