iPhone Xs vs Pixel 3: An observational review

The iPhone Xs

I loved the design of the new iPhone X when it came out in 2017, but after trying one out for a week in early 2018 I decided to hold off for the next one.  My iPhone 7 was perfectly adequate at the time.  Then Apple introduced the iPhone Xs with a lot of subtle upgrades from the X including a new 512 gigabyte storage option, so I pulled the trigger on launch day.  I’ve now been actively using the iPhone Xs for almost four months and think I’m prepared to offer a brief review of it.

It’s really great.

Here’s what’s new or better coming from my old iPhone 7:

  • Better cameras on front and back with Portrait Mode, zoom, and 4k video
  • New “full-face” OLED screen
  • Face ID
  • Slightly larger
  • Upgraded internals
  • Louder speakers
  • Better battery life
  • Wireless charging

And a bunch of more subtle stuff.  iOS 12 adds a lot of new features as well but you don’t need a new iPhone for that, it works on all iPhones back to the 5S.

A lot of people hesitate to try out the new phones because of, basically, the home button.  They like the comfortable and familiar nature of it, the intuitive approach, and the Touch ID sensor.  Let me say that it didn’t take long at all for me to not miss the home button at all.  First off, Touch ID doesn’t hold a candle to Face ID, at least for me personally.  With my paper-thin skin, I was never able to get consistent unlocking from the fingerprint sensor, so most of the time Touch ID just meant having to enter a passcode.  Face ID means I have to look at the phone and swipe to unlock, and it works with wet hands, gloves, etc.  Sunglasses don’t throw it off.  Hats and helmets don’t either.  In fact, I can even be bundled up for winter kayaking with my Buff neck warmer and my half-cut helmet and it still works, although a full-face helmet obviously throws it off.  It works in the dark.  Bed can be tough if my face is half-buried in a pillow, but if I turn my head so my face is exposed it’s fine even sideways.  In short, I rarely have an issue unlocking with Face ID, whereas Touch ID was always hit or miss.

The gesture approach to switching apps is also an improvement.  With the old home button, you returned to the home screen or unlocked with a single press of the button, and used a double press to activate the app switcher.  With the new system, you return home or unlock with a fast swipe from the bottom, and access the app switcher by swiping up about an inch.  Now you can also switch apps just by sliding your finger along the bottom of the screen, which I find myself doing all the time.  It’s basically alt-tab for an iPhone.  Brilliant.  I love it.

Now, the other function of the home button was Siri, which has now moved oddly enough to the power button.  That means the new gesture for Siri was the old gesture for powering off the phone, and powering off the phone now takes a chord of two buttons.  But I got used to it quick and I think I even prefer it now.  Siri is her same old half-reliable self- sadly Apple still has a lot of work to do there.  But activating it is no problem.

The home key and Touch ID are the only things you lose going from an iPhone 7 or 8 to the iPhone X or Xs, or the new Xr.  Everything else is pure upgrade.  The screen!  Big and beautiful.  Now, “the notch” has a lot of critics, and here’s how I look at it: I don’t think of it as a notch taking away from the screen, I look at it as “ears” adding to it.  Think about it – on an iPhone 8 (and every previous iPhone), the screen cuts off below the earpiece and goes straight across, with the status par taking up about the top 1/8 inch of screen.  But with the iPhone X and up, you get two little bits of extra screen next to the earpiece and front camera cluster, and Apple has moved the status bar stuff up to those new spaces that used to be just plain glass.  More screen!  Not just the more screen up top, but also reclaiming the space that used to be status bar.  And the bottom is bigger too, with a whole extra vertical inch of screen between the two reclaimed areas.  That’s awesome!  And the screen itself is stellar – higher resolution than the 8 and 7 (although less than the + phones – get the Max for that) and because it’s an OLED, the blacks are totally black.

The display also has Apple’s True Tone color management, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you compare it against a phone that doesn’t have it, like the Google Pixel.  I find it impossible to describe but basically the colors just look better – it looks “right” and next to it everything else looks wrong.  Killer display.

So next I could talk about the cameras, and they’re killer.  Not just the back camera, which is outstanding, but the front camera, which is the best selfie cam I’ve ever used (although bested by the Pixel in one way – more on that below).

me and mountains
Selfie somewhere in southern California
Portrait mode with the iPhone Xs

I could post more photos, but you can just check my instagram, @whitewaterlawyer, for more.

So photos are great.  What else is great?  Sound quality for playing music and other audio.  Just great, not really much to say.  The weight and feel of the phone in the hand, although in full candor I use it with a Mous case and not bare.  The raw power of the CPU/GPU combo is great, although admittedly it’s just plain overkill – it’s more than twice as fast as the iPhone 7 which already ran all my apps very well.

There’s really only two things that I don’t like about my iPhone Xs, and both are inherent to all iPhones.  The first is the way incoming calls are handled.  Just flat-out awful.  When the phone rings, the call dialogue fills the screen and can’t be dismissed without either answering the call or sending it to voicemail.  If you don’t want to talk and don’t want to send a “you’re not important to me” message, you have to wait it out.  Not nice.

My other complaint is peculiar to my personal use case: my phone is buggy as hell, which I’ve figured out is due to a host of bugs inherited through my backup. I’ve had iPhones since an 8gb 3G in 2008, and every time I’ve gotten a new one, I’ve set it up by restoring all data from a backup of my previous one.  I do this to preserve the data in the 100+ apps I use, along with things like my accumulated text messages and photos.  But it turns out that over the course of many repeated backup and restore operations, the backup itself picks up little glitches, and because you can’t selectively restore, in some cases setting up an iPhone from a backup can result in weird behavior.  None of it is severe, but I’ve got weird glitches like options missing from my settings menus and search not always working right.  I haven’t yet decided these problems are worth the hassle of “setting up as a new iPhone” even though, at least, Apple has moved most non-app data into iCloud so I wouldn’t lose any texts, photos, or notes.  I’d just have to re-download and configure all of my apps one at a time, manually enter all of my email accounts, etc.  Not a fun project for a rainy day.

The Pixel 3

Because Who’s Ready will be launching first on Android, I found myself in need of an Android phone.  Now, picking out a new iPhone is pretty easy – you pick a size, storage capacity, and color, and that’s about it.  Picking an Android phone is a whole other matter.  Once you’ve settled on screen size and storage capacity, you might still have dozens of choices.  I wanted something similar in size to my iPhone and at least 32 gigabytes of storage, and needed something with the latest version of Android that I could keep up to date for a few years.  That sadly didn’t narrow it down too much so I just looked at what was on sale for Black Friday and read a bunch of reviews.  I almost bought Samsung’s S9 for $519 on the BF special on Amazon, but then I saw that Google was offering the Pixel 3 for basically half price on their Google Fi service – $200 off up front and a $200 service credit.  Fi works out cheaper than adding a line on Verizon as long as I don’t use too much data, so I pulled the trigger, even though I probably would’ve been fine with a cheaper Fi phone from Motorola or LG.

Some of this is about Android, and some of it is about the Pixel.  Because I’m new to Android, I’m not really sure which is which for some things.

First, a lot of the hardware is similar to my iPhone.  The dimensions of the phone are almost identical.  There’s no headphone jack.  The rear camera is single instead of dual, but the front camera is dual.  The screen is an OLED of about the same resolution but a little smaller since there are bezels on the top and bottom.

Some comparisons:

Camera – Both the front and rear cameras are on the Pixel great and while I personally think the iPhone cameras are better, a lot of reviewers feel the opposite.  I really like the dual front cameras, though – the Pixel adds a separate wide-angle selfie cam, which is noticeably wider than the iPhone and means it’s now possible to get great selfies with my dog which is really difficult with the iPhone.  The rear camera is single-lens so the portrait mode is not going to be as good as the iPhone.  I haven’t played with the portrait mode that much – I just don’t like the interface of the camera and found that when I had both phones handy, I usually reached for the iPhone.  But I did spend some time at the dog park shooting exclusively with the Pixel.  It takes decent action shots, but on the whole I was just not impressed.  It’s definitely not bad.  And maybe it’s the screen more than the camera.  But the images just don’t pop off the screen like they do on the iPhone.  Ultimately I see this category as a tie.

Screen – The Pixel has an OLED screen just like the iPhone, so it’s also got a high resolution and great true blacks.  Plus, unlike the iPhone, Android supports an “always on” display, so a portion of the screen is lit up with time and date and notification icons even when the phone is locked (sidebar, I don’t like the notification icons, more on that below).  But the screen lacks an equivalent to Apple’s True Tone, which makes it noticeably dull in colors in various settings when held next to the iPhone.  It usually looks a little more “blue” than the iPhone and is harsher on the eyes.

Interface – This is more about Android than the Pixel specifically, but I think it’s a big piece that has to be considered when choosing a phone.  The interface in iOS is just plain beautiful, and it’s impossible to fully appreciate the beauty and elegance of iOS without spending some time on Android.  Everything about it is polished and smooth.  I give particular credit to the screen fonts.  Text on the iPhone is crisp and soft in just the right places, with smooth lettering and perfect kerning.  Even fine print is clear and legible.  Not so on the Pixel.  Many have pointed out that Android supports custom fonts, but I shouldn’t have to customize a phone to get something easy to read.  The default system font is just harsh on the eyes if you’re looking at the phone for more than a few minutes.  This applies to everything you do on the phone – apps like Facebook and Instagram, every Reddit app, even just texting.  The font is downright jagged compared to the default text on an iPhone.  And you can’t customize it without downloading third-party software to modify the Pixel, which I’m just not all about.

Some things about Android are hands down better than the iPhone, but not many that I’ve noticed.  People say that notifications in general are better but I’m not sure I agree; the icon routine just results in a cluttered status bar and makes clearing notifications a mandatory chore instead of optional like on the iPhone.  But incoming notifications are unobtrusive, and here’s the killer – that even applies to phone calls.  When an Android phone rings, you can answer or send to voicemail like an iPhone, but you can also finish your text message or whatever else you were doing before dealing with the call, or you can look up some info about the contact in an app, or you can slide the notification away and let the call silently ring out.  That is excellent.

A lot of people love the customization that Android allows.  I do not.  I like being able to customize my devices, but I only care a little bit.  Give me a great home screen layout for sure.  But I shouldn’t have to spend time organizing my phone just to make it usable.  With the default launcher on the Pixel, you can’t just have all the icons you want on the main screen – you have to customize it, and you have to manually plant each icon on a screen.  They don’t automatically sort, they just sit wherever on the screen you happen to drop them.  You can add various “widgets” to the home screen, which is nice, but gimmicky.  I added the calendar, but it doesn’t work so well, partly because the built in apps often just suck.  I can’t figure out how to display multiple accounts in the calendar, for instance; in fact I’ve found the phone almost useless for email and calendar because of how user-friendly it isn’t.  I can’t figure out how to get it to default to an account other than the one associated with the Google Fi line, nor can you log out of that account.  I did eventually figure out how to add a second Google account but it wasn’t intuitive.  Very little about this interface is intuitive, at least to a seasoned Apple user.

Part of this customization is that while the phone comes with a baffling array of apps, many of which I don’t know the purpose of, it is lacking a few of the basics. There’s no voice memo recorder.  The notes app has a half-assed voice memo feature that’s supposed to suffice, but it’s “voice activated” which means it stops recording when you take a breath, and you have to look at the screen to use it.  Useless.  Apparently true Android users use Google Assistant to take voice notes.  I haven’t had much luck with Google Assistant – the phone has a gimmicky “squeeze to activate” feature where pressure sensors on the sides of the phone serve no function but to activate Assistant.  Why they had to use subtle pressure sensors instead of a good old fashioned button is a mystery to me.  But it just doesn’t work.  It’s impossible to activate it while the phone is being held in a dashboard mount, and half the time I try to use it, it starts to come up but then disappears before I can actually use it.  Ultimately, and ironically, it’s easier to use Google Assistant on an iPhone where there’s at least a screen icon for it.  I don’t like how this is implemented.

Speakers – the Pixel uses valuable front space for two large speaker grills instead of a bigger screen like the iPhone.  Yet in spite of that, the sound quality is crap.  Well, I don’t know, it’s probably better than a lot of phones.  But it’s not even close to the sound quality of the iPhone Xs.  It’s merely okay, which is again baffling considering how much showmanship they’ve put into the physical design of the speakers.  Maybe I’m missing something, but the same track on Spotify sounds tinny on the Pixel and great on the iPhone.

On the whole, the Pixel is a good quality phone with all the features you need, but in terms of polish and user interface it just doesn’t come close to the iPhone.