After a rocky start with the Pixel 1 (which remains one of the ugliest phones made this decade), a big—but still not fully realized—improvement on the Pixel 2, the Pixel 3 came out and finally made good on Google’s homegrown phone initiative. And unlike phones from Samsung or Huawei, the Pixel 3 achieved this not by hitting users over the head with tons of cameras or far-out hardware; it did it in the most Google way possible: With nifty software, intuitive design, and AI-powered smarts.
But at the same time, the Pixel 3 is also one of the most frustrating phones of the year, because, for all of its upgrades and additions, it’s not difficult to see a number of small tweaks that would have made it so much better. And if you step back and look past the Pixel 3 itself, there are a lot of issues that show Google still has a long way to go before it can truly call itself a world-class phone maker.
If you just look at the Pixel 3's specs, its price doesn’t make any sense. Sure, you get a Snapdragon 845 processor, which is the same chip found in every other flagship Android phone. But both the standard $700 Pixel and the $750 Pixel 3 XL—which have already been discounted $100 to $250 in the three months since its launch—only get 4GB of RAM.
Compared to Samsung, while the Galaxy S9 also has 4GB of memory, the S9+ gets 6GBs. But it’s OnePlus that really makes the Pixel 3's price look ridiculous by offering a config of the OP6T with 8GB of RAM and 128GB GBs of storage (both double what you get on a Pixel 3) for just $580. That’s an extra 64GB of room for stashing pictures, apps, videos, and anything else you save on your phone, while that extra RAM lets you keep multiple apps (games especially) suspended in the background, so you aren’t constantly forced to reload them into memory.
What happened to the ethos of old Nexus phones that paired stock Android to well-built devices with reasonable price tags? With the cost of flagship phones hitting new highs every year, a really good $500 phone has never been more important, and yet, it’s a sector that so many companies are just ceding to OnePlus and other Chinese phone makers.
Then there’s the Pixel 3's 5.5-inch 2160 x 1080 OLED screen. Compared to the 5.8-inch 2960 x 1440 display on the Galaxy S9, Samsung’s screen not only offers a higher pixel density, but it’s brighter and more vibrant as well. On top of that, like the iPhone, the Pixel 3 doesn’t have expandable storage or a headphone jack. So what are you paying for? Some black paint inside the USB-C port, wireless charging (a feature that should have been on last year’s Pixel 2), and a fancy soft-touch micro-etched glass back? The math just doesn’t add up.
But what’s annoying is that as amazing as Google’s computational photography and HDR+ mode are, the Pixel 3 could be an even better picture taker if Google truly embraced the dual camera trend. It’s maddening because Google’s use of dual front-facing cams on the Pixel 3 for capturing super wide angle selfies demonstrates that the company is aware of the potential benefits of multiple cameras. And yet, on the back of the Pixel 3, one cam is all you get.
Not even the larger Pixel 3 XL sports two, despite literally every other similarly-sized flagship phone this year featuring dual rear cams (or more in the case of the Mate 20 Pro, LG V40, and others). Just think how good the Pixel 3's long-distance photos could be if Google implemented Super Res Zoom on a camera with an optical 2x zoom lens. Or imagine how much better the Pixel 3's portrait mode would look if Google combined the extra depth info you’d get from a second image sensor with the sophisticated learned depth the Pixel 3 uses already.
Then there’s the Pixel 3 XL’s big bathtub of a notch. Normally, I don’t care about notches—they are simply an interim method for creating extra screen real estate while we wait for full bezel-less devices. But the Pixel 3 XL’s notch is absolutely massive. It’s nearly two full rows of notifications tall, and even with that big bucktooth hanging down, the Pixel 3 XL still has an unusually large chin. WTF. You can have a notch or a chin, not both.
All these inscrutable hardware decisions sort of hit on one overarching theme: That Google doesn’t really give a shit about hardware, at least not in the same way other gadget makers do. For a flagship, it feels like Google did the bare minimum needed to assemble the Pixel 3, and then relied on its software prowess to carry the phone the rest of the way. It’s not just the Pixel 3, just look across Google’s entire range of products, and in most cases, the company goes out of its way to avoid talking about specs or components.
Instead, Google focuses on things like designs with bright, friendly colors and textured fabrics that fit in with modern living. It feels like Google hopes its devices will appear simple and innocuous like a light switch on a wall, which makes sense from an ease-of-use standpoint and for devices like the Home Mini. But if Google is really going to challenge Apple and Samsung, it needs to care more about hardware too.
As for the Pixel 3's software, the company is doing amazing things to help combat robocalls with its built-in Call Screener, and streamline your life by letting the Google Assistant book your appointments. But at the same time, if Google is going to continue with its software-first approach to phone development, it needs to do a better job of crushing bugs. In the short time, the Pixel 3 has been out, the phone has suffered from RAM management issues that caused apps to close unexpectedly, a camera bug that caused photos not to save properly, disappearing texts, issues with charging, and more.
Nothing ruins a new smartphone more than critical features like messaging or the camera not working, and as a reviewer, it’s frustrating to see people suffer from issues you didn’t experience while testing, especially when the only advice you can give is to say that “Google is working on patching the issue soon.”
It’s a similar issue for features like Night Sight and Google Duplex, because as good as they are, if you tease them at your launch event, they probably ought to be available when the phone first goes on sale. Is DLC something we need to worry about on phones now too?
There are also other notable concerns like Google’s ramshackle quality control. For the second year in a row, Gizmodo got review devices featuring screens with markedly different color temperatures. And when I asked for comment on the issue, Google said some variances in manufacturing sometimes results in minor difference. But the thing is, iPhones and Galaxys don’t suffer from these kinds of issues, the Pixel shouldn’t either.
Ben Schoon over at 9to5Google recently made a case that between all of the bugs and issues new Pixel owners tend to experience at launch—and all the price reductions that follow shortly after—that no one should buy a Pixel at launch ever again. And while I won’t go that far (Google has one more chance to get it right), early Pixel adopters do seem to be treated more like beta testers more than buyers of any other phone.
And when it comes to the way Google collects data from your phone, there’s unrest brewing. On the one hand, a lot of very handy features like traffic alerts for your daily commute, restaurants suggestions, and flight delay predictions are things that can only work if Google knows some pretty intimate details about you. But at the same time, concerns about privacy and data security are becoming more prevalent, and issues like Android tracking you even when you specifically turn the feature off isn’t helping anyone feel better about our new super-connected world.
Lastly, Google’s partnership with Verizon as the “exclusive” retailer of the Pixel is bullshit. Yes, you can buy an unlocked Pixel 3 direct from Google and take it to pretty much any carrier you want, but if Google wants to compete with Apple and Samsung, the Pixel needs to be available in every carrier store, regardless of what name is on the sign outside.
I still believe the Pixel 3 is the best phone for most people. But the gap between the Pixel 3 and other phones isn’t nearly as wide as it could have been. And after three years, while Google was finally able to put all the pieces together properly in creating the Pixel 3, until Google can offer the kind of quality control, stability, and value you get from iPhones and Galaxys, the Pixel may be forced to live in their shadows.
Smartphone Smackdown 2018: This week we’re looking at the year’s very best smartphones—and what we didn’t like about them.