Hands On: Google Pixel 3

I’m here at Google’s launch event for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL in New York. Have they got a world-leading smartphone camera again?

“People say last year’s Pixel 2 still takes the best pictures, even in a year with other great flagships,” boasts Rick Osterloh on stage. I’m a huge fan of Google’s latest Pixel phones. To me, they signaled a point at which Android competed with iOS. The cameras are world class, the software is butter smooth, and it sets the standard for other manufacturers.

The iPhone is still the gold standard in my eyes, but the Pixel line has been nothing but a success. Google’s camera tech has been ahead of the curve for two years now, but will they get a third? Bear in mind that this year marks Google’s 20th anniversary.

They’re announcing a partnership with Annie Leibovitz, stealing her from Apple. They also gave the phone to seven magazines to make covers: GQ, Glamour, W and others, with Ryan Gosling and Cardi B as subjects. Sure enough, the covers look great, and it’s a really cool rebuttal to Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign.

Initial Thoughts

The Pixel 3 feels like Google has done it again. If Android is your jam, then this is the poster child. Now if it only had a headphone jack.

There’s a single camera on the back and front. That means all the tricks will need to be done with software, which so far Google’s been the only one to handle so well. Both the regular and XL models have the same camera setup.

The notch on the XL is something you’ll just have to get used to. It seems pretty wide, but the, so is the iPhone’s. What might be more of a concern is the smaller version. It has the regular bezel on top, but also a chin on the bottom. It’s nice to have stereo speakers (which sound quite full-bodied when I tested), but it definitely loses part of the bezel-less feeling.

Features

  • Dual 8MP cameras on the front, one 12MP camera on the rear. The rear can record 4K up to 30 fps, and we have 1080p on the front.
  • The wider front facing camera has close to a 100 degree viewing angle, while the other two lenses are more sensible. All are f/1.8.
  • As before, the camera takes a burst of photos to create their “HDR+” images. From experience, they’re stunning and have stellar low-light capability.
  • “Top Shot” is a new feature to avoid missing the shot. It’s not unlike Apple’s Live Photos system, but intended to just get the best image. They’re also using AI to suggest the best photo to choose.
  • They’re using AI to get better digital zoom. Other brands have been trying this. One way of achieving a better image is using AI to sharpen text.
  • “Night Sight” is a new low-light mode, and it looks awesome. Better yet, it will also be coming to older Pixel phones next month. Stay tuned for our full review on this. Worth noting that Huawei and others have been including a night mode for some time now, so I’m excited to see how Google looks side by side.
  • The front-facing camera is wider than before, but doesn’t include portrait mode, unfortunately.
  • “Playground” is their new AR sticker system for both cameras. It’s built into the camera app as before. I love these, and apparently, characters can interact with you better. They’ve got a Donald Glover character and some new Avengers (Iron Man, The Hulk). Coming to older phones too.
  • Google Lens uses the Pixel Visual Core to bring their search engine to the camera. One example is the ability to recognize a brand of sunglasses used in a shot.
  • You can now change the focus of portrait mode photos, the amount of blur, and even get selective color between your subject and background. Smile to trigger and motion-tracked autofocus are also included.

Non-Camera Features

  • Google Assistant will now be able to book a table at a restaurant in select cities, and ask a caller why they’re calling before you answer (mitigating telemarketers).
  • “Flip to Shhh” will allow you to put the phone down on its face and have it turn over to silent mode.
  • The speakers are apparently 40 percent louder, which is handy because the phone comes with 6 months of YouTube Music. I couldn't hear any distortion, but they can't pack much bass.
  • Both phones are getting “Titan Security,” which Google uses in their data centers. This will be utilized with a dedicated chip in the phones. They’re being very clear about security here because this week Google+ was shut down over a security breach.

Testing out portrait mode, and the garish notch on the XL model.

Unlimited Storage

The first Pixel devices famously had unlimited photo and video storage at full resolution, so long as it was uploaded from the device to Google Photos. That also included 4K video, which was a real treat and saved a lot of money in cloud storage. According to Diya Jolly, 1.2 billion photos are uploaded every day.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for the second generation. The Pixel 2 would get unlimited storage, uncompressed, until 2020. After that, your images and videos will be compressed. Not a big deal because Google’s compression is really stellar, and you still get unlimited storage. A little annoying if 4K video is your thing though.

This year, we’ll be seeing free unlimited storage, but this time it will last until January 2022 at full quality. After that Google compress new photos taken.

Comparisons

The original Google Pixel’s camera was surprisingly great, and was subsequently outpaced by the Pixel 2. Now that the previous generation is considered the best smartphone camera available, can Google go any further?

This time around, the bells and whistles are largely software-based. I'm a fan of the wide field of view on the front-facing camera, mostly because you can zoom in. Portrait mode on the rear is a nice touch, although I prefer the look of the main camera. Unfortunately, both the video mode and portrait mode have a pretty big crop factor. The first generation Pixel didn't have that for its portrait mode, because it required you to tilt up the phone and was sort of a pseudo,portrait mode.

Portrait Mode on each Pixel phone. The original doesn't have a crop factor because it's using a different method. Overall I don't see a massive difference between the second and third generations. Photo's taken by u/dmziggy, a Google Top Contributor who helps answer questions on Reddit.

The new wide mode on the front facing camera, and then portrait mode on the same camera. I think I prefer the 12MP rear facing camera for portrait mode.

On the note of clarity: the screen doesn’t appear to have any color cast issues that some people found on the Pixel 2. Of course, it’s hard to tell in a controlled environment. Bringing up a gradient showed no major banding, as expected, so there shouldn’t be any issue with crushed blacks like some Pixel 2 users saw.

Other New Products

The Google Pixel Slate with its pen, and the Google Home Hub.

  • Google Home Hub is like a tablet mixed with a Google Home speaker, and both this and their other speakers can work with Nest’s suite of products. It deliberately doesn’t have a camera to put your mind at ease. It will sell for $149.
  • Google’s new Pixel Slate is taking on Microsoft and Apple. Trond Wuellner said “filmmakers that make movies in 8K rave about this display” but I’ll take that with a pretty big grain of salt. 8MP cameras on front and back, and portrait mode on both. No headphone jack but 2 USB-C ports. $599 for the tablet, $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the pen.
  • The Pixel Stand is a wireless charger, that turns your phone into something similar to the Home Hub. Retails for $79.

Final Thoughts

The regular 64 GB model starts at $799, and the XL starts at $899. Add $100 if you want 128 GB. They'll both be available next month on the Google Store.

It’s not the most exciting phone, as there were no surprise announcements, but it’s probably still the best Android phone you can get. Google is proving that their AI and software solutions are an alternative to adding more lenses. I’m looking forward to seeing it out in the real world, and honestly I can’t see why this camera won’t be in the top three smartphone cameras available. We'll have a full review of this in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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7 Comments

But it doesn't have dual card slots!

Michael Jin's picture

That got real old real quick.

Joshua Kolsky's picture

cant wait for all the comparison reposts

Rajneesh Kushwaha's picture

At this money I can buy a bike.

So you don't want to pay a couple hundred dollars for XQD cards, which you would use for the life of your camera, but almost $1000 for a phone that's a little less crappy than the previous version and will be replaced in a year... no problem. :-/

Luke Adams's picture

With every advancement made in camera phone technology, you have people saying this will eventually be the end of the photography industry, or that it doesn't matter - your skill as a photographer is what matters, not the gear. Until recently, I agreed with the latter group.

But I've been thinking recently, what if I was a back-hoe operator and then everyone in town was given a back-hoe? Honestly, it wouldn't matter how skilled of a back-hoe operator I was, there would undoubtedly be less business to go around town as people tried doing things themselves - especially the simpler jobs (AKA family photos). Now, if I was absolutely the MOST skilled operator in town, yes, I probably would still be able to make a living from it. But several of the moderately skilled, or even excellent back-hoe operators would find themselves short on business - even if their back-hoes were still a little more full featured and advanced than the ones given to the towns folk.

Pretty soon, everyone IS INDEED going to get their back-hoe. Think about it.

Tomash Masojc's picture

I'm and owner of Pixel 2 XL, and i feel disappointed in new Pixel 3. It's mostly software updates. They ask too much money for that thing. 4GB ram in 2018 flagship? I understand that it have superb optimization, but give people at least 6gb ram.