Last month, Google unveiled the third iterations of its self-branded smartphone (or its eleventh, depending on how you look at it), the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, at an event in New York.
Google spent much of the presentation effusing about its latest smartphone’s camera. Unlike many of its competitors’ phones, it uses just one 12.2-megapixel camera (instead of two, three, or more) to create sharp portrait-style photos, zoom, and generally perceive depth in the world. Because it’s Google, which increasingly is trying to jam AI into ever-more aspects of its business and our lives, it achieves all this with a lot of proprietary algorithms.
Quartz spent the last few weeks testing out the Pixel 3 XL on and off, to see how those algorithms actually hold up, and whether Google’s latest Android device stands up to the competition. And within hours of testing, it became clear that it has a truly excellent camera—one of the best I’ve ever used on a smartphone.
Last year, Google’s Pixel 2 set a new standard for smartphone photography. Benchmarking website DxOMark gave the phone what was its highest score ever soon after it was released. The organization has yet to review the Pixel 3, and in the year since the last phone came out, the competition has stepped up: Apple’s new iPhone Xs Max and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 are both excellent phones that far outstripped the Pixel 2’s score.
Google seems to have spent much of its time over the last year refining the camera even further. This is not a technical review (I’ll leave that to DxOMark), but the photos my very amateur self took on it were some of the nicest I’ve ever taken, without me really doing much other than pointing the camera at something cool.
Here’s a few shots that I think encapsulate the greatness of the camera:
This adorable pup I caught mid-lick highlights the portrait mode function really well.
Some zoomed-in, rusted-out train tracks in Queens, New York.
Happened to notice I was flying over Niagara Falls a few weeks back, and even at about 15,000 ft, the detail on the Niagara River is stunning.
As is this marshland shot in Massachusetts, on what was actually quite a dreary day, with no additional processing added to the image.
Same with this one.
San Francisco’s skyline pops in the bright blue sky.
As do the fall foliage colors on this street in Brooklyn.
Here’s the wide-angle selfie mode (used in conjunction with the portrait mode effect).
And even when you don’t look great, the shots still do:
Portrait mode on the Pixel 3 XL is really good at making me look like the jabroni I am pic.twitter.com/lUD5bWNRVO
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) November 7, 2018
Then again, the phone’s camera is not without its faults. Here’s a zoomed-in look at the Pixel trying to differentiate between foreground and background for a portrait photo—the result is pretty terrible:
And although it’s quite adept at lightening images shot in darker places, the results still aren’t amazing:
The iPhone Xs Max vs. the Pixel 3 XL on my dinner at a dark restaurant recently
Pixel is brighter, but both are just… ok pic.twitter.com/1rCN4JQKWK
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) November 7, 2018
(That being said: it’s worth noting that Google plans to release a “Night Shot” mode soon that will apparently dramatically lighten up darkened photos, but it wasn’t available while testing.)
There are other things that make the Pixel 3 XL a decent choice for Android users. It has a large, sharp display, has Google Assistant built in (probably the best phone-based digital assistant available), 64 GB of storage, wireless charging, fast charging (7 hours of charge in 15 minutes!), it’s water-resistant, and it has a snappy processor.
None of these features are particularly unique to the Pixel line. And the Pixel 3 XL starts at $899, which is about $50 more than the wonderful Samsung Galaxy S9+, and $350 more than the OnePlus 6T, which does much of what the Pixel 3 can, in arguably a more attractive package.
It also has a few detractors: The large notch at the top of the display is awkwardly large, and doesn’t seem to add much to the phone—it doesn’t use the real estate for face-scanning systems like the iPhone Xs does, instead using the space for two selfie cameras and a speaker. The touch gestures Google used to replace the home button are also quite awkward—swiping up from the bottom reveals all the open apps on the phone, and then you have to swipe again to get to the app library, or keep holding and swiping from the bottom. The phone also has a glass back that scratches quite easily, and has been finished in a way that makes it actually feel like plastic, which is just odd.
For the price, I’m not sure I’d recommend the Pixel 3 XL on the quality of its camera alone. Many of its competitors have nearly as good cameras (although you could argue that most of the power of the Pixel’s camera is in Google’s software, which is likely to get better over time) and feel a little more complete for the price. That being said, if you want an Android phone that takes stunning photos and will always get the latest Android updates first, then you will likely not be disappointed with the Pixel 3 XL.
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