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Google Pixel 3 review: The best Android phone of 2018

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The Good The Pixel 3 takes brilliant photos, even in super low-light, with its single rear lens and it 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.

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

Visit manufacturer site for details.

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

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When I first reviewed the Pixel 3 and the larger 3 XL in October, I had an inkling it would be one of the best phones of the year. But I held off making a full judgement call until the OnePlus 6T and iPhone XR came out, and until Google rolled out a major camera feature it promised during launch.

Now that every major 2018 smartphone launched and the Night Sight update is available though, I can definitively declare that the Pixel 3 is indeed one of the best phones of the year, and my top overall Android pick. It truly is awesome, and it includes the best camera you can currently get in a phone.

Of all the things I liked about it, I was most impressed by the vibrant and sharp photos it took 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. And with Night Sight, it can brighten up even the darkest of scenes without a flash so well that I'm not entirely convinced it isn't witchcraft.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 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? If you don't care about expandable storage, I say yes. At face value, the phone costs as much as the Galaxy S9 and it's cheaper compared to the iPhone XS' $1,000 (£999, AU$1,629) baseline price. The identically priced 128GB iPhone XR is a tempting alternative, but its camera just doesn't measure up to the Pixel 3.

If you do want extra storage though, things get more complicated. The S9 ends up being the better value since it can hold up to 400GB of extra data, and the 256GB iPhone is actually cheaper than the Pixel 3 at any capacity in terms of price per gig.

But if you are willing to pay up, the Pixel 3 is outstanding. It may not look as luxurious as the iPhone XS or Galaxy S9, but it enjoys the extra perks that come from being a Google phone, which include unlimited cloud storage and timely software updates. And with its superlative, easy-to-use camera, the Pixel 3 is top-notch.

Keep in mind, too, that the Pixel 3 is available in a larger 6.3-inch model (compared with this model's 5.5-inch display). The Pixel 3 XL starts at $899 (£869, AU$1,349) and offers a bit more battery life and a hideable notch on its display. But features, including the cameras, are otherwise the same.

Editors' Note, Nov. 15: We've updated this review, originally published Oct. 15, with final camera testing and additional impressions. The overall rating has moved from 8.7 to 8.8 and the phone has been awarded a CNET Editors' Choice.

Pixel's exceptional camera delivers again

If the Pixel 2'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. Google improved the camera's low-light capabilities with a feature known as Night Sight. It works extremely well, brightening up even the darkest of scenes and keeping objects in focus. 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. 

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's Nightscape retained the same, if not slightly more, details than the Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel's Night Sight feature is far better at lighting up dim scenes.

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

Taking a photo in near darkness with the camera's default mode (left) and with Night Sight on (right).

Patrick Holland/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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