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Phones

iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3: Which phone is best?

Spoiler: They're both awesome.

Angela Lang/CNET

When you're choosing a phone, one of the biggest decisions you'll make is whether you're going to go with iOS or Android. To help you out, we compared two of the "cheapest" options from top phone-makers: the Apple iPhone XR and the Google Pixel 3. (Though a starting price over $700 is hardly affordable, they are the least inexpensive offerings from these two phone makers. For a look at actual budget phones, visit our roundup here.) 

Both phones cost about the same and are equipped with premium hardware (check out the price chart below). But they also offer vastly different user experiences and software goodies that make them stand out from one another. Let's see how they compare. 

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iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3 pricing


iPhone XR Google Pixel 3
Price off-contract (USD) $749 (64GB), $799 (128GB), $899 (256GB) $799 (64GB); $899 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £749 (64GB), £799 (128GB), £899 (256GB) £739 (64GB); £839 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,229 (64GB), AU$1,299 (128GB), AU$1,479 (256GB) AU$1,199 (64GB); AU$1,349 (128GB)

Design: Pixel 3's sharper screen vs. luxe iPhone XR looks

With its thin bezels, notch and elegant glass and metal encasing, the iPhone XR flaunts a premium, iPhone XS-like aesthetic. Unlike other iPhones, however, it comes in six colors, including a vibrant red, blue, yellow and coral in addition to the standard black and white.

The iPhone XR also has a big, 6.1-inch LCD screen with a 1,792x828-pixel resolution display. It's coated in what Apple calls the "most durable glass ever" on a smartphone, although we don't know for sure if that means Corning's latest edition of Gorilla Glass or not. If you lay the iPhone XR down, it doesn't sit entirely flat on its back as the rear camera lens sticks out. That bump also means the lens may be more susceptible to damage, like what happened in our iPhone XR drop test.

The Pixel 3 doesn't feel as high-end, but it's still a solidly built phone and its smaller size makes it more comfortable to hold. It looks similar to last year's Pixel 2, but subtle design tweaks like thinner bezels and a glossy lining around the phone add more polish this time around. Colors look slightly punchier, too, than the iPhone, on the sharper OLED screen (5.5-inch with a 1,080p resolution). Like the iPhone, the Pixel also doesn't have a home button. And the larger Pixel 3 XL has one of the thickest onscreen notches we've seen. Yes, you can hide it, but it's not very flattering.

There are a few design features the phones share. Both are water resistant. The iPhone XR is rated IP67 which means it can survive a 30 minute dunk in 1 meter of water, but in our tests it actually lasted far beyond this depth. (You can see the full results of our extreme iPhone XR water test here.)

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The Pixel 3 is rated IP68, so it ups the ante to reach 1.5 meters for the same duration. We haven't water-tested the Pixel 3 yet.

Each phone has wireless charging, but neither has a headphone jack. So if you don't use Bluetooth headphones, you'll have to carry a dongle around to connect your regular pair of headphones.

Camera: Battle of the single rear lens

The iPhone XR and Pixel 3 both have a single 12-megapixel camera at f/1.8 aperture, but each phone takes advantage of its hardware in useful ways, depending on what kind of photos you usually take.

For example, the Pixel's low-light camera mode, Night Sight, is incredibly impressive. It works so well to brighten up dim settings, you'd almost think it's magic and you'd be tempted to never use your flash again. The Pixel's zoom, known as Super Res Zoom, is also excellent. Even though it just uses software to get closer to the subject, objects still look clear from far distances.

As for the front-facing camera, the Pixel has a second wide-angle lens. It isn't the first phone to have this; LG has been putting this in a few of its latest phones including the LG V40 ThinQ. It helps a lot with "groupies," and fitting more people and content in the frame.

iphone-xr-and-pixel-3-4

Each phone has only one rear camera, and both of them are great.

Angela Lang/CNET

The iPhone XR is the first iPhone that takes portrait mode photos with a single-lens camera, rather than the dual-lens setup on phones such as the iPhone XS. Like the Pixel 3, it uses software to generate the bokeh (or background blur) on your subjects. The catch? Portrait mode on the iPhone XR only works on humans. The Pixel 3 lets you take portraits of anything from your pets, to your favorite flowers, to your lunch.

Each phone can take HDR (high dynamic range) photos, and the Pixel 3 gives you the added option of capturing images in raw from the default camera app. You can also shoot raw on the iPhone XR but you do need to use a third-party app such as Halide or VSCO.

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Both phones capture impressive still images and you won't be disappointed with either. For a complete deep dive comparison of the two cameras on the iPhone XR and Pixel 3 check out our full test here.

When it comes to video capture, the iPhone XR definitely has the edge, especially in low light. The image quality is a lot cleaner and audio is clearer than the Pixel 3. (Click here for more photos from the iPhone XR.) 

Performance: iPhone XR is faster and its battery lasts longer

The iPhone XR and Pixel 3 are equipped with an A12 Bionic and Snapdragon 845 processor, respectively. Even though they have different chipsets, you don't really notice any differences in speed with daily tasks like launching apps or firing the camera shutter. But if we were to split hairs, the iPhone XR does have the edge over the Pixel 3 on benchmark tests. Check out both scores below.

However, there were times when the Pixel 3 would carry out certain camera functions a beat slower than preferred. At times, it took awhile to render HDR+ Enhanced photos (which makes sense given the extra processing the phone has to carry out), but rendering portrait mode pictures and firing the "screen flash" from the front-facing camera also took a while to execute. In contrast, the iPhone XR was responsive and quick to launch the camera, focus and fire the shutter.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multi-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

As for battery life, both phones lasted over 16 hours for continuous video playback on Airplane Mode, which is excellent. The Pixel 3 has a 2,915mAh battery and clocked in 15 hours. But the iPhone XR lasted longer at 19 hours and 53 minutes, despite having a smaller 2,942mAh battery (note that Apple doesn't disclose iPhone battery capacities).

Software: iOS or Android?

iOS vs. Android is one of the biggest rivalries in the tech world. Choosing a phone involves a lot more than just hardware; software ecosystems are a huge factor and the best predictor of what phone you're going to go with is what operating system (OS)  you're already comfortable using now.

siri-google-assistant-shortcut

Adding Google Assistant to Siri.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

That being said, if you're OS agnostic or looking to switch, there are pros and cons to both.

The Pixel runs Google's latest Android 9.0 Pie out of the box and is one of the first devices to get regular updates from Google and will be one of the first phones to get Android 10 later this year. Android Pie includes gesture navigation too, so you'll have to get used to swiping and tapping to switch between apps.

The OS allows for a lot of customization, and you can tinker with widgets, skins, icons and launchers. Having that kind of freedom with your homepage is just more fun, especially if you want it to stand out from your friends'. The Pixel is also integrated deeply with the Google ecosystem of course, so you'll get a more intuitive experience with Gmail, Calendar and Maps. You can also do a lot more with Google Assistant than you can with Siri.

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Apple's iOS has many advantages if you have other Apple devices or friends and family in the Apple ecosystem, such as a seamless experience of chatting through iMessage and FaceTime. Google's messaging system is a little all over the place: do you SMS, Hangouts, Duo or Allo your friends, or rely on a third-party messaging app?

And while iOS wasn't the first to implement gestures, it feels slightly more polished than gesture-based navigation on Android, which still relies in part on a software back button. Also, by and large, the best mobile games usually show up on iOS before Android.

Other considerations: Authentication and storage

iphone-xr-and-pixel-3-7

The Pixel 3 and iPhone XR.

Angela Lang/CNET

iPhone XR

  • FaceID and authentication: No more fingerprints. Apple's TrueDepth camera powers FaceID, which lets you do everything from unlocking the phone to authenticating Apple Pay purchases with your face. You can set up alternate appearances to recognize you with or without glasses and headwear, for example, but sometimes you might find edge cases where FaceID struggles so you'll need to also have a backup PIN. The TrueDepth camera also powers Animoji and Memoji, unique to the iPhone.
  • 256GB storage option: It's the only one of these two phones to have this storage capacity and it might be better value for you to have on-device storage, considering that Apple's iCloud only gives you 5GB for free.

Pixel 3

  • Call Screen: Baked into the Pixel is a call screening service that screens against telemarketers and scam calls. The feature answers calls on your behalf and you can read transcripts of these conversation in real time. From there you can decide to block the call or answer it.
  • Unlimited Cloud Storage: The Pixel is more expensive than the iPhone when it comes to dollar-per-gig. But for Pixel users, Google offers unlimited photo and video storage at their original resolution for free. This is a biggie since photos and videos eat up the majority of our phone's storage. In comparison, Apple's iCloud service costs $10 a month for 2TB.

Whatever phone you decide to go with, both devices are incredibly capable and you won't be disappointed.  If you want one of the best and cleanest Android experiences, then the Pixel 3 is unbeatable. And the XR is Apple's most affordable new iPhone with very few compromises. Either way, you'll be getting one of the best-in-class phones on the market.

iPhone XR vs. Pixel 3 specs


iPhone XR Google Pixel 3
Display size, resolution 6.1-inch LCD Retina Display; 1,792x828 pixels 5.5-inch "flexible" OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 326ppi 443ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x3.0x0.33 in 5.7x2.7x0.3 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 150.9x75.7x8.3 mm 145.6x68.2x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.8oz; 194g 5.2oz; 148g
Mobile software iOS 12 Android 9 Pie
Camera Single 12-megapixel 12.2-megapixel
Front-facing camera 7-megapixel with Face ID Dual 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K
Processor Apple A12 Bionic Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz + 1.6GHz octa-core)
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB
RAM Not disclosed 4GB
Expandable storage None None
Battery Not disclosed, but Apple claims it will last 90 min. longer than iPhone 8 Plus 2,915 mAh
Fingerprint sensor None (Face ID) Back cover
Connector Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack No No
Special features Water-resistant: IP67, dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID; Memoji IPX8, wireless charging support, Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box