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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  • s.yu - Thursday, November 15, 2018 - link

    You're looking at this wrong, *flash*, not night sight, should be the last resort. On axis flash is almost always ugly and detrimental to what you're trying to capture, and severely interferes with post processing, night sight saves the need for flash, which is the way to go.
  • sarangiman - Thursday, November 15, 2018 - link

    "I’ve never really understood why people claimed the Pixel 2 camera to be good in low-light, because in my experience as well as visible in these sample shots, the Pixels were never really competitive and are outclassed by the better sensors from Samsung and Apple, when capturing in traditional modes."

    It's not that Samsung or Apple used 'better sensors', they just used longer exposure times (down to 1/4s), while the Pixel 2 would try to stick to 1/25 to 1/40s to avoid motion blur in human subjects, and only reluctantly dropping to 1/15s in very very dark situations.

    The reason many were impressed by the low light performance of the Pixel 2 was that it could retain good image quality in *less* low light (but still low light - such as indoors) conditions, while not having human subjects blurred. Also, iPhone motion estimation would jack up the shutter speed (to ~1/30s) when any movement was detected (human subject or shaky hands), and image quality would drop drastically, below that of the Pixel 2 (b/c it wouldn't also average as many frames as the Pixel cameras do). Things have improved with the XS.

    So it's a question of *how* low light of a scene are you interested in, and are you photographing human subjects or still scenes.

    Thanks for the review, very nice comparisons, and great work in particular with your display evaluation. It's irksome that despite having a proper CMS in the OS, every app appears to be rendering to sRGB. Google Photos app is even color profile aware, but converts images with ICC profiles (say: P3 or even ProPhotoRGB images) to sRGB for output (which means in 'Adaptive' screen mode, the sRGB output gets stretched, yielding oversaturated inaccurate colors). This just isn't how color management is meant to work - the CMS should take the embedded ICC profile and convert to the display profile.
  • makkumatr - Saturday, November 24, 2018 - link

    Love the detailed review, Andrei.
    Could you comment on the quality of the sound recording of the videos on Pixel 3, reading a lot of complaints on that.
  • ErikSwan - Tuesday, December 18, 2018 - link

    Andrei, thank you for the thorough review, especially the display section.

    Did you evaluate display uniformity at all? A lot of users (me included) are reporting a green-to-pink gradient across the display. It's very easy to notice with a gray background at low brightness levels in low to moderate light (think: using the phone in bed with only a bedside reading lamp illuminating the room). I'm curious whether only some devices are susceptible to this or if you noticed it on your Pixel 3 sample as well.

    Going forward, I would really like to see some measurement of uniformity included in display evaluations. If the dE at the centerpoint of the display is very low, that's great, but if the display isn't also uniform it can be a misleading indication of the overall quality of the display.

  • ducksu - Thursday, May 16, 2019 - link

    What's the best screen mode for pixel 3?

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