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Google's Pixel 3a XL costs half as much as the iPhone and is nearly as good

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Google (GOOGGOOGL) on Tuesday took the wraps off its latest smartphones: the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL. The handsets, which were shown off at Google's annual I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, are designed to be budget-friendly versions of the company's existing Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL devices.

Available Tuesday for $399 and $479, respectively, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, which I've been using for the past week, pack so many features into such inexpensive devices, they seem almost too good to be true. Apple's (AAPL) low-cost iPhone XR, for comparison, starts at $749.

Running Google's Android 9.0 Pie, and sporting the company's powerful camera technology, vivid OLED displays and all-day battery life, the 3a XL is on par with far more expensive smartphones.

The Pixel 3a is less than half the price of leading smartphones, but packs many of the same features. (Image: Dan Howley)

There are some drawbacks, namely the phone's lack of an edge-to-edge screen and lack of waterproofing. But for the price, this phone is incredibly hard to beat.

Plastic, but pretty

The Pixel 3a XL isn't rolling out with a glass-coated or metal body. Instead, to keep prices down, Google has outfitted the phone with a plastic shell. Despite that, the handset feels sturdy. There's no cheap creaking noise when you hold it tightly, and the styling matches the Pixel brand's overall aesthetic look. What's more, the phone is surprisingly durable.

I accidentally dropped my Pixel 3a XL review unit a few times onto my apartment's marble floor, because I'm incredibly clumsy, and the phone came through without a scratch each time. Google doesn't make any claims as to the phone's durability, so you're still going to want to get a case for yours — but it's nice knowing the phone isn't built like a Faberge egg.

The Google Pixel 3a has a plastic body, but feels sturdy. (Image: Dan Howley)

It's important to note that the Pixel 3a and 3a XL aren't water-resistant like the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. Instead, they are splash resistant. In other words, you're not going to want to take these phones to the pool, or leave them out while at the bar.

Up front, Google has outfitted the Pixel 3a XL with an OLED display, which makes for brighter, more vivid colors and deeper blacks than traditional LCD panels. The 3a XL has a 6-inch panel, while the 3a's panel measures 5.6 inches, making it the go-to version for individuals looking for a more compact device. Google's existing Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL come with 5.5-inch and 6.3-inch displays.

The Pixel camera and Android software

Despite their lower prices, the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL get the same cameras as the more expensive Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

The Google Pixel 3a XL's camera is as impressive as the pricier Pixel 3 XL's camera. (Image: Dan Howley)

That's a big deal considering the Pixel 3's camera is among the best on the market. Images taken with the Pixel 3a XL were clear, and colors popped. Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus and the iPhone XS Max embellish colors making them a bit more vibrant than those in the Pixel 3a XL's images, though whether you like that more than the Pixel's more realistic colors is a matter of personal preference.

Of course, the camera's standout feature is its low-light capabilities. Using the Night Sight setting, you can make shots taken in dimly lit bars look like they were taken in broad daylight. I did just that when I captured a photo of a trio of drinks at a neighborhood bar.

Shots taken in low-light with the Pixel 3a XL looked fairly clear. (Image: Dan Howley)

The shot turned out well when using the Pixel's standard shooting mode, outpacing the iPhone's image, which looked muddy and dim. But the Pixel really showed off its power when using Night Sight. Suddenly, the portions of the photo that were previously too dark were lit up, and far easier to see. It's a truly stunning change.

The one downside to the Night Sight feature is that you can't use it to capture photos of, say, children or pets. That's because you have to keep the camera still while shooting to take clear photos — otherwise you'll get a blurred mess.

The Pixel 3a XL's Night Sight feature makes low-light photos look like they were taken in broad daylight. (Image: Dan Howley)

Like Apple's iPhone XS Max and Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus, Google included a Portrait mode for the Pixel 3a's front-facing selfie camera. The feature blurs the background creating a bokeh effect, which helps make the subject, you, stand out more in your photos. During my testing, the Pixel 3a's Portrait mode photos offered crisp cutouts around my face, perfectly blurring the background. The iPhone XS Max, meanwhile, kept a small part of the background in focus and blurred the rest.

As Google phones, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL come loaded with the latest version of Google's Android 9.0 Pie operating system. Google guarantees the handset will receive regular software updates for at least three years, so you won't have to worry about missing out on new features for some time.

While companies like Samsung and LG have been working to make their own versions of Android more like Google's standard version of the operating system, the unaltered permutation of the software found on the Pixel is still easily the best. Information is served up via Google's various cloud-based services as you need them. Going from iOS to Android, and seeing how much information Google's OS provides, like when packages you ordered are set to arrive, or if you have a bill due, in the notifications bar is truly impressive.

Performance

The Pixel 3a and 3a XL's price tag comes with a natural trade-off: their processors are less powerful than those found in the standard Pixel 3 and 3 XL, as well as Samsung's Galaxy S10 Plus. I didn't notice any performance issues during my time with the phone outside of some slight frame rate slow down while playing games. Beyond that, though, the Pixel 3a XL proved to be a solid performer.

Both the Pixel 3a and 3a XL come with 64GB of on-board storage, which is a decent amount for most users, but not nearly as much as you can get with an iPhone or Samsung's Galaxy S10, which features a microSD card slot.

Google surely believes that users will simply opt for using the company's cloud storage service to offset the lower amount of onboard space, which is a safe assumption.

As for battery life, I managed to use my Pixel 3a XL all day without having to plug it into its charger. Yes, you’re going to have to plug this handset in since it doesn’t have wireless charging. Still, I’ve used the XL from the time I woke up in the morning to well into the night and had plenty of juice left to use.

Should you get it?

Outside of the fact that the Pixel 3a and 3a XL aren't waterproof and their processors aren't the absolute top of the line, there's not much I can fault these handsets for. I'm a sucker for big smartphones, and at $479, the Pixel 3a XL is a steal. But if you're looking for something smaller and even more affordable, the standard Pixel 3a is worth checking out.

Either way, you can't go wrong with these two phones.

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@oath.com; follow him on Twitter at@DanielHowley. Follow Yahoo Finance on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, andLinkedIn.finance.yahoo.com/