Review #11: Google Pixel 3

In college, I had multiple wrist surgeries that didn’t quite heal the way they should have. This means that holding bulky things for extended periods is genuinely painful. The shift towards increasingly large and heavy phones might be great for some, but it’s not for me. (I maintain that there has never been a phone more perfect in the hand than the original Moto X.)
The Pixel 2 had a fairly small screen with ridiculous bezels. Put up against the engineering marvel that was the Samsung Galaxy S8, my previous daily driver, it looked downright ancient. The XL version, by contrast, was… fine. But it was too freaking big.

The Pixel 3 looks like a smaller Pixel 2 XL. It’s fine. It doesn’t have any kind of notch, and it particularly doesn’t have the ludicrous notch that plagues the XL version this generation. I like the clean look of the screen, with rounded corners that fit Google’s new bubbly OS aesthetic.

I remember being excited that my Droid X all the way back in 2010 would be getting Android 2.2 Froyo. I have used every single version of the operating system since; it’s amazing how far it’s come.

The Pixel 3 launched with Android Pie, version 9, which I like well enough but am not going to delve into it because it doesn’t really matter and other people have already done it better. What matters is that the Pixel 3 runs it beautifully. I’ve never had such a smooth Android experience. I replaced the stock launcher with Action Launcher, which makes much better use of gestures than Android itself, those required on Google’s latest hardware. That is dumb. Action Launcher is great. Five stars.

It’s a cliche that the best camera is the one you have with you, something that must be true because of how words work, but there are two radically different lessons you could take from it:

1) Don’t worry too much about what you’re shooting with

2) Make sure you’ve always got a good camera on you

Since we here on The Week I Review believe that authorial intent is irrelevant, I’m going to focus on the latter as it pertains to the Pixel 3.
But first, a brief digression: My XT-2 replaced a Fujifilm X100T rangefinder. I loved that camera, which came with me to three continents, for the photos it took and the colors it had in those sweet sweet jpegs. Its small body meant I could just throw it into my bag and not think too hard about it.

But the video was terrible. So I traded up. And while I’m very happy with most of the XT-2, I miss the smallness and the inconspicuousness of the X100T.

But even that has nothing on a phone, which is even more inconspicuous and also infinitely accessible.

And while the Pixel 3 certainly isn’t versatile or straight up fun to shoot with as those Fuji cameras, I finally feel like my phone can act as a more-than-capable backup for when the bulk of a bigger body just isn’t practical. For stills, anyway.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, the Pixel 3 flips the sensor count to two front and one rear. In lieu of a rear “telephoto” that’s so common, there’s an additional wider-angle selfie cam, undoubtedly great for all those group shots I would take if I, ya know, had groups of friends to take them with.
But software is the new hardware. The Pixel does not have a top-tier camera because it has the best sensor or optics; it has the best software. The processing capabilities on display with all of Google’s phones take images that any flagship phone could take and bring them to the next level. All of these really involve taking a number of photos and merging them together with algorithms that ??? until Profit. HDR+ is the typical tech that is on everything, and it gives very good dynamic range to image – though it can be a little too aggressive at times for my taste.

That missing second rear lens? Ostensibly obsolete in the face of Google’s SUPER RES ZOOM, which uses the motions in your hand to simulate an existing sensor technology called pixel shifting, merging multiple photos taken slightly apart from each other to increase overall image resolution before performing the zoom. It’s unequivocally better than a regular digital implementation, but whether it is a genuine replacement for a second camera is another matter and not one I feel compelled to litigate.

The most notable is Night Sight, a genuinely mind boggling technology that let you take photos in the dark that just… stop being dark. As I record this, it’s not officially released, but a downloadable version of it is accessible nonetheless, and I felt compelled to try it before doing this. It lives up to the hype. I assume it’s the opposite of SmartHDR+, taking a ton of slightly overexposed photos and cleaning them up, but I don’t know. It’s probably just magic.

Concerns that the images would become too much like the daytime and negatively impact desired composition can be put to rest; you have the same ability to alter the exposure that you always do, so Night Sight can result in better image quality in the darkness with the same apparent exposure. Full stop: It’s amazing.

Also of note, because there I have seen some confusion about this point: none of the cameras on the Pixel 3 have optical image stabilization. Instead, they have very good digital stabilization that, again, relates to the higher quality of their software relative to the competition. I’m shocked that I believe even think it, but the Pixel 3 just doesn’t need OIS. Even when using Night Shift, which requires at least a full second while the phone collects light, any little jitters your hands might do in that time don’t result in any apparent blurriness in the image.

Unfortunately, the video capabilities don’t support all of these wonderful features. Which makes sense. All of that processing of multiple shots just to get one good image? It takes time. Heck, a Night Sight photo can take another 30 seconds or so to finish processing after you’ve gone off to other things before it actually becomes that amazing incredible thing.

So… that won’t work at 24-plus frames per second. Instead, you’re left with the capabilities of the sensor, and the flaws in it are glaring.

What’s odd about it, and where I fell into a trap with the first go, is that on the screen of the Pixel 3, it honestly looks fine – pretty good, even. It’s only when I brought it into Premiere that my eyes basically started to bleed.
The problem is partially one of dynamic range and also of the limitations of camera apps on Android. If you want to take photos, you can do all kinds of specific controls; but if you want more control over your video, you’re pretty much out of luck. You can bring down the exposure, and that’s basically it. But it’s also harder to realize when the exposure is totally out of whack. If I press record and then turn the phone around to record me with the rear lens, I’ve got no indication until it’s too late that it didn’t work out properly. 

An unfortunate side effect of the Pixel 3’s smaller size is that it has a smaller battery to match. This is a problem plaguing the industry – if you want a battery, get a big screen. I would gladly take a thicker phone with a smaller screen, but that’s just not a thing that exists outside of, like, Sony’s Compact line. The battery life isn’t terrible – it’s better than my S8 was – but if I follow my typical, probably above average media consumption habits, then I don’t make it until the time I would otherwise plug it in for the night. This is a shame.

Speaking of the S8, one of the big draws for me last time I was in phone acquisition mode was that it had retained it’s headphone jack in the face of overwhelming, uh, courage, on the part of its competition. At the time, I used exclusively wired headphones, and the prospect of dongle life, particularly given my many consecutive hours of media that probably ultimately requires mid-day charging, was enough to keep me away. Now, I primarily use a pair of Bluetooth headphones, so the calculus is different. To Google’s credit, both USB Type-C headphones and a short 3.5mm dongle are included. I largely stopped wearing earbuds a couple years ago because a doctor told me to, but The Verge speaks highly of these, so their inclusion isn’t nothing.

Not of particular consequence but something I care about is the implementation of the digital well-being functionality intended to make us look at our phones less. Though it’s still in beta, it still offers some built in app timers and limiters as well as, most significantly for me, a grayscale button built right into the quick settings panel.

It’s been shown – evidence in the description – that the vibrant colors of a smartphone play a large factor in their “addictiveness,” so a way to make people stare at them less is to drain that color away. Then, when I’m not watching a video or taking a photo, I keep them off, and it really does make a difference. Turning them back on is kind of startling, actually; and sometimes I keep it off even when videos play. It’s not like this kind of thing wasn’t possible before, but the added convenience of it being built into the system right alongside the toggles for Wi-Fi, Airplane Mode, etc. is something I really appreciate.

And it really does make me want to stare at my phone less. And also go back to shooting photos in Black and White.

It’s this kind of thing that makes Google’s offering stand out in ways small and large. Some of this stuff will come to other phones, but they’ll always be on Google’s first. And some things Google is just going to keep to themselves, at least for the foreseeable future. Those sorts of little life conveniences go a long way towards justifying the thing’s cost.

To kind of little life convenience goes a long way towards justifying the thing’s cost.

The Pixel 3 starts at $800, a full $150 more than its predecessor, and the lack of expandable storage means that the 64GB version just isn’t going to cut it for most people. We’re now, sadly, in the era of the $1000 flagship, and while the Pixel 3 isn’t quite there, its more sizable sibling is; these phones are being put up against the new iPhones and Galaxy Ss and Notes and etc. And sure, they’re not as immediately impressive as any of those, but I don’t have any buyer’s remorse. I like the Pixel 3. It’s smooth as heck, has a pretty swell imaging system, and is the only Android phone released in 2018 guaranteed to be getting timely updates in 2020. And that counts for a lot.

Eight-Point-Two out of Ten

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