Although Google pioneered computational photography, it hasn't quite managed to mount an effective challenge to Samsung after four generations of Pixels. Middling hardware issues combined with unrealistic pricing held Google's hardware ambitions back, and last year the company took a bold bet on the mid-range category with the Pixel 3a.
Google didn't reinvent the wheel with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL: the phones had a similar design aesthetic as the full-fledged Pixel 3 series, but came with more modest specs and lacked a few features, like water resistance and wireless charging. But the one area that Google didn't sacrifice the quality was the camera, with the phones offering the same 12.2MP primary sensor as the Pixel 3 and 3 XL.
That allowed the Pixel 3a and 3a XL to immediately stand out, with the phones raising the bar for imaging in the mid-range category. Suddenly, you didn't have to pay $1,000 to get a great camera, because in most scenarios, the camera on the Pixel 3a XL was just as good as that on the Pixel 3 XL. As a result, the Pixel 3a became the best-selling unlocked phone on Amazon just a few months after its launch, and the series contributed to Google posting a massive 90% year-on-year growth in the U.S.
With the Pixel 4a on the horizon, it's time to see how the Pixel 3a XL is doing a year after its launch, and whether it's still a good option to consider in 2020.
At a glance
Bottom line: The Pixel 3a XL continues to be a great phone a year after its launch. The interface is still fluid and lag-free, you get a 3.5mm jack, vibrant OLED panel, and excellent battery life, and the promise of quick updates. But the main reason for buying the Pixel 3a XL in 2020 is the camera — and the phone continues to lead the way in this area. You're not going to find a $500 phone with a better camera in the market today.
- Excellent camera
- Great value
- Reliable internal hardware
- Clean software with regular updates
- Outstanding battery life
- 3.5mm jack
- 4GB RAM and 64GB storage
- No wide-angle camera
Google Pixel 3a XL What I still love
I went through a lot of phones over the last six months, and a majority of them ended up being mid-range devices that retail for under $500. Over the previous two years, manufacturers like OnePlus, Xiaomi, and Realme raised the bar in this category, offering flagship-tier hardware and more elegant designs. I went back to the Pixel 3a XL for a week to see how it fares amidst recent launches in this category.
The minimalist design aesthetic has allowed the Pixel 3a XL to age well, and the design holds up in 2020.
Google played it safe with the design of the Pixel 3a XL, offering a similar two-tone aesthetic as the Pixel 3 XL with a glass window covering the top-third of the phone. The main difference is that the 3a XL is made out of polycarbonate, and this actually works out in the device's favor. The phone has the same matte coating as the Pixel 3 XL, and in regular use, you won't even come to know that it has a plastic back.
It's refreshing to go back to a phone with a fingerprint sensor at the back, and being able to pull down the notification shade with a gesture. There's also the fact that the Pixel 3a XL has a 3.5mm jack, and while there isn't a lot of design flair, I like the little things like the orange-accented power button.
I particularly like the fact that the Pixel 3a XL has stereo speakers. The stereo sound combined with the large 6-inch OLED FHD+ panel makes it well-suited for streaming videos on the device. On the subject of the OLED panel, although you're not getting a screen with a high refresh rate, the display itself is one of the best in this category. It has vibrant colors, great viewing angles, and is generally a delight to use.
Another area where the Pixel 3a XL continues to do well is battery life. With a 3700mAh battery under the hood, you'll easily get a day's worth of use from the phone. That hasn't changed after a year, and if anything, the battery life has gotten better with the Android 10 update.
Google's software optimizations mean the Pixel 3a XL is still just as fast and fluid as a year ago.
Switching over to the hardware, the Snapdragon 670 chipset is still going strong in 2020. I had my reservations about the 10nm chipset when the 3a XL launched, but Google did an excellent job optimizing the software, and in the week I used the phone I didn't see any slowdowns, even when gaming. Sure, you're not going to be able to play visually-intensive titles at the highest settings, but for most casual games and day-to-day tasks, the Pixel 3a XL is still more than adequate.
It's commendable to see Google deliver this level of performance from an underwhelming chipset, and the Pixel 3a XL still feels just as fluid as it did when it launched a year ago. A lot of that has to do with the software, and Google continues to differentiate in this are with its own additions. Active Edge — where you can invoke Google Assistant by squeezing the sides of the phone — continues to be one of my favorite additions on the phone, and the 3a XL doesn't miss out on any major features on the software front.
In general, Google has done a fantastic job with the software on the Pixel 3a XL. The interface itself is clean, but you do get a lot of useful additions, like At A Glance, which shows you upcoming calendar events and reminders. There's also Now Playing for identifying music that's playing nearby, system gestures like double-tap to wake the screen, Flip to Shhh, and a lift-to-wake setting that easily lets you see notifications and time by lifting the phone. What I'm getting at is that you get a lot of useful software features on the 3a XL, and when you combine that with guaranteed updates for three years, the phone is one of the best in this category.
The Pixel 3a XL has the same 12.2MP camera module as the Pixel 3 XL, and you also get dual pixel PDAF and OIS. The camera interface is also identical and with the launch of the Pixel 4 series last year Google introduced the new camera UI to the Pixel 3a XL as well.
You just won't find another phone for under $500 that gives you a camera of this caliber.
That's one of the best parts about owning a 3a XL: any new features that debut in Google's flagship phones end up on the mid-range device a few months down the line, so you're not really missing out on anything here.
The camera is easily the best part of the Pixel 3a XL. Google has essentially managed to deliver a flagship camera that can hold its own against $1,000 phones for less than half the price. At its core, that's what makes the Pixel 3a XL such a great phone. Sure, it may not have high-end hardware, but the internals hold up just fine in 2020, and the fact that you're getting a camera that can take fantastic photos is the icing on the cake.
Pixel 3a XL on the left, Samsung Galaxy S20 on the right
The Pixel 3a XL does a fantastic job against the Galaxy S20, managing to retain all the finer details in the photo. The S20 has better dynamic range and doesn't blow out highlights as much, but for a phone that costs less than half as much, the 3a XL holds up astonishingly well.
Pixel 3a XL on the left, Samsung Galaxy S20 on the right
The Galaxy S20 takes a cleaner shot with low noise levels, and in this instance, the 3a XL switched to a higher exposure, leading to more noise and washed out colors.
Pixel 3a XL on the left, Pixel 3 XL on the right
The Pixel 3a XL manages to take incredible shots in low-light conditions. The camera holds up very well against the Pixel 3 XL; there's little to no noise or grain, and you get great highlights and excellent detail.
Pixel 3a XL on the left, OnePlus 7T on the right
The Pixel 3a XL clearly wins out against the OnePlus 7T, with the device offering better dynamic range, excellent highlights, and accurate colors. The shadows aren't blown out either, and you generally get a photo that's true-to-life and with all the details intact.
At the end of the day, there really isn't another device that comes close to the Pixel 3a XL in the mid-range segment. The phone produces shots that are vibrant with excellent dynamic range and Google's signature contrast levels. But what makes the camera stand out is its consistency — regardless of the lighting condition or subject, the Pixel 3a XL manages to deliver a great photo. It's this consistency that makes the Pixel 3a XL such an enticing option a year down the line.
Google Pixel 3a XL What hasn't aged well
Honestly, there's very little the Pixel 3a XL doesn't get right. Google has managed to create the perfect mid-range phone here, and while it may not have the best specs you'll find in this category, the phone is great in day-to-day use.
The limited 4GB of RAM is going to be an issue further down the line.
If there's one worrisome area, it's the limited RAM on offer. With just 4GB of RAM on the phone, that could likely be the bottleneck going forward. Multitasking has always been an issue on Google's phones because of the brand's insistence on 4GB RAM modules even on its flagships, and that decision doesn't go down well in 2020. Even now, most background apps are killed off the moment you launch the camera, and this is one area where the phone is lacking against other devices in the market.
Another shortcoming is the camera versatility — with just one 12.2MP camera at the back, the Pixel 3a XL lacks a wide-angle or zoom lens. These modules are a mainstay on even budget phones now, and as good as the primary camera is on the 3a XL, it feels like customers are being shortchanged by the brand here.
Google staved off its Android rivals purely on the merits of the camera, but the launch of the $399 iPhone SE changes all of that. The iPhone SE has a more powerful chipset and comes with an IP67 rating as well as wireless charging, and the camera at the back — based on the iPhone XR — also promises to be pretty good.
It will be interesting to see if Google can retain its mid-range camera crown, but for now, the Pixel 3a XL is still the best phone in this segment for taking photos.
Google Pixel 3a XL One year later
The Pixel 3a XL is still going strong a year after its launch. The internal hardware wasn't groundbreaking when the device launched, but Google managed to deliver lag-free performance, and that hasn't changed in the last 12 months. The phone still has a lot to offer in this area, and while the limited amount of memory is worrying, for now, there are no issues with the hardware.
The Pixel 3a XL continues to lead the way for mid-range cameras.
The OLED display is also one of the best in this segment, and the combination of stereo speakers and 3.5mm jack means you're not shortchanged when it comes to the audio side of things. The phone also has reliable all-day battery life, and while there's no wireless charging, you do get 18W wired charging.
But the feature that continues to define the Pixel 3a XL is the camera — by leveraging its AI smarts here, Google managed to raise the bar for mid-range cameras. If you need a phone with reliable hardware, all-day battery life, regular updates, and an excellent camera for under $500, the Pixel 3a XL is still the obvious choice.
Google discontinued sales of the Pixel 3 XL, but the phone is available on Amazon for $460, just $35 more than the Pixel 3a XL. You obviously get more with the Pixel 3 XL, including IP68 water resistance, wireless charging, and a beefier Snapdragon 845 chipset. The device also has better cameras, and if you don't mind the wide cutout at the front and can find the Pixel 3 XL for under $500, it is a stellar deal.
The Pixel 4a is also set to debut sometime over the summer, with the phone rumored to feature a new design and hardware upgrades. Google is considering a single variant this time with a 5.81-inch screen and 3080mAh battery, but we'll have to wait and see if those leaks pan out. If you're in the market for a new phone, it makes sense to wait for the Pixel 4a to go live. If nothing else, the Pixel 3a XL will likely be discounted further once the new model becomes available, making it an even better deal.
The mid-range camera king
The Pixel 3a XL continues to be a great phone a year after its launch. The interface is still fluid and lag-free, you get a 3.5mm jack, vibrant OLED panel, and excellent battery life, and the promise of quick updates. But the main reason for buying the Pixel 3a XL in 2020 is the camera — and the phone continues to lead the way in this area. You're not going to find a $500 phone with a better camera in the market today.
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