Pixel 3a XL review: the cheaper Google phone to buy | Technology

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Pixel 3a XL review: the cheaper Google phone to buy | Technology
Pixel 3a XL review: the cheaper Google phone to buy | Technology


With a price-tag of £469, the Pixel 3a XL tries to offer the best of Google, but costing £400 less than its top-end sibling

The bigger brother of Google’s other lower-cost phone, the Pixel 3a, the new Pixel 3a XL offers the same winning combination of great camera and software. It offers practically everything that makes Google’s top £869 Pixel 3 XL good, shrunk in both cost and weight.

The Pixel 3a XL is plastic, but mirrors the frosted and gloss design of its more expensive glass and metal phone. It feels solid in the hand, with only a little flex in the body. It’s also pretty light for a phone with a 6in screen, weighing 167g compared with the Pixel 3 XL’s 184g or the Honor View 20’s 180g.

Low weight is a good thing, because the Pixel 3a XL is not the smallest or easiest of phones to handle. At 76.1mm wide with rounded sides and a flat back, it is fairly difficult to grip in one hand and reach the other side of the screen with your thumb – reaching the back button with your right thumb, for instance.





Google Pixel 3a XL review



The white plastic back feels not too dissimilar to the glass back on Google’s more expensive phones. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Narrower phones with rounded backs and harder edges, such as the 75.4mm wide Honor View 20, are much easier to grip and therefore less likely to be dropped. You will definitely need a case on the Pixel 3a XL, before it hits concrete.

Part of the Pixel 3a XL’s width is the fairly large bezels around the screen, including chunky top and bottom sections of the front. It gives the phone a dated look compared with rivals, despite the 6in FHD+ OLED looking good.

As with the smaller Pixel 3a, the top of the phone has a headphone jack, and the bottom a USB-C port and a speaker, which joins the earpiece speaker to make a stereo pair. The back of the phone has a fast and accurate fingerprint sensor.

Specifications

  • Screen: 6.0in FHD+ OLED (402ppi)

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670

  • RAM: 4GB of RAM

  • Storage: 64GB

  • Operating system: Android 9.0 Pie

  • Camera: 12.2MP rear camera with OIS, 8MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: 3.5mm headphones socket, LTE, wifi, NFC, Bluetooth 5 and GPS

  • Dimensions: 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2 mm

  • Weight: 167g

Mid-range performance





Google Pixel 3a XL review



The USB-C port in the bottom of the phone is the only way to charge the Pixel 3a XL. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Pixel 3a XL has one of Qualcomm’s recent mid-range processors, the Snapdragon 670, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. It comes in three colours, but there’s no way to increase the storage.

Unsurprisingly, the Pixel 3a XL performs exactly the same as its smaller sibling the Pixel 3a. That means it handles better than its paper specifications might suggest, thanks to Google’s excellent software. But it is also nowhere near as fast as phones with flagship-level chips and faster memory, which are available for less than the £469 asking price of the Pixel 3a XL.

Battery life was satisfactory, coming in at 27 hours between charges – three hours longer than the smaller Pixel 3a. That was when used as my primary device, with hundreds of emails, messages and push notifications, four hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, 45 minutes of Netflix and 10 photos a day.

The Pixel 3a would make it from 7am to 11pm with about 35% battery left and then on to 11am the next day. That is stamina enough to get you into work the next day if you have forgotten to charge it, or to get you home after a night out.

There’s no wireless charging, and the 18W fast charging is fairly slow by today’s standards, reaching 65% in about an hour, and a full charge within two hours.

Google’s Android 9 Pie





Google Pixel 3a XL review



Squeeze the sides of the Pixel 3a XL to trigger Google Assistant. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

While performance was fairly middling, the software on the Pixel 3a is anything but.

The software is exactly the same as that running on the Pixel 3 XL and Pixel 3a, including Google’s various Pixel-first features such as AR navigation in Google Maps, Now Playing ambient music recognition and squeeze to activate Google Assistant.

It will also get at least three years of both Android version updates and monthly security updates, making it one of the very few Android smartphones to do so. While updates aren’t a whizz-bang feature, they are very important all round – as the recent WhatsApp hack has shown – and an area where third-party manufacturers lag far behind. The Pixel 3a will even get Android Q before practically anything else.

Camera





Google Pixel 3a XL review



The Google camera app is one of the best, but lacks manual modes. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Beyond software, the camera is the primary selling point for the Pixel 3a XL. It has the same stellar, competition-beating camera as the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, including Top Shot, HDR+, Super Res Zoom, motion-tracking auto-focus and Night Sight features.

Simply put, it’s very difficult to capture a bad photo. Point it in the right direction, hit the button and get fantastic images nearly every time.

There’s no optical zoom or ultra-wide angle camera, but the selfie camera performance is good, as is video capture, although it caps out at 30fps at 4K. There’s no “pro” or manual mode, but you can shoot in RAW. Google Photos provides unlimited photo and video backup to the cloud, but only in “high quality”, not in original form, unlike the more expensive Pixel 3. It’s a service that’s available to any Google Photos user, including those on Apple’s iPhone.

Observations





Google Pixel 3a XL review



The fingerprint scanner on the back of the Pixel 3a XL is fast, accurate and easy to reach with your index finger. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The matt plastic sounds like vinyl when you run your nail over it

  • The stereo speakers work fairly well with one firing out the bottom of the phone

  • The screen is covered by the cheaper Dragontail not Gorilla Glass

  • There’s no water resistance

  • The compass failed to point in the right direction more often than competitors

  • Call quality was fine, but it was often slow to pick up a signal when coming out of the London Underground

  • Anecdotally, turning off Google’s Digital Wellbeing tracking appeared to alleviate some sluggishness

Price

The Google Pixel 3a XL comes in three colours costing £469.

For comparison, the smaller Pixel 3a costs £399, the Pixel 3 XL costs £869, the Honor View 20 costs £399, the OnePlus 6T costs £499, the Samsung Galaxy S10e costs £669 and the Apple iPhone XR costs £749.

Verdict

The Pixel 3a XL is very nearly a great lower-cost Google phone. The trouble is, it isn’t that cheap, and it’s a bit too bulky and hard to grip.

The 6in screen isn’t actually that big by today’s standards, but the overall width, flat back and rounded edges of the phone almost guarantee you will drop it if you are attempting to use it one-handed. If ever there was a phone you should put a ring or grip on the back of, this is it.

You still get that cracking camera, great software, long and thorough software update support and almost everything that made Google’s more expensive Pixel 3 phones great.

In the US the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t have that much in the way of good competition at its $479 price point. But in the UK and Europe there are plenty of phones available with flagship, not mid-range performance, and nearly as good cameras for about the £469 price of the Pixel 3 XL, including the £399 Honor View 20.

The Pixel 3a XL is a good but not great phone for £469. If you are after a cheaper Google phone, it’s still the one to buy over the Pixel 3a, simply because of the battery life being acceptable.

So buy one for the camera and software, and I’m sure you will be very pleased for several years. Just don’t go in thinking it’s dirt cheap or the best thing ever.

Pros: great camera, good screen, great software and support, headphone socket, fairly inexpensive, squeezable sides

Cons: battery life could be better, middling performance, large bezels and fairly difficult to grip, no wireless charging, no water resistance, no expandable storage or dual-sim support





Google Pixel 3a XL review



A headphone socket in the top of the phone is a rare sight in 2019. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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