My week with the Pixel 3 XL

Never let a bunch of people decide anything that you have to do via a Twitter poll. In my case, very definitely don’t let them condemn you to a week-long trial of any product other than the ones you favour.
That’s how I ended up spending a week or so using the Google Pixel 3 XL rather than my beloved iPhone XS Max. My Apple Watch sat on the sidelines and in its place on my wrist came a Fossil Sport watch running Wear OS.
I gave it a shot. But how did it actually do? And did I end up tearing my hair out?

What’s better

I’m going to leave the camera to one side for a while, but there are a few areas where the Pixel 3 XL is a clear winner.

Top of the list: Google Assistant. Although there are a couple of ways that Assistant is worse than Siri, by and large it’s a huge step upwards. Even though it still hasn’t got totally to grips with my accent (no, Google, “hole” does not mean the same thing as “hall”. I do not have any lights in my hole) Assistant’s ability to answer queries and generally get things done is outstanding.

What did I miss?

There were quite a few things though which made me constantly want to run back to iPhone. Mostly, they were small, but when you start to add up the small things, they matter.

First, there was FaceID. Once you’ve got used to just glancing at your phone and opening it up instantly, going back to having to press your finger on a fingerprint reader makes you feel like you have gone back to some kind of technological dark age.

Next there’s Siri. Now I know that I said Google Assistant was way ahead — and it is — but there’s one area that Siri still stands head and shoulders above its Google rival, and that’s home automation. Even after all this time, Google Assistant does not understand that homes have different regions where you might want to turn off and on a bunch of lights: or, as we sometimes call them, “upstairs and downstairs”.

Apps, too, are still behind. There are plenty of streak trackers, but none as good as Streaks. There are plenty of task lists, but none as good as either OmniFocus or Things. Google Fit is fine, but as a hub for all your health information, it’s laughable compared to Apple Health and as a fitness app it’s not as good as Fitness.

Then there’s the hardware and software eco-system and how everything just works together. You would think this might be an area where Google could lead, but instead it lags. Android and Chrome OS still feel like strangers sitting next to each other on a train, rather than a couple.

Then there’s Apple Watch: boy, did I miss Apple Watch. Although I used a pretty decent recent wear OS device (the Fossil Sport), it’s pretty laughable as a wearable. Design-wise, the hardware is fine: this, after all, is a company that knows how to make good looking objects for your wrist. But the software and speed of the device itself are probably compatible to a first generation Apple Watch. Google Assistant, which should be a star on the wrist, is a laggy joke. And the lack of decent applications makes it pretty useless on the whole.

That camera

Of course, there’s one thing that I really haven’t touched on much here: the camera. The Pixel 3 series is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, camera on a smartphone at the moment. Google achieves this not through hardware – although there’s certainly nothing back about the 12 megapixel rear-facing camera – but through its “computational photography”, machine learning algorithms which use multiple shots, the shake of your hand, and other features to improve every single image.

And it is a really good camera, capable of producing consistently excellent images across a huge range of lighting conditions. You just won’t get many duff shots out of the Pixel 3.

However, what you are not getting is anything close to images that are true to life, and every now and then the computational photography approach just completely messes up. Portrait mode, for example, will do wacky things like blur out the frame of someone’s glasses rather than correctly interpreting them as part of the face. Occasionally, the Pixel’s desire to make colours pop out at every opportunity also betrays it. For example, taking a wide picture of a kitchen while a friend was cooking, the Pixel decided that because they were wearing a yellow sweater, it should also add a pale yellow tinge to their face. Perhaps that algorithm needs to learn that “jaundiced” isn’t a natural human skin tone.

Portrait mode is also an interesting area. When the iPhone XS Max first came out, Apple’s algorithms for portrait mode over-smoothed skin to a crazy degree. Apple has tweaked these since, and now it’s the Pixel 3’s face smoothing looks over done. It’s not bad: but as soon as you look closely at an image, it’s pretty obvious what the Pixel is trying to do.

Then there’s Night Sight. This is widely – and rightly – regarded as something of a miracle. Even outside, on a pretty dark night with little illumination to work with I can get a clear shot of what’s going on in the garden. But it’s also weird looking, like Jeff Brouws work, and looks absolutely nothing like what you’re seeing in front of you.

There’s no optical zoom on the Pixel 3. And amazingly, you will very rarely care, because Google has done an absolutely amazing job of creating a digital zoom that’s almost as good as having a second lens. Almost – but not quite. This is an area where optics will always beat computation, but unless you’re constantly using zoom, the digital zoom on the Pixel will make you very happy indeed. Good job, Google.

At the end of the day, you are not going to go wrong with either of these cameras. Is the camera better than the iPhone XS Max? It depends on what kinds of images you prefer. Do you want something that looks more or less like what you’re seeing in front of you? The iPhone is your better option. Do you want something that’s “better” in the sense of brighter, more energetic and with lighting that looks bright but not over-lit? The Pixel is probably the camera for you. The colours you end up with on screen will look great – but they will be nothing like the colours that your eye will have seen at the time.

What next?

So am I going to stick with the Pixel? Nope. I’m too embedded in the Apple hardware ecosystem and too much in love with Apple Watch to make that leap for too long. But I am going to spend some more time with it, and in particular I’m going to spend some time with Android Q.

Android Q’s third developer beta just came out, and for a bit of fun I decided to install it – and I very much like what I’ve seen so far. The gesture interface (which is so copied from iOS) is more consistent and coherent than the current version, and I like the dark mode even if – as yet – not many applications support it.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have some SIM swapping to do…

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