Google has never had a problem making premium phones. Since the release of the Nexus lineup, we’ve seen the company partner with handset makers to deliver high-quality phones and tablets, some of which were hundreds of dollars less than the competition.
These options were all the more enticing since they came with pure Android, fast updates, and years of support from both Google and a community of developers through custom ROMs and tweaks.
The search giant decided to take a new route a few years ago, killing off the Nexus lineup in favor of Pixel devices. Gone were the days of cheaper devices as we were introduced to Google’s vision of a flagship. Consumers used to cheap annual hardware updates had to look in another direction.
But, Google is changing course again. The Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL are a return to affordable hardware with a clean build of Android. If that wasn’t attractive enough, the same lauded camera from last year’s Pixel 3 and 3 XL are on board. A truly compelling package, and all for under $500.
We’ve spent the last few months living with the Pixel 3a XL and this is what we found.
Hardware and design
If you’ve never held a Pixel device in your hand, you might not know how dominating it can be. These are not the pencil-thin devices where bezels go to die or incredibly tall screen aspect ratios. They’re big, wide, and the screen seems to stretch for miles. That’s no different with the Pixel 3a XL.
The difference this year is that the device is made out of plastic instead of glass– but that’s not a bad thing. We’ve long since abandoned plastic devices and (myself included) have assumed that glass backs were as good as you could get. They feel great and look fantastic, but come with the downside of scratches and cracks.
With the Pixel 3a XL, I’ve changed how I use my phone. I’ve never been overly careful with my devices in the past anyway, but now I don’t worry about my phone breaking at all.
Sure, I do try to protect the screen but I feel a lot better about tossing this into my bag than I would with another, far more breakable device. It’s freeing in a way that I had forgotten about.
And to be honest, this all still feels pretty nice. This isn’t the gross plastic covering of the Samsung Galaxy S5, but it’s hard and feels great in the hand, like a high-quality product that you’d have no problem paying the money for.
Thanks to the plastic back, fingerprints are no longer a problem and the potentially deep scratches of the Pixel 3 are gone, too. Google really killed it here.
The biggest problem most people will have with the Pixel 3a XL comes on the front of the device. In a world of waterdrop notches and pop-up cameras, the Pixel 3a XL goes in another direction.
Huge bezels adorn both the top and bottom of the device. This wasn’t so much a problem with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL because there were front-firing speakers in that space, but that’s not the case here. The 3a XL does have great stereo speakers, but they’re not front-firing; rather opting for an earpiece and downward firing speaker grill like we see in most phones with stereo speakers.
If bezels are an issue for you, this is not the phone for you. But during my time with the Pixel 3a XL, I never had an issue. These past few months, I never noticed the “gigantic” notch and I don’t notice the huge bezels here either. I only see the (relatively nice) display and hear the fantastic audio coming out of the speakers. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you don’t care about screen-to-body ratios, this is a good fit.
Hiding between those two bezels is a really nice OLED display. Price would indicate that we’d see an LCD here as with similarly priced phones like the ASUS ZenFone 6, but Google was able to stick with OELD and it pushes the experience from nice to great. The colors pop, blacks are wonderfully deep and the always-on-display remains a trusted way to glance at your notifications and move on. I don’t think I’d be so high on this device if the OLED panel wasn’t here.
Sneaking around the sides of the device, we find SIM card tray on near the top of the left side with all of the buttons on the right side. A volume rocker sits under the power button with nothing else to report besides the Active Edge feature that allows you to open Google Assistant by squeezing your phone. This is a familiar feature that has been around for years now and one that I enjoy.
I do find myself triggering Assistant by accident from time to time, but Google allows you to retrain the sensitivity in software to suit your needs.
There are other devices that cost less and feature “more premium” materials. There are devices that are more durable. But, there are few that I think will continue to look as good years down the road. Google struck a really nice balance here and while it’s not going to blow away enthusiasts, it’s going to be great for most people. That’s exactly what Google was going for.
And it has a headphone jack. What more could you ask for?
The Pixel 3a XL came out of the box running stock Android 9.0 Pie with Google’s Pixel Experience enhancements on top and has since been upgraded to Android 10. Updates come faster than any other Android OEM not named Essential, but do lag just a little bit behind the more expensive Pixel 3/XL and 4/XL. These delays are counted in days or weeks, not months.
If you enjoy the software experience on any other Pixel, you’ll find no real differences here. It’s fast, fluid, and lacks the bulky features that other OEMs cram into their devices. As an aside, it’s okay to like those features. We get so caught up in “pure” Android that we sometimes gloss over the fact that other phones ship with software features the Pixels don’t have.
Anyway, back on topic. In my time using the OnePlus 7 Pro as my daily driver, I forgot about some of the useful features that I really enjoyed on the Pixel 3/XL and 4/XL. One of the most prominent is call screening. I have T-Mobile so spam calls are unrelenting. While Big Magenta has done a good job cutting down on them in recent months, they’re still here and call screening is a wonder.
Call screening works with just a press of a button. Instead of just your normal answer and decline buttons, you also get the option to screen the call.
A recording will come up stating that you’re using an answering service and will receive a transcript of the call. It then asks the caller to identify who they are and why they’re calling, displaying those answers for you. You are given multiple quick reply buttons at the bottom to ask more questions or end the call. It’s a fantastic feature and one I’ve used over and over again.
I’ve heard people call the Pixel line the “Google iPhone” before and that’s fine. I guess we can just say that the flagships here are iPhone-like and move on but the one problem I have with this analogy is that Apple forces you into its software vision whereas Google presents its to you.
It’s light, it’s bright, and it does the things you need without you thinking. But if you don’t want any of that, you can change it. Do you want to install a thousand apps that all work together and share files and data between them? Go for it. Dark mode is in almost every Google app now and came system-wide with the Android 10 update.
Google has a vision for Android, that much is obvious. But that doesn’t have to be your vision for you to love this phone. You do have to love iOS to love Apple’s phones, too, and that’s a big area where Google will score points with consumers. It’s an area where it should be educating consumers and if it does, I think it crushes Apple’s most popular phone, the iPhone XR.
Camera is core to the experience of a Pixel phone. If you want simply the best camera out there, you pick up a Pixel. That much has been known for years. But we’ve never dealt with a “budget Pixel” before. Most budget phones cut corners to save money and one of the easiest ways to cut costs is opting for a serviceable, but not good, camera.
Google went another route, relying on its camera to sell units because it knows photography and full well how to get everything possible out of that sensor. The search giant is a master of computational photography and it shows with the Pixel 3a XL.
The camera setup is mostly the same as the more-expensive Pixel 3 XL. We have a single rear 12.2 MP shooter with an f/1.8 aperture at 28mm, optical and electronic image stabilization, dual pixel PDAF, and a dual-LED flash.
Where things start to differ is around front. Instead of a dual-lens setup, there’s a single 8 MP f/2.0 lens at 24mm that supports HDR shooting. Gone is the wide-angle lens that allowed for group-shot selfies. We’re also missing the Pixel Visual Core, a dedicated chip inside the device that allowed for quicker picture processing.
Despite those missing features, the experience here is still great. Pictures look fantastic and full of life. The portrait mode delivers great bokeh and Nightsight still blows me away with how much light it can pull out of a scene.
The biggest change from the Pixel 3 XL to the 3a XL is just how fast those pictures get processed. Sometimes I do find myself waiting around a little bit for the slower Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor to finish working on my pictures, but I honestly don’t really care.
Battery and Performance
I wish I could tell you that this sub-$500 phone punched above its weight and went toe-to-toe with phones that dwarf its price tag. Unfortunately, I can’t.
What I can say, though, is that the Pixel 3a XL is fine. It completes tasks in a timely fashion and I’ve yet to see instances of dropped frames or hard stuttering.
It does take longer to complete tasks than phones with flagship-level processors, but that’s to be expected. This doesn’t have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 like the Samsung Galaxy S10, LG G8, or OnePlus 7 Pro, but it also doesn’t have that kind of price tag either.
The device comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage. Those are roughly what we’d expect to see at this price in 2019 and are just a step below the big boys who routinely pack in 6GB+ of RAM and 128GB of storage.
We did see issues with the Pixel 3 and 3 XL’s “only” 4 GB of RAM when the devices first came out, but Google seems to have figured those out. No longer do music streaming apps die in the background once they’re closed, and that’s a relief. But, I did notice that it couldn’t hold too many apps in memory, which lead to longer loading times down the road.
Battery life, on the other hand, is a huge win. It’s hard not to compare this device to the Pixel 3 XL released late last year in this respect because I was pretty disappointed that phone’s battery life.
While I did usually get through the day, it was just barely. Power users always had issues doing so. Luckily there was fast charging and wireless charging on board to keep users juiced up during the day.
While fast charging does return for the 3a XL, wireless charging does not — and that’s a bummer. It’s one of my favorite features on phones today.
I don’t ever do scientific testing on battery life because this is an area that varies widely from person to person. I don’t think numbers really tell the story. So, let me tell you a little bit about how I use my phone and the results I get.
First off, what I don’t do. I don’t play a ton of games and usually only do so to test out phone performance here and there. I don’t snap a ton of pictures or record 4K video unless I’m doing so for a review. I also don’t do extremely long video streaming sessions because I have a TV for that.
My daily usage consists of several hours of music streaming in the background, at least two hours on Reddit killing time and reading articles, five to ten phone calls that last anywhere from a minute to a half an hour, and syncing 10+ email accounts. I usually kill phones by the end of the day with somewhere around 5 hours of Screen on Time at the most.
During my review period I never once had an issue with the Pixel 3a XL dying, or even coming remotely close. In fact, I went past six hours of screen on time several times with 20-30% of my battery left at the end of the day.
I’ve held up the OnePlus 6T as my battery champ in the last year and that long battery life is one of the reasons that I’ve used it as my daily driver for so long. The Pixel 3a XL is right there with it and I’d have no problem taking it with me when I know I’m going to use it heavily for an entire day.
Budget phones have long made sense for most people. If you can pick up 90% of the phone for 50% of the price, that’s a good compromise, right? It seems that while the logic is there, consumers disagreed. Flagships are still the most exciting thing in Android with most headlines dedicated to new chapters from Samsung, LG, and OnePlus.
Despite that, Google has taken a page from Motorola’s book and released a truly compelling mid-range device that delivers in nearly ever aspect. Sure, we’re missing features like an IP rating, wireless charging, and oodles of RAM, but we have everything we need and a camera that’s almost unmatched.
There’s a been a trend of crowning the Pixel 3a and 3a XL as the king of budget phones, and while I think that’s taking it a bit too far, there is a ton to love here.
For your money you get a processor that gets the job done, enough RAM to keep going all day long, battery life that can push into the two-day category for light users, and one of the best cameras on the market. All in all, a very compelling experience at just $399 for the Pixel 3a and $479 for the 3a XL.
But, this is not the phone for you if you want to hold onto a device for many years into the future. While companies like Samsung and OnePlus are sticking a ridiculous 12GB of RAM into devices, Google stuck with 4GB.
It wouldn’t have made sense for the company to release a budget phone with more RAM than its flagship, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about how the phone will hold up for the next few years. We’re getting larger apps and hungrier system processes with each passing day and the Pixel 3a XL could soon be in a tight spot.
If you do want a cheaper phone for right now, one that will get software updates well into the future and a camera that’s capable of more than just social media pictures, then this where you want to start your search.
At $400, this is one of the best values on the market right now and in the US, it’s the only readily available option which delivers these specs at this price.
We fully recommend the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, though if you’re outside of the US, you do have more options. Do your research, but start here.