Week One with the Google Pixel 3 XL

Posted on April 29, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile with 29 Comments

I’ve been using a Google Pixel 3 XL since last week. Here are a few follow-up notes about my experiences so far.

Cost

First up, let’s talk about money a little bit. This is a topic I take very seriously, and I think this is especially important when you consider how cavalier most reviewers are about cost when it comes to the expensive toys that they usually get for free on indefinite loan. But I don’t have infinite money to spend, and when it comes to buying my own devices, which I do, a lot, I try to be as thrifty as possible.

And half-off is about as thrifty as it gets on what is still Google’s flagship handset. I’ve complained about the high cost of the Pixel lineup for each of its three years and generations, and I mourn the days of the reasonable Nexus 6P and 5X pricing. But $500 is a lot easier to swallow than $1000. The math is so simple even I can follow it.

In this case, too, I had $300 sitting in PayPal, which I use for discretionary, typical gadget-related purchases. And a Pixel 2 XL that isn’t getting any younger, or more valuable as a trade-in. So, the timing was right, too.

I figured the Pixel 2 XL was worth about $200 on trade, but that assumption was based on nothing more than a random guess. As it turns out, my guess was inflated by about 25 percent: Both Gazelle and Amazon Trade-In tell me the phone is really worth about $150. Ah well.

Regardless of the actual value of the trade, I like the idea of trading in an old device for a new one, and I do this whenever possible. This is especially good for expensive devices—I traded in an old iPad Pro and MacBook Air when I bought the new MacBook Air, for example, and traded in an iPhone 7 when I bought the iPhone XR—but it’s as much about getting rid of clutter as anything else. One device in, (at least) one device out.

With the Pixel 3 XL specifically, of course, I’m hoping that it will be worth more should a Pixel 4 XL actually make sense this coming fall. Or that it will last longer than the Pixel 2 XL, at least. Especially since the Pixel 2 XL I was using is a refurb.

Put simply, the Pixel 3 XL I purchased is not worth $1000. But $500? Absolutely.

Protective case

I really enjoy the feel of modern smartphones, but with their all-glass designs, they’re accidents waiting to happen. So I will always cover my phones in cases to protect them and preserve their eventual trade-in value. I really like the cases that Apple makes for its iPhones, and try to find cases like those for my non-iPhone purchases. But for the Pixel 3 XL, I decided to forego an expensive ($40 to $50) leather case for now—after all, it’s still possible I won’t even keep the phone—and go cheap. Cheap but hopefully effective.

The two cases I chose are the Tuopuna Air Armor and the ESR Essential Zero Case. Neither are particularly notable beyond the fact that each proves you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a decent case.

Tuopona case

I prefer the ESR case because it lets the Pixel 3 XL’s natural color (officially called “not pink” but really a tan-ish color) show through. But it’s not as grippy, and I’ve used the Tuopuna case more, especially when I go to the gym, so the phone doesn’t just slide out of my pocket when I’m using a machine.

ESR case

And regardless of your feelings about cases, you will want one if you go with a Pixel 3 of any kind: The all-glass body is as slippery as a bar of soap, as my wife pointed out the day before the cases arrived. She was afraid to even pick it up.

Notch

It’s impossible to discuss the Pixel 3 XL without pointing out that notch. It’s bigger than any notch on any phone, by a wide margin. It is so ludicrous that when images of the device leaked, a popular conspiracy theory proclaimed that Google was simply spoofing leakers. There was no way they’d release a phone with such a terrible design.

Well, they did. And as any Pixel 3 XL user will tell you, yeah, you do get used to it. This is true of almost anything, really, just not phone notches. But it is true regardless. Only people like me, who experience multiple different phones every year, would ever really complain about it.

And it’s worth pointing out, too, that even with that notch, there’s still more usable on-screen real estate than was the case with the Pixel 2 XL. It’s not much more, maybe a quarter of an inch vertically, but it’s there.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to Google eliminating this with an in-screen front camera in the next Pixels.

Camera

Ever since the Nexus 6P and 5X in 2015, Google has had the very best cameras in smartphones. Indeed, it hasn’t even been close. (Sorry, iPhone fans. It’s true.) And then Huawei happened.

Thanks to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, released in late 2018, Google’s Pixel lineup is now second, overall, in photographic prowess, and the Pixel 3 series only outperforms that entry in one area, low-light photography. But with the P30 Pro, Huawei has stripped away the title for good: Not only is the low-light performance better, according to reviewers—I’ll be reviewing the P30 Pro myself, soon—but its 5X optical zoom is transformational.

So, the Pixel 3 XL is suddenly an also-ran in the photography department. But consider two points.

First, it’s a wonderful also-ran, and while it will never rival the optical zoom capabilities of the P30 Pro, the Pixel 3 XL takes terrific photos, in all lighting conditions. It’s only a step down if you’re used to using a recent Huawei handset.

Second, that Google is able to accomplish this with a single camera lens, at least on the back, is a miracle: Other handset makers, including Huawei, rely on multiple lenses to achieve their stellar shots. Google uses only one, plus its amazing AI capabilities. Should it finally adopt a second or even third lens in future Pixels, this could be a real competition again. (The Pixel 3 XL does have two front-facing cameras, which enables a special super-wide mode for selfies that is truly useful.)

I haven’t done side-by-side comparisons yet, but it looks like this Pixel 3 XL will be a lateral move for anyone with a Pixel 2 XL. Meaning, don’t upgrade just for the camera. But for everyone else, sans Huawei customers, the camera is a great reason to upgrade.

Reliability issues

Given the number of issues with the Pixel 3 XL—some of which have been fixed since launch, some of which haven’t—I’m obviously very keen to see how this handset fares in real-world usage. This is doubly stressful because my previous Google handset, the Pixel 2 XL, has been a nightmare of unreliability as well. (I’ve had mine replaced twice because of hardware issues.) So I’ve been using the Unofficial Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL bug and issue tracker on Android Police and my own previous experience with the handset as a guide.

The biggest issue I noticed with my original Pixel 3 XL has been fixed: The memory issues that triggered the background audio from music, podcast, or audiobook apps stopping when I used another app (like Camera) are no longer present, and were apparently fixed in a December 2018 software update. So far—and, yes, it’s early—performance has been excellent across the board.

The audio issues I noticed were partially fixed. The weird vibrations experienced during audio playback are still present in the device’s body—due, I think, to the move to glass from aluminum—but they don’t trigger any audible distortion anymore. The stereo issue, where the volume is biased to the right (non-notch) side when the device is held in landscape orientation (like during movie playback) is still there, but it’s not dramatic. Some of the other phones I’ve used still have mono audio, so this is acceptable. Not great. But acceptable.

The audio issue I mentioned last week—where my Powerbeats earphones stopped working when I was at the gym may have been user error. (Shocker.) I noticed the next day that the volume on the earphones themselves was all the way down, and turning that up obviously fixed that. I’ve been bringing an extra pair of (wired) earbuds to the gym ever since, just in case.

The other, perhaps-related issue where the phone seems to heat up in use—also at the gym—is something I have experienced again. But it doesn’t happen frequently—it may have literally only happened twice—and I haven’t been able to figure out what triggers it.

I’ve not yet experienced—to my knowledge—a widely-reported problem with taken photos not being saved, but I’ll need more time to be sure. And I’ve not experienced any of the other issues listed on that bug and issue tracker page. I will keep using the phone and gauging its reliability and performance, of course.

I’m happy with the Pixel 3 XL overall. I like the form factor, and the clean Android image, and the full Google Fi compatibility. The camera, if not as HDR-happy as that of the Mate 20 Pro, is excellent. Battery life has been good overall, though I can already tell it doesn’t match the Huawei. I wish Google had kept the headphone jack. And the return to a rear-mounted fingerprint reader has been nice: It’s wicked fast and works very well.

More soon as warranted.

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