OnePlus is really good at building great hardware. Their phones are performance-oriented and marketed as "futureproof" with oodles of RAM. Ask a OnePlus community member and they will tell you that OnePlus even builds great software using inputs from its "Open Ears" meetups. While rising hardware costs have forced OnePlus to build more expensive smartphones over the years, there’s one little problem it just wasn't able to crack and that's the camera.
While it has drastically improved over the years, the OnePlus camera is still far from perfect. This worked well when the phone was priced in the sub Rs 30,000 range but things started to get weird when you had to shell out Rs 38,000 for the base model, and this is the exact pain point that Google addresses with the Pixel 3a XL.
Google has been dropping hints at manufacturers for several years about how it is capable of using minimal hardware to pull off amazing photos. While some manufacturers like Huawei went all out and took things to the next level with 'AI', brands like Samsung and OnePlus did nothing apart from adding more hardware to make their smartphones worthy of their higher price tags.
Come 2019, Google has opened the floodgates by launching an affordable Pixel with a camera that is as capable as its premium offering, and that creates big problems for those who've just been twiddling their thumbs. Or does it? Let's find out.
Killer camera for the price tag
The Pixel 3a XL offers the same jaw-dropping camera performance that came with the Pixel 3 XL half a year ago, just that it’s now available at half the price.
This changes the balance of things in the smartphone world and will force plenty of smartphone manufacturers to go back to their drawing boards.
The images in daylight look stunning even though the colours are a bit saturated for my taste. But these will be perfect those who want to just see impressive-looking and jaw-dropping photographs no matter what the lighting conditions.
Focusing is fast, but speed does take a wee bit of a hit in low light. It’s still as fast most cameras, but it’s just not as fast as the Pixel 3 XL.
While the OnePlus chugged along delivering decent (but not comparable) image quality in daylight, it had a tough time keeping up with the Pixel 3a XL in low light or under street lighting.
The 3a XL kept on delivering impressive and well-exposed shots with less or no noise.
Using the Pixel 3 and the 3a XL side by side, it’s easy to see that Google has trained them well. And they deliver almost identical results in every situation, be it hue, details, area of focus and colour.
The reason why they don't look identical to each other are the core processing algorithms that have been tweaked considerably (or rather perfected) to work on the Snapdragon 670 SoC. In an interview with Google VP for Product Management, Sabrina Ellis, she explained how the massive data set that Google possesses allows these algorithms to be used on low-end devices as well (is a budget Pixel in works?).
What was different between the two Pixels was the edge detection in Portrait mode, where at times the Pixel 3a XL missed out, while at others the Pixel 3 missed out.
The OnePlus 6T McLaren edition that we had with us just could not keep up with the details.
And once we switched the cameras to their respective night modes, things got messy… for the OnePlus 6T.
The Pixel 3 and the 3A came showcased some hard-to-believe details in some oddly-lit scenes. There was plenty of luminance noise in extremely dim lighting scenarios like an arcade parlour, but switching to Night Sight camera saves the day.
The photo of the signal in the dark shows a lot of details on the light reflecting on the tree bark, it’s an area where the 6T with all its cameras just could not keep up.
The dynamic range on the Pixel 3 and 3a XL does fall short compared to the OnePlus 6T, but I’d pick the picture from the Pixel because it looks just too damn good (even though it is a bit synthetic).
As for Portrait, it’s easy to point out how the 3a XL nails them in most shooting scenarios.
Edge detection with selfies is pretty much the best you can get, but it’s not perfect (at times) as seen from the image above. Still, the colour reproduction is far better than the overexposed background the OnePlus produces.
Video in daylight came out pretty well on the Pixel 3a XL showcasing almost similar results compared to that of the Pixel 3. The OnePlus either lost out on details or was over sharpened. The video on the OnePlus was not as stabilised either.
When shooting videos in low light, Pixel 3a XL showcased a lot of noise even when shooting in 1080p at 30 fps. But the footage was still usable as compared to what we got from the OnePlus 6T.
While Google provides the same rear camera setup as the Pixel 3 XL at the back of the 3a XL (save for the spectral + flicker sensor), it’s the processor inside that kind of showcases the minor differences we spotted in quality and in the processing of the image after it was captured.
The mid-range 670 SoC is no match for the 845, so while the quality is almost identical between the two, the speed of processing takes a slight hit.
Yes, the Pixel 3a XL will make you wait a bit longer till it processes the data as compared to the 3 XL, which is a lot faster (yet not instantaneous). Another difference is the framing in the Portrait mode, which seems cropped as compared to the Pixel 3 XL.
Indeed, in the sub-Rs 45,000 range, it’s hard to get anything better.
But if you are not convinced, stay tuned for my camera comparison, which should be out in a few days.
Boring, yet likeable design
Overall, the Pixel 3a XL feels like an overgrown Pixel 3, more so because of the lack of a display notch at the top.
It’s a big phone with thick bezels at the top in a time and day when brands like Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus are trying to cut down on bezels. So yes, it does feel a bit dated.
I have nothing against plastic, but it’s just that smartphones with a metal back feel cooler to hold (literally and emotionally). It’s hard to replicate something like that with a plastic body on a smartphone.
Holding both the Pixel 3, 3XL and the 3a XL, I cannot disagree that the former two do feel premium, but the plastic body isn’t bad either, because it’s not your usual moulded plastic but polycarbonate that feels solid because it’s a unibody design.
And because there are fewer layers (glass display, to the plastic lipping, to the metal frame to the glass back) with just the display glass on the front and the seamless polycarbonate unibody on the back, it does feel nice to hold and easier to grip because of the phone’s thickness and squared edges.
The matte finished back from the premium Pixels makes it out here to and thanks to that, there’s little chance of the back turning into a smudge magnet. I would still recommend buying the White model.
What the design lacks from its premium siblings is an IP rating.
The fingerprint reader sits at a convenient position at the back and is quite reachable as well despite the phone’s large footprint. It is also less fidgety as compared to most in-display fingerprint readers on most flagships these days.
A sharp display that’s a bit low on brightness
The 3a XL features a 6.0-inch gOLED FHD+ display that’s good for 402 PPI, which also makes it quite sharp. Bringing down the display’s resolution from QHD+ on the Pixel 3 XL to FHD+ on the 3a makes quite a bit of sense as well. This is because the 3a is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC instead of the powerful 845 on the Pixel 3. While the 670 is power efficient and packs in an Adreno 615 for the GPU, a lower resolution screen also helps in bettering battery life.
Specs aside, that display is quite colour accurate. I preferred using the Boosted display colour profile (sRGB + 10 percent) as the natural mode looked a bit too dull, given the display’s lower brightness.
The glass screen is not made from Gorilla Glass but from an alternative glass called Dragon Tail. I honestly don't know if it's better than Gorilla Glass or if it was used simply because it was cheaper. It resists fingerprints quite well but does seem as scratch resistant as a Gorilla glass screen.
The best part about this display is that there’s no ugly bath-tub notch, which also makes the device feel like an overgrown Pixel 3.
And because there’s no notch, your notification icons get a lot of space.
Sadly, there’s no HDR10 support like on the bigger Pixels. Streaming videos in high quality, the visuals looked crisped but just lacked the wider range you can get with an HDR10-compatible display like on the Pixel 3 or 3 XL.
And because it’s an OLED you also get Always-on Display feature.
Pure Android… may not always be a good thing
Software onboard the Pixel 3a XL is pure, unadulterated Android, with the latest security update. This, combined with that fantastic vibration motor that delivers precise haptic feedback, makes it even more fun to use compared to anything else in the market in the given price range.
The handset packs in all the recent features that were introduced with Android 9 Pie along with an updated Digital Wellbeing feature.
What I am getting a bit tired of are the stock Android gestures that take a while to get used to.
What I also did not like is how rigid everything has become. You cannot utilize the entire display with swipe gestures for navigation and neither can you go back to the standard 3-button navigation mode, choices that are available even on the OnePlus 6T.
Still, the software is fast, fluid and saw no app crashes or lag no matter what I was up to, which is something you also get on a OnePlus 6T.
My only gripe is how Google conveniently removed the Live Wallpapers from the Wallpaper app for the 3a models.
Decent performance but not purpose built for 3D gaming
The habit of purging heavy games from the RAM is still present here, which means that you still cannot keep too many apps in the RAM for long. The apps often get purged once you have locked the device. Clearly, on this front, the OnePlus 6T is a better choice.
The phone ran cool in day-to-day use and never heated up. The only time when it warmed up was while playing graphically-demanding games like PUBG Mobile. Still, it did not get too hot and PUBG played well and stutter-free even at HD graphics and High frame rates.
Asphalt 9: Legends played pretty-well and even at the highest graphics setting, but did stutter a bit when there were too many cars/players on the screen.
While playing Shadowgun Legends, the phone only managed graphics at low and 30 fps, which was a bit disappointing, but this can be blamed on optimisation problems as most other games played well on medium to high settings.
Indeed, if gaming is your thing, then the OnePlus 6T is a more “equipped” device.
The stereo speaker setup is great for streaming and watching video.
Audio from the dual speaker setup was loud but sounded tinny when maxed out.
There’s no secondary speaker around the bottom bezel, but the primary driver sits in the right cavity next to the USB C port,
Plugging in the in-box headphones, the audio quality was just about fine. The phone does support AptX and Aptx HD codecs for higher quality Bluetooth audio.
Call quality was as expected and I faced no problems with network and reception either.
Decent battery life
Google promises a good 12 hours of video playback on these devices and after using the handset for a while, that claim pretty much sticks provided you don’t do anything else.
With my regular app usage with Slack, WhatsApp and three email accounts on sync, half an hour of gaming, and about 15-20 minutes of calls, the phone did last a day with about 20 percent left to spare. But it’s nowhere close to what you get on a OnePlus 6T, which is pretty much two days of battery life with casual usage.
The charging still remains typically slow despite the 18 W charger, and the budget Pixel does not come with Pixel 3 goodies like wireless charging.
OnePlus definitely does a better job here thanks to its Dash charge system. Considering that most will pick this smartphone for its camera capabilities, you will be looking for a plug point if you click too many photos. Still, it’s not something you will need to worry about thanks to Google’s Adaptive Battery tech, which gradually learns to prioritise apps that are used frequently.
Since Adaptive Battery takes a week (or more) to settle and learn user preferences, we will update this section in a couple of days.
Verdict and price in India
If you have been waiting for a low-priced Pixel device, the Pixel 3a (Rs 39,999) or the 3a XL (Rs 44,999) are the ones for you.
If you were looking to buy a OnePlus 6T just because it’s the next best stock Android alternative to a Pixel, then the Pixel 3a XL is the one for you as well as you will be the first to receive software updates.
If you have Rs 45,000 saved up for a great smartphone with a camera as your priority, then the Pixel 3a is the one for you.
If you want a performance-oriented, future-proof smartphone, then you are better off looking at the OnePlus 6T.
If you believe that 8 GB of RAM should be a standard for smartphones in 2019, then the OnePlus 6T is the one for you.
If battery life is your concern, then the OnePlus 6T can deliver better.
If dual SIM smartphone is what you seek, then the OnePlus gets you two SIM slots.
The Pixel 3a XL is far from perfect, it looks a bit boring, and is not as powerful as the competition, but then there’s that camera. Try it out once and you will get hooked!
More importantly, it is here to remind manufacturers that specs just aren’t enough anymore and that polished hardware with well-tuned software may actually be a better choice (not to mention a profitable one) for them.
In about a week from now, OnePlus is expected to unveil two new smartphones. While the OnePlus 7 Pro aims higher for the premium smartphone segment, the standard OnePlus 7 will make for an interesting competitor to the Pixel 3a XL, especially in the camera department. But for now, the good old 6T somehow cannot match up, unless you only have brute performance on your mind.
Want to know more about the Google Pixel 3a?