Google Pixel 3a XL
Tushar Kanwar
Google Pixel 3a XL
TECH
14/05/2019 4:15 PM IST

Google Pixel 3a XL Review: Choosing User Experience Over Spec Sheet

The Pixel series from Google has always delivered a snappy and fluid user experience and a class-leading camera, but it came at a high price. With the new Pixel 3a and 3a XL, it's gotten a little more affordable

Google’s Pixel series of premium smartphones have always been about promise. The promise of a clean, unadulterated Android software, that of a snappy and fluid user experience (even without packing in oodles of RAM) that few others can match, and that of a class-leading camera that makes the most of the hardware, and its sole lens, through ingenious software processing. All this however comes at a cost, one that is more than what most are willing to pay.

With the Pixel 3a and the 3a XL, Google now has some options that will appeal to people who don’t care about the spec sheet as long as the experience is great; and the camera still lives up to the Pixel name.

The Pixel 3a and the 3a XL Just Black and Clearly White variants go on sale on Flipkart on May 15, priced at Rs 39,999 and Rs 44,999 respectively, with a number of launch week offers—putting them firmly in what used to be OnePlus territory.

We’ve checked out the Pixel 3a XL, but the Pixel 3a is identical to it except for screen and battery size.

Pixel 3a XL – Pros

Cameras: Hardware wise, the Google Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL both use the same 12.2MP Sony IMX363 rear sensor as the Google Pixel 3, with the same f/1.8 aperture, OIS and EIS and post processing voodoo that only Google seems to know how to do.

After having shot a ton of shots, it’s safe to say that there is little to tell the Pixel 3a XL apart from the Pixel 3 XL, right from image quality to the bevy of shooting modes including Night Sight and Super Res Zoom. There’s also a new Timelapse mode which will come to older Pixels shortly.

Tushar Kanwar
Indoors photograph taken with the Google Pixel 3 XL (Left), and the Google Pixel 3a XL (Right).

Take a look at the comparison shots between the Pixel 3a XL and the Pixel 3 XL. You’ll notice that other than a closer crop on Portrait mode on the 3a XL (2x instead of 1.5x), most photos exhibit similar levels of exposure, detail and colors. This is to Google’s credit – how it takes commodity hardware and produces great shots using software, without mucking around with multiple sensors and a barrage of lens on the rear. This is what has made producing the same great rear camera in a phone that’s nearly half the price possible.

Tushar Kanwar
Outdoors night-time photograph taken with the Google Pixel 3 XL (Left), and the Google Pixel 3a XL (Right).

There is a caveat: processing speed. The Snapdragon 670 is no match for the Snapdragon 845, so processing each shot takes longer. Compounding the issue is the fact that the Google Pixel 3a (and Pixel 3a XL) lacks Google’s purpose-built Pixel Visual Core, which speeds up photo processing significantly on the Pixel 3. It’s not a problem even when you’re out shooting a lot but the time from when you take the shot to when it shows up fully processed in your Gallery is now discernibly longer.  

On the front, the selfie camera drops the additional 97-degree wide-angle camera for just the single 84-degree 8MP selfie camera. It’s a lot less flexible as a result, but the quality of the selfies holds up.  

Battery life and charging: With its combination of a large 3,700mAh battery, a lower-resolution display, and a frugal juice-sipping processor, the Google Pixel 3a XL excels when it comes to battery life. In daily and somewhat extensive usage, which consisted of Whatsapp/Telegram, some casual gaming, plenty of photos and the hour or so of phone calls, the phone lasted well past the 7-hour screen-on-time mark, which is absolutely brilliant. The bundled 18W USB-PD-compliant wall charger charges the phone somewhat speedily—zero to 100% takes a little over 2.5 hours.

Slightly Less Pixel-y: It’s a Google Pixel phone, so the latest Android Pie with zero bloat is no surprise. Interestingly, the Google Pixel 3a (and Pixel 3a XL) retains a bunch of software features from the Google Pixel 3 series phones, including Active Edge (squeezing the side of the phone triggers Google Assistant), Now Playing, and crucially, three years of platform updates and security patches, all the way to at least Android S in 2021. One notable omission—the Google Pixel 3a does not ship with support for unlimited full-resolution image backups to Google Photos, which continues to remain a Pixel flagship exclusive.

Tushar Kanwar
The Google Pixel 3a XL has a more modest 1080p display, but it's not a real drawback.

Display: Bumping down the screen resolution to a more modest 1080p display hasn’t been to the Google Pixel 3a XL’s detriment. This is a fantastic 6.0-inch gOLED screen and you’ll only notice the difference in resolution if you place a Pixel 3 XL or another QHD phone next to it. It could have packed in higher brightness levels, but is otherwise very good – it’s tack-sharp, color accurate, offers good viewing angles and since it’s an OLED panel, you get the handy always-on display as well. A subtle thing you notice a lot while using the Google Pixel 3a XL is that Google hasn’t skimped on the vibration motor under the display, so you get the same precise haptics as the pricier Pixels, the current Android gold standard. There’s no HDR10 support though unlike the Pixel 3 lineup, and no in-display fingerprint sensor or face recognition either, something we’ve come to expect at this price point, so you’re stuck with using the otherwise excellent rear fingerprint sensor to authenticate yourself onto the device.

Pixel 3a XL – Cons

Design: Google’s retained the same design language for the Google Pixel 3a XL as with the Google Pixel 3 XL, this time in an all-plastic avatar that looks and feels eerily similar to the Pixel 3 XL’s glass-aluminum body. The build is solid, the buttons click well, but the design is purely functional and almost a tad boring if you consider what the likes of Honor and Oppo have pushed out for much less. Turn it around, and you get an 18:9 aspect ratio display with large bezels round—thankfully, without the Pixel 3 XL’s ugly notch—but the effect is dated when the competition has almost no-bezel screens with pop-up cameras and hole-punch notches. No wireless charging or water resistance on the 3a series either. Interestingly, Google’s gone back to the headphone jack for the Google Pixel 3a series after dropping it on the Google Pixel 3, and the dual speakers—one in the earpiece and the other downward-firing unit that gets muffled all too easily—are loud if a little lacking in refinement.

Tushar Kanwar
The design of the Google Pixel 3a XL hasn't evolved, and it is still extremely functional, which some people might find boring.

Hardware: Google has traditionally tuned the Pixel line for optimized performance on even 4GB of RAM, and that’s exactly the case with the Google Pixel 3a XL as well, which sees a Snapdragon 670 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Let’s deal with the obvious—the Google Pixel 3a XL does not offer the most value for money as far as pure specs are concerned.

This is Snapdragon 845 (and with the OnePlus 7, Snapdragon 855) territory and folks looking for absolute performance for gaming in particular should really look elsewhere. Even everyday tasks—processing an image after the shot, opening apps and loading large files—all take that extra bit longer, and RAM management rears its ugly head every now and then, force closing or reloading apps when the phone runs out of available (and arguably limited) RAM. The single 64GB storage variant will run out for heavy shooters sooner than they’d like, and a larger 128GB base variant would have been more than welcome. That said, using the phone, for the most part, was a breeze and never once did a lag or a stutter remind me that I was using a phone with a mid-range chipset, so kudos to Google for continuing to get that right.

Pricing: The Google Pixel 3a will continue the Pixel legacy of staying unrealistically expensive for the hardware it offers and will likely not appeal to the average spec-focussed Indian consumer, even at the sub-40K price point. The OnePlus 6T, the Poco F1 and the Asus Zenfone 5Z all have top-shelf specs for far less, and consumers are used to getting a lot more for the asking price. This one is strictly for the Android purist who’re looking to get the best camera around, but don’t want to spend the extra money you’d need for a Google Pixel 3.