Google Pixel 3 review: Is the most leaked smartphone ever, actually any good?

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The Google Pixel 3 is, quite possibly, the most leaked phone in existence. We knew so much about the Pixel 3 ahead of its release that even Google had to poke fun at the fact come the device’s unveiling in early October.

The result of those leaks means that the Pixel 3 is, ultimately, rather uneventful. It’s a smartphone, and it’s one that doesn’t really offer anything that its rivals haven’t already offered up. There’s no absolute headline-grabbing feature thrown in here. There’s no three-camera or even four-camera array. No on-screen fingerprint reader or face-detection algorithm to help sell the phone on a gimmick. It’s, very clearly, just a smartphone.

Despite that, the Google Pixel 3 is a quietly excellent smartphone. In fact, it’s close to one of the best devices on the market right now, and that’s largely due to Google’s insistence on packing it with a host of clever AI features and focusing on producing a single phenomenal camera instead of throwing more cameras onto the rear.

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Google Pixel 3 review: Design and key features

As with the previous generation of Pixel devices, the Pixel 3 comes in two flavours: the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Both are near-identical in terms of specifications and design, aside from one obvious difference and a notch on the top of the Pixel 3 XL’s screen.

Because the Pixel 3 doesn’t feature that notch creeping into the top of the screen, its face is dominated by a Pixel 2 XL-style 18:9 display. This makes it appear closer to the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy range of phones – including the S9 and Note 9 – and the Sony Xperia XZ3, with super-thin bezels either side and bookended by front-facing speakers.

Flip the phone over and you’re treated to the latest evolution of Google’s two-tone rear. This time it’s an all-glass back with matte finish softening into a gloss finish at the top. It’s an awful lot nicer in hand than past Pixel devices, the cool glass being soft to the touch instead of the aluminium casing found on past Pixels. It may feel slippy, but it’s actually surprisingly grippy and feels immensely pleasurable to hold and use.

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Google’s rear circular fingerprint reader still resides in its old location, there’s a USB Type-C charging port and SIM tray along the bottom edge and on the right side you’ll find a volume rocker and power button. Like the Pixel 2, Google has also made the Pixel 3 IP68 water and dust resistant and it now supports Qi wireless charging.

While any Qi wireless charger will work with the Pixel 3, Google has seen fit to provide a wireless charging Pixel Stand separately for £69. Not only does the Pixel Stand charge your phone, it also turns it into a Google Home-like device where you can use Google Assistant to control your smart devices or navigate your phone. It also turns into a handy alarm clock and a nice photo frame.

Oh and, just like its predecessor, the Pixel 3 doesn’t come with a 3.5mm headphone jack – it’s never coming back, give up on hoping it will. Instead, you’ll need to invest in a good pair of Bluetooth headphones if you haven’t already – although Google does now provide a USB Type-C pair of wired Pixel Bud-like earphones in the box.

Google Pixel 3 review: Display

As with earlier leaks, the Google Pixel 3 display is exactly as expected. It comes with a 5.5in 18:9, 2,160 x 1,080 edge-to-edge OLED panel meaning that not only is there a lot more screen to work with than the Pixel 2, and it’s easily the best display Google has put in one of its phones yet.

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On the Pixel 3’s “natural” display profile – the “adaptive” and “boosted” modes are a bit too oversaturated for my liking – the calibrator recorded an sRGB coverage of 94%. Colours are practically faultless, with an average Delta E of 1.25 (0 is perfect). It also has a perfect contrast ratio of infinity:1, making text look pin-sharp and movies certainly benefit from the pop.

It’s capable of displaying HDR content as well, meaning Netflix content looks wonderful if you’re streaming on the go and the screen is capable of a maximum brightness of 408cd/m2 with auto-brightness engaged. If you’re wondering, that means it’s more than good enough for watching whatever you fancy in the autumn sun – especially as Google has equipped it with a circular polarising layer to avoid screen glare.

Crucially, the Pixel 3 doesn’t suffer the same blue-tint problems its larger predecessor, the Pixel 2 XL, did when it launched last year.

Google Pixel 3 review: Performance and battery

Powered by Qualcomm’s latest processor, the Snapdragon 845, the Pixel 3 is no slouch when it comes to performance. Working in tandem with 4GB of RAM, Google’s smaller flagship reached scores of 2,430 and 8,007 in Geekbench 4’s demanding twin test of single- and multi-core CPU tests. This equates to around a 27% boost on last year’s Pixel 2.

In terms of games, the Pixel 3 is equally notable in terms of performance. GFXBench GL’s Manhattan 3 on-screen and offscreen GPU tests recorded faultless average framerates of 60fps and 79fps respectively. In layman’s terms, this means you shouldn’t really encounter any issues whatsoever playing graphically intensive games from the Google Play Store.

Sadly, Google’s flagship is let down by its sub-par battery. While Google has actually bumped up the battery from 2,700mAh to 2,915mAh, the more demanding chipset is clearly taking its toll. Not only does it only last 12hrs and 22mins in our battery test (down from 14hrs 17mins on the Pixel 2), but even with the battery optimisations of Android 9 Pie it just can’t compete with others in the market right now.

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Google Pixel 3 review: Features

Many of the Google Pixel 3’s features will actually be coming to the Google Pixel and Pixel 2 range as it’s really just new additions to Android 9 Pie. Amongst those is the introduction of Google’s controversial Google Duplex chat AI that can now screen your calls and, in the US at least, book your appointments for you. It’s not available right now, but it’ll be coming shortly after launch.

When using Google Duplex, you’ll be given a live transcription of a call and can chime in whenever you like. You can also use it to push questions to individuals so you don’t have to actually talk to nuisance callers if you don’t want to.

Pixel 3 also lets you stop a call from ringing, but not hanging up, by flipping your phone over on the table. Doing that also knocks it into do-not-disturb mode as well, so you won’t be distracted by buzzing or screen flashes while you’re deep in conversation with friends or at a meeting.

Google also has a whole slew of new features coming to Android for Pixel users, but most of those revolve around Google’s camera technologies.

Google Pixel 3 review: Camera

Google has stuck to its guns by going for a single-sensor rear camera on the Pixel 3 – instead of being tempted by the multi-camera arrays other manufacturers seem to be clambering all over.

You would think that this makes Google’s snapper inferior to the competition but its single 12.2-megapixel camera outperforms practically everything else on the market. It’s HDR+ algorithms make for some excellent photos with superb dynamic range and colour saturation. Tricky areas such as tree foliage and cloud layers are captured effectively and shadowy areas are lit up without taking away from their contrast in the picture.

Low-light performance is just as good too. The relatively wide f/1.8 aperture camera brightens up images nicely, meaning objects look crisp and detailed. Colour replication is also slightly more accurate than that of the iPhone Xs.

Interestingly, Google has also worked on some new AI-assisted picture features such as “Top Shot” which captures images from just before you press the shutter and then recommends which photo it thinks is actually best. Another, super-low-light photo mode called “Night Sight” will also be coming after launch were Google uses its photo algorithms and AI knowledge to cleverly brighten and colour low-light photographs so they look natural and as if they were captured in brighter light. Google claims this makes the Pixel 3 the best low-light camera on the market, but we’ll be the judge of that when the update rolls out after release.

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Google also has post-processing options available on images, letting you adjust focal depth in a similar way to the iPhone Xs and even alter the focus point in an image. It also has automatic focal tracking for moving objects and Google’s incredible Lens tech now works live in camera rather than via reviewing an image after it’s been shot.

On the front you’ll find dual 8-megapixel cameras, one with a wide-angle lens to capture – what Google is calling – “group selfies”. This second lens is set to offer 184% more of the scene compared to the iPhone Xs’ front snapper and, while I can’t be so accurate as to say that, it certainly does offer up a wider view.

Google Pixel 3 review: Verdict

The Pixel 3 may be the device everyone expected in terms of sheer hardware but, in hand, it’s undoubtedly the most exciting device the company has produced. It’s a real shame its battery just doesn’t cut it, but the Pixel 3 – and it’s larger sibling – both embody the ethos that Google had with the launch of the original Pixel in 2016.

Despite their name, smartphones have never really ever felt all that intelligent. While its modest hardware boosts may not be headline-grabbing, the Pixel 3 shows that a truly smart phone goes beyond sheer specs. This is the device for the truly connected age, it’s a slice of the future that continually evolves and changes to become your phone, rather than just another phone.

It may not be the flashiest Android phone on the market, but it’s level of understated style and usefulness clearly makes it one of the best.

Google Pixel 3 preorders

  • O2 – 20GB data, £20 upfront, £50/mth for 36 months, total cost: £1,820 (introductory offer includes 20GB of data at the price of 15GB, and 40% savings on cinema tickets for 2 years) – Get it here
  • EE – 60GB data, £10 upfront, £58/mth for 36 months, total cost: £2,098 (introductory offer includes 60GB data for the price of 20GB) – Get it here
  • Carphone Warehouse (with iD) – 1GB data, £300 upfront, £29/mth for 24 months, total cost: £996 – Get it here
  • Three – Unlimited data, upfront cost £99, £48/mth for 24 months, total cost: £1,251 – Get it here from 11 October
  • Mobiles.co.uk (with O2) – 15GB data, £175 upfront, £34/mth for 24 months, total cost: £991 – Get it here

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