System Performance

Pixel phones have been known to be among the best performing Android devices in the market. This is mainly due to the Pixel’s performance team taking the time and attention to tweak the software stack – kernel and userspace alike. This is one of the benefits of being one of the last flagships out of the gate for a given generation, as it gives time to optimize the performance. The Pixel 3 comes with the Snapdragon 845, and I’ve written many times this year how Qualcomm’s software, and in particular the kernel scheduler was a very significant factor as to why this year’s Snapdragon phones performed so marvellously.

One of the big questions I posed myself early in the year is exactly how Google planned to handle Qualcomm’s great divergence from upstream, and the divergence from the Google common kernel. As a reminder, the Google common kernel is now the “official” branch on which SoC vendors should be basing their BSP (board support packages, essentially the software stack) for their own products. This is a collaborative effort between vendors (Mainly Google, Qualcomm and Arm), and it’s also the target where Arm pushes its own EAS patches.

The matter of fact is, for the Pixel 3, Google is simply using Qualcomm’s custom scheduler. This is both a great win for Qualcomm given the expected device performance of the Pixel 3, and quite a blow to Arm’s own efforts, as the EAS improvements over the last year are just simply not being used. Qualcomm’s efforts as well as the resulting product are just too good to pass on, and I’m very much expecting next year to finally be a watershed moment where other vendors finally abandon attempts to keep things minimalistic, and in line with upstream Linux, and finally see the immense value in investing in actual immediate benefits for consumer devices of a given generation.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Web Browsing 2.0

Starting with PCMark’s Web Browsing 2.0 test, the Pixel 3 leads the pack, with a slight advantage over other Snapdragon 845 phones. The reason here is that Google seemingly uses the most up-to-date scheduler, as well as has some possible file I/O advantages which I’ll get into a bit later. There are also possible OS side improvements in the libraries, as the Pixel 3’s ship with Android 9.

I’ve updated the performance results for past Pixels with the newest OS updates, as well as for devices like the OnePlus 6 as these have received their OS updates as well.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Video Editing PCMark Work 2.0 - Writing 2.0

In the writing test, which is probably PCMark’s most important as well as representative benchmark, the Pixel 3 saw a big leap in performance over the previous Pixels – however I think this was due to Android 9 itself, as we also saw a big jump in the OnePlus 6’s performance with the latest OS update.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Photo Editing 2.0

The photo editing test is very much a scheduler responsivity test as modern devices are able to complete the workloads relatively fast at their peak performance states. Here the score wildly fluctuates depending on how fast the DVFS mechanism is, and we see the Pixel 3 among the best performers.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Data Manipulation

The data manipulation score is extremely high on the Pixel 3 compares to other phones, including the OnePlus 6. I wasn’t able to verify this empirically, but glancing over the scheduler the Pixel has some unique updates to it which facilitate better responsiveness and scheduling of single big tasks, and the data manipulation test is such a workload with a big single-threaded component.

PCMark Work 2.0 - Performance

Overall, the Pixel 3 takes the top position in PCMark, all thanks to its scheduler improvements as well as a slight advantage due to it running Android 9.

Speedometer 2.0 - OS WebView

Moving onto web browser tests, the Pixel 3 largely matches the other Snapdragon 845 devices. This is no surprise as Speedometer 2.0 is a high constant throughput ST benchmark, and as such isn’t as affected by scheduler as PCMark.

Apple still has a considerable performance lead here. After our recent iPhone XS review and SoC deep-dive, I’m more leaning towards the explanation that a big part of the advantage here is purely due to hardware and the microarchitectural advantages of Apple’s CPUs, with part of it also being Apple’s Nitro JS engine.

WebXPRT 3 - OS WebView

WebXPRT also looks in line with other Snapdragon 845 devices.

Pixel 3 – Now using F2FS

Section with credit and input by Park Ju Hyung (@arter97)

The Pixel 3 now has switched over from an EXT4 filesystem, to the F2FS filesystem. Google explains this switch due to the fact that F2FS now supports inline block encryption which has been the last major roadblock as to why Google hadn’t made the switch earlier.

Inline block encryption uses the SoC’s inline cryptographic engines, which just serve as an intermediate hardware layer to the NAND and offload any encryption workloads that were initially in past devices performed by the CPU.

The switch to F2FS now gives the Pixel 3 a number of advantages over previous filesystem; Previously, SQLite (which is used by almost all database files under Android) used another 'journaling' on its own to prevent corruption. This caused “double journaling” on top of EXT4, which in itself is a journaling filesystem. Since F2FS doesn’t need this kind of protection and the Pixel 3 includes Google’s SQLite changes in Android 8.1, the Pixel 3 is able to take advantage of this, as well as any other F2FS based device from other vendors which have the corresponding OS patches.

The result is that this will enable much higher write/commit speeds for SQLite, not to mention less wear and tear to the underlying UFS storage. Also, the Pixel 3 turned off barriers for fsync() system calls, which will improve general random I/O write speeds by a significant margin.

Another big improvement for file I/O is the implementation of “Host Performance Booster” in the kernel and UFS controller firmware stack. HPB is essentially caching of the NAND chip’s FTL (flash translation layer) L2P (logical to physical) mapping tables into the hosts (SoCs) main memory. This allows the host driver to look up the target L2P entry directly without betting on UFS’s limited SRAM to have a cache-hit, reducing latency and greatly increasing random read performance. The authors of the feature showcase an improvement of 59-67% in random I/O read performance due to the new feature. It’s worth to mention that traditional Android I/O benchmarks won’t be able to show this as as those tend to test read speeds with the files they’ve just created.

Overall, the Pixel 3 is the fastest Android device on the market right now. The one thing that puts it above other devices such as the OnePlus 6 is a noticeable faster response-time when opening applications – either a framework related boost or just an effect of the faster file I/O.

Introduction & Design GPU Performance
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  • Rmrx8 - Saturday, November 03, 2018 - link

    I actually like the ear buds. I bought them for my pixel 2 and I enjoy them just as much as Apple EarPods. Too bad more time wasn't spent on this on the review. Reviews of these have been mixed with people either loving them or hating them. I do lots of recording and the cut in on the mic is much less aggressive than the apple buds, which is a good thing for me. The higher frequencies on googles buds are attenuated a bit. But otherwise I like them and they don't fall out. Also age matters. I'm 51. Undoubtedly a younger person will have better hearing and maybe find more problems, as you age the differences start to disappear. Reply
  • TidalWaveOne - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    My Pixel 2 will do just fine... hopefully the Pixel 4 will be good enough to justify an upgrade. Reply
  • Genspirit - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    Also did i just miss it or was there no mention of the selfie camera or numerous camera features like top shot? Or live google lens integration. I love the in-depth testing on performance and the camera but I do feel like a lot of what makes the pixel a pixel was left out. Reply
  • BNSFguy - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    " I would easily choose USB-C earbuds from any other primary smartphone vendor."

    That's pretty comical statement seeing that there are very, very, few choices for "USB - C" headphones, and most, if not all, are significantly more expensive than the $30.00 Google USB-C Headphones included for FREE with the phone. I mean, just go shopping for a pair of USB-C headphones. You won't find a single pair at any retail store such as Best Buy, and very few online anywhere.
    Reply
  • imaheadcase - Saturday, November 03, 2018 - link

    THat is why most people use bluetooth Reply
  • papoose34328 - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    Hi Andrei,

    Thank you for your very thorough review! Very informative
    Reply
  • cfenton - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    My take away from this review is that it's probably better to try to get a cheap used Pixel 2. Google have lost their edge in daylight photo quality, and the Pixel 2 looks almost as good using Night Shift.

    Also, since Night Shift seems to be mostly a software feature, is there any reason it couldn't be ported to other Android phones? Obviously Google won't do it, but is there any hope that some clever XDA person will. I remember the Pixel camera was ported to other S820 devices, with varying degrees of success.
    Reply
  • arayoflight - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    It's already been ported to many Nokia and Xiaomi devices, and active work is being done to make it work on OnePlus devices as well. Reply
  • bull2760 - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    I made the switch to the PIXEL 3 from Apple iPhones. It's very interesting to see that a hardware testing site has not mentioned any of the cellular signal issues that are plaguing iPhone XS and XS Max users. I had the iPhone 10SX Max for 4 days and returned it due to extremely poor cellular service I was getting. From my research it is due to the 4x4 antennas that are being used. FCC testing shows that the new iPhones have signal issues when not in a strong signal area. I experienced this with the short time I had the phone. 4 dropped calls/call failed within minutes of each other. I'd be sitting next to my wife her on her iPhone 7 me on my MAX and my phone would have no service. I looked at her phone and she is pulling almost 3/4 antenna signal. Why is Tom's not diving into this? Anyway I got tired of Apple's crap and decided it was time to try my first Android phone. I looked at the Galaxy Note, and while I like the phone I'm not a fan of the curved edge screen. Plus the key point for me with buying the Pixel 3 is pure Android no UI installed on top of it so as Google roles out the next version of Android my phone will get the update automatically. So far so good, I'm really liking the Pixel 3. I should mention I am not a heavy gamer, I didn't buy a cell phone to game. I use it primarily for business answering email on the fly and calling customers. Reply
  • pjcamp - Friday, November 02, 2018 - link

    "In order to combat this low memory, one new hardware/software feature is an application memory management 'lowmmemorykiller' background application/daemon which applies various settings to keep certain software in memory for fast app loading times. Whilst in general I don’t put as much value into this as some other people do, I did however notice that in everyday use the phones did need to reload applications more often. There have been user reports already that the phones are struggling to keep things open and alive in memory. "

    That's because software never compensates for skimping on the hardware. They could include more memory, but Google wants to push you into the cloud for everything. They could include removable storage but Google thinks people who use USB sticks every day will be confused.

    If it weren't for the fact that every other vendor seems to be dumber than a sack of doorknobs, Pixels would be going nowhere fast, but that isn't saying much. Lenovo essentially killed Motorola, Nokia won't sell anything of significance in the US, and everyone else can't resist product positioning by skinning the life out of Android.
    Reply

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