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Pixel 3a XL vs. Pixel 2 XL: Should you upgrade?

Google Pixel 3a XL
Google Pixel 3a XL (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Google Pixel 3a XL

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The Pixel 3a XL is a fantastic phone at an aggressive price that works on virtually any U.S. carrier and takes just as good of photos as the more expensive Pixel 3 XL. It's isn't a necessary upgrade for most Pixel 2 XL owners, but you certainly won't be disappointed if you buy it.

Google Pixel 3a XL

Mid-range is back

More consistent display quality
Larger, longer-lasting battery
Traditional headphone jack
Same outstanding camera
Compatible with all major U.S. carriers
No water resistance
No unlimited full-res Google Photos uploads
Speakers aren't as good

Google Pixel 2 XL

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The Pixel 2 XL is still a fantastic phone in 2019. Serving as last year's flagship, it's still receiving regular software updates, and has premium features like high quality materials and water resistance. It also has the Pixel Visual Core, which helps process photos quicker.

Google Pixel 2 XL

Still going strong

Faster processor and imaging
Dual front-facing speakers
Water resistant
Unlimited full-res Google Photos backups
Premium metal design
Some units have subpar displays
No headphone jack
No longer widely available

It's easy to get excited by the Pixel 3a XL when you see that it costs less than $500 brand new — and you should be excited! Google's new midrange offering packs a ton of value, especially if photography is a high priority for you. But there's probably not much reason to upgrade if you're already coming from a Pixel 2 XL; the camera experience is virtually identical, and some compromises have been made to achieve the 3a XL's lower price.

Both have benefits and drawbacks

Despite being based on the newer Pixel 3 series, the Pixel 3a XL actually looks remarkably similar to last year's Pixel 2 XL, since it lacks the successor's massive display notch. Instead, both phones have 6-inch displays and fairly large bezels by today's standards. The Pixel 2 XL's display looks better on paper, with a considerably higher resolution and pixel density, but the P-OLED technology was riddled with problems at launch, and though they've mostly been resolved since then, we're much more confident recommending the Pixel 3a XL's screen, which still looks fantastic despite a lower resolution.

The Pixel 3a XL has a plastic body, but many will appreciate its larger battery and headphone jack.

That lower resolution also contributes to fantastic battery life on the 3a XL's part. The Pixel 2 XL has great endurance in its own right, but the combination of fewer pixels to drive, a less power-hungry processor, and a higher battery capacity allows the Pixel 3a XL to outlast any other phone Google has ever put out.

Physically, both phones share a similar design language, with a quick and convenient fingerprint sensor sitting around the back, underneath a single rear camera. The Pixel 2 XL has a texturized metal body, however, while the Pixel 3a XL opts for a cheaper plastic construction. Both feel nice in-hand, but only the Pixel 2 XL has IP67 water resistance — sadly, neither phone features wireless charging like the Pixel 3.

And while both phones feature stereo speakers, only the Pixel 2 XL positions both towards the user on the front of the display. The Pixel 3a XL still makes use of the earpiece as a speaker, but moves the second speaker to the bottom of the phone, making it easy to accidentally cover up during regular use. On the bright side, the Pixel 3a XL is the only phone of the two with a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack.

CategoryPixel 3a XLPixel 2 XL
Operating SystemAndroid 9 PieAndroid 9 Pie
Display6 inches, 18:9 aspect ratio, 2160x1080 (402 ppi) resolution, OLED6 inches, 18:9 aspect ratio, 2880x1440 (538 ppi) resolution, P-OLED
ProcessorSnapdragon 670, octa-core, 2GHz + 1.7GHzSnapdragon 835, octa-core, 2.35GHz + 1.9GHz
GraphicsAdreno 615Adreno 540
Memory4GB RAM4GB
Storage64GB64/128GB
Expandable StorageNoNo
Rear Camera12.2MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.4µm, OIS + EIS12.2MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.4µm, OIS + EIS
Front Camera8MP, ƒ/2.08MP, ƒ/2.4
SecurityRear fingerprint sensorRear fingerprint sensor
Headphone jackYesNo
Battery3700mAh3520mAh
Water ResistanceNoIP67
Wireless chargingNoNo
Dimensions160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2mm157.9 x 76.7 x 7.9mm
Weight167g175g
ColorsJust Black, Purple-ish, Clearly WhiteJust Black, Clearly White, Black and White

Internally, both phones offer 64GB of base storage along with a modest 4GB of RAM, but the Pixel 2 XL is also available in a 128GB configuration. The Snapdragon 835 in the 2XL is noticeably snappier than the 3a XL's Snapdragon 670, and perhaps more importantly, the Pixel 2 XL has Google's Pixel Visual Core, which makes image processing much faster — HDR+ processing on the Pixel 3a XL takes roughly twice as long, though that's more a testament to how quick the Pixel 2 XL is than how slow the 3a XL is.

The Pixel Visual Core and unlimited Google Photos uploads are major wins for the Pixel 2 XL.

Speaking of cameras, they're almost identical between phones. The Pixel 2 XL uses the Sony IMX380 sensor around back, while the 3a XL shares the same IMX363 as the Pixel 3 XL, but the results are hard to tell apart; both take some of the best photos we've ever seen from a phone, with add-on features like HDR+, Portrait Mode, and Night Sight. The one major advantage the Pixel 2 XL has is its unlimited storage for full-res photo backups in Google Photos — at least until 2021. With the Pixel 3a XL, you'll need to upload at reduced quality instead, or use up some of your Google Drive storage for full-res backups.

By now, it should be obvious that both phones have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. At the end of the day, most owners of a Pixel 2 XL probably don't need to rush to buy the Pixel 3a XL; while it has longer battery life and a headphone jack, you'll probably end up missing features like water resistance, unlimited photo backups, and dual front-facing speakers.

On the other hand, if you've been shopping around and considering either device … well, the decision is already made for you, since most online stores (including Google) have stopped carrying the Pixel 2 XL. You can still buy one from Verizon at an astronomical price, but you're probably better off finding a used 2 XL for cheap, or living with the trade-offs and buying the Pixel 3a XL instead.

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.