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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