Google has a Pixel-shaped problem. Critical acclaim is poured on its phones like custard on crumble, but hardly anyone buys them.
It’s all a bit of a mystery until you look at their launch prices and realise: oh yes, they cost an absolute packet. The Google Pixel 3a XL is the solution.
It is several hundred pounds cheaper than the regular Pixel 3 XL, looks very similar and has the two parts every Pixel shopper should want. Its camera and software are just like those of the pricey version.
The Pixel 3a XL is no Pocophone F1-esque bargain, but we still like it a lot.
Design & Features
You can’t help but notice the first obvious issue with the Pixel 3a XL. This isn’t the slickest-looking phone you can get in 2019. It’s one of the least-slick at the price, actually.
We switched from the Huawei P30 Lite to this. They’re comparable value-busting phones, but couldn’t leave a more different first impression. The Huawei is all metal and curved glass, shiny finishes and ultra-slim screen surrounds. It seems borderline unlikely at £300-odd quid.
And the Pixel? It is dumpy next to the P30 Lite. Its thick borders seem unrefined, almost cartoonish. Like iPhones before the X-series arrived, Pixels have not kept up with design trends. However, you could argue it doesn’t matter much. Pixels have a flavour all of their own. They’re instant retro, and not in a cloying kitsch way.
How does the Pixel 3a XL compare to the Pixel 3 XL? That phone is made of glass. This one is plastic, but the two look uncannily similar. Google has pulled off a particularly hard thing too. This plastic does not feel cheap. OK, not that cheap. The textured panel on the Pixel 3a XL’s back feels great.
Aluminium and glass would be nicer, sure. And the plastic side buttons do feel a bit “bargain bin." But Pixel phones have never been number-one for extravagant design. You noticed they were light before you noticed they were made of glass.
The Pixel 3a XL also gets rid of two off the most complained-about parts of the Pixel 3 XL. There’s no notch here — the Pixel 3 XL has the John Merrick of notches — and there is a headphone jack.
Another surprise, the Pixel 3a XL also has unusually good speakers. There’s one on the bottom and one on the front, for stereo sound. This array is pretty loud and has a fat bottom-end. The mids could be tightened up a bit and better-projected, but this is one of the best-sounding phones you’ll hear at the price.
And storage? You get 64GB. That’s fine. Google made a Pixel 3 XL with 64GB space. It cost a lot more. But the Huawei P30 Lite gets you 128GB for less cash.
The Pixel 3a XL is a Pixel 3 XL with most bits whittled down to some extent. But the screen still has some high-end flair.
This is a 6in 2160 x 1080 pixel display. And as it has an OLED panel, contrast is super-punchy even if you watch horror movies in bed with all the lights turned out.
There’s no notch, but as the Pixel 3 XL has a notch worthy of a Razzie award, we don’t miss it. Resolution is lower too. But 1080p is the norm for the price and it still looks very sharp. Only one negative actually stands out slightly. The Pixel 3a XL isn’t as bright at most of the £800-1000 phones.
A brighter backlight is out only real request, though. The Pixel 3a XL doesn’t struggle out on a sunny day, but does not cut through sunlight like the top phones.
Software & Performance
The rest of the time, the Pixel 3a XL looks and feels just like the full-fat Pixel 3 XL. It runs Android 9.0 Pie and has the same purist version of the software.
It feels fast and responsive. Apps and games load quickly and there’s no irritating lag when, for example, you tap on a text box and the keyboard pops up. Should we expect that in a £400-odd phone? No, but that Pixel slickness is one of the most important parts the Pixel 3a XL needed to hold onto.
There’s another key bit of Pixel flavour this phone replicates: the series’ haptics. When you unlock the phone or tap a soft key, you’ll feel a little vibration motor click. It’s a key part of the Pixel personality. This phone feels like a legit Pixel.
It manages this with a lower-end CPU too. The Pixel 3a XL has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670. Before release, the internet seemed to believe it would use the more popular Snapdragon 710. This processor is much like that one, but a bit slower. The graphics processor, the CPU, even the modem: all are a little slower.
Does it matter? Not much. Performance in a few top-end games is the obvious difference between the Pixel 3a XL and Pixel 3 XL. Ark: Survival Evolved chugs with the visuals maxed here. It doesn’t in the pricey version. However, PUBG Mobile will play at “high” graphics. It won’t in many mid-range phones.
Let’s whisper this one in case the Pixel 3 XL owners get mad: the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t feel that much slower.
Only one part of the Google Pixel 3a XL remains doggedly unchanged since the Pixel 3 XL. The rear camera still has the 12-megapixel Sony IMX355 sensor and the same Google software that got everyone so excited in late 2018.
It is, for the most part, just like the camera of the Pixel 3 XL. And that means it’s the best you can get at the price. Images are sharp down to the pixel, and Google’s dynamic range-boosting algorithms are superb. And it has the same Night Sight mode as the Pixel 3 XL.
Hold the phone relatively still for 3-5 seconds when taking a night photo and you’ll see just about the best images you can get from a phone at the price. It trashes the Huawei P30 Lite, even though that phone has a similar “long exposure” night mode.
Normal photos have the characteristic Pixel pop, dripping in contrast and packed with colour. But is the Pixel 3a XL really a gene-for-gene, pixel-by-pixel match for the Pixel 3 XL? That’s not 100% clear.
The Pixel 3a XL is a pro at bringing out the shadow detail in scenes when the light variation is huge. Think dark cave in one corner, spewing volcano in the other: both look clear. However, these dark details do tend to look quite grainy when you get up close. We don’t remember them looking quite so granular in the Pixel 3 XL. Failing memory? Maybe.
Skip right to the Gallery after taking a photo and you have to wait a couple of seconds to actually see the final image. This tells us the Pixel 3a XL’s ISP makes a difference. That’s the part of the processor designed specifically to handle the camera’s output.
This camera is very slightly different to the Pixel 3 XL’s. But you have to look close to notice it. Other Googley benefits like AI zooming are here too. There’s no actual 2x or 3x camera here, but the Pixel 3a XL can fake it pretty well - better than cheap dedicated zooms, but not as good as those of £900 mobiles.
It has Google’s great single-sensor depth mode too. This lets you blur out backgrounds so your photos look like those of a DSLR with a big lens. Like all (OK, most) the software stuff Google touches, it is pretty great.
Do we miss the wide camera of the Huawei P30 Lite? A bit. But this is a true high-end camera experience at a mid-range price. It can shoot stabilised 4K video too, at 30fps just like the Pixel 3 XL.
The Pixel 3a XL has a 3700mAh battery, larger even than the Pixel 3 XL’s 3430mAh. There’s no wireless charging. And Google could have added it to this plastic phone in theory, but every missing feature here is down to cost.
Its stamina is great, even if the battery doesn’t tip over the 4000mAh barrier like some. At the end of the day we usually have about 40% charge left, enough to get to midday without plugging in.
You can throw shade on the Pixel 3a XL for looking like it has been beamed from 2017, but this phone is easy to live with.
The Pixel 3a XL takes us back to the pre-Pixel days.when Google phones didn’t always compete with iPhones and Samsung Galaxy ones at the same price. Phones like the 2013 Google Nexus 5 were a top nerd’s choice, for people “in the know” who wanted some of the best for less.
These days those nods usually go to models from Honor, Huawei and OnePlus. But the Pixel 3a XL brings back some of that old flavour.
It’s no flat-out bargain. And the idea of us recommending a £470 plastic phone as much as we recommend the Pixel 3a XL makes us feel funny inside. And not good funny, either. But when the general performance, camera quality and battery life are as good as this, it does seem you get the high-end Pixel essentials for a lot less cash. Just like Google promised.