Revisiting the Google Pixel 3a XL

Posted on January 25, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 19 Comments

Last week, I paid off the Google Pixel 4 XL that I purchased in October. Naturally, I immediately started using a different smartphone.

That I chose the Pixel 3a XL—the budget handset that Google released back in May 2019—was not a foregone conclusion. I had pulled a few recent phones out of storage with the idea of revisiting some of the smartphones I reviewed in 2019 to see how they fared when viewed with fresh eyes. And two of the top contenders, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ and Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, are expensive, flagship devices that in their own unique ways both came pretty close to overcoming my fixation with Google Fi, the Pixel’s historic strength in photography, and Google’s clean Android images.

But thanks to a couple of factors—most notably my recent troubles with Google Play Music and my Chromecast Audio-based sunroom speakers, which I had first attributed last year to performance problems with the Pixel 3a XL—I decided to go in a different direction. I will most likely revisit the Note 10+ and iPhone 11 Pro Max soon, as well. But I was curious about the Pixel 3a XL. And so, without going back and re-reading what I had written about this handset last year, I started the process of moving back to the Pixel 3a XL, if temporarily.

I do this kind of thing a lot. And it is both easy and hard, if that makes sense. As is the case with bringing up a new Windows 10 PC or resetting an existing one, it still kind of surprises me how quickly you can start over, and it seems like you’re successfully up-and-running pretty quickly. But then you start using it and, over time, you realize there are lots of things you forgot to do.

In the case of this smartphone, that involved such things as running out the door to go to the gym and then remembering that I had never paired my Galaxy Buds, which requires not just Bluetooth but two separate Samsung apps that would need to be downloaded, installed, and configured as well. Or sitting down to watch TV at night and wanting to dim the light next to me, only to realize I had never installed the Hue app, and would need to fish behind the TV for the Hue hub (or whatever its called) so I could connect the app to my lights. None of this is serious, of course. But there’s a lot of it over time.

Anyway, I started with a clean refresh of Android, installed all the system and app updates, and then began recreating my two home screens manually, which involves downloading most of those apps, which are the apps I use the most often. I keep Google Maps, Microsoft Edge, Google Phone, Google Messages, and Google Camera in the Android dock, which his available on both home screens. The primary home screen is productivity and social media apps—like Microsoft Outlook, Skype, and OneNote, plus Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and a few others. And the second home screen is reading and audio, mostly: Audible, Pocket Casts (or whatever podcast app, I’ve been experimenting with that too), Spotify and/or Google Play Music, Medium, Pocket, some news app (Google News on Android), and so on.

I’ve only been using the Pixel 3a XL again for a few days. But my key observations are:

Display. Heading to the gym that same day I had forgotten to pair the Pixel with my Galaxy Buds, I realized I had also forgotten to pair it with the Bluetooth system in my wife’s car. (There it is again.) And when the phone issued a notification beep of some kind, I glanced at the display to see if it was anything important. And couldn’t read it at all. Unlike the decent display on the Pixel 4 XL, the Pixel 3a XL has a flat, bland display that lacks HDR and doesn’t get very bright. This was a further problem at the gym, since I sometimes watch parts of movies while using an elliptical trainer, and the display was very dim: I had to turn up the brightness almost all the way just to see it. Again, at this price point, that is acceptable. But I know that the Pixel 3a XL also lacks Gorilla Glass protection, and well, I’d be worried about it if I were using this over the long-term.

Signing-in. It’s funny how you get used to things. I had bemoaned Google’s move from its excellent rear-mounted fingerprint readers to what has been a mostly dodgy facial-recognition system in the Pixel 4 XL. But in returning to the Pixel 3a XL, I find myself holding up the phone and waiting futilely for it to just sign-me in. Oops: I have to reach around for the fingerprint reader again and, God help me, I find that a little annoying. Funny, right? Anyway, I’ll get used to it. Again. (And it is very fast and accurate.)

Android. Since its release in mid-2019, the Pixel 3a XL has benefitted from the upgrade to Android 10, gaining in the process many of the software features that I enjoy on the Pixel 4 XL. It sounds like a small thing, but the new Styles & Wallpaper settings interface that lets you configure the look and feel of the system, including the app icon shape, is something I’ve come to really like. And it’s great having that on the 3a XL.

Performance.  One of the issues with a mid-level processor like the Snapdragon 670 used by the Pixel 3a XL is that you’re just not going to get the same level of performance you see in a flagship handset. Given its price, I’m OK with what I see here, and I’ve only noticed minimal performance issues so far, all of which I think to be acceptable. (For example, when you take a screenshot, it takes a long time to save the file and the resulting notifications takes a long time to draw and then disappear.)

Storage. One thing I’d been experimenting with over the past few months is how I use content on devices like this. For example, I mentioned that I’d been experimenting with podcast apps recently, and it was in using Google Podcasts, which lacks automatic episode downloading, that I had a mini-epiphany of sorts in realizing that I didn’t really need to worry about such a thing: I can just stream podcasts when I listen to them. This helps with the Pixel 3a XL, since it only comes with 64 GB of storage, half the 128 GB I prefer, and there’s no way to configure it otherwise. That said, were I to fly somewhere with only this phone, I’d want to download some selection of music, podcasts, and audiobooks at the very least. But right now, I’m only using 32 percent of its storage and have 43.44 GB free. The only things I’ve downloaded are two audiobooks.

Form factor. I fell in love with polycarbonate all over again when I first used the Pixel 3a XL last year and I am once again quite taken with how it looks and feels. I wish there were more polycarbonate choices, and that the Pixel 4 XL was made of this material, and not of glass. I still use a case with it, which I hate, but I’m worried about that display. And while the resale value of this device is likely very low, I try to keep my devices in immaculate condition because I usually do resell them. But my God, polycarbonate. Wonderful.

Camera. I’ve only taken several photos with the Pixel 3a XL since bringing it back up, but they are of the Pixel quality I’ve come to expect. Despite having only a single rear camera lens, I continue to be impressed with what Google can do computationally. I would have no problem using this camera going forward. It’s still fantastic.

Typical food shot

So that’s where I’m at. Having written that all down, I decided to go and see what I wrote about the Pixel 3a XL in my review and, in researching that, in a particularly relevant follow-up article called Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short.

In that review, I called the Pixel 3a XL “the new sweet spot,” lauding its excellent cameras, low price/great value, polycarbonate body, headphone jack, speedy and accurate fingerprint reader, fast charging, clean Android image, and Google Fi compatibility. Six months later, I’m not surprised to discover that I still agree with all that.

But I was more interested, honestly, in the negatives, which I listed as the Pixel 3a XL’s lack of storage upgrade or expansion capabilities, no Gorilla Glass protection, no wireless charging, and not being water-resistant. The first two of those are still very big concerns. The other two are not personal concerns, but I noted them because I know they’re important to some readers. So that’s all still fair, overall, I guess.

But what I hadn’t listed as a negative in the review was performance. In the review, I only wrote that I had not experienced any meaningful performance issues in normal use, though I did mention that Android is legendary for its performance rot problems.

Three months after writing that review, however, I felt compelled to publish that Where the Google Pixel 3a Falls Short follow-up, which very much focuses on performance problems. It started with the Google Play Music/Chromecast Audio issues, which I originally attributed to the Pixel 3a XL but later experienced with other, much more powerful handsets. (I then blamed Google Play Music and finally the Chromecast, which Google has abandoned.)

As noted, I’ve not experienced any unexpected performance issues so far, but I’ve also only been using the handset for a few days. But in looking back over what I’ve written about the Pixel 3a XL and re-evaluating it now, I think the caveat, the issue, is that it’s an unknown. I think this speaks to the differences between “low-cost” and “good value,” since those terms are not synonymous: Lots of things are cheap, but if this handset is viable or two or three years or more, than it is arguably not a good value.

Google will replace the Pixel 3a XL with a Pixel 4a that may or may not come in an XL variant this coming May. Based on what we know about Qualcomm’s 2020 processor plans and the rumors of Pixel 4a coming in a 5G variant, it’s possible and even likely that it will use a 700-series processor that performs a better than the 670 processor in the 3a XL. And if Google can hold the line on pricing and continue forward with everything that is right about the 3a XL—and there is a lot that is very much right— then we could have a new sweet spot on our hands. One that perhaps has a few fewer downsides.

Either way, it will be an interesting conversation. But the conversation today about the Pixel 3a XL hasn’t changed all that much since last year: I still like what I liked then, and am concerned about the same things I was concerned about. And performance is the gray area. At its current, normal pricing—$400 for the smaller Pixel 3a and $480 for the Pixel 3a XL—I’m not how or whether to recommend it, given the timing. If you can get it on sale, well. That changes everything.

(Obviously, an expensive Samsung or iPhone, or whatever, can be twice as expensive as this low-end Pixel. But if such a phone is viable for twice as long as the Pixel, those phones may still be reasonable or even better values.)

But overall, I still really like the Pixel 3a XL. Given our evolving understanding of smartphone addiction and the need to spend less time peering into a bright blue light all the time, there is absolutely a place for an inexpensive phone that delivers on the fundamentals while providing a superior camera system. With many customers rejecting expensive, high-end smartphone flagships these days, maybe this is the right phone—or at least the right idea—for today.

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