Google Pixel 3a XL Preview

Posted on May 12, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 54 Comments

I’ve ordered a Google Pixel 3a XL to compare it to the much more expensive Pixel 3 XL. Here are a few thoughts ahead of its arrival.

First and most obviously, I’m a bit taken aback by the positive press that this phone and the Pixel 3a have gotten. The reviewers who gained early access to these devices, and are familiar with the shortcomings of their more expensive siblings, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, are falling for Google’s marketing.

I’m genuinely confused by this.

The New York Times, for example, cites how its readers are “frustrated with today’s smartphone prices, which are approaching the cost of a decent used car.” And Google has found the solution: Replace high-end innards with less expensive parts, chop off some key features, and call it a success.

“We’re seeing the fatigue with some of the flagship pricing of smartphones going up and up and up, and people thinking, ‘You know, five years ago I could buy the best possible phone for half this price,’” Google’s Brian Rakowski told the publication.

Well, yes, Brian. They could. They could have bought that phone from you. It was called the Nexus 6P (and Nexus 5X) and it offered flagships specifications at reasonable prices. The only thing that has changed since, really, is that Google just started charging as much as successful premium handset makers like Apple and Samsung. For some reason.

But the Times isn’t alone in praising the obvious: Phones with cheaper parts cost less.

CNET exclaims that the Pixel 3a is “the cheap phone Google always needed.” CNET apparently wasn’t aware of the Nexus 6P/5X, but Engadget remembers, noting that the Pixel 3a is a “triumphant return to affordable phones” for Google; I guess they just forgot that Google’s previous affordable phones were high-end devices, not stripper models. Android Police, meanwhile, proclaims that these mid-range devices “make almost any phone under $500 look bad.” OK, but for just $50 more, you can get a terrific OnePlus 6T that ships with truly high-end components. In fact, they put the $1000 Pixel 3XL to shame in many ways.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. These guys have actually used a Pixel 3a and/or a Pixel 3a XL, and I haven’t. And … yeah. That’s both true and fair. I will do so, and my own Pixel 3a XL is arriving tomorrow and should make for an interesting head-to-head with the truly flagship-class Pixel 3 XL that I recently acquired for half-off. In fact, I paid just $20 more for a 128 GB Pixel 3 XL than I did for a 64 GB Pixel 3a. I know that, at those prices, the Pixel 3 XL is the much better deal.

But I can also read a specifications sheet, and I can see what Google left out when it announced the handsets. I also have many years of experience with Android phones and understand the issues with this platform, most especially with performance over time. And anyone who believes that a few days of experience with Pixel 3a or 3a XL is in any way enough to determine the handset’s long-term viability is—sorry—a fool.

So let’s take a look at the 3a XL compared to the Pixel 3 XL, since those are the versions I will own, and see where the new handsets shine, and where they do not. What does it look like when you save $410 on a smartphone?

Design. While the Pixel 3a XL keeps the same two-pane look that debuted with the original Pixel, it looks (and presumably feels) more like the Pixel 2 XL than the Pixel 3 XL, with its prominent forehead and chin bezels. This is partially because the body isn’t made of glass, as with Pixel 3 XL, a cost-cutting maneuver that has a negative functional side effect noted below. But it also doesn’t have the same silly and huge notch like its more expensive sibling. This, too, has a negative functional side effect, also noted below.

Form factor. Though the two handsets are the same 3-inch width, they are curiously different in other dimensions. The 3a XL is a tad taller, and its 6-inch display is smaller than the 3 XL’s 6.3-inch display. The real-world size differences are likely minimal because of the 3 XL’s big notch. But the 3a XL’s display is also vastly inferior, see below.

Colors. The Pixel 3 XL can be had in white, black, or (not) pink (which is really a tan color). The Pixel 3a XL is sold in white, black, and purple-ish (which is very much just purple).

Display. Here, things get interesting. The Pixel 3 XL has a wonderful 6.3-inch Quad HD+ flexible OLED display at 523 pixels per inch (ppi) and an 18:5.9 aspect ratio with HDR support, the Pixel 3a XL comes with a 6-inch Full HD+ OLED that offers just 402 ppi and an 18:9 aspect ratio and does not support HDR. The only question here is whether the inferior Pixel 3a XL display is “good enough.”

Battery. The 3a XL has a larger 3700 mAh battery than the 3430 mAh 3 XL and that, combined with the less powerful processor and lower resolution display, should result in a meaningful advantage in battery life. Based on a few weeks of experience with the 3 XL, which absolutely does not provide all-day battery, that could be a big deal.

Charging. The Pixel 3 XL supports fast charging and fast wireless charging. The 3a XL supports only fast (wired) charging thanks to its non-glass, polycarbonate back.

Water resistant. The Pixel 3 XL is and the 3a XL is not.

Processors. This is the Pixel 3a XL’s Achilles Heel, I think. Not only is its Snapdragon 670 processor a major step down from Snapdragon 845 found in the Pixel 3 XL, but the 3a XL lacks Google’s Pixel Visual Core chipset, which the firm boasts is the “first custom-designed co-processor for image processing and machine language.” This will be a problem for both photographic quality and performance. When you consider the Pixel camera performance issues that have dogged recent-generation devices and the fact that Android performance erodes over time, the Pixel 3a XL could be a poor choice for anyone looking for a two-plus year commitment. (Both handsets ship with the Titan M security module.)

RAM. Both devices ship with 4 GB of RAM, which is low for a high-end handset but adequate for a mid-range model like the 3a XL.

Storage. The Pixel 3 XL can be purchased with 64 GB or 128 GB of storage. But the 3a XL offers only a single 64 GB configuration, which is a curious and unnecessary limitation. Google should at least give customers the option to upgrade. (And one could make a case for a 256 GB configuration on the 3 XL as well.)

Cameras. Much is made about how the rear cameras are identical, hardware-wise, on these two handsets. That is, both feature a 12.2MP dual-pixel rear camera with a ƒ/1.8 aperture, auto-focus and dual pixel phase detection capabilities, and optical and electronic image stabilization. But the lack of a Pixel Visual Core chipset could have quality and performance implications on the 3a XL. And the front cameras are quite different: Where the Pixel 3 XL features a dual-front camera system with an 8 MP wide-angle lens with a ƒ/2.2 aperture and an 8 MP fixed-focus camera that offer a super-wide “group selfie cam” mode, the Pixel 3a XL has only a single 8 MP fixed-focus front camera with a ƒ/2.0 aperture.

Audio. Both handsets provide stereo speakers, but the 3 XL’s are front-firing (if a bit biased to the right in landscape mode). And both feature audio over USB-C. But only the cheaper 3a offers a real headphone jack. And boy, do I miss that headphone jack.

Running through this list, I identify the following negatives for the cheaper 3a XL, in order:

  • Performance
  • Photography performance and (potentially) quality; no group selfie cam on the front
  • Storage: A single 64 GB storage option
  • No wireless charging
  • No water resistance

That said, the Pixel 3a XL also has some advantages over its doubly-expensive sibling, which is curious. They are (in no particular order):

  • Battery life (presumed)
  • Headphone jack
  • Less fragile because it’s not all-glass
  • Hey, $400 is $400

Surprising, right? And aside from the potential performance issues which, again, could be the Pixel 3a XL’s Achilles Heel, I feel like I could live with most of the other negatives, especially given the $400 differential. That said, I’d also rather pay $550 to $650 for a OnePlus 7 Pro, assuming that that handset finally delivers on a superior camera.

Who knows? The elusive sweet spot in smartphones may be shifting. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

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