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Google Pixel 3a XL review: You should buy this instead of a Pixel 3 XL

When Google announced the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL at its I/O 2019 developer conference a couple of weeks ago, it pointed out a troubling trend in flagship smartphones, which is that the price of them keeps getting higher and higher. This sentiment inspired the two new devices, which promise the same features as a Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, but at a much lower price point.

Indeed, the Pixel 3a costs just $399, half the price of a Pixel 3, and the Pixel 3a XL costs just $479. While they pack features that we’ve all come to know and love like Night Sight and Now Playing, there don’t seem to be a lot of sacrifices made. The new handsets take a hit in processing power with a Snapdragon 670, there’s no wireless charging, and the body is made out of plastic.

Ultimately though, it’s a really good phone. Typically, when reviewing a device in this price range, I can appreciate the things that give it value, but at the end, I’m happy to go back to a real flagship. The Pixel 3a XL is actually something that I wouldn’t have a problem using day-to-day.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 (dual-core 2GHz Kryo 360 Gold, hexa-core 1.7GHz Kryo 360 Silver)
GPU Adreno 315
Body 160.1×76.1×8.2mm (6.30×3.00×0.32in), 167g (5.89oz)
Display 6 inches, 1080×2160, 18:9, 402ppi, OLED
Camera 12.2MP, Front – 8MP
Video 4K – 30fps, 1080p – 60fps, Front – 1080p – 30fps
Aperture f/1.8, Front – f/2.0
Storage 64GB
RAM 4GB
Battery 3,700mAh, 18W fast charging
Material Plastic
Price $479

Day one

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Design

The Pixel 3a XL comes in three colors, all with the kinds of names that Google thinks is clever: Just Black, Clearly White, and Purple-ish. The model that Google sent me is Purple-ish, and the name sums it up. It’s a sort of lavender color, a light purple that’s not too deep.

In general, the Pixel 3a XL looks and feels the same as the Pixel 3 XL. There are some subtle changes though. The body is made entirely out of plastic, so there’s no metal frame around the sides like the Pixel 3 XL has. Since it’s not a glass sandwich, the metal frame isn’t necessary.

It does make me wonder why Google went with glass in the Pixel 3 series at all. The texture of the back is ever-so-slightly different, but barely noticeable. Plastic is cheaper, lighter, and it won’t shatter. Since both support wireless charging and Google didn’t go for any of the visual appeal that glass offers, what was the point? In bringing down the price point, I wouldn’t mark the plastic body as a compromise, because it seems to not make a difference at all.

With that being said, the Pixel 3a XL is lighter than the Pixel 3 XL, at 167g instead of 184g. It’s also 0.3mm thicker at 8.2mm, it’s narrower at 76.1mm instead of 76.7mm, and it’s taller at 160.1mm instead of 158mm. The most noticeable of all of these things is the weight though. The larger screen on the Pixel 3a XL does fit into the smaller body, but it has a taller aspect ratio of 18.5:9 and a hideous notch.

As is typical for a Pixel phone, the top portion of the back is glossy while the bottom is matte. Another benefit to the plastic seems to be that this isn’t as easy to scratch as the Pixel 3 series. On the top-left, there’s a 12.2MP camera module and a flash next to it, which is exactly the same as its more expensive sibling.

Right in the middle of the back of the handset is a fingerprint sensor. Google hasn’t taken the plunge into in-display fingerprint sensors just yet, and this mid-range handset isn’t where it was going to start.

On the left side of the device, there’s a nano-SIM card slot. As usual, the Pixel 3a XL supports all major carriers, and what’s cool is that you can buy it from anyone, except AT&T. If you’re on AT&T, you’ll have to buy it unlocked.

On the right side, there’s a yellow power button and below that, a volume rocker. This probably sounds dumb, but I like how the power button is a different color than the volume rocker. It’s just easier to spot the difference visually. The black model is the only one that doesn’t offer this, for some reason.

The bottom of the device is where you’ll find the USB Type-C port for charging, but more notably, the top of the handset has a 3.5mm combo audio jack. This is interesting because the more expensive Pixels do not have a headphone jack, forcing users to use an adapter. Unfortunately, the charging port and the headphone jack are not on the same side.

Display

The Google Pixel 3a XL includes a six-inch 1080p 18:9 OLED display. There’s good news here, which is that there is no notch. I’m not even so much against notches, as much as I’m against the disgusting one on the Pixel 3 XL. That being said though, the bezels are pretty large on all sides.

I’m OK with that though. The trend of narrow side bezels has its drawbacks, such as accidental touches on the panel. Many of the trends in phones feel like missteps, and I think that as a society, we’ve decided on form over function.

The OLED screen does offer an always-on ambient display. This allows you to see the time, notifications badges, and so on. The good news about OLED is that pixels can be turned off, meaning that the black is true black. There are several phones around this price point that offer similar functionality from an LCD, and it’s not good. Think of how when your TV shows you something black, you can still tell it’s on; that’s because it’s backlit. With an OLED panel, the only pixels lit up are the ones you want to see. This also results in more vibrant colors, as the colors are rendered on top of true black instead of a backlight.

The bad news is that it does not support wireless charging, and that means that you lose out on the functionality that you’d get from the Pixel Stand. For Pixel 3 and 3 XL owners, the Pixel Stand adds some Google Home features to the device. You won’t get that with the Pixel 3a series.

One thing that I absolutely love about the always on display is a feature called Now Playing. This will automatically tell you a song that’s playing in the room. There’s no need to pull up a third-party app, or any app for that matter. Just look at your phone and you’ll see what song is playing, even if you’re not connected to the internet.

Camera

The Google Pixel 3a XL includes a 12.2-megapixel f/1.8 rear camera, and that’s it. It’s the exact same sensor that’s used on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and Google is the last major OEM left that hasn’t adopted a dual- or triple-lens system. Google’s focus is and always has been on computational photography.

The Pixel lineup is also renowned for having some of the best image quality on the market, with the most natural colors. You won’t get the lossless zoom of a Huawei P30 Pro, but as far as image quality, it’s one of the best out there. This is especially a big deal when you consider that the Pixel 3a XL has the same camera as the Pixel 3 XL.

And then there’s Night Sight, which works similarly to other solutions that pretty much take a bunch of images and combine them into one to brighten the picture. This is also a feature that has been praised, although as you’d expect, it does take longer to take a picture.

Many of the samples that I took were meant to test out Night Sight, and the results are pretty solid. In many cases, it could see better than I could.

The other big feature is portrait mode, which is done with a single lens on both the front and the back. The front camera is the one thing that differs from the Pixel 3 XL, which has dual front sensors.

What I really like about this is that portrait mode doesn’t zoom in on the subject. For example, with an iPhone Xs Max, you have to use the secondary 2x zoom lens for portrait mode, forcing you to reposition your shot. The Pixel 3a XL doesn’t give you the hassle. Portrait mode just works, and if you hate it, it even saves the original photo for you as well.

Especially considering that these shots are taken with a single-lens camera, Google does a great job with portrait mode. If you look closely, you can see a slight imperfection around faces, but it doesn’t have the stray hair effect, where a couple of out of place hairs look super blurry when they shouldn’t. Also, it was smart enough to recognize someone behind me instead of blurring that person out.

Performance

This handset uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 670 chipset, which is probably the biggest sacrifice on the Pixel 3a XL. The good news is that the sacrifice is barely noticeable. There’s a tiny bit of lag here and there that you’d probably only notice if you can from something with a Snapdragon 845 or Snapdragon 855, but that’s about it.

I say this often in reviews, but those thousand-dollar smartphones that people jump at the chance to buy really offer more CPU power than the average consumer needs. The Snapdragon 670 is built for the upper mid-tier, and it definitely gets the job done.

This device also includes 4GB RAM, the same as the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, so you’re not making a sacrifice there. The biggest hit is probably in terms of GPU power, so if you’re heavy into mobile gaming, you’re probably already looking at something that’s more expensive.

For benchmarks, I used Geekbench 4, AnTuTu, and GFXBench. First up is Geekbench 4, which provides a CPU test.

You can see that the single-core score is right around that of the original Google Pixel, which was powered by the Snapdragon 821, Qualcomm’s flagship processor from a few years ago. The multi-core score is higher though, which is fair since the Snapdragon 821 was a quad-core CPU, while the Snapdragon 670 is octa-core.

Next up is AnTuTu, which provides an all-in-one test.

Overall, the Pixel 3a XL defeated the results of 37% of other users, and it was the same in the CPU category. As I mentioned above, the GPU doesn’t even do that well. The memory section is where the Pixel 3a XL does better.

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU.

The results are about what you’d expect at this point. If you want to compare the results to other devices, you can find all of our reviews here.

Conclusion

The Google Pixel 3a XL is an awesome device, and I’ll absolutely be recommending it to friends that don’t want to spend a thousand dollars or close to it on a phone. Like I said earlier, usually when I review a phone at this price point, I’ll acknowledge that it provides a lot of value for the price, but I’ll still be happy to return to a flagship device when I’m done with my review.

I don’t feel that way about the Pixel 3a XL. This is a solid smartphone, and I was very happy with it. My only real complaint is the lack of wireless charging, which is something that I can live without. The other sacrifices made are mostly trivial for most users, such as the drop in performance and the plastic body.

For just $479, half the price of many flagship phones or less than that, you’re getting one of the best smartphone cameras on the market. You’re also getting a solid FHD OLED display, which has cool features like Now Playing.

And of course, you get all of the other nice things that come with having a Pixel. You’ll be among the first to get Android feature and security updates, you’ll be able to enroll in beta programs (although the Pixel 3a XL was pulled from the Android Q beta for the time being), and you get a stock Android experience.

This phone is a solid buy, and unless you really care about wireless charging, I’d even recommend it over the Pixel 3 XL.

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