In a market dominated by Samsung and Apple, Google’s Pixel smartphones may not top the class, but since their arrival in 2014 they have unquestionably offered the purest and best Android user experience. No bloatware, no over-the-top Android skins, just pure Google OS.
At a usually quiet time of the year, Google surprised everyone with the introduction of mid-tier models for the first time. The newest additions are the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL – reasonably priced in an age where the best smartphones, such as the latest Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL flagships, often break the four-figure barrier.
On test here is the bigger-screened Google Pixel 3a XL handset. And with many inherited flagship features, an affordable price tag and a 3.5mm jack, this is the Pixel for the people.
The Pixel 3a XL has more modest specs than its flagship sibling, the most obvious of which relates to brainpower. It is run by Qualcomm’s mid-tier Snapdragon 670 processor rather than the top-tier chipset (the Snapdragon 845) found inside the 3 XL.
It replaces a glass body for a plastic one, sports a slightly smaller, lower-res and non-HDR OLED screen, and swaps a dual front camera for a solo snapper. There is no 128GB storage option, just a single 64GB model instead, although that feels less of a blow when you consider there’s unlimited cloud storage through Google Photos.
It’s fairer to highlight where the Pixel 3a XL rubs shoulders with its flagship sibling – and especially where it surpasses it. The 3a XL shares its 4GB RAM, 12.2MP rear camera and Android 9.0 Pie OS, boasts a bigger battery (3700mAh compared to 3430mAh) and sees the return of the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Display 6in OLED
Headphone jack 3.5mm
Internal storage 64GB
USB-C charging port Yes
OS Android 9.0 Pie
Google’s accurate Pixel Imprint fingerprint scanner has also been carried into the more affordable models, and the distinctive two-tone finish lives on. Dimensions are more in sync, too, with the 3a XL only 2mm taller and slightly narrower (by 0.6mm).
Design-wise, that’s where the similarities end. Physically, the Pixel 3a XL certainly feels like a cheaper handset, largely due to its plastic body. But it’s nicely lightweight without feeling flimsy or easy to spoil, and of course there’s that top-end 3.5mm headphone jack that’s absent on the flagship devices.
The 3a XL reiterates Pixel phones’ reputation for photography skills. The 12.2MP snapper is capable of capturing clear, natural and colour-balanced shots and, in both bright and low-lit environments they square up pretty well to those taken on the 3 XL.
There’s everything from the usual panorama, time lapse and slow motion options to the more gimmicky ‘Playground’ and ‘Photobooth’ modes. Worth a mention is ‘Top Shot’, which captures up to 90 images from 1.5 seconds before and after the shutter press, enabling it to choose the best one from that moment.
Pixel’s ‘Night Sight’ mode for low-light conditions means snaps taken during a gig have much more exposure, with photos clearer, brighter and visibly noise-free.
The Google Lens feature, which was previewed for Pixel users last year, is starting to live up to its potential. You can point your camera over a menu and it will detect the words and translate them into your chosen language; you can identify landmarks, plants and animals; and you can open up shopping suggestions for similar items detected in a frame, and even scan barcodes.
Google’s Pixel USB-C earbuds, which come in the box of the Pixel 3s, are unsurprisingly, not bundled in the box here. We plug our Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 in-ears straight into the Pixel – no dongle required – and as we fire up Tidal we are met with a clean, clear sound that’s well balanced and reasonably detailed.
But the Pixel 3 lacks the refinement, excitement and class-leading subtlety of a Galaxy S10+ or iPhone XS, and we can’t help but feel a little short-changed on this front with the 3a XL too. As we compare it to the 3 XL, we’re essentially listening to a familiar presentation but with slightly less clarity and insight.
The National’s Quiet Light is full and lush, with a twang to the strings and heft to the drumbeat, but expectations regarding dynamics and punch, and therefore attention-grabbing engagement, should be tempered. It times like a dodgy watch, too, which does nothing to help its grasp of rhythms. Compared to the best rivals, the Pixel 3a XL comes second every time.
That isn’t the case with the 3a XL’s screen, whose 6in OLED display with an above-Full-HD 2220 x 1080 resolution is very much a winner. The size means it’s ideal for watching Netflix, and the crispness and colour punch on offer only reiterates that. It is similar in tone to the Pixel 3 XL, just without quite the same level of detail nuance and colour accuracy.
We watch football highlights on YouTube and player shirts are a touch overcooked in comparison, while crowds are more sharply outlined through the 3 XL. Head over to Netflix to stream Grace & Frankie in HDR and the benefit of the 3 XL’s HDR support over the 3a XL shines through, though.
It feels slick to navigate and the Android 9.0 Pie OS is its familiarly clean, less-is-more self. Even as we juggle tasks such as streaming, internet browsing and social media apps, and fill the home screen with downloaded apps, it runs smoothly and efficiently. As for battery life, a day of medium-to-heavy usage still leaves us with around 30 per cent battery remaining.
The Pixel 3a XL is significantly cheaper than the 3 XL, and presumably the gap between the mid-tier and flagship models in the Pixel line will only widen further in October when the next-gen Pixel 4 successors is announced.
For just over half the price of the Pixel 3 XL (and other flagship smartphones) you get many of its features: an OLED display, a first-rate camera and a seamless Android experience, plus the 3.5mm headphone jack and a decent battery life. If only Google could improve the Pixel sound, we’d have a flawless mid-market marvel.
- Screen 5
- Sound 3
- Features 5