The short answer to why I decided to return my Pixel 3 XL? Insufficient value to me and too many compromises. If this was a $649 phone I’d have lower expectations for it, but in my opinion Google priced this too high for what they offered me as a buyer. They are at iPhone pricing without being an iPhone, and frankly that matters. If you’re going to charge me a thousand dollars for a phone (with tax), it had better be stellar! I’d saved and budgeted for this phone, so it’s not about putting it on a credit card and having buyer’s regret either – it’s about this phone not justifying its cost to me.
I can see why a lot of people will love this phone though, especially if they don’t own a dedicated digital camera. This phone has a great camera and for many people that will be the best reason to buy it. ?
For context it’s worth noting that for the past two years I’ve been using a OnePlus 3T, and my wife has had a OnePlus 6 since July (and a OnePlus 3 before that), so those three phones serve as comparison devices. If you’re wondering why we both haven’t been using HTC phones, well, that’s a whole different story that I’ll tell another day. 🥺
The Ten Reasons Why I Returned My Pixel 3 XL
- Value: At $996.94 USD (with tax + shipping), this is the most 💸 expensive 💸 phone I’ve ever purchased. As such, it had a high bar to meet in terms of the value it needs to provide to me. Google did not make a $1000 product in my opinion.
- Concerns about insufficient RAM: It’s shocking to see a $1000 Android phone with only 4 GB of RAM. Full stop. Most phones half the price have as much, if not more RAM (my phone has 6 GB of RAM and was $439). Several times I’ve been out driving with my Pixel 3 with Waze running for navigation, Google Play Music streaming Bluetooth audio, and the music would just stop. It didn’t happen every time, but often enough that it has me concerned. People reported issue with Spotify and the camera app (music would stop playing). Google is going to release a fix for this, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. And will 4 GB of RAM be enough to handle the next two versions of Android? I tend to keep my phones for two years. Google will obviously do everything they can to make future versions of Android working well with 4 GB, but when someone like MKBHD abandons the Pixel 2 because Google couldn’t keep it running smoothly after only a year, that concerns me a great deal. Android is a memory hog compared to iOS and it seems naive of Google to not put 6 GB of RAM in this.
- I simply don’t use my smartphone camera as much as I’d like to think I do: as much as I loved the camera (see below), the reality is that I work from home most of the time, don’t travel as much as I used to, and already have cameras for every occasion (a Nikon D750 with a bunch of lenses, Sony RX-100 Mark IV, GoPro Hero 6, and an Olympus TG-5). So while the idea having the best smartphone camera on the planet is very appealing, Google is charging too much for me to justify it. My wife was the one who pointed this out to me – it’s always great to get another perspective! I get halfway decent photos from my OnePlus 3T, and I know whatever I pick next will much be better than that.
- I’m less of a phone guy than I used to be: because I’m not on the go constantly, when I need to reach for a computing device during the day, quite often it’s my iPad. I leave my phone in my home office at night and carry the iPad with me and use it before bed and in the morning when I wake up. That made it easier to justify paying $995 USD ? for the 11″ 256GB iPad Pro that I know I’ll use frequently compared to nearly the same amount for a phone I’ll use less.
- No hardware volume switch and volume granularity overkill: it was honestly irritating to have to turn on the phone and hold the volume down key until the phone went into silent mode. This is made worse by the fact that there are 25 (!) different volume levels. I was constantly struggling with the phone volume being too loud or too quiet. The hardware silent mode switch on the 3T and my work iPhone are brilliant and I don’t understand why every phone doesn’t have them. We all want to be able to quickly put our phones into silent mode, don’t we?
- A scratch-prone glass back: Wireless charging honestly has zero appeal to me right now. Maybe in five years when everything has it and there’s a mature fast-charging standard everywhere I’ll change my mind, but I’d rather have a metal phone that can take a hit than a glass one that can’t. I don’t use cases; I’ll sometimes use a vinyl skin. I’ve never owned a glass-backed phone and all the videos/photos showing how easily the black Pixel 3 scratches is concerning. I purposefully bought the white one thinking it would hide wear and tear better over time; anyone who gets the black Pixel 3 had better put it into a case right away.
- For me it’s just a bit too big, and slightly awkward to hold: I’m pretty average in height (six feet) and in hand size, but I simply find the Pixel 3 XL too big and I wasn’t able to get used to it. I use it without a case, so it’s as small as it’s going to get. In retrospect I should have gone for the Pixel 3 from a size perspective (145.6 x 68.2 x 7.9mm) since it’s smaller in size to the OnePlus 3T I’ve been using (152.7 x 74.7 x 7.4mm). The Pixel 3 XL, at 158 x 76.7 x 7.9mm, was something I couldn’t quite get used to. That surprised me since it’s only 2mm wider and 5mm taller than my 3T, but after two weeks it still felt awkward to hold.
- The entire back vibrates at even medium volume: I’m usually holding my phone when watching a videos, and it’s shocking how badly the back of the Pixel 3 vibrates when the phone is at 50% volume or higher. It’s very distracting.
- The screen doesn’t get very bright at 100%: the visual fidelity of the screen is excellent (see below), but when I’m out driving in daylight and the phone is at 100% brightness, it doesn’t get as bright as my OnePlus 3T so it’s less effective as a GPS tool. Maybe this is a power-saving limitation?
- The speakers are just…OK: The HTC One M7 is one of my favourite phones of all time, and I remember what a dramatic improvement dual front-facing speakers were over any other phone on the market. I had similar hopes for this phone, but was a bit let down. Don’t get me wrong, they’re loud, but the sound quality is just…average. One is louder than the other, and it was immediately noticeable to me which led to a bit of unbalanced sound – and I swear I could hear some distortion as well. They absolutely sound better and louder than your average bottom-firing single speaker, but enough to justify the design compromises? I’m not so sure.
Notice that the much-maligned notch wasn’t on my list of dislikes? Yeah, it was huge, but I got used to it quite quickly and wouldn’t consider it a true negative of the phone. There were a few other little things – like how it charged slower than my OnePlus 3T, how tacky the mint green button looked, the boring lack of colourful choices, and how bizarrely the headphones fit – but no show-stoppers beyond my top ten.
The Top 5 Things I’ll Miss About the Pixel 3 XL
- The camera: there’s no doubt that this is the best camera I’ve ever used in a smartphone. I’m a camera guy; image quality matters to me a great deal, and Google has done some really great work with this sensor and single front lens.
- The screen: it has a really excellent screen. I’ve never owned a phone with a screen this high-resolution before, and I can absolutely see a difference in clarity on the Pixel 3 (1080 x 2160, 443 ppi) when compared to a 1080p screen at 5.5 inches (401 ppi). It’s a different tuning of AMOLED and was more subtle than normal, but I really liked it.
- Pure Android: this is my first Pixel phone, and while I’ve experienced pure Android before in the now-defunct Google Play Edition phones (back in my HTC days), it’s been quite a while. I strongly prefer a stock Android experience and in that regard, the Pixel 3 is a pure delight. I find the garish bloatware on many Android phones frustrating, as I do the way they limit certain things – I can’t install the Google launcher on my wife’s OnePlus 6 for instance.
- The wide angle selfie camera: it’s exceedingly rare for me to take a selfie, but when I do it’s with my wife or kids and being able to switch to a wider lens to capture more of the scene is fantastic. This is a long overdue feature.
- Clever little Google Android features: there were a number of little things, including some very clever integrations between the Google assistant and the buttons on the included USB-C headphones, that were delightful. It really felt like Android 9 was designed for this phone.
One more thing…
After I’d already printed the RMA return form and made the decision to return the Pixel 3, I came across this excellent video from TLD that showed the results from a blind camera photo test video he published a day earlier. It reinforced my conclusions above: while the Pixel 3 has a superb camera, the OnePlus 6T came close in many scenarios, which was a pleasant surprise. There’s simply no way I can justify paying $447+ more for the Pixel 3 to get a better camera but half the RAM, half the storage, a worse fingerprint reader, etc…so, yes, the OnePlus 6T is the phone I am strongly leaning toward.
I’ve been quite impressed with my wife’s OnePlus 6 – other than some issues with Bluetooth after it received the Android 9 update it’s been a very solid, stable phone. The pictures it takes are fairly good – though I still think OnePlus is making a poor trade-off of shutter speed vs. ISO – and at $549 is offers tremendous hardware for the dollar. While I’m tempted to order one right away, I am going to delay my purchase for a couple of months in the hope that OnePlus has a red OnePlus 6T… ?