Hands on: Google Pixel 3a XL review

Big-screen Pixel power at a lower price point

What is a hands on review?
Google Pixel 3a XL review
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Early Verdict

Its design may not be head-turning, but the Google Pixel 3a XL packs a punch internally with a potentially great camera for the price point. It's the best of Google in a phone, at a lower price tag.

For

  • Headphone jack returns
  • Great camera potential
  • Slick, stock Android

Against

  • Design is a little bland

The Google Pixel 3a XL is the larger sibling to the new Google Pixel 3a, and was announced alongside it at Google IO 2019. Both phones offer Google's core experiences at a more affordable price tag.

At the heart of the two new Pixel handsets is the camera experience, access to Google's suite of apps and voice assistant, and the latest software and security updates guaranteed for three years.

In short though, the reason the Google Pixel 3a XL and 3a exist is to make the Pixel range accessible to more people by lowering its entry-level price point. 

Google Pixel 3a XL release date and price

The Google Pixel 3a XL release date was May 7 in the US, but some countries had to wait until May 8 to get their hands on the phone. You can now get the handset in the US, UK and Australia.

As for the Google Pixel 3a XL price, it's set at $479 / £469 / AU$799, which is much cheaper than the original $899 (£869, AU$1,349) launch price of the Pixel 3 XL, although that phone can now be picked up for $720 (around £619, AU$1,080) at some retailers, narrowing the price gap.

The Pixel 3a XL price puts it up against the OnePlus 6T, Honor View 20, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 and Oppo RX17 Pro – and with the OnePlus 7 and Honor 20 expected to launch in the coming weeks there’s plenty of competition vying for the attention of price-savvy consumers.

In the UK, you’re able to buy the Google Pixel 3a XL from the Google Store, Carphone Warehouse, EE, Argos, Mobile Phones Direct and A1 Comms as well as a variety of other retailers.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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Design and display

From a quick glance there's almost nothing to differentiate the Pixel 3a XL from the more expensive Pixel 3 and 3 XL. There is, however, one clear design difference between the two XL handsets, as the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t have a notch at the top of its screen.

Instead you get a standard block of bezel above and below the screen, for an aesthetic that matches the smaller Pixel 3.

It’s not overly eye-catching, but Google is going for the understated look here, and flipping over the Pixel 3a XL you’ll find a rear design which differs from the flagship pair in just one way: there’s no hole for the spectral and flicker sensor on the Pixel 3a XL between the camera and the flash.

This is a minor point, but for the eagle-eyed among you, it’s one of the few ways you’ll be able to tell the new 3a series apart from the 3 series. There is another feature that will give you a stronger clue though – the return of the headphone jack.

While Google opted not to include the port on its top-line phones, it has reinstated if for the 3a series, and it can be found on the top edge of the phone.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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Something the Pixel 3a XL doesn’t have though is water resistance, which means it’s likely not to survive if you drop it in the bath.

The Google Pixel 3a XL is available in three colors; Just Black, Clearly White and the new Purple-ish hues, with the latter an extremely subtle shade of purple – so much so that you may be hard pushed to see that it’s purple at all depending on lighting conditions with it sometimes looking off-white.

While on the black version the power/lock key on the right side is the same color as the rest of the phone, the white and purple variants have orange and lime green keys respectively, adding a pleasant splash of color to proceedings.

There’s a fingerprint scanner on the rear of the phone that’s easy to hit with your forefinger, providing you with added security both when unlocking your phone and when you use banking apps or opt to pay for something with Google Pay.

The Google Pixel 3a XL measures 160.1 x 76.1 x 8.2mm, making it taller and thicker than the Pixel 3 XL, which actually has a bigger screen, but smaller bezels.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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It sits well in the hand, although the polycarbonate unibody doesn’t feel overly premium, and at 167g it isn’t too heavy. One-handed use is possible, although those with smaller palms will likely find that two hands are required to comfortably tap away at the screen.

The screen itself is a bright, colorful 6-inch OLED panel with a Full HD+ (2160 x 1080) resolution, 402ppi pixel density and 18:9 aspect ratio. 

It provides good detail, and Google’s always-on display mode allows you to have the time, date and key notification icons displayed on-screen when the phone is locked for at-a-glance updates.

Google Pixel 3a XL hands on gallery

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Camera

The main attraction on the Google Pixel 3a XL is its rear camera – it boasts the same impressive hardware as the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, which means you should be able to take stunning shots with the handset.

You get a 12.2MP, f/1.8 dual-pixel Sony sensor which boasts autofocus, HDR+, OIS (optical image stabilization) and EIS (electronic image stabilization). Add to that the AI software smarts working behind the scenes, and there’s a powerful camera at your disposal.

We only had a short time to try out the camera on the Google Pixel 3a XL during our hands-on session, but the images we managed to snap were impressive. While it only has a single camera on the back, the Pixel 3a XL is still able to take excellent portrait mode shots, with the background around your subject nicely blurred.

Many smartphones use a second sensor to capture the depth data for these 'bokeh' effects in order to produce more accurate results, but the Pixel 3a XL does a good job of working it out digitally.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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You also get Google’s Night Sight mode, which manages to brighten up some of the darkest scenes in almost a magical way. We were given a quick demo of Night Sight on the Pixel 3a XL, and while it did a good job of pulling extra light from who-knows-where, we’re not sure it’s quite as effective as on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

That will be down to a few things. There’s no Pixel Visual Core here, which means you don’t get all the features of this phone’s more expensive siblings, plus the Pixel 3a XL runs a mid-range chipset, which won’t be as effective at processing images as the flagship power in Pixel 3 and 3 XL. 

What this means is that while the camera on the Google Pixel 3a XL looks to be a great option, the reality is likely that it won’t be quite as capable as the pricier handsets it’s borrowing most of its technology from. 

We’ll be able to give you our definitive verdict on the camera after we’ve put the Pixel 3a XL through our extensive testing process, so look out for our full review, coming soon.

Round the front you get a single 8MP selfie camera (no dual-camera setup here, as on the 3 XL, which also has a wide-angle selfie snapper) which boasts a new mode way to capture shots, called Kiss Face.

As well as having smile recognition built in, the Pixel 3a XL’s selfie camera can also recognize a pout, and can automatically take a shot when it recognizes someone in frame making either expression. This means there’s no fumbling for the shutter button required from your out-stretched arm.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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Battery and specs

The Google Pixel 3a XL has a 3,700mAh battery, which Google claims can last up to 30 hours on a single charge if you enable Adaptive Battery in the settings, with the phone learning your usage habits and optimizing apps and prioritizing power allocation as needed.

You’ll also be able to charge the Pixel 3a XL quickly, with just 15 minutes plugged into the 18W fast charger giving you seven hours of use.

Squeeze the sides of the Pixel 3a XL and you can launch Google Assistant, allowing you to bark commands and questions at your phone – or, if you’re hands are busy, you can wake it by saying the “OK Google” prompt.

Under the hood there’s a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 chipset alongside 4GB of RAM running the show, with the stock version of Android 9 Pie on screen. You also get 64GB of storage, although there’s no microSD slot to expand on this.

The good news is that Google offers unlimited photo storage in the cloud via the Photos app, which means you don’t need to worry about all your photos taking up precious space on your phone.

For the security-conscious, the Pixel 3a XL has the same Titan M security chip as the main Pixel 3 range, which keeps your login secure on the handset.

Google Pixel 3a XL review

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Early verdict

The Google Pixel 3a XL is an attractive affordable smartphone, with the promise of great photos at a lower price point potentially a big draw.

The inclusion of a headphone jack will likely please some, while there’s enough power under the hood to run Android and your apps smoothly. It may not have the most eye-catching design, but if you can look past that it’s a tempting proposition.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.