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Pixel 3 and 3 XL review: A beautiful camera strapped to a good phone

Andrew Griffin

The first time you'll be amazed by the Pixel 3 is when you take a photograph. And it is hard not to be: everything that comes out of this phone is so dazzlingly beautiful that you'll almost be distracted by how wonderful they've looked.

The second time will be the smarts. Everything about this phone is clever: a clever feature that answers the phone when scammers call you and deals with it on your behalf, another clever feature that allows you squeeze the handset at any time and speak to Google's peerless voice assistant.

And the third – when the excitement of all that wears off – is when reality hits, with the great shock of all. This phone, for some reason unknown, has a giant forehead slapped on it that serves little to no purpose.

The "notch", as it has come to be known, really took off when the iPhone X was revealed. Or, rather, just before: it was glimpsed in product images, which had a strange black bit cut into the top of the screen.

It was initially mocked for being ugly and unnecessary, with critics pointing out that Apple should either make a screen that goes all the way to the edge or it shouldn't, not embrace this bizarre middle ground. But that mockery soon died out when it became clear how useful the things hiding inside of it were: inside that little black cutout is all the various hardware that is required to power the facial recognition technology that allows the phone to unlock, as if by magic.

The notch became accepted. And just about every other phone maker appeared to do the same.

Until Google came along with the Pixel 3 XL, and its notch. (The notch doesn't appear on the smaller phone, which has a big forehead and chin at the top and bottom of the screen instead.) The cutout is titanic, reaching low into the screen and making the ear-shaped bits of display that are to its sides feel both conspicuous and pointless. And it serves very little function: all that's hiding inside of that black section is two cameras.

It is a bizarre decision, added to by other decisions slightly less bizarre but almost as inexplicable. Those include the little coloured power button on the side, which seems to aim to be cute and fun but ends up being clashing and a little odd.

But to get distracted by complaints about the hardware is probably not the point of this phone. It really comes into its own when the phone is powered on, and when that hardware can start interacting with the software that's on it.

Chief among those is the camera, which while being ostensibly hardware is really powering an important bit of software. Taking a picture on this phone begins a process that is unbelievably smart and ends up with a result that is often stunningly beautiful. There is simply no camera like this in any other phone.

You can see it in the fun features: the tool that takes a number of photos when you press the shutter so that you can skip along to before or after someone closed their eyes in a picture. But you can see it most in the serious commitment to beautiful imagery: by a combination of AI trickery, excellent photos and the genius merging of the two, this phone sends out pictures more stunning than many DSLRs, and which puts every other phone to shame.

The camera is the most spectacular demonstration of that collision between smart hardware and intelligent software, but it runs throughout the phone. This year, Google released a small Pixel Stand that holds up the phone and charges it, for instance; when it does, the phone turns into a smart screen, allowing it to be read from across the room and used even when it is not being used.

It's just one of the phone's many brilliant contradictions. Brilliant features that can be used when you don't use it; a camera that is at its best because of everything that's not in the camera; phone features that mean you'll never need to be on the phone. It is a vision not of Apple-like simplicity but something essentially Google-like in its approach: using a vastly complicated set of technologies to produce a result that is at its core uniquely helpful.

The Pixel, of course, is most famous for being Google's most pure and passionate expression of the possibilities of Android. It is clear of the cruft that fills up rivals' phones – often replicating apps for little reason other than both Google and the device maker want to be visible – and includes a range of artificially intelligent features that demonstrate how Google's machine learning smarts can be applied to everything from photography to making calls.

For that reason – and that reason would be enough, though there are plenty of reasons beside – the Pixels have always had a very good shot at being the best Android phone you could possibly buy. And that's true again this year.

You can see it in the fact that Google's (controversial) Duplex technology is coming soon, and will allow the phone to do things like call restaurants and book tables on its owner's behalf. And you can see it in the prevalence of Google Assistant, which is always waiting, never more than a squeeze of the phone's sides away, and offers help with an accuracy and speed that sometimes feels like it borders on the supernatural.

It is in short the best Android phone. No phone ever before – even the iPhone – has managed to harness the possibilities of its operating system to such a delightful degree, or used software to create an experience that is so consistently helpful.

But that's not the same as being the best phone to run Android. Samsung's devices are slightly less strange in their design; OnePlus packs in hardware features that are a delight. The Pixel 3 is as good a phone as those other flagships – but if some of the stranger decisions in this handset put you off, there's plenty to tempt you away.

The harder question, of course, is whether iPhone users can be tempted away. There is plenty to do so: the camera beats the one in the iPhone; the artificial intelligence is far more, well, intelligent; the gradually increasing price of Apple's handsets means that you can now buy an Android flagship phone instead and still have hundreds of pounds left for accessories.

And there are reasons to stay with the iPhone, too. Apple's design is profoundly better, with none of the inexplicable decisions; the Apple Watch is far better than any Android wearable around; Apple has a commitment to privacy and security that leaves Android phones feeling dangerous.

It will ultimately be a question only buyers can answer: how much does a camera matter, and conversely how much does your privacy matter? And are you ready to leave the vast Apple ecosystem, which is so easy to use and so difficult to ever exit?

It is a phone that is incredibly good at answering questions. Not just the kind of factual ones that Google has always been so good at, but other more important ones: Did that person just blink in that picture? (It doesn't matter.) Is that person calling me just a scammer trying to offer me a fake free holiday? (The Assistant will answer the call for you and find out.)

But it's a phone that leaves the most important ones unanswered. Now that phones are so uniformly, almost boringly good: which of them will you buy? The Pixel is a good answer to that question, and is an incredibly smart, beautiful-photo taking masterpiece; it's almost a shame that there are so many other things around that you could describe the exact same way.