The Google Pixel 3 Review: The Ultimate Camera Test


The Pixel 3 is Google’s third generation in-house design, meant to showcase the company’s own view of what an Android device should be, whilst fully embracing Google’s first-party software applications and services. The one thing Google’s Pixel phones have become synonymous with is the camera experience. The Pixel 3 continues this focal point of the line-up, and promises to be “the best smartphone camera”, period.

Alongside Google's forte, software, this year's Pixel family has pushed forward with a few hardware design choices, some of which we might have liked to have seen last year. The new units have updated panel technology, integrated wireless charging, and even fast wireless charging. Also now for Google, the Pixel 3 actually looks like a current flagship smartphone, compared to the Pixel 2 which did not at the time.

This year’s Pixel 3 phones hope to maintain the software advantages, doubling down on them with various new innovative features, especially on the camera side, whilst addressing the hardware aspects to be considered a true vendor flagship of a very competitive generation.

In this full analysis of the Pixel 3, we'll cover the hardware, the design, the software, and a detailed look to what makes users rave about the camera. We've tested over 18 current and former high-end smartphones worth of cameras to get to our conclusions, with all the analysis contained within these few pages. Commentary is of course, more than welcome.

It should be noted that for this review, unfortunately we only were able to get our hands on a regular Pixel 3, colored in 'Not Pink'. We do hope that sometime in the future we’ll be able to do a battery update on the bigger Pixel 3 XL once we’re able to source one.

Pixel Hardware and Design

In terms of hardware specifications, the new Pixel 3 family follows the many Android flagships trend of this year: at the heart of the phones, the Snapdragon 845 SoC is powering the devices. 2018 has been an excellent competitive year for Qualcomm and the S845 was able to take the performance lead among its Android competition. One thing to note here if you’re considering a Pixel device is that Google’s release schedule is very much out of sync with the silicon vendor’s SoC lineups - meaning users investing in a Pixel are buying a flagship phone whose silicon is by now 8 months old, and will most likely will be superseded by its successor in just a few months’ time. For those that want the leading edge, the Pixel 3 might be a short lived experience. However that doesn't detract from what is under the hood today.

Google Pixel 3 Family
  Pixel 3 (reviewed) Pixel 3 XL
SoC Snapdragon 845 4x Kryo 385 Gold (Cortex A75 based) @ 2.80 GHz

4x Kryo 385 Silver (Cortex A55 based) @ 1.76 GHz

GPU Adreno 630 @ 710MHz
DRAM 4GB LPDDR4X
Display 5.5" AMOLED
2160 x 1080 (18:9)
6.3" P-OLED
2960 x 1440 (18.5:9)
Size Height 145.6 mm 158.0 mm
Width 68.2 mm 76.6 mm
Depth 7.9 mm 7.9 mm
Weight 148 grams 184 grams
Battery Capacity 2915mAh 3430mAh
Wireless Charging Qi
Rear Camera 12.2 MP, f/1.8, 27mm (wide), 1/2.55", 1.4µm,
OIS, dual pixel PDAF
Front Cameras Dual 8MP modules
Regular f/1.8 75° & wide angle f/2.2 97° FoV lenses
Storage 64 GB / 128 GB 64 GB / 128 GB
I/O USB-C
Wireless (local) 802.11ac Wi-Fi + Bluetooth 5.0 LE + NFC
Cellular CAT 16 (1Gbps DL / 75Mbps UL), 5x DL CA, 4x4 MIMO,
LAA, 256-QAM DL and 64-QAM UL
Splash, Water, Dust Resistance IPX8
(Water resistant up to 1m)
Dual-SIM nano-SIM
Launch Price 64 GB: $799 / £739 / 849€
128 GB: $899 / £839 / 949€
64 GB: $899 / not avail. / 949€
128 GB: $999 / £969 / 1049€

Google also outfits the Pixel 3’s with relatively conservative DRAM and storage options. Both phones come with 4GB of RAM as well as a base storage variant of 64GB, with the option to buy a higher tier 128GB variant. Most of Google's competition are offering 6GB+ versions at similar pricing it should be noted.

In order to combat this low memory, one new hardware/software feature is an application memory management  'lowmmemorykiller' background application/daemon which applies various settings to keep certain software in memory for fast app loading times. Whilst in general I don’t put as much value into this as some other people do, I did however notice that in everyday use the phones did need to reload applications more often. There have been user reports already that the phones are struggling to keep things open and alive in memory. No doubt additional tuning of the memory management will be done through updates and the lifecycle of the unit.


Pixel 3 (left) and Pixel 2 (right)

Design-wise, the Pixel 3 is a big upgrade over the Pixel 2. Gone are the 2015 top and bottom bezels, and instead we find a more contemporary design with an elongated 18:9 (or 2:1) aspect ratio screen, vastly increasing the screen-to-body ratio of the phone. The screen is still an OLED with an FHD+ resolution (2160 x 1080 pixels) – though this year it seems that Google has split suppliers between the small and XL variants, with the Pixel 3 panel now being manufactured by LG while the Pixel 3 XL uses a Samsung panel.

On the front of the device, we luckily don’t need to go into any big controversial discussions about a notch as the small Pixel 3 (As opposed to the 3XL) doesn’t have one. What is new for both of the Pixel 3 smartphones is a secondary wide-angle front-facing camera, allowing for wider selfie shots or simply a wider field of view when doing front video recording or communications, which is actually quite handy.


Pixel 3 (left) and Pixel 2 (right)

On the back of the phone, we also see a big design change: Google has switched over from a metal unibody design with a top glass cut-out, to a full glass back panel. Google still maintains the same contrasting glossy glass design feature at the top of the phone, and achieves this by chemically etching the bottom part of the glass to a matte finish.

The matte feel of the glass is extremely similar to the design of the OnePlus 6’s etched models, and it does stand out as a completely different feel than one might be used to from glass phones. It really helps with the grip, and totally avoids fingerprints. My only issue here is that Google didn’t extend this finish to the very edges of the glass back, as well as leaving out a 1mm ring around the fingerprint sensor, the latter whose shadows on the glass looks very odd and a bit cheap.

Going for a glass back allows Google to now adopt wireless charging, and supports the Qi standard. The phone also supports fast wireless charging up to 10W. Unfortunately again, it seems that Google is only allowing this on certified chargers, thus not really adhering to the Qi fast-charging standard. This means almost all existing 'fast' wireless chargers will be limited to 5W.

Google bundled its own Pixel Stand wireless charging pad with the reviewer kits (It's not bundled with commercial units), and it works as well as it says on the box. One big hiccup I noticed is that the Stand will only accept certain USB-C chargers with PD at certain voltages – so users are restricted to the bundled power supply as well as a limited number of USB C PD chargers to even power it on at all.

It should be noted that the glass on the rear has some flex even under light pressure, and I can hear it touching the internals (charging coil and battery). This was one of the first things I noticed when unboxing the phone, and it makes it feel a lot less well built as for example glass backs from Samsung or Apple.

The camera on the Pixel 3 sees a minor sensor upgrade from the Sony IMX362 to the IMX363 – both units are 12.2MP sensors with 1.4µm pixel pitches. The aperture is also the same at f/1.8. There are no secondary modules here, and Google prefers to fall back to software innovation for improving zoomed in pictures: the Pixel 3 exclusively ships with a new “Superzoom” mode that promises to improve digital zooming, more on this later in the camera section where we’ll have a very big comparison with most of this year’s flagship devices.

The left side of the phone is bare of any buttons, and we find the power and volume rocker on the right side. Google accentuates the colour of the power button, on my “Not pink” pink unit this is a very neon orange that just doesn’t pop up in images as much as it does in real life.

On the top of the phone we find a microphone hole.

The bottom sees the single nanoSIM slot as well as the USB-C charging port. Like on the Pixel 2, the Pixel 3 units do not offer any headphone jack. One argument for the removal of the headphone jack, beyond the by now debunked claim that it offers larger internal space dedicated to batteries, is that it allows for better audio quality. Indeed if headphones have their own DACs built-in, then they can be calibrated to the sound profile of the individual headphones, instead of relying on the phone to serve a correct frequency response. That being said, unfortunately the USB-C earbuds bundled with the Pixel 3 are among the worst I’ve ever listened to and can be easily described as complete rubbish. I would easily choose USB-C earbuds from any other primary smartphone vendor.

In the rest of this review, we cover the following:

  1. Introduction and Design (this page)
  2. System Performance
  3. GPU Performance
  4. Display Measurements and Calibration Testing
  5. Battery Life and Power
  6. Camera pt 1: Daylight with SuperZoom and Scenic
  7. Camera pt 2: Daylight with Dynamic Range
  8. Camera pt 3: Low Light and NightSight
  9. Camera pt 4: Video Recording and Speaker Evaluation
  10. Pixel 3 Conclusion

Pixel phones have been known to be among the best performing Android devices in the market. This is mainly due to the Pixel’s performance team taking the time and attention to tweak the software stack – kernel and userspace alike. This is one of the benefits of being one of the last flagships out of the gate for a given generation, as it gives time to optimize the performance. The Pixel 3 comes with the Snapdragon 845, and I’ve written many times this year how Qualcomm’s software, and in particular the kernel scheduler was a very significant factor as to why this year’s Snapdragon phones performed so marvellously.

One of the big questions I posed myself early in the year is exactly how Google planned to handle Qualcomm’s great divergence from upstream, and the divergence from the Google common kernel. As a reminder, the Google common kernel is now the “official” branch on which SoC vendors should be basing their BSP (board support packages, essentially the software stack) for their own products. This is a collaborative effort between vendors (Mainly Google, Qualcomm and Arm), and it’s also the target where Arm pushes its own EAS patches.

The matter of fact is, for the Pixel 3, Google is simply using Qualcomm’s custom scheduler. This is both a great win for Qualcomm given the expected device performance of the Pixel 3, and quite a blow to Arm’s own efforts, as the EAS improvements over the last year are just simply not being used. Qualcomm’s efforts as well as the resulting product are just too good to pass on, and I’m very much expecting next year to finally be a watershed moment where other vendors finally abandon attempts to keep things minimalistic, and in line with upstream Linux, and finally see the immense value in investing in actual immediate benefits for consumer devices of a given generation.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Web Browsing 2.0

Starting with PCMark’s Web Browsing 2.0 test, the Pixel 3 leads the pack, with a slight advantage over other Snapdragon 845 phones. The reason here is that Google seemingly uses the most up-to-date scheduler, as well as has some possible file I/O advantages which I’ll get into a bit later. There are also possible OS side improvements in the libraries, as the Pixel 3’s ship with Android 9.

I’ve updated the performance results for past Pixels with the newest OS updates, as well as for devices like the OnePlus 6 as these have received their OS updates as well.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Video Editing PCMark Work 2.0 - Writing 2.0

In the writing test, which is probably PCMark’s most important as well as representative benchmark, the Pixel 3 saw a big leap in performance over the previous Pixels – however I think this was due to Android 9 itself, as we also saw a big jump in the OnePlus 6’s performance with the latest OS update.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Photo Editing 2.0

The photo editing test is very much a scheduler responsivity test as modern devices are able to complete the workloads relatively fast at their peak performance states. Here the score wildly fluctuates depending on how fast the DVFS mechanism is, and we see the Pixel 3 among the best performers.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Data Manipulation

The data manipulation score is extremely high on the Pixel 3 compares to other phones, including the OnePlus 6. I wasn’t able to verify this empirically, but glancing over the scheduler the Pixel has some unique updates to it which facilitate better responsiveness and scheduling of single big tasks, and the data manipulation test is such a workload with a big single-threaded component.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Performance

Overall, the Pixel 3 takes the top position in PCMark, all thanks to its scheduler improvements as well as a slight advantage due to it running Android 9.

Speedometer 2.0 - OS WebView

Moving onto web browser tests, the Pixel 3 largely matches the other Snapdragon 845 devices. This is no surprise as Speedometer 2.0 is a high constant throughput ST benchmark, and as such isn’t as affected by scheduler as PCMark.

Apple still has a considerable performance lead here. After our recent iPhone XS review and SoC deep-dive, I’m more leaning towards the explanation that a big part of the advantage here is purely due to hardware and the microarchitectural advantages of Apple’s CPUs, with part of it also being Apple’s Nitro JS engine.

WebXPRT 3 - OS WebView

WebXPRT also looks in line with other Snapdragon 845 devices.

Pixel 3 – Now using F2FS

Section with credit and input by Park Ju Hyung (@arter97)

The Pixel 3 now has switched over from an EXT4 filesystem, to the F2FS filesystem. Google explains this switch due to the fact that F2FS now supports inline block encryption which has been the last major roadblock as to why Google hadn’t made the switch earlier.

Inline block encryption uses the SoC’s inline cryptographic engines, which just serve as an intermediate hardware layer to the NAND and offload any encryption workloads that were initially in past devices performed by the CPU.

The switch to F2FS now gives the Pixel 3 a number of advantages over previous filesystem; Previously, SQLite (which is used by almost all database files under Android) used another 'journaling' on its own to prevent corruption. This caused “double journaling” on top of EXT4, which in itself is a journaling filesystem. Since F2FS doesn’t need this kind of protection and the Pixel 3 includes Google’s SQLite changes in Android 8.1, the Pixel 3 is able to take advantage of this, as well as any other F2FS based device from other vendors which have the corresponding OS patches.

The result is that this will enable much higher write/commit speeds for SQLite, not to mention less wear and tear to the underlying UFS storage. Also, the Pixel 3 turned off barriers for fsync() system calls, which will improve general random I/O write speeds by a significant margin.

Another big improvement for file I/O is the implementation of “Host Performance Booster” in the kernel and UFS controller firmware stack. HPB is essentially caching of the NAND chip’s FTL (flash translation layer) L2P (logical to physical) mapping tables into the hosts (SoCs) main memory. This allows the host driver to look up the target L2P entry directly without betting on UFS’s limited SRAM to have a cache-hit, reducing latency and greatly increasing random read performance. The authors of the feature showcase an improvement of 59-67% in random I/O read performance due to the new feature. It’s worth to mention that traditional Android I/O benchmarks won’t be able to show this as as those tend to test read speeds with the files they’ve just created.

Overall, the Pixel 3 is the fastest Android device on the market right now. The one thing that puts it above other devices such as the OnePlus 6 is a noticeable faster response-time when opening applications – either a framework related boost or just an effect of the faster file I/O.

GPU performance of the Pixel 3 should be relatively non-surprising for the most part – again we see the Snapdragon 845 at play and its Adreno 630 GPU should be performing excellently. This year the only real differences between devices was how vendors decided to set up their thermal throttling mechanisms and how the hardware itself is able to dissipate sufficient heat – as the SoC’s peak performance lies above the sustainable thermal envelope of a given device.

3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited - Physics

In the 3DMark Physics test, the Pixel 3 performs as expected in peak performance, however we see a more than usual decline is sustained performance compared to other Snapdragon 845 phones. Here it is possible Google has more strict thermal limits on the CPU.

3DMark Sling Shot 3.1 Extreme Unlimited - Graphics

The graphics results on 3DMark are more in line with other S845 devices, still the small Pixel 3 does end up slightly lower in performance. It’s notable that the Pixel 3 here ends up with a lower sustained performance score as the Pixel 2 family – showcasing the worst-case scenario for the SoC.

GFXBench Aztec Ruins - High - Vulkan/Metal - Off-screen

GFXBench Aztec Ruins - Normal - Vulkan/Metal - Off-screen

In the new Aztec benchmark, the new GPU architecture does help quite a bit in terms of differentiating itself from last year’s Pixels, however still the Pixel 3 ends up at the lower end of S845 phones in terms of the sustained performance.

GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 Off-screen GFXBench T-Rex 2.7 Off-screen

Finally in Manhattan and T-Rex, the Pixel 3 ends up in the same ballpark range as last year’s Pixels – again a worst-case scenario for the new SoC.

Among Android devices the Pixel 3 doesn’t stand out too much from the competition, however is still going to be able to perform very well. One has to keep in mind GPU and gaming performance is very much tied to the hardware capabilities, and in this regard we’ll see major jumps with the next generation GPUs.

The Pixel 3’s screen is an extremely important aspect of the phone, not just because it’s the centre-piece of a device, but also because Google’s choice of panel manufacturer. Last year’s Pixel 2 XL suffered from a compromising display made by LG, which in particular had very large issues regarding gamma as well as black clipping at low brightness levels.

This year, Google opted to swap display suppliers around, with the small Pixel 3 now featuring an LG panel while the bigger Pixel 3 XL uses a Samsung unit. Again unfortunately we don’t have the 3 XL at hand, but we can investigate the Pixel 3’s LG panel and make comparisons on the issue points that plagued last year’s 2 XL.

One thing of note that is a first for Google is the introduction of different display colour modes. This was introduced in Android P / 9 and was backported to last year’s Pixel 2. Google now offers a “Natural” mode which represents accurate sRGB and Display P3 D65 targets, a “Boosted” mode which increases the colour saturations, as well as an “Adaptive” mode which is a bit of a mess but shouldn’t be of any concern to people who don’t care too much about colour accuracy.

As always, we thank X-Rite and SpecraCal, as measurements are performed with an X-Rite i1Pro 2 spectrophotometer, with the exception of black levels which are measured with an i1Display Pro colorimeter. Data is collected and examined using SpectraCal's CalMAN software.

SpectraCal CalMAN

SpectraCal CalMAN

Starting off with the greyscale measurements, I decided to switch over to full scale 256 level measurements to better showcase some of the characteristics of the panels, we’ll get back to this at the end of this page.

In “Natural mode”, the Pixel 3 is very accurate and manages to showcase a DeltaE2000 of 1.36, along with an average colour temperature of 6576K, which is very near the target D65 illuminant.

The phone has a maximum brightness of 407 nits – which is average of an OLED, as recent generation Apple and Samsung devices reach levels above 600nits. Google isn’t employing any auto-brightness boost mode, so sunlight legibility might be less than that of other devices, however I wasn’t able to test this directly in the cloudy weather.

Gamma came in at 2.18 – however looking at the curve it’s notable that for most levels it’s at around 2.3, and the average is brought down by being too bright in the last 5% of levels.

  SpectraCal CalMAN
sRGB in "Natural" and in "Boosted" (Against Display P3 Gamut)

When in “Natural” mode, all non-colour managed content targets the sRGB colour-space. Here the Pixel 3’s screen is very accurate with a dE2000 of 1.1, among the best in terms of colour accuracy.

Selecting the “Boosted” mode linearly increases the saturations within the sRGB space – the resulting gamut doesn’t adhere to any standard. The adaptive mode is a complete mess in terms of colour gamut as well as targeting a high gamma of 2.5 – we’ll get back to that into a bit.

Google introduced OS level colour management support in Android 8, however the implementation on the Pixel 2 wasn’t finalised and there wasn’t any application support as of last year. With the Pixel 3 I had hoped that Google would progress on this, however to my great disappointment I didn’t find a single out-of-the box application which would support wide-gamut content.

To demonstrate the issue, you see the Pixel 2, Pixel 3 and an iPhone XS showcasing sRGB and Display P3 images alongside each other in the above photo. By default on Chrome, both sRGB and P3 images are equal, while the XS correctly showcases the higher saturation of the full-level red of the P3 image.

There is one way to bypass this issue, and that is to explicitly tell Chrome to override the default provided system colour profile and just tell it the display is Display P3. This enables colour management in the app, and short of writing a custom application, is the only way to get wide colour gamut content to work on the Pixel 3.

  SpectraCal CalMAN
Display P3 in "Natural" and in "Boosted"

Now one of the big questions I’ve had this year is how the CMS would interact with the actual display colour profiles in the settings. Fortunately, it’s pretty straightforward: The “Natural” mode isn’t per se a colour gamut selection, is just an actual category which has both accurate sRGB and P3 display modes via the CMS.

Testing out the Display P3 targets, the Pixel 3 showcases a good dE2000 result of 1.6. The display didn’t score better because seemingly the blue spectrum isn’t fully hitting the target saturations, something that also happened in the sRGB targets. Testing the P3 targets in the “Boosted” mode, we see again what is happening is that this mode just linearly increases the saturations. The blues are nearer to the P3 targets but all other colours overshoot the P3 target now.

  SpectraCal CalMAN
sRGB and Display P3 Targets in "Adaptive"

Now the fun thing is testing what happens with the sRGB and Display P3 images when you’re in “Adaptive” mode. sRGB obviously is quite a disaster – I didn’t manage to match this resulting gamut to any existing standard so there’s no real point in measuring an error rate. Now what is really interesting is to see the CMS expand the resulting visible gamut with the P3 images – here we’re seeing something that is far wider than Display P3, especially in the blues. Again this doesn’t really match any standard gamut, so there’s no point in making direct comparisons.


SpectraCal CalMAN
GretagMacBeth in "Natural"

SpectraCal CalMAN

The GretagMacBeth colour test in natural mode results in accurate colours with a dE2000 of 1.28.

Gamma curves under magnifying glass

One of the reasons I want to switch to full 256 level greyscale testing is to better show case the luminance behaviour, specifically highlighting the issue of “black clipping”.

The Pixel 2 XL, along with the LG V30, suffered very badly from black clipping at low brightness levels. I generally attribute this to the fact that those generation panels just used the DDIC’s ADC bit-depth for both colour representation as well as brightness control. Samsung OLEDs use PWM on top to control brightness by just adjusting the duty level – with voltage of the pixels determining the colour intensity. The Pixel 2 XL and V30 seemed to lack sufficient range to cover the level-spectrum at the low-end, and this resulted in notorious black clipping.


SpectraCal CalMAN
Pixel 2 XL
SpectraCal CalMAN
Pixel 3

At minimum brightness, the Pixel 3 improves over the Pixel 2 XL in this regard, but it’s still pretty terrible as it’s clipping 15% of levels to black, as opposed to 25% of the Pixel 2 XL.

The higher the brightness, the less pronounced the issue is. At 200 nits compared across the Pixel 3, Pixel 2 XL, S9+ and an iPhone XS, we see that all of the Android phones are clipping the first few greyscale levels to black, with Apple being the only manufacturer able to perform excellently in this regard.

SpectraCal CalMAN

Also one thing that becomes evident when doing full-scale 256 level measurements is the fact that the Pixel 3 colour balance across levels is very haphazard, and we see quite a zig-zagging behaviour between the intensities at different levels, also represented by the dE2000 results. In absolute terms, this shouldn’t be an issue as overall the error rate is acceptable, however it’s a stark behavioural contrast to any other phone I’ve measured before.

Overall, the Pixel 3’s screen is an improvement over the Pixel 2 XL, however it doesn’t fully solve the low-brightness issues that are plaguing LG’s OLED panels, and Samsung panels such as on the Pixel 2 are still better this this regard.

In terms of colour accuracy, the Pixel 3 performs well. Here I would have hoped that Google would have gotten wide colour gamut support fully working within its applications – currently the only way to get this to work is to change a Chrome settings flag, and this only solves the problem for Chrome, and no other app.

Lastly, the display brightness is good, however again it’s just adequate at up to 400 nits, and fails to compete with super bright displays from competing flagships.

In terms of battery life, we should be expecting the Pixel 3 to do better than the Pixel 2, as we have an 8% larger battery coming at 2915mAh compared to last year’s 2700mAh unit. On the other hand, we also have to consider the Pixel 3 has a larger screen that needs to be powered, and the SoC efficiency can go either way. For our battery tests, we set the device brightness to 200 nits using our colorimeter tools.

Web Browsing Battery Life 2016 (WiFi)

Unfortunately, the Pixel 3 sees a regression in terms of battery life, ending up 18% or 1.5 hours behind the Pixel 2 in the web browsing battery test. I did some quick power characterisation, and the Pixel 3 uses about 90mW more power when idling at minimum brightness in airplane mode. Stretched over a 9-10 hour period, this is about 8% of the total battery capacity. On top of this, the phone has to power a bigger screen, and we have a much more performant SoC. Overall the Pixel 3’s battery life doesn’t end up as particularly surprising.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Battery Life

In PCMark, the Pixel 3 sees better performance, as the SoC is able to counter-act the phone general less efficiency. Here the Pixel 3 lands just slightly ahead of the Pixel 2, landing in the middle of the pack in terms of battery life.

The Pixel 3 makes big promises in regards to its camera: Google staunchly claims it to be the best camera on a smartphone, without a doubt. On the hardware side of things, the Pixel 3 doesn’t seem to bring all that many upgrades, as we’re still seeing a 12.2MP sensor in the form of a Sony IMX363, a seemingly generational update to last year’s IMX362. The sensor is supported by a f/1.8 aperture lens and the module supports OIS. A difference to last year’s Pixels is that we no longer find a laser-autofocus mechanism on the new phone, so the new sensor must’ve improved its phase-detection focus capabilities.

Google promises two big new features that aim to actually improve the picture quality of still pictures: Super Res Zoom, and Night Sight.

Super Res Zoom is an application of the geometrical super resolution image processing technique: Google captures multiple quick succession frames in this mode and infers a higher resolution image of the picture. Google doesn’t explain exactly where this processing is done, but it’s possible it’s a NN algorithm running on the Pixel Visual Core (Which on the Pixel 3 is the same silicon as on the Pixel 2). Google actually isn’t the first to introduce such a zoom method, as Huawei uses similar algorithms to achieve its hybrid 2x and 5x zoom modes, with the difference being that Huawei uses differing image inputs from its different sensors, while Google uses temporally different image from the same sensor. The resulting image should be superior to a simple digital zoom – however there’s diminishing returns on the amount of spatial resolution that can be reconstructed using this method.

Night Sight uses very much a similar algorithm to super resolution, with the difference being that instead of using multiple captures to achieve a higher spatial resolution, it can vastly increase the resulting image exposure while having significant noise reduction applied. Again, Huawei was the first to employ a multi-frame stacking algorithm some generations ago, but only this year with the P20’s were they also first to employ the critical combination of multi-frame stacking along with the ability to stack them correctly with spatial offsets to objects on each frame, in order to avoid blurring. Google’s mechanism inherently doesn’t seem to differ much from Huawei’s in what it does, but the implementation itself and results might obviously differ from each other. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more vendors introduce similar techniques in upcoming devices, as it can bring greatly improved low-light imaging.

Night Sight pre-release APK credits

Officially, Google has to date not released Night Sight for public usage on the Pixel 3 family – this was something of great annoyance to me as the camera testing is a very major part of our reviews that takes significant time investment. Luckily, XDA member cstark27 was able to figure out that the module could be enabled in the camera APK by a simple flip of a settings flag. The timing was perfect as I was heading out with 18 devices in my pockets the very next day – and for this review I used the supplied modified camera APK alongside the stock camera, which spares me a lot of headaches in having to revisit the camera in the near future!

It’s also important to note that the resulting pictures might not be representative of the final camera that Google is planning to publicly release – however in the testing I found minor issues with it and the resulting pictures should be very close to the final product.

Camera - Daylight Evaluation - Superzoom and Scenic

I’m taking advantage of this review to essentially review all major cameras released this year along with some of their predecessors of last year. This involves a major 18-device shootout in various capturing modes. Included along the new Pixel 3 units are also the new Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro which we’ll do a follow-up review shortly after this piece. Unfortunately the LG V40 didn’t make in time for the camera shootout, so we’ll revisit that one in a smaller scope in a few weeks’ time.

In the first round of scenarios I’m focusing on the Pixel 3’s new “Super Res Zoom” and how that stacks up to past generation Pixels, as well as the nearest competitors with optical zoom modules.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ]
[ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ]
[ P20Pro ] - [ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ]
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ]
[ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

In this first set we see the Pixel 3’s zoom notably improve detail compared to just a digital crop of the full-frame image. The edges are more defined and the phone even manages to resolve some details that weren’t visible in the full-frame crop.

The comparison to the Pixel 2 reveals the crucial differences between just having a crop of the full resolution frame and the Super Res Zoom algorithm applied: The 5x zoom shot is the easiest to dissect in this regard – the details on the clock face visibly look improved and we see new edges on the Pixel 3 image that weren’t present on the Pixel 2.

Comparing to the zoomed in results to any of the optical zoom module competition, we however see that there’s still a major difference in quality: even though the Pixel 3 improves on its spatial resolution, I’d say it only manages to do so up to an equivalent level of a 1.5x zoom. Here the actual gains will depend on the granularity of the sub-pixel image localisation that Google uses. If it’s actually just on a sub-pixel level, then a 1.5x / 50% increase in spatial resolution is the logical limit of what we should be expecting of such an implementation, and further “sub-sub-pixel” increases would require more complex algorithms and more frame captures.

In the wide-angle shot, the Pixel 3 doesn’t differ too much from the Pixel 2. The only notable change is a slight difference in colour temperature, producing a colder image than the Pixel 2, a characteristic of the new camera we’ll see prevalent throughout all of the upcoming scenes.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ]
[ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ]
[ P20Pro ] - [ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ]
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ]
[ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

In the next scene, we can apply the same zoom conclusions as on the first shot. The Pixel 3’s Super Res Zoom is a definite improvement over just a digital zoom, however again the spatial resolution increases are limited and cannot compete with optical zoom modules.

In the wide shot, the Pixel 3 again produces a colder image than the Pixel 2, but overall the processing and image are pretty much identical. A characteristic of Google’s phones we’ll see throughout the pictures is that the processing likes to darken the shadows more than what the sensor actually sees, and this most visible in the trees in these pictures, as the pines in the middle picture lose a lot of detail compared to any other phone, also something that happens throughout darker objects of the whole scene.

Here the Pixel 3 achieves nice contrast in the picture, but it’s just a tad darker than how the scene was in reality, with the iPhone XS’s result being much closer to an accurate representation of the actual scene, with many of the competing phones falling in-between these two comparisons in terms of their HDR results.

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[ Pixel 3 ]
[ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ]
[ P20Pro ] - [ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The next scene again we have a good opportunity to compare the super zoom in the Pixel 3 to the results of the Pixel 2: We see again a definitive improvement, but again this is somewhat limited to a 50% in spatial resolution. Beyond this, the optical zoom competition again manages to vastly outpace the Pixel 3 in terms of clarity.

The wide shot here is actually quite tough as we have major shadow-cast in half of the scene, while the top half is sun-lit. For fun and testing, I tested the Night Sight mode in many of the daylight pictures to see if there was any major difference in processing. The one difference I can see is that there’s a change in colour temperature, with the Pixel 3’s auto mode again producing ever so slightly colder images.

The P20 Pro in its 10MP mode clearly has the best dynamic range in the resulting shot, followed by the MIX2S, OP6, and FindX. The Pixel phone’s shots offer very good contrast and are doing very well in bringing out highlights in the dark areas, but this comes at a great cost in terms of very dark shadows nearly clipping into black on many parts of the scene.

Detail-wise, while the Pixel 3 isn’t doing well in the shadows, it is able to outclass many other devices in terms of overall detail in the rest of the scene, and has absolutely no issues with loss of detail on the frame edges, pointing out to a high quality lens.

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[ Pixel 3 ]
[ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ]
[ P20Pro ] - [ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ]
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ]
[ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ]
[ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The Pixel 3’s tendency to clip shadows to black and just being too under-exposed is again visible in this scene where part of the valley is shadow-cast. Google does excellently in the foreground trees and maintains a great amount of contrast, but other devices just have a significantly better dynamic range in big parts of the picture.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

In less demanding lighting conditions, the Pixel phones fare significantly better with shadows, and actually perform very well. A tendency that is continuously present is that Google likes to bring down the sky’s brightness – this could be a reason why dynamic range on the lower end isn’t quite as good as other phones who tend to have brighter or even blown out sky exposures.

In terms of detail, the Pixel 3 is among the top performers – only outclassed by Samsung’s recent Note9 and S9 sensors whose improved deep trench isolation is a step above other phones, and manage to retain much more of the stone’s grain as well as fine details of the statues. Of course, when the lighting conditions allow it, Huawei’s 40MP cameras always win detail wise because of their enormous resolution advantage.

The next set of shots I tried to capture more shots where dynamic range comes into play, hopefully able to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the phones.

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[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The Pixel 3 here again doesn’t have the best shadows in the dark portion of the scene, however it does extremely well in bringing down the highlights in the front part of the scene, also resulting in stronger contrast than other phones that works very well for this picture.

It’s hard to say here which phone performs the best – but overall the Pixel 3 is among the top phones.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

A big commonality between the Pixel 3 and Pixel phones in general is that they produce slightly darker images than other recent flagship phones. The resulting image is still very realistic and has excellent relative balance between light and dark parts – but results such as that of the iPhone XS were closer to the brightness of the scene.

The Galaxy S9+ and Note9 follow up on this brighter result, however they lose too much contrast in my view, whereas other phones are able to maintain better contrast. Even though we’re almost half a year after its release, LG still didn’t fix the G7’s camera software, and we’re still seeing extremely flat images with very little dynamic range, as well as noise reduction that eats up detail throughout the scene;

In terms of detail, again the Pixel 3 is a top performer, but is outclassed by Samsung’s and Apple’s new sensors which are able to just maintain better sharpness.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The next scene again is extremely favourable to the Pixel 3 – again compared to its predecessor the only real difference in picture quality is that the new phone produces a slightly colder image, as all other aspect in terms of exposure and detail are very hard to distinguish.

Google again favours in bringing down the sky’s brightness down, resulting in more defined clouds. Also throughout the rest of the scene the shadows are darker, but it works well here as it just increases the contrast of the resulting image and there’s not much that clip to dark too much. The balance is again very similar to the iPhone XS – however I prefer the latter’s result as it’s just a bit brighter and more representative of the scene.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

This was among the Pixel’s most problematic shots as again I think it is too under-exposed, and suffers a lot in the shadows. The iPhone XS does the best in capturing the whole dynamic range.

Maybe I remember it wrongly, but a lot of the phones seemed to have trouble with colour temperature in this shot, all being much too warm. On the Pixel 3, I feel the night mode’s colder result was definitely a closer match to reality.

Detail wise, the Pixel 3 is again top-grade, only losing out to the latest Apple and Samsung phones.

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[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The next shot is very complex in terms of shadows and highlights. Google does an overall excellent job in doing an exposure that is a close representation of the actual scene. The iPhone XS follows suite with just a tad brighter shadows, with Samsung opting to go even brighter.

The OnePlus 6 looks to have the best dynamic range shot of all phones here maintaining the best contrast in the fallen leaves while not overexposing shadows of bringing down highlights too much. While the Pixel 3 does well in representing the brightness of the scene, it also loses out in detail because of it being darker.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

In the last daylight scene, the Pixel 3 again continues with predictable characteristics: It brings down the exposure until there’s no more a blown out sky – even though here it’s mostly covered by trees. It does very even HDR throughout the scene and results in strong contrast, with again the weakness being is that it loses out detail in the darker shadows.

Similar to the last scenario, I would suggest that the OnePlus 6 had the best overall shot here in terms of exposure and HDR balance, with the Pixel 3 following closely. The iPhone XS also has an excellent shot. The Note9 loses out too much contrast by raising the shadows, and the S9+ has a blown out sky.

Detail is again a repeat – the Pixel 3 does well, but can’t keep up in terms of detail with Samsung and Apple.

Daylight Conclusion

Overall in the daylight pictures, there’s one thing that seems to very evident throughout all the samples: the Pixel 3 struggles to really differentiate itself from the Pixel 2. Google chose to keep a similar sensor on the new phone, and everything else from optics down to software processing seems to also be nigh identical. The biggest difference I’ve managed to take away from the Pixel 3 camera comparison is that it’s producing slightly colder images than the Pixel 2 – that’s about all that can be said about this year’s new camera in terms of picture quality.

Google produces images that are consistently exposed for the brightest object in the scene, always avoiding blown out highlights or overexposed shots. The weakness in this approach it seems to be that the phones are dedicating a lot of the sensor’s dynamic range in capturing these highlights correctly, and in turn this makes the pictures suffer in the darker areas of scenes, visibly struggling with shadows and shadow detail, sometimes just clipping objects into near black. The processing also seems to be purposefully darkening shadows in order to achieve more contrast. In many shots this does result in a quite pleasing image with strong contrast, but I would have wished the phone would by default aim for a slightly higher exposure.

Detail-wise, the Pixel 3 performs very well and is among the top phones, but the new hardware sensors from Samsung and Apple this year just seem clearly superior in terms of retaining better textures – here it seems the Pixel 3 has a disadvantage of the weaker DTI of the sensor, and this can’t be overcome by software. The optics of the Pixel 3 are excellent, showcasing no sign of distortions of chromatic aberrations even on the corners and edges of the frame.

Lastly, Super Res Zoom is an innovative new imaging technique that promises to achieve better digital zoom without the need for a secondary camera module. It works, but seemingly the maximum spatial resolution increase we can expect here is around 50%, or a zoom factor of 1.5x. Beyond this, the competition’s optical modules are still clearly superior. Overall, this is a nice feature to have, but definitely doesn’t compensate or is a viable alternative to a dedicated telephoto module.

Of course one of the new exciting features about the new Pixel 3 is the promise of its Night Sight mode. As mentioned a few pages back, in order to enable this facility we’re using a modified camera application in order to get the mode working for this review, as otherwise it would have made for a pretty boring low-light comparison.

I’m also showcasing the camera differences on the original Pixel as well as Pixel 2, so that users can see what kind of improvements they can expect on their existing devices. Both of these devices also have the Night Sight enabled option for the software.

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[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

In the first construction scene, the difference between the auto shot and the Night shot are, pardon the pun, night and day. Here the differences in processing are quite astounding and make for a major improvement in the Pixel’s low-light capture ability.

The resulting image is significantly brighter than what how the scene looked in reality. I’d even go as far that the Pixel is so aggressive with the exposure here that it even goes a bit too far, as the Mate 20 Pro’s auto mode and Mate 20’s night mode seem a lot more realistic. It’s to be noted that the Mate 20 Pro’s result is achieved with no software tricks – just relying on the ISO25600 mode of its sensor.

The Pixel 2, with the Night Sight enabled software, manages to get a near identical result to the Pixel 3, and even the original Pixel doesn’t seem too far off.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

Night Sight doesn’t seem to need to be used in very dark scenes to show a benefit, as even with artificially lit objects such as the tree here we can see benefits to the scene. The result puts the Pixel phones far ahead of conventional shooters from Samsung and Apple, with only Huawei’s being able to keep up and battle Google’s new algorithm.

One characteristic of Night Sight is that it doesn’t seem to be able to actually bring down highlights – Huawei’s implementation on the other hand will do this, and that’s why the tree in Huawei’s mode is far less blown-out compared to Google’s camera.

Where Google does shine is in terms of detail retention – the Pixels are able to retain significantly more details than Huawei, and for that matter, the Pixels retain more details than all of the other phones.

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[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20 ]
[ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ Note9 ]
[ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ]

The main benefits of Night Sight in scenarios where there is sufficient light is that it allows for better detail retention and less noise. Google competition here is again Huawei – however the Pixels are able to edge out the P20’s and Mate 20’s in terms of detail retention and less noise.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

When going into lower light scenes, again, the Pixels are able to produce images that are much brighter than how the scene was originally.

Again, the only phones able to compete in terms of light capture are Huawei’s – but again, the Pixels are able to produce a better image thanks to better detail retention. Huawei’s phones here most likely are suffering from the lack of OIS on their main cameras.

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[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

Although this is meant to be a comparison between 18 phones, the real fight here is just between the Pixel 3 and Huawei’s devices. Again the Pixels here significantly win because of the vast advantages in terms of detail retention and sharpness – far ahead of any other phone.

Extreme low-light

Extreme low light scenarios is something as early as last year we wouldn’t have expected phones to be viable in. Again I started shooting such scenes earlier in the year when Huawei made its Night mode usable without a tripod – along with vendors like LG introducing pixel binning modes that quadruple the light capture of the sensors.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ]
[ P20 ] - [ Mate 10Pro ] - [ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ]
[ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ] - [ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ]
[ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

This shot is very similar to the first one in that the Pixels are able to generate such bright pictures that I’d say they’re overexposed. Again, only Huawei’s phones and as well as the LG G7’s LLS mode are able to achieve similar light capture. The latter suffers from a stark lack of details, leaving only Huawei’s phones in the competition.

What is very interesting is to see just how much colour accuracy Google is able to achieve even with such low brightness levels.

Click for full image
[ Pixel 3 ] - [ Pixel 2 ] - [ Pixel XL ]
[ Mate 20Pro ] - [ Mate 20 ] - [ P20Pro ] - [ Mate 10Pro ]
[ iPhone XS ] - [ iPhone X ] - [ Note9 ] - [ S9+ ] - [ S8 ]
[ LG G7 ] - [ LG V30 ] - [ OnePlus 6 ] - [ OPPO FindX ] - [ MIX2S ]

The last shot I wanted to take the phones to their limits – the vast majority of phones here won’t be able to discern nearly anything and many will just produce a black picture. The scene was solely illuminated by moonlight of a full moon as well as some far as way industrial spotlights.

Even here, the Pixel’s Night Sight is able to deliver, producing a semi visible result of the object. Only the Mate 20 Pro’s ISO102400 shot was able to come near the exposure levels, but with significantly more noise.

Low-light conclusion

This conclusion of the Pixel 3 in low light would have sounded extremely differently if I had just used Google’s official camera application and not tested Night Sight. I’ve never really understood why people claimed the Pixel 2 camera to be good in low-light, because in my experience as well as visible in these sample shots, the Pixels were never really competitive and are outclassed by the better sensors from Samsung and Apple, when capturing in traditional modes.

Night Sight is very much a game-changer to this situation, and Google is able to showcase an outstanding example of computational photography that vastly beats even the wildest expectation of what a smartphone camera is able to achieve in low-light scenarios.

In a swoop, Google’s Pixels significantly climb up the ladder in terms of low-light photography ranking, even putting themselves at a comfortable distance ahead of the previous low-light champions, Huawei’s 40MP sensor phones as well as their own night mode.

Video recording on the Pixel 3’s is still limited to 720, 1080 and 4K at 30fps. The resulting video is encoded in H.264 and Google offers a switch to enable EIS, or to leave it disabled and solely rely on the OIS of the camera. The disadvantage of EIS of course is that it’ll result in a narrower field-of-view compared to the native FoV of the camera.

Pixel 3:      Pixel 2: 

Overall, the only big difference in video recording quality between the Pixel 3 and its predecessor, at least in these sample videos, is that the Pixel 3 is seemingly doing a much brighter exposure. This also resulted in some loss of contrast in some scenarios, and also less saturated colours. Oddly enough the new Pixel 3 also limits the digital zoom available when video recording, only going half as far as on the Pixel 2.

Speaker Evaluation

The Pixel 3 comes again with stereo front-facing speakers. This time around Google promises great improvements in the audio quality thanks to improvements in the software audio processing. To test this, we’re using our new speaker measurement methodology, and to do more direct comparisons I also revisited the Pixel 2’s speakers so that the size difference to the Pixel 2 XL doesn’t affect our evaluation.

Speaker Loudness

In terms of speaker loudness at maximum volume, the Pixel 3 is about 0.6dB louder when holding it in one hand, and showcases a 1.1dB advantage when cupping the phone with both hands. There’s some variability here as I prefer to measure the phones in-hand, as to represent the audio response as you would have when listening to the phones in real life.

The small difference between the one-handed and two-handed results showcase the front-firing nature of the speakers, showing that they have good frontal directionality.

Moving on, we’re doing a frequency response measurement sweep from 20Hz to 20KHz. The measurement is done with the phone in landscape mode held in two hands, with the palms again naturally cupped around the phone, as you would hold it when gaming.

The one very weird result about the Pixel 3 that differs from any other phone I’ve measured, is that the speakers go a lot further in the high frequency range than any other phone. Now this should be positive in general, however the Pixel 3 here oscillates significantly in terms of volume at the high frequencies, and this is plainly audible when doing the frequency sweep test, something unique to the Pixel 3.

Applying a psychoacoustic averaging filter to the results and comparing it to the Pixel 2, we see exactly how the speaker improved in terms of its sound output. I calibrate the volume of all phones in this comparison to a level of 75dbA on a pink noise output, so all phones are at the same perceived volume.

The Pixel 3 improves throughout from the bass range up to the low mid-range, showcasing a significant increase in volume in these frequencies, something that should be immediately audible. The Pixel 3 also has an abnormally loud output in the high frequencies above 15KHz – normally where other phone speakers would drastically fall off. The issue here is whether the big dip around 12KHz will adversely impact the phone’s audio.

It’s very hard to accurately convey speaker quality as recording equipment will always change the frequency response. I tried my best in terms of measuring this as best as I can through recording the phone’s output through a binaural microphone setup. The best playback experience for these recordings is achieved through headphones, or better, IEMs.

My calibrated speaker setup is meant to serve as a baseline to which the recording microphones should be compared to.

Comparing the Pixel 3 to the Pixel 2, there an evident increase in bass and depth of the audio, marking a significant improvement over last year’s model. The issue here is I feel there’s too much components in the high frequencies and the sound can seem notably harsh and shrill at maximum volume.

Another issue is that the phone is seemingly suffering from distortions – this something that I’ve also encountered on the G7 and seems to be linked to the fact that the glass back of the phone is allowed to vibrate a lot, instead of the sound pressure going out through the speaker grill. Also, if you happen to partially cover the bottom (bass) grill, the speaker membrane will notably distort. Pressing against the back will also change the frequency response of the audio.

Overall, the Pixel 3’s speaker are still a significantly improvement. I still prefer the iPhone XS and S9+ speakers – but the Pixel 3 is not far behind, especially having very strong mid-ranges.

The Pixel 3 is very much a Google phone, in the every sense of the meaning.

Design-wise we can only talk about the small Pixel 3 as that’s what we got sampled. The front of the phone got a much needed face-lift compared to the Pixel 2, and it just looks a lot more like a modern phone due to its increased screen-to-body ratio as well as reduced bezels. The new glass back design is also a positive for me – it does bring wireless charging, and the matte chemically etched finish on the glass avoids the usual negatives about glass phones such as smudges and fingerprint residue.

I’m not too convinced about the build quality of the glass back – it suffers from an air gap and flexes in, which causes it to touch and separate from the wireless coil and battery when pressing the back in. This also seems to be source of some sound distortion when playing back at maximum volume.

Back to the front of the phone, the new OLED display is good. It’s able to represent accurate colours both in sRGB and DCI-P3, albeit the latter’s software support in applications is still essentially non-existent for the vast majority of users. Google has now swapped panel suppliers between the big Pixel 3 XL and smaller Pixel 3, with LG now sourcing the panel for the small Pixel 3. The panel is definitely an improvement over the Pixel 2 XL panel, however the issue of black clipping at low brightness levels is still present (albeit much improved). Here Samsung’s panels are just better in this regard. Brightness of the Pixel 3 display is also standard – it goes up to 400 nits, and no more, so it doesn’t perform quite as well as some other super bright models from the competition.

On the hardware side of things, the Pixel 3’s now come with the Snapdragon 845 SoCs from Qualcomm. Currently the silicon, as well as Google using the most up-to-date version of Qualcomm’s scheduler, make this the snappiest and fastest device on the market. A big contribution to this is also Google’s cutting edge software stack for storage and filesystem.

In terms of gaming performance, the Pixel 3 falls in at the low end of Snapdragon 845 devices. Here the thermal limits limit sustained performance, and the phone isn’t allowed to use as much power as say, the OnePlus 6 does.

Battery life of the Pixel 3 is average. Although there’s a slight increase in battery capacity which should make it last longer, the new phone also has a bigger screen, and the performance of the SoC is much greater, which both draw more power. There’s a small decrease in battery life compared to the Pixel 2, but overall, it still ends up within reasonable figures.

The camera was a big topic for the Pixel 3, and it is a make-or-break feature. If you haven't read our 18-phone shootout on the previous pages, it is highly recommended.

The big camera feature of the Pixel 3 is Night Sight. Here Google is really able to showcase its software strengths, and brings to market a night mode that one-up’s Huawei’s feature, which lead the way in terms of computational photography this year. Google’s implementation is better, allowing for significantly better light capture in low-light, as well as retaining an astounding amount of detail.

(It should be noted that I used a modified camera app to enable Night Sight for this review, as it is not currently enabled in retail devices. This whole conclusion might have come out extremely different, as Google’s regular shooting modes in low light still largely lags behind the competition from Samsung and Apple.)

Google’s advertised Super Res Zoom, to get better resolution in zoomed modes, certainly works, but only so far. It does bring an improvement over traditional digital crop zooming, however the benefits are relatively limited to an about 50% increase in spatial resolution, or about an equivalent zoom factor of 1.5x. Here software can’t compensate or compete with the dedicated telephoto modules of other phones.

On the camera hardware side, Google has made minor updates - the sensor and optics of the Pixel 3 are nearly identical to the Pixel 2, and in daylight pictures it is indeed very hard to find much difference in picture quality between the two phones. There is a slight difference in colour temperature, but otherwise the image processing as well as details are pretty much the same, which includes some notable weaknesses sometimes, such as bad retention of details in shadows.

Audio wise, the Pixel 3 greatly improves the speakers, notably improving the bass and low-mid-ranges, giving a lot more depth to the audio. Unfortunately the 3.5mm headphone jack is gone for good – and if you’re looking to get good audio out of the phone, you’ll also have to look for a different pair of headphones. The included USB-C pair of headphones in the box sound terrible.

The Pixel 3 comes with the latest version of Android. It should be said that the new gesture navigation on the Pixel 3 seems largely pointless. For me, it brings no benefit over the 3-button navigation scheme, and it’s actually a worse way to use the phone as for me it’s just more cumbersome. Many had hoped Google would improve on this following the initial release of the Android P release candidate, but that unfortunately didn’t happen.

Should I Buy It?

Overall, is the Pixel 3 a worthwhile phone to purchase? The problem here is I think unless you’re very entrenched in Google’s software ecosystem and you make good use of many of Google US-exclusive features on the Pixel, then you might want to consider some other alternatives or just wait out the next generation from the big vendors. Google’s release schedule, which is out of sync with SoC vendors, means that the Pixel is again a half-way point between generations. On top of that, Google is demanding the full price of a new flagship, while lacking some of the features or build quality of said flagships.

Here really the only exciting part about the Pixel 3 is its excellent performance as well as its new Night Sight camera mode. If that’s enough for a user to justify the price, then the Pixel 3 will surely enable a good user experience.