Google just wrapped up an event in New York City to unveil a new slate of products including the Google Pixel 3, the Google Home Hub and the Pixel Slate. I was at the event and have gone hands-on with the new devices. In this post, I’m going to give you a rundown of the major new features on Pixel 3 and my initial thoughts on it.
The Google Pixel remains one of my favorite smartphones, and I review a lot of them. I always say it’s a boring phone, but in this case, it works. It doesn’t have all of the content creation features I enjoy on the iPhone and the slick integration of iMessage, Apple Watch and FaceTime, but the Pixel has the superior camera technology and mobile operating system.
The Pixel 3 cranks everything up a notch. The design is very similar but you can better hold these devices in your hand. There is also wireless charging built in, the screen seems to be better and there is even a pair of USB C headphones in the box. Halleluiah!
There are two sizes – a 5.5 inches and 6.3-inch screen – and three colors, Clearly White, Just Black and Not Pink. Seriously, those are the names. The main difference is that the bigger model has a notch. Speakers are also 40% louder on the new devices.
Many of the improvements have to do with the camera. There are so many fun little camera tricks on this thing. For starters, Top Shot is sort of like the live photos features on iPhone. Basically, it is snapping a bunch of shots while you take the picture so you can go back and pick a better picture from a little filmstrip style of frames. Google will even use AI to suggest which frame you should switch to.
Super Zoom lets you zoom in to a shot and still get a clear image. Google again uses a burst of photos and runs them through an algorithm to create a clearer photo. They say similar technology was used to image the surface of Mars… now it’s in your pocket. Go figure.
Google really had some fun at iPhone’s expense. They showed two photos taken at dusk – one on the iPhone Xs and the other on Pixel 3 and the iPhone photo was super dark, while the Pixel photo was so bright it looked like it was taken at an entirely different time. Google says you’ll never have to use your flash again, and I believe it. I rarely use a flash on my Pixel. It’s only turned on when I hand my phone to someone to take a picture of me and they immediately turn it on, like they found a major mistake on my device. I usually just smile and pretend it was my oversight.
Google also mentioned how Pixel users are often designated the official photographer at any event they attend, and I can vouch for this. It happens all the time. Everyone knows that the Pixel captures great shots, but people are still reluctant to switch from iPhone because they’re in the ecosystem too deep or they just don’t want to bother with something new. I totally understand this. Also, the iPhone is still an overall amazing device with a lot of aspects that work nicely, while the Pixel is primarily focused on the camera and artificial intelligence experience.
Selfies are easier thanks to a group selfie cam. There are two lenses on the front of Pixel 3. You can pop out to get a wider angle of view and fit many more friends in the photo. You can also summon a new Photobooth mode which automatically takes shots when you pose for the camera, and in portrait mode you can now edit the depth of field after the fact or even what is blurry and what is in focus. And you’re no longer limited to Google Photos creating Color Pops for you. You can now tap on any photo to make the subject in color and the background black and white.
Augmented Reality stickers – the little-animated objects you would drop into your photos – are now called Playground. There are a bunch of new characters that actually interact with you on screen. For instance, I played with a cloud over my head – when I smiled, he smiled, when I frowned he started to rain. When Ironman was dropped into my selfie, he would literally reposition himself to get into the camera frame and pose depending on my facial expressions. Very cool stuff, all again powered by AI.
One feature parents and animal lovers will appreciate – Motion autofocus. You can now tap on a moving object in a photo and it will stay in focus. Since this is Google and they’re leaning heavily on AI, you know that feature it going to work well.
As usual, for all of the photos you take on the Pixel you will get free unlimited storage in Google Photos for everything you upload before February 1, 2022. Take that, iCloud!
One thing I’m very happy Google added to the Pixel 3 is Lens recognition for a variety of objects without having to enter a special mode. You can finally just open the camera, point it at a QR code, text, email address, web address and more and instantly a little button will pop up on the screen so you can follow the URL, navigate to the website and search for more info. This is awesome and I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised at how useful it can be. For instance, let’s say you want to send someone an email – instead of trying to type in their email address, just aim your phone at their business card, tap their email that pops up and you’re composing in seconds.
Speaking of email, Gmail’s Smart Compose feature is now on Pixel 3 first. This where Google uses AI to help you write or finish sentences in Gmail. I use it a ton in my desktop Gmail (it’s different from smart replies) and it will be interesting to see how useful it can be on mobile. It has gotten really good in helping me complete my thoughts and it has definitely learned the way I write and how I say things.
Another new feature is called Shhh. This is where you can just flip your Pixel over and it will go into Do Not Disturb mode. This can be handy at a restaurant or a meeting when you don’t want to have to fumble with the volume or vibrate or silent mode. Super fast and easy and highly effective. If you’ve set up Do Not Disturb properly, your important calls or texts will still come through if necessary.
Speaking of calls, if you’re frustrated with unwanted robocalls, telemarketers or PR folks (just kidding), Google has a new Call Screen feature that means you’ll never have to pick up the phone for a number you don’t know ever again. Basically, when you get a call from a number you don’t know, you tap a button labeled Screen Call. The Pixel will answer the call and use an automated voice to gather information from the caller including their name, company and more. As the caller speaks, you see a real-time transcription on the screen so you can decide if you want more information or send the call to voicemail or mark it as spam. It’s not just screening the call automatically, you get dynamic options based on what the caller is saying to you. This is a scary cool feature leveraging some very useful AI. At any time you can just pick up the call and talk to the person yourself.
There is also a new Pixel Stand for the Pixel 3. This function as a wireless charging dock since the Pixel now has Qi wireless charging built in. The dock also has some fun tricks like Google Assistant shortcuts on the screen so with one tap you can perform actions AI predicts, like calling someone or playing a favorite playlist. Also, music looks great while it’s playing on the Stand, and it will even show an ever-changing array of photos while it is charging, sort of turning your phone into a digital photo frame. One cool demo I saw is that if you have a Nest Hello video doorbell and the Pixel 3 and the Pixel Stand (yeah, I know, a lot of Google), when someone rings the doorbell the video stream will immediately show up on your Pixel screen so you can see who’s there.
Overall, Google has addressed some of the major shortcomings of the last version of Pixel by adding wireless charging, a pair of headphones, an improved screen and software features, all while continuing to build upon the core camera functionality. When I think Pixel, I think of a device that does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Whether it’s using AI to surface a shortcut for directions to your next meeting, finishing typing an email, recognizing objects and text or helping you capture effortless photos, the Pixel might not have the glitz and glamour associated with iPhone, but it has a more muted confidence for users that know they are getting a world-class camera with cutting-edge smarts built in.
The Pixel 3 is in stores October 18 for $799, or the XL starting at $899. Again, Verizon is the exclusive carrier although all Pixels are sold unlocked for use on any carrier. You can also purchase from the Google Store online. This strange arrangement with Verizon is just one of the things holding back this device since there’s a lot of confusion about the purchase process and whether it will work on various carriers.
Listen to an audio version of this blog post as heard on the Rich on Tech Podcast!