Google Pixel 3a XL First Impressions

Posted on May 13, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 16 Comments

My plastic and purple-ish Pixel 3a XL arrived today, offering a first peek at Google’s affordable new flagship alternative.

And it’s a delightful phone, at least so far. The color is fun and unusual, and unlike the “not pink” Pixel 3 XL I purchased recently, it is very obviously the color which Google advertises, albeit a light and subtle variant of purple. The power button is lemon yellow, an even more unusual color.

The phone body is also very obviously plastic to the touch, which is interesting given that I just compared this new mid-market Pixel lineup to the Nokia Lumia 830 and other plastic Lumias from days gone by; it is more reminiscent of those handsets that I had anticipated. More to the point, perhaps, it feels very different from the glass-covered Pixel 3 XL, which manages to feel very similar to the aluminum Pixel 2 XL it replaced. Whether you think that plastic is downmarket is up to you, I guess. But I like it.

There’s no notch, and I prefer the modest chin and forehead bezels of this phone to the giant buck-toothed notch on my Pixel 3 XL. This isn’t just aesthetics: You can see more on Android’s status bar without that notch too.

Beyond this, the only other obvious item of note is the headphone jack, located on the top of the Pixel 3a XL. It’s appearance there is a source of great joy, and I’ll never understand why Google, like Apple and many other handset makers, has abandoned the port in their flagship phones.\

As you might expect, there’s less in the box than you get with a Pixel 3 XL. You get a USB-C-to-USB-C cable, an 18-watt power adapter for fast charging, and a USB-C-to-USB-A dongle. That’s it. The Pixel 3 XL, as you may recall, also includes a pair of excellent Pixel USB-C earbuds (which cost $30 and are worth getting) and a headphone jack dongle (not required with the 3a XL).

Software setup proceeded exactly as it did with the Pixel 3 XL, but there was one additional option: In addition to being able to perform a SIM-free (eSIM) activation with Google Fi, which I did, Sprint was also available.

Also, I choose to copy all my data, including apps and configuration, from the Pixel 3 XL to the Pixel 3a XL so that the two handsets would be configured as identically as possible for comparison purposes. I had never done this before—I usually perform a lengthy and manual clean install on every phone I get—but it was easy and fast: Just connect the two phones together via the bundled USB-C-to-USB-C cable and let the wizard copy everything over.

That said, all of those apps still need to be installed, which takes a while. In the meantime, Google places grayed-out icons where the app icons will go as they’re installed so it’s obvious which are ready and which are not.

Also, you still need to authenticate against each app. This, too, can take some time, but if you’re using Google’s account auto-fill functionality (or a third-party password manager), it should go pretty quickly. So far, I’ve only signed into a handful of apps.

I’ve also only barely looked at the Camera app, which appears to offer all the same modes, including “More” modes like Night Sight, Photo Sphere, Time Lapse, and others. What’s missing, of course, is the ability to zoom out on selfies to an extra-wide-angle mode; the Pixel 3a XL has only a single front-facing camera (where the 3 XL has two).

For the compulsive, storage is a bit of a concern: Google only offers the Pixel 3a XL in a single 64 GB configuration. So, I looked into this. After all the apps were installed and updated, I was using 22 GB of 64 GB, or about 35 percent of available storage. But I normally download a lot of podcasts, music, and audiobooks, and then there are photos to worry about. On my Pixel 3 XL, for example, I’m using 38 GB of storage (of 128 GB); so the 64 GB would actually be adequate until the photos filled up. (5 GB of my used storage on the Pixel 3 XL is photos so far.) I’d like to see a 128 GB option.

But assuming the performance holds up, the value is certainly here. The Pixel 3a XL is an attractive handset, and it’s hard to argue with the price: $480. or $20 per month for 24 months. By comparison, the iPhone XR—which, admittedly, has better overall specs and can be upgraded with more storage—starts at $750 or $32 per month. To get a new iPhone this cheaply, you’d have to buy an iPhone 7/7 Plus, which is almost three years old. So we can at least consider the Pixel 3a XL a success from a pricing perspective.

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Comments (16)

16 responses to “Google Pixel 3a XL First Impressions”

  1. jaredthegeek

    The 64GB base is dumb at this point and was done purely to push people away from this device to the twice as much Pixel. Like the iPad mini that goes from 64 to 256 for storage.I believe I could live with 64 gig storage as my current phone only has 32GB built in and I am only using 13 gig on my SD card which is mostly pictures with some podcasts and other items.

  2. RonV42

    Paul are you going to "Microsoft" this phone with the Launcher and other apps? I would like to hear how well they work on this phone.

  3. Chris_Kez

    Is Google offering free full-resolution photo upload/storage for this like they did for the previous Pixels? That was a small, but welcome benefit.

  4. nicholas_kathrein

    Also the front camera sits somewhere between the pixel 3's two cameras so they did the best could with one camera. It's stock starting point is already zoomed out a little bit. You poo pooed the phone just hours ago. Has hands on time maybe changed your mind?

  5. smarteam

    Paul, great initial impressions review!

    So now that Google has found the courage to introduce a headphone jack....Some of us who make calls, long calls really appreciate time Airpods is way too low!. Wired headphones work best and a dongle free experience is preferred - form should follow function....thank you Google.

    Few questions Paul...would love to see a detailed review covering:

    1. How good is the Oled screen... how much better than iPhone Xr?
    2. Can it be purchased with 128GB for more money?
    3. It's not waterproof...but water resistant?
    4. Some comparison photos taken by Xr and this thing?
  6. siv

    I will be interested to see how this compares to the huawei P20 Pro that I have in terms of the camera.

    • wright_is

      In reply to Siv:

      Given the P20 Pro has a better camera system to the Pixel 3 XL and the 3a XL uses the same camera, but without the AI processor, I would guess it won't really compare.

      That said, I was on holiday at the coast a couple of weeks back and, whilst the photos from my Huawei were good for close shots, for photographing the dog running up and down the beach at 50M - 150M distance and getting detail, the 250mm lens on my Sony Alpha was just in a completely different league. The same when doing close-ups.

      A phone camera is fine for quick shots on the move, but really can't compare to a decent camera - but given that the lens probably costs as much as the Pixel does, on its own, that is hardly a surprise.

  7. dcdevito

    The SD 670 and eMMC storage makes this feel like the Nexus 5x all over again. I’d be curious to see how it’s holding up by the Fall.

    Paul, how’s the RAM management compared to the 3XL? I truly wonder if Google switching to Qualcomm’s kernel scheduler is what caused the 3XL’s issues (whereas for the Pixels prior, Google used a custom built variant).

  8. chriswong13

    64 GB of storage is just not enough for me anymore... :(

  9. SvenJ

     "iPhone XR—...can be upgraded with more storage." Maybe that should say, 'can be purchased with more storage.'

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