Putting the Google Pixel 3a XL to the test: all of the software for less
No Android manufacturer has managed to provide software updates as quickly and reliably as Google has with its Pixel models. The promise is at least three years of updates, which devices such as the Nokia 9 Pureview and its Android One programme can't keep up with.
Since the renaming of Google smartphones from Nexus to Pixel a few years ago, the prices have risen considerably. They went from mid-range, attractively-priced smartphones to top-of-the-range models competing with the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S and Huawei P. Now Google is almost taking a step back, adding the more affordable Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL to its offering. The price tag is €399.
I was given the Pixel 3a XL to test. Find out how the smaller Pixel 3a differs at the end of this article.
Sensible savings on the display and hardware
Design-wise, I was met with the characteristic split Pixel back: gloss on the top and matte on the bottom. The non-slip case is neatly finished. On the whole, the Pixel 3a XL feels light. The power button on the side is highlighted in colour. Turning it over to look at the front felt a little like stepping back in time. Unlike the Pixel 3, Google has ditched the frameless display with a notch on the 3a. Instead, the screen is bordered above and below by a wide band providing enough space for the front camera and a speaker. This might not be in keeping with the current trend, but it doesn't bother me when I'm using it. And it's kind of nice to hold a smartphone in your hand that doesn't follow every fad.
The 6-inch touchscreen has an aspect ratio of 18:9 and the OLED display boasts full HD Plus resolution and 2160 x 1080-pixel resolution. This ensures a high level of detail and the colour rendition is a feast for the eyes. The brightness is enough in sunlight, but it would have to be higher for truly unrestricted, enjoyable usage.
There's also the option of activating the always-on display. This keeps the time, date and even notification icons and upcoming events visible when the display is off. I think it's really practical.
The reduced display resolution is joined by the built-in chipset, the second area where Google has made wholesale changes. Instead of the Snapdragon 845, the Pixel 3a has the Snapdragon 670 next to the unchanged four gigabytes of memory. Yes, it's a little less powerful, but it still has enough power to run more than just everyday applications. Using AR apps or playing PUBG Mobile with the highest quality graphics is no problem.
The 64 gigabytes of internal memory can't be expanded with a micro SD card. But that should be enough to start with, and according to Google you will always have unlimited backups on Google Photos for cloud storage.
Camera: software beats hardware
While two camera lenses have become standard for other smartphone manufacturers, and even three or four cameras are no longer a rarity - Nokia have just brought out a model with five - the Google Pixel 3a XL's single rear camera lens appears outdated. But it's not, as a look at the resulting photos and available functions shows.
The rear camera on the Pixel 3a XL has a resolution of 12.2 megapixels, an f/1.8 aperture and a 76-degree field of view. The photos impress with a high degree of detail and strong, beautiful colours. Strong contrasts are no problem, but activating HDR+ seems to make a few small improvements nonetheless. However, I couldn't see any difference when using HDR+ Enhanced.
The night vision mode was the star of the Pixel 3 launch and it's also a feature of the more affordable Pixel 3a. You need a steady hand and a subject that won't move. The shot itself takes several seconds. Then the software puts together an incredible image. Dark and light areas are evened out and the loss of quality compared to shots taken in daylight is much less than on many other smartphones. Obviously, the photos don't look totally natural anymore, but that's not the aim here.
Other manufacturers also offer decent night modes on their smartphones. At the Pixel 3 launch in October 2018, however, Google clearly had the edge. Since then, Huawei has caught up with the P30 Pro.
Even with just one camera lens, the Pixel 3a XL offers a portrait mode, where the subject should be in focus and the background blurred. To get enough information for this, other manufacturers install two camera lenses. With the Pixel 3a, the only thing that changes is the focal length for the photo. The software receives enough data with one lens to cleanly differentiate between the foreground and background – and for objects as well as people.
Super Resolution Zoom is another function where Google has focused on software rather than hardware. While the Huawei P30 Pro has a special lens design to get extra zoom capability in a smartphone, Google has chosen virtually maximum image magnification, with its software providing the optimisation. The result definitely looks better than the conventional magnification, but it's still a fair way behind photos with a standard field of view when it comes to quality. Visually, it reminds me of an oil painting.
If you take several photos in a series without taking your finger off the shutter, the Top Shot function really comes into its own. It chooses and recommends the photo that it thinks is best. You can decide whether you want to keep just that one, all of them, or the photos your smartphone has picked out as the best ones. This certainly comes in handy when capturing groups of people. However, I couldn't think of a sensible purpose for it. Taking a series of shots also results in poorer image quality.
A look at the front will show the next feature that Google has gone without on the Pixel 3a. Instead of two cameras, there's only a camera for selfies. With a resolution of 8 megapixels, the level of detail is high. Activate HDR+ for strong colours and to eliminate or reduce overexposed areas in the background. This mode is more noticeable here than when using the main camera.
The pressing detail
The Pixel 3a XL's fingerprint sensor is easy to access on the back. Google has decided against face recognition. Android technology isn't yet as secure as Face ID on the iPhone. Apple trusts its tech so much that iPhones no longer have fingerprint sensors.
Active Edge is a special feature. When you touch its side, the Pixel responds by starting Google Assistant or turning off alarms and timers. However, unlike the HTC U11, from which Google adopted the feature, you can't assign any other actions. In practice, though, I hardly used Active Edge.
I did, however, find myself making use of the Flip to Shhh feature much more often. Once activated, you only have to turn the Pixel 3a XL over onto the display to switch on the Do Not Disturb mode and silence calls, notifications and other distractions, depending on your settings. But make sure the surface you place it on isn't too smooth, otherwise the Pixel could slip and drop onto the floor.
Also worth noting: the headphone jack has made a comeback on the Pixel 3a. Unlike the Pixel 3, you don't need an adapter to connect your beloved old headphones.
Pure Android and fast updates
The Pixel 3a XL is home to Android 9 Pie in its purest form. I think it's awesome. Rather than tonnes of pre-installed apps that you probably don't even want, you'll only find the Google apps available on any other Android smartphone. This makes it easy to install apps without having to get rid of others first. If you're not keen on the user interface, a launcher makes changes a breeze.
Alongside the streamlined display, the Pixel 3a XL has another big advantage: you're guaranteed to be the first to get access to new Android versions and security updates. While you have to wait for other manufacturers to adapt them to their devices, Pixel devices will get them first. Google has promised to do this for three years, with only Apple also providing smartphone software updates for such a long time.
But there's one major drawback to start with. After switching it on, the search list and app symbols on the home screen move slightly upwards six times. It's as if they're telling you to swipe up. It was really annoying and I've never come across it on any other smartphone. Everything went back to normal after a few days and the home screen stopped twitching.
The Google Pixel 3a: should it be a bit smaller?
Like the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a is available in two sizes. I tested the larger Pixel 3a XL. The Pixel 3a is identical, with the only differences being the display size, overall dimensions and battery capacity, which drops to 3000 mAh. It's a modest figure that reduces the video playback time from 14 to 12 hours according to Google. It should make it through the day though – and there's still the fast-charge option. Google claims that 15 minutes of charging will give you seven hours of battery life.
The Pixel 3a's 5.6-inch display with a 18:5:9 aspect ratio is a little more elongated than its Pixel 3a XL counterpart, resulting in a slightly higher 2220 × 1080-pixel resolution.
The smaller touchscreen also means a smaller case. However, at 8.3 millimetres long and 6 millimetres wide, there isn't much of a difference. Both models are 8.2 millimetres thick.
Verdict: a step backwards, but worth it.
With a recommended retail price of €479, the Google Pixel 3a XL is considerably more affordable than the Pixel 3 – and the smaller Pixel 3a is even cheaper at €399. All of the software benefits of Pixel devices await. The hardware cutbacks aren't a big deal, meaning that the Pixel 3a XL and the smaller Pixel 3a are still very good, serviceable smartphones.
The Pixel 3a and 3a XL will soon be available at Galaxus.