Hands-On, Smartphone

Pixel 3a XL Hands-On: The Nexus 5X Lives On

Ever since the Pixel smartphones succeeded the Nexus series, there’s a void that was never filled. It’s a void that was previously taken up by the likes of the Nexus 5X and Nexus 4: affordable smartphones that offer excellent, clean Android experiences.

Now, we have the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, and I like to think of them as spiritual successors to the aforementioned Nexus devices. Although they don’t have flagship-tier hardware like the latter, these phones offer a lot of features found in the higher-end Pixel 3 for half the price.

I got to play with the Pixel 3a XL for a bit, and if you value excellent software experience and camera performance above all else, this is the phone for you – if you’re okay with importing it.

Before we get into detail, let’s outline what features you get from the higher-end Pixel 3 with the Pixel 3a XL. Arguably the most important feature is the 3a XL’s camera systems, which is the very same 12.2MP f/1.8 rear camera and 8MP f/2.0 selfie shooter found in the Pixel 3. But do you get the same camera performance? Not quite.

Unlike the Pixel 3, the Pixel 3a XL does not come with Google’s custom Pixel Visual Core processor, so image processing is done with the CPU and GPU instead. This could result in slightly different image output, but for the most part, you’re getting very similar camera performance.

I managed to capture a few shots with the 3a XL, and I was very impressed with the camera performance. While it takes some time to process every image I took, the camera is very responsive, there’s no noticeable shutter lag, and the image output is fantastic. Even the selfie camera’s Portrait mode works extremely well, even though it does have some trouble separating my hair and glasses from the background.

All in all, I’d say the Pixel 3a XL has my favourite smartphone camera, period. In fact, I would happily photograph with the 3a XL over any other flagship smartphone. Granted, I haven’t tested out the camera extensively yet, but that’s just how favourable my initial impression of the camera is.

Beyond camera performance, the Pixel 3a XL also has identical software experience as the Pixel 3, with at least three years of confirmed Android updates. In a market where most Android smartphones are not updated to the latest version of Android, the Pixel smartphones remain the best option for those who want to experience the latest and greatest features Android has to offer.

As expected of a Pixel smartphone, the 3a XL has a very clean version of Android with polished software experience. It is intuitive to use, the user interface is pleasant to look at, and it feels really lightweight.

Okay, now for the not so good aspects of the Pixel 3a XL. At the end of the day, it’s meant to be an affordable mid-ranger, so some things have to be sacrificed. One such thing is processing power: the 3a XL has a decidedly mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of non-expandable storage. While it doesn’t sound very impressive, it should be able to offer a reasonably good level of performance.

I didn’t run into any performance issue in my brief time with the 3a XL, but chances are, the Snapdragon 670 will show its limitations as I spend more time with the phone. Apps won’t launch as quickly, it will struggle in graphically demanding mobile games, and overall, it won’t feel quite as zippy as the flagship Pixel 3.

Then again, this is a mid-range smartphone. You would have to manage your expectations accordingly.

When it comes to looks, the Pixel 3a XL could definitely be better-designed. It has huge chunks of bezels at the top and bottom of the screen, and the glossy plastic frame makes it a lot more slippery than expected. However, I do like the back design, especially the matte finish on the bottom half of the panel.

Most importantly, the 3a XL does not feel cheap despite its all-plastic construction. Okay, I wouldn’t say it feels premium, but it certainly feels rock solid. And if you’re gonna put on a casing, the build material wouldn’t really matter anyway.

Sporting a 6-inch 1080p OLED display, the 3a XL has an above average display. OLED panels have excellent black levels with punchy colours, and that really describes this phone’s screen quality. Naturally, it has great viewing angles too.

Thanks to the combination of a 1080p display and a sizeable 3,700mAh battery, the Pixel 3a XL should have reasonably good battery life as well. Sure, a larger cell would be appreciated, but it’s still a plenty big battery capacity for a phone of this size.

In the US, the 3a XL retails at $479, which comes up to about RM1,995 – that’s definitely on the higher side of things for a mid-ranger. Plus, there are other smartphones in this price range that offer flagship-level performance, including the Xiaomi Mi 9 and Pocophone F1.

So why would you get the Pixel 3a XL? For two reasons: you want excellent camera performance and software experience no other smartphones can offer in this price range. You won’t get the best processing power for your money with this phone, but you will get to enjoy a fantastic camera system and a clean, constantly updated version of Android.

The only problem? There is no indication the 3a XL will ever arrive here in Malaysia officially. Without a doubt retailers will import in the device, but any form of warranty claim will be difficult. Personally, I’m not keen to purchase a smartphone without official warranty support, no matter how impressive it is.