The Google Pixel 3a XL delivers the same camera hardware and features but for significantly less cash
- Same camera as the Pixel 3 XL
- Same software as the Pixel 3 XL
- Better battery life than the Pixel 3 XL
- No water or dust-resistance
- No wireless charging
- Screen isn't edge-to-edge
The Pixel 3a XL (and its smaller sibling, the regular 3a) represents an important shift for Google’s hardware department. After years of positioning its Pixel phones as premium devices – halo products designed for those who want the best Google has to offer – its latest handsets are a little more humdrum.
Instead of continuing the fight with Apple and Samsung at the high end of the market, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are firmly mid-priced phones. What’s most significant about these new devices, though, is that they keep hold of the more expensive Pixels’ best feature – the camera.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: What you need to know
I have the 3a XL on review here and it’s physically very similar to its namesake – the Pixel 3 XL – and runs the same software, so it also looks the same when you turn it on. As with all Pixel phones, that’s the latest version of Android (9 Pie) with Google’s own enhanced Pixel launcher software plastered on top.
Examine the small print, though, and you’ll begin to see the key differences. The Pixel 3a XL has a smaller screen than the 3 XL – it’s 6in across the diagonal instead of 6.3in – it runs a less-powerful processor and it isn’t water-resistant like the 3 XL. One bonus feature, though, is that the Google Pixel 3a XL has a 3.5mm headphone jack, where the pricier phone does not.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Price and competition
The big news with the Google Pixel 3a XL, however, is the price. It costs £469, which is £150 less than the £619 you can currently buy the 3 XL for. That’s a big difference, putting the Pixel 3a XL head to head with the OnePlus 6T, the OnePlus 7 (assuming OnePlus doesn’t up the price) and the Xiaomi Mi 9.
On paper, the Xiaomi Mi 9 wins this contest. It costs £499 SIM-free, runs on the latest Snapdragon 855 chipset, where the 3a XL employs a Snapdragon 670, and it has more cameras. The Xiaomi Mi 9 doesn’t have the Pixel 3a XL’s software and its amazing software-enhanced camera, however.
The other major competition for the Google Pixel 3a XL comes in the form of its contemporary: the regular Google Pixel 3a. This phone has a smaller, 5.6in display and a lower-capacity battery, but is otherwise identical. A lower price of £399, though, makes the Pixel 3a a tempting alternative if you’re not bothered by losing 0.4in off your screen.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Design
We’ve already established that the Pixel 3a XL looks very similar to the more expensive Pixel 3 XL. On the rear, it has that attractive “two-tone” finish, with a glossy strip covering the top fifth of the rear panel and a matte finish covering the rest. The features are in the same places, too: the camera and flash are in the top-left corner on the rear and the fingerprint reader is in the centre just below the glossy strip, with the volume and power buttons residing on the right edge.
There are a few crucial differences here, however, the most significant being that the rear of the Pixel 3a XL is made out of polycarbonate (plastic) rather than glass. It feels just as good in the hand as the 3 XL, but is a little lighter and feels slightly warmer to the touch.
Turn it on and you’ll see the next big difference: the Pixel 3a XL has no notch. Instead, there’s a thick (by modern standards) bezel above the screen, mirroring the bezel below it. As a result, the phone is a tiny bit taller than the 3 XL, despite having a smaller screen. This is not a bulky-feeling phone, however, nor a heavy one.
There are also less obvious differences. Instead of Gorilla Glass, Google is using Asahi Glass’ “Dragontrail” glass to resist scuffing and scratching. There’s no difference in feel and it’s just as easy to keep smudge-free, but it may be that it’s not as scratch-resistant – only time will tell.
More significantly, the Pixel 3a XL lacks water resistance, meaning you need to be careful about taking it out when it’s raining or getting it wet in a pocket if you’re caught in a downpour. It also lacks wireless charging – although, conversely, the 3a XL does have a 3.5mm headphone jack where the Pixel 3 XL has none.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Display quality
While the materials used in manufacturing the phone are of a slightly cut-price nature, the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t scrimp on display quality. It may not be the sharpest in the world at 1,080 x 2,160, but it uses the same panel technology as the Pixel 3 XL (OLED) and it looks just swell.
Overall, this is a fine display. Peak brightness reaches a decent 415cd/m² and contrast is pretty much perfect, as it is on all OLED screens, but it’s the colour performance that impresses here.
You have three colour modes to choose from: the default Adaptive setting, which is the most vibrant; the “Natural” setting, which has been calibrated to sRGB; and “Boosted”, which is, according to Google’s tech sheets, “sRGB +10%”. By my measurements, it’s more like sRGB plus 20%, but, either way, it sits somewhere between Adaptive and the more muted sRGB in terms of vibrancy.
In Natural mode, display performance is exceptional. Coverage of the sRGB colour gamut is right up there with the best phones I’ve tested and colour accuracy is good, too, with an average Delta E of 1.34 (the lower the better).
The Pixel 3a XL’s Adaptive mode looks great, too. Although it isn’t HDR-certified like the 3 XL’s display, image quality is superb. In fact, for watching movies and TV shows on Netflix, I prefer the way the cheaper phone presents the image.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Performance and battery life
Overall, it’s a great showing from the Pixel 3a XL so far. It’s only when you look at the performance-critical components that we begin to see a major difference between it and the more expensive Google phones.
Instead of the powerful Snapdragon 845, inside the Pixel 3a XL is a Snapdragon 670, a processor that sits in Qualcomm’s upper mid-range tier of smartphone chipsets. It’s an octa-core chip and runs at 2GHz, so it’s still very capable. When push comes to shove, though, it’s not quite as quick as the Snapdragon 845 or the Snapdragon 855.
Not that the phone feels sluggish. With the Pixel user interface at the helm, the Pixel 3a XL feels just as snappy and responsive as you’d hope a Pixel phone to feel and, despite the slight lack of power, it will still play most games smoothly without too much frame chop.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pixel 3a XL actually has good battery life, lasting 16hrs 58mins in our video-rundown test. It’s still not the best around – we’ve seen quite a few phones lately breaching the 20-hour mark in this test – but it does make it the longest-lasting Pixel phone you can buy. Significantly, the Pixel 3a XL lasted nearly three hours longer in this test than the Google Pixel 3 XL.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Camera
One other area where the Pixel 3a XL misses out when it comes to hardware is Google’s in-house Pixel Visual Core ISP (image signal processor). In phones at the top end of the Pixel range, this is the chip that helps the camera to process advanced features such as Night Sight (which captures amazing images in near-darkness) and HDR+ Enhanced, which captures up to 36 images and combines them into one to capture the greatest range of tones and colours possible.
Despite that omission, Google has replicated all the features found in the flagship Pixels through clever software engineering. Interestingly, the camera module itself – a Sony IMX363 – also remains exactly the same.
That means you’re getting a single camera at the rear capable of capturing photographs at 12.2 megapixels with an aperture of f/1.8, a 76-degree field of view and a 1/2.55in sensor. There’s optical and digital stabilisation here, too, plus dual-pixel autofocus. At the front, there’s a fixed focus 8-megapixel selfie camera, with smaller 1.12μm pixels, and an 84-degree field of view.
I’m going to point this out again because it’s significant: this is the same hardware and software as you get on the Pixel 3 XL, only in a much cheaper phone. The only difference is that the silicon processing the images is different.
Despite this, the camera software feels responsive, light on its feet and, perhaps even more impressive than that, the 3a XL delivers images that look just as good as they do from the Pixel 3 phones. Here are some good and low-light comparisons to illustrate my point.
In good light, the samples from the Google phones are all extremely close. With HDR disabled, they’re noticeably crisper and have more contrast than the OnePlus 6T. Until now, the 6T was the benchmark for smartphone photography in this price bracket. The OnePlus is still very good and draws level with the Pixel 3a XL once you enable HDR (HDR+ or HDR+ enhanced on the Pixel). However, when you take it indoors, the Pixel 3a streaks ahead.
With Night Sight in its armoury, the Pixel 3a XL produces quite staggering results in poor light, with photographs that are packed with detail and rich in colour. In the close crops above, you can see that the 3a XL produces much cleaner, more colour-saturated images than the OnePlus 6T with its night mode enabled.
The one area where the 3a XL can’t match the OnePlus is video recording. While the 6T is able to shoot 4K video at 60fps and fully stabilised, the Pixel 3a can only shoot 30fps 4K. It’s very good, all the same, and the stabilisation is superb.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Software
It’s Google’s software engineering that makes its camera so great and that influence extends beyond photographs into pretty much every part of the phone’s user interface.
It’s stuffed with clever features, including a new augmented-reality walking navigation feature. This overlays a real-time image from the camera on top of a 3D map, so you can instantly work out where to go without having to wave your phone around to calibrate the compass, or walk up and down the street to figure out which way you’re facing.
Naturally, Google Lens and Assistant are baked in, as are all of the brilliant camera features from Google’s more pricey phones, including portrait mode with adjustable blur and one new feature: timelapse.
The best part of the Pixel Launcher UI has always been its incredibly responsive feel and, despite the slower processor, the 3a XL feels just as good to use here as its more powerful siblings.
Google Pixel 3a XL review: Verdict
All of this goes together to produce a rather impressive overall package. In fact, in the Pixel 3a XL I think Google has stumbled across a magic formula. This is a phone that’s not only far more reasonably priced than most modern flagships, but also looks good, feels just as responsive and takes photos that are equally amazing.
In fact, it’s a measure of how good this phone is that I’m struggling to come up with anything negative to say about it. Probably the worst thing is that it doesn’t have a water or dust-resistance rating. Other than that, I’d say the new Pixel 3a XL – and its smaller, even cheaper sibling, the Google Pixel 3a – has the mid-priced smartphone sector all sewn up.
Google Pixel 3a XL specifications
|Processor||8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 (4 x 2GHz, 4 x 1.7GHz)|
|Screen resolution||1,080 x 2,160|
|Front camera||8MP, f/2|
|Rear camera||12.2MP, f/1.8|
|Dust and water resistance||No|
|3.5mm headphone jack||Yes|
|USB connection type||USB Type-C|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||No|
|Cellular data||4G, Cat11 (600Mbits/sec DL; 75Mbits/sec upload)|
|Dimensions (WDH)||76 x 8.2 x 160mm|
|Operating system||Anroid 9 Pie (Pixel launcher)|