Phone

Google Pixel 3a XL: Premium for less

Premium. For less. That is the tagline of the new Google Pixel 3a smartphones with price tags that are nearly half those of Google's flagship Pixel 3 models. And the tagline is spot on.

The value is easy to see with the new phone series, which comes in two colours - black and white - and two screen sizes. The Pixel 3a, which has a 5.6-inch display (2,220 x 1,080 pixels), costs $659. The Pixel 3a XL, which has a 6-inch display (2,160 x 1,080 pixels), costs $779.

The smaller 3a weighs 147g and comes with a 3,000mAh battery. The 3a XL weighs 20g more and has a 3,700mAh battery.

As for their premiumness, the two Pixel 3a models - identical in features and performance apart from the above-mentioned differences - are cut from the same cloth as their flagship cousins.

Yes, both feature the slower Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 processor, compared with the flagships' top-line Snapdragon 845 processor. But they still feature the Titan M security chip found in the Pixel 3 series to store your security information. And they will receive the latest Android version and monthly security updates for three years. Also similar to the flagships is the amount of RAM (4GB).

The trade-offs? Both phones have only 64GB of storage (like the Pixel 3 phones, there is no option to increase storage via a microSD card) and they are only splash resistant, unlike the flagships which have a rating of IP68, meaning they can withstand being submerged in water to a depth of 1.5m for 30 minutes. There is also no wireless charging support.

  • FOR

    • More affordable

    • Fantastic rear camera

    • Has a headphone jack

    • Great battery life

  • AGAINST

    • No expandable storage

    • No wireless charging

    • Only splash-proof

  • SPECS

    PRICE: $779

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 (Quad-core 2.0GHz, quad-core 1.7GHz)

    DISPLAY: 6-inch, Oled, 2,160 x 1,080 pixels, 402 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 9.0

    MEMORY: 64GB, 4GB RAM

    CAMERAS: 12.2MP (f/1.8) rear camera, 8MP (f/2.0) front-facing camera

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,700mAh

    WEIGHT: 167g

  • RATING

    FEATURES: 3/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4.5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

In terms of appearance, the black Pixel 3a XL that was tested looks practically the same as its flagship cousin with the same two-tone design and Pixel Imprint fingerprint sensor at the rear.

The only noticeable difference is that the 3a XL does not have the display cutout, or screen notch, of the Pixel 3 XL.

And when you hold the 3a XL, you feel a difference as well. It has a polycarbonate unibody instead of the flagship's aluminium and glass frame. As such, it certainly does not feel as sturdy as the Pixel 3 XL. But it is 14g lighter. And despite having a large 6-inch display, I find the size to be right for one-hand use.

It also uses a USB-C port for charging. And it even sports a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is missing from the Pixel 3 models. But no headphones are included.

Most importantly, the 3a XL features the same 12.2-megapixel rear camera found in the Pixel 3 smartphones. Thus, you have access to premium photo features such as Night Sight low-light photography and Time Lapse.

I am constantly amazed by the Night Sight mode. It manages to capture night scenes with the right exposure and high dynamic range. It keeps the image noise levels low but sharpness and details high.

The new Time Lapse feature, which will be rolled out to other Pixel phones, should have been included in the Camera app long ago. Better late than never, I guess.

It allows you to capture scenes, from six frames per second to one frame every four seconds, to create a time-lapse video at 30 frames per second. Great for those swift stunning sunsets.

But the Pixel 3a XL features only an 8-megapixel front-facing camera and lacks the additional wide-angle camera found in the flagship models.

I found the selfie camera tends to "auto-beautify" my face even when the face re-touching option is turned off. But I know there are many who will not mind this "auto" function.

Although it comes with only 64GB of storage, Pixel 3a users get unlimited photo storage on Google Photos, with an up to 16-megapixel resolution limit for photos. Google Photos will downscale your 4K videos to full high-definition.

Performance-wise, there is a slight lag when you open resource-intensive apps such as Pokemon Go and Mobile PUBG. But they still play smoothly. More regular apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram work just as well as they do in the flagships.

Another new feature is augmented reality (AR) in Google Maps. To be introduced to other Pixel phones as well, this feature allows you to see AR directions overlaid on the map. Thus, you can get your bearings right when navigating, instead of having to walk hundreds of metres more before you realise you are on the wrong path.

For everyday use, the Pixel 3a XL will easily last you through a normal working day, with probably around 40 per cent of battery level left when you reach home.

In the video-loop battery test, the Pixel 3a XL lasted 13hrs 15mins. That is 90 minutes more than the flagship XL.

Google might have stripped away the premium physical touches of the flagships with the Pixel 3a XL. But at its core, it still delivers premium features like the awesome rear camera and latest Android operating system.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2019, with the headline 'Google Pixel 3a XL: Premium for less'. Print Edition | Subscribe