Revisiting the Google Pixel 3 XL

Posted on April 24, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Google, Mobile with 28 Comments

As you may have seen, Google had a one-day, half-off sale on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL earlier this week. After first dismissing this, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give the Pixel 3 XL a second shot. What could go wrong?

Well, all kinds of things, based on history.

As I’m sure you know, the Pixel 3 family has been dogged by all kinds of problems, many of which are still unresolved and/or will never be fixed. It is, from all accounts, as problematic as the Pixel 2 XL was a year earlier.

Which is part of my problem. As you may recall, I’m on my third (and refurbished) Pixel 2 XL now, thanks to two unrelated USB-C issues with my original and first replacement. I had expected to upgrade that phone to the Pixel 3 XL when it was released last October. But after evaluating both the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and having experienced some of the performance and reliability issues that others had seen, I decided to hold off. So, I returned both phones to Google.

Since then, I’ve been rotating between three phones: My Apple iPhone XR, my Pixel 2 XL, and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. Each has its pros and its cons. The Mate 20 Pro, for example, has the best overall camera, in my opinion, though the Pixels work much better in low-light. The Mate 20 Pro also ships with one of my least favorite Android mods, and while you can replace most of that with a third-party launcher—I’d been using the Microsoft Launcher most recently—those all have their own weirdnesses and I’ve been missing phone calls and texts for some reason.

Ultimately, what led me to try the Pixel 3 XL again was a combination of factors. The price, of course, was a big deal: At half off, these phones were finally priced correctly given the reliability risks, and once I trade in my Pixel 2 XL, my effective cost for what is usually a $1000 handset (I wanted a 128 GB version) is effectively $300. That’s kind of hard to walk away from.

But it’s not just the price, of course. I knew that the camera is excellent, especially in low-light. I really like the clean Android image that Google uses on Pixel. And this handset will provide full Google Fi compatibility, which I value. So what the heck.

Unfortunately, by the time I got around to buying the phone, the black version was sold out in both 64 GB and 128 GB configurations, and the white version was only available in 64 GB. So that left the “not pink” variants, which were available in both configurations. So I opted for the 128 GB version and decided that a case—very necessary on such a slippery, all-glass device like this—could hide my shame.

My new Pixel 3 XL arrived yesterday, just one day after I ordered it. So I set out to perform a clean install, which is more tedious than restoring from a backup but my normal way of doing things, and connecting its internal eSIM to Google Fi. I updated all the built-in apps, installed a surprising number of system updates (each after a reboot), and then installed the key apps I use, and then downloaded content to Google Play Music, Castbox (podcasts), and Audible. I still have a few things to move over—like Microsoft Authenticator and a ton of second-tier apps—but it’s pretty much up and running.

What I’m focusing on, of course, are the problems I experienced during my brief time with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL last fall, and with the problems that others have reported with the device. And so far, it’s mostly good, though I’m concerned with how hot the device gets in normal usage and that my ability to listen to podcasts through my Bluetooth wireless earbuds stopped while I was working out at the gym this morning. This was never an issue with my other phones, so I have to assume that the Pixel 3 XL is at fault. I will watch this warily. And bring backup headphones to the gym just in case.

Beyond that, a few of the niggling issues I previously experienced are still present. The notch on the 3 XL is, of course, ludicrously large. The stereo speakers are obviously biased towards the right (non-notch) speaker, and I’m curious why this couldn’t be (easily) fixed via a software update; Google says it is aware of the problem and will not fix it. The weird internal vibrations I experienced before with audio are still present, but it no longer seems to rattle.

The performance and reliability problems that many (myself included) previously reported don’t appear to be in evidence, and I was able to listen to podcasts (in this case via wired USB-C earbuds) while taking photos on a walk without any issues.

I like the form factor, aside from the notch, the crisp display, and the clean Android image.

I like that Google ships with Pixel 3 XL with an astonishing number of cables and accessories: In addition to the USB-C power/sync cable and power adapter, you get a USB-C-to-headphone jack dongle, a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter, and a nice pair of wired Google earbuds in the box. (Google no longer ships both USB-C-to-USB-C and USB-C-to-USB-A cables in the box as it used to, though; now you just get a single USB-C-to-USB-C cable.)

The camera is very good in normal conditions, as one should expect.

But the Night Sight capabilities are amazing, even though I had experienced this before with the Pixel 2 XL. My test photos from last night are much better than anything the Mate 20 Pro, or any other phone I’ve used, can produce.

It was pretty much pitch-black out when I took this

As noted, I took the Pixel 3 XL on a walk yesterday and to the gym this morning, and in both cases, I was very nervous about dropping the fragile, all-glass device and breaking it. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and I had ordered two inexpensive cases from Amazon (~$10 each) that should arrive today. So I’ll get that covered up as quickly as possible.

So, we’ll see. Getting a more modern Pixel for very little money is appealing on a few levels, one of which is future-leaning: Maybe the Pixel 4 XL will solve all my problems. You never know. For now, I’m still grappling with whether the Pixel 3 XL makes sense for me today. So far, it’s not a disaster. But it’s not a slam-dunk either.

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