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Pixel 3 and 3 XL: Google's nicest Pixel might lack that killer feature

This is Google's most refined Pixel phone yet.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

The Pixel 3 XL, is the only one with a notch. The Pixel 3, doesn't have it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Check out CNET's full reviews of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, now!

There are things you notice about the Pixel 3 and 3 XL right out of the gate. Google's new flagship phones have just one camera on the back, not two, three or even four -- but you do get two on the front. Both take great photos.  Both also Pixel 3 phones also start at under $1,000 each, which seems almost unheard of in 2018 when most flagship prices have risen. 

And unlike phones from Samsung, Huawei, LG and even Apple, there's no wild color; the boldest, called Not Pink, still looks kind of white. And finally, there's no killer feature -- or some might say gimmick -- in sight.

Compared to last year's Pixel 2, these flagship phones make the jump in hardware and software. There's a faster processor, for example, and the new Android Pie software on board. A little boring, no? But picking up and playing with both the 5.5-inch Pixel 3 and 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL nudged my mind. When you hold these sleek, almost slippery devices, you can start to appreciate how these are Google's most refined Pixel designs yet. 

The Pixel 3 and 3 XL come on subtly with rounded edges and thoughtfully curved elements, like the slightly tacky clear panel on the back. But I really enjoyed using them at and just after Google's launch event. If performance holds up during our testing, I can see how this could be a go-to phone for Android fans, not because they're innovative (they're not) but because they're both appealing to hold and use. 

You can buy the new Pixel 3 phones in black, white and "Not Pink." The glossy plane on the Pixel's signature two-tone backing has shrunk over the years, and slightly curves down at the corners rather than cut straight across. In fact, nearly everything about the Pixel 3 is subtle, and that could very well be the phone's main strength. 

 Read: Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS vs. Galaxy S9 and Pixel 3 XL vs. iPhone XS Max vs. Note 9 vs. LG V40

Google's Pixel brand has garnered a following for its overall reliability (minus that pesky Pixel 2 XL screen issue); clean, "pure" Android; regular security and OS updates; and the camera's ability to do arguably more with a single lens than other phones do with two or three.

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New on the features side are two front-facing cameras (for group selfies), wireless charging support and Pixel USB-C earbuds in the box. Pixel 3 pricing starts at $799 (£739, AU$1,199), while the Pixel 3XL starts at $899 (£869, AU$1,349). Pay $100 (or £100) more per phone to double the storage space from 64GB to 128GB. 

These are still expensive flagship models by any measure, but in a mobile landscape with ballooning costs, Google's comparative restraint could help draw buyers who balk at $1,000 phones like the iPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy Note 9.

You can preorder the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL now. US residents can buy either phone starting on Oct. 18, followed by sales in other countries starting Nov. 1. In the US, the Pixels sell with Verizon, unlocked through Google's online store and through Google Project Fi.

New Pixel 3 features that matter

  • Larger, 5.5-inch (Pixel 3) and 6.3-inch (3 XL) displays
  • Pixel 3 XL has a notched screen; Pixel 3 does not
  • Two front-facing cameras
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor
  • Slightly larger battery capacity for both phones compared to Pixel 2 devices
  • Portrait mode shots can also save photos without the portrait filter effect
  • Top Shot, an automated photo-selection tool, launches later
  • Wireless charging support with $79 (£69) Pixel Stand
  • Use AI voice assistant to field unwanted calls
  • Turn the phone over to silence incoming calls
  • Titan M security chip exclusive to Pixel 3 phones

Scroll to the end for a full specs comparison chart versus the iPhone XS, Galaxy S9 and LG V40 ThinQ.

Pixel 3's most interesting camera tricks are under the hood

Google's Pixel cameras have always been less about flashy gimmicks and more about the kind of software processing that Google can milk from its equipment. After all, Google is a software company at its core. Computer learning and camera AI are major ingredients in the Pixel 3. 

Both phones have a single 12.2-megapixel rear camera and two 8-megapixel lenses on the front. Here are some camera highlights:

HDR+: Turned on by default, this combines eight frames into one shot.

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Super Res Zoom: Promises sharp, clear detail when you digitally zoom in to a scene -- that's without a telephoto lens.

Night Sight: Google promises clear, bright low-light photos without the need for a flash, which can blow out shots or make them unnaturally bright. This will build off Google's already considerable low-light strength.

Photobooth mode: Turn on this setting and the Pixel 3 will snap photos when the subject smiles or makes a funny face.

pixel3-group-selfie

The Pixel 3's front-facing telephoto camera lens can squeeze at least 13 people into a selfie. Try doing that with an iPhone. 

Lynn La/CNET

Top Shot: When motion capture is turned on, Top Shot, which arrives "later," will recommend a better version of a shot you may have missed. It's intended for correcting candid photos, like someone cannonballing into a pool. You can also choose your own from what the phone grabbed while the motion capture was on.

Group selfie: This isn't so much a convenient mode or button you press as you flipping the camera toward yourself and manually zooming out to the wide-angle lens. 

Playground: For AR enthusiasts, swipe a button in the camera to toss characters, including Star Wars' BB-8, Marvel's Iron Man and Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) into the landscape you see through the viewfinder.

Android Pie on the Pixel 3 still raises some questions

The moment I picked up the Pixel 3, the newest version of Google's new OS, Android 9 Pie, stared me right in the face. As anyone with Android Pie already on their phone can tell you, not much has changed since we first saw it at Google I/O. As far as I'm concerned, that's both good and bad.

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The Pixel 3 XL, left, and 3, in Not Pink.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pie relies on gestures to swipe up and press a virtual button to go Home. You long-press this to raise Google Assistant. But if you want to go back, you have to press a Back arrow off to the side, which is confusing and interruptive. This isn't Google's best design, and other Android phones do it much better.

Swipe up to see your app tray and you're also brought to a juddery stop midway through as the view on your screen divides into two parts. Up top you have recent apps you can open (like a shortcut). Down below, you see the upper part of your app tray. You have to swipe again to access all your apps.

Despite these user hurdles, Android 9 felt very fast and smooth throughout. The redesigned menus and buttons are familiar, but get enough of a fresh coat of paint to feel new.

Pixel 3 specs versus the competition


Google Pixel 3 Google Pixel 3 XL Samsung Galaxy S9 Apple iPhone XS LG G7 ThinQ
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch "flexible" OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels 6.3-inch "flexible" OLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels 5.8-inch AMOLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels 5.8-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,436x1,125 pixels 6.1-inch IPS LCD; 3,120 x 1,440 pixels
Pixel density 443ppi 522 ppi 570 ppi 458 ppi 563 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.7x2.7x0.3 in 6.2x3x.03 in 5.81x2.70x0.33 in 5.7x2.8x0.3 in 6x2.8x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 145.6x68.2x7.9 mm 158x76.7x7.9 mm mm 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm 143.6x70.9x7.7 mm 153.2x71.9x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.2oz; 148g 6.5 oz; 184g 5.75 oz; 163g 6.2 oz; 177g 5.7 oz, 162g
Mobile software Android 9 Pie Android 9 Pie Android 8.0 Oreo iOS 12 Android 8.0 Oreo
Camera 12.2-megapixel 12.2-megapixel 12-megapixel 12-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 16-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (wide-angle)
Front-facing camera Dual 8-megapixel Dual 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 7-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz octa-core) Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz octa-core) Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz octa-core) or Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz octa-core) Apple A12 Bionic Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.8GHz octa-core)
Storage 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB TBD 4GB
Expandable storage None None 400GB None 2TB
Battery 2,915 mAh 3,430 mAh 3,000 mAh TBD 3,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back cover Back cover Back cover None (Face ID) Back cover
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack No No Yes No Yes
Special features IP68, wireless charging support, Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box IP68, 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 Water resistant (IP68); dual-SIM (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) $899 (64GB); $999 (128GB) Varies: $720-$800 (64GB) $999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), $1,349 (512GB) Varies: $750-$792
Price (GBP) £739 (64GB); £839 (128GB)
£869 (64GB); £969 (128GB)
£739 £999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB), £1,349 (512GB) £599
Price (AU$) AU$1,199 (63GB); AU$1,349 (128GB)
AU$1,349 (63GB); AU$1,499 (128GB)
AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$1,629 (64GB), AU$1,879 (256GB), AU$2,199 (512GB) AU$1,099

This story updates frequently. It was last updated Oct. 12 at 12:58 p.m. PT.

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