Google just announced the third generation of its Pixel-branded smartphone, the Google Pixel 3. Keeping consistent with previous Pixel phone releases, there are two versions of the new phone: the regular-size Pixel 3 and the larger Pixel 3 XL. Both phones have new glass backs. They have bigger displays, better cameras, and updated processors. And they’re shipping with a new mobile security chip—the same kind of chip that Google uses to protect the information flowing through its data centers.
But Google‘s hardware products are never as much about hardware as they are about software. That’s the case with these new glass slabs. Not only do Google’s own smartphones run a highly optimized version of Android—and the most current, which is notable considering many Android phones don’t get the latest Android OS for months after each release—but the company often relies less on hardware innovation and more on sophisticated software features to close the gap between Pixel and other high-end handsets.
The cameras on this year’s Pixel phones are a good example of this: rather than adding more lenses to the rear camera, Google is using AI to make your photos look better. Software adds improvements elsewhere too. Google is utilizing the smarts from its Duplex technology, which dispatches a virtual assistant to make eerily human-sounding calls for you, to launch a new call-screening feature on the Pixel 3.
The Pixel 3 comes in three colors: Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink.
Leading with software is a very Google approach. The company might not be able to match the manufacturing prowess of Apple or Samsung, and its phones still don’t carry the cache of other flagship phones. So Google has tried to make the Pixel 3 the smartest smartphone in the room.
That doesn’t mean Google hasn’t also tried to improve the hardware. The new Pixel 3 phones have the same dual-toned construction as the previous Pixels, but the plastic-feeling textured back has been replaced with a matte glass on the bottom and a glossy glass up top. This design decision wasn’t just for aesthetics; the Pixel 3 supports wireless charging now, too. The sides of the phone are shiny aluminum. It’s these kinds of small design changes that give the phones a much more refined look than last year’s Pixel phones. The Pixel 3 comes in three colors: Just Black, Clearly White, and Not Pink.
“We wanted the look and feel of these to be different,” says Ivy Ross, vice president of design for all of Google’s hardware products. Ross adds that the design team made a conscious decision to shy away from bright, shiny colors for the new phones, after determining that sand or “tinted neutral” colors were in vogue this year. At the same time, she says: “We still see a lot of demand for black phones.”
Like Apple and Samsung have done with their recent flagship phones, Google has kept the bodies of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL around the same size while increasing the footprint of the display. The Pixel 3’s screen is 5.3 inches, while the display on the larger Pixel 3 XL measures 6.3 inches. That’s up from 5-inch and 6-inch displays on last year’s phones.
And as leaked images of the new phones revealed before today’s launch event, the Pixel 3 XL now has a “notch”—a cut-out at the top of the display where the phone’s front facing cameras live. The smaller Pixel 3 has a bezel straight across the top, but its two front-facing cameras are left-justified. So both phones have somewhat jarring front-facing designs.
On the upside, the Pixel 3 phones appear to have an improved OLED display that looks brighter and richer than last year’s Pixel, with better colors. The display on last year’s Pixel 2 XL phone was met with a variety of complaints including dullness, shadows at certain angles, and screen burn-in. And the two front-facing speakers on the Pixel 3 have been tuned to eliminate distortion, the company said, which addresses another quibble some users had about the Pixel 2.
Embedded in the Pixel 3 phones is a new security chip named Titan M.
The Pixel 3 phones charge via USB-C, like last year’s phones, and have a fingerprint sensor on the back. There’s no FaceID-like feature, or iris scanner; Google says it believes the fingerprint sensor is still the most reliable and consistent authentication method available at this time, and that its fingerprint sensor is one of the fastest sensors it has tested. While the Pixel’s fingerprint does sensor work quickly, and it’s certainly something many people are used to at this point, the Pixel 3 is now one of the only flagship smartphones that doesn’t support some other kind of biometric authentication, like face-scanning or iris-scanning.
Google might not have added face-unlocking cameras this year, but it did include another piece of hardware that could be a precursor to more personal information being stored on the phone. Embedded in the Pixel 3 phones is a new security chip named Titan M. Google designed, manufactured, and integrated the chip into the phone’s secure boot process. It’s used to protect the lock screen passcode authentication process and to strengthen disk encryption. This same security chip is used in Google’s data centers, the company says, which means the Pixel phones are getting enterprise-level security.
Shutter to Think
Now let’s talk about the cameras. On the front of both phones, there are now two wide-angle, 12-megapixel cameras, designed to capture extra-wide-frame selfies. There’s a sliding tool that lets adjust how wide you want to go, whether you’re snapping a photo of just yourself or trying to one-up Ellen Degeneres’s famous group selfie from the Oscars.
The rear camera is still a single-lens camera, one of the elements of the Pixel 3 that’s definitely outdated. But it still has a depth-adjustment feature for photos snapped in Portrait mode, same as the new smartphone cameras from Apple and Samsung. When asked why Google hadn’t included a dual-lense camera on the Pixel 3, Google vice president of product management Mario Queiroz says the team didn’t feel it was necessary. “What we’ve been able to do with machine learning, to produce better image and video quality, surpasses the need for us to add more [lenses],” Queiroz says.
Google’s imaging co-processor, called Visual Core, has been updated. And now more camera-related tasks are being assigned to this AI chip. This is what enables new stuff like Photobooth, a feature borrowed from Google’s Clips camera, that prompts the camera app to start automatically taking photos of you as soon as you raise the phone and it identifies a smile. It’s what stitches together decent-looking photos in Night Sight mode, which, as it name suggests, is for taking photos at night. And it’s this same special-purpose chip that helps create sharper-looking photos even when you’re using the new Super Res Zoom mode. (Also read my full story on how Google created the new Pixel 3 camera.)
Another way Google is making the Pixel smarter through AI is by adding a new call-screening feature to its Google Assistant, the voice-controlled virtual assistant that lives on Pixel phones and in Google Home speakers. Now the Assistant will screen calls from unknown numbers and, using a robotic-sounding voice, prompt the caller to explain why they’re calling. All the while it’s transcribing the call on the phone’s home screen, so you can see if it’s worth accepting (“This is your dentist’s office calling”) or rejecting (“You’ve just won a cruise!”)
The new Call Screen feature on Pixel 3 is related to Duplex, the service Google soft-launched this summer that calls businesses on your behalf and, using a human-sounding virtual assistant, makes reservations and appointments for you. But Google is emphasizing that Call Screen is different from Duplex, quite possibly because the internet had a strong reaction to Google’s Duplex technology and questioned the ethical implications behind a virtual assistant that initially purported to be human.
The new phones are running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, an unsurprising bump up from the Snapdragon 835 in the Pixel 2. The phones have 4 gigabytes of RAM. Battery life is expected to be around the same as on the Pixel 2, although Google made a point to say that it managed to achieve the same battery life despite upsizing the screen. Android 9 Pie’s new adaptive battery feature should get some credit for this, too.
The Pixel 3 will start at $799 for a phone model with 64 gigabytes of storage, and go up to $899 for a Pixel 3 with 128GB. A Pixel 3 XL has a base price of $899, and goes up to $999 for a 128GB model. Google is undercutting the price of Apple and Samsung’s flagship phones, although those can hold up to 512 gigabytes of internal storage. And Apple’s iPhone XR, which hasn’t launched yet, will start at $799 for 128 gigabytes of storage when it goes on sale on October 19. The Pixel 3 phones will start shipping on October 18.
Google is throwing a pair of USB-C headphones into the box, along with an adapter that works with a traditional headphone jack; something that Apple didn’t include in the box with this year’s new iPhones. And Google has also made a dock specifically for the new Pixel 3 phones called the Pixel Stand. This $79 gadget is designed to prop up your Pixel phone, wirelessly charge it, fast charge it—and turn the Pixel into a temporary “smart display” when it’s on the stand.
Since it charges wirelessly, only the new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will be compatible with the Pixel Stand. Same with the camera functions that rely on the phone’s new Visual Core processor, like Top Shot, Photobooth, Night Sight, and Super Res Zoom. Those are all specific to the 2018 phones.
However, some of the new features revealed today, like Call Screen and Playground, a new AR app within the phone’s camera, will eventually come to Pixel 2 phones as well. Google also talked more about Digital Wellbeing, its software dashboard within Android for managing how much time you spend glued to your phone. These won’t be available immediately to older phones, but will be there “over the coming weeks,” Google said.
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