The Pixel 3 XL comes with Android 9 Pie out of the box. As of this writing, our device is still on the September security patch, which is disappointing as it's now November and some phones like the OnePlus 6T have the November patch already.
The Pixel 3 XL comes with what some would describe as "stock Android", although it's anything but. The Pixel phones have always come with a heavily customized version of Android and it just looks like stock Android on the surface.
Starting with the launcher, Google has done some improvements with Pie. You no longer need to set a dark wallpaper to make the app drawer and notification shade appear dark and you can just manually set the color for those from the theme setting.
Speaking of wallpapers, the Pixel 3 XL comes with a whole bunch of new ones, including some more live wallpapers that have moving objects within and also themselves move when you interact with the homescreen.
Android 9 brings with it a significant change in navigation. The familiar back, home and overview buttons are replaced in favor of just the first two and some gestures.
Swiping up from anywhere in the UI will now open the overview mode, where open apps are arranged side by side. If you swipe again, you get into the app drawer. Alternately, you can just do a long swipe up from the bottom to go directly into the app drawer from anywhere in the UI. While this does place the app drawer within reach in more places than before, a two swipe or long swipe gesture makes it harder to access the app drawer than before from the place you usually access it from, that is, the homescreen.
The back button remains, as does the home button. You can slide the home button right to quickly go back to the previous app or press and hold and slide it around to move back and forth in overview mode.
Occasionally, a third button will appear on the right. If you have the rotation lock enabled and tilt the phone sideways, the phone will show a rotation icon, which temporarily lets you rotate the display and then turn it back when you're done without having to mess around with the rotation lock setting.
Overall, the new navigation options don't seem like an improvement, and more of a step sideways. A true gesture-based UI, such as the one in iOS, would have been the logical step forward. It would have also done away with the navigation bar once and for all, which continues to take up valuable space at the bottom of every Android phone. However, Google's glacial pace in adopting a fully gesture-based UI only muddies the water, resulting in a UI that has one foot in the future and one foot in the past.
Because this is a Pixel phone, we do get treated to some niceties you won't find elsewhere. Call Screen is the Pixel 3's biggest party trick. The feature allows you to have the phone pick up the call on your behalf and let the other person say why they are calling. You will see a live transcript of the conversation on your screen and you can choose to pick up the call, end it or mark it as spam if it's a telemarketer. The feature is currently available only in the US.
Another great feature that will be coming later first to the Pixel phones is being able to ask the Google Assistant to make reservations on your behalf. This uses the Duplex feature we saw earlier this year at I/O and will be rolling out to Pixel phones in the US next month.
Apart from that, there are also some features carried over from last year. The Now Playing feature will pick up songs playing around you and discreetly display the title on the lockscreen, even if the phone is offline. There's Active Edge, which lets you squeeze your phone to bring up Google Assistant or to silence calls or alarms. (Okay, so this isn't an exclusive feature but outside of HTC, which is partially owned by Google, no one else is using it.)
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with the Digital Wellbeing feature, which is currently in beta. This tracks your phone usage and then gives options to limit yourself. You can set a timer for individual app to limit your daily usage to that time. You can use the Wind Down feature that sets a bed time schedule and prevents your phone from ringing or showing any notifications when it's time for bed. The Grayscale feature removes all color from the display to make it less appealing for further use.
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with Google's legendary unlimited cloud backup for all your photos and videos shot on the phone. You can backup and save all your photos and videos on Google Drive in full quality for the next three years.
There's also the Google Camera, which has a whole host of features exclusive to Pixel devices, which we will discuss in detail later.
Google has also built-in always-on display functionality. Once enabled, you can have the display constantly show a clock, along with the date and the weather. If you get a notification, it is briefly shown and then turned into an icon that stays on the screen. You can also see the battery percentage at the bottom of the screen and if the phone is charging, you see the time remaining to full charge here. Google's always-on display is not as customizable as Samsung's but it's still very functional and definitely better than nothing.
Google also has an excellent implementation of haptics on the Pixel 3 XL. Like the iPhone 7 and newer models, the Pixel 3 XL can make subtle vibrations across the UI. This isn't just limited to the vibration you feel when you press one of the navigation keys or the keyboard but also for things such as toggling a switch, pressing and holding on an app icon for shortcuts, bringing up the overview menu, swiping down the notifications, changing the mode in the camera, pressing and holding on a link in the browser, etc. Also, the feedback you get is a lot subtle and more precise than the vague vibration you get on most Android phones. It's not as uncanny as the Taptic Engine on iPhones nor as pervasive as it is in iOS but it's a huge leap forward compared to anything we have seen before on Android.
With all that said, we did miss one feature on the Pixel 3 XL, and that's face unlock. It may be the case that Google would like to build a proper and, more importantly, secure version of the face unlock on future Pixel devices but the convenience of even a basic face unlock is undeniable and we did miss it on the Pixel 3 XL. That said, the fingerprint sensor on the back works really well and you can also swipe down on it to bring down notification shade from anywhere.
Overall, Google's version of Android has come a long way from the barebones days of the Nexus phones. While the underlying OS is no doubt much better and more functional that it was in the past, Google also includes clever and useful features that only it can. We appreciate the fine balance Google has struck here, where we don't feel like we are wanting for more functionality or customizability and at the same time there isn't an overabundance of pointless features, either.