Google Pixel 3a XL Review: The New Sweet Spot

Posted on May 21, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 41 Comments

With its unapologetically plastic body, tremendous camera system, and reasonable pricing, the Google Pixel 3a XL is a winner. And that’s true despite some mid-range specs, a few missing features, and other cost-cutting measures.

Design

From a design perspective, the Google Pixel 3a XL is a fun throwback: It features a unibody polycarbonate (plastic) design, like the best Nokia Lumia models from several years back, and it eschews the Pixel 3 XL’s giant notch for the non-obnoxious forehead and chin bezels that resemble the Pixel2 family from 2017. And go figure, it looks and feels great. In fact, I like it better than the all-glass Pixel 3 XL design, which is slippery, easily cracked, and results in a weird internal echo and vibration during audio playback.

Polycarbonate is a great choice. In return for this “concession,” you get a body that will not crack or splinter, and should you actually drop it and mar the surface, the scratch will retain the polycarbonate’s color, which runs throughout the material; there’s no surface paint or coating.

Speaking of color, you have your choice of three: Clearly White, Just Black, and Purple-ish. I opted for the latter and really enjoy it. It’s a subtle purple hue that can look white from certain angles, and it’s about as colorful and attractive as the tan-like Not Pink of my Pixel 3 XL.

And the Google case I bought neatly hints at the underlying color of the handset.

Polycarbonate is also noticeably lighter than the glass and aluminum sandwich design that Google used for the Pixel 3 XL. Where that flagship weighs in at a hefty 6.49 ounces, the Pixel 3a XL weighs just 5.89 ounces. So the Pixel 3a XL is almost 10 percent lighter, and you can really feel the difference when you hold both in your hands at the same time. The Pixel 3a XL seems light and airy by comparison.

Looked at from any angle, the Pixel 3a XL very closely follows the design of the Pixel 3 XL otherwise, and the design aesthetic is consistent with previous Pixels too. There’s a dual-band design to the back, a Pixel standard, a camera, and a rear-facing fingerprint reader. The buttons—for power and volume—-are similarly placed on the right of the device. (The SIM tray is positioned on the left side of the 3a XL, and not on the bottom as with the 3 XL.)

There are a few minor differences beyond the materials. The USB port on the bottom is flanked by two down/side-facing speakers; they are front-facing on the Pixel 3 XL. And there is a headphone jack—a headphone jack!—-on the top of the handset, as God intended.

From the front, the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t look futuristic like the OnePlus 7 Pro and its truly all-screen fascia. But it doesn’t look antiquated either. It is, instead, both handsome and functional and it calls into question the need for notches in the first place.

Display

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pixel 3a XL display is one key area in which Google sought to save money by using a cheaper and less technically sophisticated part. Despite this, I find that this display compares favorably with the superior—on paper—display used in the Pixel 3 XL. In fact, in comparing multiple identical apps, photos, and videos on each side-by-side, I have trouble telling them apart. Well. Aside from the intrusive notch on the Pixel 3 XL, that is.

The Pixel 3a XL ships with a tall 18:9 aspect ratio 6-inch Full HD+ (2160 x 1080) OLED display that delivers 402 ppi. That doesn’t seem all that great compared to previous Pixels: The 18.5:9 Pixel 3 XL is bigger, at 6.3-inches diagonally, and it has a higher resolution (2960 x 1440) and pixel density (523 ppi). Even the Pixel 2 XL delivered 538 ppi in its Full HD+ display (which was otherwise lackluster, actually).

But these measurements can be deceptive. Despite being taller diagonally, the display on the Pixel 3 XL gives up a lot of usable on-screen real estate, at least when displaying the status bar, because of its obnoxiously large notch. When you look at apps like Instagram or Facebook side-by-side on both handsets, the view on the Pixel 3a XL is only a tiny smidge smaller than on the Pixel 3 XL. In fact, it’s almost exactly the height of the status bar (on the 3a XL). Not much.

The resolution and pixel density differences between the two devices should matter even more. But they don’t. In apps of all kinds—games, productivity apps, photo apps, and video streaming apps—I just don’t see much of a real-world difference when viewed side-by-side. (I configured both displays identically, for example, using the Adaptive colors scheme, and no Pixel supports resolution lowering, as we see on some other Android phones.)

Where the Pixel 3 XL does come out ahead is brightness: That more expensive handset also delivers more whiter whites, if that makes, sense, where the full white areas on the Pixel 3a XL can often look just a tad light gray. But that may be the only major difference I’ve noticed. And it’s not something anyone would notice without specifically comparing the two handsets.

There is one bigger potential downside to the Pixel 3a XL, however: Instead of being protected by the latest Gorilla Glass, the Pixel 3a XL display is instead described as being a scratch-resistant glass called Dragontrail. But it’s not in the same league as Gorilla Glass when it comes to being shatter resistant. So, it’s possible that one could have issues in long-time use. In a few weeks of use, I’ve not noted any issues.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. And in this case, I feel that the compromise was correct in order for Google to meet the Pixel 3a XL’s reasonable price point. And the display looks great.

Hardware and specs

You can get any Pixel 3a XL configuration you want as long as it’s powered by a mid-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor with Adreno 615 graphics, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of non-expandable storage. On paper, each of those components is problematic. But in real-world use, only the storage has really bothered me. I’d like to see at least a 128 GB upgrade.

This may change over time—Android is legendary for its performance rot problems—but I’ve never experienced any meaningful performance issues when using the Pixel 3a XL normally, as I do with any smartphone. Serious gamers will want to look elsewhere, of course, but this handset handled casual games and the Asphalt 9: Legends racing title without complaint. (That said, the sheer size of that game makes it less compelling on the Pixel 3a XL and its limited storage.)

I have seen only two day-to-day performance issues with the Pixel 3a XL and both are, I feel, understandable and acceptable for a phone in this price range. The first is a photo processing slowness which I briefly describe in the next section. The second is related to the voice-to-type functionality in the Gboard keyboard app, which I use a lot because I find typing on small phone screens to be difficult and error-prone.

On the Pixel 3 XL, when I tap the microphone icon on the keyboard to begin speaking, there is quick series of messages that appears at the top of the keyboard and says, in turn, Initializing… and then Speak now. In truth, I never really noticed these messages before because Speak now appears so quickly that I just tap the icon and start talking and it just works.

On the Pixel 3a XL, this occurs more leisurely, and it ends up not transcribing the first few words I say every time unless I remember to wait. It’s roughly the difference between 0-1 seconds (Pixel 3 XL) and 1-3 seconds (Pixel 3a XL), and while that may not seem like a big difference, it’s night and day when you’re trying to speak into your phone.

Neither of these issues is a deal breaker. But I think they do speak, ahem, to the difference in the core, real-world performance of the two handsets. And the question you need to ask yourself is whether it’s worth another $420 so you don’t have to wait one extra second every time you wish to transcribe your voice into text. That pause is real, and is noticeable. But I can wait.

Better still, the Pixel 3a XL never seems to warm up and stay warm, a problem I’ve had with the Pixel 3 XL repeatedly. Whether this is due solely to the more modest internals or that combined with the polycarbonate exterior is unclear. No matter. It always worries me when a phone heats up. So this is a welcome change.

Looking past the performance, the Pixel 3a XL is stocked full of mostly-modern components as one would expect here in 2019. The phone supports all the important carrier bands and works fine on all U.S. carrier networks (It’s even available formally from all of the big carriers except AT&T.) It is fully Google Fi compatible, of course, and supports network switching between both GSM and CDMA networks. It also includes Bluetooth 5.0, dual-band 802.11acn Wi-Fi networking, and NFC.

The battery is a nice improvement over that in the Pixel 3 XL, too: It’s a 3700 mAh unit, up from the smaller 3430 mAh version used in the 3 XL; that, combined with the 3a XL’s less-powerful innards and less power-hungry display should result in better battery life. And that has been my experience: Where I can never get through a solid day without recharging the Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel 3a XL has soldiered on nicely.

Like the Pixel 3 XL, the Pixel 3a XL includes stereo speakers, but there are some differences between the two, some of which are improvements and some of which are not. On the negative side, the 3a XL’s speakers are less rich sounding and loud than those on the 3 XL, and the right/bottom speaker is not front-firing. But in the positive column, the Pixel 3a XL does not suffer from the echoes and vibrations I experience on the more expensive Pixel, and the stereo separation is better balanced. (The Pixel 3 XL is heavily biased to the right/bottom speaker, which is irritating.) Given these trade-offs, I prefer the Pixel 3a XL overall despite the less-rich sound. It’s good enough.

The Pixel 3a XL has another audio feature that the Pixel 3 XL lacks: A real headphone jack. So you can perform futuristic tasks like listening to audio via a pair of headphones while simultaneously charging the device. That’s wonderful, but it’s even better when you forget your dongle and it just works. I listened to music and an audiobook on a recent flight to Miami using just my headphones, no dongle, for the first time in a few years. It was great.

One final hardware note: Where I experienced serious audio and microphone issues during phone calls with the Pixel 3 XL, I’ve had a clean, error-free experience with Pixel 3a XL. In fact, the first time I called my wife after switching to the 3a XL, she actually commented, unprompted, that the call sounded great. With the Pixel 3 XL, my audio to her was often mechanically garbled. And I experienced a background static sound on every call; neither has ever occurred with the Pixel 3a XL. It works as it should.

Cameras

At this price point, one can forgive Google for cutting some corners in the camera department. But the tradeoffs it made are absolutely acceptable. Indeed, most Pixel 3a XL buyers will never notice that anything is missing.

So what is missing? The Pixel 3 XL lacks Google’s Pixel Visual Core chipset, which it says improves the performance and quality of photographs, especially those like the Night Sight shots that require some AI processing. And where the more expensive Pixel 3 XL provides two front-facing cameras to enable a cool ultra-wide selfie mode, the Pixel 3a XL makes do with a single lens and normal selfies.

Practically speaking, this means that the Pixel 3a XL will take a little longer to both take and process Night Sight and other complicated shots, where the Pixel 3 XL takes maybe one second in post-shot processing. In side-to-side shots, however, I don’t see any quality differences between shots taken with the two handsets. And while the ultra-wide selfie mode is nice, I can live without it.

Beyond that, the Pixel 3a XL packs the same hardware as the 3 XL: The rear camera is a 12 MP single lens unit with an f/1.8 aperture, autofocus with dual pixel phase detection, and optical and electronic image stabilization. And the front-facing selfie camera is likewise a single 8 MP normal lens with an f/1.8 aperture and a 75-degree field of view, (The 3 XL’s other front-facing camera is an  8 MP wide-angle lens with an f/2.2 aperture and a 97-degree field of view.)

It takes excellent photos in all conditions. And better low-light and nighttime shots than virtually any smartphone, including the latest and most expensive Samsungs, Apple, and Huaweis. Not bad for $480. Hell, it’s not bad at $1000 either.

Security

Google didn’t cut any corners when it comes to security: The Pixel 3a XL includes the same Titan M security chip as the Pixel 3 XL, the same speedy and efficient rear-facing fingerprint reader, and the same software security controls. This handset, like the Pixel 3 XL, is also Android Enterprise Recommended, indicating that it meets a high security bar for businesses.

Put simply, the Pixel 3a XL behaves and functions just like the Pixel 3 XL from a security standpoint. There were no issues here at all.

Unique hardware features

As noted above, the Google Pixel 3a XL features the same rear-facing fingerprint reader as its more expensive sibling and it offers the same excellent performance and accuracy. There is no facial recognition option, but that’s probably for the best given how poorly this technology currently works on Android.

Also like the Pixel 3 XL, the 3a XL features Google’s Active Edge technology, which lets you squeeze the lower sides of the handset to summon Google Assistant. I disable this feature, but I might think otherwise if one could configure it to perform other actions.

And again mimicking its much more expensive sibling, the Pixel 3a XL supports fast charging and even includes an 18-watt fast charger in the box. In a concession to cost, there is no wireless charging.

Software

The Pixel 3a XL ships with the latest version of Google’s clean Android 9 Pie software image and, as always, it’s a delight, with no crapware or other superfluous nonsense. As with more expensive Pixels, Google says it will support the Pixel 3a XL with three years of annual Android version upgrades and monthly security updates. Given this handset’s mid-level specifications, it’s likely that you’ll outgrow the phone before it stops receiving updates.

Pricing and availability

The Google Pixel 3a XL comes in a single configuration with 64 GB of storage and costs $480. I would prefer having at least the option to update the storage and feel that 64 GB—especially when non-expandable via microSD—is the bare minimum for an Android handset today.

Regardless, the Pixel 3a XL is a tremendous value for its $480 asking price. A similarly configured Pixel 3 XL costs an outrageous $900. For that additional cost, you get better performance, albeit only subtly in day-to-day usage, wireless charging and water resistance, a slightly better display, Gorilla Glass protection, and a few other niceties, most unnecessary.

Amazingly, the Pixel 3a XL also outperforms the 3 XL in some important ways. Its polycarbonate body is more durable than the 3 XL’s all-glass body and it doesn’t exhibit the same echo and vibration on audio playback. There’s a headphone jack, which the 3 XL lacks. And in my experience, the call quality on the 3a XL is superior, with no static or microphone issues.

There are three color options: Clearly White, Just Black, and Purple-ish, the latter of which is unique to the Pixel 3a and 3a XL. (Not Pink is not available.)

Recommendations and conclusions

The Google Pixel 3a XL is easy to recommend. It provides one of the very best smartphone cameras available today and yet costs about half the price of flagships from Apple, Huawei, Samsung, and, yes, Google too. Depending on your needs, Google didn’t really cut any important features out, either, though I will highlight the lack of storage upgradeability as perhaps the sole serious negative. There are questions about the long-term viability of the Pixel 3a XL’s mid-range specs, of course. But I’ve rarely been this delighted by a smartphone, and certainly almost never at this price point. Has Google found a new sweet spot in a crowded and overpriced smartphone market? I think they have.

The Google Pixel 3a XL is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Excellent cameras with superb low-light performance
  • Low price, great value
  • Fun and durable polycarbonate body
  • Headphone jack
  • Speedy and accurate fingerprint reader
  • Fast charging support, bundled fast charger
  • Clean Android image
  • Fully compatible with Google Fi

Cons

  • No storage upgrade or expansion
  • No Gorilla Glass protection
  • No wireless charging
  • Not water resistant

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