The leaks that dominated the tech news cycle in the run up to Google’s Pixel 3 launch didn’t completely ruin yesterday’s surprise.
Why? Because the hardware isn’t what Google is trying to sell. Well, it is, but what the search giant really wants to peddle is its services, its software, its data hoarding AI.
But should you buy a phone that looks largely identical, and will perform in a very familiar way, to last year’s version? Continuning my long-running buying guide, here are five reasons why you should consider buying the Pixel 3XL.
Unlimited storage….. for a limited time
A good image is just the starting spot, at least according to Google. Edging out Apple on a DxOmark score (which mysteriously hasn’t been announced) is one thing. But the experience of what happens to that perfect shot is another. Free unlimited storage (until 2022 for the Pixel 3) has been a boon for Google, so much so that 1.2 billion photos are uploaded everyday.
It has also created additional functionality that improves the experience of smartphone photography. The AI that auto tags images and makes them searchable is good, but shared albums, auto editing pictures, auto deleting duplicates and more is part of what sets Pixel phones apart from the herd. It’s the service that makes Google’s camera, not necessarily the hardware. I’d chose a (slightly) worse camera on the Pixel with Google AI over a better camera without the service.
Improving on (near) perfection
Google has very kindly presumed you have friends and adorned the front of the Pixel 3XL with two wide-angle, 12-megapixel camera lenses. I suspect this will be quietly popular, as it was on the LG G5 back in 2016. Simply having the option adds functionality you didn’t know you needed. The question is though, why is it only available on the selfie camera?
Elsewhere, Google has tweaked and refined what was already last year’s best-in-class camera. For example, the visual core it developed with intel has received an upgrade and boasts new features like , Top Shot and Night Sight. Top shot provides you with more than one frame to choose from when you take a picture, and even suggests the best shot. Night Shot, on the other hand, improves low-light photography (a mini arms race between Apple, Samsung and Google) thanks to larger micron pixels and optical image stabilization. The Super Res Zoom will need to be tested properly because digital zooms are rarely – if never – good.
As part of its slightly concerning Duplex software, Google has introduced a call screening feature that will intercept spam calls. Not by sending them straight to voicemail, rather the AI speaking to the caller and transcribing the phone call to you in real time, so you can determine if it’s spam or genuine without ever answering the call.
If you don’t think too deeply about deceiving callers with a human-sounding AI, and you haven’t consumed anything produced by Charlie Brooker, then this is a very clever piece of kit. Indeed, it’s archetypal of how Google sees its hardware, a gateway to innovative services – a true personal assistant, rather than just a audible search engine. Both screen calling and Duplex will be coming to Pixel phones first.
Made, like really *made* by Google
‘Made by Google’ has more depth to it than a seemingly meaningless slogan. One of the reasons people often say Apple’s products ‘just work’ is because the hardware and software are designed in tandem. Android, on the other hand, has to be retrofitted onto lots of different devices. Made By Google is an attempt to rectify this with its Pixel brand, and to some extent it works.
The most obvious example is that Pixel owners get OS updates first and pretty much instantly – including security updates. The difference between quick and immediate updates may be a matter of months -yes, months – from some OEMs. For instance, Android Oreo, released in August 2017, is now on only 15% of devices over a year later (which may also be down to Oreo not supporting older devices). The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have already been updated to Pie. The original Pixel and Pixel XL have already been updated to Android Pie, too.
Then there’s the tailor-made features like Duplex and call screening, alongside Google Lens and other AI-based functionality. Sometimes these features are ported over to less heavily skinned Android alternatives, but they come to Pixels first.
Not cheap, but cheaper than the competition
A strange choice perhaps considering the Pixel 3XL price has increased from last year, but prices can not be viewed in a vacuum. Up against the top tiers of the most recently released competition from Apple and Samsung, the Pixel 3 comes out $100 cheaper.
Pixel 3XL – $899
iPhone XS Max – $999
Samsung Note 9 $999
Other bits to consider..
It feels almost wrong to not mention the notch, which a friend described as “deeper than a conversation with Donny Darko”. It’s fair to say that it’s not to everyone’s taste, and it does seem larger than other phones with notches on the market. Also the Pixel 3XL design, whilst improved with an all-glass frame, isn’t the most exciting when up against the thin bezels of the Note 9 and iPhone XS Max. If you’re design-minded, then the Pixel might not be for you.
Also, the day before the launch, it was revealed that Google suffered a major data breach related to Google +, its failed social network, which it didn’t disclose this for months for fear of a public backlash. The downside of Google’s AI services is that they require data, lots of data. You’ll have to carefully consider whether or not handing over vast amounts of personal data to a company that didn’t disclose a serious data breach for months is right for you.