The Google Pixel 3 Is A Very Good Phone. But Maybe Phones Have Gone Too Far.
We are captives to our phones, they are having a deleterious effect on society, and no one is coming to help us. On the upside, this is a great phone.
The world is on fire but the new Google Pixel 3 — a Good Phone, which I recommend you buy if you like Android and can afford it, although its updates are mostly incremental — in my pocket is cool to the touch. A dark slab of metal and glass. It comes alive when I rub my finger across the back of it.
“We’re doomed,” a colleague texts me on Signal*. A push alert from a well-regarded news site has more details on the alleged murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist. On Nextdoor, several neighbors report that their drinking water has tested positive for unsafe levels of pesticides. The Citizen app prompts me to record video of an angry naked man rampaging in the shit-strewn streets of San Francisco. Facebook is hacked and our information is out there. Everyone on Twitter is angry, you fucking cuck. You idiot. You tender, triggered snowflake. Everyone on Instagram is posturing, posing. You are less beautiful than they. The places you go are not as interesting. You should feel bad because you are worse in every way. The world is dying; come see it, come see it.
I don’t recall exactly when my phone became such a festival of stress and psychological trauma, but here we are.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh but that camera! That screen! The Lens feature that can tell me what I’m looking at — what kind of plant it is or what kind of animal it is or what information is captured in a business card so that I do not have to go to the library and I do not have to enter it in or even remember it at all. I don’t have to remember! Okay, Google, I don’t want to think about it. Okay?
Eleven, almost twelve, years ago I sat in the cavern of a convention center in San Francisco and watched as Steve Jobs, who at this point was not-quite-yet-but-almost god-king of Silicon Valley, bragged about the new device Apple would soon unleash upon the world. I was enthralled.
It was my instant companion, and I spent hours alone with it, staring into it as it relieved me of the tedium of everyday life. The boredom cure. The everywhere camera. But! It was the arrival of third-party apps a decade ago that really sold the phone. Twitter! (But really, Tweetie.) Messaging and maps and YouTube and real honest-to-god email and web browsing. Information was suddenly always fresh, always new. The drip-drip-drop of updates soon turned into a trickle and then a torrent.
My neck hurts. I am never not looking down. When I am not looking at my phone, I become slightly anxious. And then, when I do actually look at it, I become even more so. It reminds me of how I once felt about cigarettes. I experience the world with a meticulously crafted, tiny computer slab between me and it. I am an asshole. But so, maybe, are you?
Look around any city street and there we all are, with our heads down, walking past each other, unaware. I saw you in your car driving with your phone in your hand. I saw you at the playground looking at your phone while your child’s life passed you by. I saw you on your date, alone together.
Our phones are furthering genocide in Myanmar, lynchings in India, misinformation in the United States. Our phones are making us stupid. Our phones are making us stressed. Our phones are radicalizing and dividing society. Violent delights.
And sure, it is due to the data coursing through our phones, not our phones themselves. But if Twitter is responsible for the trolling and abuse and harassment on its platform, are Google and Apple as well? If Facebook helped fuel genocide in Myanmar, does that responsibility lie with society, or Facebook, or the platform upon which the platform is built? (I honestly do not know. But, again, here we are. Are you reading this on your phone? Are you happy? Are you distracted? Is there something more interesting, more urgent, just a notification away?)
And then there is the tracking. There is an exchange at play, of course. In order to receive the global info torrent, we must in turn provide a personal one about ourselves. This is especially true of Android phones, more so than iPhones.
I wanted to share all of the information this phone captured about me during the long weekend I spent reviewing it. But there was simply too much of it, and in too much detail. Publishing it would put me in real financial and perhaps physical peril. And, besides, I’m not even sure if I am aware of it all, or if I even could capture it all. What's out there? We have no idea.
We are reaching a point of no return, when it comes to information collection, if we have not already gone beyond it. Cameras and screens, microphones and speakers. Capture your face and your voice and your friends' faces and voices and where you are and what’s in your email and where you were when you sent it and... What did you say? Click, here’s an ad. And where did you go? Click, here’s an ad. Who were you with? Here’s an ad. What did you read here’s an ad how do you feel here’s an ad are you lonely here’s an ad are you lonely here’s an ad are you lonely?
Some of the new Pixel 3’s best features are ones designed to help you not use the phone. Digital Wellbeing (which you can also enable on the previous Pixels) will turn your phone’s screen grayscale and turn off your notifications. It will tell you how much time you have spent on your phone for the day, and which apps you have spent that time in. You can also set a time limit on apps if you want. I found this useful and good. (It is also easily circumvented.)
Another idea: You may instead choose to buy a device with a lousy screen and a lousy camera and a terrible processor. Maybe you would use this less. Or maybe you should walk to the ocean and throw your phone in and turn around and never look back**.
Some good stuff:
Google is at the top of its game when it comes to hardware. While hardware may only be a queer little sideline for the company, it has never rolled out better devices. This phone is amazing. The operating system is amazing. There are a few apps on the iPhone that I wish this Pixel 3 had (FaceTime, for example) but overall I strongly prefer this device to the new iPhone. And, in my estimation, all other Android phones are just garbage by comparison. (Having said this, Paczkowski’s dictum holds true here: Pick the ecosystem you like. Spend what you can afford. Buy the newest device. If you like iOS, you should get an iPhone. If you really love Samsung, get a Galaxy Note or whatever. If you can’t afford this phone, but you like Android devices, there are some excellent devices from Motorola in particular that are more reasonably priced.)
Call screening: My god, this is wonderful. Tap a button and the phone will screen a call using the Google Assistant to ask the caller questions. It both plays out loud and transcribes their answers. It is very, very cool. (This feature will also come to older versions of the Pixel.)
Visuals: The screen is wonderful. The camera is wonderful. The screen is the most noticeable difference from Pixel 2 to Pixel 3. I have bad eyes, but this was a beautiful screen. Its edges have noticeable black bars around them on the Pixel 3, but not as much on the larger Pixel 3 XL, which does have a top side notch. And like I said, the camera is just great. It performed well in all lighting conditions.
AI: Google has made extensive use of artificial intelligence in this phone to great effect. Here is a small example of one time that was useful. On Sunday night, I arrived at the Atlanta airport and tapped the tiny icon at the bottom of the screen to see my full list of apps. Google surfaces a few suggested ones atop the full list, and among them was the Delta app. I have several airline apps on my phone. But presumably Google had made the connection that I was at the airport and had a Delta flight (which was in my Google Calendar, and Google email), which led it to suggest the Delta app. This is minor, but there are so many little things like this tucked away throughout the phone. It pleasantly surprises. The phone even uses AI to improve pictures, especially zoomed-in ones via a feature called Super Res Zoom.
The Pixel Stand: This is a $79 add-on that lets you wirelessly charge your phone and, effectively, transforms it into a miniature Google Home. What it does best is work in conjunction with Routines, so you can say “Okay, Google, good night,” for example, and it will turn off your (connected home) lights, go into the grayscale mode, turn off notifications, set an alarm, and turn on white noise. This worked flawlessly, and I was really impressed. On the other hand, it will probably further encourage you to keep your phone on your nightstand. Which is a terrible idea. (Yes, I do it too.)
Some bad stuff:
Scratchy back: I found the textured backside, which Google said is meant to resist fingerprints, scratched quite easily. Most of the scratching in the picture below was done intentionally, albeit very easily, but only because I noticed how scuffed the phone was already becoming.
Antenna: Several times the phone seemed to get stuck in 3G — this mostly happened on the road, but it also happened in places where I knew there should be LTE. On multiple occasions, I toggled airplane mode and found that after I did so, it would then connect to LTE for faster internet. Weird.
A camera bug: Nearly a month after publishing this review, I purchased a new Pixel 3. Unlike the loaner review device I used, this one had a bug that affects the camera. That bug has now been resolved in a December software update.
However, before it was, any time I tried to use an app other than the built-in Camera app to take a photo — such as Instagram, Google Authenticator, or Twitter — it caused the camera to stop working completely until I restarted the device. I was far from alone in seeing this, and it was, very much, a deal killer for a phone that leans heavily on the camera as a selling point. A Google spokesperson alerted me that the issue had been resolved in a software update, and based on my testing I have found that to be true in my tests.
Just, I mean, what phones are doing to us: This is not unique to the Pixel 3, but it is a terrible modern fact of society. The Pixel 3, as noted above, takes steps meant to help us reduce our usage and dependency on these wonderful and insidious devices.
The Bottom Line
This is a great phone. I highly recommend it. But it's no longer totally clear to me that the information systems we've built to help us navigate life are net beneficial to society. I mean, I think they are. But, Jesus. Jesus. What's happening to us?
*We use Signal to communicate because it is encrypted and god only knows who is listening in, or trying to, in this age of perpetual voluntary surveillance.
**Please do not do this. It would be very bad for the ocean.
This story was updated to note that a camera issue that came up subsequent to its original publication has now been resolved, and the original recommendation was restored. But also, come on!
This story was updated to address issues with the camera which had not come up when the review was originally posted. If Google resolves the issue, we'll update this post again.