Not being someone who usually joins in with the flurry of excitement that surrounds the launch of a new phone, I entered into the task of trying out the Google Pixel 3 and its compatible Nest home automation products with interest, if not wild cries of delight. More appealing was a trip to the island of Mallorca, a place previously only known to me as home to that bastion of British bad behaviour – Magaluf. Suffice it to say that both the phone and the island surpassed expectations.
Google launched the Google Pixel 3 (in standard and XL variants) last October and has received a raft of largely positive reviews from techy journalists since then. More recently, it has announced the more moderately priced Pixel 3a for those whose pockets don’t run quite as deep. Above all else, it’s the camera that has attracted the really rave responses and so this journalist with an interest in amateur photography took note. According to a YouGov survey, a quarter of British holidaymakers admit to taking terrible photos on holiday with main complaints being that respondents couldn’t zoom in close enough on their phone, that it was often too dark to take a good quality picture in the evening, or that it was hard to fit everything into the frame of their shot. People also noted that a lack of storage held them back. Google has attempted to respond to these problems with a number of new features.
The Pixel 3 features a 12.2-megapixel sensor, with an f/1.8 aperture. There are also two cameras on the front, both 8-megapixel sensors, with one acting as a wide-angle camera. This translates to extremely detailed photos and pretty stunning colours – enough to make anyone feel one step closer to a pro.
In fact, such is the quality that magazine publisher Conde Nast used the Pixel 3 to shoot seven of its November 2018 front covers (including GQ, Wired and Glamour). So, as general quality goes, the camera is certainly something to write home about and, given that the Google Photos app backs up and stores all your shots in the cloud and offers unlimited full-resolution uploads, you could do exactly that and save on the price of a postcard.
A range of camera extras are on hand to help with certain shots. Portrait mode neatly blurs the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus, making pretty much any photo look more artistic, while also giving the impression that you have some understanding of aperture. A feature called Top Shot captures a few alternative frames for every photo and uses machine learning to recommend the best one, avoiding those where people have their eyes closed or aren’t smiling. And, if selfies are your bag then the Pixel 3 features an extra-wide selfie camera that both retains detail and lets you fit more faces in – excellent if you’re very popular or good at making friends on holiday. Once you’ve taken a photo, Google Photos allows you to change the blurriness of the background, choose a new point of focus or create funky effects such as black and white backgrounds behind a colourful subject.
Also new with the Pixel 3 is Google’s Night Sight, a feature that allows you to take photos in next to no light at all. The app takes multiple shots while you hold the phone steady for a few seconds and the results are impressive, enabling photos that would be utterly pointless without it – recommended for candle-lit restaurants and dingy-but-atmospheric bars. In short, if the camera is your main priority when buying a smart-phone and if you’re looking to capture memories in a light-weight way on holiday, experts and amateurs alike appear to agree that the Google Pixel 3 is one of the best options available.
Camera aside, the phone includes the sort of travel-friendly features that you’d expect, including Google Maps and Google Translate. A particularly handy feature for anyone with poor language skills but a stubborn nature when it comes to requesting the English menu, is Google Lens – an intelligent visual search tool that can instantly translate any text you hover the camera over. It can also be used to find out more about certain objects and locations. The ability to download searchable, offline versions of Google Maps is also useful if data is of concern, or if, like me, you know that getting lost down charming little alleyways sounds more romantic than the reality.
Like many tech companies these days, Google now provides helpful apps that claim to help you stop using so many helpful apps. Google’s version of this is called Digital Wellbeing and lets you monitor your phone usage. If you can bear the horror of knowing how many times you unlock your phone in a day or how many notifications you receive, then that information is within your grasp – though presumably overly enthusiastic monitoring will only add fuel to the fire. If the results are disturbing, there are tools to help you curb phone use. You can block out certain apps during selected periods, halt notifications when you’re sleeping, or set up time- limits for certain apps.
If you’re planning on listening to music by the pool it’s worth noting that there’s no standard headphone jack with the Pixel 3, a USB-C port is the only connection option. Google does include USB-C headphones in the box, but there’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack adaptor and Bluetooth 5 support too.
Away from the phone, Google’s offering extends to the full suite of Nest home automation products (Google bought Nest Labs, founded by iPod inventor Tony Fadell, in 2014). Whatever you might think about bugging your home with artificial intelligence, there is some logic to Nest products if worries about what’s going on back home are liable to ruin your holiday. In particular, the Nest Cam, a small security camera with both indoor and outdoor versions, can be set up to alert your phone when it detects someone in or around the house. If it spots an intruder you have the chance to shout at them through the camera’s speaker and, if you have Nest Aware (available as a monthly subscription service), the camera will record everything it sees and store footage in the cloud as opposed to just live-streaming it. With Nest Aware the camera can also use facial recognition to identify if a person is a family member or not, and alert you accordingly. Incidentally, once you’re back home, the camera is also very useful for checking the back of your own head – just stand with your back to the camera while watching the live stream on your phone.
The Nest Protect smart smoke alarm also allows you to monitor smoke, fire and carbon monoxide levels from your phone. Aside from the obvious safety benefits, if you’ve ever spent time wafting a tea-towel at a deafening siren, there’s something very appealing about the option to turn the alarm off with a single click. The company claims that Nest Protect checks its batteries and sensors over 400 times a day and that it quietly tests its speaker and siren once a month. Both the camera and the smoke alarm are pretty easy to set up. For the camera, it’s just a case of plugging it into the mains and attaching it to the wall or ceiling if desired, while the smoke alarm can be screwed in place of your old one.
The other key Nest products include the video doorbell (you’ll probably need a professional installer for that one) and its very first product, the smart thermostat, which allows you to control the heating from your phone so you can have it running before you get inside. Set up for this is a bit trickier and you need to check the compatibility of your boiler, but Google says that it can be done in under an hour by someone who’s good at DIY.
None of these products are cheap – a Nest Cam is £300 (the cheapest version of Nest Aware is £4 a month), the Nest Thermostat E is £219 and the smoke alarm is £100. But, if you are looking to kit your home out with the latest AI gadgets and you’re the sort of person for whom snooping on your (hopefully) empty house while on holiday will provide comfort, rather than extra anxiety, they might be just the ticket for stress-free travel.
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