Third Gen's the Charm? Pixel XL vs Pixel 3 XL Review

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something crazy: Google's Nexus lineup of early Android smartphones was a mess. The constant trading of manufacturers made each new device unpredictable, with several misses among the hits along the way. Different devices might have quality control faults, issues getting stuck in bootloops, or any number of other hardware and software bugs. But we all forgave them, because Nexus provided a "pure Android experience" at a reasonable cost.

With the Pixel line, Google has attempted to solve unpredictable hardware with vertical integration while continuing to provide the best software experience Android has to offer. But now, three generations in, the Nexus days don't feel so far behind us.

Family Resemblance

That's an unpopular perspective among Android types, but hear me out. Take a look at any Nexus device and tell me it doesn't feel... well, awkward through the lens of 2018. The bezels, the textures, the the chin on the original Pixel XL, or the notch on the Pixel 3 XL, and tell me you don't see a family resemblance. Aesthetically, older versions of Android itself have aged similarly poorly, and I have a sneaking suspicion Android 9 will share the same fate (more on that later).

But here's the thing: I liked my Nexus devices, just as I like my Pixel devices too. I may not like the rapid increase in price (full disclosure: I received my Pixel 3 XL at a steep discount, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this post) but if you judge the Pixel lineup solely on its own value and not how much you're paying for it, it's continuously been one of the most comfortable series of smartphones I've ever used, and the Pixel 3 XL is no exception.

Now, it would make sense to compare the Pixel 3 to the Pixel 2, but in reality, most smartphone users are on a biannual upgrade cycle, not annual. In fact, when the Pixel 3 lineup was announced, I originally intended to wait another year or two still. But when the opportunity arose to snatch up a Pixel 3 XL for more than 50% off with Google Fi, I couldn't resist. So how does it compare from the perspective of an original Pixel XL owner? Let's find out.

Full disclosure: this post is in no way sponsored by Google, and the discount I received on the device I'm reviewing was available to all Google Fi subscribers.

Look 'n Feel

There's something to be said for subtlety in hardware design. Like a watch, a smartphone is a universal accessory that needs to both fit and define your identity in any context. Google seems to get this, and has moved away from colors like "really blue" to "pure white", "just black", and the questionably-named "not pink". (I mean, really, who thought it was a good idea to name a product by what it's not?)

(Source: Google)

Whichever color suits your fancy, this time around you're getting black bezels on the front—a wise decision, considering the not-so-subtle notch on the 3 XL. This can be hidden in software, but only through Android's developer settings menu, which itself is hidden by default. Of course, whether or not you'll want to depends on you. I'll be honest: I went in expecting to hate it, but I really don't. A little asymmetry is bizarrely pleasing on a launcher home screen, and most fullscreen apps automatically hide the notch anyway. Thanks to those black bezels and one of the best OLED panels I've ever seen, pillarboxing on videos and games perfectly fades into the chassis without being distracting at all. It is a bit awkward that one side of the pillarboxing is rounded at the edges and the other side is rectangular, though, and I hope Google will choose to simulate the device's rounded edges in landscape mode in a future update.


Landscape mode doesn't simulate rounded edges while hiding the notch. (Pictured: Honkai Impact 3rd, Mihoyo)

But indeed, the bezels here are very thin, which allows the Pixel 3 XL to pack a 6.3" display in a body almost the same size as the original 5.5" Pixel XL, and for my hands, this is perfect. I previously used a Nexus 6 at 5.96", and while I enjoyed the massive screen real estate, I found that device to be a little unwieldy. Not so with the Pixel 3 XL.

Function, not Form

This is assisted in part by the fingerprint scanner perfectly placed on the back of the phone, which doubles as a way to swipe notifications up and down without having to reach the top of the screen. (It's also the only alternative authentication the device offers to traditional passwords. That means no face unlock despite having two front-facing cameras, but if you really care about security you shouldn't be using that anyway.) It's a small touch, but the double-duty fingerprint scanner was one of my favorite features of the original Pixel, and at this point I'd have a hard time switching to any device without it.


But the fingerprint scanner isn't the only thing the Pixel XL and its younger sibling have in common. From the back, the two phones share very much the same profile, albeit with different materials. The Pixel 3 XL is more monotone thanks to its all-glass design, but it's clear both devices share the same minimalist inspiration, and personally, that's the way I like it.

In the hand, however, the two devices couldn't feel more different. There's definitely something to be said for the rugged durability of the original Pixel's aluminum chassis, but it can't quite compare to the soft touch of the Pixel 3's glass. The downside is that it also feels much more delicate, and to some extent, this is actually true. It didn't occur to me just how rough I was on my OG Pixel until I gave my Pixel 3 the same treatment. Suffice it to say my habits have changed after scrubbing away a few scuffs from the frosted glass back. That being said, it's also worth noting that this glass back is what allows the Pixel 3 to support wireless charging—a feature users have been requesting for two years now—and despite some early abuse it has held up rather well.

Smarter, not Harder

Of course, these are Pixel devices, so I'd be remiss not to comment at least somewhat on the camera. In a reversal from other phones this generation, the Pixel 3 has two front-facing cameras and only one on the back, but for good reason: Google's approach is all about computational photography, and the second selfie shooter does what software can't: wide-angle shots for cramming in as many faces as possible. Whether this niche use-cases justifies the extra hardware is debatable, but there's no denying the implementation is impressive. It's unusual to have much of a zoom on front-facing cameras at all, yet here the transition from one lens to the other is practically seamless, offering an impressive range from nearest to farthest. And since the difference is largely optical, not digital, quality is not diminished except in extreme close-ups (which, let's be honest, no one wants in a selfie anyway). The original Pixel certainly wasn't bad at taking selfies, but in terms of raw utility, there's no comparison.

With so much care put into the selfie experience, you might expect Google to include a secondary telephoto lens on the back, but instead, this is where software kicks in. Long-distance shots cleverly use the unsteadiness in your own hand to take several shots at slightly different angles and combine them into a single, higher-detail shot using artificial intelligence. The results can't quite compete with true optical zoom, but they're also a fair bit clearer and more detailed than the OG Pixel's more basic upscaling.

That being said, comparing Google's first camera to its latest is tricky. The original Pixel camera made a huge splash when it first hit the scene, but in practice it wasn't quite the DSLR replacement it was hyped up to be. On the other hand, the Pixel 3 kind of is. In optimal conditions, both look great. But it's the extra clarity on the Pixel 3 and its ability to handle sub-optimal conditions that really set it apart. Again, a lot of this is thanks to clever software, some of which has been back-ported to older Pixel devices, but there's no beating the superior image sensor and processing power of the Pixel 3. If anything, giving older models the same tools just proves how much better it really is.

Pixel XL Camera


The Pixel 3 XL through the lens of the original Pixel XL

Pixel 3 XL Camera


The Pixel XL through the lens of the Pixel 3 XL

Unfortunately, the same can't quite be said for video. The Pixel 3 is still a modest step up in image quality, and image stabilization is darn near good enough to replace a tripod, but you're still looking at a max resolution of 4K30 (not 60), and without most of the software enhancements that make still photos look so good, it's pretty much a wash between the two devices. The original Pixel records audio that's slightly too bassy, and the Pixel 3 records audio that's slightly too tinny. Otherwise, both are quite competent at shooting video in good lighting conditions. Perhaps the biggest advantage for the Pixel 3 is that its newer Snapdragon 845 processor supports high-efficiency H265 encoding, reducing filesize by as much as 50% with no loss to image quality. For any kind of 4K video, this is a must.

Faster, not Stronger

Not all that processing power is going to the camera, though! While the two devices may share the same 4GB of RAM and nearly identical battery capacity (that's 3,450 mAh for the OG Pixel XL and 3,430 mAh for the Pixel 3 XL, respectively) don't let the on-paper specs deceive you. The Snapdragon 845 is a beast, offering higher performance than Tegra X1 processor used in the Nintendo Switch, for reference. For power users, the upgrade in gaming and VR performance is tangible. The original Pixel XL is certainly no slouch in these departments either, but whereas it merely crossed a threshold to make these types of use-cases possible, the Pixel 3 XL is actually comfortable handling such tasks. Not only does this translate to higher resolutions and smoother framerates, but remarkably improved battery life and heat generation. Google's Daydream VR platform is actually usable now that I can trust it not to overheat my phone or drain the battery when I might still need it for other things. The contrast between devices is so stark here it almost has to be seen to be believed. It really is like the Snapdragon 845 simply isn't even breaking a sweat at tasks that brought the Pixel XL's Snapdragon 821 to its knees, and that's good news whether you're a gamer or not.

Pie in the Sky

Which means we're not only talking about hardware upgrades here: software plays an equally important role in the Pixel 3 XL experience, perhaps moreso than in previous generations. The switch to Android 9 Pie has been somewhat reminiscent of Lollipop in the sense that while the OS is available on other devices, Google's latest flagship is where it really shines. Simply put, Android Pie on the original Pixel XL had me pining for a return to Oreo. But on the Pixel 3 XL, it all just kind of... works.

Android Pie represents a major shift in Google's design language and philosophy for Android, focusing less on an open-ended, customizable user experience and more on one that predicts the way you'll want to use it in the first place. This is assisted in several categories by AI, such as automatic screen brightness, moderating battery usage, switching to Android Auto mode when you get in your car, and identifying songs playing around you as you're out and about. Some of these and other features are available on any device running Android Pie, but some aren't, and when you're getting the incomplete experience, you know it. Such were my impressions on the Pixel XL: what features were there didn't work all that well, and the sense that something was missing was palpable. By contrast, the Pixel 3 XL managed to make me actually like Android Pie. The design feels good on a larger display, and AI features like adaptive battery management are so good that if I hold off using any graphics-intensive applications I can easily make it two full days on a single charge. Considering we're talking a slight downgrade in battery capacity here, that's incredible.

That's not to say it's all sunshine and roses, though. While Android Pie may feel more at home on the Pixel 3 XL overall, there's still one aspect of the OS that feels fundamentally broken: gestures. Gone is the familiar app switcher button in favor of a pill-shaped home button that handles too many duties for its own good. Swiping horizontally now switches between running apps, while a vertical swipe reveals them all. Sounds nice in theory, except the home button also retains Oreo gestures like swiping up to open the app drawer and tap-and-holding to open Google Assistant. Considering the Pixel 3 also supports squeezing to open Google Assistant, both of these gestures are now redundant and simply get in the way. Meanwhile, there's no real replacement for the former app switcher's tap-and-hold for splitscreen function. Splitscreen is still there, but you'd be forgiven for not realizing it. Now you have to swipe up, tap-and-hold an app icon, then select splitscreen from a drop-down menu. It's completely hidden and turns a one-touch action into several. It's a similar story for accessing settings, which now requires two swipes down on the notification tray to expose the icon, instead of only one.


Awkward gestures and counter-intuitive UI "upgrades" leave a bit to be desired

And the worst part? On the original Pixel, the gesture-based home button is entirely optional, and can be turned on and off with the flip of a switch. Not so on the Pixel 3, even though the OS is already capable of it.

For a company as large as Google, it's hard to believe that these kinds of changes made it all the way through testing and QA. But while it'd be nice to at least have the option to disable certain features, I no longer want to go back to Oreo as much as I once did. Oreo feels great on the Pixel XL, but for better or worse, the Pixel 3 XL experience lives and dies on Pie. If going back would mean sacrificing its best features, I'd much rather Google just keep moving forward. It's now 2019 and Android Q is already on the horizon, so here's hoping Google listens to user feedback and learns from past successes. If they do, it could be a huge value-add for existing devices, not to mention the inevitable Pixel 4.

A Worthy Successor

But don't get the wrong idea: using the Pixel 3 XL hasn't left me pining for a sequel. The experience may have some obvious room for improvement, but it's also not nearly as flawed as early impressions might have suggested. At the end of the day, whether or not the Pixel 3 XL is a worthy upgrade to the original Pixel XL may simply be a question of how much you're willing to pay for it. At the original asking price, it's a tough sell. But for the right discount, the Pixel 3 XL might not be the charm, but it's the best addition so far to a charming, quirky family of devices.