Google has a new, very impressive mid-range smartphone out. I’ve been putting the Pixel 3a XL through its paces over the last fortnight. Here’s an overview.
Other than its price, I would say the Pixel 3a XL’s biggest draw is its camera. Google appears to have put its premium lens system (which is excellent) into this mid-range device. The results are absolutely superb, with one caveat that I’ll come back to below.
This is, I think, the best camera you can get on a phone that costs under €500. It definitely beats what’s available on a One Plus. It also tops older Samsung Galaxy S models you can now get for around that price, such as the S8 (and that’s a good cameraphone).
There are a few reasons for this.
Its overall ‘computational photography’ system is second to none. What this means is that it uses a lot of tech to figure out what you’re trying to photograph and deliver the right balance of tones, colour, sharpness and so on. In the hundreds of test shots I took, there was consistently the right effect applied for natural, vivid, but not oversaturated or processed, photos.
Its 12-megapixel resolution is (in my view) the perfect specification for a lens this size. It maximises the balance between detail and available light.
The Pixel range is the only smartphone, other than high-end Huawei models, that gives you an HDR night photo mode. This produces amazing results in very low light scenarios. It’s especially effective for neon and cityscape photos at night time.
But it’s not perfect. As I said, the Pixel 3a XL does have one camera-related drawback: it only has a single lens. For me, this is a bummer. The model I used before this was Huawei’s P30 Pro, which has three separate lenses for different focal lengths. Using that phone, I can shoot normal (28mm), ultra wide (like a GoPro at 16mm, brilliant for interior shots, city streets and narrow spaces) or optically zoomed (130mm, superb for far-off details). I definitely miss that flexibility with the Pixel 3a XL, especially the lack of an ultrawide angle. Then again, only a handful of phones have additional ultrawide lenses and none of them are remotely as affordable as the Pixel 3a XL.
Of course, there’s also the absence of a second, optical telephoto lens which often ensures that you don’t get pixelation or blurriness when you ‘zoom’ in on a shot. Whatever about the lack of an ultrawide secondary lens, it’s a bit surprising that Google doesn’t include this either here or on its more expensive flagship Pixel 3 XL. For me, this is important: I regularly take photos from the zoom lens.
Google itself understands the utility of a second lens – it put an extra one on the front of the Pixel 3 XL for a variety of selfie shots. However, I’ll say this – the Pixel 3a XL does a superlative job with the single 28mm lens it has, especially for ‘normal’ shots, such as portraits. Even when I digitally zoomed in using that lens, it did a fantastic job with the optics available to it.
So overall, I think the camera this phone offers is quite compelling. There are lots of people out there who want a ‘very good’ -but not necessarily a ‘cutting edge’ – handset, yet who still want the best camera they can get. The Pixel 3a XL ticks an awful lot of boxes for this type of user.
Google has gone a different aesthetic route to 90pc of the smartphones on the market. Yes, it’s still a black slab. But the Pixel has a coloured rear casing. (Mine was white.) On one hand, this is fun. The rear material is also nicely tactile. On the other hand, phones with colours often signal a ‘budget’ model. This will be a completely personal preference. I quite like the design difference, but my wife thought it looked a little cut-price. The six-inch HD display is perfectly good, if not quite at the Oled levels of the top handsets.
I always like to see a 3.5mm headphone port included on a handset, even if I almost never use a wired set of headphones any more. The Pixel 3a has one. The fingerprint scanner is on the back of the phone.
3 BATTERY LIFE
In general, I found its 3,700mAh battery life to be good. It’s not quite at the level of ultra-premium models such as Huawei’s P30 Pro or Samsung S10+, but it comfortably matches what you’ll get on most iPhones.
This is good news: I found battery life on previous Pixel phones to be a little average. I usually got a full day’s use out of the Pixel 3a XL. My usage patterns here incorporated quite fairly regular of social account checking, some video consumption, a few dozen photos taken and some video shot. That said, if I knew I was going to rely on it at a work even for a few hours (to use the hotspot with a tablet or laptop, for example) I’d definitely bring a portable power extension to go with it.
4 GOOGLE’S ‘PURE’ ANDROID
One significant perk of choosing a Pixel phone is the ‘pure’ Android operations system you get. True, many people will be used to small user features and pathways on a Samsung or Huawei phone. But for me, there’s still an optimum performance level with straight, unlayered Android that’s hard to beat on other Android phones. You certainly don’t suffer from the crapware loaded on other models.
There are a few quibbles with this handset. The Pixel 3a XL comes with 64GB of storage, with no expandable option. That’s a little mean. It’s also a little slower than some of the smartphones I’m used to using. And the screen isn’t quite as reactive.
I’d also frown a bit on the ‘forehead’ and ‘chin’ bezels it has – this is nowhere close to being an all-screen front format phone, like most new smartphones. The downside to this is that it actually makes the bulk of the phone a little larger than it might be.
Lastly, there’s no face recognition, which I have gotten used to on iPhones and Huaweis.