Google Pixel 3a XL – do we finally have a good, affordable phone for the masses?

Two phones ago, I had the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. I had that phone since about the time it was released until February 2019. It was by the far the longest running phone I had ever owned, and I only ended up selling it because the battery was starting to show it’s age and I needed a phone that could handle a full, action packed day without a dependency on an outlet being nearby. Before that phone, I had an S4, and before that an S3, and so on – I’ve been a loyal Samsung phone user for just under a decade.

I went to a Samsung S8, although a year or so old at that time, I simply can’t afford nor justify the high >$1000 prices on new phones. The S8 ended up being, well, mediocre. My screen suffered from the red tint issue that it seems a lot of Samsung phones from that time (and even newer ones too) seem to have, and after the upgrade to Android Pie, Samsung managed to butcher the battery life to the point where I’d hardly call the phone usable anymore. I was averaging 2.5 – 3.0 hours of screen on time before I’d need to charge – hardly enough to get through the business day, let alone a busy evening after that.

Deciding where to go next was a difficult decision. I didn’t plan my budget on buying a new phone so soon after the S8, as I like to stretch a couple of years out of a phone if I can, but the S8 was simply unusable and I had a lot of travel looming this summer. The current flagships were incredibly disappointing, not in that they are necessarily bad phones, but in the way that they’re all well over a grand to buy. Yeah right. Second hand Samsung’s are plentiful, but I need time away from my beloved Samsung after how that S8 ended out. Huawei is out of the question as I refuse to do business with companies like them, and their no longer using Android on upcoming phones will be a nail in their coffin in the North American market anyway. I could look at some used phones from other manufacturers, but none really wowed me. The Google Pixel 3 was very appealing, but battery life reports were mediocre. The Google Pixel 3a series, however, that had my attention.

After recently having drinks with a Google Engineer from Mountain View when I was in the area, he was quick to comment that one of the only phones he’d personally consider these days was the inexpensive Pixel 3a series. That was the kick I needed to make up my mind.

Pixel 3a or Pixel 3a XL – that is the question

I opted to go with the Pixel 3a XL. The 3a and 3a XL are identical phones other than the larger screen size (6.0″ vs 5.6″) and larger battery (3700mAh vs 3000mAh) of the XL model. In real-world tests and initial reviews around the web, the larger battery capacity of the XL model has been reported to give substantial gains in screen on time of the phone. In other words, the larger screen isn’t proportionally eating up the larger battery faster and giving similar performance to the smaller screen/battery model – there is actual usability and battery life gain in going to the XL.

Both models feature the same legendary and market leading camera as the original Google Pixel 3 series of phones. Although Google has sacrificed other less important areas of the phone to keep the cost down, the camera has not taken a hit.

Why do we need a market full of flagships?

My first week with the Pixel 3a XL has shown that we don’t. I’m not a phone gamer, so that aside, I can’t tell a single performance difference in this phone from my old S8, or really even that much from the S7 before it (my wife still has an S7, so I could easily compare). It’s fast and responsive for everyday use (social media, email, Reddit, and a variety of home, IT, and data management related apps). Even when I do Android game, honestly, I see no difference either (maybe I’m just not pushing it enough?). It’s battery life more than gets me through a full day of use, and the camera is incredible. What else is your average user doing? Probably not a lot more than that.

Sure, we’ve had to sacrifice things like wireless charging and expandable storage (which I was a bit wary of), but I haven’t noticed the lack of either in everyday use. My Samsung S8 had such bad battery life that I had to keep a battery case strapped to it all the time anyway, which negated my ability to use the wireless charging anyway. Although I did use expandable storage on the Samsung, I’ve realized that 64gb is more than enough for all my apps and pictures anyway; I had simply split up some of that on the Samsung and wouldn’t have needed the MicroSD card in there in the first place. I just need to make sure I offload and backup my pictures frequently so I don’t eat up that space too fast.

In the same way gamers buy more expensive gaming computers than everyday users, who tend to buy the mid-range systems most of the time, I think we’ll start to see cell phones go the same route. Not every single person needs a Samsung S10 or a OnePlus 7 Pro. We’ve been overpaying for carrier subsidized flagships with specs way higher than 90% of us even need for years and years now, simply because there were no better alternatives out there. A phone like the Pixel 3a series is so affordable you don’t need to carrier subsidize it if you don’t want to – I bought the 3a XL outright for $733CDN after all taxes! Now I’m free to jump around carriers and deals as much as I want and aren’t locked into paying off a rather cheap phone on a contract.

Of course the 3a series holds up just fine to Android gaming too. I threw a bunch of random games on and really had no issues or lag. I’m sure if you’re getting into hardcore gaming then you will see a difference in performance, want higher screen resolution and PPI, etc. These are the reasons that will drive gamers and certain classes of users to flagships still. This is exactly what I’m talking about above though.

The Pixel 3a series really is a phone for the masses with a price tag for the masses that doesn’t sacrifice in in all the areas where 90% of users are using their phones for anyway. It has true all day battery life, rock solid performance in it’s class, and a price tag that truly does put it into reach of all buyers, whether bought outright or through a cheap carrier subsidization. I consider myself a power user, though not a gamer, and this is even a perfect phone for me too. On paper, I’ve just downgraded phones from my S8 (in most areas at least), but from what I see and feel in real-world everyday use, I have upgraded phones. The Pixel 3a is feature packed, fast, and feels great to use. I don’t even have to think about battery life anymore because the Pixel has more than enough to get me through a day. I couldn’t feel anymore like I’ve gotten an all-around better phone for my needs!

I love this phone.