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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Fantastic back camera
Android is smooth and smart
Strong price point
Great 6-inch screen
Pretty good battery life
Just 64GB storage and no microSD port
Not the most polished design
No water resistance rating
If you want a big, quality phone without a super-sized price tag, the Pixel 3a XL is one of the best phones you can find for less than $500.
For all of the things that Google got right about 2018's Pixel 3 XL—including the impressive new Android operating system, beautiful screen, and ample power—the company misfired with that strange notch above the display. Deeper and more immediately visible than the camera cutouts seen on rival phones (such as the Apple iPhone X), it came off as an unrefined and awkward design decision on a very expensive phone.
Luckily, the new Pixel 3a XL avoids both of those problems. Like the smaller Pixel 3a, it's a trimmed-down edition of Google's flagship phone that opts for cheaper materials and less cutting-edge components, but arrives at a much more appealing price point. In the case of the Pixel 3a XL, you get a large, capable phone without a notch on the screen, plus it's nearly half the price of the original Pixel 3 XL. The result is one of the best large phones you can buy for less than $500.
The only good thing about the Pixel 3 XL's notch was that it cut down on the amount of extraneous bezel above the screen. Since the Pixel 3a XL looks more like a super-sized Pixel 3, that means there's quite a lot of empty, black space both above and below the display. That makes the phone look less refined than other top handsets on the market today, but it's less of an annoyance on the Pixel 3a XL than the standard Pixel 3a, due to the larger screen.
On the back, you'll find the same kind of two-tone design seen on the Pixel 3, with a matte finish on most of the surface and a glossy area near the top. The Pixel 3a XL is available in Clearly White, Just Black, and Purple-ish options. The non-black editions also have a fun color accent: Clearly White has a neon orange power button, while Purple-ish opts for neon yellow. Just Black is… well, Just Black. It's a bit boring by comparison.
It's a trimmed-down edition of Google's flagship phone that opts for cheaper materials and less cutting-edge components, but arrives at a much more appealing price point.
Design-wise, the Pixel 3a XL continues the Pixel 3's familiar aesthetic, but it's quite different to the touch. That's because the Pixel 3a XL uses polycarbonate plastic for the frame and backing, instead of aluminum and glass on the pricier model. That makes the phone lighter and it feels less high-end, as well—but it's really not a problem. The plastic Pixel 3a XL still feels durably built and it doesn't have the same kind of slippery nature as a glass smartphone.
The Pixel 3a XL loses wireless charging capabilities along with the switch to plastic, plus it doesn't have a water resistance rating. The fingerprint sensor is still located on the back, however, and it's both super speedy and conveniently located. And the Pixel 3a XL has an upgrade over the Pixel 3 XL in the form of a standard 3.5mm headphone port onboard.
Sadly, you won't find a microSD slot on the Pixel 3a XL and Google only sells one model with a modest 64GB of internal storage. This phone isn't built to hold a huge amount of local media, whether it's photos, videos, games, or music.
Getting started with the Google Pixel 3a XL is a relatively straightforward and stress-free experience. That's no surprise, as Google is the company behind Android and the Pixel phones are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Place your carrier's SIM card into the tray on the upper left of the phone and then hold the power button to turn it on.
Simply follow the on-screen prompts to connect to a Wi-Fi network, if desired, and then agree to the terms and conditions of the software and login to your Google account. You can also restore a backup from a previous phone, if available, as well as transfer data from another phone—even an iPhone. That can save the significant hassle that comes with manually downloading apps, media, and contacts onto a new device.
The Google Pixel 3a XL brings a pretty significant display quality downgrade from the full-blooded Pixel 3 XL, as the 6.3-inch Quad HD+ (2960 x 1440) resolution display is traded for a lower-resolution 6.0-inch Full HD+ (2160 x 1080) panel. The Pixel 3a XL's screen doesn't pack in nearly as many pixels, so it is just a little fuzzier-looking.
The plastic Pixel 3a XL still feels durably built and it doesn't have the same kind of slippery nature as a glass smartphone.
Still, this is a very nice smartphone screen, especially for a phone of this price. It's a large and vibrant OLED screen, although it does look a bit overly saturated. Overall, it does a great job of displaying videos, photos, apps, and anything else you might throw at it.
Instead of a flagship-level processor, the cheaper Pixel 3a XL opts for a mid-range chip—the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670. It doesn't pack the same kind of speed as the chip inside the Pixel 3 XL, but that doesn't prove to be a significant problem. Android 10 runs smoothly for the most part, although we noticed small bits of slowdown here and there.
With PCMark's Work 2.0 benchmark test, we registered a score of 7,380. That's pretty close to the 7,413 we saw with the smaller Pixel 3a, but both fall short of the 8,808 that we got from the standard Google Pixel 3. Still, it's not worlds apart, and that mirrors the kind of everyday experience we had navigating the Pixel 3a XL.
Game performance takes a hit, however, between the lesser processor and weaker Adreno 615 GPU onboard. Racer Asphalt 9: Legends wasn't as consistently smooth as we've seen on pricier handsets, although online shooter PUBG Mobile still ran well. Benchmark testing shows a significant performance drop, registering just 11 frames per second (fps) on GFXBench's Car Chase demo and 53fps on the T-Rex demo. The Pixel 3 hit 29fps and 61fps on the same tests, respectively.
On Verizon's 4G LTE network outside of Chicago, we saw similar download and upload speeds as we've seen with other recent smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Apple iPhone XS Max. Download speeds were typically above 30Mbps when measured with Ookla's Speedtest app, while upload speeds ranged between 8-14Mbps. The Pixel 3a XL can also connect to both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz Wi-Fi networks, and was plenty speedy for use on both.
The Pixel 3a XL doesn't have the dual front-firing speakers seen on the Pixel 3 XL, but it still delivers very good stereo sound. The speaker above the display pairs with the one at the bottom of your phone to provide full and clear audio, even when you crank it up a bit. Call quality was also excellent in our testing using Verizon's 4G LTE network.
As with the standard-sized Pixel 3a, the camera is where the Pixel 3a XL really sets itself apart from other phones in this price range. While some other mid-range phones opt for two main cameras on the back, the Pixel 3a XL sticks to one, but it's the same camera found on the much pricier Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, and is near the top of its class. The 12.2-megapixel camera captures epic detail from everyday snaps, delivering punchy results that are crisp, clear, and lifelike. In strong lighting, shots are consistently impressive.
While the camera module itself is the same, there is one difference inside the phone: the Pixel Visual Core image processing unit from the Pixel 3 XL is gone. That doesn't impact the quality of the shots—it didn't in our testing, at least—nor does it make snapping photos a sluggish undertaking. However, it does mean that you'll wait an extra second or two for photos to fully process, since it's Google's software and algorithms that really make these photos pop. Those software tricks are also why Google's single camera can produce strong portrait photos with a blurred backdrop, much like you'll see from twin-camera setups on other phones.
As with the standard-sized Pixel 3a, the camera is where the Pixel 3a XL really sets itself apart from other phones in this price range.
Google's most impressive camera feat comes where most other smartphones struggle—nighttime shooting. The Night Sight mode uses machine learning to capture a burst of shots and produce one shockingly strong result, showing a well-colored, solidly illuminated scene even when it's mostly dark out. It works a bit differently based on whether the scene is still or not, but the results are still mind-blowing. It's a game-changing feature, and we're starting to see other phones from Huawei and Samsung follow Google's lead.
The Pixel 3a XL also excels at video shooting, with the ability to capture up to 4K resolution at 30fps, 1080p at 60fps, or slow-motion at 120fps. It can also do a smoother 240fps slow-motion at the lower-resolution 720p setting. Electronic video stabilization helps give you a seriously smooth result during standard video recording, taking a lot of the shake and judder out of active clips.
Last year's Pixel 3 XL had two front cameras, adding in a wide-angle lens alongside the standard selfie cam. Unsurprisingly, the cheaper Pixel 3a XL ditches the wide-angle lens and just has a fixed-focus 8-megapixel camera on the front. That should be fine for just about everyone.
You'll see a pretty decent battery boost from the Pixel 3a XL, which has a 3,700mAh cell as opposed to 3,000mAh on the Pixel 3a. That bump is more than enough to compensate for the larger screen, and we saw it come through in longer-lasting performance from the handset. We would typically finish the day with about 40 percent battery life left in the tank, although we ended one day with just over 50 percent left. This isn't a two-day phone, but a day and a half is still impressive.
Unfortunately, the switch away from glass on the Pixel 3a XL’s back also comes with a loss of wireless charging. The 18W fast-charger can top you off quickly with a cable, however.
Google's Pixel promise is to provide a pure, speedy version of Android that's not compromised or bogged down by the skins and tweaks applied by other phone makers. The Pixel 3a XL still delivers on that, even with a weaker processor onboard than the pricier Pixel devices.
As mentioned above, Android 10 feels speedy and responsive on the Pixel 3a XL, and it's the most user-friendly and visually appealing version of the operating system to date. The design and navigation have been cleaned up and streamlined over the years, yet Google has also layered in some really clever and helpful new abilities over time.
For example, Focus mode lets you limit apps that can interrupt your concentration, preventing you from wasting hours refreshing Twitter. There’s also a new dark mode, smart replies, better privacy control, and gesture navigations. Even the small personalized touches on the Pixel 3a XL are nice, such as seeing an upcoming meeting or appointment reminder shown on your home and lock screens as the time approaches.
At $479, the Pixel 3a XL is well-positioned as a mid-range phone with a best-in-class camera. There are other phones within $100 of that window that might give you a more premium glass build or a bit more power, but if you're big on snapping pics and want to keep your spending under $500, then we can't think of a more ideal option.
It's not the most powerful or glossy-looking phone around, but if we had $500 or less to spend a smartphone right now, we would pick either the Pixel 3a or Pixel 3a XL.
The Pixel 3a XL is 20 percent more expensive than the standard 3a, which means you're paying $80 for a slightly larger screen and a bit more battery life. It's worth the expense if you like a big phone, but the size difference isn't dramatic. If you don't care that much about a large phone, then stick with the standard model and its still-sizable 5.6-inch screen.
This comparison is a tough one to make because these phones aren't far apart in price, yet they focus on different strengths. The OnePlus 6T is designed as a budget-friendly flagship with minor concessions, which means it has a faster processor (last year's Snapdragon 845) along with a sleek glass-and-aluminum build, an in-display fingerprint sensor, and a teardrop notch with very little extraneous bezel around the 6.4-inch screen. It also takes very good shots.
The Pixel 3a XL doesn't have the same kind of high-end allure, as noted above—but it has an incredible camera and a clean version of Android 10 onboard. The OnePlus 6T is a better all-around device if you're willing to spend $549 on it, but the Pixel 3a XL's sacrifice of power and premium polish in favor of a better camera will be well worth it for some users.
The best big phone under $500.
A cheaper, plastic Pixel might not sound terribly appealing on the surface, but the Pixel 3a XL strikes the right balance between power, features, and affordability. Keeping the Pixel's reputation for brilliant cameras helps Google's latest stand out in the crowded mid-range market, plus Android 10 is a treat. It's not the most powerful or glossy-looking phone around, but if we had $500 or less to spend a smartphone, we would pick either the Pixel 3a or Pixel 3a XL.
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