Google Pixel 3 Review: This Phone Upgrades the Whole Androi…


The age of the annual upgrade is about over. For decades, the only way to get the latest and greatest in tech was to buy new stuff: a new computer with that color screen, a new CD-ROM drive, a new version of “Halo.” Now “Fortnite” drops new weapons and characters every few weeks, your Tesla gains abilities while you sleep and your Alexa speaker gets smarter pretty much constantly.

When Google announced the new Pixel 3, the latest in the company’s lineup of smartphones designed to compete with

Apple

iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, it marketed the phone’s many nifty new features. Its camera knows when you’re smiling! It screens your calls! Fun augmented-reality Donald Glover! Then it revealed the best news of all: Most of what makes the Pixel 3 great is also headed to older Pixels—and likely to other Android devices as well.

Google really only restated the obvious: Hardware doesn’t really matter anymore, especially since most of our devices have more power than we’re using. It might again when we start wearing AR glasses and hailing self-flying cars, but for now, software is everything.

Google’s Lens feature allows you to point the Pixel’s camera at a web address to visit it, a phone number to call it or a date to add to your calendar.

Google’s Lens feature allows you to point the Pixel’s camera at a web address to visit it, a phone number to call it or a date to add to your calendar.


Photo:

Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

If you’re in the market for a new phone, the Pixel 3 is the best Android device on the market. It even bests the iPhone in a number of important ways. If you’re not looking for a new device—and if you bought a phone in the past year or so, why would you?—you should still be glad the Pixel 3 exists. Because it’ll probably make your phone better, too.

Pick a size

Pixel 3 actually refers to two devices. There’s the slick 5.5-inch handset that’s a bit smaller and lighter than the iPhone XS, and there’s the behemoth 6.3-inch XL version. (They start at $799 and $899, respectively.) The smaller phone has big bezels on top and bottom, while the larger one has a fat iPhone-like notch atop its screen. Other than screen and battery sizes, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are identical.

The Pixel 3 may not be hardware focused, but I do like the way the phone looks and feels. It’s not quite the dense, glassy gem the iPhone is, but it’s soft and inviting—rather nice looking in its own right. Otherwise, this waterproof, headphone jack-less rectangle ticks a lot of boxes:

* Processor: Fast

* Screen: Vivid and colorful

* Camera: Better than ever, especially for selfies

* Battery life: Usually not dead before bedtime (but still not long enough)

* Fingerprint reader: On the back where I like it (though I do wish the phone had face recognition)

Strangely enough, my favorite part of the new phone might be its wireless charging accessory: Google’s $79 Pixel Stand turns the phone into a Google Home of sorts, displaying helpful information and taking voice commands while it fills up.

Helping hand

There’s no more important Pixel feature than Assistant, Google’s chatty virtual helper. It can take a selfie, answer questions, start music, show weather and calendars, turn off the lights, open settings, find an app and lots more. On the Pixel 3, it can even screen your calls: Tap a button and Google picks up the call for you, letting the person know you’re not available and transcribing on your screen what they say in return. It’s impressive, and deeply weird.

One of the phone’s best features is Top Shot, which takes a burst of photos, then chooses the clearest and best one.

One of the phone’s best features is Top Shot, which takes a burst of photos, then chooses the clearest and best one.


Photo:

Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

Of course, the whole point of Assistant is that it works everywhere. That call-screening feature is coming to other Pixels next month, and likely other Android devices soon, too. I like Assistant far better than Siri, but you don’t need the Pixel to get it.

When the Assistant meets the Pixel’s camera, the phone really shines. There’s Google Lens, the feature that essentially turns the camera into a search box—it figures out what’s in the frame and tells you more about it. Eventually

Alphabet Inc.
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Google plans to offer augmented navigation and information about landmarks and businesses. Even now, it’s handy to point my camera at a business card and immediately get a prompt to dial the number on it.

The Pixel 3 has a Photobooth mode, which is supposed to snap a shot when you’re smiling or making a silly face. It’s cool when it works, but too inconsistent. Another feature, called Top Shot, does better: It snaps a series of photos and then attempts to choose the best one to show you.

The Pixel XL model is 6.3 inches, while the Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch screen.

The Pixel XL model is 6.3 inches, while the Pixel 3 has a 5.5-inch screen.


Photo:

Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

Even sans all the fancy features, the Pixel 3 takes terrific photos and video. My photos, particularly in low light, often came out with better color and crisper details than the iPhone XS and Galaxy Note 9. The Pixel 3’s portrait mode now offers some of the clever lighting and refocusing features you’ll find on recent iPhones, and it works just as well. In general, the phone favors something in between Apple’s accurate-but-blah shots and Samsung’s life-in-technicolor approach. It’s vibrant and rich, but still feels real.

Not every picture came out perfect. There’s only one camera on the back, so it can’t replicate the iPhone or Note’s second-lens optical zoom. Also, when Google’s algorithms make occasional mistakes, the results can be too dark or imbalanced.

The Pixel 3 doesn’t have some of the Note 9’s excellent additional features, but it doesn’t have its overcomplicated software, either. And if you’re an iPhone fan, the Pixel 3’s camera probably isn’t enough to make you turn off iMessage and make the leap. But if you’re an Android user looking for an upgrade, your choice is to get this or wait until the things that make this phone great appear in other Android phones—maybe even the one that’s already in your pocket.

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