Google Pixel 3a XL review (early verdict): don't mourn the notch

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Pixel 3a XL aims to bring everything you love about the Google Pixel 3 XL to a attractive new price point, but does it succeed?

Google Pixel 3a XL review

T3 Verdict

Want the mind-bogglingly good Pixel 3 camera and lashings of screen real estate, but don't fancy coughing up £869 for the Pixel 3 XL? Google Pixel 3a XL will seem like an impossible bargain. Granted, there are some compromises – the screen isn't as good, not to mention it's plasticky and unwieldy compared to handsets with all-screen designs. But the notch-less Pixel 3a XL remains an impressive mid-range smartphone, with fast-charging and three years of the latest Android OS features guaranteed – no mean feat at this price point. That said, all of these features can be found on the Pixel 3a, which is £70 and less unwieldy thanks to its (slightly) smaller 5.6-inch display.

Reasons to buy

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    Phenomenal Pixel 3 Camera

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    3.5mm Headphone Port

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    Fast-Charging / Fast-Charger In The Box

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    3 Years Of Android OS Updates Guaranteed

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    Unlimited Google Photos Storage

Reasons to avoid

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    Very Difficult To Use One-Handed

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    No Ultra-Wide Group Selfie Mode From Pixel 3

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    No Water Or Dust Resistance

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    No Wireless Charging

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    Not As Powerful As Some Phones At This Price

The Google Pixel 3a XL is a more affordable twist on the Pixel 3 XL, with similar camera features, an almost identical design, and a reinstated 3.5mm audio port.

Whereas the Pixel 3 XL starts from £869, the Pixel 3a XL starts from a much more palatable £469. So far, so good. But whether you'll be happy with the compromises brought about by this £400 saving really depends on how you use your smartphone. 

Google Pixel 3a XL review: Display, Design

Unlike the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3, there are some clear differences between the Pixel 3a XL and its high-end sibling, the Pixel 3 XL. First up, the ugly notch design that plagued the latter has been ditched. In its place, we have the same curved borders at the top and bottom of the screen present on the Pixel 3, and Pixel 3a

Google Pixel 3a XL Key Specs

Dimensions: 160.1 mm x 76.1 mm x 8.2 mm

Weight: 167 g

Screen: 6-inch, FHD+ (2160 x 1080) OLED at 402 ppi

CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670

RAM: 4GB

Storage: 64GB

Battery: 3,700mAh

Cameras: 12.2MP dual-pixel rear / 8MP front

OS: Android 9.0 Pie

Notches aren't usually anything that bother me – after all, this design quirk typically fades into the background within the first quarter of an hour using the handset. But the Pixel 3 XL deserves to be dragged over the coals once more for its ridiculous design that can't hold a candle to the likes of the OnePlus 6T, Huawei P30, and Samsung Galaxy S10e – all of which boast a more attractive solution. 

As does the Google Pixel 3a XL. 

Bezels and notches aside, the Pixel 3a XL carries a 6-inch FHD+ OLED display, which is slightly smaller than the 6.3-inch Quad HD panel you’ll find on its pricier sibling. Make no mistake, this is not a small handset. For comparison, it's taller than the iPhone XS Max, which has a substantially larger 6.5-inch display, and like the Apple-deigned rival will almost always require two hands to do anything save for, perhaps, quickly skipping a track or checking the date and time.

Those with smaller hands and pockets should probably take a look at the Pixel 3a.

For some, the bigger screen will be worth the trade-off. The 6-inch OLED panel is a phenomenal viewfinder for lining up your shots, watching YouTube videos on your commute, and playing games. However, the bigger size is also one of its greatest weaknesses, as the expansive screen real estate means you're more likely to notice that the Pixel 3a XL isn't as quite as sharp as we'd like. Colours are also a little lacklustre compared to the likes of the OnePlus 6T.

Of course, this is just one of a number of compromises that Google has made in order to achieve this new hugely-attractive price point. Elsewhere, Google has swapped the Gorilla Glass 5 rear-case and wireless charging seen on the Pixel 3 XL in favour of a plastic shell, albeit with the same dual-tone design. That gives the smartphone a slightly cheaper feel, but it's minimal. Pixel 3a XL still feels solid.

The circular rear-mounted fingerprint scanner seen on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL makes a welcome return here, too. While this type of biometric sensor is starting to look a little old-hat these days with the recent influx of in-display scanners, it stills unlocks much faster than these new-fangled options. You can also swipe down on the rear-mounted sensor to bring down the notification shade, something that's incredibly handy with a handset this size.

There’s also no IP68 rating for water and dust resistance, and Google has traded the flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 for a mid-range Snapdragon 670. The Pixel Visual Core chip, designed by the teams at Google specifically for the Pixel to boost photography performance, has also been dropped from the Pixel 3a XL, too.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

Google Pixel 3a XL review: Camera

That brings us to the camera. Although it doesn't have the same guts, can the Pixel 3a XL still produce comparable results to the Pixel 3 XL? In a nutshell: close enough.

Google says it has worked tirelessly to bring the camera performance its Pixel smartphone range is known for to a more attractive price point. And it's true that you won't find any core photography modes missing when you first launch the camera app on the Pixel 3a XL. Night Sight, Portrait Mode, Panoramas, Motion Shots, and more, are all in their rightful place. In fact, the only real giveaway is the absence of the ultra-wide selfie feature found on the Pixel 3, which lets you squeeze a large group into the frame without the need to resort to a selfie stick.

According to Google, it has managed to wrestle close to the same performance from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 sans Pixel Visual Core using a mixture of Artificial Intelligence and software as the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL achieves using the flagship Qualcomm silicon. And while the Pixel 3a XL doesn't quite match its pricier sibling, it's a surprisingly great camera. We'll need more time with the smartphone to truly assess its photography prowess, but in our time with the Pixel 3a XL so far we've been pretty impressed with the images. Details are sharp, colours are natural – far from the overly-saturated look of images taken on Samsung devices.

If you're desperate to own the unrivalled Pixel camera, but don't want to spend more than most teenagers do on their first car, this is a great option

Despite the price difference, there is no mistaking that you're shooting on a Pixel – with each resulting image carrying the same razor-sharp, slightly cold appearance that has characterised every generation Pixel camera ever launched. As such, those who prefer warmer images will have to tweak the photos after the fact.

Portrait Mode, which still only uses a single lens, is as effective as it has ever been. Like the Pixel 3, when it works – which is does most of the time, the subject is beautifully framed by the artificial bokeh in the background. However, the Pixel does sometimes throw-up some weird results – with bokeh randomly missing one of the corners of a poster or picture frame on the wall behind the subject. So far, so usual. That said, Google remains the champion when it comes to separating strands of hair from the background, which really elevates your pet shots for Instagram. Trust us.

Google Pixel 3a XL Camera Samples

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Like the Pixel 3a, one area where we did notice a real difference in performance between the Pixel 3a XL and the flagship Pixel 3 XL is Night Sight. While the feature works as advertised – illuminating gloomy conditions to create surprisingly great results with accurate colours and white balance – the resulting images appear a little grainier and fuzzier than the same shots taken with the Pixel 3 XL.

Of course, we’ll have to spend some more time with the Pixel 3a xL to see how the Pixel camera matches up to other handsets in this price bracket, but our initial impressions are very good.

Google Pixel 3a XL review: Software

One of the biggest advantages of opting for a Google Pixel device is that you're updates and security patches are coming directly from Google. As such, you'll get access to the latest features faster than those who own Android handsets built by the likes of Samsung, Huawei, LG and more.

Pixel 3a XL runs the latest version of Android OS, dubbed Android Pie. It's worth pointing out this is Android 9.0 with the stock user interface, which is much more attractive than the icons and garish colours slapped on the operating system by the likes of LG, Oppo, and Huawei. 

Despite its lowest price point, Pixel 3a XL is no different in this respect. And as if to emphasise this point, Google has preloaded the new smartphone with an early version of a new Augmented Reality (AR) feature for its popular Google Maps service which superimposes directions in front of you to help navigate around urban areas where the standard blue dot might be a little inadequate.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

Google guarantees at least three years of operating system and security updates, which is standard for all Pixel phones. It's worth pointing out that that guarantee is much more of a rarity in Android handsets in this price range, compared to those rivalling the £869 Pixel 3 XL. Pixel 3a comes with unlimited photo and video storage in Google Photos, so you can snap away without worrying about getting a pop-up asking you to cough-up for more cloud storage. And with this camera, you'll really want to start snapping photographs left, right, and centre. Trust us.

Speaking of flagship Pixel features that have made the jump to the lower cost handset, Now Playing – an always-on Shazam-like feature that displays the name and artist of any track the Pixel can detect playing – also returns here. The incredibly handy feature, which quietly displays whatever is playing at the bottom of the always-on display means you'll never have to seek-out a specific app and wave your device in the air like you’re trying to direct an aeroplane towards the runway.

Google Pixel 3a XL review: Release Date, Price

Google Pixel 3a XL is available to order online now, and will start to appear on high street shelves from tomorrow, May 8, 2019.

Pixel 3a XL starts from £469 for 64GB of storage, while a beefier 128GB configuration is available, too. Google Pixel 3a ships in three colours – Just Black, Clearly White, and Purple-ish, with the latter exclusive to the range.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

Google Pixel 3a XL review: our early verdict

Google Pixel 3a XL isn't a cheap smartphone. Starting at £469, we'd hardly call it an "impulse buy". But, when compared to the notch-tastic Pixel 3 XL, which starts at £869 and soon rises to £969 for the maxed-out variant, it seems like an impossibly good deal. If you're desperate to own a device with bucket-loads of screen real estate and that unrivalled Pixel camera, but don't want to spend more than most teenagers do on their first car, this is a great option.

Sure, it's not as powerful as the Pixel 3 XL, the screen isn't anywhere near as good, it feels pretty plasticky, and it's unwieldy compared to pricier handsets with all-screen designs. But despite all that, there is something very appealing about the Pixel 3a XL.

It runs the most recent version of Android 9.0 Pie – and will continue to run the latest and greatest operating system updates and software features as soon as Google has rolled them out the door. It comes with a 18-watt fast-charger that provides 7 hours of battery life on a 15-minute charge. And did we mention that this mid-range handset can produce almost identical images to the flagship Pixel 3 XL camera? 

The camera has always been the star of the show when it comes to the Google Pixel range, and the Pixel 3a XL lets more people access that stellar features than ever before – not just those who can afford the £739 Pixel 3 and £869 Pixel 3 XL. 

However, if you're not vehemently opposed to anything less than a 6-inch screen, you're probably better opting for the smaller Pixel 3a, which has an identical camera, fast-charging, fingerprint scanner, but is more compact thanks to its (ever so slightly) smaller 5.6-inch OLED display – and costs £70 less. You'll even be able to use it one-handed.