Google's new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are two of the best Android phones you can buy

  • The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are Google's new phones, and they launch Oct. 18.
  • They're really good phones with excellent cameras, great screens, water resistance and more.
  • But they're also really limited on storage options and more expensive than earlier Pixel phones.

Google's new phones, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will launch in stores on Oct. 18. I've been using both of them for the past week and have a few thoughts you should know about before you go pick one up.

There are two phones, the Pixel 3 with a 5.5-inch display and the larger Pixel 3 XL with a 6.3-inch display. Aside from the screen size and a notch in the larger phone's screen, the devices are pretty much identical in features.

Google's phones aren't perfect, but they're markedly better than the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL that launched last year. They're really good phones. Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Google fixed almost all of my complaints about last year's Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Those phones felt cheap and had displays that I thought looked washed out, until Google offered a software update that fixed the issue. The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL improve on last year's design in almost every way. They look similar, but have much better displays, which are more colorful and pleasing to look at than last year's screens. That means photos, movies and apps all look much more vivid, instead of dull as they did last year.

But Google fixed other things, too. Both devices are now IP68 water-resistant, which means they can last up to 30 minutes under three meters of water. I dropped my test unit in a fountain outside the office, and it still works just fine. I'm glad Google is finally adding this feature, which is also available on other Android phones and the iPhone.

The camera is incredible and a lot of fun to use. Google doesn't use two lenses like Apple does. Apple uses a dual-lens system for zooming and creating portrait photos in some cases, but the results are just as good on the Pixel. Google uses software for zooming, and the results are impressive compared with a hardware zoom lens. Google's software takes the blurry image that's originally snapped and then fills in the details so that it looks more clear.

The Portrait mode, which blurs the background around a subject, is super impressive, sometimes better than the iPhone XS Max I own. Colors sometimes looked more accurate to me on the Pixel 3, too, but that really comes down to personal preference.

Take a look:

The Pixel 3 Portrait mode is good, as you can see here.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The Pixel 3 Portrait mode is good, as you can see here.

And here's my dog Mabel:

The camera is really good
Todd Haselton | CNBC
The camera is really good

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL also have two front-facing cameras. One is a wide-angle lens, so you can fit more people into a picture. It just gets really pixelated sometimes, as you can see here:

Using the wide-angle front-facing camera.
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Using the wide-angle front-facing camera.

Google includes exclusive software on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL that you won't find on most other Android phones. Android 9 Pie, the latest version of Android, is included, and you'll get the most recent versions for the next three years as well as security updates. But this year Google included a couple of fun new features.

There's a "call screener" that you can activate when an unknown number calls you. Google Assistant will answer the call for you and ask who's calling, and why. Google will convert the answer to text for you to see in real-time. You can label calls as spam and have Google tell the person to add you to a do not call list. It won't prevent spam calls entirely, but it's a nice step in the right direction and worked well when I had a colleague call me pretending to be a spammer. Another feature, coming later this year, is similar but will automatically call restaurants in select cities to book a reservation for you.

Call screening on the Pixel 3
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Call screening on the Pixel 3

Like Apple, Google also includes a new feature that shows you how long you use certain apps. You can select time limits for the apps you know you use a lot, like Facebook or Instagram, to prevent yourself — or your kids — from using those apps too often throughout the day. It's not a feature I use, but it works and some people might appreciate it.

The battery life is good. I preferred using the Pixel 3 XL because it has a larger battery and a bigger screen. It didn't die on me during the days I tested, even when I was using it a lot for filming or checking out various new features. You probably won't get two days of use out of either phone, but a day is all I need.

There are lots of other great features of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The stereo front-facing speakers are impressively loud, and I often found myself just using the Pixel 3 in my bedroom as a speaker. The software is clean and fast, and I like the addition of wireless charging this year.

What's bad

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don't have a ton of complaints about the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, but there are some things to know about.

The biggest problem is they both come with either 64GB or 128GB of storage. Other Android makers and Apple have moved on to 256GB and even 512GB of storage, which means there's a lot more space for your movies and large apps. It's no wonder why Google is doing this, though. It's a cloud company, and most people probably stream music and movies now, anyway. Still, other Android makers, such as Samsung and LG, include microSD card slots so you can add more storage if you want to. I'd like to see Google make this an option.

Also, I don't like relying on a fingerprint reader. Since the iPhone X and Galaxy S9, I've long become adjusted to my phone recognizing my face to unlock. Google doesn't offer that option here, and I wish it did.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Lots of apps, including Google Play Movies, don't even use the larger display on the Pixel 3 XL. That means movies are windowed and don't take up the whole screen, even though there's plenty of room. I suspect future updates will fix this, but it's still weird to see.

Finally, while the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL offer almost everything I need in a phone, they're expensive compared with similar devices. If you're willing to sacrifice the software (and that's a huge sacrifice, admittedly) you can buy a Galaxy S9 and save about $150 but still get great cameras, a wonderful screen, water-resistance and expandable storage. You should consider it.

And finally, Google's phones are only sold on Verizon in the U.S. or direct from Google. It works with all major U.S. carriers if you buy it unlocked directly from Google, but you won't get some of the in-store support or carrier deals unless you buy it from Verizon. It's weird to me Google can't get this phone in every carrier store like Apple and Samsung do.

An accessory you should consider

The Pixel 3 stand accessory.
Google
The Pixel 3 stand accessory.

If you buy the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, you should definitely consider the $79 wireless charging stand. It lets the Pixel 3 serve a bit like a Google Home smart speaker wherever you put it, with Google Assistant available whenever you speak "OK Google." I liked it by my bed, where it served as a smart alarm clock with the time and notifications available, even when the screen went dark. I also liked that it doubles as a photo frame, showing pictures from the Google Photos albums you want it to display. I've never used a digital photo frame, but I liked seeing my vacation photos pop up next to my bed. Also, it charges the phone wirelessly pretty quickly, which is nice.

Should you buy the Pixel 3?

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Until now, I thought the Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy S9 were the best Android phones you could buy, depending on how much you wanted to spend. I think the Pixel 3 XL wins out now, with a much faster camera and interface and software features that add to the experience. I like that it's water-resistant this year, that the display is actually good, and that the device finally feels premium instead of cheap. My biggest complaint is that it's expensive compared with the Galaxy S9 and doesn't have expandable storage. If you can deal with that, the Pixel 3 XL is one of the best Android phones you can buy.