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Google Pixel 3 review: Google pairs an amazing camera with serious AI smarts

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The Good The Pixel 3 takes brilliant photos with its single rear lens and can capture wider selfie photos. It's water resistant, has wireless charging and it can screen unwanted calls.

The Bad The phone doesn't have expandable memory or a headphone jack. The shot-to-shot camera delay can be sluggish in certain modes and its enhanced low-light camera feature isn't available yet.

The Bottom Line The Pixel 3's truly exceptional cameras and AI-powered call screening give it a slight edge on the other great phones in 2018's crowded winners' circle.

8.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 9
  • Battery 9

Of all the things I liked about the Pixel 3 (and its larger counterpart the Pixel 3 XL), I was most impressed by the vibrant and sharp photos it takes, even in low light, with a single rear camera. That's something the Pixel's competition, including the OnePlus 6T, iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9 need two cameras (or at times, even more) to pull off.

But the other half of the Pixel's draw is Google's software and the entire ecosystem it's ingrained with. Google wants you to use Assistant and it wants you to integrate it with other Google services like Gmail and Calendar. At times it's useful -- particularly Assistant's new ability to answer calls on your behalf. (Yes, it's as bonkers as it sounds, but it does help to combat the scourge of spam calls in my life.) The constant notifications and tips and prompts get annoying, but fortunately you can turn these functions off.

So is an outstanding camera (which at times takes better photos than the iPhone XS) and Google's user experience worth the $799 (£739, AU$1,199) starting price for the 64GB Pixel 3? At face value, the phone seems to cost as much as the Galaxy S9 ($640 at Amazon) and it's cheaper compared to the iPhone XS' $1,000 (£999, AU$1,629) baseline price. But when we start factoring in storage capacity -- like the fact that the S9 can hold up to 400GB of extra data and that the 256GB iPhone is actually cheaper in terms of price per gig -- things get more complicated.

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The Pixel 3 (left) and larger Pixel 3 XL.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Keep in mind, too, that the Pixel 3 is available in a larger model. The Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 (£869, AU$1,349). It offers a larger 6.3-inch screen (compared with this model's 5.5-inch display), a bit more battery life and a soon-to-be "hideable" notch on its display. But features, including the cameras, are otherwise the same, so you're basically choosing between two sizes.

If the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are out of your budget, consider the OnePlus 6T. It also has a solid camera and top-tier specs, but starts at only $549 (£499 and AU$774, converted) for 128GB. If you're open to iOS, the iPhone XR  is $50 cheaper than the Pixel 3 and is worth looking into as well. (Keep in mind that all three phones don't have a 3.5mm headphone jack, but Google does include USB-C headphones and a 3.5mm adapter in the box.) 

But if you are willing to pay up, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are one of the best phones you can buy. They may not look as luxurious as the iPhone XS or Galaxy S9 but they enjoy the extra perks that come from being a Google phone, which include unlimited cloud storage and timely software updates. And with their first-class and easy-to-use cameras, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are top notch.

Editors' note: This review was originally published on Oct. 15, 2018, and was updated on Nov. 9 with additional analysis of the OnePlus 6T.

Pixel's exceptional camera delivers again

If the Pixel 2 ($649 at Google Store)'s camera was excellent, the Pixel 3 is exceptional. The Pixel 3 takes impressive low-light photos, records steady video and pulls off solid portrait photos with only one rear lens compared to phones that use two cameras for the same effect. Its wide dynamic range handles varying lighting and exposures particularly well, at times producing images that look better than in real life.

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The Pixel 3 has a single 12.2-megapixel rear camera.

Sarah Tew/CNET

New camera software also aims to improve photo quality. Top Shot, which works when you take "Motion" pictures, looks for smiles and open eyes to recommend the best image in a series. To improve its digital zoom, the Pixel combines several photos together and processes super detailed, zoomed-in shots. Google also improved the camera's low-light capabilities, known as Night Sight, but this specific feature won't be available until later this year. You can check out some promising test shots of Night Sight here though.

In general, the Pixel 3 takes brilliant photos, capturing images that are detailed and clear. The colors are a tad more intense than you'd see on the iPhone XS, but not to a level that's unrealistic or exaggerated. The Pixel also handled white-balance and its skin tones were more true to life than the Galaxy S9 and Note 9 at times. It also retained more details with darker shadows than the Galaxy phones.

There were times when the OnePlus 6T had a wider dynamic range than the Pixel 3 XL in its default mode, brightening and punching up colors more. But when I switched to the 3 XL's HDR+ enhanced mode, it outperformed the OnePlus 6T. And while the 6T in Nightscape retained the same, if not slightly more, details than the Pixel 3 XL, I have yet to test out the latter's upcoming Night Sight feature.

The Pixel 3's camera is skillful at taking portrait photos too. They take a few seconds to render, but the falloff between the fore- and background looks natural and not overly smooth. When I took a photo of a dog, I noticed a patchy-looking stray hair or two, but the effect was minimal. And the Pixel gives you the option to tweak the blurriness and focus of these portraits after you fire the shutter, similar to the iPhone XS and other Android phones. The editing process is precise and easy to use. (For a deeper dive, check out CNET's Pixel 3 vs. iPhone XS camera comparison.)

Taking a picture with Portrait Mode on (left) and off (right).

Lynn La/CNET

In this indoor photo, the fish and clams all look detailed and crisp.

Lynn La/CNET

Zooming in max at this building near Madison Square Park. The Pixel combines several photos together to process these detailed, zoomed-in shots.

Lynn La/CNET

In this low-light image, the camera still captured details of people's faces and the bar in the back.

Lynn La/CNET

The Pixel 3's expert handling of different lighting sources and exposures captured this vibrant shot.

Lynn La/CNET

In this closeup shot taken outdoors, you can see how each phone captured its own great image, but all of them handled color differently.

Lynn La/CNET

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