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Google Pixel 3 review: The best Android phone of 2018

The varying ways these four phones handle a low-light setting.

Lynn La/CNET

With the second selfie camera, you can include more content in your selfies so you don't have to stretch out to make all your friends fit in the photo. This can warp angles on the side. Some "groupie" photos stretched out my arm and my friend's faces, giving us wonky, fun-house-mirror proportions. LG's earlier phones with wide-angle cameras had the same issue, but it eventually fixed them. Hopefully Google can tweak this as well.

There'll be tons more camera deep dives and comparison testing with the Pixel 3 in the coming days, so stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, click through the slideshow below to see more photos taken by the Pixel 3.

Taking a standard selfie (left) and taking a wide-angle selfie (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Additional camera features

  • Motion autofocus keeps moving objects in focus. When I tried it at a dog park, the tool worked only some of the time. There were incidents when dogs moved either too fast or too slow and the tracking dropped off.
  • The tools that adjust the blurriness and focal depth of portrait pictures is buried. Find the portrait in Photos and tap the three toggle bars at the bottom. Adjust the Depth slider or tap on it again to bring up sliders for changing the blur.
  • Google Lens uses your phone's camera to identify objects and then gives you information about those objects. Read more about Google Lens.
  • You can take photos with AR stickers and animated 3D characters (called "Playmoji") as they're "placed" in the real world through the camera.

Pixel 3 design: Not refreshed, but refined

While this year's Pixels look similar to last year's, subtle design tweaks add more polish to the phones this time around. There are slimmer bezels, especially on the smaller Pixel, and a smooth matte texture on all the color variants including the black one. The phones are surrounded by a glossy lining around the phone and the signature glass shade on the back dips down on the bottom corners all help to elevate the aesthetics.

The phones are lighter than their iPhone and Galaxy counterparts, too -- so much so that CNET editor Iyaz Akhtar said they feel almost like fake "dummy" phones. But they're sturdy and comfortable to hold. I accidentally dropped the Pixel 3 from about waist-high onto a tiled floor. The phone was left with a small chip on its top corner, but otherwise remained unscathed. (We'll do more deliberate drop tests in the coming weeks.) Overall, these phones still look less extravagant than their rivals. But they don't feel as cheap as before and I've come to like their understated simplicity.

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Though Google made phones with wireless charging before, the Pixel 3 is the first Pixel phone to have it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other design takeaways

  • Google brought back wireless charging. New to the Pixel line (but not to older Google phones like the Nexus 5 ($190 at Amazon)) is wireless charging. Instead of plugging in a cord, the phone can juice up on any Qi-compatible charging mat. Google's selling its own Pixel Stand wireless charger too. When it charges on that cradle, the Pixel's lockscreen switches to simplified interface that emphasizes hands-free voice commands. This mode gives you quick access to Assistant, music players and notifications, and you can set up a screensaver with photos.
  • It comes bundled with earbuds. Though Google still left off the headphone jack, the company did include wired USB Type-C earbuds with the Pixel 3 for the first time ever. They're meatier than Apple's earbuds, but they're quite comfortable and fit snugly in my ears. And unlike Apple, Google is including an adapter for standard 3.5mm headphones in the box.
  • It's water resistant. The Pixel 3 is rated IPX8, meaning it can survive in about 3 feet underwater (1 meter) for 30 minutes. In my dunk tests, the phone kept on ticking after I placed it in a 3-gallon bucket for 28 minutes, twice.
  • Active Edge still mainly does one thing. Like its predecessor and the HTC U11 ($513 at Amazon) before it, squeezing the Pixel 3's sides launches a specific action. In this case, it opens Google Assistant and it can silence an incoming call. But that's pretty much it. Annoyingly, you can't reprogram the gesture to do anything else. Squeezing the U11, for example, could turn on the flashlight or Wi-Fi.
  • Fingerprint sensor remains on the back. The center-rear placement of the fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone is on the back of the phone. That location is ultimately better than Samsung's, which is still too close to the rear camera. But Google missed a chance to embed the sensor in the screen, like the upcoming OnePlus 6T, or add an iPhone-like Face ID method.
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The USB-C wired Pixel Buds.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pixel 3 software: So helpful it's almost creepy

Running Android 9.0 Pie out of the box, the Pixel 3 uses gesture navigation to get around. For recent apps you'll need to flick up at the bottom of the screen and slide apps upwards to quit. A quick flick used to take you to the app drawer, but now that requires either a second flick or one long swipe upwards. This is the hardest gesture to unlearn and I still need more time to get used to it. At least there's still a small home and back button.

Google Assistant, the company's voice-activated majordomo, is embedded throughout the Pixel's user experience. There are myriad ways to access it: Active Edge, saying "OK, Google" or long-pressing the home screen. Even if you don't consciously launch it, you'll inevitable interact it with it somehow. The phone gave me additional prompts when I was walking somewhere and using Maps, and it brought up the details of a hotel I just happened to walk into. So it's clear that the Pixel -- and by extension Google -- is closely tuned to my whereabouts.

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Call Screen transcribing a conversation with a robo caller in real time (left) and Digital Wellbeing (right).

Screenshots by Lynn La/CNET

But that's what you get with a phone so deeply integrated with Google's ecosystem. Fortunately you can turn off notifications or opt out of Assistant altogether if it all starts to get too much.

One compelling new Assistant feature is Call Screen, which answers calls on your behalf using the Duplex technology that the company unveiled earlier this year. As the conversation unfolds between Assistant and the other line, you can read a transcript of the conversation in real time. From there you can decide to block the call or answer it. Call Screen is totally freaky, especially when I think about genuine friends (whose numbers I haven't saved) having to sit through a robot to get to me. But it's admittedly useful and has saved me from having to speak to telemarketers or sit through another spammy voicemail in Mandarin.

More Pixel software tidbits

  • As part of Google's Digital Wellbeing initiative, the Pixel gives you info about how you're spending your time on the phone. It lets you limit app usage and switches the screen to grayscale around bedtime to reduce eye strain.
  • The Pixel 3 and 3 XL come with a free YouTube Music subscription for six months.
  • You'll get unlimited cloud storage for photos, saved at full resolution.
  • The phones are usually the first to receive software updates as they roll out from Google. If you bought your phone through a carrier though, you may experience some delay.
  • The phone is available on Google's own Wi-Fi first network, Project Fi. For a limited time, if you buy two Pixel 3/3XL phones you can receive service credit.
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If you choose to enable access, expect a big dose of Assistant with your overall Pixel experience.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Processing speed and battery life

The Pixel 3's Snapdragon 845 chipset keeps it as snappy and responsive as I'd expect. Some camera tools do take a beat though, like portrait mode and the flash on the front-facing camera (which takes some time to process). But overall the phone runs smoothly and I didn't run into any issues with day-to-day tasks such as launching the camera, scrolling through webpages or pecking out text messages.  

As you can see from benchmark scores, the Pixel 3 is on par with other top Androids that are equipped with the 845 chipset too, including the Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6T and LG G7 ThinQ. The iPhone XS's A12 Bionic CPU, however, scored the best out of all five phones we tested.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 multicore

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Battery testing for continuous video playback on airplane mode clocked in an average of 15 hours. That's a pretty solid time, and falls slightly below the Galaxy S9's 15.5 time and the OnePlus 6T, which clocked an average of over 16 hours. It's also much better than the G7's 12.5-hour time and the Phone XS, which hovered at a little over 13 hours.

During my day-to-day observation, battery life was satisfactory. With mild to heavy usage, including surfing the internet, taking tons of photos and using Maps and Gmail, the phone lasted the work day without a charge.

How does the Pixel 3 compare to other phones?

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From left to right: the Galaxy S9, Pixel 3 and iPhone XS.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • Pixel 3 vs. Pixel 2: If you're holding on to last year's Pixel, know that you still have a great phone and a powerful camera in your pocket. The Pixel 2 will also be in line to get some of the updates that the Pixel 3 has, such as Call Screen. And while I consider the Pixel 3 a bit more than an "incremental" update, it's safe to hold onto your Pixel 2 and wait for the next update.  
  • Pixel 3 vs. Galaxy S9: Though I like the Pixel 3's camera over the Galaxy S9, Samsung's phone has a slightly longer battery life, a headphone jack and expandable memory. If the latter two are especially important to you, go for the Galaxy S9. 
  • Pixel 3 vs. OnePlus 6T: If you can afford the Pixel 3, you'll get a superior camera and prompt updates as they roll out from Google. But the 6T is a superb, more affordable, alternative given that both phones come with the same processor and a barely skinned version of Android Pie out of the box.
  • Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS: The iPhone XS doesn't have expandable storage or a headphone jack like the Pixel 3. But it does offer FaceID for unlocking the screen and digital payments. Plus, the 256GB model of the iPhone XS costs $1,149 (£1,149 and AU$1,629) and is actually "cheaper" than the Pixel 3 in terms of storage. However, it's not that closely integrated with Google's ecosystem and I prefer the Pixel 3's camera and the way it punches up colors.
  • Pixel 3 vs. LG G7: Again, if you want a built-in headphone port, external memory, plus a little more cash in your pocket, the G7 is a good bet. But keep in mind that the Pixel 3's camera outshines the G7 and its battery lasts a notably longer time than the G7. If it came down to these two and I had more room in my budget, I'd get the Pixel 3.

Google Pixel 3 spec comparison


Pixel 3 Galaxy S9 OnePlus 6T iPhone XS LG G7 ThinQ
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.41-inch AMOLED; 2,340x1,080 pixels 5.8-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,436x1,125 pixels 6.1-inch LCD; 3,120x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 443 ppi 570 ppi 402 ppi 458 ppi 563 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.7x2.7x0.3 in 5.81x2.70x0.33 in 6.20x2.94x0.32 in 5.7x2.8x0.3 in 6x2.8x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 145.6x68.2x7.9 mm 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm 157.5x74.8x8.2 mm 143.6x70.9x7.7 mm 153.2x71.9x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.2oz; 148g 5.75 oz; 163g 6.53 oz; 185g 6.2 oz; 177g 5.7 oz; 162g
Mobile software Android 9 Pie Android 8.0 Oreo Android 9 Pie iOS 12 Android 8.0 Oreo
Camera 12.2-megapixel 12-megapixel 16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto 12-megapixel standard, 12-megapixel telephoto 16-megapixel standard, 16-megapixel wide-angle
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel standard, 8-megapixel wide-angle 8-megapixel 16-megapixel 7-megapixel with Face ID 8-megapixel (f/1.9)
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz octa-core), or Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz octa-core) 2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Apple A12 Bionic 2.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Storage 64GB, 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB
RAM 4GB 4GB 6GB, 8GB Not disclosed 4GB
Expandable storage None 400GB None None Up to 2TB
Battery 2,915 mAh 3,000 mAh 3,700 mAh Not disclosed 3,000mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back cover Back Underneath display None (Face ID) Back
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack No Yes None No Yes
Special features Water resistant (IPX8); wireless charging support; Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the box Water resistant (IP68); dual-aperture camera; super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning In-display fingerprint sensor; dual-SIM; Dash Charging; notifications toggle Water resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID; Memoji Water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; DTS:X 3D Surround; Quad DAC
Price off-contract (USD) $799 (64GB), $899 (128GB) $720 (64GB), $770 (128GB), $840 (256GB) $549 (6GB RAM/128GB), $579 (8GB RAM/128GB), $629 (8GB RAM/256GB) $999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB), $1,349 (512GB) Varies depending on carrier: $750-$792
Price (GBP) £739 (64GB), £839 (128GB) £739 (64GB) £499 (6GB RAM/128GB), £529 (8GB RAM/128GB), £579 (8GB RAM/256GB) £999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB), £1,349 (512GB) £599
Price (AUD) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (128GB) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) Converted: AU$774 (6GB RAM/128GB), AU$817 (8GB RAM/128GB), AU$887 (8GB RAM/256GB) AU$1,629 (64GB), AU$1,879 (256GB), AU$2,199 (512GB) AU$1,099

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