Google Pixel 3a XL Follow-Up

Posted on May 14, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 12 Comments

After spending more time with the Google Pixel 3a XL, I can report some early findings on the display, audio, and performance, each compared with the far more expensive Pixel 3 XL.

Display

While it’s somewhat interesting to compare the specifications of the two displays, it is far more useful to view them side-by-side. And while the Pixel 3 XL display is “superior” in a variety of ways, the Pixel 3a XL display isn’t just acceptable, it’s excellent. And I even prefer it to that of the Pixel 3 XL in a few ways.

You get more a bit more on-screen real estate with the Pixel 3 XL, and that’s true even when you factor in that notch. The 3 XL is a bit taller and much wider than the 3a XL, but when you view the same content side-by-side—a photo, an app, whatever—you will see basically the same thing on each. The only real difference is text rendering, which I believe is impacted by the underlying resolutions. Neither is better per se, they’re just a bit different.

One thing I’m surprised by is that the Pixel 3a XL’s lower resolution and less technically-advanced display doesn’t result in a markedly inferior look. I viewed the same screens side-by-side with both reading glasses and a magnifying glass, and I cannot find a single reason to recommend the Pixel 3 XL over the Pixel 3a XL. In fact, I prefer the thinner Pixel 3a XL display/body and find it to be easier to use one-handed.

I also tested the two displays side-by-side in video playback, and I managed to lineup Atomic Blond on both such that the audio and video on each was almost perfectly simultaneous. And I just don’t see much of a difference between the two displays, if any.

Audio

This is another interesting comparison because the Pixel 3 XL, despite a few issues, definitely out-performs the Pixel 3a XL from an audio playback perspective: The sound is much richer and deeper, and that is noticeable across all types of content, including music, audiobooks, and movies. That said, the Pixel 3 XL, thanks to its glass body, also has a somewhat nasty vibration/echo effect, as if you can hear the audio bouncing around inside the device; you can feel it, too, if you’re holding it, which you often are since, you know, it’s a phone. The Pixel 3a XL does not suffer from this vibration/echo effect at all. The sound is just a bit duller.

But the Pixel 3 XL, despite it’s “front-firing” stereo speakers, also exhibits an unwelcome and very noticeable stereo bias towards the right (bottom) speaker; sounds are just louder on that side. The Pixel 3a XL does not suffer from this problem at all, and that, coupled with the lack of echo and vibration, makes me almost prefer it overall. Even though the sound quality is technically inferior.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Pixel 3a XL has a headphone jack, which I love. If you don’t typically listen to audio through the device’s speakers—which I suspect is true of many people—the 3 XL’s technical superiority is a wash.

Performance

My limited testing so far has uncovered no performance issues. But that means nothing, literally. During the initial app setup phase—as you may recall, I copied over all my apps and settings from the Pixel 3 XL—the phone got warm to the touch, but that’s to be expected.

I did run the Geekbench 4 processor benchmark on each device. And while I don’t feel this offers any usable information about real-world performance—especially true if you compare iPhone to Android—it’s still an interesting apples-to-apples comparison. The results were pretty much as expected: The Pixel 3 XL, with its octa-core Snapdragon 845 processor, blew the Pixel 3a XL, with its octa-core Snapdragon 670 processor out of the water, scoring 2333/8196 (single-core/multi-core) vs. 1603/5135.

A couple of interesting points to that. Where the Snapdragon 845 features 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores, the Snapdragon 670 has a different architecture, with 6 performance cores and 2 efficiency cores. They run at slightly different speeds (1.77 GHz/2.8 GHz for the 845 vs. 1.71/2 GHz for the 670). And the Pixel 3 XL has slightly less usable RAM (3.47 GB) than the Pixel 3a XL (3.51 GB) for some reason. (Maybe this changes with each run, based on what else the system is doing.) Memory bandwidth on the Pixel 3 XL is significantly higher (16.4 GB/second) than is the case on the 3a XL (10 GB/second).

Put simply, it’s too early to say whether the Pixel 3a XL’s lower-end processor is a problem. Anecdotally, and with all of just several hours of experience, it seems snappy and fine. As should any new device.

More to come

Obviously, it’s still very early. And I’ve not really done any meaningful camera tests, which, combined with performance, will likely be the deciding factor on this device. So far, however, I’m really impressed with the Pixel 3a XL, and I’m starting to understand why reviews who only spent a few days with the handset delivered such positive reviews.

But for the Microsoft crowd, it’s also worth mentioning, again, that the look and feel of the plastic body are very reminiscent of some favorite Lumia models of the past, in particular, the unibody polycarbonate handsets that many still remember so fondly. This is kind of goofy, but I feel like the Pixel 3a XL is closer to those Lumias than any of the HMD/Nokia handsets we’ve seen over the past few years. There’s just something special about it.

More soon.

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