Google Pixel 3A XL review: Google raises the bar for mid-tier phones


In a time when the smartphone industry as a whole continues to struggle with a saturated market, while at the same time companies are releasing flagship phones that break the $1,000 mark, something has to change.

Google’s approach? Release cheaper versions of their flagship Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. The $400 Pixel 3A is half the price of the $800 Pixel 3, and the $479 Pixel 3A XL is a far cry from the $900 you’d pay for a Pixel 3 XL today.

Google’s approach undercuts Apple and Samsung, both of which released a less expensive — $750 — version of their flagship phones as an alternative to the $999 iPhone XS and $899 Galaxy S10. But, arguably, they’re still expensive.

Apple and Samsung, take note. Google’s approach to offering different experiences at markedly different price points is the right one.

I’ve been using the Pixel 3A XL for the past week, and it’s clear to me that Google had to make some sacrifices to hit the lower price point. Overall, however, the Pixel 3A XL is a steal.

Design

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The overall design of the Pixel 3A XL feels a lot like what we saw with the Pixel 2 line. The back of the phone is plastic, sharing the same two-tone look like the rest of the Pixel line. Despite being plastic, the phone doesn’t feel cheap. Google sent me the black model, but you can also get it in white or a slightly purple color — Google cheekily calls it “Purple-ish”.

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The Pixel 3A XL has a 6-inch FHD+ OLED screen with a resolution of 2160 x 1080. Bucking the current trend of adding a notch or a hole punch display, there are modest bezels above and below the screen. At first, the change back to a notch-less phone was noticeable, but after a couple of hours, it faded away.

The screen is one area where it’s apparent to me I’m using a cheaper phone. It’s slightly oversaturated for my liking (not something I can say about the Pixel 3 XL), and just doesn’t have the same look and feel as displays on more expensive phones. But it’s a fine display.

On the back of the phone is a fingerprint sensor, along with a 12.2-megapixel camera. This is the same camera that Google uses in its flagship phones. There’s also an 8-megapixel camera on the front, which lacks a the wide-angle feature that the Pixel 3 offers.

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The right side of the housing is a volume rocker and the power button. The SIM card tray is on the left side, with a USB-C charging port found on the bottom. One thing the Pixel 3A XL offers that its more expensive siblings don’t is a headphone jack. Yup, Google went there. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of both Pixel 3A models.

The Pixel 3A doesn’t have any sort of IP rating for water or dust resistance, and you’ll also forgo wireless charging when compared to the Pixel 3’s IP68 rating and wireless charging.

Google struck deals with Sprint and T-Mobile for the launch of the Pixel 3a lineup. Both join Verizon as official carriers for the phone. It’s the first time that Google has expanded the availability of any Pixel phones outside of selling unlocked phones directly to consumers through its own store, or via its partnership with Verizon Wireless. I conducted my testing with an AT&T SIM card, which officially supports the Pixel 3A despite not selling it in stores or online. 

Performance

Powering the Pixel 3A XL, which runs Android Pie 9.0 with Google’s Pixel-specific features, is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 670 processor, Google’s Titan M security chip, 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, and a 3,700mAh battery.

Shortly after the Pixel 3A was announced, Google added both models to its Android Enterprise Recommend program. The program certifies devices from OEMs that provide tools for enterprise workers and IT teams to better manage a fleet of devices. Devices in the program will get security updates within 90 days of release, are available in an unlocked model, support QR code or zero-touch enrollment.

On its own, the Pixel 3A XL’s performance is just fine. When compared directly against a Pixel 3 XL, it’s slightly — and I mean just slightly — slower. Opening an app, for example, takes a little longer. So does processing an HDR+ photo in the camera app.

Google promises three years of OS and security updates for the Pixel 3A XL. Reliable software updates, released on a monthly basis, is a selling point for the entire Pixel line — and it’s good to see Google continue that approach even with the 3A line.

Battery life has been great, with the Pixel 3A XL lasting an average of 30 hours for my use. That means four to five hours of screen on time, bouncing between Gmail, Slack, Twitter, Messages, and a handful of other apps.

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The real highlight of the Pixel 3A XL is its camera. The fact that Google used the same rear camera in the Pixel 3A XL, complete with Night Sight mode, as the Pixel 3 line is something I still have yet to come to terms with. This just doesn’t happen.

Google continues to offer one of the best smartphone cameras available, and that experience extends to its mid-tier phone. The camera is, after all, typically one of the areas where compromises are made when vendors are aiming to lower the price of a phone. I’ll gladly deal with slightly slower performance and a display that may not look the greatest, for a camera that will routinely and consistently capture high-quality photos.

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Over the week I used the 3A XL’s camera for Portrait shots, video, Night Sight shots, and other random photos. The quality was the same as what I would expect from the Pixel 3 XL. The above photo was captured with Portrait mode, and I have no complaints about it. Sure, I could nitpick the fact that the bill of the hat is blurred when it shouldn’t be, but that’s a common complaint with portrait mode on my iPhone XS Max or Pixel 3 XL. 

Conclusion

I think it’s fair to compare the Pixel 3A XL to the more expensive Pixel 3 XL simply because it’s a question consumers will be asking themselves — do I go with the $900 phone, or the one that costs almost half that? And what will I miss out on if I do? There are tradeoffs when it comes to the display and speed, but when it comes to battery life and the camera, the Pixel 3A XL shines. 

A more realistic comparison for the Pixel 3A XL would be to Motorola’s Moto G7, a $300 phone. If forced to pick between the two phones, I’d go with the Pixel 3A for no other reason than the camera.

Hopefully, Google will put in the effort to market and get the message out there that the Pixel 3A is available for more than just Verizon customers, but I have my doubts. 

We’re already seeing promotions that give users $100 gift cards with the purchase of a Pixel 3A or Pixel 3A XL. If those promotions continue, and they very likely will, there’s nothing to debate — the Pixel 3A XL, and by extension, the Pixel 3A, are the mid-tier phones to beat. 



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