(Pocket-lint) - It was just a few weeks after the announcement of the Pixel 3 in 2018 that the Pixel 3 Lite broke cover. Was Google really going to release a cheaper version of its premium handset?
Indeed it has; the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are Google's first foray into the mid-range of the smartphone market, pulling some specs down from flagship level and bringing with them a more affordable price.
But does the Pixel 3a XL stack up in a sea of competitive mid-rangers and cheap flagship models?
Cut from the same cloth
- Unibody design in black, white or purple-ish
- 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2mm; 167g
- No waterproofing
The Pixel 3a XL uses the same design lines as the namesake, it's at-a-glance recognisable with a dual-tone rear, leaving the top section glossy and the bottom section matte. It's a unibody design here, with the back casing wrapping around the sides, rather than having a separate glass rear panel.
It's a solid design and even though it switches to plastic you really wouldn't know it. What you might notice is that the Pixel 3a models don't carry an IP rating, so there's no official water protection, but there is something new - a 3.5mm headphone socket.
Google said it wants to appeal to a wide range of users with the Pixel 3a XL, so including support for legacy headphones is part of that puzzle. It's likely to be universally appealing as a convenience feature.
Making a change from the Pixel 3 XL, Google has also dropped the notch on the display, so there's a hefty bezel at the top of the 'a' model, matched by similar at the bottom. The design broadly matches the Pixel 3, but in terms of design it feels a little behind the times: rivals have squeezed those bezel areas down to maximise the display and Google looks like it's still playing to last year's rules.
There's still a pair of speakers - the ear speaker and one on the base - both of which work together in stereo to deliver sound. However, the bottom speaker is now in a position that's easy to cover with a hand when gaming - and it's the bottom speaker that's the more powerful and delivers most of the bass. Ultimately, the Pixel 3a XL doesn't deliver the same sound experience as the Pixel 3 XL; it's just not quite as capable.
Display and hardware performance
- 6.0-inch 2160 x 1080 pixels, OLED, 402ppi
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 670, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage
Moving onto that display, the Pixel 3a XL is the larger of the pair with a 6-inch display. As we mentioned it has no notch, instead getting a more substantial bezel across the top, but it is OLED, bright, vibrant and a good performer. There's little to complain about; it doesn't get the top resolution that the 3 XL offers, but many phones only offer a Full HD+ resolution and we don't think that's a huge downside.
There's no fancy under-display fingerprint scanner - that remains resolutely on the rear of this phone. It's fast to unlock and we don't have a problem with it: it might not be following the latest trends, but in many cases a tap on the back is more natural than using your thumb on the front.
Getting to the heart of the matter, the Pixel 3a XL's biggest change from the Pixel 3 XL is that it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 at its core, rather than the Snapdragon 845 of the higher-tier phones.
That marks the Pixel 3a XL out as a mid-range device, as does its 4GB RAM and the 64GB of storage (and no microSD card slot either). These are the components that have to lead to a more affordable price, but are likely be the subject of criticism when it comes to comparison. This phone is only £30 cheaper than the Xiaomi Mi 9, yet it's a good step down in the core hardware department; indeed, the Pixel 3a XL feels a little expensive given its positioning.
Ignoring value for money, the performance is pretty good. Fire up games like PUBG Mobile and you can still play on high settings, but it doesn't feel quite as fast as the Pixel 3 XL or the latest run of flagship phones. In day-to-day tasks that doesn't make a huge difference - cruising social media and checking your emails is pretty much the same as on other more powerful phones.
But one interesting thing that Google said when presenting the phone to us was that it "uses software to plug the hardware gap". You'll notice that some of the camera tasks take a little longer - for example you'll see the occasional "processing HDR" notification - and if you're just snapping that doesn't matter, but if you're the sort of person who wants to take a photo and instantly view it, that's what you'll notice (although, frankly, the original Pixel suffers in a similar way with its Night Sight processing).
We'll talk about the camera performance lower down, but that's really where the manifestation of this change in core hardware comes in.
When the Pixel 3 launched, one of the early criticisms was about memory limitation, with apps closing in the background when you switch to another task. Google made a software adaption for this, but also said the aim was to preserve battery life. The Google Pixel 3a XL behaves in much the same way as the Pixel 3 - if you switch from Pokemon Go to the camera, for example, when you return to PoGo you'll find the app needs to restart. For some apps this doesn't matter at all, but it's still a little irritating as this isn't a universal Android problem, it's just something that the Pixel does.
It's easy to compare the Pixel 3a XL to a flagship and say that it's not as accomplished, but that's a bit of a cheap shot, as it's to be expected at this price and on this hardware. In reality, the day-to-day experience of the Pixel 3a XL is slick and fast. Relatively speaking there's nothing that this phone won't do and the hardware, the price, and the benefits that the 'a' model phone offers all need to be taken in relation to one another.
- 3700mAh battery with fast charging
- No wireless charging
There's a 3700mAh battery in the Pixel 3a XL, which is pretty capacious in relative terms. Charging is via the USB-C on the base of the phone and there's no support for wireless charging - that's one feature that this phone loses against the more expensive Pixel devices.
For some that will be another compromise, but with fast wired charging - and you get that fast charger in the box - we can't see it as a huge negative. Just plug the phone in for an hour when you need it and you're back in the game.
The battery on the Pixel 3a XL won't break any records for endurance, but we've found it to be better that the Pixel 3 XL, likely due to the lower power hardware and the lower resolution display.
In the time that we've been using the Pixel 3a XL it has managed to get through the day without a problem, including a bit of heavy gaming in the evening. For average users, you'll probably be able to stretch that so it doesn't necessarily need charging every night. Of course, real world performance depends very much on what you do.
It's all about the camera
- Rear: 12.2-megapixel Sony IMX363, 1.4µm pixels, f/1.8
- Front: 8-megapixels, 1.12µm, fixed focus
The Google Pixel camera has been the talking point of these phones since their inception. Indeed, many will see the Pixel 3a as a cheaper way to get access to that excellent camera and that is certainly true - it's much the same hardware for the rear camera and the results are pretty much the same too.
We've taken the Pixel 3a XL and the Pixel 3 XL out shooting side-by-side and the results are pretty much indistinguishable. With the great performance of this camera, that makes the Pixel 3a XL probably the best mid-range camera experience out there. If the camera is what you want, then this is what to get.
From the perspective of the rear camera, Google uses a single lens solution, leaning on artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver great results.
That's pretty much true for high dynamic range (HDR) - and we mentioned that HDR processing is noticeably slower than on the Pixel 3 XL, but not devastatingly so - too, with processing happening on the device, so you'll only really notice any slowness if you immediately open your photos to look at them.
The HDR performance is amongst the best out there, balancing out highlights and shadows in very capable fashion. There's no overt "AI" scene recognition that skews colours into more vibrant versions as you'll find on other cameras, but we can't say that's a huge negative.
If there's one criticism we have of the Pixel 3a XL it's the same as we have of the Pixel 3 XL - it can get a little lost with while balance under artificial lighting.
There are some other great modes too - photo sphere and panorama do a great job of stitching together virtual worlds, for example - and then there's Night Sight. Oh yes. Night Sight shook the smartphone camera world to its foundations when announced in 2018 and you get that excellent performance here.
The image you see below was taken through a hole in the door of an old bunker, revealing the interior of the concrete structure that couldn't really be seen by the human eye. Fun and impressive in equal measure - and much the same on the Pixel 3a as it is on the Pixel 3.
Also impressive is the Pixel 3a XL's performance when it comes to taking portrait photos and separating foreground and background - while giving you control over the depth effect. It's great for people and animals and it pulls off the portrait trick with little fuss and remains one of the best such experiences you'll find on a smartphone camera. There's the odd blurred edge, especially with hair, but none of these solutions are perfect to date.
There's going to be the addition of timelapse for video adding another fun feature. The video will give you 4K/30fps capture.
Turning to the front camera and there are some changes. It's now fixed focus, so the front camera isn't as capable as the Pixel 3 XL when it comes to selfies. It also doesn't get the wide-angle lens of the pricier models, although that's not a huge loss. A new addition is that it can detect not only smiles, but also pouts or kisses, so that it can automatically take a photo without you having to press the button.
So what's wrong with the camera? There's certainly very little to complain about in terms of what you get - it's what you don't get. There's no optical zoom, no wide-angle, and while other manufacturers are cramming in lenses, you do get a sense that Google might be missing out slightly. Yes, the Pixel 3a XL will go toe-to-toe with the best out there in terms of main camera performance and arguably, if you want a dependable camera then this Pixel gives you a lot of performance for the money.
But with the Honor 20 incoming - expected to have similar camera skills as the Huawei P30 Pro - and phones like the Xiaomi Mi 9 offering a lot of clout, Google might not be offering enough camera at this price to keep everyone happy. It's going to be very easy to point at more lenses on other phones and say they are better. The real question is how much that matters to you.
Software keeps it clean
- Android Pie with 3 years support
- Google Assistant
It would be remiss to talk about the Pixel without talking about the pure Android experience. Running on Android Pie, the Pixel 3a comes with three years of upgrades, and as it's a Google phone, you'll be updated before anyone else.
That's one area that the Pixel 3a XL can laud it over other devices which might be full of bloat and alterations. The closest you'll get to this experience is in a Nokia device - the Nokia 7 Plus is pretty close in spec, but cheaper - and there's a lot to be said for pure Android. We prefer the experience to the compromises you have to make with devices from companies like Huawei and Xiaomi and it's certainly a positive point here.
Google Assistant is a big part of the package and although you get that on all other Android devices too, here you can opt to launch it via a squeeze of the phone's frame. You also get clever features like automatic song detection, with the results served up on your always-on display - and we've found ourselves using this all the time to discover and identify new music.
Overall, the software experience on the Pixel 3a XL is great. Certainly, if you've always wanted a Google phone and the previous Pixels have been too expensive, then the 3a has something to offer.
See how the 3a compares with the Pixel 3:
The Google Pixel 3a XL is a great phone with bags of appeal, but this larger version feels like it's a little too expensive for the money you're asked to pay for it. The mid-range hardware sees it priced higher than phones like the Moto G7 Plus or the Nokia 7 Plus, while aggressive pricing from OnePlus, Honor and Xiaomi see it a little too close to those budget flagships.
While pure Android software remains a positive, the real reason to buy the 3a XL is because you want the camera. It's a great camera and compared to many of those more affordable mid-range phones the Google offering is just far better.
That results in a phone that's rather odd. Its positioning and price makes it look too expensive, except for that camera, which might carry with it enough kudos to appeal to a wider audience. Certainly, simplicity of use remains a positive, but we'd like to see the price drop to make buying a 3a XL a no brainer.
Alternatives to consider
Moto G7 Plus
When it comes to the mid-range, the Moto G7 Plus is a great choice. It offers plenty of features in a great design, without bloating the software. It's cheaper than the Pixel 3a XL and while the camera might not have some of Google's smarts, it's a compelling package.
Xiaomi Mi 9
The Xiaomi Mi 9 really packs in the power for a price. It's only £30 more expensive than the Pixel 3a XL, but it offers a top-tier hardware, more storage and RAM. It also offers a triple camera system, giving you a number of features the Pixel lacks. But the software experience isn't as clean and won't be as rapid to update - and carries plenty of bloat.